Month October

  • Channel 4’s Dispatches – women and mosques

    Muslims are once again in the TV limelight with Channel 4’s Dispatches programme this evening entitled “Women Only Jihad”. The aim of the show was to show MPAC challenging the conservative mosques around the UK to open up to women – currently over half of the 1600 mosques in Britain do not allow women access to worship.

    The participation of women within the Muslim community – and the mosques that symbolise the physical location of that – is a huge issue for Muslims to deal with. It’s good to see the profile of the problem being raised. I’m always deeply frustrated and angered by the exclusion of half of the community from the centre of muslim community life. Lack of space for prayer is usually the reason cited for women being excluded from the mosque, but this begs the question: what is the function of the mosque? That is one of the elements of the debate that needs to take place. The other is: what is the role and value of women as Muslims, as Muslim women within the Muslim community, and as Muslim women within the wider community.

    The poverty of the debate about these two issues, and especially about their intersection, women in mosques, creates the farcical programme we saw this evening. I don’t think either Channel 4 or MPAC have anything to be proud of. The topic that was chosen is one of great interest and depth, and it did not get the lightness of touch or unravelling of complexity that it deserves. The male establishment figures within the Muslim community definitely need to be hauled up, but this programme did nothing to explore what lies behind these traditionally patriarchal values, nor how they vary between different Muslim subcommunities.

    MPAC is a vociferous and controversial Muslim organisation, and therefore very photogenic and media friendly. I find them hugely entertaining and Asgher Bukhari usually has some good soundbites. But I watched with my hands clasped across my eyes willing them to make the firm stand they are renowned for, without embarrassing themselves or Muslims at large. However, their aggressive confrontations at mosques (what do you think is going to happen if a group of women turn up and start shouting in front of a mosque? It ain’t gonna be pretty). It was addictive viewing.

    Alas, MPAC did not show the required sensitivity to the depth and complexity of the epic challenge of creating change within the Muslim community. They also failed to show the steady and solid changes that are being made in other mosques. We saw nothing of mosques where Muslim women are participating fully and actively and which truly serve as the centre of the community. It’s true that these are rare, but statistically they probably represent the same proportion of the Muslim community as does MPAC with its views.

    I was mostly disappointed with MPAC because of the short term goals of their strategy. It is very important to get women into mosques and create a space for them. But what for? What would the feisty young women have achieved by praying one prayer in the mosque? They would have left, and then the local women would have been no better and no worse off.

    If Real Change is the goal, then local women must want the change themselves, and must be willing to work with the elders and leaders (and yes, sometimes it is an old boys’ club). So change must come through working with women as well as committees.

    I know of mosques where the men agree to open up the space, and then women don’t come, and they say “see, where are they? The women themselves don’t want to come.” So the change needs to come from both women and men.

    Perhaps I could recommend – and I say this with the best and sincerest intention – that MPAC get themselves down to some training on how to create long lasting change in organisations. This is the way to make a real impact and make a tangible difference to women’s lives.

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  • Rights Is Not A One-Way Street

    I recently published the following article in The Muslim News

    All of us seem to be obsessed with rights these days. Muslims too have quite rightly been demanding equal rights in British society, but this seems to be at the expense of the Islamic duty of ensuring that other Britons are at ease with us.

    Everyone’s favourite phrase these days begins with the words “It is my right to…” Particularly familiar sounding will be statements such as: “It is my right to offend other people”. Others include: “It is my right to criticise”, “It is my right to blaspheme” and even “It is my right to burn flags”. We define ourselves by the rights we have. We see how far we can push the boundaries and in a mad rights-lust frenzy, we’re out to secure as many rights for ourselves as we can.

    Prophet Muhammed stated in the 7th century, “Surely God has a right over you, your self has a right over you and your wife has a right over you.” Extrapolating from this, his great grandson Ali the son of al Husayn, wrote a document entitled The Treatise on Rights (Risalatul Huquq), as an exposition of the Islamic view of rights. Rather than starting with the rights of the individual, it starts at the opposite point of view – the rights of almost everyone you can imagine, over the individual.

    Composed of only fifty paragraphs, each section is headed “The right of…”, its essence being to describe the right of a person over you. For example, amongst a wife’s rights is that her husband should “be a good companion” that he should “care for her” and he should “let her know that she is a comfort.” One of a child’s rights is that the parent should “teach good conduct”. Mothers, fathers and siblings have rights, as do leaders, followers, lawyers, business partners, advisors, people you sit next to. Even someone who is kind to you has the right “that you should thank them.”

    In such a model – one that is conceptualised around defining the rights that other people have over you – we learn to be more measured and more compassionate. So why do we as a whole society insist on dogmatically asserting our rights (as though they were a god to be appeased), and deliberately stripping the courtesy and empathy out of our culture? Stepping back from the cartoon controversy earlier this year, I had to ask myself, as a country are we really fighting for the right to be as rude and offensive to other people as we can be? We can certainly disagree, and even do so passionately, but why the need – on all sides – to insult people?

    The last few weeks have seen an increasing spotlight on the Muslim community. “Why are Muslims always in the news? All they do is demand their rights! Why can’t they just get on with it?” These are common sentiments.

    Making up only 3% of the population, Muslims get an awfully disproportionate amount of media coverage. Most of it is not by choice, and is at the hands of a selective media. For example, on the day that the press reported Jack Straw’s comments about the veil, the police discovered the largest stash of chemicals ever found in this country, along with rocket launchers and a nuclear biological suit in the houses of two men in Lancashire. The media had determined that the veil was more frightening than two white BNP members who had a destructive ‘masterplan’ and the technology to carry it out.

    The Muslim community split into two camps over the issue of the veil: those who cried “Discard the cloth and integrate!” and those who defended the veil as a matter of a woman’s choice. Alas, the way that the debate panned out, we didn’t hear the shades of grey between the two. More to the shame of the Muslim community was that we totally missed the fact that people said they felt ‘uncomfortable’ seeing or talking to women who wear veils. We got huffy. Why should people feel uncomfortable? If a woman wants to wear a veil, it’s her choice. And indeed it is. Muslims certainly had a right to insist they would wear the veil if they chose to.

    But we missed honouring a right which is as important as the right of women choosing to veil: the right of our neighbours to feel comfortable and at ease. Every right has an accompanying responsibility, and in this case the Muslim community did not step up to the mark.

    As a collective society, we could and should have found a way to honour both rights. Instead we all chose to entrench our positions and only insist on what we wanted, not what others wanted. More generosity and less selfishness were called for all round.

    If Muslim women want to wear a veil then Muslims must first acknowledge that veils can make people uncomfortable. This doesn’t mean what people are saying is necessarily right, and it doesn’t necessarily mean giving up the veil. But we have to at least recognise these feelings and assume that at least for some people this is a genuine concern. Once this is done, then we”e making progress. The next step is to find ways to alleviate this discomfort within the parameters of maintaining the dignity and principles of everyone involved.

    Let’s be frank though, people do complain that all Muslims do is “want, want, want”. So we need to ask ourselves, why is that? Without doubt some of it lies within the hostile climate we’re living in, and I wrote about this in my last piece (and boy, did I get a heated debate about it on my blog afterwards). But whether that is right or wrong, as Muslims we need to find out why this image exists. Simply using modern day rhetoric (“if they feel uncomfortable that’s their problem”) is not mature enough, and it isn’t Muslim enough. As Muslims we need to go beyond this and bring something new to the table.

    As Muslims we have a responsibility – other people have rights over us – to dispel the fear and work towards building a human connection. Muslims need to look to their own heritage within the Islamic tradition and learn about honouring the rights of others. In this case our neighbours have the right to feel safe. We can’t say that the fact they are fearful is their problem, not ours. It is our problem. Most importantly, for our neighbours and for ourselves, they have the right to know Muslims for truly who we are. Not hidden, not alien, not violent, not backwards, not blinded by faith. Muslims have to see the irony and futility in the act of burning flags to prove we’re not violent. Surely conversation with your neighbour over the fence about last night’s football match is a better way to create a human connection and to get your message across?

    On the other hand, Muslims face a huge amount of disadvantage, discrimination and prejudice. There is much work to be done to redress these imbalances. Muslims have a right to ask for these equalities which are already enjoyed by others, and they have the right to ask for the hostile media and political climate to be halted. If a Muslim asks for a right in the UK, the merit of that request must not be judged by comparison to what non-Muslims can and can’t do in Muslim countries. Muslims in this country are British Muslims and cannot be held to ransom for what happens elsewhere.

    Muslims must be accepted as part of “our country” and “our way” and this can only be done if everyone involved stops digging their heels in and myopically demanding only their own rights, instead of learning to honour the rights of others. We all choose to live in Britain, and we all wish to be part of building a better British community.

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  • A super-size Eid

    Happy Eid, everyone!

    I stood at the shop buying goodies for Eid, and the lady in front of me turned and said “It’s your Christmas isn’t it?” I grinned broadly at her: “You’re not far off!” She replied: “Well, merry Christmas then!”


    Once again, it’s a three day Eid celebration, with the Muslim community celebrating Eid on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I wrote about this last year calling it a “Supersize Eid”. (More on that in the next post, and hopefully (for those who get confused and annoyed by this, or simply have no clue about the Islamic calendar system) an explanation of why to the best of my ability, tho’ I’m no expert. Today, I had my first daytime cup of coffee in a month, and oh-oh-oh did it feel good. In the meantime, while my littl’ ol’ tummy adjusts to eating again, I’m off to buy some Eid presents…You’re very welcome to send some presents this way too :-)

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  • Veil humour (2)

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  • A brief malaise interlude

    I’m feeling uninspired today. The news was depressing and I felt futile again (can a person feel futile??). More about cluster bombs dropped by Israel in southern Lebanon which will mainly be cleared by the end of 2008, but will remain for decades, destroying a few civilians busy growing olives here and there. Then Cameron, leaked report, blah blah, policies, blah blah, tax cuts, but not necessarily blah blah blah. Floated round the internet a bit to see if there was anything contemporary and remotely lighthearted, but nothing. Discovered that Evander Holyfield was born on this day in 1962, and that in 1765 in the US the Stamp Act Congress met and drew up a declaration of rights and liberties. (no, not the Declaration of Independence, this day was not that exciting).

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  • Muslim students more liberal and tolerant

    A Home Office funded study has found that Muslim pupils are more liberal and tolerant than non Muslim pupils. The research was carried out across 400 15-year olds by Lancaster University after the 2001 Burnley riots.

    Dr Andrew Holden carried out the research, by speaking to students from three schools in Burnley and Blackburn. One had mainly white pupils (School A), one mainly Asian students (School B) and the third a mixture (School C).

    He found that 8% of pupils at school A and 12% in School C expressed an interest in finding out about other people’s religious beliefs, compared to 42% at the mainly Asian school.

    Dr Holden said: “The greater degree of racial tolerance in an overwhelming Asian/Muslim populated school again calls into question the common sense assumption that mixed schools represent more tolerant environments.” He also said that the survey had highlighted the fragility of the British identity.

    The findings contradict the view in some parts of the media that Asian pupils are in danger of falling into the hands of extremists.

    Nearly a third of the white pupils believed that one race was superior to another compared with a tenth in the Asian school and under a fifth in the mixed school.

    “The greater degree of racial tolerance in an overwhelmingly Asian/Muslim populated school again calls into question the common sense assumption that mixed schools represent the most tolerant environments.”

    In contrast, almost half of the white pupils felt that respecting others regardless of religion was not important and a quarter did not feel it was important to tolerate people with different views.

    Dr Holden said most pupils at the mainly Muslim school were well integrated and loyal to the UK.

    “The overwhelming majority supported liberal democratic values such as showing respect for others, freedom of speech, being friendly to people from other religious and ethnic groups and tolerating those with different views.”

    See the full report here

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  • Forget veils – check out these doilies!

    While the fun and games of the veil debate continues, it seems that modest headwear is also gaining momentum on the other side of the pond.

    Delaware Online and USA Today report a small but growing phenomenon of women who are taking up “the garb of earlier times” which means anything from modest clothing to bun covers to Little House on the Prairie bonnets.

    And this seems to be driven by the web. So I did a bit of checking about. My favourite is Glam Doily. They bill themselves as “guaranteed show stoppers” and “will make any woman feel proud to wear a head covering”. They come in many designs grouped as “classic”, “seasonal” and even “party”. Rock on!

    Also check out Modest World, Modest Handmaidens and Head Coverings. It’s fascinating to see that modest dress is a concept that is taking off, on the internet of all places. But a doily that you wear on your head, rather than use to decorate a tray is a new concept to me.

    Any other examples of modest dress becoming widespread out there?

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  • Time out for some reflection during the nights of Ramadhan

    The Islamic month of Ramadhan is ebbing away in front of us, and now in the last ten days it’s time to move up a gear in terms of spiritual focus. I’ve been busy blogging away, trying to get into the thick of it. But I need to step back, I need to pull my head out of the ruckus.

    This is not a political, social, humorous or news-y posting. It’s a few minutes out between me and you in the small of the night. So I’m not looking for smart media savvy comments, just a connection, a recognition of a human soul that is looking at itself awash in background noise. I’m not interested tonight in the veil comments of Jack Straw, but the veils which hide us from our selves.

    At this point in the month of Ramadhan I usually start to feel physically drained. And then the nights denoted for total spiritual focus and dedication come along, that is, the odd nights of Ramadhan in the last ten nights. It is highly recommended to stay up till dawn in prayer and reflection, partly in large groups, partly in solitude.

    You’re supposed to confront yourself and really find out what is going on inside. The nights are of spiritual challenge. Where have I reached? Where do I want to go? What improvements do I want to make?

    I sit at two, three, four in the morning, in the dark silence, a small table lamp providing a glow. My mind flits between thoughts, occasionally hovering on life, its meaning, and me. To truly challenge myself I ask, who am I? I question myself, am I doing good? I try and listen to my spirit and its pulse, I recoil in fear. I’m not sure I know how to listen, I’m not sure I want to hear.

    The silence offers me no help to drown out these challenges. No radio, TV, newspapers, no friends to call, no spouse to interact with, he sleeps. Only the challenge of the Night of Destiny, the Night of Power known in Arabic as Laylatul Qadr. I impose my own solitude as the Night demands it. The Night teases me as it knows I must face myself with no help. It knows that I know how highly this Night has been recommended for reflection and spiritual connection. And so the Night knows that I will – that I must – persevere. I cannot keep running, I cannot hide behind the noise and the political and social activity.

    I think about the activities I take part in: I pat myself on the back for trying to engage in good works, good writing, good discussion. I smile with affection at my blog, my columns, my public dialogue. But all this is outward activity, the actions in the path to doing (or at least trying to do) good.

    What about being good? What about securing that basic human spiritual connection? What about reflecting on myself and my being? Am I good? How do I know? Nobody else can comment, only I can know, can reflect on this, can assess, can improve or deteriorate. Spiritual warning: the merit or goodness of the self can go down as well as up.

    Do other people feel the same fear at being alone with themselves? Do they run from looking at themselves? Is that why we are all so busy, recoiling from being alone, hiding in the speed of work, family, politics, life? In our whirlwind lives there seems to be no time for reflection. To be busy is to be a social success. Tell someone that you took time to sit, reflect – they will admire you jealously; they may wonder if you belong to a different unknown place and time.

    Without the impetus of Ramadhan or its nights, or other equivalents in other traditions, is it easier for human beings to run rather than to reflect?

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  • The pitfalls of the Passenger Profiling Mindset

    As Jack Straw made his comments last week asking Muslim women to remove their veils, two men in his home county of Lancashire were charged with being in possession of an explosive substance for an unlawful purpose. Twenty two chemical components were recovered by police and are believed to be the largest haul ever found at a house in this country. A search of the home of one of the men also uncovered rocket launchers, and a nuclear biological suit.

    The two men were white.

    They also happened to be members of the BNP and one of them had stood for election as a BNP candidate.

    How did this story escape the attention of the mainstream press? The media loves events that are “the largest ever…” and include rockets and things that could explode. So, at a time of heightened sensitivity to all things violent and terror-related, this should have been headline news.

    None of the papers splashed it on their front page. The BBC didn’t run it, and it wasn’t picked up by PA, nor BBC Radio Lancashire. The Evening Standard said that they had run it on page 20. It was an “editorial decision” they told me.

    Why was the public not told about this incident? We have the right to know. Was the story deliberately not escalated? And if so, why? Was the “veil equals the end of multiculturalism” story more important, or was the media agenda that the veil story peddled, suddenly threatened by white people potentially being terrorists?

    The terms I’m using are quite stark, and I’m pulling no punches. This is not a story that lends itself to gentle navel gazing. It demands us to ask difficult questions. Was media interest so low because the men didn’t match the shape, size and colour that we expect those who inflict terror to come in? Was it because the men were white and not Muslims that they were charged under the Explosives Act and not the Terrorism Act? How did this (non) event compare to the media frenzy at the stake-out in Forest Gate, which yielded nothing but a wounded innocent?

    Most likely, the political and media climate has conditioned everyone – even journalists – into a Passenger Profiling Mindset. That is, terrorists are Muslims, they are brown men with beards who go to a mosque. Or there’s maybe a chance that they are little women who hide rocket launchers under their headscarves and veils? Have we stereotyped terrorists so we only see those capable of terror if they fit into a particular mould?

    If we fall into this simplistic mindset then we’re vulnerable to a huge number of dangers we complacently dismiss. Finding two white middle England men with a stash of explosives demands that we re-open the one-dimensional approach to passenger profiling and the in-built prejudices to policing including stop and search. These men would have breezed through, but could have wreaked havoc.

    Is this blatant discrimination and vilification of the Muslim community? Are there double standards at play? (Watch the politicians squirm to avoiding answering that question). The Muslim community is seething at the injustice. Incidents like Forest Gate cause huge long term damage to community relations, and shine a harsh spotlight on Muslims. Stories like this could balance the media focus by putting a stop to the barrage of negative coverage that is being inflicted on Muslims. By avoiding the investigation of incidents which challenge these hardening stereotypes we are accelerating a downward spiral of virulence and demonisation of the Muslim community,

    We can’t accept a media that is selective about what is or isn’t news, based on our prejudices and misconceptions. And a liberal free press also needs to hold itself to account for the failings that this story has exposed.

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  • October 23rd will be an interesting day

    It looks like the BBC and possibly even some of the other media will be out in force at the hearing of the two BNP members on October 23rd. There’s a great description of the situation over on Pickled Politics on More on the BNP chemicals case if you want a measured investigation of where we are. So let’s see how the media handle the next phase of this story.
    I wrote a short comment piece for the Guardian, who said that unfortunately they didn’t have space for it, but they appeared to be helpful and passed it along a few of the desks to help find a spot. But no joy. I also tried the Independent who told me that they were too busy to discuss this, and could I call back next week? P.S. thanks to Peter Palladas for calling up the BBC, see his comment on the last post on his findings.

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