Karen Dabrowska

Tripoli Post Article

Originally published: 30th November 2013

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Reluctance to Campaign for Justice Shames Muslims - Catherine Heseltine


Why is it so difficult to get Muslims to take action to help the Ummah (community) and to help their fellow human beings? asks Catherine Heseltine who has spent the past decade in a wide variety of political campaigns for the single cause of justice: justice for the people of Palestine, justice for the people held in Guantanamo, justice for the victims of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, justice for Muslim women, and justice for the victims of Islamophobia in the UK.

In her comments Heseltine, pointed out that while many Muslims are very generous in giving donations to charity, especially during the month of Ramadan, the political struggle for justice is a struggle which many practicing Muslims do not feel concerns them. When it comes to taking political action to help the oppressed most practicing Muslims are nowhere to be seen.

“In multiple countries in different parts of the world children starve to death, die of malnutrition or of dirty drinking water, and of preventable diseases. Islam teaches us brotherhood and sisterhood - the concept of Ummah. If I am truly a Muslim I must care about them and try to help them just as I would my own daughter,” Heseltine said.

The case of Shaker Aamer, a British resident with a British wife and children, who was imprisoned without trial in appalling conditions in Guantanamo for 10 years shows how difficult it is to motivate Muslims to campaign for justice.

Aamer’s family and supporters launched a petition to demand that the British government secures his return to the UK. It took activists more than a year of hard work to gather the 100,000 signatures needed on the petition to trigger a parliamentary debate on the issue.

“You wouldn’t have thought it would be so difficult to get 100,000 signatures – even without the support of non-Muslims it only needed 3.7% of the UK’s Muslim population to sign it! A petition to protect badgers gained twice that number of signatures in much less time! Now imagine if our mosques had taught people about political action against such injustices.

There are at least 1500 mosques in the UK. If each mosque had helped gather about 60 signatures then the total could have been reached in less than a week instead of more than a year of struggle! Surely it would not be hard for mosques - most of which have a congregation of hundreds, even thousands each Friday - to gather just 60 signatures to protect the human rights of a fellow Muslim,” Heseltine said.

She pointed out that the non-Muslim comedian Frankie Boyle not only donated £50,000 to Shaker’s legal fund but is currently on hunger strike himself in protest at the treatment of Shaker and the other Guantanamo hunger strikers.

“Yet most practicing Muslims don’t lift a finger to help their own brothers and sisters around the world. In fact when you try to mobilise Muslims to take political action against injustice practicing Muslims will often try to persuade you to concentrate instead on minor details of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) or instead spend your time perfecting your pronunciation when reciting the Qur’an.

Or they will simply start to criticise you for wearing the wrong colour headscarf, or not having a long enough beard etc!

“The controversial conclusion that I and many of my fellow activists have been forced to face, is that today many practicing Muslims follow what we can call a ‘colonised’ version of Islam. This colonised Islam has been gutted of the great ethical values that are the heart of true Islam.

“The greatest moral force that the world has ever known has been reduced to nothing more than a set of rituals, and rules about how to dress, eat, wash, cut our nails, and what foot to place first when entering the bathroom.

“Colonised Muslims, living under oppressive rulers - were forced to interpret the concept of worship within the confines set by their colonisers – the Islamic social values and above all the obligation to struggle against injustice were removed from our practice of Islam.

Muslims started to limit the meaning of worship to their rituals and rules, and no longer practiced Islam as a complete way of life where struggling against injustice is the pinnacle of worship.

This colonised notion of worship is a selfish individualistic version of worship that can also be seen in some forms of Western Christianity - caring only about personal salvation and experiencing a personal spiritual high.

It makes a mockery of true Islam, giving us instead a tickbox version of religion: Shahadah? Salah? Fasting? Zakat? Hajj? Halal food? Hijab or beard? Then go collect your get-in-to-heaven free pass!

“So long as the items on the tick-list can be checked off then this version of religion is not concerned with issues such as injustice. While the Ummah is living through a nightmare some ‘practicing Muslims’ can see the most hateful atrocities being inflicted on their fellow human beings, and yet fail to take any action to stop these wrongs.

How can this be when they claim to follow the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet?

“The problem goes deeper than the chronic lack of awareness amongst many of our Islamic scholars about the contemporary world in which we live as Muslims. Many Muslims are ignorant of how they can change the world through avenues such as intelligent political action.

“But the more fundamental problem is that too many Muslims do not even understand that striving to change the world for the better is at the heart of practicing Islam.

“The cancer of colonial “Islam” has led to a situation where the balance and priorities which Islam prescribes are being brazenly disregarded.

“As the famous scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi observes in his book on the ‘Fiqh of Priorities’, among the Muslims today the violation of the Islamic order of priorities takes place amongst those known to be ‘practicing Muslims’: “This terrible disorder in priorities has afflicted our Ummah so that the unimportant is now preferred over the important, the small is magnified and the significant is belittled.”

Heseltine concluded that the struggle against injustice is something that can unite Muslims and non-Muslims from every different background. Sunnis and Shia and Muslims from different schools of thought will never agree on the exact details of prayer or other issues of ritual practice, but everyone Muslim and non-Muslim can unite behind the universal values of freedom, justice and equality.

“The plight of 100,000 Rohingya Muslims - stateless refugees, stranded in desperate conditions in camps - is just one example of communities across the world that are suffering from oppression that is unimaginable to us in our comfortable homes here in London.”

She urged Muslims to take inspiration from Martin Luther King who took an active part in solving social problems and insisted that every church member become a registered voter and a member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People).

Catherine Heseltine has been extensively involved in political, media and community activism on issues affecting Muslims.

She is a board member and a former CEO of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPAC UK) and has helped campaign on issues ranging from women's rights in the mosque to Palestine and Guantanamo, to Islamophobia and civil liberties in the UK.