Month July

  • The Inconvenient Diversity of Muslims

    A group of civil servants are holding a meeting in the gloomy depths of Whitehall. The lacklustre policy-makers have been tasked to find solutions for Muslims. They check the Daily Mail and The Sun to research the problems.

    “Immigration,” cries one of them. “National security!” barks another. “Parallel lives and integration,” disagrees the third. “They won’t eat sausages.” They pause and then chorus in horror: “What, no bangers and mash?” However, they do all agree on one thing: that Muslims are being problematic. If only they could organise themselves into one group, and present a unified document on their problems and the appropriate solutions, how handy that would be. They sigh wistfully at this utopia. Perhaps the Government could even elect someone to head this all up, an Archbishop, or a chief Rabbi.

    “The Ottomans used to call the head honcho a ‘mufti’,” pipes up one of the new interns to the department. He rummages around in his briefcase and pulls out a recent report by an online pollster called YouGov. The intern is keen to impress. “42 per cent of Sunni Muslims believe that the UK should have a Sunni Muslim religious leader or mufti. 53 per cent of non-Muslims believe the same.” He lifts his head and glances at his compatriots like a puppy looking for adulation. He can sense he has captured the attention of the senior civil servants. Suddenly, a loud burp makes them turn their heads to the chubby old codger at the back of the room. “It’ll never work,” he hiccups. They all ignore him, infatuated by the statistics.

    The consultant licks his lips. His contract is up for renewal and he urgently needs a new high profile project. “Let’s scope out a role for a mufti. We could do a reality TV show with a hundred thousand pound a year job at the end of it. We’d call it, ‘The Mufti’ and run a twelve week knock out competition. The tasks would include: condemnation of suicide bombers, alignment of all Muslims into one view and making sure all Muslim children speak only English from birth. Maybe one of the tasks could be a fashion show for Mufti clothes and beards from round the world.”

    They all turn back to look at the intern. “53 per cent of other Muslims think it’s a good idea too.” “Does ‘other Muslims’ mean Shi’a Muslims?” asks the old codger. “Er, no, they are considered separately.” The weary codger sighs: “I wonder why there are more ‘other Muslims’ than Shi’a Muslims in this poll, given the high percentage of Shi’a Muslims in the UK.” The intern looks sheepish. He looks to the consultant for help, who in turn looks at the simple pie charts on the report: “63 per cent of Sunni Muslims believe that a Mufti would have a positive impact, and 54 per cent believe it would improve relations with non-Muslims.” He looks up, smug. He can sense a meaty renewal to his contract. “Grass roots search is the way to go fellows, we’ll by-pass any organisation and go straight to all those with no track records in community work. That way we don’t have to worry about agreement, consensus and diversity.”

    The old codger leans over to look at the report and then snorts with the cynicism of age. “Mufti, shmufti.” He glances disdainfully at the intern who recoils in fear. “Ignoring the fact that the sample is not representative of the British Muslim population, 27 per cent of those polled didn’t even know if the UK should have a mufti, and a further 31 per cent said no. Between them is more than those who said that the UK should have one. 52 per cent thought the impact of a mufti would be negative, neutral or simply didn’t know. That’s more than those who thought it was a good thing.” He pauses. “It’s a complete nonsense.” He yawns and slumps back in his chair.

    The grey suits mutter discontentedly. “This is Britain. We can’t be doing talking to people of different views from different groups. It’s just inconvenient. The Muslims who keep telling us that they are a diverse community of different ethnic groups and that they have varying views about Islam, is just a red herring to distract us. They need to get it together, and if they don’t, we’ll do it for them.” He turns to his assistant. “Get the idea over to the PM straight away. Tell him we need a mufti.” The assistant scuttles out of the room.

    “I’ll write a document defining British Islam!” chips in the intern, trying to reclaim the glory for his idea. The room goes quiet and he’s not sure if he has hit upon a winner or not. He tries his luck. “The policy will include who can be an Imam and what the Imam can say. It will specify what schools Muslims can go to and how they have to fit in and go to the school disco. Obviously, we need to define what kinds of coverings Muslim women can wear especially when expressing political opinions. We don’t want just anyone participating in the political process willy-nilly. There could be a section on what languages Muslims are allowed to speak, especially at home, and of course we would define what opinions they can have. I could add an appendix on songs they need to learn to support the English football team, and how to behave in a pub.”

    “Old hat, dear boy, old hat. We’ve got the citizenship test which covers football and pubs, and we’re sorting out legislation and guidelines on schooling and clothing. We’re getting rid of any organisations that seem to represent the variety of Muslim views and we’re already talking at grassroots level to people who have done little or no community service to get them more involved to brainwash the kids.” The grey suit smiles darkly. He has been working on his oratory style so he sounds more like Jack Straw. “The Muslim community is not uniform. You can’t just appoint an Archbishop of Muslims, or a Chief Islamic Rabbi.” The old codger’s voice hints at his exasperation with the lack of understanding and reality in the room.

    The grey suit’s assistant creeps back into the room. He leans over and whispers something into the ear of the suit. His face darkens, and then he fidgets in his chair. “Forget this low-level drivel you’ve been discussing. I’ve been summoned by Gordon to talk about British-ness, and how we make the very un-British habit of snitching on people and telling tales into a Union Jack stamped British value.” He turns to the rest of the room and waves his hands around, as though consigning Blair’s rhetoric to the past. He addresses them with a speech drawn from his goldfish memory. “These failed terrorists in London and Glasgow, they are criminals, and we all need to be working to get rid of them. I don’t want to hear any more talk of Islamic terrorists or Islamofascists. You idiots got that? They are criminals and must be treated as such.”

    The old codger’s first instinct is cynicism: “A Scotsman defining Britishness? Criminals defined and persecuted because of the hideousness of their crimes? Faith not maligned because of the actions of the extremist few?” He feels a counter-surge of optimism. He secretly hopes that this change of language about Muslims and terrorists from Brown signals a ray of hope, a change in the lunacy of the last few years. He’ll give Gordon some time to prove himself, but he’ll be watching…

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  • The Low Down on Tea with the Queen

    Not that I am precious about these things, but I did expect at least to say hello to the Queen in person. I didn’t expect a one-to-one audience, but perhaps about two or three hundred people. Alas, to put my ego in its place, we turned up to discover about three thousand people invited over to Buck Palace for cucumber sandwiches. Not the kind of thing an eminent blogger would expect.

    Having been brought up with good-old-fashioned host etiquette, I was at the very least expecting to be greeted in however cursory a manner by Her Majesty the Hostess, but us plebs were only permitted a long distance view, and then she was cordoned off from the Great Unwashed unless by special invitation. Most disappointing and ungratifying.

    The sandwiches were good, but all the smoked salmon nibbles went and we were left with the ham sandwiches, not so perfect for the observant Muslims. There were a few good little sweets though. Let them eat cake!

    The gardens were extremely picturesque, with a small lake at the far end, backing onto the road, which could be heard noisily over the wall. I’m sure that doesn’t do anything to keep the property price up.

    Having got right royally dressed up (pardon the pun), we had hoped we would meet various interesting and important poeple. Most guests seemed intent on keeping to themselves and mingling and networking were most definitely not on the cards. Having strolled through the gardens, eaten the provisions and got huffed up about not being able to see let alone meet the Queen, we left an hour early, bored and disappointed. As a guest it feels ungrateful to say that, when dear Lizzie has gone to so much trouble and expense to host us. I wonder if it will show up on my tax bill?

    Anyhow, although th invitation had mentioned no photos (and no, I won’t be paying £16 for the commemorative DVD), I manage to sneak a few. Here’s one, I do hope I don’t get arrested…

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  • Tea with the Queen

    One would like one to know that one has been invited to a spot of tea and some cucumber sandwiches with one’s Queen this afternoon at the Palace. One is most excited even though one is a not a dyed in the wool royalist. One is most disappointed that one cannot take one’s camera, but heaven’s blessings! one can in fact purchase a DVD of footage of this afternoon’s summer garden party with Her Majesty which includes 30 mintues of filming which may feature one.

    One will furnish you with the details on one’s return. Toodle pips!

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  • In the footsteps of great Muslim cultures

    I’m a bit late in posting this up, but here is my latest article from The Muslim News

    On long summer evenings in the capital, young Muslims from across the city usually spill out onto the streets of central London. They are interspersed amongst the multitude of visitors from the Middle East who come here to escape from the unbearable heat of their home countries.

    Edgware Road and Bayswater are particular magnates for these visitors, a bit like Ibiza and Tenerife for the British. They offer the languages, food and comforts of home, but in a better climate. The visitors usually spend time with the same people who they live close to at home. You see pockets of them congregating in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. The heavily perfumed and well-turned out women promenade through the department stores on Oxford Street, handing over credit cards and hauling home their voluminous purchases. Their influx is wonderful for London’s economy.

    At first glance to the untrained eye, many of them would pass as London’s own Muslim community. The women are fashionably dressed, often speak good English, and mingle confidently in their new social environment. But look more closely, and their style of clothing, their conversations and languages vary considerably to those of born-and-bred British Muslims.

    There seems to be little interaction between the visitors and those who are native to London, despite the commonalities of faith. This separation is intriguing, and quite surprising. As a child travelling abroad with my parents, it was instilled in me that it was obligatory in each place to search for the local halal restaurant, to establish immediately the location of the nearest mosque, to exchange information and experiences with the local Muslims. They would be just as excited to meet us, as we were to meet them, whether we were in Vancouver, Zagreb or Sierra Leone. Creating the bonds was deliciously satisfying and instantly made us feel at home.

    The visitors to London appear to have little interest in getting to know the local Muslims. They have simply chosen to come on holiday to the UK to ‘get away from it all’. Does their lack of interest in the local Muslim population lie in the fact they come from a place where almost everyone is Muslim? Unlike the minority Muslim groups scattered around Europe and the Americas who look to create relationships wherever they travel, are they without the incentives to seek out those with whom they share faith connections? Alternatively, does the wider Muslim world make the assumption that Muslims round the globe must be the same as they are? Therefore they may have no interest in getting to know the natives. Or maybe they are simply not plugged into the fact that Muslims outside of the traditional ‘homelands’ are evolving and have their own contribution to make?

    Muslims in the UK are sensitively attuned to what is happening to Muslims round the world, in countries where they are both the majority and the minority. Can the same be said for Muslims who inhabit the traditional countries of ‘Dar-ul-Islam’? Travelling around the Middle East, I am constantly asked if I am a Muslim, despite the fact that I wear the hijab. “Are there really Muslims in Britain?” they ask in innocent shock. “Do you really pray? You didn’t have a boyfriend or marry a non-Muslim? Are there really two million Muslims in the UK?”

    I wonder if Muslim visitors to the UK notice the different flavour of Islam here. If they do, they may tell us that the ways of ‘back home’ are more religious, more cultural, more perfect; that the youth of the UK have strayed and must return to the cultural and religious ways, say the conservative elements. There is often criticism of young Muslims and their exploration of creating new cultures that draw on their heritage of being both Muslim and British, along with their own ethnic heritage.

    And here lies the rub. Young British Muslims are trying intelligently to create a new culture for themselves that is positive, cohesive and confident. ‘Back home’ is no better and no worse. They simply say that it is not appropriate for them. They are forging a new culture and a new stage of development of Muslim culture.

    Muslims love to hark back to the ‘golden’ age of the Muslim empire, as it spread across the Middle East, to the Indian sub-continent, to Malaysia, Indonesia and even China. These were the glory days, we are told, but the fact that these nations created their own Muslim cultures is glossed over. In fact, the Muslim cultures of such non-Arab territories far outnumber in terms of population those of the Arabian Muslim cultures. We look across at their history and achievements with pride, not as aberrations.

    We should not be trying to retrofit the development of British Muslim culture into the mould of an ‘authentic’ Muslim culture. British Muslims should instead draw on the vibrant historic traditions of Muslims over the centuries who mesh with local communities to create new and dynamic cultures. The Alhambra in Spain is one of the world’s greatest testaments to the spirit of cultural development. The fact it lies in Europe, and so close to Britain should give us the confidence and pride to explore our faith through the prism of British-ness of which we are now an integral part.

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