The International Prisoners of Faith conference organised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission attracted a larger crowd than expected in London on 17 February 2002. During the day-long event academics, ulama, Islamic activists and IHRC officers addressed attendees on aspects of imprisonment for one’s beliefs.
Its five sessions charted the inception and activity of the Prisoners of Faith project by IHRC in 1997; the Qur’anic and Islamic history of the persecution of the faithful; a comparison between Islamic and international standards and norms regarding the rights of suspects and defendants, which highlighted current persecution in the West; experiences of former prisoners of faith; and questions to a panel of speakers.
IHRC founder member Saied Ameli addressed the issue of democracy. He differentiated clearly between the acceptability of the involvement if the populace in charting their political destiny and the framework of democracy currently being propounded. This form of democracy is inherently anti-religious and tries to sideline religion and ethically based action from the political system. This tied in with M.S. Bahmanpour of Cambridge University, who spoke on the Qur’anic history of persecution of believers, pointing out that those who have sought to change society for the better have almost always been persecuted.
One of the event’s organisers stated, “We did not want this conference to be an ‘Islamatised’ version of an Amnesty International event. We have to understand that the vast majority of those imprisoned for their beliefs are Muslims. This is not just a coincidence. We need to understand that Islamic principles are the ones that threaten unjust orders everywhere, and... need not only to be highlighted but to be promoted and protected. For too long the human rights community has grudgingly acknowledged Muslim prisoners of conscience, as embarrassing. It should be understood that these people epitomise what prisoners of conscience are.”
Momina Khan, the project co-ordinator, addressed the practical aspects of the project and encouraged people to participate in campaigns in whatever way they could. Raza Kazim, another IHRC member, highlighted the Islamic precedents for so doing. Dr Muhammad al-Massari, the well-known Saudi dissident, and IHRC researcher Sultana Tafadar addressed the discrepancies between Islamic rights and the current spate of ‘anti-terrorism’ laws, military tribunals and internment laws that the West is currently bringing onto its statute books.
Most poignant, however, were the first-hand accounts of persecution from Turkish, Nigerian, Bosnian and South African activists. Aydin Koral, a Turkish journalist, recounted his own experience of facing possible prison sentences of up to 157 years for articles criticising the burgeoning Israeli-Turkish alliance. He also covered the persecution after the ‘post-modern coup’ of 1997.
Demir Mahmutcehajic, an IHRC founder member and currently president of the UK Bosnian community, recounted his father’s experiences in a Croat-run concentration camp. He focused on the anomaly of the persecution of Bosnian Muslims who were mostly neither aware of nor practising Islam, and the myth that these forms of persecution are aimed at ‘dangerous’ or ‘extremist’ elements. A paper from Dr Shuaibu Musa was also read out: it described the sorts of persecution the Islamic movement in Nigeria has faced, particularly under the Abacha regime.
Finally Imam Achmad Cassiem from South Africa ended the conference inspirationally. He noted how the number of Muslim activists who fought against the apartheid regime was proportionally higher than any other group. He asked why: these people, he contended,
had ideological clarity; they understood the dynamism of the ideology of Islam. They were fearless; this moral obligation to be fearless is still one of the most important obligations on its adherents. They were experienced in liberatory warfare against the colonialist conquerors in other parts of the world... This was a formidable advantage for the first ideological community in South Africa — the community of Muslims.
His final words were a reminder to all:
Our Deen commands us to revolutionize the entire social order. We are commanded to move from a society of drunken stupor and alcoholic fumes to one of sobriety; from a society of intellectual mediocrity to one of intellectual excellence based on truth; from a society of criminal and inhuman acts to one in which sadaqah becomes a way of life; from a society of racist indoctrination to one of freedom from ignorance.
And in order to achieve this, we must revolutionize the oppressed people in order to revolutionize the social order. In our present position of oppression and exploitation, we can never remain neutral. Turning a blind eye to oppression and a deaf ear to exploitation only makes oppression and exploitation worse.