A Selected Survey2021
by Tarek Elgawhary
Another year, but a year like no other. While there are many events that took place over this past year before the global pandemic, the advent of COVID-19 and the ensuing global health crises have overshadowed almost everything. It is hard to write about any issue or region today, or to even form an opinion of something without first taking into consideration the impact of COVID-19. This presents a unique challenge in writing this year’s introduction to The Muslim 500. Instead of painting everything COVID, I decided to provide an overview of the Muslim world by region (Part I), which will include highlights of the most notable events of the past year such as the conversion of the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque and recent normalization efforts with Israel, as well as an overview of the major issues facing Muslims around the world (Part II) such as the plight of the most oppressed amongst us and the constant nuisance of Islamophobia, and conclude with a general overview of how COVID-19 has impacted and continues to impact Muslims (Part III); a more detailed coverage of COVID-19 as it relates to the world’s nations appears elsewhere in this volume. This will both be a familiar format to previous Muslim 500 introductions, providing needed continuity, while also acknowledging that while we continue to monitor specific regions and important topics, none have become as important and as pressing as the global influenza that continues to threaten us all.
The Middle East remains a region of political and social unrest in many of its quarters. Of the ongoing civil conflicts, only Yemen has witnessed a noticeable de-escalation this past year with an agreement between the Hadi government and the Southern Transitional Council, and promising talks between the Saudi government and the Houthis. In Syria, parts of the civil war continue with no political resolution in sight. The regime has been able to move into north-eastern Syria after the US’s abandonment of the Kurds and after the Turkish incursion; the regime and its allies stepped up their attacks in southern Idlib but without launching an all-out attack.
One of the biggest news items from the region was the announcement of the resignation of Algeria’s president in the spring of 2019. After 20 years in power, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika succumbed to popular protests opposing his intent to run for a fifth term. While the military encouraged Bouteflika’s departure, they underestimated the staying power of the protestors. Not appeased by the president’s ouster, the protest maintained twice-weekly protesters since February 2019 demanding a restructuring of the political system toward a more just and accountable government and the removal of the old regime elites. In response, the government postponed elections initially scheduled for July until December 12, 2019. Yet, all of the candidates were former members of Bouteflika’s government. With the regime’s loss of legitimacy, the lack of acceptable alternatives, and insufficient time to organise opposition candidates, the protestors rejected the December 12 elections as premature. Abdelmadjid Tebboune ultimately won the election, defeating Abdelkader Bengrina of the Islamist El Binaa party.
Moving eastward, there were many developments in the Libyan situation. The April 4, 2019 attack by Khalifa Haftar on Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) triggered a series of momentous events for the country that have occupied our reporting period. This attack ended any hope the UN mission in Libya had of convening a national conference to build support for essential political compromises, such as oil revenue sharing and any path to Libya’s first national elections since June 2014. It also accelerated the proxy war on Libyan soil. As of late 2019, the foreign military presence included some 600-800 fighters from Russia, drones from the UAE, special forces from France, and weapons and military support from Egypt on Haftar’s side, and a growing Turkish and Syrian presence, including drones, backing the GNA, plus forces from Chad and Sudan with uncertain allegiances. At the same time, militia groups with local agendas continued to clash in Libya’s west and south. Haftar arrested those in the east opposed to his efforts to impose a new dictatorship on Libya. And armed groups through-out the country carried out extrajudicial killings, abductions, torture, and executions. Unsurprisingly, da’ish has taken advantage of these conditions to make a comeback three years after the US and Libyan forces successfully eliminated it from controlling any Libyan territory. The current civil conflict in Libya has created great security concerns for Egypt and, in recent months, President Sisi has doubled down on his readiness to deploy military assistance to Haftar and his comrades. This past year also witnessed an enlargement of influence by violent extremist organisations (VEOs) in Africa, the details of which can be found below in the section on extremism.
The local elections in Turkey were a historic blow for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and might spell the slow beginning of the end of his long dominance over Turkish politics. However, and as mentioned in our introduction, one of the most notable and controversial episodes in Turkey over this past year is the re-establishment of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque. The Hagia Sophia was built in the sixth century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and was a Christian place of worship for nearly 1,000 years before what was then known as Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks after a bloody siege in 1453. Once the world’s largest cathedral, for hundreds of years it was where Byzantine emperors were crowned, accepting the blessing of the Greek Orthodox Church amid ornate marble and mosaic decorations. After the fall of Constantinople, which the Turks renamed Istanbul, the giant cathedral became a mosque, with Turkish builders adding the minarets which now dominate the skyline in Istanbul’s ancient heart. However, after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I, Turkey’s new secular government decided to turn the building into a non-denominational museum and open it to tourists. The building opened its doors as a museum in 1935. The Hagia Sophia is one of the most popular museums in Turkey, drawing more than 3.7 million visitors last year, with many seeing the site as a place that brings faiths together.
Within hours of Turkey’s high administrative court annulling the 1934 cabinet decision that turned the site into a museum, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signed a decree handing over Hagia Sophia to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Presidency. President Erdoğan said the first prayers inside Hagia Sofia on July 24 and urged respect for the decision. He said it was Turkey’s sovereign right to decide for which purpose Hagia Sofia would be used and rejected the idea that the decision ends Hagia Sophia’s status as a structure that brings faiths together.
Millions of Muslims around the world celebrated this move and thousands of Muslims in Istanbul came to the opening Friday prayer on July 24, 2020, which was attended by President Erdoğan and senior officials of his government. The images of the Friday prayer service and subsequent prayer services held at the Hagia Sophia were shared widely, and continue to be shared, over social media as signs of Islam’s resurgence in secular Turkey.
As a former seat of the Greek Orthodox Church, Hagia Sophia’s loss still rankles with some Greeks, and the move to convert it into a mosque again threatens to deepen tensions between Greece and Turkey. The debate between whether the site is considered a mosque or a museum has been quietly brewing for some time. President Erdoğan’s mosque declaration has received widespread international criticism, including from US and Orthodox Christian leaders, who had urged Turkey to keep its status as a museum symbolising solidarity among faiths and cultures.
Pope Francis said he was “deeply pained” by Turkey’s decision, while the World Council of Churches described its “grief and dismay”, noting that the Hagia Sophia had been “a place of openness, encounter and inspiration for people from all nations”. Greece Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis condemned the decision as an affront to Hagia Sophia’s ecumenical character. He described the decision as one that offends those who see the site as “part of world cultural heritage”. “This decision clearly affects not only Turkey’s relations with Greece but also its relations with the European Union, UNESCO and the world community as a whole,” he said.
This has also been a difficult year for Iran. The devastating effect of US sanctions, record low oil exports, a widening budget deficit, and a massive increase in fuel prices all became catalysts for a series of nationwide protests throughout this past year. While the protests started off as peaceful, an unfortunate turn of events ushered in one of the boldest periods of modern Iranian history since the 1979 Islamic revolution. For the majority of the year, minus the dominating effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, Iran has been stuck in a cycle of protest, counter-protest. Although in recent months it seems that the government has been able to regain some control, but attacks against strategic targets within Iran continue.
Throughout the year, non-state actors in Yemen were able to strategically improve their overall positions by using tactical military interventions and mediation efforts to their advantage. In the North, the Iran-backed Houthi militia, which overthrew the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in 2014, re-asserted their monopoly in the areas they controlled and stretched themselves further beyond. The expansion was an unintended result of a flawed cease-fire in the port of Hodeida that could not hold the Houthis accountable for violations or prevent escalation. In the South, Yemen’s government faced a new challenge as the Emirati-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) and local groups threatened to separate due to state failure in delivering security and public services.
Over the course of the year, the UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement reached in December 2018 failed to meet expectations. The benefits that the Houthis reaped from the Stockholm deal strengthened their control and position in Yemen. They also increased their attacks on Saudi Arabia, with repeated strikes on Abha airport in the south of the kingdom that ultimately led to casualties, and further attacks on oil installations. The Emirati announcement that it would withdraw from Yemen this year appears to have stemmed from security and economic considerations following Houthi threats to launch drone attacks on the UAE.
As far as the situation in Syria over this past year, da’ish and its affiliates continued to lose more of their fake state and fake caliphate. Turkey’s assault on north-eastern Syria late in 2019 and the resulting intensification of Turkish-Kurdish and Arab-Kurdish conflict fronts, however, continues to be a rallying call for da’ish groups. While President Bashar al-Assad continues to maintain power and control, the Syrian economy took a hit this past year, particularly with Trump’s Caesar Bill in December 2019, which came into force on June 17, 2020. This piece of legislation targets specific Syrian industries as well as individuals providing alleged aid to crimes against humanity. The Caesar Bill also lays out fresh sanctions against Syria but allows for a waiving of these sanctions if parties engaged in the conflict engage in meaningful negations and end hostilities against civilians.
Lastly, and perhaps most surprisingly, the United Arab Emirates as well as the Kingdom of Bahrain announced their intentions to establish and normalise diplomatic ties with Israel. This is the first time an Arab and Muslim majority nation has made peace with Israel since both Egypt (in 1979) and Jordan (in 1994) normalised ties decades ago. The Abraham Accords, finalised and signed on September 15, 2020 on the south lawn of the White House, was met with great fanfare in the West. However, opinion throughout the Arab and Muslim world has been mixed with a lot of confusion and rage. Immediate concern is for the plight of the Palestinian people who remain stateless. What will happen to Jerusalem, what will happen to the illegal settlements, what will happen to Gaza, etc.? These questions and many more are circulating and making a lot of noise throughout social media. From a geopolitical perspective, this accord is painted as an alignment against Iran, which makes Bahrain’s involvement interesting. The small kingdom, while ruled by a strong Sunni monarchy, has a sizable Shia population.
Only weeks old, the Abraham Accords is already echoing in the corridors of power of other Arab/Muslim nations. Sudan, Oman, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are commenting, mostly positively, on the accord, and some are even indicating a willingness to follow suit. Only time will tell what will happen, but there is no doubt that this represents a massive shift in the region.
Sudan has also been facing challenges since the 2018 revolution triggered by the hike in bread and fuel prices. “Freedom, Peace and Justice” became the rallying cry for a real political and social revolution calling for civilian rule, together with the commitment to the peaceful nature of the revolution as an essential prerequisite to its successful conclusion. On April 11, 2019 Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was deposed after which the country was placed in the care of the Transitional Military Council (TMC). After a tragic massacre in June 2019, the TMC and the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) signed a political agreement and draft constitution as well as agreed on a 39-month transition phase for government. By September 2019, the TMC transferred executive power to the sovereignty council of Sudan under civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The newly formed government faces grave challenges but continues to move the country out of its current conflict. In early September 2020, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu, a leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North rebel group, signed a declaration in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, adopting the principle of creating a new secular state in Sudan. He said, “For Sudan to become a democratic country where the rights of all citizens are enshrined, the constitution should be based on the principle of ‘separation of religion and state,’ in the absence of which the right to self-determination must be respected.” This accord comes less than a week after the government initialled a peace deal with rebel forces that has raised hopes of an end to fighting that ravaged Darfur and other parts of Sudan under ousted dictator Omar al-Bashir. The larger of two factions in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, which has fought Sudanese troops in the nation’s border states, has refused to sign any agreement that doesn’t ensure a secular system.
The past couple of years have been trying ones for India-Pakistan relations. 2019 opened with a suicide attack carried out by a young Kashmiri man, Adil Ahmed Dar, and claimed by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) on an Indian paramilitary force convoy in Pulwama. India’s subsequent airstrikes inside Pakistan further escalated tensions, resulting in cross-border air attacks in Jammu & Kashmir where Pakistan shot down an Indian aircraft and captured the pilot. Although the crisis de-escalated following Pakistan’s return of the pilot, tensions continued to overshadow the bilateral relationship.
Hopes faded for an improved relationship between India and Pakistan under Narendra Modi’s second tenure. Following Modi’s re-election in 2019, Islamophobia has surged in India. Muslims continue to face discrimination, violence, and death. There are several accounts of Islamophobia, which include: Muslims being beaten and forced to chant ‘Jai shree Ram’ (Glory to God Ram), being thrown off of moving trains, hate crime lynchings, complete Muslim areas under attack and destroyed, mosque destruction at the hands of Hindutva mobs, and efforts to denationalise Muslims through the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which deserves to be detailed in a separate paper at a later date.
The Modi administration also delivered on one of its campaign promises and revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution on August 5. Article 370 had given Indian-administered Kashmir some autonomy, including the right to craft limited local policy and to deny outsiders the right to acquire land there, which many Muslim Kashmiris saw as protection against Hindus from the rest of India moving to the region, changing its demographics, and undermining its push for independence. As expected, however, many Modi supporters cheered the decision, while detractors saw it as part of an increasingly dangerous drift toward Hindu nationalism—a way to drum up support at a time when India’s economy is slowing. This same sentiment echoed around the world with activists and others decrying the communications shutdown and curfews. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also lent his voice to these outcries taking his gripe to the United Nations.
Indian Muslims have also been the subject of continued and systematic xenophobic attacks. A video emerged in February 2020 from the Kardampuri neighbourhood in northeast Delhi showing five severely injured men lying on the street being beaten by several policemen and forced to sing the Indian national anthem. One of the men, Faizan, a 23-year-old Muslim, died from his injuries two days later. At least 52 more people were killed in the three days of communal violence that broke out in India’s capital. Over 200 were injured, properties destroyed, and communities displaced in targeted attacks by Hindu mobs. While a policeman and some Hindus were also killed, the majority of victims were Muslim.
This past year also saw an unprecedented step in these attacks with the use of social media platforms. Any type of religious gatherings of Muslims has been painted as a conspiracy and various Hindu-centric hashtags began circulating. For example, @coronajihad, #biojihad, and #tablighijamatvirus. In August 2020, the Wall Street Journal revealed that BJP members such as T. Raja Singh have called for explicit acts of violence against Muslims. The article goes on to implicate Facebook Inc. employees for shielding this type of hate-filled rhetoric online, despite Facebook’s own statement that such hate rhetoric can lead to actual acts of violence and extremism against Muslims.
Also, in August 2020, Modi fulfilled another campaign promise to his Hindu nationalist base by inaugurating a new Hindu temple on the site of a 16th century mosque torn down by Hindu extremists nearly 30 years ago in the Indian town of Ayodhya. This very public act by Modi was scheduled to coincide with the first anniversary of India’s revocation of special rights in Kashmir, its only Muslim-majority state.
Pakistan’s response has been focused on using diplomatic channels to highlight various human rights abuses by Indian forces in Kashmir. For Kashmiris, the situation continues to be troubling as they live under curfew and an ongoing internet shutdown which has crippled business and raised human rights concerns. Continued frustrations in Jammu & Kashmir and statements by Indian leadership on claims to Pakistan-administered Kashmir increase the risk of another crisis between two nuclear-armed states.
Despite bilateral relations hitting a low-point, India and Pakistan kept their pledge to open the Kartarpur corridor. The corridor was officially inaugurated in November 2019 and gives Indian Sikh pilgrims visa-free access to one of Sikhism’s holiest sites: Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan. The initiative indicated a genuine desire to engage with India on issues of mutual concern. However, its significance as a goodwill gesture and potential to improve bilateral relations was overshadowed by the continued dispute over Kashmir and India and Pakistan still appear poised for continued hostility in 2021.
In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo was re-elected in April 2019 with 55.5% of the votes, providing him with a second term until 2024. As in his first term, Widodo has continued to tackle economic reforms, such as infrastructure improvement to support the manufacturing sector and digital economy, reforms of the labour market, and foreign investment rules. However, some key elements of his policy agenda remained contested due to vested interests. Compared to its neighbours, Indonesia´s government was late in taking comprehensive measures to contain the coronavirus spread, most probably due to concerns over negative consequences for the economy. This has exposed the administration to some criticism.
The government led by the President Joko Widodo has been focused on structural reform and improved governance. It began a thorough overhaul of the energy subsidy program, which will fund infrastructure renovation and provide aid to the agricultural sector. However, the Islamist threat continues to be a nation-wide concern. In addition, there have been violent demonstrations with casualties and more than 1,500 arrested.
Prior to the advent of COVID-19 cases in Indonesia, which largely began in March of this year, Indonesia responded to a Chinese navy incursion in the Natuna Sea by mobilising fisherman and naval vessels to patrol the area. Likewise, early on in the year the country experienced several natural disasters in the first quarter. At least 66 people were killed after massive flooding swept the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Dubbed as one of the worst floods in Jakarta history, the massive flood was caused by the highest recorded rainfall in 24 years since record began in Jakarta.
In Malaysia, in the May 2019 general election, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance of opposition parties gained 122 out of 222 seats. It surprisingly won against the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which had been in power since Malaysia achieved independence in 1957. Aiding in the defeat of the BN coalition were the introduction of an unpopular goods-and-services tax (GST) of 6% in 2015 (in order to reduce the government’s dependence on oil revenues) and the involvement of former Prime Minister Najib in the so-called 1MDB financial mismanagement scandal (the disappearance of USD 4.5 billion from a state development fund).
The new government under Prime Minister Mahathir (who previously was UMNO leader and served as Prime Minister between 1981 and 2003) has abolished the GST tax, reintroduced certain fuel subsidies, and cancelled or cut back some megaprojects initiated by the previous government, including pipelines built with Chinese help and a high-speed rail project planned with Singapore.
Also, Sultan Abdullah of Pahang was elected paramount leader in January 2019 after the unprecedented abdication of his predecessor Sultan Muhammad V of Kelantan. The post of paramount ruler is rotated every five years among the sultans of the nine Malay kingdoms.
On February 29, 2020, Prime Minister Mahathir resigned from his position alongside some 131 members of parliament. Five days later, the King of Malaysia appointed Mr. Muhyiddin Yassin as Prime Minster, just in time to begin a rapid response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Much of what we covered over this past year for Muslim minority communities in these regions is found in the section of Islamophobia below in addition to the associated implications of the migrant crises of Muslim groups into Europe and elsewhere. However, one major subject area that we would like to include this year is the impact of the Black Lives Matter movements emerging from the United States over the summer of 2020.
As a social movement, Black Lives Matter has been around since 2013. However, as recent protests throughout the United States demonstrates, public opinion towards this movement is changing rapidly. Many mainstream institutions and organisations like the National Football League (NFL), and NASCAR have come out in recent months in support of BLM.
In addition to this, BLM inspired protests throughout the United States have been aided by a polarised country more prone to protest in general rather than to sit on the side-lines. The current Trump administration has taken many public stances in opposition to gun control, climate change, and immigration, which many BLM supporters argue add fuel to the fire of racial inequality in the US.
Protests around the US peaked over the summer on June 6, 2020 when half a million people turned out in nearly 550 locations across the country. These figures make these protests the largest movement in the country’s history, as reported by major American news agencies. More than 40 percent of counties in the United States — at least 1,360 — have had a protest. And unlike past Black Lives Matter protests, nearly 95 percent of counties that had a protest recently are majority white, and nearly three-quarters of the counties are more than 75 percent white.
As far as this movement relates to Muslim minorities, both in the US and throughout the world, BLM is pressuring Muslims to deal with their own anti-blackness as well as their already strained relationship with law enforcement. In the United States, black Muslims account for about one-fifth of the Muslim population and this group often receives a double scoop of discrimination: one from the general public and a second from within the Muslim community.
At the same time, the BLM is emerging as a rallying call for many Muslim activists who are jumping into the fray to add their voice for the need for social justice. For US based Muslims, this is intrinsically linked to their overwhelming support for Biden over Trump in the upcoming presidential elections. The impact of BLM upon the Muslim community cannot be overstated. There is hardly a Muslim community within the US, as well as other Muslim minority communities in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere where the issue of racial equality and Islam’s unique position to address this has not been a source of much discussion throughout the second half of 2020.
August 25, 2020 marked three years since the coordinated attacks by the Myanmar military that led to the mass expulsion of nearly 1 million Rohingya—the Muslim majority population that had been living in western Myanmar at the time. It is almost impossible to fully comprehend the magnitude of this number.
The Rohingya people remain one of the most persecuted populations on earth. Nearly 900,000 Rohingya refugees currently occupy crowded camps in Bangladesh, and some 600,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar facing ongoing abuse. In the midst of a global pandemic, the Rohingya remain a highly vulnerable population. In recent months, monsoon rains have brought high winds, flooding, and landslides that have affected the shelters of tens of thousands. Hundreds of desperate Rohingya refugees have been stranded at sea after being turned back from the shores of Malaysia and Bangladesh, and many are feared to have drowned.
The humanitarian crisis of the Rohingya is an ongoing demand on the world’s attention. Yet Bangladesh and other host countries are in desperate circumstances themselves. The ultimate solution for the humanitarian crisis faced by Rohingya in Bangladesh—and the one they themselves seek—is a return to their homes in Myanmar. However, conditions for safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable returns are far from being realised.
Over the past year, the Myanmar military has been fighting an ethnic armed group known as the Arakan Army. This fighting has affected civilians across the state, including both ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya. In June, warnings by the military of “clearance operations” caused tens of thousands (mostly ethnic Rakhine) to flee their homes. “Clearance operations” were the same term used ahead of the mass expulsion of the Rohingya.
The crackdown against the Rohingya is not limited to physical altercations. The government of Myanmar continues to restrict internet access to large areas of northern Rakhine State. Access for international humanitarian organisations is also restricted in the area. Recently, a group of humanitarian organisations working in Rakhine State warned that recent fighting between the military and the Arakan Army, including reports of burning of villages and arbitrary detention of civilians, will likely cause greater hunger, displacement and human suffering at a time when populations are dealing with COVID-19 and heavy rains from the monsoon season.
More than 100,000 Rohingya in Rakhine State remain in internal displacement camps that are effectively open-air prisons. Rohingya homes have been destroyed, and Rohingya lands have been populated by other ethnic groups. Implementation of plans to shut down some of the camps has amounted to little beyond moving the displaced to structures next to the camps and labeling the structures “villages.”
Even for those Rohingya not in camps, restrictions on movement and access to healthcare and education remain. Reports of arbitrary arrests and sexual violence at the hands of security forces continue to emerge. Such abuses are not restricted to the Rohingya, but also extend to several ethnic minority groups including the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Rakhine, and Shan.
COVID-19 also looms as a threat to ethnic minorities in Myanmar. The underlying conditions of displacement and disenfranchisement leave the Rohingya particularly vulnerable.
In short, the abuses of the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities are not a thing of the past in Myanmar. An independent UN Fact Finding Mission has warned that the plight of the Rohingya is on the cusp of a genocide at the hands of the State of the Myanmar. A case of genocide against Myanmar is currently being presented and heard at the International Court of Justice.
Due to the leakage of never-before seen footage and first-person accounts, this past year helped break open on the international stage the plight and systemic persecution of the Uyghur people—a predominantly Turkic-speaking ethnic group primarily from China’s north-western region of Xinjiang—in an unprecedented way.
Even though human rights organisations, UN officials, and many foreign governments are urging China to stop the crackdown, Chinese officials maintain that what they call vocational training centres do not infringe on Uyghurs’ human rights. They have refused to share information about the detention centres, and systematically prevented journalists and foreign investigators from examining them. However, internal Chinese government documents leaked in late 2019 have provided important details on how officials launched and maintain the detention camps.
Information on what actually happens in the camps is limited, but many detainees who have since fled China describe harsh conditions. Detainees are forced to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and renounce Islam, as well as sing praises for communism and learn Mandarin. Some report prison-like conditions with cameras and microphones monitoring their every move and utterance. Others said they were tortured and subjected to sleep deprivation during interrogations. Women share stories of sexual abuse, with some saying they were forced to undergo abortions or have contraceptive devices implanted against their will.
These detentions continue to have devastating effects. Children whose parents have been sent to the camps are often forced to stay in state-run orphanages. Uyghur parents who live outside of China are caught between returning to China to be with their children and risk detention or stay abroad permanently separated from their families.
Since 2017, Chinese authorities have been actively remoulding the Muslim population in the image of China’s Han ethnic majority. The ‘re-education’ campaign appears to be entering a new phase, as government officials now claim that all ‘trainees’ have ‘graduated’. There is mounting evidence that many Uyghurs are now being forced to work in factories within Xinjiang. This report reveals that Chinese factories outside Xinjiang are also sourcing Uyghur workers under a revived, exploitative government-led labour transfer scheme.
Some factories appear to be using Uyghur workers sent directly from re-education camps. According to one study, 27 factories have been identified in nine Chinese provinces that are using Uyghurs workers transferred from Xinjiang since 2017. It is extremely difficult for Uyghurs to refuse or escape these work assignments which are part of the supply chain of 83 well-known global brands. For example, it was found that a factory in eastern China that manufactures shoes for Nike is equipped with watchtowers, barbed-wire fences, and police guard boxes. The Uyghur workers, unlike their Han counterparts, are reportedly unable to go home for holidays. In another example it was found that in a factory supplying sportswear to Adidas and Fila, Uyghur workers were transferred directly from one of Xinjiang’s re-education camps. In yet another example, it was found that several factories making components for Apple use Uyghurs as part of their labour force.
International pressure continues to mount. Earlier in 2019, Turkey became the first Muslim-majority country to voice concern when its foreign minister called on China to ensure “the full protection of the cultural identities of the Uyghurs and other Muslims” during a UN Human Rights Council session. In October 2019, the United States imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials “believed to be responsible for, or complicit in” the detention of Muslims in Xinjiang. It also blacklisted more than two dozen Chinese companies and agencies linked to abuses in the region—including surveillance technology manufacturers and Xinjiang’s public security bureau—effectively blocking them from buying US products. In June 2020, President Trump signed legislation, which passed with overwhelming support from Congress, mandating that individuals face sanctions for oppressing Uyghurs. The law also requires that US businesses and individuals selling products to or operating in Xinjiang ensure their activities don’t contribute to human rights violations, including the use of forced labour.
In September 2020, Disney released a new blockbuster movie on its streaming platform titled Mulan. Since much of this movie was filmed in the Xinjiang region, there has been an international outcry denouncing not only the movie and Disney, but calls for people to cancel their subscriptions to the Disney’s streaming platform. It is still too early to determine the effect of this campaign, but one thing is for sure: the plight of the Uyghurs is becoming more mainstream.
Islamophobia continues to be one of the critical areas we monitor and affect virtually every Muslim population on earth, Muslim minority populations specifically. This past year witnessed an increased level of global Islamophobia. Amongst these minority populations Islam is often seen as an enemy and a religion of intrinsic violence whose disciples have a tendency to harm followers of other religions. Islam is also typically portrayed as a threat to western values and civilizations and an ‘alien’ religion prone to bloodshed—a stigma that triggers intolerant attitudes amongst non-Muslims vis-a -vis the other. These negative stereotypes are what ultimately form negative sentiments. Over this past year, major Islamophobia-monitoring groups observed a multi-fold increase of negative sentiment towards Islam and Muslims, mostly throughout Western Europe and the United States. The rise of nationalist candidates and political parties has led to a broader conversation of identity politics in these areas. Discussions of ethnicity, race, and religion are now taking place almost everywhere in the West. For those who eschew the presence of minorities, like Muslims, within their borders, this is tinder for the fire.
This, however, is not an overnight phenomenon. Traditionally, politics in the West was framed around economic issues surrounding how much power and leverage the central/federal government should have over its states/regions; how to ensure equal opportunities to all it citizens; how to create equal access tofree markets, etc. Over the past decade or so, however, the conversation has moved away from this towards one dominated by identity rather than ideology. Indeed, today’s political landscape is increasingly characterised by assertions of identity and group belongingness. The shift of global politics from ideology to identity is linked to the recent widespread populist revolt against globalisation and its disruptive cultural dimension. The growth of populist movements in Western political spaces is not only grounded in the discontent with globalisation’s unequal economic consequences, but also on the threats to traditional national identities arising from high levels of migration which have given birth to anti-immigrant populism and the emergence of white nationalism. Identity politics has become a powerful tool in contemporary politics that has fostered, for instance, President Donald Trump’s election as well as Brexit.
Studies in both Europe and North America over this past year demonstrate an increase of attacks against Muslims as well as an increase of unfavourable opinions and views of the general population towards Muslim minorities. Even though many Western nations have pressing domestic, economic, and health concerns, the issue of minorities, Islamic radicals, immigration, etc., continued to dominate the conversation in European as well as American elections.
Extremism claiming to base itself within the family of Islam is one of our most closely monitored areas as it typically impacts large parts of the Muslim world. This past year was an eventful year in the fight against extremism and radicalization, but many challenges remain.
This past year witnessed an enlargement of influence by violent extremist organisations (VEOs) in Africa. In West Africa, jihadist activities increased in Burkina Faso and Mali. Boko Haram conducted hideous attacks in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Al-Shabaab continues to terrorise East Africa, from Somalia and Kenya to Tanzania and Uganda. In Southern Africa, militant violence afflicts northern Mozambique. In these and other African nations, VEOs continue to target youth for recruitment, capitalise on humanitarian crises, and expand their ability to manoeuvre, destabilise, and influence. Unfortunately, VEOs continue to be a serious threat to continental security and thrive on political instability in many of the countries with sizable Muslim populations. The need for long-term prevention tools continues to be a dire need.
African countries and regional organisations sustained ongoing counterterrorism efforts this past year against threats in East Africa, the Sahel, and Chad while increasing emphasis on preventing the expansion of terrorist groups, affiliates, and associated organisations into new operating areas in West Africa and Southern Africa.
Specifically in East Africa, al-Shabaab retained safe haven, access to recruits and resources, and de facto control over large parts of Somalia, through which it moves freely. It also launched external operations attacks in neighbouring Kenya. Al-Shabaab maintained its allegiance to al-Qai’da, remaining intent on limiting the influence and reach of the northern Somalia-based group of ISIS-linked fighters responsible for local suicide bombings and other attacks against Somali security forces in greater Mogadishu.
The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali security forces continued cooperation with the United States to exert pressure on al-Shabaab, primarily through coordinated counterterrorism (CT) operations and small advances in governance in southern Somalia. The United States continued to support East African partners across the Horn of Africa in their efforts to build counter terrorism capacity, including in aviation and border security, advisory assistance for regional security forces, training and mentoring of law enforcement to manage crisis response and conduct investigations, and advancing criminal justice sector reforms. East African partners undertook efforts to develop and expand regional cooperation mechanisms to interdict terrorist travel and other terrorism-related activities.
In Chad, ISIS-West Africa, which split from Boko Haram (BH) in 2015, continued to conduct attacks against civilians, government, and security forces, which resulted in deaths, injuries, abductions, and the capture and destruction of property. Nigeria, along with its neighbours Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Benin worked to counter these threats, but proved unable to stop ISIS-WA’s advance in the region or ensure adequate governance and protection for civilian populations. The United States continued to provide advisors, intelligence, training, logistical support, and equipment to the Lake Chad region countries and supported a wide range of stabilization efforts, such as defection, demobilization, disengagement, de-radicalization, and reintegration programming. Continued attacks by BH and ISIS-WA have taken a heavy toll on the civilian population, especially in northeast Nigeria where attacks have displaced more than two million people and left roughly 10 million in need of humanitarian assistance.
Although significant terrorist activities and safe havens continued to persist in the Middle East and North Africa throughout this past year, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and its local partners achieved important milestones, including liberating the remaining territory held by ISIS in Syria. Given the collapse of its so-called caliphate, remnants of ISIS in Iraq and Syria reverted to clandestine tactics—a trend expected to continue. Beyond Iraq and Syria, ISIS branches, networks, and supporters across the Middle East and North Africa remained active in 2019, including in Libya, the Arabian Peninsula, the Sinai Peninsula, Tunisia, and Yemen. Al-Qa’ida (AQ) and its affiliates have also remained active throughout the region. For example, ISIS continued its terrorist campaign in Sinai through its branch ISIS-Sinai Province (ISIS-SP), and terrorist groups in Egypt carried out more attacks than in recent years. Of note, ISIS-SP was the first ISIS affiliate to swear allegiance to the new ISIS self-proclaimed caliph following Baghdadi’s death.
In the Maghreb, counterterrorism efforts and operations by Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia thwarted the activities of ISIS and other terrorist groups. Algerian armed forces and internal security forces published figures showing an increase in arrests of terrorists or terror suspects compared with 2018, and Tunisia increased its successful CT operations, including the killing of Jund al-Khilafah’s leader. In Libya, non-state actors conducted ground operations to neutralise the threat posed by ISIS and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters and facilitators. The United States conducted precision airstrikes targeting ISIS cells in southern Libya, disrupting the group’s organisational presence in the South and eliminating key ISIS personnel. Most terrorist attacks in Libya during the year were conducted by ISIS.
Despite setbacks, AQ remained resilient and actively sought to reconstitute its capabilities and maintain safe havens amid fragile political and security climates, particularly in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. For example, AQ and AQ-affiliated groups continued to operate in Idlib province in northwest Syria, and AQ-aligned Ansar al-Islam also posed a threat in Egypt.
In Yemen, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS’s Yemen branch continued to exploit the security vacuum created by the ongoing conflict between the Republic of Yemen Government and Iran-backed Houthi militants, while also fighting one another. Additionally, the IRGC-QF and Hizballah continued to take advantage of the conflict to destabilise the region, including by providing weapons and training to Houthi militants who committed attacks against neighbouring states. AQAP used its tribal connections and public discontent with the Iran-backed Houthis to recruit new members, conduct attacks, and operate in areas of southern and central Yemen with relative impunity, although CT operations eliminated key leaders, pushed the group out of certain areas, and pressured the group’s networks. Though significantly smaller than AQAP, ISIS’s Yemen branch engaged in operations against AQAP and continued to claim attacks against Yemeni security forces and civilians, as well as Iran-backed Houthis.
Trouble continued to brew in South Asia over this past year, with terrorist attacks in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as in Sri Lanka. A February 14, 2019 suicide bombing against an Indian paramilitary convoy in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir led to military hostilities and heightened tensions between India and Pakistan. Although ISIS lost the last remnants of its territory in Syria in March, it announced new branches in Pakistan and India in May and claimed responsibility for the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka in April.
Although al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been seriously degraded, key figures among AQ’s global leadership, as well as its regional affiliate al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), continued to operate from remote locations in the region that historically served as safe havens.
Afghanistan continued to experience aggressive and coordinated terrorist attacks by ISIS’s branch in the region, ISIS Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), and by the Afghan Taliban, including the affiliated Haqqani Network (HQN). Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) retained full responsibility for security in Afghanistan and, in partnership with NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, took aggressive action against terrorist elements across Afghanistan. In offensives in late 2019, the ANDSF and the Taliban significantly degraded ISIS-K in Nangarhar province, denying ISIS territory, but the group continues to operate and regroup.
On the prevention side, the Christchurch Call to Action spearheaded by New Zealand has continued to gather great momentum. Not only is this initiative supported by dozens of countries, currently the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is the only Muslim majority nation to sign on, it is also supported by the world’s largest tech companies and service providers. This initiative continues to create a needed space in which nations and large corporations can share information and work on tackling the problem of violence and extremism in a more streamlined fashion.
As mentioned in the introduction, this has been a year like no other. While the aforementioned survey of critical issues are indeed major events of this past year, they must all be now read through the lens of COVID-19. At the advent of the outbreak, many thought that COVID-19 would become the great equaliser presenting the world with an opportunity to pause, reflect, think, and reform. However, what did in fact happen, and continues to happen, is that the virus accentuates pre-existing fault lines of rich and more; the haves and the have nots.
Bangladesh’s first case was reported on Mar. 8 2020, but COVID-19 was not detected in the camps until May 14. The COVID-19 pandemic represents a grave threat to the Rohingya community. Having fled decades of persecution by the Burmese military, the majority of Rohingya currently live in densely populated refugee camps in Bangladesh or in internal displacement camps in Rakhine State. Most are denied access to the internet, mobile phones, humanitarian aid, and sanitary conditions—all of which heighten the risk of infection and contagion. Since the emergence of the pandemic, both Myanmar and Bangladesh have come under international and domestic pressure to enact measures that would protect the Rohingya from widespread infection. While a major COVID-19 outbreak has thus far been avoided, several of the measures enforced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic—including internet bans, limitations on humanitarian access, and the denial of freedom of movement—risk further exacerbating the marginalization and exclusion of the Rohingya community, and threaten the Rohingya’s health and human rights over the long term.
The vast majority of Syrian refugees live in urban areas, intermixed with the host communities in Turkey (3.6 million), Lebanon (about 1 million), and Jordan (over 650,000). These refugees generally live in poverty on the margins of society and face loss of employment, livelihoods, shelter, and nutrition. COVID-19 has intensified abject poverty rates, gender-based violence, and xenophobia.
The virus also shrank an already fragile source of refugee income. Informal employment was already associated with exploitation and inadequate wages. The economic downturn more negatively affected Syrians than native Turks.
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region reported 112 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on July 30, 2020, the regional health commission was quoted as saying by the state-run Xinhua news agency. Of the 112 patients, one was in the Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture and the other 111 were in the regional capital Urumqi, 30 of whom were previously asymptomatic cases according to the commission. By July 30, Xinjiang had 523 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 108 asymptomatic cases. But here is the kicker: 12,416 people were still under medical observation. Further information is hard to come by.
Aside from the difficulties COVID-19 presents to these vulnerable Muslim populations, it has caused unprecedented challenges to the normal day-to-day practice of Islam. The first of these challenges was the closure of mosques for Friday congregation prayers, soon followed by total closures of mosques including closures for the five daily prayers. For the first time in centuries, the call to prayer from the minarets declared, “pray at home” instead of “hasten to the prayer.” These mosque closures also impacted other type of events that are typically associated with mosques: classes, Quran study, birth celebrations, and funeral prayers. The last one has especially been challenging as great restrictions are now in place for washing, shrouding, and burying bodies, all impacting the way Muslims carry on their day-to-day lives.
Soon after these closures took hold throughout March and the first half of April 2020, COVID-19 restrictions carried over to the observance of the holy month of Ramadan, which began on the eve of April 23, 2020. The mosque restrictions already in place indicated that this year’s Ramadan would be like no other. For the first time in modern history, daily tarawih prayers, iftar gatherings, and even Eid would be cancelled. Many Muslim-majority countries sought to address this deficit with increasing their religious programming on TV and online. Many affluent Muslim minorities followed suit by having their programing online as well, working hard to keep communities together and keep the spirit of Ramadan going.
Once Eid al-Fitr was a virtual experience, it became clear that the question on everyone’s mind was, “what will happen with Hajj?” Data from the Saudi General Authority for Statistics show that 2.49 million pilgrims took part in Hajj in 2019. Close to 75 percent of pilgrims came from abroad. More than two million Muslims from dozens of countries were planning on flying to Saudi Arabia in 2020 to take part in Hajj. Since the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, Hajj has never been cancelled. However, for the first time in the Kingdom’s history, on 23 June 2020, Saudi authorities announced Hajj would be held for a limited number of pilgrims who reside within the country due to the high risk of COVID-19. The Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umra imposed restrictions to the type of pilgrims who could attend Hajj in 2020, including banning older pilgrims from performing Hajj. Only around 10,000 pilgrims were chosen from the COVID-19 recovery database, 70% of them were non-Saudi residents. Again, another major Islamic ritual was impacted by COVID-19 and again, another Eid passed virtually.
At the time of this writing, it is impossible to fully understand and comprehend the toll that COVID-19 will have on Islam and Muslims around the world. However, it is clear that the following can be thought to be included in such an assessment. The plight of Muslim refugees (Syrian & Rohingya) and persecuted Muslim minorities (Rohingya & Uyghurs) will be negatively affected as they struggle to make new homes and new lives. While international attention is increasingly given to these situations, the tinder of COVID-19 amongst them can spark an enormous fire of xenophobia, further isolation, and persecution. In similar fashion, it is hard to conceive of Muslim prayers and other devotions resuming “normal” function anytime soon. There is no doubt that the global pandemic will further shape and in fluence how our prayers are gathered, how our Ramadan activities are run, and ultimately will take its biggest toll on the types of precautions that will be needed to successfully perform Hajj.
As I said in the beginning, another year passes, but a year like no other. To end on a positive note, I am reminded of two statements of our beloved Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace): “Strange is the affair of the believer, because it is always good. If happiness befalls them, they thank Allah, and it is best for them. If difficulty befalls them, they are patient, and this is best for them” (Muslim) The second is, “My community is like the rain: we don’t know if the beginning is good or the end” (Tirmidhi). This is, perhaps, the best advice as we end this uncertain year and begin another in the midst of the pandemic. Let us be patient knowing that the best is yet to come, insha’Allah.