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From Burma, Indonesia And Malaysia To The Streets Of Britain, We Must Drive Out Religious Hatred For Good

23/06/2017 15:00 | Updated 23 June 2017

The most basic human right, besides that of life itself, is the freedom to choose, change, practice and share your beliefs. That means the freedom to adopt a religious faith, change your faith, or have no faith. It means the freedom to practice your beliefs, within the rule of law and in a way that is respectful of others, and the freedom to share your beliefs, non-coercively, with others. Faith is an affair of heart, soul and mind, and no government, no law and no other person has any mandate to deny you that right. The only limits for the practice of freedom of religion or belief are those limits that apply to all basic freedoms - to ensure that your freedom does not violate another person's freedom or security.

Yet around the world, freedom of religion or belief, as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is one of the most widely violated yet under-recognised rights. Muslims in Burma and China, for example, are facing widespread and systematic persecution, and in the United States and Europe increasing hostility - as the appalling attack on Finsbury Park Mosque in London illustrates. Although in general Islam is practiced in the West freely, in contrast to the denial of rights to minorities in much of the Muslim-majority world, nonetheless anti-Muslim hatred is rising in an alarming way. Furthermore, various sects of Islam - Shi'a, Sufi, Ahmadiyya - face severe persecution from other Muslims, in places such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia. Baha'is in Iran, Falun Gong practitioners in China and Tibetan Buddhists all face serious abuse. Anti-Semitism is on the rise everywhere, especially Europe. And Christians throughout the world, from North Korea to Eritrea, Nigeria to India, throughout much of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa to Cuba and Mexico are facing growing persecution. In some places, the persecution is so intense some describe it as crimes against humanity and genocide. Those terms have been applied to the plight of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, and Rohingya Muslims in Burma.

The perpetrators of such violations come from all directions. In Burma, Muslims and Christians face a campaign of hatred led by a militant ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement which has resulted in several outbreaks of violence in the past five years. Restrictions against the construction of non-Buddhist places of worship have been in place since 1962, but in recent years the persecution has intensified. The pattern of anti-Muslim fear-mongering is similar to the hate speech non-Muslims face in many Muslim-majority countries. Several mosques have been burned down and many sealed by the authorities. On 21 April this year, an ultra-nationalist Buddhist mob disrupted a prayer gathering by Muslims at an Islamic school in Rangoon, and a week later demanded that the police force the schools to close. On 29 May, Muslim leaders were summoned by the authorities to be informed that they were forbidden to use their residences for religious purposes. On 2 June, one man was charged for holding Ramadan prayers in the street for between 50-100 Muslims. He could face up to six months in prison.

These grinding restrictions might sound insignificant compared with the far more shocking mass violence unleashed against the Rohingyas and other Muslims throughout the country over the past five years, resulting in thousands of deaths and at least 150,000 displaced - many now facing a severe humanitarian crisis. But they are all part of the same picture - what starts with a mosque closure or an arrest for praying can quickly escalate into mob violence and ultimately mass murder.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, two Muslim-majority nations with a reputation for pluralism, religious intolerance is also on the rise. Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, concerned about protecting his country's reputation, has initiated the Global Movement of Moderates as a body to tackle extremism, declaring that the real divide is not between Muslims and non-Muslims but between moderates and extremists. We welcome this, but encourage him to go further.

In Malaysia, legislation is being proposed increasing punishments that can be applied by shari'ah courts. Last month a Chinese Malaysian politician, Hannah Yeoh, Speaker of the Selangor State Assembly, faced accusations of proselytising simply because she wrote about her Christian faith in an autobiography called Becoming Hannah. And at least four religious figures - three Christian and one accused of spreading Shi'a Islam - have disappeared. The most high-profile was the kidnapping of Pastor Raymond Koh four months ago. Video footage of his abduction shows black SUVs surrounding his car on a highway and a group of men dressed in black bundling him into a vehicle. The operation was carried out brazenly, but also speedily and professionally. He has not been heard from since. A lack of progress in the police investigation has led to suspicions that the authorities are dragging their feet and fears that some groups may use extrajudicial means to target religious minorities. Malaysia faces a growing threat from extremist terrorism which the authorities are trying to prevent, but to address this fully action is needed to stop the tide of intolerance and the politicisation of religion.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as 'Ahok', was a popular governor respected for fighting corruption and improving public services in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta. As a double-minority - ethnic Chinese and Christian - governing the capital of the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, he was a poster-boy for Indonesia's tradition of religious tolerance. Yet he was defeated in elections in April, when his opponents deployed religion as a campaign tool. His victorious rival, Anies Baswedan, went from mosque to mosque urging Muslims not to vote for a non-Muslim. Ahok was charged with blasphemy for refuting his rivals' interpretation of a particular Qu'ranic verse used to justify instructions to Muslims not to vote for him. Ahok was adamant that he had no intention to insult Islam, but he was put on trial. Anies formed a coalition that included some of Indonesia's radical Islamists, particularly the violent Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), and in doing so has given a platform to extremists.

Three weeks after his electoral defeat, Ahok was jailed for two years. His sister, Fify Lety Indra, a lawyer helping to represent him, was warned that if he appealed, she would be charged with blasphemy too, and so he dropped his appeal in order to protect his family. Ahok himself received a specific death threat from Jafar Umar Thalib, a jihadi who fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Radicals are now holding Indonesia's justice system hostage.

Indonesia's religious minorities have been shaken by Ahok's imprisonment. If a popular governor, close to the President, known for dramatic improvements in public services, can be brought down and jailed on the grounds of religion, what is the future for Indonesia's ordinary Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Ahmadiyya or Shi'a Muslims, or indeed for the courageous voices of moderation among the Sunni Muslim population? In the past decade an increasing number of churches have been forced to close, Ahmadis and Shi'a have been violently attacked and displaced, and discriminatory laws have been passed. Indonesia's proud tradition of pluralism is in real peril.

This is merely a snapshot of some of the issues in South-East Asia. Meanwhile, we see China's attempt to ban Uighur Muslims from observing Ramadan, and we see Coptic Christians bombed in Egypt. We see teenagers attacked by a suicide bomber as they enjoyed a concert in Manchester, people enjoying a Saturday night out in London slaughtered, and people at a bus station in Jakarta attacked. We hear a 15 year-old Muslim school girl in Indonesia tell her best friend, a Christian, that they can no longer be friends because, in her words, "my God does not allow me to be friends with you", and we hear Buddhists in Burma preaching hatred against their Muslim neighbours. We hear of Rohingya Muslims raped, and children killed in front of their parents. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said about the Rohingyas' plight, "What kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother's milk. .... The killing of people as they prayed, fished to feed their families, the brutal beating of children as young as two and an elderly woman aged 80--the perpetrators of these violations, and those who ordered them, must be held accountable."

Indeed, all these crimes - whoever the perpetrator, whoever the victim - must be held accountable. And the sources of hatred must be rooted out. Whether it is Wahhabi-Salafi or other radical Islamist ideas spread through mosques and madrassas around the world, or the preaching of ultra-Buddhist nationalists such as U Wirathu and the Ma Ba Tha (Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion) in Burma, or indeed the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, authoritarianism and Communism in China, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba or North Korea, militant secularism or Islamophobia in the West, such ideas must be challenged. We know from history where such poisonous intolerance leads. We have seen it in Hitler's Holocaust, Stalin's gulags and Mao's 'Cultural Revolution'. We have seen it in the Spanish Inquisition, in former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. Throughout the world, writing as a Muslim and a Christian from two different countries and two different political traditions, we cry out for three simple principles: recognition of human dignity for all, defence of freedom of religion or belief for all, and action to promote dialogue and understanding and drive intolerance from our places of worship, our streets, our chatrooms and our legislatures for good.

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