Is it a crime to care for Gaza and Syria? Legally speaking, it isn't a crime to raise awareness of the human rights violations taking place, nor is it a crime to raise money and deliver humanitarian aid to those war-torn areas. Many non-Muslim human rights groups and charities engage in these actions, yet we do not hear of criminal prosecutions for their activism.
However, this is certainly not the case for Muslims who voice their concerns over Gaza and Syria. Over the past three years we have witnessed aid workers having their passports confiscated upon returning from Syria, the bank closures of various Islamic charities on unfounded claims of funding 'terrorism', mothers told to spy on their children for 'jihadist' tendencies, and the demonisation of Muslim figures who criticise Britain's foreign policy in the Middle East, specifically its unequivocal support for Israel.
On Saturday, I attended the concluding event of a national tour held by advocacy group, CAGE in East London. The campaign entitled 'Is it a Crime to Care?' focused on the plight of Syrians and Gazans, and the criminalisation of British Muslims who try to help their coreligionists- whether it's vocally, financially or in some cases physically. The venue for the event was changed at the last minute, and there were speculations that anti-terror Prevent officers had pressured the initial venue's management to back out- this is unconfirmed but not surprising if true.
Hundreds of people turned up to listen to prominent Muslim speakers from different political organisations and theological backgrounds - moderates, conservatives, Islamists and democrats. While many of the speakers differed in their approach regarding the role of Muslims in Britain, they had united on the realities that have been affecting Muslims since 9/11 and the subsequent US-led war on terror. Western foreign policy, the British government's agenda to redefine mainstream Islamic beliefs, the crackdown on Muslim charities and political activists, arrests under draconian anti-terror laws were the topics of discussion. As there were nearly a dozen speakers, it's difficult for me to recap everything that was covered, so I'll briefly go over the lectures that were of particular interest to me.
Mohammed Jahangir, who co-authored CAGE's Cradle to Grave report, spoke about the ideological definition of 'extremism' as defined in the UK government's anti-terrorism CONTEST strategy. He humorously described the government's deradicalisation 'Channel' programme, and its inherent failure to eradicate foreign policy grievances and the basic Islamic principle of caring for oppressed Muslims around the world. Mr Jahangir also went through a list of organisations that were being monitored by a multi-million dollar US State Department funded programme, aimed at tracking "political radicalism" among British Muslims. According to the online programme, the Muslim organisations rated for their threat-level included largely peaceful civil society groups such as British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Islamic Relief, Islamic Society of Britain, as well as activist pro-Palestinian organisations which have been critical of British foreign policy, such as MPACKUK, CAGE and Interpal. The full list can be read here.
Published author and university lecturer, Dr Reza Pankhurst, who spent four years in an Egyptian prison for being a member of Islamic political party Hizb ut-Tahir, gave his speech on safeguarding Islam from modification. Dr Pankhurst gave the example of how Prophet Muhammad rejected the proposal of changing the Quran, when it was asked of him by the pagan Arabs of Mecca. Prophet Muhammad's firm resistance to change Islam at the behest of the Meccan government and society is very much relevant in today's Britain, where immense pressure and money is being invested to alter aspects of Islam to accommodate a secular liberal society.
The event was concluded by Shakeel Begg of Lewisham Islamic Centre, the Imam who recently reached out to ISIS to free British aid worker, Alan Henning. Imam Shakeel's speech moved me the most as he focussed on the importance of remaining positive during a time of hardship in Britain and the Muslim world. He reminded the audience of the struggles that the Abrahamic Prophets endured from tyrants and oppressive regimes of their time - Moses and Pharaoh, Jesus and the Romans, Muhammad and Quraysh. Imam Shakeel brought the attendees' attention to Muslim prisoners who were unjustly incarcerated, namely CAGE's founder and director Moazzam Begg.
Moazzam Begg was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 by US forces and spent three years in Guantanamo Bay without charge. After his release in 2005, Moazzam launched CAGE (formerly known as CagePrisoners) and began investigating human right violations of prisoners, illegally detained without due process under punitive laws born out of the war on terror. He is currently being held in Bellmarsh prison on dubious 'Syria-related terror offences', and his arrest earlier this year sparked nationwideprotests by human rights groups, religious and political organisations - both Muslim and non-Muslim. It would be fair to say that Moazzam Begg is the closest British Muslims have to a Malcolm X or Martin Luther King- an innocent man who spent three years in one of the most inhumane prisons in modern history, to continue his struggle against injustice by offering a voice to the voiceless.
Imam Shakeel advised the audience that if they felt it was impossible to emulate the lives of the noble Prophets, they had the living example of Moazzam Begg - a man who represented justice and courage in the face of injustice and oppression - I could not have agreed more.