Fear and Injustice Continues 10 Years After Gujarat Riots

Gujarat Riots India

Rafatjhan Meiuddin Shaikh looks on at the refugee settlement 'Citizen Nagar' for Muslims affected by the Gujarat riots near a landfill in the Dani Limda area of Ahmedabad on February 26, 2012. (SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)

The image of Qutubuddin Ansari is seared into my memory of one of the darkest days in India’s history. Mr. Ansari’s pleading to be spared from the vicious mobs is a reminder of the injustice that continues after the month-long outbreak of violence that resulted in the killing of at least 2,000 women, men and children, mostly Muslims, and the rape of significant numbers of women and girls, in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

The photographer, Arko Datta of Reuters, remembered that moment: “There were youths armed with swords, knifes and spears from Hindu neighborhoods crossing over, setting fire to Muslim homes and shops. I just looked back at for a moment and saw him standing in the first floor of a building, just a few hundred feet away from me. He was pleading, pleading for help.” Ten years after the riots, the families of the murdered victims, the victims of the rape and sexual violence and the 21,000 people still in “relief camps” still plead for justice.

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Increase in Crimes Against Muslims

We are deeply concerned about the growing number of reports of crimes committed against Muslims and of other anti-Muslim sentiment and activity in the United States.

Amnesty International deplores the stabbing of a Muslim cab driver in New York, the arson attack against a mosque construction site in Tennessee and the vandalizing of an Islamic center in California. These crimes, together with activities such as the proposed “International Burn a Qu’ran Day” sponsored by a Florida church and protests against mosques in other cities, foster a climate of fear, discrimination and persecution against Muslims.  They have no place in a society that values freedom, justice and equality.

Amnesty International has long worked to promote and defend the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which includes the right to manifest one’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching, either individually or in community with others, in public or in private.  We call for an end to rhetoric and actions that discriminate against any faith and stands in solidarity with all those anywhere who are persecuted for their real or perceived beliefs or identity.

Amnesty International urges authorities in the United States to take strong action against attacks directed at people of the Muslim faith. In a climate of fear and perceived external threat, it is essential that the authorities step up measures to ensure that people from all communities, whether citizens or not, are equally protected.  U.S. authorities should continue to denounce intimidation and attacks against Muslims and make clear that crimes of hate and discrimination will not be tolerated.

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Life Itself Is a Celebration…Unless You're Killed in a Pogrom

The Gujarat state government website features a smiling Chief Minister Narendra Modi touting how “life itself is a celebration” in his state.  Wow, this sounds to me like a swell time to be had by all in Gujarat!  But I guess someone forgot to tell that to the thousands whose lives were irreparably harmed during the pogroms against Muslims in the state in late February and early March 2002. Exactly 8 years ago.

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My Name Is Khan and I'm Not a Terrorist

UPDATE: Shiv Sena, a political organization with waning popularity, has been actively campaigning against this film.  Given the recent history of Shiv Sena, one can only assume that this movie has been targeted because the lead actor, Shah Rukh Khan is Muslim and he is portraying a Muslim who has suffered discrimination.  Today, there has been a noticeable increase in security in Mumbai, but no plans to cancel screenings.  On the contrary, it seems as though this controversy has caused an upsurge in excitement over the movie.

A blog about human rights is not normally a place to read about upcoming movies, but you all should have a look at the Bollywood movie “My Name Is Khan” scheduled for release tonight (2/12/2010).  The movie is about a Muslim man (played by mega Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan) who grew up in a Muslim neighborhood (but secular family) in Bombay (now known as Mumbai), immigrates to America and falls in love with the person who becomes his wife (played by another mega Bollywood superstar Kajol). Oh, here’s the trailer:

So the wrinkle is that Shah Rukh Khan’s character has Asperger’s Syndrome (a mild form of autism) and so has trouble fitting in.  Despite that, things were going really swimmingly until 9/11 results in he and his family being targeted repeatedly because of their Muslim faith.  There is discrimination and racial profiling complicated by Khan’s Asperger’s Syndrome.  The seminal moment comes when Khan is in secondary screening at the airport and he says “My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist.”

Of course, this being a Bollywood movie, there will still be some uniquely Bollywood touches like Khan somehow ending up in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and the over the top romantic element.  But, unfortunately, there are no song and dance routines which often substitutes for quality acting in many of Bollywood’s output.  Despite that, those interested in how foreigners view the United States after 9/11 albeit in a rather un-nuanced way, cannot go wrong with this movie.  It also shows quite graphically how it feels to be discriminated against in your adopted country.

Obama's Speech and the Arab Reaction

In the immediate aftermath of President Obama’s speech today in Cairo, the heavy web traffic of discussion among Arab activists was divided essentially into two camps.  One person claimed that the speech could have been given by George W. Bush.  Another compared it to Sadat’s historic trip to Jerusalem.

It’s not that either opinion is wrong – either may be proved right – but it was the nature of this talk from the very beginning that its meaning won’t be known for years down the road.  For what will make it historic (or not) is not the rhetoric of the speech but the policies that follow it (or don’t).

For one, I don’t believe this was a talk that George W. could have given, although it did share much of the same language on democracy that Bush stubbornly adhered to long after his own policies made shreds of any hope for it.

Midway through Obama’s speech, he digressed to condemn the belief in “a world order that elevates one nation or group of people.”  That is something that the worldview of American exceptionalism held by Bush and many of his presidential predecessors would never agree to.  I hope that this radically different worldview may result in a new path of policies.

And it was promising that Obama addressed a broad range of issues – democracy, women’s rights, Israel and Palestine and economic development – with an understanding that they all affect the human rights situation and all have to be addressed.

One thing that stood out was when it came to economic development, Obama announced a long line of initiatives that hold promise.  But in each of the other areas, particularly on Israel and on democracy, the rhetoric wasn’t matched by specifics.  I hope that doesn’t imply that he thinks that action on economic development is more important than in the other areas.

Amnesty International welcomes Obama’s comments, but we now expect him to follow up with policies to match the rhetoric.  He should begin with ending all practices that make the U.S. complicit in the various abuses that he denounced, such as extraordinary renditions and secret detention.  He should insist that Israel and the PNA to cooperate with the UN’s fact-finding mission looking into violations of international law during the recent Gaza war.  And he provide a public and independent report of America’s war on terror practices, a step he has opposed to date.

These would be just a first step, but an important step.  It would start us on a path that could turn his speech today from a remarkable moment into an historic event.