The Olympics are finally here! They give a chance for everyone to set aside politics, grudges, and the difficulties of life to celebrate human dignity and sportsmanship, and to cheer for the best achievers in a fair competition. Unfortunately, the anticipation of such emotional warmth is countered by a Winter Olympics atmosphere that is much "colder" than usual, with increasing waves of human rights violations, security concerns with extreme measures, and deep restrictions on the freedom of journalists and activists.
As millions, if not billions, around the world tune in to one of the largest and oldest events in sports, the 2014 Sochi Olympics, I can't help but have mixed feelings. The eyes of the international community are now fixed on Sochi, with teams from around the world competing, all the while not knowing it is the land of my ancestors, the Circassians.
Unlike the Vancouver Olympics and its celebration of its indigenous people, the Sochi Olympics turned its back on the Circassians, the indigenous people of Sochi and the North Western Caucasus. This ancient nation actually participated in the original Greek Olympics thousands of years ago. Circassians had to face the largest, bloodiest ethnic cleansing in Eurasia at the hands of Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. Mostly Muslims, Circassians refused to submit to Russian threats to give up their land, and in many reports refused to give up their religion at the wishes of the Orthodox Russian Tsar. As many as 1.2 million Circassians were killed and 1.5 million were exiled. Sochi was the last of the Circassian towns to fall, and it witnessed mass killings to the point that the next town to Sochi was named "The Red Hill". There were mass deportations of women and children through the Black Sea, where many drowned due to overcrowded ships. Circassians were forced to flee to the Ottoman Empire, where they found refuge in the neighboring Muslim lands. My great-grandfather was one of the last migrants at the turn of the 20th century, and my grandfather was born on the road before my family finally settled in what is now Syria. I was raised with many stories of how Circassians joined in struggle with Chechens and Dagestanis against the continuous Tsarist aggression for almost 100 years. Now, 90% of the Circassian diaspora live in Turkey, Syria and Jordan. And recently, as a result of the Syrian crisis, many Circassian Syrians have tried to flee the violence back to their homeland, only to be denied by the Russian government in an ironic turn of fate.
As the Olympic flame is set to be ablaze in Sochi, and for those who wish to move on from memories of genocide, since “no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another” (Qur’an 35:18), the story of Circassians is not over. Circassians who remained in the Caucasus up until now as its indigenous people endure human rights violations, religious intimidation (20,000 Muslims living in Sochi have been denied to date the basic right to build a mosque in the city), economic abuse, and unceasing Russian crackdowns on activists and journalists, topped with the recent arrest of eight Circassian public figures just before the Games.
This is why the Sochi Olympics are more personal to me as a Muslim from Circassian descent living in the free West. We now witness the most extreme Olympics to date—a 50 billion dollar expenditure in the backyard of an economically disadvantaged community, severe security measures turning Sochi into a pseudo-military base of over 37,000 Russian troops to protect the Games, documented forced evictions from homes with no compensation, and extreme environmental and animal rights abuse, including a mass stray dog killing campaign to clear Sochi.
The immediate response to all of this is that we should look forward positively to this global celebration, and that politics should be separated from sports. The Olympics, after all, should transcend politics and tensions. On the contrary, the Olympics charter makes it clear that a hosting country should comply with human rights requirements, anti-discrimination laws, and should uphold equal opportunities for all. You cannot simply ignore social and economic illnesses to reward sporting competition. If the Olympics are to celebrate human dignity, all of us should couple our love of the Games with our firm stand with the oppressed.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Muslims in the Caucasus are again targets to extreme Russian security measures. These measures have even reached American Muslims, including federal investigations and interviews with US residents from that region to prevent terrorist plots. We must constantly internalize our Prophetic values to stand firm against any disruption of peace or any attempt to tarnish the sanctity of human life, yet we must equally embody other values of standing in aid with the distressed. At the least, we must speak against practices that disrupt and disrespect communities and families just like yours and mine.
The Sochi Olympics are more of a reflection of our world reality, an extravagant, glamorous spectacle that is only skin deep, hiding many illnesses and fears of the other. Promoting knowledge, justice, and respect for one another is our only choice as Muslims. Recall that ‘Umar ibn Khattab (may God be pleased with him), the Caliph of the biggest empire at the time, slept safely under a tree with no guards, an astounding and moving sight to the non-Muslim delegation that once came to visit him. They said, “You slept because you felt safe, and you felt safe because you were just.”
This is the way for every "Caliph" on this earth. It’s a choice for the people in charge of this world, but it is a duty for every believer running his or her personal affairs and caring for the wellbeing of everyone and everything.
We cannot solve our local and global issues with more guns and security measures. The need to reach out to one another and work on confronting injustice with diligent peaceful effort is more urgent than ever before. Prophet Muhammadﷺ described Muslims as one body that aches and stays awake for an injury to one of its limbs. Whether it be in Syria, Bangladesh, the Caucasus or elsewhere, it behooves us as Muslims to be part of that effort for positive change. If we do not make that effort, the Godly message it seems will be that we are always the first to suffer the consequences.
"Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves." (Qur'an 13:11)
Wishing a safe and rewarding Sochi Olympics to the attendees with equal wishes of awareness and social justice to all!
By Ghuydar Bashmaf, 07 Feb 2014