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Interview with Parvez Alam – Part 1

Dear Parvez, could you first introduce yourself to the audience?

Photo credit Baki Billah

Photo credit Baki Billah

I am from Bangladesh. I am a writer and activist. In Bangladesh, I have been writing regularly in different blogs, newspapers, magazines and I wrote a few books. Most of them are about history of knowledge and more specifically about the intellectual history of Islam and also the political history of Islam. I have been working with several non-governmental organisations and activist groups in Bangladesh. We had a community library there, where I worked for 9 years. As well I was working with several human right groups focussing on minority rights mostly. I came to the Netherlands during 2015.; I had to flee my country because I was seriously threatened because of my writings, like many other critical thinkers from Bangladesh.

How did you get involved in The Hague Peace Projects?

When I came here I came into a project of the NGO Justice and Peace. A friend of mine worked for the NGO and for HPP at this time and we have spent a lot of time together because she was really interested in Bangladeshi bloggers in exile in Europe. So, I connect her with some Bangladeshi bloggers and together we developed the idea of the book fair for HPP and I was involved for the first time in a HPP project in February 2016 when the first book fair took place. In Bangladesh, there is an annual book fair in February as well, but many writers and publishers can´t be there as now they are in exile. In 2016 there was the chance that Avijit Roy’s (who was murdered a year before in front of the book fair) book so we wanted to do a symbolic book fair in The Hague. It was kind of a protest against the attacks, censorship, book bans and exile of publishers or writers. Another intention was to bring the exile writers of Bangladesh together. And from September 2016 I am working more intensively together with the HPP.

How would you describe the development from the first book fair in 2016 to the second in 2017?

When I look back I can say that the development was enormous. In 2016 we have had a half day of book fair without selling any books. Only couple of publishing house was officially involved, and we just displayed some banned books and also books written by Avijit. We had one panel discussion. It was a start and this year we planned everything for months. The result was a book fair with several publishers being present, from and for different countries like Bangladesh, Somalia, Turkey and Netherlands. Moreover, we had several events, books were sold and it lasted for 4 days.

Did you promote the opening for other countries where writers are banned as well?

Yes, I did. The expansion was one of the first things we decided during the planning process, because the situation in Bangladesh is not unique. It is connected to developments in other countries as well. The rise of censorship and the decline of freedom of expression are similar to many other parts of the world. We thought we should bring more countries, more publishers together and have discussions about freedom of expression. Maybe this can be the foundation concept for future book fairs in The Hague, city of Peace and Justice.

The Interview is continued in Part 2 with some more information about the coming book fair and Parvez´s political opinions.

Parvez was interviewed by Miriam Reinhardt.

Interview with Varduhi Balyan

This interview was made after the panel discussion “Freedom of Expression in Turkey. Challenges for dialogue & peace” during the Freedom Book Fair 2017.

Varduhi Balyan is a writer for Agos bilingual weekly newspaper based in Istanbul. She is also a MA candidate at the Instanbul Bilgi University in the department of Civil Society Studies. She writes about many topics including human rights, freedom of speech, democracy, civil society, Armenian-Turkish reconciliation and conflict regions. (Speaker description of the program booklet of the Freedom Book Fair 2017)

Could you tell us a little more about your background and your family?

I was born in Armenia and grew up there. At the end of 2013 I moved to Turkey. My family is from Muş, that is a part of Turkey today. They had to leave the region before the Armenian Genocide because of the political pressure and went to Shamkhor, which is part of Azerbaijan today. In the end of 1980’s they had to migrate to nowadays Armenia because of the tensions. Therefore, my family has a kind of migration history. This might be the historical background of how I am connected to Turkey and the reason I am involved in the dialogue process between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Is it the reason to work for the Armenian newspaper “Agos”?

No and to be honest it is not even about the newspaper being an Armenian newspaper. But I like the line it is following and the work it does. It is not a traditional newspaper. I like its views and I share them mostly.

Actually, do you study and write a Master thesis?

Yes, that is right. I am doing my masters, currently working on my thesis on the civil society involvement in Turkey-Armenia reconciliation process.

How did you get involved in the Freedom Book Fair?

I met Tayfun and Bedel in Switzerland on a conference about peace and justice. Then they invited me to be part of this project and share my experiences for which I am very happy. 

What does the event Freedom Book Fair and the panel discussion mean to you?

You do not have a lot of opportunities to speak about peace so every time there is a space with people who work on peace and a space where you can share your thoughts and ideas, you should be happy to be part of it. As, unfortunately, in our days there are not many platforms to speak about peace. That is why it is really important for me to be here.

During the panel discussion, you have mentioned that it is important to create space of dialogue and peace. Which kind of methods would you use to achieve this?

First of all, we should change the language we use. We need to clean up the language of hate speech. The role of media in this is big. It can create peace atmosphere by simply using dialogue language, changing the language of hate. We need to bring people together and they need to have more personal contacts. That is the thing that really works. It is not the fastest way to resolve a conflict but it does work. I believe person to person contact is really important for peace building.

What are your future perspectives?

I never set up clear plans and just go with the flow mostly and then I decide what I want to do. I hope to continue working on these topics either in academia or journalism, or both.

What gives hope to you?

All events like this one by the Hague peace project and the idea that there are others who struggle for the same values, for peace.

What is your message for the world?

Even if we do not agree in the political views, we should leave space for others to speak out and to build a space for dialogue.

Interview: Miriam Reinhardt

CHALLENGES OF LGBTI ACTIVISM IN RELIGIOUS SOCIETIES

On Saturday 25th February 2016, The Hague Peace Projects, held a discussion on the Challenges of LGBTI Activism in Religious Societies, as part of the Hague Freedom Book Fair in Het Nutshuis in Den Haag.  The event was well attended with over 110 participants.

The panel featured five LGBTI activists, Dino Suhonic, the director of the Maruf Foundation in Amsterdam, who is dedicated to helping the position of Muslim LGBTI’s in the Netherlands. Dino is also a teacher, opinion maker and queer activist and writes about queer Muslims, Islam, sexual diversity and gender identity.  Michiel Leezenberg is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. He has published numerous books on Islam, the most recent of which is De Minaret van Bagdad. This book describes the changes in how people in the West perceive Muslims and also the changing sexual attitudes and practices in the Islamic world. Marie Nagadya, is an LGBTI activist from Uganda, a social worker and researcher on same sex practices. She has been involved in numerous LGBTI activist organizations in both Africa and Europe. She is co-founder of out and Proud Netherlands and is the Assistant Director of Eddoboozi Human Rights Defenders Network in Uganda. Rasel Ahmed, was the editor of Roopbaan, the only LGBTI magazine in Bangladesh and aclose friend of the now deceased founder of the magazine, Xulhaz Mannon and our final panelist was Mohammed Mofar, a member of the LGBTI refugee group, The Rainbow Group in the Netherlands.

Michael Leezenberg opened his discussion by introducing the notion of Islam and homosexuality. It was said that the idea of homosexuality as a concept, did not exist in Islam and the rise of modern nationalism and the nation-state had important implications in defining gender and sexuality including homosexuality globally, also in the muslim world. Rasel Ahmed spoke of his experience in Bangladesh, as editor of Roopbaan, which was the only LGBTI magazine in the country, founded by the now deceased Xulhaz Manon. The magazine gained popularity and provided a great platform for the LGBTI community in Bangladesh. A turning point for the community was the pride rally organized on Bengali New Year, which was severely criticized by the conservatives and soon the LGBTI community were receiving death threats and arrests. As a result of these threats, Rasel was forced to flee the country out of fear and a few days later heard of the hacking of his close friend and colleague Xulhaz, by Al Qaeda.  Due to continuous persecution, the LGBTI movement in Bangladesh has now been forced into hiding, for which Rasel feels responsible and would like to reunite them, but is at loss on how to do so under the present political situation. Dino Suhonic highlighted the challenges of being a bicultural homosexual, whereby the country in which one is residing is friendly towards homosexuality contrasting with one’s home country which is very strict. The demography of LGBTI Muslims is very complex, as they feel defeated by their own communities, countries and societies and much more must be done to help them with these challenges and change mindsets. Maruf Foundation tries to help and assist with these issues.

Mohammed Mofar spoke of his personal difficulties coming out, as homosexuality is considered a sin in his home country of Sierra Leone.  After having met a partner and with the help of the Rainbow Group, Mohammed managed to openly admit his homosexuality.  Marie Nagadya described homosexuality to be a taboo in Ugandan society as the society is still based upon conservative cultural, traditional and religious values.  Marie encountered discrimination at university for researching and showing interest in the topic of homosexuality. She faced obstacles created by both her family and the society, the challenge was even greater as Marie herself was not homosexual. It was interesting to learn that many LGBTI activists in Uganda have become homeless due to the negative comments and hatred from society. It was suggested that the role of the church was fundamental to changing the views on the LGBTI community in Uganda, as it encourages only heterosexual relationship. Scott Livelys visit to Uganda, was emphasized, where a conference with local pastors was arranged, to discuss issues surrounding the taboos of homosexuality. The conference resulted in extreme aggression from the public and a statement from the Archbishop of Uganda stating that he was disappointed with the constitution. The conference led to a proposed homosexuality bill in 2009, which was later passed in 2014. Marie concluded by stating, that homosexuality is considered to be a western notion and therefore is perceived to have no space in Ugandan society.

To conclude the event, the moderator asked each panelist for a suggestion on how to spread more acceptances of LGBTI communities. Marie suggested to love and to not give up.  Rasel proposed that the problem lay in intersectional identity, whereby people are not accepted because of their identity. Being Muslim and being gay is a big challenge and therefore the solution should be intersectional. Mohammed suggested unity of the LGBTI community around the world. Michael felt he was not in a position to comment on what people should do. He explained that he felt dialogue was crucial and the fact the audience were present and discussing these issues, was already a great step forward. In Dutch society, you can either be religious or gay, not both therefore it was interesting to note that this panel and audience was a very good example of everyone being both religious and gay, proving that it is possible to be both at the same time. Finally Dino suggested communities should be empowered, that we should create allies through education and engage with people who are opening up spaces for LGBTI communities.

Peace and War through Spoken Word

On the evening of the 24th of February, around 140 people attended the Somali Poetry Night. From Sayid Abdullah also known as the Mad Mullah by the British, to modern day poets as Hadraawi and Idaajaa, all have used poetry as the main method of communication in times of War and Peace.

The speakers  were Zaynab Dahir and Abdirahman Abtidoon. Zeynab is educationalist and author of several children books and educational books. She is an activist and promoter of the Somali language among Somali children raised in the UK. She runs her own organisation, Galool Somali, which publishes teaching materials for learning Somali. Abdirahman Abtidoon is a promoter and an activist of the Somali language, art, storytelling and educationist as well as the writer of several books. He is an avid linguist and grammarian as well poetry reader. Both had an introduction into the background of Somali poetry an the role it played during the different episodes of war and oppression in Somalia.

After that came the real poets: Susu Amina, Malique Mohamud, Qali Nur and Nawal Mustafa all shared their own poetry or famous songs and poems by others. Between the different parts of the program, Abdi Baadil, a famous Somali poet, sang songs and played on the Somali lute.

This evening  was not only about the various forms and uses poetry and enjoying different forms of poetry such as Gabay, Geraar, Buraanbur and Heeso. But especially it was about bringing together a community: the large majority of attendees were young people with a Somali background. The athmosphere was very open, lively and warm.