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Archives from month » January, 2007

The fight against the double whammy facing Muslims

Saddam’s execution was by far one of the most shocking political events of my lifetime. He was a man that had without doubt exceeded the bounds of even the cruellest imagination, and had carried out unspeakable and revolting acts against an entire nation for decades. However, when he was about to meet justice, the moral ground which his victims occupied, for a split-second was shaky. Just a moment of wavering – of heat of the moment chants, and unsavoury mobile phone videos – detracted from the moral authority they held.

This is a people who have suffered immeasurably and what processes and values they upheld were to their credit. Their emotions and reactions were completely understandable. But the global community had hoped for more – had hoped to see a moral choice made by the Iraqi people to carry out justice with the ultimate dignity and etiquette. We wanted to see an exercise in moral intelligence in spite of the emotional pull to behave otherwise. We felt that despite their unimaginable suffering and position, they could have risen above the simplistic emotional and political pull. We willed them to show a higher level of discernment.

All human beings, including Muslims, even at the height of emotion and pressure are required to show courage that underpins moral intelligence in making the right choices. A Muslim is duty bound to uphold the right course of action no matter what voices whisper on either side, no matter who the voices are from or what they say, or of the emotions welling up inside.

Showing this discernment, exercising this moral intelligence is no easy matter. And it becomes ever more difficult with lines being drawn in black and white all around us. Bush’s famous “you are either with us or with the terrorists” laid down the gauntlet. His opponents were equally stark. They created a face-off between them with no space in between. It is not a referee that is needed to prise these two playground bullies apart, but the wisdom of moral intelligence to create an alternative, to voice that alternative and to stand up and push it through.

It takes insight and courage to be able to create a voice that asks questions, that challenges and that uses moral judgement to discern what the truth is, what is the right course of action.

The rhetoric of the War or Terror grows ever more insidious. Terrorists and extremists are held up as representatives of the wider Muslim community. Dispatches on Channel 4 ran a programme entitled “Undercover Mosque”. The theme was “a reporter attends mosques run by organisations whose public faces are presented as moderate…” but which then went onto ‘expose’ the extreme views of the Saudi backed, trained or inspired speakers. (How do you ‘expose’ something that has been prevalent for years and years and public domain knowledge?) By creating a context that these people claim to be moderates but in fact hold abhorrent and hate-filled opinions, all Muslims that claim to be moderate, or in fact any Muslims at all, immediately become suspect.

How should Muslims respond? The extreme views of those particular individuals shown on the programme – and most Muslims come across these views every day and disagree vehemently with them – these extreme views are clearly outside the parameters of Islam, contradicting it both in letter and in spirit. These are views that need to be roundly and forcefully rejected. But how to do this without supporting the devious subtext of the programme which tries to paint all Muslims with the same brush?

This is the dilemma that faces Muslims when responding to the constant onslaught from the media and from politics. The Muslim community needs to make changes and be critical of itself. But the extreme Muslim views have painted this into a black and white choice – support Muslims and be with the Muslim cause, or be against it. To criticise, to challenge is to find yourself (or so they have Muslims believe) attacking your own values. And when Muslims turn to look at Bush, Blair and their allies and counterparts, they only re-inforce the same message: you are with us or against us. If Muslims disagree with this view, they are forced into the extremist camp. The face-off is stark, and the trap is hard to navigate out of. Muslims are trapped in a double whammy, into the monochrome of black and white choice, and of a voice that has been usurped by people who leave no room in between for the shades of grey that constitute humanity.

The debate over the veil was the same. The irony of the whole debate was that most Muslims actually disagree with the veil. But by declaring war on the veil, there was an obvious subtext of a war on Muslims. Stuck in this double whammy of the black and white of the debate from both sides, Muslims were challenged to crystallise an alternative choice. They felt their hand was forced.

We needed to have the courage, and space to step back and use our moral intelligence to assess – in both cases – what was inherently right and what was inherently wrong. In the veil debate Jack Straw took away this space. But equally Muslims need to be firmer in resolve and discernment and not be goaded into making judgements and decisions by the parameters in which extremists from all sides have defined the world. Those who draw these lines include the Bush’s and Blairs of this world, as well as the media, politicians and those Muslims who hold shocking and abhorrent views.

We have to stop letting people tell us what we are or what we are not, or what we should or should not do. Islam recognises that most of the space that human beings inhabit is to a backdrop of shades of grey. Muslims need to recognise that the limits that Islam lays out are only at the extreme edges, when all other social constructs break down. The basis for interaction amongst human beings is not the letter of the law, but the spirit of humanity – tolerance, respect, interaction, duty of care, exercise of justice, forgiveness and compassion. Interaction and determinations are based on these values rather than by partisan views.

Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammed gives this advice: “Do not look to the person to find the truth, find the truth first and then look to see who follows it.” Exercising our judgement based on the spirit of Islam, the true spirit of Islam, not the Islam that the media has caricatured, needs to be done by assessing where truth lies. Locating the truth and then voicing it are the most important things.

We should not immediately recoil and reject the words from one side without careful analysis: we should not run to defend those who claim to hold the truth without exercising discernment. We must reclaim for ourselves the right to discern the truth and then identify who that is.

It may be that no-one is upholding the truth. We must uphold that truth, we must pursue it, we must voice it and champion it, even if it goes against received wisdom or ingrained rhetoric. This is the only way to exit the double whammy and create a long term path to a solution.

Muslims need to get out of the corner they are sadly painted into: where there appears to be a need to defend some untenable and frankly wrong position held by some Muslims, because those attacking have the subtext of denouncing and maligning all Muslims. But this is not a corner: there is a clear way out, but it is by no means easy. By showing dignity, justice, and self criticism alongside humanity, compassion and understanding and fairness, we will free ourselves of this double whammy and allow us to face down these sensationalist, vile and hate-filled attacks which masquerade under the guise of ‘revealing’ Muslims as ‘evil’ and ‘anti- democracy’.

This does not mean being moderate, weak or watered down. Quite the opposite: it requires courage, voice and moral intelligence. These are the essence of what makes Islam as described in the Qur’an, the ‘middle’ path or the ‘moderate’ way. Those who claim that being the voice of the middle path means we are kow-towing are oh-so-wrong, so very wrong.


The middle path is the straight and reasoned path, the choice taken independent of outside pressure and influence. It is the self-made decision based on moral intelligence and self belief. It is not weak, it is strong, brave, courageous – to face up to extreme views on both sides and assert that the intelligent moral choice lies not in the screaming black and white extremes, but in the voice of the human compassion, conscience and reason. In these shades of grey, we can create meaningful voices and dialogue. When we move to the blackened extremes and the light fades, that is where we find ourselves blinded.


Refusing to shake hands – the latest crime?

Whilst the delightful squeaky clean tabloids are busy throwing stones in Jade Goody’s glass house, they are also running a story about a female Muslim police officer who has refused to shake hands with Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. It is, once again, the end of the known world.

She has completed her training, engaging with both men and women as required in a professional capacity of being a police officer. However, according to this story she states: “There is a standard between personal and professional life. A passing-out parade is a personal event. You are not fulfilling a professional duty there.”

Once again, it seems that the media wishes to blow the tiniest most insignificant incident into a full scale national security issue. I can’t currently find any information to cross reference this against, but even in the story itself, the woman in question comes across as quite balanced. She shows that full engagement in her role as on officer is what is required, but once outside that domain, why should she have to do something that she doesn’t want to? Last time I checked, it wasn’t a crime to not shake hands with someone. Think of shaking hands for a Muslim woman like a full face snog with your boss might feel like for someone else. It’s a case of re-calibrating the sensitivity scale.

“It’s ridiculous!” you may cry. “We should all be identical! And I am the person who should determine how people should feel and what they should do!”


Shilpa Poppadum? Mind your Language!

You may recall a TV sitcom called Mind Your Language which aired sometime around the late seventies/early eighties about a hapless English teacher called Mr Brown and his class of students who were newly arrived to the UK and trying to improve their English. It drew on every known stereotype of foreigners, and it caricatured their differences to elicit mirth and belly laughs. They were from all over the place – Spain, Greece, Italy, Pakistan, India and so on. “You Spanish omelette”, one would insult the other. “You Indian chapatti!” cried the next. And here is the rub of it: “You Pakistani poppadum!”.

Couching it in humour does not take away its sting or its appalling undertones. In the context discussed this week on infamous Big Brother, and said behind the recipient’s back, it is truly horrific. We discussed this at work yesterday. My charming ethnically white colleagues sat up when they heard that this sort of thing was rife, a widespread low grade racism, prevalent at all levels. “Look at your sample” they said referring to the three girls. They thought about it some more, and after discussion concluded that actually this was happening at all levels, it was just more blatant here. It had never occurred to them that this happens all the time to the point where people just become de-sensitised to the misery it is causing them.

The amazing thing is that we have a case study here of how poor Shilpa struggles so hard to believe she is not being targeted for her race – notice her huge smile when she thinks things are patched up. But she doesn’t know what is being said behind her back, how the stink of racism still festers beneath the cries of “I’m not a racist, I’m not”. Why else do the three girls huddle together to share their mutual distaste of “The Indian” who they have said “aggravates” them, and who at least one of them (without contradiction from the others) wishes she would “F*** off home”. She didn’t even realise she said it, which just goes to show how deep these attitudes run.

They say “That’s not me”, but it is precisely in environments of stress like Big Brother that you see people for who they truly are. They can’t even see if for themselves. I wonder how they will react when the evidence is placed before them. I wonder how Britain is reacting when this mirror is placed before them?


Fantasy Celebrity Big Brother

With the whole world taking an interest in Big Brother, and what it means for some of the big social issues of our time, it got me thinking that putting together other big names under the cameras for 24 hours a day might not be such a bad thing. Either they would have to sort out their differences and get to know each other as people, or we’d actually get to see them for what they are.

Here is my proposal for the first 12 nominations:
George Bush (pretty obvious choice, could be good fun)
Condoleeza Rice (I want to know what really lies underneath that unruffled exterior)
Ahmedinajad (also pretty obvious choice, want to see how they all react with each other)
Cherie Blair (I think she’d be much more entertaining than hubby)
Gordon Brown (“Liar!” exclaimed Cherie Blair. ‘Nuff said)
Shami Chakrabarty (just to get some good soundbites)
King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia (how do they keep those long white thobes so clean and dazzling?)
Gadaffy (the curve ball)
Liz Hurley (“I’d like to order some safety pins with this week’s budget”. She’d just be highly watchableTV)
Chaves (or is he the curve ball?)
Putin (to see how long it takes for him to start a mafia)
Patricia Hewitt or Margaret Beckett or John Reid (just to get one of them away from all those pies they are messing with and keep them out of trouble for a few weeks).

I reckon the winner would be either Shami (for remaining sane) or Ahmedinajad for just jaw dropping shock.

Who do you think would win? What are your proposals for a fantasy celebrity big brother?


The plight of the successful Asian woman

How can I write about anything other than Big Brother? My fingers have been itching to do so all week, but with eviction day looming it’s time to seize the opportunity. There’s plenty being said about the Shilpa-Jade tiff, much of it very serious. However, one comment I wanted to make was about how the three English girls seem to have difficulty dealing with a successful Asian woman. It seems that wherever you go in the UK, whether it’s in wider society and even within the Asian community itself, it’s a bit naughty to be a successful Asian woman with personality. The cheek of it!

As a young educated asian woman myself, I find that often people just don’t know how to react to you. If you’re intelligent, articulate, well educated and successful, with a personality and some looks, people first look at you and judge you by stereotypes, and then when you speak become nervous, intimidated or confused. This is clearly what is happening to Shilpa Shetty, but it is an everyday occurrence in all walks of life in the UK, irrespective of class or background. Some reactions are more vile, others of surprise. The common factor is the pigeon-holing of Asian women as diminuitive, homely and oppressed. From within the Asian community and the wider society it’s consider very cheeky for Asian women to be successful, to have opinions and be of more substance than just looks. I love watching the look of shock on people’s faces when I tell them that I was at Oxford. Brings their stereotypes crashing down. I always have a little giggle to myself at the confusion I’ve caused to their view of the world. Great fun!


Letter to Channel 4 Dispatches

I don’t normally cut and paste stuff verbatim onto my blog, but I felt strongly that this letter written to Channel 4 deserves a wider airing. I think it brings out the subtext of the programme and what lay beneath it’s seemingly self-righteous tone. The more I reflected on the programme, the more cross I felt. It was yet another example of how maligning Muslims is the newest bloodsport in this country. And no, that’s not hyperbolae.

*******************************************
Dear Sir

I am greatly dismayed and saddened at the way your programme deliberately misportrayed Islam and muslims, casting them wholesale as intolerant and as the ‘other’. The documentary does a great injustice to the reputation of your programme and television channel as it does not – despite attempts to the contrary – provide dispassionate and objectively coherent analysis. It was clearly designed to speak to an agenda to malign the faith and its adherents.

A very large proporation of the examples used to support the programme’s assertions were decontextualised – similar assertions could easily be made by such analyses of other mainstream monotheistic faiths.
For example (and as you should have known), commentary about homosexuals – even if you disagree with it- of the same sort is found in Christianity and Judaism. The Pope does not agree with homosexuality, yet he is not targetted for journalistic assassination. There are also extremists in Judaism, Christianity and other religions, and it would be possible to construct the same programme about any religion if that were the intent. There has never been similar portrayal of Irish Catholics on the basis of IRA terrorism, or Orthodox Judaism despite it’s many similarities in creed to Islam. Yet common decency, common sense and restraint is afforded to other belief systems in a way which is not equitably applied to Islam. Sweeping generalisation is not an ingredient befitting a quality dispatch.

Your actions do not accurately or responsibly add to societal debate / discourse, but are in fact wrecklessly irresponsible and inflammatory. The implication that mainstream Islam and its followers are essentially evil / outside the pale and so forth would be laughable if it were not also at the same time so deeply wrong and damaging. The subtext that all muslims are as you have chosen to represent them is also statistically highly unlikely and paranoid – over 1 billion people?

You should really offer a sincere apology for the hatchet job that your aired programme was, and resolve to be objective, balanced, constructive and dignified to try and regain your credibility.even if your viewing figures may initially suffer. Quality will always prevail over a cheap thrill. Unless of course sensationalism is your driving principle and you aim to emulate the tabloid press.

Please convey this complaint to your wider organisation

Deeply disappointed.

Yours


Channel 4’s Dispatches – Undercover Mosque

I’m beginning to wonder two things about today’s Dispatches which was yet another programme about Muslims – have they been taken over by the Daily Mail, and did someone forget to tell them that we’re no longer in the mid-eighties or nineties but in the mid-noughties?

The programme on tonight was called “Undercover Mosque” which was based around some undercover reporting in two mosques (out of about 1600 that currently exist in the UK, which is less than one tenth of one per cent of all mosques) that shockingly revealed extremist views amongst a select band of preachers who all had in common a connection with Saudi Arabia. The programme’s raison d’etre was “how a message of hatred and segregation is being spread throughout the UK and examines how it is influenced by the religious establishment of Saudi Arabia”.

This is not news. The Saudis have been exporting this brand of Islam for decades, under the ever watchful eye of its ‘allies’. The Wahabbi flavour of Islam is well known to Saudi Arabia’s politcal allies and has actually been used as a form of social control in less pliant Muslim countries. It has been bubbling angrily throughout the Muslim community in the UK for years and years. I have grown up with it. And I have grown up with the Muslim community’s efforts to counter it and bring shades of compassion and humanity to its stark and uncompromising message.

This is not new and therefore this is not news. I say it again. And the programme’s tabloid-esque approach to flashing up statements from a few individuals, and then placing them in the context of mainstream organisations, and then self-righteously stating the responses from the organisations to make it look like they were defensively denying something that was true is gutter journalism at its worst. You don’t need an undercover reporter to tell you what was ‘uncovered’. It’s all apparent and public domain information.

It was hard to feel angry at the specific point the programme was making – about the harsh message of the Saudi funded message. The Muslim community in the UK, and round the world, has grown up with it in the latter years of the last century. It’s true, Wahabbi Islam is puritanical and tough. We already knew this. But what did make me very cross were the subtle and not so subtle messages that somehow the whole muslim community is tainted by it, that extremism is widespread, that Islam and Muslims are evil and full of hate and duplicitous. Why does Channel 4 choose to stir up these messages to create hatred? Is it OK to cast a whole community in this light?

Dispatches has an awful lot to answer for, and I’m frustrated and disappointed that a programme that being broadcast on a mainstream and once respected TV channel has resorted to such a simplistic portrayal of a complex and sensitive issue that is of such high impact and profile.

Navigating our way through the current political and social issues that involve Islam and Muslims requires intelligence and understanding on all parts. This comic book approach only serves to perpetuate and entrench ignorance amongst those who are not Muslims, and to frustrate, anger and dishearten those Muslims who truly are dedicated to a balanced, tolerant and fruitful social dialogue.

FINALLY!!!!!
I wonder why Dispatches didn’t do an ‘undercover’ investigation of Channel 4’s Shariah TV programme. You’ll find that one of the guests on the panel was none other than a scholar from the very same Green Lane Mosque in Birmingham, and General Secretary of the conservative Muslim organisation Markazi Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith (based at the mosque) which was the mosque which formed the heart of the programme.
One sided hate-stirring sensationalism perhaps?


Goodbye 2006, hello 2007

After a rest over the festive period, I’m picking up my metaphoric pen ready to face the new year. And what an end of year it was. Saddam Hussein’s death was a most remarkable event on so many different levels. In my lifetime he is the only world leader that I remember who has had legal proceedings brought against him in this way and been held to account for them. In my simple lay-person view Pinochet got away with it, nothing happened to Clinton’s perjury, the Shah got a holiday to Egypt, Sharon shirked off the massacres of Sabra and Chatila, Idi Amin sought refuge in Saudi Arabia to name but a few.

Most disappointing and eyebrow-raising for me though was the fact that the thousands and thousands of hideous crimes and murders he committed were not, and will never be brought into the public eye. What of the justice that his victims deserve? Why was his horrific record brushed over? For example, why was Halabja never mentioned? I was a child when it happened, but it marked me indelibly. The horror of burnt, half destroyed bodies, eaten by inexplicable chemicals and strewn in mid-life through the streets that the people had walked only minutes before cannot be forgotten so easily by the international community. Just as the reign of terror and all the other vile crimes that were committed cannot be relegated to a closed chapter.

All of this was not committed by the single man Saddam Hussein. Who was it who provided him with the tools and chemicals? Who supported him in power? Who turned a blind eye to his use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war? Why will we never hear the answers to this?