Reflections of an American Muslim

(Shahid Athar , M. D.)

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This paper is dedicated to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who was sent as a "mercy to mankind," who was always on the side of the weak and the oppressed, to all those people who have been persecuted and given their lives for His cause, to all those who are still being oppressed and to all those who are doing something about it, be they Muslims or non-Muslim, may God help them (amin).

There has been considerable interest developed in the last decade in the monitoring of human rights in the Third World. Countries are being rewarded or penalized according to their compliance. However, it appears that everyone is looking at someone else's record and not his own.

In this paper, the history and westem concept of human rights is outlined, followed by the description of the violations both by the superpower and the Muslim countries, especially in relation to the torture of political prisoners. Finally, the basis of Islamic human rights, the Quran is used to wam the oppressors of their wrongdoing and to activate the masses and the intellectuals to oppose this injustice against innocent fellow humans.

God Almighty says in the Quran: "Do not cause mischief on earth after it has been set in order, but call on Him withfear and desire (for His mercy), Lo the mercy of Allah is always near to those who do good" (7:56). However, mischief makers consider themselves peacemakers: "When it is told to them, make not mischief on earth, they say we are peace makers only. Behold! They are indeed the mischief makers. but they perceive nor" (2:11-12).

Their second problem is that they also consider themselves to be champion of human rights. In January of 1989 in Vienna, Austria, the U.S., Western European Nations, and Warsaw Pact Nations met and agreed on a human rights accord to "enhance" freedom in the Soviet Bloc countries. They also held an international conference of some 31 nations in 1991, in Moscow! Yes, after killing nearly one million Afghans, injuring another two million, displacing some five million from their homes with the most sophisticated weaponry in the world, now the Soviets are hosting a human rights conference.

Let us examine the records of these so-called champions of human rights. They claim that the world got the concept of human rights in the 12th century from the British document called the Magna Carta. But between the 12th and 17th century there was no mention of the practice of human rights by them (i.e. trial by jury or the rights of taxpayers). Only in the 18th century in documents such as the Constitution of France or the Declaration of Independence in the U.S. do we see the mention of the rights of people. Even in later documents, the words, "We the People," mean only white males. Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, who was one of the authors of the Constitution, wanted women also to have voting rights. But American women did not win their voting rights until 1920- more than 800 years after the Magna Carta was written. Blacks, as slaves were denied all rights,although 5000 of them fought against the British for the independence of America. They did not receive their full civil rights until the 1960's.

These proponents of human rights, the inheritors of the Magna Carta, did not apply it to others. They killed American Indians by the thousands, and enslaved the remaining few in reservations. They got hold of Africans by hunting them in the fields of Africa, bringing them chained on crowded ships, where 1/3 died during the journey. They denied them their religion, stripped the of their names and honor, and put them on plantations as slaves. When the first British fleet arrived in Australia in the 18th century, it forgot to take the Magna Carta with it, and systematically destroyed the Aborigines. In 1788 the population of the Aborigines was 300,000, and in 1901 they numbered only 93,000. Even now they are being persecuted. Their unemployment rate is 30%, compared to 7% for the whites. Their life expectancy is 18 years less than the whites. The Aborigines got voting rights only in 1967. Even in prison they are being killed and tortured. Since 1980, more than 103 Aborigines died in prison (20 times the rate of the whites).

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, are these champions of human rights complying to do something about it, if it concerns blacks, Muslims, or other Asians or South Ameficans? Since 1984 in South Africa, hundreds and thousands have been killed, including 312 children. According to Amnesty International, political prisoners in South Africa were tortured with electric wire, strangulation, beating and burning. Amnesty itself has compromised its credibility and integrity by consistently maintaining a mysterious silence about the treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Palestinians in Israel prisons are subjected to horrifyingly inhuman treatment of both physical and mental torture intended to cause permanent physical and mental impairment. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the only toilet facility provided to Palestinians in Israeli prisons is a bucket and many Palestinians released from Israeli prisons have lost their physical and mental dexterity due to the torture inflicted upon them in Israeli prisons. Since the recent Palestinian uprising (Intifada), nearly one thousand youths have been killed, at a rate of five a day. Palestinians are being deported from their homeland, their houses burned or razed. Small children are fighting the mechanized Israeli army with pebbles and stones. And those rubber bullets are really of lead covered with rubber and are nearly as dangerous as the real lead ones. One may wonder why these human rights activists do not speak up loudly to undo injustice; I'll tell you why:

When they talk about human rights, they talk about their own rights, the rights of the western European races and of Jews, but not of Third World people, including Muslims, Blacks, South Africans, Red Indians, or South Americans. Everyone is pressuring the Soviets to grant asylum to the Jews there, but no one is talking about the plight or the rights of 30 million Muslims in the Soviet Union and five million Muslims in the Soviet-controlled by Eastern Europe. Even the Americans have not given full rights to all of their people; their women are still fighting for equal pay, job discrin-tination, sexual harassment, while nearly four million are severely beaten up every year. The same happens to Hispanics, who just won a lawsuit against the FBI for discrimination in employment and promotion. What about the Second World War? While the U.S. was fighting both Japan and Germany, it put 120,000 Americans of Japanese origin (but born in the U.S.) into concentration camps in deserts as prisoners of war, where thousands died. Only in 1988 did Congress agree to compensate them for their loss of property. However, the enemy of their own color, i.e., the Germans bom in the U.S., received no such treatment as the Japanese-Americans did. American injustice is not always limited to race, color, or religion. From 1900 to 1987, 350 alleged criminals were hanged by U.S. courts, only to have their innocence proven later. The dual standards of American are well known; while the U.S. never compensated Iran for the loss of 290 civilians in the 1987 shooting down of a civilian Iranian airbus, it has demanded 30 million dollars from Iraq for the loss of 29 marines when the USS Stark was attacked by the Iraqi Air Force by 'mistake'.


We should take with a "ton of salt" the Western misconception about the absolute freedom of speech, which according to some is a relatively new idea and amounts to the imposition of the western value system upon the Third World. By giving this right to Salman Rushdie, they gave him, and themselves, the right to slander, defame, and ridicule others. They themselves have a dual level of tolerance. Thus, when many world leaders, including religious leaders like Cardinal O'Conner of New York and Rabbi Jakobovitz of England and many others, expressed their views against the Satanic Verses, those views were not published in the U.S. media. When former rock singer Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam) endorsed the death sentence on Salman Rushdie, his songs were boycotted by radio stations and his records were broken in public. This dual standard is not new. While secretly and now officially the U.S. continued to deal with the PLO, but when Andrew Young, the only Black American ever to represent the U.S. at the U.N. shook hands with a PLO delegation, he lost his job. His other crime was saying, "There are still thousands of political prisons in U.S. jails", meaning Blacks who had been arrested and prosecuted in U.S. jails without a proven criminal charge."

The American artist who displayed the U.S. flag on the floor and made people walk all over it said in a press conference, "I did so because the U.S. flag is a symbol of oppression to millions of people around the world." He and his family received death threats. When some wanted to bum the sacred U.S. flag as a test of this inborn and absolute freedom of expression in the Bill of Rights, there was nationwide turmoil from news papers to the Presidency, and flag burners were not only labeled anti- American, but arrest and prison sentence was called for them. Thus, these people who define freedom of speech and writing, and give it only to themselves or their illegitimate surrogates like Salman Rushdie to defame and slander others with an "inferior" value system. They never give the same rights of free speech to others. For example, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government pressured many parts of the "white commonwealth" to ban Peter Wright's book Spycatcher in which she was criticized. When Professor Ali Mazrui mentioned in an interview on BBC/PBS television program that Karl Marx was the last of the Jewish prophets, it was censored in the U.S. and not aired. No western defender of the freedom of speech came to defend his rights or the rights of Yusuf Islam.


Some 600 years before the Magna Carta, Islam gave the concept of total human rights. Islam recognized the fetus as a human being and gave it the rights of inheritance after birth. Islam recognized human beings as dignified individuals who have the right to equality, personal freedom, liberty, personal opinion, emigration, justice, and social welfare. Even the poor due (zakat) is not a charity, but the right of the poor over the wealth of the rich. In family matters, there is the right of the husband over the wife, and vise versa, that of the parent over the children and vice versa. The rights of the neighbors were so much stressed that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), at one point, thought God might ask us to include our neighbors in our inheritance.

There are many books written about human rights in Islam. I advise the reader to seek these rights directly in the Quran or in a book based directly on the Quran and sunnah. One of them which I highly recommend is Al-Islam wa huquq al-insan by Dr. Mohammed Khoder and translated into English by Dr. Zaid A. Al-Hussain. The basic difference between Islamic human rights and Western human rights are these

a) Islamic human rights are universal and apply to all men, women, and children irrespective of their race and color. In practicality, man-made human rights serve the interests of the people who made them and their people.

b) Human rights given by God are inflexible, while human rights made by humans change according to the ambitions of their administrators. Thus, Teddy Roosevelt, after conquering the Philippines, said, "The only reason we are here is to Christianize the people."

c) While the western concept of human rights concerns mainly certain sections, i.e., the rights of Jews to migrate, Islamic human rights encompasses all sections and apply to all nations.


After saying that Islam gave us human rights before the Magna Carta and UN resolution, and that we have a better product, let us examine what is being practiced in Muslim countries inside their prisons.

The records of the USSR, and countries of the West and even Israel should not provide us with a reason to condone or ignore the dismal records of many Muslim countries and the violation of human rights of their own Muslim population which is tantamount to the sinful disregard of the teachings of Islam. The Soviet Union and the countries of the West have at least succeeded in protecting the human rights of their own majority in their respective countries while violating the rights of the minorities or the rights of those living outside their boundaries The sad and undeniable fact is that in many Muslim countries, human rights of the Muslim majority are violated by the leadership in power, and even Muslim reli- gious scholars and intellectuals seem to express little concern.

My interest in the condition of political prisoners in Muslim countries started in 1978 when I examined an Egyptian scholar, in exile in the U.S. for chest pains. I noticed marks of burns and injury on this chest and back and enquired of their origin. At that point, he told me he had spent 14 years of his life inside Nasser's prison for being a member of Muslim Brotherhood and an associate of Shaykh Hassan Al Banna. He described how he was kept hungry and thirsty for days. He was made to stand in a 2' by 2' cell with four others for weeks, without sleep. He was tortured in many ways and even made to drink his own urine. His story was confirmed by another associate of his who also became my patient at a later date. Later on, someone who served as a security guard in that prison and later escaped that country told me the same thing. Now there is a book published called My Life With Salah Nasr by Imtiaz Kurshid, the mistress of Salah Nasr, chief of Nasser's Intelligence Service 'GI5 between 1957 and 1966. She described the techniques used on these political prisons including throwing them in acid tanks, setting them on fire, poisoning them, sexual torture and filming the torture to be enjoyed later by the highest authorities. They say conditions have now improved.

Since 1980, about 250,000 men and women have been arrested for opposing secular dictatorship in Turkey. Recently, a 16 year old girl named Saadet Akkayet was tortured in prison with electric shock applied to her private parts, raped by the security guards for seven hours, then crucified. A 13 year old diabetic boy died in prison of torture. Four small boys died in prison recently. Children are made to watch as their parents are tortured. Instruments of torture include electric shock, kicking, sexual assault, suspension by the wrist or ankle, and insertion into the anus split bamboo sticks (falaka). Kurdish minorities have been affected in an even worse way. While the whole world, including the Physicians for Human Rights, confirmed the Iraqi use of chemical weapons which killed thousands of Kurds, the Turkish investigation found no such evidence!

In the uprising of the Muslim brotherhood in 1982 in Hama, about 20,000 were killed by the Syrian Army. Some 2000 prisoners have died in 1986 due to torture. The weapons of torture are classical electric prods to the private parts and mouth, beating, the pouring of scalding and ice cold water alternatively, the insertion of heated metal rods in the rectum of males and repeated rapes of women. In the 1965 uprising in Indonesia, some 25,000 were killed and about 1000 are still jailed and tortured. Many noted scholars have been tortured and killed. The prisons are called Rehabilitation Centers. The techniques used are the same elsewhere.

The brutalities of the Ba'athist Iraqi regime over its Kurdish, Sunni, Shia, and Ikhwan opposition are unsurpassed. Many prominent scholars of both the Sunni and Shia sects and their families have been arrested, tortured and killed in prison. Some 2,500 members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their sympathizers were arrested and tortured in March 1987 for opposing the use of chemical weapons.

In September 1986, the Iraqi Army took 500 Kurdish children between the ages of 12 and 17 hostage. The blood dripping bodies were returned in boxes, and buried in communal graves for which the parents paid 150 dinars each. The use of chemical weapons and the destruction it caused in Kurdish villages on innocent people is now known to the whole world, confirmed by Physicians for Human Rights, in a report called "Winds of Death." The U.S. State Department is saying now that the reason Libya should not have chemical weapons is because Iraq proved how deadly they can be on civilians. But nobody is asking them who supplied Iraq with chemical weapons and while the Kurds were being killed what were they doing. Even the recent conference in Paris failed to condemn Iraq for its use of chemical weapons.

Practically there is no good news coming out from any Muslim countries about treatment of political prisoners. We know about the recent uprising in Algeria and the way it was crushed, the persecution by Kaddafi of his opponents in exile, the suppression of the Islamic Tendency movement in Tunis, the mass murder of 10,000 Palestinians by the Jordanian Army in the Black September of 1974. Even from Iran, where the Shah and Savak perfected persecution and torture in prison, there are stories now of summary trial and executions of political opponents. If I have missed a Muslim country, it is just due to the length of this paper.

One thing which we wonder about is who is supplying these dictators with the tools of torture? Who trained SAVAK and G15 (of Egypt)? Who sells them electric prods and other weapons of torture to subdue their own people? It is either the CIA or the KGB or one of their collaborators. These dictators are like puppets dancing with their strings tied to their masters in Moscow or Washington They buy machine guns and tanks to fight their enemy-the common people.

All that is going inside the prison in Muslim countries brings us to the subject of oppression or wrongdoing. God is kind and merciful, and has not chosen as His attribute oppressor because He is just. Someone who is just cannot be an oppressor, nor can He approve of oppression to others. The Quran says: 1. "God guides not the wrong doers" (5:19). 2. "Do not oppress and you will not be oppressed" (2:279). 3. "Do not exceed the limit, surely God does not like transgressors" (5:87). 4. "Do not think God is heedless of the wrongdoers" (14:42). 5. "And those who possess all that is in the earth, and there with as much again, they will verily seek ransom themselves there with on the Day of Resurrection from the awful doom; and there will appear unto them, from their Lord, that where with they never reckoned." (39:4).


Narrated by the Companion Abu Dharr Ghiffari, Prophet Muhanimad (PBUH) has said that God says: "O my servants, I have forbidden oppression for myself, and have made it forbidden amongst you, so do not oppress one another." Then what seems to be the problem of these dictators who persecute and torture other human beings and fellow Muslims? Their main problem is that they judge others not according to the Quran, but according to their own opinion of what is right and what is wrong. For them, God Almighty says: "...Those who do notjudge what God has sent down are disbelievers (kaffirun)" ( 5:44) . ..... Those who do not judge by what God has sent down are oppressors (zalimun) (5:45) . ..... Those who do not judge by what God has sent down are evil doers (fasiqun) (5:46).

And what do these oppressors, evil doers and disbelievers incur upon themselves? "Lo,-they who persecute believing men and believing women and repent not, theirs will verily be the doom of hell, and theirs will be the doom of burning" (85: 1 0).


Islam is a religion of actions tied to beliefs. Muslims are not supposed to be silent spectators of oppression, minding their own way. To be neutral to a scene of injustice, in my opinion, is equal to the continuation of injustice."And fight them until persecution is no more and religion is only for God. But if they cease, then let there be no hostility except against the wrongdoers" (2:193). A Tradition says that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) advised us: "Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand, and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue, and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart, and that is the weakest of faith" (see Muslim on the authority of Abu Said Al Khudri).

What I propose is that in every Muslim country, there should be an internal organization of concerned and conscientious citizens, including physicians, lawyers, educators, and religious scholars who form a united front against such oppression, not to bring down a ruler, but to educate and reform him, to inform the masses, to become better voters and to liberate those innocent people who are still being persecuted in the prisons and to help their families, to inform the world and join the voices of all those who are oppressed into one single cry:


"And why should you notfight in the cause of God andfor those who being weak are ill-treated and oppressed, men, women and children, whose cry is 'Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors and raise us from You someone who will help us, raise for us from You, someone who will help us" (4:75).