Month October

  • Passive followers are just as responsible as bad leaders

    The crisis of leadership in the Muslim community is also a crisis of followership. Leaders and followers both need to understand the etiquette of exercising their duties

    One of my favourite stories from the Qur’an is the tale of the Prophet Ibrahim, known also in the Bible, as Abraham. He always struck me as a deeply discerning character, who found truth in the simplest and clearest ways.

    Ibrahim watches the sun rise, and like his contemporaries considers whether it might be the lord of the worlds. As the sun sets and disappears to nothingness and oblivion, he concludes that it cannot be the Almighty. He watches the moon rise and set in the same way, and reasons that it too cannot be the Creator for the same reason. He concludes that the true Creator must be far greater, that the true Divine is one that must have created all these things that people believe wrongly believe are gods. Ibrahim declares that he is not of those who believe in many gods.

    As a person of faith, this narrative strikes us as simple and obvious. Yet it does not seem so obvious to his peers. How is it that they cannot see the truth in front of their noses? The facts are so clear, we cry, waving our fists fervently at the verses recounting this inexplicable inability to see the truth.

    When Ibrahim challenges his uncle – ironically, a man who carves idols – about how he can believe in all these gods, especially those who he himself has created, the answer is one that makes me stop dead in my tracks. For me, the uncle’s response is one of the most telling and yet least pondered on in the whole Qur’an.

    His answer offers us insight into the painful modern tensions of culture and faith, the thorny yet fundamental issues of leadership and direction, the stunting reluctance to admit the need for change. In ordinary lay terms, the man immortalised in the Qur’an shows us how drawing from misplaced authority can result in fatal and devastating consequences. To me, the response is a clear statement of the fact that blind following and literalism is a debilitating phenomenon of the human condition, and one which we continue to be crippled by today.

    Ibrahim is a cheeky chappy, and one whom I admire for his ironic audacity, all of which are qualities in which we are severely deficient today. In engaging and challenging authority he uses a certain charm, and a well-defined adab, etiquette. He chops the heads off all the idols which the local community worship, except for the chief idol, and then places the axe on the shoulder of the chief. When he is challenged by the local leaders, he smiles wryly and says, why don’t you ask the chief idol, he’s the one with the axe. Cue cartoon steam flaring out of the leaders’ ears and much communal anger at this anti-establishment upstart. Again, the truth of Ibrahim’s narrative is obvious. The anger of the leaders is based on the simplicity of his exposition of the truth. They can see, yet they are blind. And what is the answer as to why they continue to believe?

    “Because our fathers, and their fathers used to do this.”

    In our ringside seats at this historical debacle we jump up and down screaming, do you not have your own brains to reflect? Is it not possible, even obvious, that your fathers were wrong? Have you not derived the authority for your actions from an incorrect source? Ibrahim’s gentle humour and irony force his community leaders to engage in dialogue and respond to their followers.

    Stop for a moment and reflect. We are in the same situation. Muslim communities and mosques are upholding traditions because this is what our fathers used to. Women treated as inferior beings, not permitted in mosques or on mosque committees? Like our fathers… Imams preaching in languages other than English? Like our fathers… Marriages and matches based on caste and family rather than compatibility and choice… like our fathers…

    But ‘fathers’ is also metaphoric, referring not just to those who precede, but also those to whom we give authority. And here, exactly here, are the Big Questions for the Muslim community. Who should have authority? What should be the nature of the relationship between leaders and followers? Most critically in what manner should followers engage with those in authority?

    Those in authority should fully expect to be kept on their toes. They earn their stripes by engaging with those who challenge. They must show leadership through creating dialogue. Those leaders who insist on broadcast monologue and who cannot hear the questioning, enquiring, even challenging voices do not bear out the qualities required in a Muslim leader. Leadership in the worldly sphere is consensual. Even the Prophet asked his people “Is it not that I have authority over you?” Only when they replied “But of course you do!” did he proceed with offering them further direction. This is the etiquette of the leader.

    Our leaders need to address these fundamental requirements. Communication – both in language as well as style and format – is critical. Being forward thinking and visionary in order to lead by example are also fundamental. Being open to new challenges, ideas and situations is also key. Underpinning all these is the concept of dialogue. Authority, like respect and trust, has to be gained, not simply asserted through history, culture or shouting loudest.

    The Muslim communities are indeed in a leadership crisis. What this means is that we are also in a crisis of followership, because the relationship between leaders and followers is a symbiotic one. We abandon our responsibilities as followers and then whine when we are not happy with leaders. If we complain that we don’t have the right leaders, it is because we don’t know how to exercise our duties as good followers.

    Good followers know when to challenge, but more importantly they know how to challenge. Healthy enquiry does not require mass anarchy and rebellion, but it does keep leaders on their toes. After all, the Prophet was often asked ‘why’, and the Qur’an is constantly referring to those who believe as people who ‘think’, ‘reflect’ and ‘ponder’, all qualities of a questioning mind.

    Ibrahim does not raise his voice to his community leaders and shout them down, telling them brutally that they are outdated and engaged in shirk, polytheism. He does not call them names and humiliate them in public, asserting that they are wrong, and only he is right (even though in his case he actually is). Rather, with his uncle he uses gentle discussion and compassion, and even goes on to pray to Allah for him. With the community leaders he does not enter a slanging match but rather uses humour and patience in exposing the falsity of their idol worship. Even the Prophet spends forty years building relations with the community before even saying a word about the One God and the deen of Islam. And when he does start to spread the word he invites the leaders of the tribe to share a meal at his house.

    We have forgotten that Islam was a challenger, an outsider that came to confront establishment. It brought revolutionary ideas – the equality of human beings, the rights of women, the unity of God, the peaceful co-existence of tribes and nations. It met with resistance from leaders because it challenged the status quo. Islam grew because as a challenger, its style and etiquette was based on the wisdom of manners. Courtesy, compassion and patience were its foundations.

    The challenge for Muslims today is to discern to whom they should give authority, and to engage in constant dialogue with them, with the right Islamic etiquette. The leader must understand that gone are the days for monologues and silent obedience, and now is the time for interaction and engagement. Leaders must expect this and encourage it. The follower must understand that questioning and challenging are a duty, but must not to be engaged in with hostility and rebellion, but with enthusiasm for improvement and aspiration for the truth.

    Ibrahim is asked to sacrifice his son at the command of God, to prove that he is willing to give up what he loves most. God replaces the intended victim with a sheep, a creature known for following blindly and unthinkingly. The choice of Ibrahim is always before us: to assess truth on its own merits irrespective of mass opinion, culture and history or to suffer the consequences of unquestioning and unthinking followership.

    Recently published in The Muslim News

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  • Channel 4 thriller ‘Britz’ asks, are Muslims bombers or spies?

    On Wednesday and Thursday of this week Channel 4 will be airing a two part thriller called Britz about a sister and brother who react in different ways after September 11th. Sohail (played by MC Riz, who also starred in The Road to Guantanamo) joins MI5 in a bid to find the terrorists. His sister Nasima (played by Manjinder Virk who was in Bradford Riots) feels alienated by foreign and domestic policy and the reactions of her neighbours and peers. Channel 4 bills the series as an exploration of Muslim life under anti-terror legislation and whether these laws are making us safer or putting us in greater danger.

    Khurshid Ahmed of the British Muslim Forum said: ‘Channel 4 should be working with us to defeat terrorism and extremism, not sowing hate and division in our communities, and reinforcing negative stereotypes.’ The Home Office added, we can understand the British Muslim Forum’s concerns. Given Channel 4’s remit as a public service broadcaster, they should listen to the views of moderate Muslims who reject violence and extremism, and they should air those views alongside this film.’

    Channel 4 think it will deal with key issues of racism, identity, MI5 recruitment and spying and Islam. It remains to be seen if the show will be a positive contribution to the debate or further caricature Muslims and the choices they make.

    Spy or bomber? Doesn’t sound like much of a choice to me… How about depicting a choice to be (as almost all Muslims are) a peaceful British Muslim citizen who feels pain at the suffering of innocents, who wants to participate in national and local life, and who just want to get on with living life like everyone else?
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  • The Arts and Islam – exploration or provocation?

    Chris Wilkinson on the Guardian Arts blog asks “Are artists afraid to approach radical Islam?” prompted by a piece by Peter Whittle who claims that “The arts are increasingly censoring themselves when it comes to Islam”. Whittle argues that radical Islam is threatening and violent when it comes to criticism, and thus the arts are being frightened into silence and are unable to express their real opinions. Wilkinson rebuts him and points to a raft of artists that are indeed engaged in exploring Islam and Muslims but have not created the headline sensations that Whittle points to as proof of Islam’s supposed barbarism.

    What is the purpose of the arts? That is the question that underlies this debate. Whittle seems to think that the label of ‘art’ permits anyone to say anything at all, and elevates ‘provocation’ onto a pedestal when it is under the guise of art.

    It seems perfectly reasonable that the arts should address Islam and Muslims, in fact the arts are often the channel by which new ideas and phenomenons are addressed in Europe and America. The issue is how and why. Exploration and critique? Bring it on. Gratuitous displays and offensiveness? I don’t see the point. The authors need to at least have a basic understanding of what they are talking about, and a goal for their production. It also needs to be clear – is the aim of the ‘attack’ ‘critique’ ‘exploration’, whatever you call it, to criticise Islam, or to cause fear, misunderstanding and even hatred of Muslims. If it is a criticism of Islamic tenets, be my guest. It’s not unique or groundbreaking, it’s happened before. The faith can take it, after all it’s been around for a while. If it is blindsighted hate, or ignorant provocation under the guise of free speech, then it devalues both its subject and the hallowed paradigm of freedom of expression.

    When the Danish cartoon story broke there was much discussion in the media about the right to be offensive. Is that what we aspire to as a society? The right to be offensive? I find that demeaning to human beings that that is the best we can do. Surely we should yearn for politeness, etiquette and good behaviour on all sides? Criticism and difference of opinion have their etiquettes too, something we seem to have forgotten.

    Muslims do tend to be over sensitive to the arts as a form of exploration and dialogue, partly because western arts appear to go out of their way to be offensive, and partly because there is no identical tradition in the Muslim world. Muslims have their own artistic traditions but they follow different formats.The Muslim world tends to engage in more spoken or written forms of discourse where books, poetry and didactic interchange are more traditional formats. Get a bunch of top scholars together and the levels of criticism and argument are likely to be high, but its not something we see often in the public domain.

    However, death threats and violence from Muslims must stop. It’s really no way to deal with those who have nothing valuable to say and are being provocative for provocation’s sake. What Muslims need to learn is to channel the arts and use it as a means for expression.

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  • Pink hijab day in support of breast cancer awareness day

    Tomorrow, Friday 26th October, is Breast Cancer Awareness Day. In support of this many Muslim women across the world will be wearing Pink Hijabs to show their solidarity. If you are a Muslim woman, make sure you wear yours with pride and sympathy with those who are battling this awful disease, and those who have suffered from its ravages, whether they suffer themselves or it affects someone they are close to.

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  • Eid celebration in Trafalgar Square

    For the second time, the Mayor of London gave over Trafalgar Square for a world-class Eid festival. On Saturday there were about thirty thousand people gathered together to celebrate Eid, the end of the Muslim month of Ramadhan. It was a great crowd, pleasurably diverse in both ethnicity and age. The square was packed to capacity, and it was almost impossible to move.

    I spoke to Ken Livingstone, the current Mayor, before going up on stage to kick off the event. He said it was a positive move that we wanted to promote the square as a place of celebration for people, not just a place of protest. Whatever you may think of Ken, it was a sentiment that reflects on how people should reclaim the city and be proud of celebrating its heritage and connections. The square also hosts a number of other cultural events including Diwali.

    It was a joyous event, lots of singing, poetry and good humour – a lot of people simply having a good time together. And from a personal point of view, standing on stage presenting a show at Trafalgar Square, this was an event that will not be forgotten. It was thrilling to be on the world stage and leading a lively, good humoured crowd that were there to have fun and share the moment with each other. Wow! Definitely a moment to recount at dinner parties for months to come…

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  • The changing face of Muslim music and culture (with special mention of the Sami Yusuf concert)

    Yesterday evening I was introduced to a whole new dimension of Muslim culture – the Muslim pop concert. The event – which will be memorable for all sorts of reasons – was organised by Islamic Relief in conjunction with the Awakening label, Emel magazine and several other Muslim organisations to raise awareness and funds for the crisis in Darfur.

    Although billed as the Peace for Darfur concert, and referred to affectionately as the Muslim Live8 it was colloquially known as the Sami Yusuf concert and featured a number of musical acts from Europe and the USA. It was held at Wembley arena to a packed audience, who watched and participated in the proceedings avidly. Check out the video clip here – it starts with roaring from the audience for Sami Yusuf, followed by much screaming and cheering all the way through during the pop, rock, country and western and hip hop acts. Had you wandered in unaware of the evenings proceedings you would have been hard pressed to put your finger on the Islamic content of the music. I’m sure that last comment will dub me as a fuddy duddy, but there was something slightly unnerving about the screaming hijabi women waving their hands about and getting jiggy with it (i kid you not), and even proferring yelps of “I love you Sami Yusuf”.

    On the other hand, cultural development requires us to be challenged and search for the truth of artistry and spirituality through new creative methods. Thus I watch these new artistic and musical developments with interest and excitement. ‘Music’ that we currently consider to be Islamic did not develop from a vacuum but rather from the creative spark of faith and cultural expression. As Islam and Muslims interact with Western cultures we are now witnessing that creative process first hand. The artistic and spiritual challenge is to retain meaning and truth.

    As British, European and Western Muslims it is important that we explore these new avenues and not reject them completely without understanding that new situations and cultures will push us to discover, create and assess new arts. Whether we agree or disagree with the specific outputs is a different discussion.

    On a completely different note, I had no idea that Sami Yusuf was such a big star and celebrity. He’s a good looking, modest humble chap with a beautiful voice and he elicits overwhelming adulation bordering on close to hero-worship. I felt like I’d stepped into a boy band concert with thousands of adoring groupies – and by and large the fans were indeed female. He says he doesn’t like the adoration, but he didn’t say or do anything to stop it. When he spoke, the audience was utterly silent. Fortunately he harnasses his adoration to draw attention to the fact of things such as that you can be both British and Muslim as he encouraged everyone to assert last night, or of the plight of those in Darfur which he visited before the concert.

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  • Brent Eid Festival

    Wow. It was a busy weekend. Yesterday I was the compere at an Eid Festival hosted by Brent council and organised in conjunction with local Muslim individuals and organisations. You can see the original programme here (but they’ve mis-represented me as a poet. Although I do indeed write poetry, its not the performative kind…)

    It’s the second time that Brent has held such an event, and it certainly had a fulsome turnout, which I’d put at between a thousand and two thousand people. Not bad for a local community event. It was good to see Muslims coming out to have a good time, especially the young lasses who had got dressed up in their sparkly gear. There were a number of talented performers and everyone having a good time. Shame the layout and acoustics of the venue let down the overall quality. Hopefully Brent can provide an alternative venue for next year.

    More of the same support next year please Brent council!

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  • Eid in Trafalgar Square – I’ll be presenting

    There will be a big Eid celebration in Trafalgar Square this Saturday 20th October from 1pm to 5pm. The event is hosted by The Mayor of London and the Muslim Council of Britain.

    The event, marks the end of Ramadan, and is the second time it is being celebrated in the suare. It aims to bring “together London’s diverse Muslim communities and extends an invitation to the rest of London to celebrate together”.
    Go on, you know you want to come. Really, yes… And you’ll get to see me on stage presenting the acts during the first half of the programme. It does sound like fun, and as a presenter, I’ve had a sneak preview of the running order. There are some great artists on the billing, along with some very high profile surprises, so make sure you come early and grab your spot. Oh, and there will be food too of course.
    You can check out the event at
    Photo: Eid in the Square 2006
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  • Eid reception at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

    Last night the Foreign and Commonwealth Office hosted its annual Eid reception for the Muslim community. The charming shooting star that is David Milliband and the small but feisty Hazel Blears were in attendance representing the powers that be. They popped in at the beginning, and delivered some delightful and heartwarming spiel about ‘shared values and shared institutions’ along with ‘reinforcing similarity rather than difference’ and ‘showing solidarity’ amongst communities.

    I was at the entrance when David Milliband arrived so we were somewhat thrust into each other’s paths. He looked dazed at the throngs that cluttered his path as he was guided through the attendees clutching their glasses of orange juice. As the only woman in a crowd of Muslim men respectably attired in deeply establishment dark suits (and wearing my trademark pink headscarf, and a rather pretty kurta I might add), I managed to inform him of this wonderful blog that I write, although I did forget to mention the URL. If you know David and are reading this, please forward him the address. Apparently (insider news for all of you here), he is a fan of blogs, so I’m hoping he might come and check this place out. (Hello David! Thanks for dropping by…)

    It was a shame though that both the ministers disappeared early on without stopping to chat widely to those who had turned up. It was a good solid gathering from across the spectrum of the Muslim community, and the simple fact that it was hosted in the foreign office and is recognised as a ‘British’ event will do much to re-inforce togetherness and dialogue, and to create the backdrop to further discussion.

    Milliband talked of using the global roots of the Muslim community as a way to participate in the global economy and development, moving away from the old empire which was based around running the world towards building a country that was involved instead in driving it forward. He saw the remarkably well-connected diversity of the UK as a huge plus in the new world. Blears talked about community solidarity and sharing, citing the examples of those non-Muslims who had fasted in Ramadhan along with Muslim friends. I found the words heartening and optimistic, but will they both deliver? And how can I as an indivual get involved?

    Despite issues and contention facing the Muslim community, these feel-good moments are important as they allow for real human interaction, and connections to fall back on. Gestures and symbols are important, and I for one am pleased that these kinds of initiatives are not only taking place but are also becoming part of the British Muslim social and political landscape.

    The next step is to make sure that those members of the government and civil service who are involved in such initatives are spending time talking, listening and communicating to members of the Muslim community especially those who are stepping forward and opening their arms in order to create relationships and positive change.
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  • When is Eid?

    Sigh.Here we are again. Multiple Eids. I shouldn’t have to be asking this question. Again. And finding the multiplicities of confusion. Again.

    Here are the options for choosing Eid day. All other options seem just as arbitrary, so I’m offering my own suggestion. Here are the options:

    a. Friday (according to the Saudis)
    b. Saturday (according to the UK moonsighting committee, Ruiyat Hilal)
    c. Sunday (according to those who started on Friday, and following on from the UK moonsighting committee).

    Send in your answers. One will be picked at random and declared as the correct Eid.

    P.S. For those who fail to see the terrible black humour in the ongoing Eid schism, this is not a serious way of establishing Eid.

    P.P.S. check this chart out from crescentmoonwatch, showing that the moon cannot be sighted till Friday night unless you live in the depths of South America or the Pacific ocean. OK, OK, the chart is not so hard to read – the shaded bits are where the new moon could be sighted on Thursday night which would mean that Eid is on Friday. The white bits are where there is no new moon i.e. Eid will be on Saturday.

    P.P.P.S. For those of you who are reading this and are not Muslim, consider this one of those strange intra-faith anomalies. Read, raise your eyebrows in a perplexed manner, and move on… :-)

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