Weaponizing the Language of Human Rights, The Secular Religion of Our Age

God is in constant communication with God’s servants (‘ibad). God is in constant communication through the very Sunna of creation. So much of what surrounds us in life is but a thinly veiled medium through which the Divine communicates with us, reminds us, and instructs us. This past week, we were presented with yet another of life's reminders. It is one that merits so much pause and reflection. Our friend, Nahid Ansari, a very beautiful and kind woman who must have been around my age, or perhaps a bit younger, who was a mother and a wife, and who was married to an old friend, Levent Akbarut, passed away in Los Angeles. 


God teaches us through the very Sunna of creation, through the numerous things that take place in our universe and that constantly grab our attention, saying, "Thus is your Maker's will. Thus is your Maker's way. Thus is the path.” Nahid Ansari passing away cannot but make one pause. It seems like just yesterday that I was first introduced to this woman as Levent Akbarut's bride. It is hard to believe that it was decades ago. I was immediately struck by this woman's aura. It was an aura of piety, of kindness, and of gentleness. Back then, it was truly difficult to imagine how quickly the years would pass, how quickly the person whom I had just met would already be done with their journey in life.


It made me pause to think of all the ways that that life could have been more meaningful to my own existence. All the missed opportunities, and all the missed blessings. Could we have gotten to know this family better? Could we have spent more time with this family? More importantly, knowing the potential of this woman and her husband, and the potential of their children, could we have collaborated? Could we have joined as Muslim brothers and sisters and served this Ummah better? Why is it that, time and again, we let life come over us like a virtual deluge, an unstoppable flood, and we only control life in retrospect largely through the medium of regret and missed chances? Of course, the death of anyone you know is a direct warning to you. If it is Nahid's time today, it will soon be yours. When I leave, what will I have left behind?


A most worrisome thought then came over me. I think of 30 years ago. I think of what I expected to come of this world. I think of what I foresaw would be the major developments in our world. My relationships with those people are now phasing out. Relationships that were once fresh are now reaching their end. It is at that point that you realize, whether you like it or not, that you are reaching the concluding chapters, if not the concluding paragraphs, of the narrative of your own story.


We were once very young Muslims. Once, every relationship we encountered would be somehow interrelated, interconnected, and intermingled with what we expected from this world and what we expected to do with our world. The frightening thought, as my sister Nahid passed away last week, and as I am sure that I, myself, will leave soon after, is how have we left this world? The world once seemed like it was but in the palm of our hands, ready for the taking, ready to be shaped by our impact. When I look back at us, as human beings, as Muslims, and as parents, how are we leaving this world? What has been our experience as Muslims in this world? How have we shaped this world, and how has it shaped us?


As you reflect upon your lifespan and your relationships, and as you lend an ear to the Sunna of creation and the way that God constantly talks to us, you are reminded of a reality. The United Nations has been the most impactful body in terms of articulating visions of modern human rights. Every advancement made in discourses on human rights took place through the medium of the U.N. With all its paradoxes and contradictions, this has been the institutional medium in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was articulated in 1948, in which the Covenant on Political and Civil Rights was passed, as well as the Covenant on Economic and Cultural Rights. This is the institutional medium in which all the discourses about the morality of the world have taken place. 


In the same week in which I have had long, sanguine, and contemplative reflections upon my own life, the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP), for the first time since its creation, has sent a message to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians telling them that as of next month, the WFP can no longer afford to provide them with food vouchers.


The unemployment rate among Palestinians is about 50%. Gaza is a huge concentration camp surrounded by land, sea, and air. In reality, the unemployment rate in Gaza is much higher than 50%. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have no method for gainful employment, and they stay alive through the WFP. The WFP provides hundreds of thousands of Palestinians with food vouchers every month. These food vouchers come to about $110 and are how hundreds of thousands of Palestinians manage to stay alive despite the unemployment, the lack of social or economic mobility, and the lack of opportunities. In the concentration camp-like structure that Israel has imposed upon Palestinians, it is the food voucher program that keeps so many of these Palestinians fed.


But, as I mentioned, the WFP notified hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, just this week, that it has run out of money and can no longer provide them with food vouchers. The WFP urgently needs $51 million to continue feeding Palestinians. No one has stepped up to provide the WFP with $51 million and, as a result, the only choice left for these Palestinian families is to starve to death.


For instance, there was a report by Al Jazeera about one such Palestinian family in Gaza. The mother is a college graduate with a degree in history. The father is a college graduate with a degree in psychology. Both father and mother are unemployed with absolutely no economic opportunities. In order to work, they need the Israeli authorities to provide them with a work permit, but the only way to get a work permit is to pay for it, because work permits are lucrative and expensive commodities. Even if you generate the cash to buy a work permit to work in Israel, and even if you go through all the security points, all the screening, all the misery, part of your salary will be kept by the agent who brought you the work permit. Most Palestinian families, like this one, cannot afford to get a work permit. Even if they can afford it, Israel limits the number of work permits that may be given to Palestinians, so a work permit may not even be available. Aisha, the historian, and her husband, the psychologist, have seven children who they have been keeping alive via the food vouchers provided by the U.N. program.


The same week they received notice that food vouchers will soon no longer be available, and for reasons that no one truly understands, Israelis bombed and destroyed their home in Gaza. Now, not only are they unemployed, not only do they not have food vouchers, but they are homeless. A mother, a father, and seven children.


Stories like this are breaking out in the hundreds. It is story after story, after story. I pause and I think. I think back to the young Khaled Abou El Fadl who used to hang out in cafeterias with the young Levent Akbarut, talking about the future of the Ummah. I think back to that young Khaled, and I ask him, “Could you have imagined a world to come in which the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque is violated every week, and this is met with the utter silence and complicity of Muslims? Could you have imagined a world to come in which Palestinians are kept in a concentration camp not just by the Israelis, but by their fellow Muslim Arabs, the Egyptians?” Let us not forget that the concentration camp in Gaza is not just maintained by the Israelis. It is also maintained by the Egyptians. “Could you have imagined this in a world that claims to have advanced in human rights? Could you have imagined a world in which hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Muslims are dying all over, but this is only met with complicity and silence by fellow Muslims? Could you have imagined a world in which Palestinians are about to starve to death because they need $51 million at the same time that the country that calls itself the Guardian of the Two Holy Sites pays a soccer player $300 million a year?”


How many multimillionaire Muslims have this $51 million in their bank accounts? Even if they wanted to donate the money to Palestinians, they would not do so because we live in a world in which the balance of powers is such that any Muslim who wants to help a fellow Muslim must think one hundred times before they do so, for they are terrified of being labeled a “supporter of terrorism.” Ours is a world in which human rights discourses have reached unprecedented levels, more than any other time in history. But it is also a world that terrorizes Muslims into utter complacency and silence. And the conscience of the world hardly seems bothered. There is no great flurry of activity to come up with the $51 million. The message was sent to Palestinians only after extensive efforts by the WFP to raise the $51 million. They knocked at every door. American doors. Swiss doors. Canadian doors. Saudi doors. Emirati doors. Indonesian doors. Turkish doors. They could not come up with the money.


At the same time, there is a financial conglomerate called the Adani Group. This is the same group that signed the contract with Saudi Arabia to manage a part of the Hajj operations. The Adani Group is not just an Indian group, but the owners are Hindu nationalists and followers of the Hindutva ideology. The Adani Group has developed a complex economic relationship with Israel. In fact, they recently invested $1.2 billion in the Israeli economy by buying part of the Haifa port. This Hindu nationalist group did not just invest money in Israel, however, but it also invested money in importing Israeli technology, a very particular type of technology often referred to as “occupation technology.” 


The Indians are so impressed by how the Israelis control Palestinians, deny them their rights, maintain them as subjugated and thoroughly dominated human beings, no better than animals in a barn. They are so impressed by this that they bought Israeli technology and information to allow the Indian government to implement the same strategies of control and dominance in Kashmir. They want to control Kashmiri Muslims like the Israelis control Palestinians.


In addition, part of the contract that the Adani Group has signed with the Netanyahu government will see Israel import 34,000 Indian laborers to work in the construction industry. Now, the vast majority of Palestinians who are given work permits to work in Israel work in the construction industry. So you get the picture. India will export 34,000 skilled laborers in the construction field to Israel, meaning these Indian workers will replace Palestinian workers. Israel, finding that it can get away with its apartheid system, and seeing that the world of human rights does not seemingly apply to Israel, has asked itself, "Why do we need Palestinian workers? We should replace Palestinian workers with Indian workers." So not only are there no more food vouchers, but the few who are employed are soon going to lose their jobs to Indian workers, meaning an even greater unemployment rate for Palestinians. 


What is truly remarkable is when you discover that the Adani Group’s investment in the Haifa Port, and all the economic relations between the Indian and Israeli governments, has been blessed and greatly encouraged by the American government. Why? Last month, President Biden's top national security advisor met with Saudi officials to work on a U.S. plan for a vast infrastructure that would connect Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to India via shipping rails and railway. This is part of an American, Israeli, Indian, and Saudi economic plan to develop ports in Haifa and elsewhere to create an economic infrastructure between Arabia and India that maximizes profits and that will go straight into Israeli pockets, Indian pockets, Saudi pockets, American pockets, and, of course, the pockets of the United Arab Emirates, because the UAE is a huge part of this plan.


Palestinians have run out of food. The U.N. is unable to get $51 million to feed Palestinians. I pause and I think back to the Khaled of the early '80s. I think back to the jokes, the smiles, the hopeful dreams, and the aspirations. I think back to the kids who have now grown old with you and who are now passing away. Could I have imagined what world I encountered and what world I am  leaving behind? The point is not to blame anyone. The real issue is to ask, simply, "Could I have done it better? How did we get into this situation, and what is my lack of contribution that contributed to this situation?"


Part of the U.S. plan for the region thoroughly depends on the cooperation of the Saudis and the Emiratis. Part of the Indian plan for its economy thoroughly depends on the cooperation of the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Americans, and the Israelis. We live in a world in which Muslim states could theoretically say that it is unacceptable that Palestinians would starve to death or run out of food vouchers. We live in a world in which, theoretically, Muslims could put their foot down, and say, "You cannot implement an apartheid regime against Muslims in Kashmir. We will not allow it." We live in a world in which, theoretically, Muslims could say, "If you are going to sign a deal to import Indian workers to replace Palestinian workers, you cannot count on our cooperation. We are putting our foot down."


We could, but we do not live in such a world. We live in a world in which Muslims have become so marginalized, so exoticized, and so projected as “the other” that they are outside the stream of human rights discourses. If you put someone to death in Europe, it gets the attention of the entire human rights world. But life and death in the Muslim world are more or less the same. How many Muslims you exploit, how many Muslims you inflict suffering on, how many Muslims you dominate or brutalize hardly gets any attention in the world in which we live. 


Long before the genocide against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, human rights activists warned for years that a genocide was coming. The same warnings are today being put out for India now, but Muslims are oblivious. The same Muslims who will make a huge fuss if a woman does not wear a hijab are silent. For years, everyone warned about the government in Myanmar because of the increasing number of anti-Muslim citizenship laws. Exactly like India. Twitter and Facebook were full of anti-Muslim rhetoric for years before the genocide against the Rohingya. Yet, Muslims in their masjids and Islamic centers continued to talk about whatever nonsense they talk about until the genocide took place, thousands of lives were lost, and thousands upon thousands of Muslim women were raped.


Now, here we stand. Another genocide is about to take place in India with the full cooperation of Israel and the full complicity of the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Israel has just passed a law that tightens controls on Palestinian schools to make sure that not only will Palestinians be unable to feed their children, but they will also be unable to even give their children a religious education or teach them Arabic instead of Hebrew. And the majority of Muslims in the world are oblivious, as always.


We have all been following the genocide against the Uyghur Muslims in China. In this same week, this week of reflection and contemplation, China has turned to focus on Hui Muslims. In the Yunnan province, China has started tearing down the mosques, minarets, and domes of the Hui ethnic group. If they do not destroy the mosque, they at least destroy the minaret and the dome of the mosque to "make the mosque more consistent with Chinese architecture.” The same steps of escalation—where the Uyghur Muslims were forced into re-education, brainwashing and concentration camps, where they were raped, brutalized, and beaten—are now taking place against the Uyghur Muslims in the Yunnan province. China knows very well that Muslims do not care. China knows very well that even when non-Muslims protest, whether in the U.S. or in Europe, it is only verbal. They just condemn it in the hallways of the U.N., but there are no economic consequences. There are no real consequences to oppressing Muslims and to erasing the identity and character of Muslims. There are no consequences to erasing Muslims, bottom line. 


Each nation is required to submit a human rights report every few years to the Human Rights Council. In that report, the nation discusses its compliance with human rights issues. The Human Rights Council then writes a comment on this report, either saying, "Good job" or "Thumbs down, you are a human rights violator." China submitted its most recent report this last year, and the Human Rights Council's response was extremely disappointing. They did not take China to task, even less than they have done in previous years. It is as if the Human Rights Council got the point. No one cares, so they did not take China to task about the Uyghur genocide. Shortly thereafter, China started escalating its steps against the Hui Muslims. China realized, "The world really does not care, so we can do what we want to the Hui.”


I think back to the young Khaled who was meeting those who would become the main characters in his life. I realize that, from a Muslim point of view, I leave this world so much worse than how I found it in the '80s. In this sense, my life has been a total failure. Moral responsibility demands that I contemplate and think very carefully about how I will explain the way I found the world, the way I engage the world, and the way I am leaving the world to my children, because what I say and how I say it might make the difference between children who are committed to the same causes that I was committed to throughout my life, or children who give up on the causes that I pursued during my lifetime. It behooves us all to think very carefully about what we tell our children about the world, the world how we found it, and the world how we are leaving it.


Even if we think the Muslim voice is somehow muted when it comes to an apartheid regime against Palestinians, against Muslims in India, against Muslims in Myanmar, or against Muslims in China, even if we say that it is too ambitious and too fantastical to expect Muslim consciousness to react to the world at large, let us turn to events closer to home. In my  last khutbah, I talked about an incident involving a young Muslim student named Fatima at City University of New York School of Law.


Fatima's classmates elected her to speak at graduation. In her graduation speech, she mentioned the suffering and the systematic human rights violations committed against the Palestinian people. The law school reacted by removing Fatima's graduation speech from all its sites, in other words, by censoring her speech. But things further escalated this week when the law school apologized for the speech and described it as “anti-Semitic.” The Mayor of New York stepped in, describing the speech of this law student as “anti-Semitic” and going so far as to say that if he was there, he would have stood up, interrupted the speech, and not allowed it to continue. As I noted last week, a number of Jewish organizations objected to this smear campaign launched against this young law student, and a number of faculty signed a letter objecting to the way the university has treated Fatima by censoring her speech.


This is not some minor incident. It relates to how we, as Muslims, relate to the very concept of human rights, because human rights is an evolving animal. Human rights do not come down to us from the heavens. Human rights are defined by human institutions, and these human institutions are constantly evolving, restructuring, and reformulating. They are not constant. They are, to put it simply, the universal ideology of our age.


People no longer talk about the righteousness of believing in God, the righteousness of the Church, or the righteousness of Jesus. But people do talk about the righteousness of human rights, so much so that even those who violate human rights still speak the language of human rights. It is not that China says it does not believe in human rights. No, China claims that it honors and respects human rights more than the U.S.. It is the same with Russia and North Korea. Human rights have become the secular religion of our age, but this secular religion is being systematically shaped and weaponized to the exclusion of Muslims and Muslim causes.


The discourse has been shaped in such a way that it is not your human right to protest, object, or otherwise prevent insults directed at your Prophet, even when these insults are the most grotesque and pornographic. But it is your human right to censor, protest, and object to discourse that could be considered objectionable because it is deemed “anti-Semitic” or racist. These are value choices. These are moral choices as to what you consider to be sacrosanct or not sacrosanct.


The current battle that is being fought at so many levels is a systematic push to say that if you expose the obscenities of Israeli conduct against Palestinians, if you say that Israel is an apartheid state, if you say that Israel is a systematic violator of human rights, then you are an anti-Semite. Many people are paying very close attention to this because they plan to borrow from this playbook. Mark my words, soon it will be that Hindu nationalists—who actually believe in their cause and who, unlike Muslims, spend millions of dollars supporting those who dedicate their lives to serve that cause—borrow from this playbook. Soon they will structure the discourse of human rights so that if you attempt to deny the Hindu identity of India, criticize Hindu nationalism, or say that India is an apartheid state because of what it does to Muslims, you will be marked as a “racist” against the Indian people and as a “bigot” against Hindu values. We are already seeing China working diligently to silence criticism as to what it is doing to the Uyghurs by saying that those who criticize China for its conduct toward the Uyghurs are as racist as those who passed the Chinese exclusion laws some hundred years ago in the United States. It is as if your problem is not that you actually care about the rights of Muslims in China, but that you hate Chinese ethnicity. 


Where are Muslims as this ideology that rules the universe is being shaped, crafted, directed, and weaponized? Muslims are busy spending $300 million on a soccer player. They are busy building a new Ka‘ba in Riyadh. You could not get Muslims to sign a letter about racism. You could not get Muslims to sign a letter about police brutality. You could not get Muslims to sign a letter about slavery. You could not get Muslims to sign a letter about Jerusalem. You could not get Muslims to sign a letter about the obscenities taking place in the lands of the Prophet. A woman was just sentenced to 30 years in prison for some tweets criticizing the lack of jobs in Saudi Arabia. We are so marginal to the world. 


Once upon a time, when I was young, when I first met this beautiful lady, Nahid Ansari, I really thought, naively, that we Muslims were going to be at the center of the world. I really thought that by the time I would be ready to meet my Lord, we would be in a very different world. I pray that our children will be far better and far more successful than we have been in impacting and shaping the world that they will leave behind. 

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