The roles of Muslims and ethnic minorities in the Grenfell Tower tragedy

The fire at Grenfell Tower killed more than 80 people. Many Muslims lived in and nearby the tower. Muslims residents and neighbours were instrumental in saving lives. The fire occurred after midnight. While many in the area were asleep, Muslims were often awake for the observances of Ramadan. Muslim residents awoke people in other flats and Muslim neighbours were among the first on the scene to assist. Muslim organisations, such as Muslim Aid, continued to be active in relief efforts.

The next evening volunteers held an iftar to allow Muslim victims and volunteers to break their fast. Many were working hard to support each other despite their fast.

Racial and economic discrimination may have contributed to the causes of the fire, as “it’s difficult to imagine this disaster–caused by a huge dereliction of duty and refusal to listen to residents’ concerns–befalling a community of white Britons.” Grenfell Tower was social housing provided by the government for people who require housing assistance.

Black and South Asian survivors felt that the government did not act as though they had a right to complain about the terrible safety conditions of the building prior to the fire.

Judge rejects inmate’s suit seeking cleric from Muslim sect

SCRANTON, Pa. — A federal judge had dismissed a former inmate’s religious freedom lawsuit against a Pennsylvania jail, saying he had no right to a cleric from the specific Muslim sect he preferred–the Nation of Islam.

Courts have ruled inmates have a right to practice their religious, but that right isn’t unlimited and must be balanced against the jail’s ability to run safely and efficiently.  In this case, the judge agreed with an attorney for the jail who argued that the jail did offer Muslim services and religious items but the inmate didn’t participate because the cleric wasn’t affiliated with the Nation of Islam.

Macron will ‘not recognize Palestine’

Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron has reiterated that he will not recognize Palestine as a state as it would hinder good relations between Israel and France

Prior to his election win, Macron said he backs a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that recognizing Palestine would cause instability and he would not risk France’s relationship with Israel to serve the Palestinian agenda. At a political rally Macron said: “Unilateral recognition of Palestine, right now, will undermine stability.” He added: “it will not change the lives of anyone on the ground, including Palestinians.”

France’s Muslim leaders discourage abstention

While the majority of French Muslims traditionally have voted for leftist parties, at a recent UOIF conference there was talk of abstention.

The main candidates–save for Marine Le Pen–met the leaders of the French Council of the Muslim Faith before the election’s first round, and the “Muslim vote” could have additional significance in the upcoming election. Despite this, many Muslims at the conference reported feeling disappointed with Hollande’s tenure as president, and were hesitant to cast their vote in the first round.

Amar Lasfar, president of the UOIF, advised French Muslims “not to reduce a candidate to what they say about Islam,” which many took as an endorsement of François Fillon of Les Républicains. “Vote!” he urged during a speech, “Save France from the threat of the far right.”

“Abstention, it’s the wrong choice: it means nothing,” concluded Nabil Ennasri, president of the Collective of French Muslims.

 

Muslim teen in Minnesota wins fight to box wearing a hijab

Amaiya Zafar, a 16-year-old from Oakdale, who is Muslim, recently won a battle that will allow her to wear a hijab and fully cover her arms and legs while boxing. That means she can put on her boxing gloves later this month to fight her first sanctioned match.

Zafar has her sights set on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. To get there, she’d have to persuade the international boxing organization — the AIBA — to allow her to box in her modest attire.

For now, her right to wear the scarf is only with USA Boxing.

Rising numbers of Islamic burials pose challenges to German cemeteries

For a long time, German Muslims have predominantly buried their dead abroad: especially the members of the country’s large Turkish community preferred to find their final resting place ‘back home’. Many of the so-called guest workers had envisaged a return to Turkey during their lifetimes but stayed on in Germany for work or for the sake of their families. The return home was delayed until after death.

Yet for some of the children of those who moved to Germany, the ties to their ancestors’ country of origin are increasingly remote. For others, the expense of a costly transfer of the body is simply too high; although this factor is often offset by the high cost of maintaining a grave in Germany. For yet others, warfare in their countries of origin makes a return for burial impossible.

All of this has led to a strong rise in demand for burials in conformity with Islamic rites in Germany. A seemingly innocuous issue, questions and perceptions surrounding these burials are indicative of the complex processes of adaptation Muslim communities undergo in the Western European context – as well as of the challenges this processes involves.

Running afoul of German law

To begin with, a number of Muslim traditions run counter to German legal regulations.((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/gesellschaft/menschen/bestattung-von-muslimen-teilweise-problematisch-14942392.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 )) In Germany, burial heeds to be carried out by an expressly hired professional undertaker; a notion unknown in other parts of the world. At the same time, there is not just a need for familiarity with the Islamic ritual on the part of the undertaker, but also for specific facilities to wash the dead body.

Muslim tradition encourages burial within 24 hours after death. Yet the slowly grinding mills of the German bureaucracy mean that burials cannot generally be accomplished in less than 48 hours. Medical regulations ate at times also adduced against quicker burial.

When it comes to the actual burial site itself, Muslims’ graves are customarily oriented towards Mecca – a requirement that cannot be fulfilled by most regular German cemeteries since the existing lines of graves are ordered differently.

What is more, in a somewhat macabre twist, an ‘eternal resting place’ in Germany generally means a maximum of 20 or 25 years – after that, graves are reallocated. Maintaining a grave beyond that point may be either impossible or dramatically increase the price of the grave lease. According to Muslim tradition, however, the dead should be buried in untouched earth and should have a genuinely eternal last home.

To name but one more hurdle, many administrations and cemeteries across the country require bodies to be buried in a coffin; a practice forbidden in Quranic tradition.

Pragmatic solutions

In many cases, practical solutions have been found.((https://www.welt.de/regionales/hamburg/article162782576/Wie-sich-deutsche-Friedhoefe-fuer-Muslime-veraendern.html )) Specialised Islamic undertaking businesses have cropped up all over the country, offering their services to a Muslim clientele. Especially larger towns and cities have begun to create Muslim sections in their cemeteries in order to accommodate graves oriented towards Mecca.

Some municipalities have been more lenient on the rules restricting early burial, provided that no medical reasons demand that the burial be postponed. A specifically Muslim cemetery is set to open in the city of Wuppertal, offering graves with an unlimited lease.

Enduring challenges

In some cases, however, such solutions have proved elusive. Three German states – Bavaria, Saxony, and Saxony-Anhalt – continue to categorically prohibit burials without a coffin while others no longer require the casket.((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/gesellschaft/menschen/bestattung-von-muslimen-teilweise-problematisch-14942392.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

For some on the political right, upholding the so-called ‘coffin obligation’ (Sargpflicht) has become a matter of principled defence of autochthon values and traditions. (It should perhaps be noted that burials in a coffin were only introduced in Germany in the 18th century, making it a tradition presumably less essential to local identity than one might think.(( http://www.brauchwiki.de/Beerdigungsriten )))

Acts of vandalism

Nor have Muslims’ graves gone unnoticed in largely (post-)Christian neighbourhoods, with some expressing anxieties about the expansion of cemeteries’ Islamic sections. Only a month ago a series of Muslim graves was vandalised and desecrated by swastika signs in the southern town of Aalen.(( http://www.swr.de/swraktuell/bw/aalen-muslimische-graeber-auf-friedhof-geschaendet/-/id=1622/did=19107694/nid=1622/1tyli8u/index.html ))

Yet apparently it is not only the far right that has been bent on destroying graves: in 2011, Islamic religious purists appear to have embarked on a purge in the Muslim section of a cemetery in Bielefeld, smashing angel figurines, terracotta sculptures and other ‘German-style’ adornments.

Since the graves themselves and a number of other Islamic symbols remained untouched, police surmised that the vandals only attacked those elements they deemed offensive to their restrictive understanding of Islam.(( http://www.nw.de/lokal/bielefeld/mitte/mitte/4902487_30-muslimische-Graeber-geschaendet.html ))

The salience of identity politics

The question of death and burial is thus surprisingly revelatory about the nature of Muslim life in Germany. The scope for pragmatic accommodation balancing German legal frameworks and Muslim traditions seem large; yet a fair amount of intransigence from various players in the system also makes this room for manoeuvre more difficult to use. Identity politics in its more toxic forms – emanating from ethnically German xenophobes and Islamist fundamentalists alike – leaves its mark.

More generally, when following this issue in the centre-right section of the mainstream media, one is struck by the whole range of contradictory emotions and expectations that German Muslims are faced with: the implicit reproach of a lack of loyalty is directed at those who choose burial abroad. Yet at the same time, the expansion of Islamic segments on German cemeteries is greeted with a certain amount of suspicion and civilizational angst.(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/gesellschaft/menschen/bestattung-von-muslimen-teilweise-problematisch-14942392.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

In this manner, all sides manage to project their political ambitions onto Muslims’ final resting places. At times, the resulting debate seems almost as eternal as the peace people from across religious divides are seeking for their dead.

Row over students’ prayers highlights questions of Islam’s visibility in the German educational sector

“Provocative” and “conspicuous” praying

A secondary school in the Western German city of Wuppertal has caused a stir by prohibiting its Muslim pupils from “conspicuous praying”. In an internal memo directed at the teaching staff, the administration of the Johannes-Rau-Gymnasium encourages its instructors to prevent “provocative” praying activities.

For the administration, this includes the performance of ablutions in school bathrooms or the rolling out of prayer carpets. Should students pray in spite of the prohibition, teachers are to determine the names and to pass them on to the school administration.(( http://www.derwesten.de/region/muslimische-schueler-fallen-durch-provozierendes-beten-auf-wirbel-an-wuppertaler-gymnasium-id209791697.html ))

Commentators remarked upon the memo’s police-style formulations, questioning whether this signalled the school’s generalised suspicion against its Muslim pupils. While defending the thrust of the text, the local government conceded that the language used had been “unfortunate”.(( http://www.rp-online.de/nrw/panorama/schule-in-wuppertal-verbietet-muslimischen-schuelern-sichtbares-beten-aid-1.6648704 ))

Religion in the educational sector

The case touches upon the larger question to what extent educational establishments must accept the presence and expression of religious convictions. Legal professionals point out that within the German framework, schools are given wide latitude to regulate religious expression if such regulation is necessary in order to guarantee “school peace”.(( http://www.rp-online.de/nrw/panorama/schulfrieden-schlaegt-religionsfreiheit-aid-1.6648883 ))

To what extent this ‘peace’ was threatened in the case of the Johannes-Rau-Gymnasium of Wuppertal is difficult to ascertain. No details of the precise chain of events leading up to the prohibition on prayer have been released.

In recent months and years, public scrutiny of Muslim students’ religious practices had been focused mostly on prayer rooms or multifaith spaces at universities. Some of them were closed after reportedly attracting hard-line religious purists who sought to engage in missionary activity and enforce a strict morality code. Others continued to function and were praised as success stories.(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/deutsche-universitaeten-gebetsraeume-unter-generalverdacht-14118890.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

Secularisation and publicly visible religion

The presence of a growing number of Muslim students with higher levels of religious observance comes as the historically active Lutheran and Catholic student associations are experiencing a slow but steady decline. Concomitantly, an increasing number of students and commentators advocate a strictly secularised university that offers no institutional space for religiosity.

The visibility of Islam in these establishments has emerged as an important political battlefield in its own right. After all, some of the 9/11 attackers had used a supposed prayer circle at the Technical University of Hamburg for conspiratorial purposes.(( http://www.zeit.de/2017/11/religion-universitaet-beten-verbot-wissenschaft ))

Although this case has remained isolated and no other Muslim university circles have spawned jihadist groups since, the seed of distrust has, in many cases, been sown. As a result, a considerable portion of educational decision-makers is increasingly willing to question the traditionally generous attitude towards the public expression of religiosity in the educational sector.

Symbolism or solution: Bavaria plans to introduce a burqa ban in the public sector

The government of Bavaria, one of Germany’s sixteen federal states, has announced plans for legislation banning Muslim women from wearing a burqa or niqab in selective contexts. The proposed measures apply to public sector personnel, security forces, as well as teaching staff at pre-school, school, and university levels. Moreover, casting a vote at the ballot box will also no longer be possible while wearing a face covering.

Saving the occident

Bavaria’s Interior Minister, Joachim Herrmann, justified the planned measure by arguing that “a liberal democratic conception of values of a Christian-occidental imprint requires a culture of open communication”.(( http://www.bayern.de/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/170221-Ministerrat.pdf ))

The language used by Herrmann highlights that the initiative is not driven by the attempt to solve real problems of civic participation and engagement but rather by ‘civilisational’ categories and anxieties. It also demonstrates the continued willingness of the CSU, Bavaria’s conservative ruling party, to hanker after the populist vote, even if this means using the terminology of the far-right Pegida movement that claims to defend the “occident” against its Islamisation.

Return of the burqa question

Over the course of the last year, Muslim women’s dress has periodically returned to the top of the German political agenda. After two incidents of violence linked to the ‘Islamic State’ in July, a group of conservative interior ministers demanded a “burqa ban”.

Subsequently, in December, the CDU party congress shifted to the right on a number of issues, including the burqa: at the conference, Chancellor Merkel herself demanded that the burqa be banned “wherever this is legally possible” and defined the face veil as alien to German culture and values.

Constitutional strictures

Merkel’s statement shows her attempt to pacify her vociferous inner-party opponents who demand a tougher line on immigration and Islam. Yet it also demonstrates her awareness that a generalised ban of the burqa in the public sphere – comparable to the provisions enacted in France – would most likely be struck down by the German Constitutional Court.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/verbotsdebatte-burka-verbieten-geht-das-ueberhaupt-1.3123311 ))

The proposed Bavarian legislation appears to take these constitutional limitations seriously by eschewing an across-the-board interdiction of face coverings. While the Bavarian interior minister noted that his administration may attempt a generalised ban in the future, the current legislative proposal only prohibits burqa and niqab in a set of relatively precise circumstances.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/burka-verbot-bayern-beschliesst-verbot-von-gesichtsverhuellung/19421880.html ))

It is worth noting, however, that the Federal Ministry of Justice in Berlin even expressed reservations about the constitutionality of such a limited ban, currently also envisaged by the national government.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/leitkultur-im-abendland-justizministerium-sieht-geplantes-schleierverbot-als-risiko/19401666.html ))

A proposal of limited utility

In any case, the very restrictedness of the Bavarian bill is also one of the features that will most likely undermine its novelty and utility in practice: in fact, employers, including public sector institutions, already appear to possess the ability to reject applicants wearing a burqa or a niqab.(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2017-02/bayern-verschleierung-verbot-burka-nikab-gericht ))

In the past, courts denied a high school pupil and a university student the right to wear a full face covering because it hampered theirability to communicate in class. Similarly, legal professionals affirmed the right of public sector employers to demand that their employees be able to communicate effectively with their clientele.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/verbotsdebatte-burka-verbieten-geht-das-ueberhaupt-1.3123311 ))

It is, in other words, unclear whether the Bavarian selective burqa ban will fundamentally alter the existing legal framework. Beyond this, it seems questionable whether among the few burqa-wearing women in Bavaria—their numbers appear to range in the double digits at best—many would even consider applying for a public sector position. The Bavarian interior minister confirmed that there is not a single burqa-clad woman employed in the state’s public sector today.(( http://www.focus.de/politik/deutschland/kindergaerten-schulen-und-co-bayern-will-gesichtsverhuellungen-verbieten_id_6683765.html ))

Political symbolism

The Munich government’s initiative on the full face veil is therefore a largely symbolic move—yet a potentially powerful one: in an August 2016 survey, more than 50 per cent of Germans demanded a general ban of burqa and niqab. A further third of respondents expressed their support for a partial ban.(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2016-08/burka-verbot-debatte-mehrheit-der-deutschen ))

Yet given its largely symbolic nature, the measure is also unlikely to effectively address the dynamic of religious isolation and radicalisation that it ostentatiously seeks to tackle. Those women who wish to wear a face covering will not be deterred by the ban; and those who are forced to do so will not be supported in their quest for self-determination.

Question of the hijab

Nor, of course, does prohibiting burqa-wearing women from working for the public sector solve the much more relevant question of how the state should position itself vis-à-vis Muslim job applicants wearing the hijab. In this area, the legal situation in Bavaria (as well as in many other German states) is still in flux.

The Bavarian interior minister intimated that employees in the public sector should be held to the standards of religious and ideological “neutrality”.(( http://www.bayern.de/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/170221-Ministerrat.pdf )) This might point to a willingness to move towards a laicité-style banishment of religious symbols from the public sphere, as is currently in force in the state of Berlin.(( http://gesetze.berlin.de/jportal/portal/t/iaf/page/bsbeprod.psml?pid=Dokumentanzeige&showdoccase=1&js_peid=Trefferliste&fromdoctodoc=yes&doc.id=jlr-VerfArt29GBE2005pP2&doc.part=X&doc.price=0.0&doc.hl=0 )) At the same time, however, Bavaria’s strong Catholic heritage continues to militate against too harsh a curtailment of religious expression in the public sphere.

Wealthy shoppers from the Gulf

Muslim figures have mostly remained silent on the renewed push for a ban on face coverings, perhaps reflecting their limited interest in the burqa question or their exasperation with the topic.

In any case, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper noted, the only significant crowd of fully veiled women in Bavaria are wealthy shoppers from the Gulf propping up Munich’s large luxury retail sector and the city’s health clinics.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/bayern/vollverschleierung-mit-dem-burka-verbot-loest-bayern-ein-problem-das-es-nicht-gibt-1.3388963 )) As of now, the Bavarian government continues to welcome them and their ample purchasing power with open arms.

Emmanuel Macron struggles to impress French Muslims

When asked if she would vote for the centrist Emmanuel Macron over the far-right Marine Le Pen in a possible runoff for the French presidency, Nadia Henni-Moulai could only muster an unenthusiastic “I’ll see”.

“Macron might convince me by then … but I won’t vote for him by default,” she said before vexing at the “anti-Islam continuum from the far-right to the far-left”.

Henni-Moulai, a French Muslim of Algerian origin, was one of several Muslims Al Jazeera spoke to who expressed reservations about backing Macron.

Their positions varied from cautious support to promises to avoid voting in the election altogether.

The upcoming contest could have serious consequences for the country’s Muslims, with polls putting the Front National’s Le Pen in front in the first round of voting.

Restrictions on halal meat, religious clothing, and “burkinis” have formed part of the far-right leader’s strategy to fight for the “soul of France”.

Macron, her centrist rival, trails behind her in the first round, but polls show he has a healthy lead should the pair face off in the deciding second round.

At 39, the former minister for economy has pulled in energetic crowds for his campaign rallies, drawn by his promise of “democratic revolution” in the face of a global turn to far-right populism of the kind represented by Le Pen.

On Islam, Macron has been cordial, insisting “no religion is a problem in France today”and even drawing ire from the right by condemning French “crimes and acts of barbarism” during its colonial rule in Algeria.

Henni-Moulai, the founder of the website Melting Book, which aims to amplify minority voices in the media, cast doubt on whether Macron could deliver on his energetic campaign, given his “establishment” background.

“He presents himself as against the system, but like the others he graduated from the ENA,” she said, using the acronym for the National School of Administration, where France’s top civil servants are trained.

“He worked as an investment banker afterwards …. Despite his claims, he is a part of the system,” she added.

The temptations of indulging in anti-Muslim rhetoric were too strong and Macron would eventually succumb, Henni-Moulai claimed.

“Muslim bashing is inescapable, especially if you want to reach the Elysée palace.

“I’m quite skeptical about his ability to get elected with his current arguments … as the French adage goes: Campaign from the right, govern from the centre.”

Not everyone Al Jazeera spoke to carried their skepticism of Macron as strongly as Henni-Moulai, but a thread of doubt surrounding whether he would follow through on his promises featured in most of the conversations.

Yousef Barbouch, a sales professional from the southern city of Toulouse, praised Macron’s stance on Islam but pointed out that past successful candidates had reneged on their earlier goodwill.

“There is a certain optimism you feel when you see his position on Islam within society and on hijabis, for example,” Barbouch said.

“[Macron] has this British and American mindset where he doesn’t care what you believe as long as you bring a value to the country, and that’s really refreshing to hear in today’s context of fear [surrounding Islam].”

However, Barbouch recalled the example of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who he said had started his tenure with similar statements before turning his back on them later.

“I won’t forget that in 2009, Sarkozy had similar opinions; he defended hijabis, for example, but seven years later he’s fiercely opposed to the headscarf.”

Karim Brequin, a Parisian business consultant, also noted receptiveness among Muslims for Macron’s amiable comments on Islam but said his association with controversial establishment figures could count against him.

“Many are looking towards Macron as he seems to be more culturally aware than the other candidates,” Brequin told Al Jazeera.

“The fact that he is young and represents some kind of new momentum is relevant to many … however, his relationship with Dominique Strauss-Kahn raises questions,” he said, referring to the former finance minister once touted as a future president until he became embroiled in a rape scandal.

Rim-Sarah Alouane, a researcher in Public Law at the University Toulouse Capitole, said Macron deserved praise for not using fear of Islam as an electoral device.

“Credit has to be given to Macron for being one of the very few candidates who do not abuse laïcité [French secularism] and Muslims to power their campaign,” she said, adding: “His American-style empowerment discourse makes it possible to restore sorely needed hope to French Muslims who have been targeted both by the right and the left during the presidential campaign debates.”

That praise, however, was tempered by the fear that Macron’s promises seemed “to good to be true …

“This new hope of the French political landscape [Macron] has a very elusive programme that does not address the roots of the economic and social issues faced by the most disenfranchised populations in this country.

“Going to visit the banlieues [suburbs] or declaring loudly that multiculturalism is great is laudable, and of course very much needed, but unless he moves beyond words, people will not be fooled.”

Such economic concerns were also a factor for Yasser Louati, a leading French activist against Islamophobia.

Although statistics based on religion are hard to come by in France owing to state prohibition on their collection, immigrants, many of whom are Muslim, have almost double the unemployment rate of French-born residents.

“Macron will bring no positive changes to the working class and minorities whatsoever,” Louati said.

“His positions are known to be highly in favour of neoliberalism, with a complete disregard for its catastrophic social consequences, such as unequal concentration of power and wealth, repression, or environmental crisis.”

Louati conceded that Macron had made “brave declarations” on the role of the state in discriminating against minority youths and had avoided exploiting anti-Islamic rhetoric, but said his key platform policies remain unknown.

“Nobody knows what his programme is about … Macron has never expressed how to effectively tackle the root causes of racism or whether he intends to repeal Islamophobic laws.”

Taking a harder line than any of the other French Muslims Al Jazeera spoke to, Louati said he would avoid voting in the upcoming elections.

“I would not vote for Emmanuel Macron nor any other candidate because that would be giving more credit to a morally bankrupt and institutionally failed political system.”

Fillon wants French Muslims to express their ‘anger’

François Fillon wants to see a “cry of anger against extremists” he said during a visit to the Saint-Denis mosque in Reunion.

He wants to see “the same French citizens of the Muslim faith give a cry of anger and protest against extremists, not only against terrorists,” but “against those who have deformed Islam’s message and who call for division from within the Muslim community.”

“I will not allow those who contradict the values of the Republic…the Republic has the right to defend itself against those who call for its destruction,” he insisted.

“If coexistence between religions is exemplary in Reunion, it’s not the same case throughout the country,” he said during the visit.

He also wished that “we had a CFCM that would be more of a religious authority. I don’t think that we need an organization for the Muslim faith in France that is political.”