A Selected Survey2022
by Tarek Elgawhary
This past year has been strange, to say the least. It is easy to get lost in the ebbs and flows of the global pandemic since even though much of our day-to-day lives has changed or in some cases seized altogether, the fact remains that life goes on and that the Muslim world still must deal with so many issues that are yet to be resolved.
There is no doubt that covid-19 has colored the entire Muslim world survey for this edition, and for this reason I decided to keep the same general outline and the same subheadings as last year. While there is some overlap with my assessment of 2021, there is also much new: new challenges, new opportunities, and always renewed hope for the future. To this end I am reminded of the saying of Imam Ali (may God be pleased with him) who said, “Morning surely shines for those who have vision.” Let this survey be a step towards the vision for a brighter future we are sure to have, in sha Allah.
PART I—MUSLIM WORLD SURVEY
MIDDLE EAST & NORTH AFRICA
As with all regions in our survey, this past year in the Middle East was marked by the covid-19 pandemic and the deep socio-economic toll it is taking on its people. In addition, the aftershocks from normalization of relations between Israel and several Arab states are still being felt and discussed.
The pandemic hit Iran and Turkey early, followed by Iraq and some of the Gulf states, but quickly spread throughout the region. Exact infection and mortality rates are hard to come by since there is no standard matrix for counting cases across the region, but the reality is that covid-19 has had a devastating effect throughout the Middle East. Many nations were proactive in putting health and lockdown provisions in place, attempting to limit the damage. Like much of the world, however, the region is bracing for a difficult winter season, with states trying to line up acquisition and distribution of vaccines during the remainder of 2021.
covid-19 also impacted the region’s economy, which contracted by an average of 5 percent, driving tens of millions into poverty, and millions into unemployment. The economic blow was the result of several factors: the slowdown of domestic economic activity because of lockdowns; the slowing of global demand; the exponential high negative impact on sensitive sectors such as the tourism and hospitality industry; and the collapse of oil prices. 2020 was the worst year economically in the past half-century, and the high levels of unemployment and poverty that prevailed before 2020 will most likely be worse throughout the rest of 2021. Most governments worked very hard to manage the crisis, but with limited resources, the pain has been widespread and unavoidable.
Troubled areas, such as Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Lebanon, many of which I discuss below, have been particularly hard hit. Economic contraction there is higher than the regional average estimated at around 13 percent, with no government or state institutions available to manage the crisis or ease the pain.
Geopolitically, the year will likely be remembered for the breakthrough agreements between Israel and several Arab states, which I discussed at some length in last year’s survey. With Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, the UAE, and Bahrain now having normalized relations with Israel, the old alignments and assumptions that defined the region for decades are deeply in flux, and of course the greatest question on everyone’s mind is what will become of the Palestinian people and the issue of Palestinian statehood.
For the past year and a half, Lebanon has been suffering from compounded crises: its dire economic and financial crises, the spread of covid-19 amongst its population, the tragic explosion at the port of Beirut on 4 August, 2020, and most recently its energy deficit.
Of these, the economic crisis has had by far the largest (and most persistent) negative impact. Lebanon is enduring a severe, prolonged economic depression: real GDP growth contracted by 20.3% in 2020 and inflation reached triple digits, while the exchange rate keeps losing value. Poverty is rising sharply, and its currency is collapsing just as fast.
The resulting inflation is disproportionately affecting the poor and middle class. The social impact, already dire, could become catastrophic; more than half the country’s population is likely below the poverty line; a higher share of households is facing challenges in accessing food, healthcare, and basic services; likewise poverty and unemployment are on the rise.
Meanwhile, like its regional neighbors, Lebanon is struggling to deal with the covid-19 pandemic through intermittent lockdowns and other measures that mitigate the impact of the virus both on people and the already weak health system. Vaccination, launched on 14 February, 2021, with initial financing from the World Bank, is progressing according to the National covid-19 Deployment and Vaccination Plan. This aims to vaccinate 70% of the total population, both citizens and non-citizens, in a multi-phase rollout by the end of the year. Efforts are underway to speed up the campaign through the procurement of vaccines via additional sources, including the private sector.
Stemming from many of the issues discussed in last year’s survey, the situation in Iran continues to be difficult. On the foreign policy front, the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign proved relentless. Even as Tehran took steps to tough it out, the combined cost of the American-led sanctions and an unresponsive political posture to public demands for change kept Iran on the edge of popular unrest throughout the year. Meanwhile, as with the rest of the world, the covid-19 pandemic hit Iran hard, but the situation was exacerbated due to sanctions. Domestic production and consumption and an increase in barter-type trade with neighboring states were meant to help Tehran circumvent U.S. sanctions, but the pandemic put a big damper on such hopes. While Tehran at first judged the pandemic as an opportunity to foster international sympathy to undermine the U.S. sanctions regime, the continued adherence of countries and companies around the world to American demands not to deal with Iran was another wakeup call for Tehran about its isolated and precarious foreign policy position.
Politically, worries about the health of 81-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei were another source of anxiety in the ranks of the regime. The pandemic meant that Khamenei only had a few public events or meetings with officials. The supreme leader is, after all, the epicenter of the regime and a fraying command-and-control structure would not only have implications inside Iran but also in the wider region as the U.S. and Iran remain locked in a standoff.
In June of 2021 Iran held a presidential election in which Ebrahim Raisi won 17.9 million votes overall, nearly 62% of the total 28.9 million cast. Following Raisi was former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei with 3.4 million votes. Former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati, largely viewed as a stand-in for outgoing President Hassan Rouhani in the election, came in third with 2.4 million votes. Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi was last with just under 1 million. Since the election there has been much discussion about what this means not only for Iran, but the West specifically since President Raisi was subjected to sanctions by the United States State Department in November of 2019 for alleged human rights violations.
This past year President Erdogan announced that Turkey would send troops to Libya to shore up the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. Erdogan threatened that Turkey would “teach a lesson” to Khalifa Haftar’s eastern Libyan forces if they did not stop their attacks against the Tripoli-based government. His announcement came after Turkey and Libya signed an agreement covering military cooperation and maritime boundaries in November 2019 as part of Ankara’s efforts to change the anti-Turkey status quo in the eastern Mediterranean led by Greece and Cyprus. Turkey’s move was condemned by several countries, including the U.S., Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, and Turkey drew further criticism when it transferred thousands of Syrian mercenaries to fight in Libya.
In February of this year, Turkey-Russia tensions in Syria came to a head when 33 Turkish forces were killed in an apparent Russian airstrike on the last rebel-held Syrian enclave of Idlib. Russia, which has been critical of Turkey’s failure to cleanse the enclave of jihadist forces, later said that Turkish troops were attacked while operating alongside jihadist fighters.
Energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey and Greece have overlapping claims, has been a flashpoint as well. Ankara’s drilling for natural gas in waters where the ethnically split Cyprus has economic rights rekindled tensions over regional energy reserves, and Turkey was once again the target of widespread condemnation. In solidarity with Greece and Cyprus, French President Emmanuel Macron urged Turkey to halt oil and gas exploration in disputed waters and deployed the French navy to the area. Soon afterwards, an American warship arrived at the Greek island of Crete to observe the escalating tension.
During this past year, Turkish activities inside Libya led to Haftar’s withdrawal from Libya’s west. Then, instead of escalating further, the foreign interveners pulled back from the brink, lowered the risk of regional war, enabling U.N.-organized negotiations to finally take place. By late October, a Libyan Joint Military Commission agreed to withdraw all military units and armed groups from frontlines and to have all mercenaries and foreign fighters depart from Libyan territory by the end of January 2021.
A new U.N.-convened 75-member Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) agreed on 15 November, 2021 to presidential and parliamentary elections to be held on 24 December, 2021, the 70th anniversary of Libya’s independence. This roadmap also includes the creation of a final one-year transition government under a new three-person Presidency Council to lead the transitional period toward elections, re-unify state institutions, and provide security and basic services to the population until the elections are held.
For Palestine and Palestinians, this past year made an already bad situation markedly worse. The outbreak of the global covid-19 pandemic devastated the already battered Palestinian economy, which was further compounded by Israel’s decision to withhold tax transfers collected on behalf of the PA that make up some two-thirds of its budget. Events came to a head when in response to the looming threat of Israeli annexation, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared an end to all signed agreements with Israel, including the once sacred pillar of PA-Israel security cooperation.
The announcements by the UAE and Bahrain, respectively, that they had agreed to fully normalize relations with Israel as part of the Trump administration-brokered Abraham Accords came as a further shock to both Palestinian leaders and the public, who condemned the deals as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause and a fatal blow to the Arab Peace Initiative.
Viewing the growing tide of Arab normalization with Israel as an existential threat to Palestinian national aspirations, Palestinian rival parties, Fatah and Hamas, along with other factions agreed to close ranks. As part of a reconciliation deal, Palestinian factions agreed to hold new presidential and legislative elections as well as elections for the Palestine National Council, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) long dormant parliament-in-exile. As with previous reconciliation efforts, however, the process soon stalled.
The death of longtime chief negotiator Saeb Erakat in November 2020 followed by the resignation of Hanan Ashrawi from the PLO Executive Committee a month later removed two of the PLO’s most experienced negotiators and underscored Abbas’ growing internal isolation. Meanwhile, as a goodwill gesture to the incoming Biden administration, and faced with the PA’s imminent financial ruin, Abbas’s leadership announced that the PA would resume all cooperation with Israel.
However, Trump’s electoral defeat in November 2020 seemed only to accelerate the administration’s scorched-earth policies. On 19 November, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to make an official visit to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, using the opportunity to announce yet another radical shift in U.S. policy. Under new rules of origin guidelines, Israeli products originating in West Bank areas under sole Israeli control, known as “Area C,” would henceforth be labelled as “made in Israel,” effectively conferring U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over some 60 percent of the West Bank. Closing out the Palestinians’ year of setbacks, on 10 December, 2020, Morocco became the fourth Arab country to formally normalize relations with Israel in as many months in return for U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.
An outbreak of violence broke out between Palestinians and Israelis on 10 May, 2021. It was marked by protests and police riot control, rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Israeli airstrikes targeting the Gaza Strip. The crisis was triggered on 6 May, when Palestinians began protests in East Jerusalem over an anticipated decision of the Supreme Court of Israel on the eviction of six Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah. Under international law, the area, effectively annexed by Israel, is a part of the occupied Palestinian territories. Israel applies its own laws there, however. On 7 May, Israelis stormed the compound of the al-Aqsa Mosque using tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades. The crisis prompted protests around the world and reactions from world leaders.
As a result of the violence, at least 256 Palestinians, including 66 children, were killed, 1, 900 Palestinians were injured and at least 72, 000 Palestinians displaced. In Israel, at least 13 people were killed, including two children and at least 200 Israelis were injured. A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas came into effect on 21 May 2021, ending 11 days of fighting with both sides claiming victory. Unfortunately, late in the summer of 2021, hostilities re-emerged with Israel pounding away at Gaza; however, international media remains largely silent.
As sub-Saharan African economies look to rebound following the covid-19 pandemic, some countries in the region may encounter fiscal troubles that could pose challenges to their economic recovery. South Africa and Angola, southern Africa’s major economies, are particularly vulnerable to debt crises. Southern Africa has grown slower than the rest of the continent since the global financial crisis, as both Angola and South Africa have racked up commercial debt to maintain extensive patronage networks linked to entrenched political elites. The lack of visionary political leadership will inhibit both countries from reaching the levels of economic growth required to rein in debt. Zambia, which defaulted on its Eurobond payments in November, must determine how to engineer an economic rebound while navigating election year politics and trying to engage positively with existing and prospective creditors that do not trust it.
Youth-led demonstrations against police brutality broke out in the year defining moment for the political consciousness of young Nigerians. The protests were the country’s largest in a generation and drew out tens of thousands of people in Lagos, its largest city. The demonstrations ended abruptly after an outbreak of violence prompted a heavy-handed crackdown by security forces, but they will likely have a lasting impact on the political landscape, starting with the 2023 elections. The protests could drive greater political engagement among the youth (under-35s), who make up around 75% of the population and 51% of registered voters but have tended to not vote in large numbers in previous elections. Also, an increasingly urban population promises to bring into focus structural issues like police reform, which in the past has taken a backseat to issues important to rural voters like the provision of basic needs
Economic challenges in Ghana, particularly from mounting energy sector debt, also pose a challenge to President Nana Akufo-Addo, who won reelection earlier this year. Another engagement with the IMF will be a last resort; instead, the government will look to issue new debt and to receive grants and debt relief from global financial institutions to mitigate fiscal pressures next year.
For Ethiopia, the war in Tigray (in tandem with existing and emerging unrest) and continued tension with Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), in addition to managing covid-19 have been the biggest headlines. Ethiopia was able to hold elections on 21 June, 2021, which was originally delayed from August of the previous year due to the global pandemic. On 10 July, partial election results were released with the Prosperity Party winning at least 410 seats, enough to secure the majority and remain in power.
When it comes to national security, terrorist attacks have considerably declined in the last few years. Yet, several bomb blasts in Baluchistan, an attack on an opposition party’s rally in Karachi, and an attempted attack on the Karachi Stock Exchange this year have revived concerns over the continued presence of terrorist outfits in the country. Such terrorist activities could pose problems for Pakistan in the future as, despite taking some measures against money laundering and terrorism financing, there is still a lot left to be done to remove Pakistan’s name from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list.
In contrast to its domestic policy, Pakistan’s foreign policy this past year was more coherent, mainly due to its improved civil-military relationship under the Imran Khan-led government. Specifically, Pakistan was able to secure its foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan and obtain a prominent role in the region by using its influence over the Taliban to facilitate the U.S.-Taliban talks in Doha and to provide support for the intra-Afghan dialogue. Throughout the year, key representatives from the Afghan government, including Afghan Peace Envoy Abdullah Abdullah and Gulbadeen Hekmatyar, as well as Zalmay Khalizad—the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan—made several important visits to Pakistan. The Taliban also had an official meeting in Islamabad just before the onset of the intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha. Having both political and economic stakes in fostering peace in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s current strategy seems to be to establish a new coalition government in Kabul with the Taliban having a significant share in power. Hence, Pakistani policymakers are apprehensive about the current stalemate in the dialogue process reflected in Imran Khan’s speech on his first official visit to Kabul—he explicitly supported a ceasefire between the two Afghan parties and urged to “do everything, whatever is possible” to establish peace in Afghanistan.
Twenty years after being removed from power in a U.S.-led invasion, Taliban militiamen swept to into Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul in mid-August 2021 facing little resistance from Afghan government forces. Within hours, Afghanistan’s Washington-backed president had left the country amid a hasty evacuation of diplomatic personnel. Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president, said on Facebook that his was "a hard choice," but that he decided to leave to prevent bloodshed. He signed off his post with "Long Live Afghanistan." The Taliban released a statement saying they had entered the capital of 6 million people and were working to restore law and order.
Following the collapse of the government, the militia’s fighters took the last remaining government stronghold of Mazar-e-Sharif, followed quickly by the city of Jalalabad, which lies just east of Kabul on a major road artery.
At the time of this writing, it is still too early to tell what exactly will become of Afghanistan, but it will most likely be our biggest story of the coming year!
The COVID-19 pandemic-ravaged Indonesia plunging the Muslim world’s largest nation into an economic recession. Indonesia’s caseload rose steadily during the first couple of months of the pandemic. By June 2020, Indonesia regularly recorded over 1,000 new cases daily. By September 2020, daily counts of over 3,000 and 4,000 cases were the norm. Unable to suppress the country’s caseload, the government’s focus turned to vaccine procurement. It most notably allowed Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac to carry out advanced clinical trials of a promising vaccine candidate on 1,600 participants in Bandung, West Java starting in August 2020. Despite the absence of a regulatory approval, Indonesia received a shipment of 1.2 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine on 6 December, 2020, with 1.8 million more to follow in January 2021 along with the raw materials for Indonesia to independently produce 45 million doses. On 16 December, 2020 President Joko Widodo announced that Indonesians will not have to pay for the covid-19 vaccine once it became available. Aside from Sinovac, the government has approved the future uses of five other vaccines, namely those produced by Bio Farma, Astra Zeneca, Sinopharm, Moderna, and Pfizer. Due to all these efforts, economists are predicting that Indonesia will pull out of the recession by the end of 2021 due to their vaccine rollout plan.
Despite public health concerns, nine provinces, 37 cities, and 224 regencies went to the polls on 9 December, 2020 for the annual simultaneous regional elections (Pilkada) in Indonesia. The elections were initially scheduled to take place in September of the same year.
President Joko Widodo’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, beat his competitor in the race for mayor in Solo, Central Java, winning 86.5 percent of the votes. Jokowi notably led the city before making the step up as Jakarta governor and eventually to the presidency. Jokowi’s son-in-law, Bobby Nasution, also won with 53.5 percent of the votes in the North Sumatra capital of Medan. Despite their insistence otherwise, Bobby and Gibran’s victories have signaled the birth of a new political dynasty in Indonesia. Neither had any political experience prior to the elections.
Malaysia's Muhyiddin Yassin stepped down as prime minister in August 2021 after months of political turmoil culminated in the loss of his majority, but his resignation is likely to open another chapter of instability in the absence of any obvious successor. Muhyiddin's resignation ends a tumultuous 17 months in office, the shortest stint of a Malaysian leader, but hampers efforts to reboot a pandemic-stricken economy and curb a resurgence of covid-19 infections.
Muhyiddin said he resigned along with his cabinet after losing majority support in parliament. As caretaker, he added, he will have no cabinet, but will perform executive functions and advise the king until a new prime minister is appointed. "I hope a new government can be formed immediately so that the administration of this country is not disrupted," he said in a televised speech.
Shortly after his resignation in fact, King al-Sultan Abdullah appointed Ismail Sabri Yaakob. The King ruled out elections because of the pandemic, saying he would invoke his constitutional power to appoint a prime minister he believes is likely to command a majority.
Muhyiddin said the recent crisis was brought on by his refusal of demands such as dropping graft charges against some individuals. UMNO politicians faced with corruption charges include former premier Najib Razak and party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. They have denied wrongdoing and were among those who withdrew support for Muhyiddin in August 2021. this month.
EUROPE / OCEANIA / AMERICAS
In November 2020 Donald Trump was defeated by Joe Biden in the US presidential elections. With regards to his relationship with Muslims as president, Donald Trump implemented a travel ban that many saw as fulfilling his promise to bar Muslims. The ban targeted largely Muslim-majority countries. In his time in office, he frequently retweeted anti-Muslim videos from a far-right British group and told four progressive congresswomen of color, two Muslim, to go back to where they came from. It is no surprise, then, that more Muslim Americans voted for Biden than for Trump. An Associated Press exit poll showed 35% of Muslims voted for Trump and 64% for Joe Biden. While Muslims make up a small percentage of the population, their vote is key in states such as Michigan; Biden won Michigan by about 155,000 votes. Trump won Michigan in 2016 by under 11,000.
However, overall, there was a weakening of support of Muslims for the Democratic ticket. The biggest predictor of whether a Muslim supported Trump was not education or income, but race. One survey found 50% of Muslims who identified as white supported Trump, much like the general population. Among Arabs, Asians and Latinos identifying as Muslims that percentage dropped into the 20s and among Black Muslims the teens.
Much like the general population, Trump-supporting Muslims cited the economy as a top issue. They also were more likely to oppose building coalitions with Black Lives Matter, and instead they expressed support for building coalitions with religious conservatives working on religious liberty issues.
As I discussed in last year’s survey, the BLM movement and other related social movements in the United States are growing fault lines within the Muslim community. It is definitely an issue we will want to observe closely over the next five years.
FRENCH HIJAB BAN ISSUE
The conflict over one woman’s choice to cover her head comes in the wake of controversy surrounding an amendment passed by the French Senate that would ban girls under 18 from wearing the hijab in public. As part of a proposed “anti-separatism” bill, it was presented alongside amendments that would also prevent mothers from wearing hijabs on their children’s school trips and would ban the “burkini,” a full-body swimsuit.
While some French politicians defended the amendment as a reinforcement of the country’s adherence to secularism, others have criticized it as yet another instance of part of an ugly strain of Islamophobia in the nation, which is home to the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, a population used to intense forms of discrimination, particularly in recent years. A 2019 report conducted by the Commission Nationale Consultative Des Droits De L’Homme found that 44.6% of the country considered Muslims a threat to French national identity, while a government survey from the same year listed that 42% of Muslims reported experiencing discrimination due to their religion, a number that increased to 60% for women who wore a headscarf.
While the proposed legislation still needs to be approved by the lower house of French Parliament before it can become a law, it has already drawn significant backlash from many Muslim women around the world, who see the law as not only xenophobic and discriminatory, but an attack on their agency—a sentiment that has grown over the years as French politicians have argued that laws restricting religious symbolism are in service of women’s empowerment and public safety. On social media, the hashtag #HandsOffMyHijab has become a rallying cry to protest the amendment, started by Somali-Norwegian model Rawdah Mohamed, who used the phrase in a now-viral Instagram post to call out the potential ban. It’s since garnered support from the likes of U.S. congresswoman Ilhan Omar and Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.
PART II—Major Issues Facing the Global Muslim Population
covid-19 has brought vast changes and challenges to the Rohingya humanitarian response, particularly humanitarian operations in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar District, which were already complex before the onset of the pandemic. Bangladesh confirmed the first cases of covid-19 in early March 2020, and the virus reached the Rohingya camps two months later.
In early 2020, the UN and NGO partners, together with the Government of Bangladesh, mobilized to respond to the pandemic. The covid-19 Response Plan covering the period April to December 2020 set out a strategy, plan and additional requirements totaling USD 181 million. It also expanded host community support to an additional half a million Bangladeshis in Cox’s Bazar District with targeted interventions in the areas of health, wash coverage, food security and livelihoods during this unprecedented time.
Early in the covid-19 response, the Government of Bangladesh took decisive action—with the full support of the humanitarian community—to reduce operations to critical activities only and limit the number of humanitarian staff going to the camps, mitigating the risks, slowing the spread, and providing a critical window of time to prepare for the onset of the virus.
The pandemic has brought a new threat to these overcrowded conditions. Many refugees live in flimsy bamboo and tarpaulin shelters where the dangers of everyday life remain all too real. On 22 March, 2021, a fire in Cox’s Bazar caused widespread devastation when it quickly spread across four Rohingya refugee camps, displacing around 50,000 refugees—half of whom were children.
In Myanmar, most Rohingya still have no legal identity or citizenship and remain stateless, a significant concern. Rohingya children in the Rakhine State are hemmed in by violence, forced displacement, and restrictions on freedom of movement. Compounding the problem, insecurity and instability increased in 2020, with significant displacement and increased conflict in Rakhine and Chin States, continuing conflict in Shan State, and hardening of positions by ethnic armed organizations and the Myanmar Armed Forces. Until the conditions are in place in Myanmar that would allow Rohingya families to return home with basic rights—safety from violence, citizenship, free movement, health and education—they are stuck as refugees or internally displaced persons living in overcrowded and sometimes dangerous conditions.
Older children and adolescents who are deprived of opportunities to learn or make a living are at real risk of becoming a “lost generation”, ready prey to traffickers and those who would exploit them for political or other ends. Girls and women are at particular risk of sexual and other gender-based violence in this situation, including being forced into early marriage and being left out of school as parents keep them at home.
One ray of hope is that approval to introduce the Myanmar Curriculum in the camps was granted by the Government of Bangladesh in January 2020. The aim is to transition children in the camps to the Myanmar Curriculum in the coming years.
The Chinese government continues to detain more than a million Muslims in re-education camps. Most of the people who have been arbitrarily detained are Uyghur, a predominantly Turkic-speaking ethnic group primarily from China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Australian researchers have already mapped 380 suspected detention facilities scattered across Xinjiang, based on media reports, government documents, and their own review of satellite data. RAND's team started there and then focused in on how nighttime lighting in these locations have changed dramatically, an indication of massive activity. They saw the same pattern, again and again, starting in earnest in 2016: the glaring lights of construction work, followed by the steady glow of a new prison or detention center.
In fact, lighting kept increasing at nearly half of the facilities through at least mid-2020, an indication that they were not just active, but growing. At most other facilities, lighting levels stayed steady, or declined some, but never dimmed to where they had been before. That suggested to the researchers that those facilities were still operating, but possibly at reduced capacity.
The facilities that slowed down seemed to be mostly lower-security re-education sites. Those that grew looked more like prisons, with high walls spiked with barbed wire. That may indicate that China's approach shifted in 2019 and 2020, from the short-term detention and re-education of Uyghur people to long-term incarceration.
In June 2021, lawyers for the East Turkistan Government in Exile (ETGE) and the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement (ETNAM), submitted further evidence to the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) to the International Criminal Court (ICC), asking for an investigation to be opened against senior Chinese leaders for genocide and crimes against humanity allegedly committed against the Uyghur and other communities. This comes after the 14th of December 2020, when the OTP to the ICC confirmed that it could not take further the case of the Uyghurs. In its report, the OTP stated that there was no basis to proceed at this time.
As China is not a party to the Rome Statute, and hence, the ICC does not have the territorial jurisdiction over the crimes allegedly perpetrated there, the communication advances the argument, earlier used in the case of Myanmar/Bangladesh, that part of the criminal conduct occurred within the territory of a state party to the Rome Statute.
The new information submitted to the ICC includes evidence suggesting that “Uyghurs have been targeted, rounded up, deported and disappeared from Tajikistan back into Xinjiang by Chinese operatives.” As the lawyers argue, this evidence is to show that Chinese authorities “have directly intervened” in Tajikistan. Reportedly, the gathered evidence is further to show that the last 10-15 years have seen the number of Uyghurs in Tajikistan reducing from an estimated 3,000 to approximately 100. The largest decrease occured between 2016 and 2018.
While the evidence submitted to the ICC concerns the situations in Tajikistan and Cambodia, news of similar treatment of the Uyghurs elsewhere continue to emerge. By the end of July 2021 media outlets reported that Moroccan authorities arrested Idris Hasan, a Uyghur activist in exile, because of a Chinese terrorism warrant distributed by Interpol. Reportedly, he is to be forcibly returned to China where he will likely face arbitrary detention and torture. This risk of mistreatment is supported by in-depth research of several organizations warning about the dire treatment of the Uyghurs in China. According to them, Uyghurs are subjected to killings, mass incarceration in camps, torture and abuse, rape and sexual violence, separation of children from their parents, forced sterilizations, forced abortions, forced labor and much more. The Chinese government continues to deny these atrocities.
In the aftermath of the massacre against Muslim worshippers in Christchurch city in New Zealand in March 2019 up until end of 2020, the major trend driving Islamophobia has kept on the rise, not only in Western countries, but also quite elsewhere around the world. Several factors have been identified as the main contributors to such a worrisome trend: mounting far-right ideologies, refugee crises, immigration, negative perceptions amid adherents of different faiths, and provocative rhetoric by some media. Nevertheless, it was quite relieving to note that following the New Zealand incident, significant measures and efforts have been deployed around the globe towards ensuring better protection of Muslims and other minorities.
The U.S. and Europe still stand as the major hot spots of Islamophobia, where the trend of Islamophobia is most disturbing as evidenced by the number of incidents such as mosque burning, provocative statements in social media, mail threats, Holy Qur’an burning and desecration, insults of Prophet Mohammed (God bless him and give him peace), physical assaults, and verbal abuses. Both in the U.S. and Europe, the Islamophobic trend has been mostly marked by the growing popularity of right-wing parties and movements, evolving into a global wave of anti-Establishment, ultra-nationalism, and the mushrooming of extreme right-wing parties. For instance, a growing number of European countries today see the dominant influence of far-right parties, i.e., Hungary (Fidesz), Poland (Law and Justice), the Netherlands (Freedom Party-PVV), the Czech Republic (Ano), France (National Rally), Italy (Five-Star Movement and Northern League), Germany (Alternative for Germany-AfD), Austria (Freedom Party-FPO), and so on. Beyond America and Europe, India and Sri Lanka are two notable cases to watch closely. In certain countries like China and Myanmar, the issue of Islamophobia is closely intertwined with other issues i.e., politics, human rights, minorities, culture, identity, humanitarian, separatism, terrorism, extremism, etc.
At the time of this writing the covid-19 pandemic yields devastating repercussions worldwide. Anti-Muslim groups in some countries have tapped the crisis to fuel hatred towards Muslims. Social media is inundated with claims of Muslims breaching the lockdown by continuing to attend mosques to pray, due to which many Muslims have been attacked. Some Islamophobic leaders also used the Coronavirus crisis as a tool to further their agenda against Muslims. In India, for example, Islamophobic elements emerged starkly when cases of covid-19 were reported at a Tablighi Jamaat event due to which Hashtags #CoronaJihad and #BioJihad were trending on Twitter. Consequently, fake stories blaming Muslims for spreading the virus in the country started circulating on social media, casting Muslims as a threat to the nation. Elsewhere, since the outbreak of the pandemic, incidents of violent attacks against Muslims have reportedly redoubled in many countries.
Meanwhile, a changing pattern of Islamophobia was seen on a hijab-related issue. During the few months since February 2020, phobia against Hijab and Burqa declined very significantly, probably due to the world-wide campaign to wear face masks as part of the personal protective gear against Coronavirus. Despite the ban on women’s headdress being still in force in at least 14 (fourteen) countries i.e., France, Belgium, Norway, Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Bulgaria, Latvia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the policy’s enforcement has softened, if not vanished completely. There are even indications that some might review the policy in the foreseeable future.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) organized a high-level meeting on 17 March, 2021, to highlight the efforts aimed at declaring March 15 of each year as an international day to combat Islamophobia, as part of the activities of the Islamic Group at the United Nations in New York.
OIC Secretary General, Dr. Yousef bin Ahmed al-Othaimeen, called on all Members of the United Nations and international and regional organizations to support the designation of 15 March as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia. He stressed that this would be an opportunity for the international community to reiterate its commitment to fight anti-Muslim hatred and religious discrimination and to promote the values of tolerance, understanding, inter-faith harmony and solidarity.
In West Africa and the Horn of Africa jihadist groups are gaining momentum, a trend that will likely continue well into next year. Many of the nations most at risk of suffering terrorist attacks are now located in Africa, a shift in the counterterrorism center of gravity from the Middle East. Even as the Islamic State’s physical caliphate has been destroyed in Iraq and Syria, the group continues to expand through affiliates, especially throughout Africa where it now maintains provinces in West Africa (ISWAP), the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and Central Africa (ISCAP). Al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked jihadists have destabilized countries that had previously escaped the scourge of terrorism, including Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and Mozambique.
These groups will most likely intensify their operations through the end of 2021, reminding the West that counterterrorism operations will need to remain a priority. A Kenyan al-Shabaab operative was recently charged with planning a 9/11-style attack after taking flying lessons in the Philippines and researching potential targets in the United States. This case demonstrates that al-Qaeda and its affiliates remain committed to attacking Western nations on their home soil. These groups’ efforts could look to accelerate in 2021, especially if resources from counterterrorism are diverted to other pressing needs, including public health.
Western policymakers have repeatedly declared both al-Qaeda and ISIS weak and defeated without factoring in that reducing their core territories in South Asia and the Middle East, respectively, does not necessarily have a decidedly negative impact on regional branches. While it is true that the core leadership of both organizations suffered a series of setbacks in 2020, their affiliate groups in sub-Saharan Africa have grown stronger. Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) in the Sahel and al-Shabaab in Somalia have accelerated their operational tempo, demonstrating an impressive range of operational and organizational capabilities. ISIS affiliates Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) were progressively featured more frequently in core ISIS propaganda last year according to a report by the United Nations published in mid-February 2021.
On 24 February, 2021, an attack killed Luca Attanasio, Italy’s ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), when a UN convoy was ambushed by rebels. The attack was not attributed to ISCAP, which is active in the DRC, but it demonstrated the ability of non-state actors to operate in failed states with relative impunity. In Nigeria, on 23 February, 2021, ISWAP launched multiple operations against Nigerian security forces in Borno, including suicide attacks, claiming to kill and wound dozens. ISWAP also captured a Nigerian military base for the first time in several years just days earlier.
In fact, one of the curious aspects of ISWAP and ISCAP’s recent successes, including the latter’s October 2020 jailbreak in Congo freeing more than 1,000 inmates and capturing a key Mozambican port weeks earlier, is that ISWAP has not released photosets or videos of some of its major attacks, whereas previously it would be expected to do so. In Mozambique, ISCAP has significantly decreased its propaganda production in recent weeks. One explanation for this change is that these two groups are aware of U.S. and allies’ destruction of ISIS’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq and are being more cautious about revealing the extent of their territories in sub-Saharan Africa to avoid drawing back U.S. attention when it is focused elsewhere. ISIS propaganda was critical to leading the United States to intervene in Syria and Iraq, especially when Americans were killed. The recent decision by ISWAP and ISCAP to limit propaganda output could be a deliberate attempt to keep Western militaries at bay.
Al-Qaeda in Africa, like ISIS, seeks to eventually control territory, and, in significant parts of the Sahel and Somalia, al-Qaeda’s affiliates have already achieved this goal. In contrast to ISIS, JNIM is attempting to call for negotiations that would involve foreign forces, primarily France, to withdraw from the Sahel. These demands appear to be based closely on the model for negotiations being pursued by the Taliban in Afghanistan. If JNIM achieves this, then it would not be unforeseeable for al-Shabaab to follow its—and therefore the Taliban’s—lead. The result would be several regions where jihadists make significant gains in governance, although as noted above, jihadist groups are more cautious about openly holding territory and featuring it in propaganda for fear of increased counterterrorism pressure. Where they do seek to hold territory, they are doing so incrementally. Likewise, even when they have flirted with negotiations, jihadists have been careful to avoid any actions that would make them appear to legitimize the international community.
The success enjoyed by jihadist groups in sub-Saharan Africa is juxtaposed with struggles encountered by al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates elsewhere. Overall, their core leaderships have been weakened. Because of that, both organizations have sought to rely more on the momentum of their respective affiliates. One thing is clear: Al-Qaeda and ISIS are ascendant in sub-Saharan Africa, and they both want the United States and its allies to remain focused elsewhere.
THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA
In both North Africa and the Middle East, several developments could increase terrorism in certain parts. With the United States drawing down forces in the Middle East, South Asia, and throughout Africa, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS), and their respective affiliates could make a renewed push to capture new territory and destabilize countries and regions. Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Nigeria are home to jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS. Even with the current state of its leadership in question with uncertainty surrounding the health of Ayman al-Zawahiri and the recent assassination of al-Qaeda veteran Muhammad al-Masri, 2021 could prove to be a critical year for al-Qaeda as it seeks to reassert itself through affiliates around the globe.
As Western nations continues to shift resources and redeploy troops in various theatres, there could be openings for terrorist and insurgent groups to take advantage of potential power vacuums. In Syria, while the Bashar al-Assad regime has consolidated control over critical territory, Idlib Province is dominated by terrorist groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the al-Qaeda-linked Hurras al-Din. covid-19 did little to slow the pace of operations of Islamic State attacks in Syria. In all of 2019, there were 144 total attacks, but through the first three quarters of 2020, ISIS managed to conduct 126 attacks, expanding significantly in southern Raqqa and eastern Hama. This year may present more, not fewer, opportunities for terrorist groups to recruit and launch strikes throughout the Levant.
In Iraq, Iran has already moved to increase its influence by supporting various Shia militias groups throughout the country. Encroaching Iranian influence could push Iraqi Sunnis, however begrudgingly, back into the arms of the Islamic State, in a replay of a phenomenon that has played out several times in recent years. As a state sponsor of terrorism, Iran may also look to increase its support to various proxies, especially if the regime in Tehran feels threatened by a shifting geopolitical alignment in the Middle East defined by warming relations between Israel and Sunni Arab nations in the Gulf.
In late December 2020, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif caused a stir when he suggested that the Iranian-trained Liwa Fatemiyoun, currently fighting in Syria, could be deployed to Afghanistan to help a future Afghan government with counterterrorism operations. With the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, there are growing concerns that the Taliban will come to dominate the country once again, either resulting from a negotiated political settlement or by reverting to a full-blown insurgency and continuing to collaborate closely with transnational terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda.
The US withdrawal of all forces from Afghanistan discussed above will have dramatic effects on extremism in the country and the region. There already is an underlying ISIS-linked terrorist threat as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) is already hostile to and in conflict with the Taliban. The airport bombing of late August 2021 already highlights this.
Meanwhile, Kabul’s security has been placed in the hands of Haqqani Network commander Khalil Haqqani — one of America’s most wanted terrorists, currently subject to a $5 million bounty. While Khalil Haqqani may be operating under the Taliban’s umbrella, his elevation in Kabul should be taken as a very concerning sign regarding prospects for an al-Qaeda recovery in the months and years to come.
ROHINGYA & COVID-19
Globally, the covid-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented short and long-term social and economic disruptions, while case numbers and deaths have soared around the world. As the acute, initial phase of the outbreak and the response to it around the world now moves into a protracted phase, there is an opportunity for reflection on and improvement of responses to the covid-19 outbreak.
In early 2020, Cox’s Bazar Rohingya refugee camps were identified to be at high risk to experience the negative impacts of the pandemic, given the highly congested areas and poor living conditions in addition to the high levels of vulnerability among the Rohingya refugees and the Bangladeshi communities, and a national healthcare system that was already under severe strain before the covid-19 pandemic. This prompted humanitarian partners in Cox’s Bazar to initiate preparations for the covid-19 pandemic months before the first confirmed case in the country.
The first covid-19 cases in the district of Cox’s Bazar were confirmed in March 2020, while the virus reached the refugee camps in May when the first Rohingya patient was admitted to one of the newly established Severe Acute Respiratory Infection Isolation (SARI) and Treatment Centers (ITCs) in the camps. In the months prior, humanitarian actors and implementing partners, under the leadership of national and local government authorities and with support from WHO, have therefore outlined and implemented key public health interventions to try and limit the direct and indirect burdens of covid-19, to guide the response and provide the best attainable care in Cox’s Bazar complex setting for those at risk or infected. In close collaboration with all partners and key stakeholders, response activities were implemented across eleven identified thematic pillars of the national covid-19 response both in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, where nearly 890,000 Rohingya live—most of them since 25 August 2017—as well as in the nearby host communities.
Thankfully in `August 2021 over 4,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, received their first covid-19 vaccine, as part of a national vaccination drive to curb the spread of the deadly virus. Rohingya refugees eligible for vaccination in the first cohort include some 48,000 individuals over 55 years of age. Equitable inclusion of Rohingya refugees in allocation of vaccines is critical to curbing the spread of the ongoing pandemic.
The vaccination drive for Rohingya refugees is being led by the Bangladesh authorities with technical support from the UN Refugee Agency, the World Health Organization and other humanitarian partners.
The fight against the pandemic has been led by thousands of refugee and host community volunteers who have worked since 2020 on informing refugees about health and hygiene, monitoring any signs of illness, and connecting the refugee community with critical health services. While the threat of covid-19 remains critical, their efforts have helped to prevent and curb outbreaks and have saved lives.
The vaccinations follow the devastating monsoon rains that hit Cox’s Bazar District throughout the summer of 2021, causing flash floods and landslides which killed eight Rohingya refugees and 15 Bangladeshis in the host communities. Almost 25,000 refugees were displaced due to landslides, flooding, wind, and storms. Thousands of facilities have been damaged including primary health clinics, distribution points and latrines. Access was hindered due to damage to roads, pathways, and bridges.
UNHCR’s Emergency Response Teams, and partners, refugee and host community volunteers were deployed to assess the damage, to provide support to families forced to relocate, to begin immediate repairs of shelters and other site improvements and to ensure access to essential services for all. While the weather has improved, the monsoon season will continue for another couple of months followed by the cyclone season.
SYRIAN REFUGEES & COVID-19
Like our brothers and sisters amongst the Rohingya, Syrian refuges have also found themselves in a double bind vis-à-vis covid-19. Particularly, Syrian refugees in Lebanon have several vulnerability factors that directly or indirectly affect covid-19 transmission dynamics and increase their risk of potentially large outbreaks. These factors related to crowding, inadequate water supply and sanitation, inadequate access to health care, low prioritization from the host nation, stigma, and fear of legal consequences, among others, are also common, to Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and to most refugee populations worldwide.
On the other hand, evidence is mounting regarding the protective effect of younger age on covid-19 transmission dynamics. It is predicted that settings with predominantly younger age cohorts and a sizable children population may experience smaller and relatively slow epidemics, while settings with sizable adult and/or elderly populations are likely to experience large and rapid epidemics in the absence of interventions. With only 2% of the Syrian refugees worldwide being over 60 years of age (2.6% in Lebanon), and as much as 45% being less than 18 years (55% in Lebanon), the age structure of this population may be favorable for a smaller epidemic. The younger demographic profile is also a protective factor for the burden of severe disease and mortality among those infected. However, it is not yet clear whether the favorable age structure of refugees will outweigh the other risk factors that modulate high transmission dynamics within refugee populations. Mathematical modelling analyses taking into consideration these opposing factors would be able to predict the true scale and burden of covid-19 epidemics in specific refugee populations.
However, even if the younger age of refugee populations may play a protective role, this should not lead to complacency. The infection burden in terms of morbidity and mortality has been shown to be not insignificant even among younger age groups. For example, in the US, there was a 19% increase in all-cause mortality among adults aged 25 to 44 years during the pandemic, and covid-19 accounted for about 40% of this excess mortality. If a covid-19 epidemic is established among refugees, it would still cause a heavy toll given all the vulnerability factors and the resource-poor healthcare infrastructure available to this population. Therefore, to prevent exacerbation of the current humanitarian crisis and catastrophic consequences, local and international actors and stakeholders should urgently mobilize and coordinate efforts to prevent the transmission of covid-19 and mitigate its impact amongst the vulnerable refugee populations globally. Special consideration also needs to be given to refugee populations when prioritizing vaccine deployment. In Lebanon, UNHCR has recently strengthened its preparedness to respond to covid-19 by implementing a strategy integrated within the national response. This includes setting up isolation facilities, expanding hospital capacity, covering all testing and treatment costs for refugee patients, as well as engaging communities and raising awareness. These efforts need to be sustained and expanded as the country is currently experiencing major epidemic expansion which may have devastating consequences if it affects the refugee population.
Out of the 47,000 refugees who are eligible for the covid-19 vaccine living in Jordan’s refugee camps, 13,455 – representing 30 percent of the eligible population—have now received at least their first dose of the covid-19 vaccine, UNHCR Jordan can confirm.
Although Za’atari, Azraq and the Emirati-Jordanian camp are home to about 120,000 refugees, the exclusion of children under 18 and pregnant women from taking the vaccine means that only 47,000 refugees are currently eligible to register for and receive the vaccine. The Jordanian Ministry of Health has been working tirelessly to roll out the vaccination campaign since the start of the year. The Emirati Red Crescent has led the vaccination campaign in the Emirati-Jordanian camp.
On 25 May 2021, a record 1,558 refugees were vaccinated in a single day in Za'atari camp. Two vaccination centers operate in the camp, as well as one in Azraq camp.
In addition, over 20,000 refugees are currently registered on the Jordanian Ministry of Health platform and are awaiting their vaccination appointments.
China’s largest coronavirus outbreak in months appears to have emerged in a factory in Xinjiang linked to forced labor and the government’s controversial policies towards Uyghur residents. More than 180 cases of covid-19 documented in late October 2020 in Shufu county, in southern Xinjiang, can be traced back to a factory that was built in 2018 as part of government “poverty alleviation” efforts, a campaign that researchers and rights advocates describe as coercive. Under the initiative, Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the far-western region are tracked and given work placements that they have little choice but to take up.
Other than this basic sketch, it is nearly impossible to ascertain the precise impact of covid-19 on the Uyghurs.
And there it is, a year clouded in pandemic, yet still moving and moving, but to where? In reflecting on our ancient history, the Muslim world has survived pandemics many times before and has thrived because of them. I have no doubt that the resilience Islam gives us will persevere and that tomorrow will be brighter than today, in sha Allah!
Dr Tarek Elgawhary is a scholar of Islam and comparative religions having studied at both Princeton University and al-Azhar Seminary. His writings and thoughts on life, Islam, and mindfulness can be found at www.makingsenseofislam.com.
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.