The top international Muslim stories of 2018

Uighur Muslims

2018 was another challenging year for Muslims worldwide with China effectively putting hundreds of thousands of Muslims in concentration camps and Hindu mobs lynching Muslims in India.

In the West Islamophobia continued to gain ground, epitomised by Denmark’s ban on the niqab. Meanwhile, two familiar faces – Imran Khan in Pakistan and Mahathir Mohamad in Malyasia – took control of two of the world’s most powerful Muslim countries.

Here are the top international Muslim stories of 2018:



A United Nations panel accused China of turning its western region of Xinjiang “into something that resembled a massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy, a ‘no rights zone’.” It estimates that there could be as many as one million Muslims who have been detained there.

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    Former detainees describe being tortured during interrogation, living in crowded cells and being subjected to a brutal daily regimen of Communist Party indoctrination that drove some people to suicide. Most of those who have been rounded up by the security forces are Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority that numbers some 10 million. Muslims from other ethnic groups, including Kazakhs, have also been detained.

    China rejects the allegations that it has locked up large numbers of Muslims in re-education camps. The facilities, it says, are vocational training centers that emphasise “rehabilitation and redemption” and are part of its efforts to combat terrorism and religious extremism.

    Xinjiang is now one of the most heavily policed areas in the world, according to academics and human rights groups. This follows the launching of a “people’s war on terror” in 2014 after a series of violent attacks in Xinjiang and other parts of China that authorities blamed on religious extremists.


    In August, Imran Khan was sworn in as the 22nd prime minister of Pakistan.

    The ceremony marked an end to decades of rotating leadership between the ousted PML-N and the PPP, punctuated by periods of military rule.

    After the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) emerged as the biggest parliamentary party in the wake of the July 25 polls, all 120 of the party’s parliamentary committee members rubber-stamped Khan’s candidacy for the post of the prime minister.

    He faces myriad challenges, including internal violence, water shortages, and a booming population growth.

    Most pressing is a looming economic crisis, with speculation that Pakistan will have to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund or China.

    Khan will also have to contend with the same issue as many predecessors: how to maintain a power balance in civil-military relations.


    In March Turkish Armed Forces and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) entered Afrin town in northwestern Syria as Kurdish fighters withdrew in the face of a Turkish-led mission.

    Turkey launched its border mission, dubbed Operation Olive Branch, on January 20 with the aim of “establishing security and stability along its borders” after much of northern Syria fell under YPG control.

    According to the Turkish General Staff, the operation also aimed to protect Syrians from terrorist oppression and cruelty.

    Meanwhile, the Syrian Foreign Ministry condemned “the Turkish aggression against the town of Afrin”, calling it “an inseparable part of Syria”. President Assad denounced the Turkish invasion as terrorism, saying “Turkey’s aggression in the Syrian city of Afrin cannot be separated from the policy pursued by the Turkish regime since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis and built on support for terrorism and various terrorist groups.”


    In October Oman was condemned by Palestinian groups after welcoming Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

    In a statement following the visit by Netanyahu to Muscat, Hamas said it “deplores the acceleration of normalisation with the Israeli entity” which serves as “an encouragement and cover for the Zionist enemy to commit more crimes and violations against the Palestinian people, and a stab in the back.”

    Oman described Israel as an “accepted Middle East state,” and it said it is offering ideas to help Israel and the Palestinians to come together.

    Bahrain’s foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa voiced support for Oman over the sultanate’s role in trying to secure Israeli-Palestinian peace, while Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said the kingdom believes the key to normalising relations with Israel was the peace process.

    Israel and some Gulf states share an interest in curbing Iran’s influence in the region.


    In November President Donald Trump issued a statement saying that the United States “stands with” Saudi Arabia, whilst absolving Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of any wrongdoing in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.

    MBS – Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler – was widely held responsible for Khashoggi’s murder which Saudi Arabia has admitted culpability for.

    Earlier in the year, a visit by the Saudi Crown Prince to the UK resulted in the signing of a raft of business deals.

    The meeting saw the launch of the UK-Saudi Arabia Strategic Partnership Council. A broad understanding was agreed for a £65 billion mutual trade and investment target, which would include direct investment in Britain and new Saudi public procurement from British companies.

    However, large protests also accompanied his visit.

    Since he became Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader a few years ago he has launched a devastating war on Yemen, imposed an economic blockade on Qatar and cracked down on his internal rivals.


    Throughout 2018 Muslims were beaten to death in India by Hindu mobs.

    Ever since the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in India in 2014, groups of young Hindu men have been going on the rampage assaulting and killing Muslims on the pretext of committing “cow-related” crimes.

    Mob lynching often takes place on the basis of rumours and suspicions, and the self-styled “cow-protectionists” are often not touched by the police as they have protection from the ruling BJP.

    There were massive “Not in my name” protests from civil society, but the Prime Minister did not utter a word of condemnation and has not done so for any of the other cow-related lynchings.


    In a remarkable political comeback in May, the former long-term leader of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, was sworn in as prime minister again after a shock election victory, 15 years after he stood down.

    The man who governed for more than two decades and made Malaysia an Asian powerhouse became, at the age of 92, the world’s oldest elected leader.

    He came out of retirement and defected to the opposition to take on and beat former protege Najib Razak.

    Rising living costs and long-running allegations of corruption weighed heavily on many voters and saw them peel away from Mr Najib and his once unshakeable coalition.

    Mr Mahathir was prime minister, at the head of the BN coalition, for 22 years, from 1981 until he stepped down in 2003.

    Under his leadership, Malaysia became one of the Asian tigers – the group of countries which saw their economies expand rapidly in the 1990s. But he was an authoritarian figure who used controversial security laws to lock up his political opponents.


    In November the Swiss Muslim academic Professor Tariq Ramadan was freed from jail after ten months of detention without charge near Paris, but only under strict bail conditions.

    A French appeal court ordered the release of the 56 year old during a public hearing in Paris. He is being investigated on allegations of raping two women. He denies rape but has admitted to consensual sexual relations.

    During the hearing Ramadan protested his innocence and said: “Where would I flee to when everything points to my innocence? I’m going to stay in France and defend my honour and innocence.”

    Previously Ramadan had been denied bail on the grounds that he might flee the country or put pressure on witnesses.

    “I want you to make your decision with your souls and your consciences, not because I’m called Tariq Ramadan and I’ve been demonised in this country,” he told the judges.

    “I accept that people will criticise me for lying because I wanted to protect my family and my daughter who is in this room. But who has lied the most? Who has taken advantage of the #MeToo movement?”

    Ramadan, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, added: “I’ve just spent 10 months in prison. I’m innocent and I’ve paid with my health. I can’t walk normally.”


    In June Denmark became the latest European country to pass a law banning the niqab and the burqa.

    The law was passed by 75 votes to 30 in parliament and came into force on 1 August 2018.

    Those who breach the ban will be forced to pay 1,000 kroner (£118), with fines ten times higher for repeat offenders.

    Speaking about the legislation, Denmark’s Justice Minister Søren Pape Poulsen said: “In terms of value, I see a discussion of what kind of society we should have with the roots and culture we have, that we don’t cover our face and eyes, we must be able to see each other and we must also be able to see each other’s facial expressions, it’s a value in Denmark.”

    Amnesty International described the Danish law as a “discriminatory violation of women’s rights”.

    Full or partial bans have been passed in Bulgaria, Austria, the southern German state of Bavaria, with the Dutch parliament agreeing a ban in late 2016, pending approval from the country’s higher chamber.


    Undefeated Russian Mixed Martial Arts fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov became a sporting superstar by defeating the Irishman Conor McGregor in a world lightweight bout in October.

    Nurmagomedov dominated proceedings before administering a rear-naked choke, prompting McGregor to tap out with one minute and 57 seconds of round four remaining.

    Nurmagomedov used his renowned wrestling skills to dominate McGregor on the floor. But seconds after landing the fourth-round submission, the Russian vaulted the cage and headed towards Irishman McGregor’s team, prompting a melee.

    Meanwhile, McGregor was involved in a bust-up in the octagon with members of his opponent’s team.

    Three of Nurmagomedov’s party were arrested but later released.


    In October, the famous Irish singer Sinead O’Connor converted to Islam and took the new name “Shuhada’ Davitt.”

    The 51-year-old wrote on Twitter: “This is to announce that I am proud to have become a Muslim. This is the natural conclusion of any intelligent theologian’s journey. All scripture study leads to Islam. Which makes all other scriptures redundant. I will be given (another) new name. It will be Shuhada.”

    The musician went on to post a video of herself “singing” the Adhan.


    In December the prominent American Muslim scholar Shaykh Hamza Yusuf was criticised for giving credibility to the United Arab Emirates which has a questionable human rights record and is prosecuting a brutal war against Yemen.

    Hamza Yusuf described the UAE as a country that champions civil society and is “committed to tolerance” in remarks on the sidelines of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies in Abu Dhabi.

    “The Emirates…is a country that is committed to tolerance; they [even] have a Ministry of Tolerance,” said Yusuf, who is also the forum’s vice president. “This is a country that is committed to civil society…it is one of the safest countries on the earth, and so at essence, the Emirati people are committed to that message.”

    The forum is bankrolled by the UAE. Critics have denounced it as a PR initiative to boost the the country’s image abroad and deflect criticism by human rights groups.

    The UAE is also one of the main countries currently blockading Qatar and is in the process of normalising relations with Israel.

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