The last fortnight has seen the issue of religious persecution hit the headlines once more. Whilst there is sadly nothing new with discrimination towards religious minorities, what has been palpably different this time is the British public’s attitude towards people who have found themselves in such a dreadful situation simply because of their beliefs and the compassionate response of many British politicians. The two stories which have been the most compelling in the media in recent days have been the suffering of the Yazidi in Northern Iraq and the plight of Afghan Sikhs.
The Yazidis are a religious minority which has elements of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism in its syncretic beliefs and yet is a wholly separate faith system. Its central figure of worship is the Malak Taus or ‘Peacock Angel’, a fallen angel who was ultimately redeemed and was allowed by God to return to Heaven. It is this similarity to the fallen angel of Satan in the Abrahamic faiths which has led to the Isis jihadists to consider the Yazidis to be ‘devil-worshippers’. Their treatment at the hands of the Isis has been appalling, with with almost a thousand Yazidis massacred and hundreds of Yazidi women being sold as sex slaves whilst tens of thousands were left stranded on Mount Sinjar for days without food and water.
Although the Yazidi have long been regarded as outsiders by many in the region, the manner of their persecution has been unprecedented in Iraq in modern times. Ironically, the Yazidi had a period of relative tolerance under Saddam Hussein, and the removal of the Ba’athist regime has had a massive impact upon their stability as a community in the area.
Several Labour MPs have spoken passionately about how the situation should be resolved. Dave Anderson, MP for Blaydon, has referred to his own opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and sought for parliament to be recalled in order to have “an open and honest debate about what we as a sovereign nation should be doing to help an ally and save the lives of thousands of innocent people”. Mike Gapes, MP for Ilford, also asked for parliament to be recalled early to deal with this urgent matter.
According to a recent YouGov survey, there has been much support for the British humanitarian effort at Mount Sinjar, with 74 per cent of people in favour of such action. Popularity for military intervention in Iraq is also growing, with 54 per cent approving of Barack Obama’s authorisation of American air strikes in Iraq to prevent the killing of religious minorities. Attitudes towards the RAF being involved in any such strikes is more divided, with 37 per cent being in favour whilst 36 per cent oppose it. 50 per cent of the people polled thought that the situation in Iraq has worsened due to British military intervention, with 38 per cent believing the same to be true for Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has also experienced religious persecution, and the Sikh community there has borne the brunt of such persecution. Sikhs have been in the Afghan region for the last 500 years and they can trace their origins to the first of the Sikh Gurus who travelled through Afghanistan on his return from the Middle East during one of his missionary journeys. Until the early 1990s, Sikhs were a fundamental part of the Afghan economy due to their dominance in retail and commerce in the capital Kabul. Sikhs fled in droves during the fall of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in 1994/5 when many of their businesses and lands were forcibly taken by the Taliban forces, and under the Taliban, Sikhs were forced to wear yellow stars on their clothes in order to mark them out from others. The persecution of Sikhs has escalated over the years, resulting in the community dwindling from over 100,000 in the 1980s to fewer than 3,000 remaining there at the present day, and the Afghan Government since 2003 has done little in respect of such persecution.
The attempt by 35 Afghan Sikhs to seek asylum in Britain by travelling in a shipping container which resulted in the death of one of them is shocking but not surprising. It is the act of a group of people desperate to escape their tragic lives and seek sanctuary in a safe nation which will protect their right to simply exist. To flee a place which has been home for centuries is not an easy decision for anybody to make, and by leaving Afghanistan, those Sikhs have become yet another displaced people who are unlikely to return to their country of origin.
Britain has a long history of accommodating religious minorities and fighting for the religious freedoms of others. From the Huguenots in the 17th century to the Jews during the Second World War, we have been seen as the saviours of those experiencing persecution due to their faith. Our moral responsibility towards such peoples has perhaps never been greater, and we have a duty to ensure that we do all that we can to help those in need.
Earlier this month, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said that: “We politicians must accept that we have a role in raising the issue of religious persecution on to the public agenda.” His view has been supported by Hilary Benn MP, who said: “We all have a responsibility to highlight the danger and the awful reality of religious persecution … around the world. None of us can remain silent in the face of such oppression of that most basic right – the right to believe and to worship.” For the sake of all of those who are suffering because of their beliefs, let us hope that this happens sooner rather than later.
Jasvir Singh is Chair of the City Sikhs Network and Treasurer of both Vauxhall CLP and Sikhs for Labour