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Archives from month » April, 2008
The Muslim world is made up of more than just people from the Middle East and the Subcontinent, and drawing on our wider heritage and perspectives could help us address the pressing questions of Islam and modernity
It would probably come as a surprise to most people to know that the largest ethnic group within the world’s billion or so Muslims, are not in fact, Arab. Nor are they Pakistani, or even Bangladeshi for that matter. Even the entire Muslim populations of Europe and America do not feature at the top of this list, and neither does China.
In Britain, our perceptions of Muslims – and thus of Islam – are shaped by the fact that the media shows us coverage of the Arab world as ‘Islam’ and also because the majority of Muslims in this country are of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. The issues and challenges that raise themselves in the Muslim community, and which spill over into the national discourse about Muslims and Islam, therefore naturally stem from our Arabic and Sub-continental-shaped spectacles. Even within the Muslim communities the problems we see and the solutions we propose continually hark back to world-views and religious paradigms based in Arab and Sub-continental perspectives on history and modernity. British Islam tastes of korma curry with a side-serving of hummus. In the global political arena too, the Sub-continent and the Middle East (read ‘Arab’) are also front and centre when it comes to ‘The Muslim World’.
With this restrictive bi-focal approach, we try to address the big questions facing Muslims today. We ask in this context, how do we get to a meaningful understanding of Islam and governance in the modern world order of nation-states? Should we choose to interact (or not) in democratic processes, and if so, what methods should we use? What should our identity and role be in this globalised world? Is there a dichotomy between nation and ummah, and if so, how do we reconcile them?
The biggest challenge out of all of these for Muslims, is to find meaningful proposals to create a framework for participation with positivity and integrity in this new world order. Muslims constantly hark back to a ‘better time’ of Islamic empires and Caliphates, which were the spiritual home of Muslims, and for the most part were their physical homes too. However, such an empire, or a universal ‘home’ state no longer exists. In many cases Muslims live as minorities within non-Muslim majority countries. There is no option – and in many cases no desire – to ‘go home’. Muslims should already feel respected and at home, and should not be treated as aliens. In the context of such a relationship, it is timely for Muslims to construct a robust place within the national community that they are part of and establish very clearly the contribution that they will make.
This desperately needed enterprise is being subverted by a small minority who wish to hijack this process of development and change. Their desire is to return to a ‘better time’, and to ‘Islamicise’. But they created these false notions through Arab-Sub-continental lenses. The neo-conservatives who have created their empty identities and standing in opposition to this so-called ‘Islamist’ political ideology also see the world in these two blinkered dimensions.
So here is the surprise. Large swathes of Muslims are asking the above-mentioned first set of positive questions about this new globalised world that we live in. The groundswell is to participate and contribute, to explore traditional notions of Islamic governance and to advance new ideas of engagement and civic participation. By no means are they getting it all right but, as Confucius says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
The most significant and flourishing example of this is Indonesia. This is a country of 221 million people, of which 88% are Muslim. This makes Indonesia the world’s largest Muslim population, a fact unknown and overlooked by most people. The country stretches from Thailand to Australia, punctuated by lush rainforests and epic lively volcanoes. Its spirituality is understated but intricately and gently woven throughout the fabric of society. Mosques are plentiful (as are other places of worship), almost on every street corner, but they are softly tucked in, little oases in the hubbub of day to day life. Scattered liberally amongst the emerald green rice fields are small huts, used to protect workers from the tropical rain storms, and offer an accessible place for prayer.
The country is founded on five principles, the first of which is the ‘belief in the one and only God.’ For a country with an overwhelming Muslim majority, its political principles define it not as Islamic, but as theistic. There is concern to ensure that the huge variety of ethnicities that make up the nation, as well as its six official religions, share a sense of cohesion which is expressed in another of its founding principles: ‘Unity in diversity’. It also envisions a just and civilised humanity, social justice for the whole of Indonesia and finally, and perhaps most significantly democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives. It is this fusion of democracy and faith that makes the physical, spiritual and social landscape of Indonesia so fascinating.
Ten years after the overthrow of a totalitarian government, the country is racing through a reformasi, and asking piercing questions about nationhood and faith. Whilst travelling there, I was constantly surprised by the strength of feeling amongst all the people I met about driving their country forward.
How did the fact that I am both British and Muslim manifest itself, and how did I relate to my nation, I was constantly asked. Instead of simplistic shock at the existence of Muslims in the UK, the Indonesians greeted my fusion of British Islam with thoughtfulness. They reflected on what they could learn from the experience of British Muslims, to create a cohesive nation state that could respect faith, benefit from it, and use it as a force to create unity – a slippery and elusive goal for a country of its huge geography, variation and population. They wanted to learn about how minorities were treated, and apply positive experiences to their own nation.
There was no possible question of not participating in political and civic processes. Faith – whether Muslim or otherwise – was a natural part of civic life. There was no need to make a headline fuss of it. It did not dictate the political agenda. Instead, it offered fresh perspectives on dealing with social, political and economic issues. None of this is to say that Indonesia is not dealing with pockets of extremist activity like we are in the UK. Indonesia has many human rights and security issues of its own to deal with. Despite the challenges it is facing, it was refreshing to be in a Muslim majority country, amongst politically and civically active Muslims, for whom Islam was not the only item on the agenda – if in fact it was on the agenda at all. Creating a society where faith is woven into nationhood, and exists happily under its banner were of greater concern to people on the street.
I came away thinking that as British Muslims we had many things we could learn from them. Indonesia sits very firmly as part of the Muslim world, and sees itself as a key player amongst Muslim nations. It is attempting to deal with some of the questions that face both Islam and faith in general in this new millennium. And like a child learning to sit up and survey the world around it, their experience can offer Muslims fresh eyes onto our modern day challenges. Muslims speak with pride about sharing the joy and pain of a global ummah. But sometimes we forget that the ummah stretches much further not only in geography, but also much further in culture, politics and creativity than we might think.
This article was published in The Muslim News
Imagine my surprise when I came across a listing for a lecture being held this evening by the East London Three Faiths Forum: “FAITH IN A PLURAL COMMUNITY with Bishop Nazir Ali (Bishop of Rochester)”. Surely an interfaith group should be worried about some of the comments he has made?
The Telegraph wrote: ‘In an outspoken attack on the custom of Muslim women to cover their faces, the Pakistani-born bishop said that the Islamic community needed to make greater efforts to integrate into British society. “It is fine if they want to wear the veil in private, but there are occasions in public life when it is inappropriate for them to wear it,” he said.’
[shelina's comment: if the Bishop knew anything about the veil, then he would know that the concept of wearing it in 'private' is comical - the veil is a public matter, not a private one]
In January 2008 Nazir-Ali wrote that Islamic extremism had turned “already separate communities into ‘no-go’ areas” and claimed that there had been attempts to “impose an ‘Islamic’ character on certain areas”. When he was challenged to name such areas, by various leading figures including Hazel Blears, he has failed to provide such evidence. He has failed to actually back up such a divisive statement. For a man of faith, it seems a strange way to build up community links and inter-faith work.
I have sent some people along to attend the lecture, and will post up their comments once they are in.
[Readers are advised that this is a rant-post about London's roadworks, and as such I am on my soap-box throughout. It was written on Monday night, and I've only just recovered sufficiently to post it up.]
It is 146am and Thames Water is drilling in the street outside my home. It is loud. We’ve complained almost every day for the last three weeks. Westminster council regularly sends us letters to tell us that the matter has been resolved. Each time we ring, they advise that the late night roadworks must be an emergency. We tell them that it’s a pretty long emergency if it’s been going on since last August and will continue till next August. Why can’t they stick to working during the day and leave us to sleep as the Lord intended at night?
The first few times we complained nothing happened. Last week they sent a chap to assess the generator that remains on all night. It is very loud and harrumphs noisily throughout the night. He agreed that it was loud, louder than acceptable. He told us that there were a few options to solving the issue. Thames Water could pad the generator so the noise would be muffled. They could move it elsewhere. Or they might do nothing because it would be too difficult. No points for guessing that (c) was the option they chose.
Today, the operator at the council’s environmental pollution unit took the biscuit. She trotted out the usual line that the works must be due to an emergency. Surely you should know if it’s an emergency, I countered. Why should I know that? she said. But it’s not an emergency anyway, I whimpered, exasperated and sleep deprived. They’ve been doing this for six months already and have another six months to go, I pointed out. It can’t be a twelve month emergency, surely. There was a long silence, followed by another silence.
Why should I know that it’s an emergency, she repeated finally. Because, I sucked my teeth wearily, you are the COUNCIL. My voice rose into a high pitched upper-case screech. YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO KNOW AND THEY’VE BEEN DOING THIS FOR SIX MONTHS. More silence, then she hung up.
I tried calling my MP Mark Field, but none of his numbers has voicemail, so I couldn’t leave him a message. Sending an email simply wouldn’t have hit the mark. I then tried to check the details for councillors in Westminster, but the Westminster website was handily not responding. Neither could I check details of the roadworks as said website was down. It is worth noting that Mark Field is a conservative MP. I have not seen him visiting my street or the roadworks, nor has he made any comment about the major activity going on here. I wonder if he represents the likely behaviour of Mr Johnson when it comes to getting involved in the nitty gritty of London life?
I called the Metro. Despite being averse to some of their reporting methods, they have a vested interest (so to speak) in London matters. Metro was out of office till 5am. It was still only 106am. The only people left were the police. I rang them – surely deep sea drilling in the wee hours had to be an offence of some sort? The nice lady was helpful with her time and sympathy but helpless to actually do anything.
Finally, my husband gingerly headed into the street to talk to the workers, who no doubt were as unhappy as we were that they were out drilling, sawing, running cranes and creating a din in the middle of the night. Unless of course they get paid four times normal, which they might well do. Apparently Thames water were at fault for not advising us that the works were going to be carried out. Funnily, on every previous occasion that we’ve called Thames Water they have not admitted any blame.
With all avenues now exhausted and feeling nauseous from the stress and fatigue, I admitted defeat. There was no one left to hear my weeping. In the run up to the mayoral elections, surely someone should be there to hear the pleas of Londoners who simply want a good nights’ kip in order to go to work tomorrow and earn some dosh in the era of impending credit crisis? If a London resident weeps, in a forest of roadworks, does anyone hear?
As a London resident, it feels as though the mayoral election is more about prestige and pomp for the individuals involved. Rather than a personality analysis of the blues, reds and yellows, i’d like to know how the endless roadworks will be gotten rid of, why repairs take years rather than months to complete, and why no-one actually bothers to tell us – the ones who pay local and government taxes – what’s going on, and when to expect intolerable levels of noise. I don’t hear about the day to day issues on how to make the city not just tolerable, but also pleasant for the residents who live here. If I’m contributing a Mars bar a day, to new developments, then I’d like to be able to enjoy that Mars bar in peace.
I’ve discovered that I share my birthday with Garry Kasparov (world chess champ – perhaps a day for strategy and brains?), Samuel Beckett (playwright, most famously of ‘Waiting for Godot’, so some hope for me developing deeper high-brow writing skills?) and Thomas Jefferson, third president of the USA (I leave you to draw your own conclusions on that one!).
Interestingly, (well, according to Wikipedia, anyway) it is thought the large-scale celebration of birthdays in Europe began with the cult of Mithras, which originated in Persia but was spread by soldiers throughout the Roman Empire.
You may be aware that some segments of the Muslim communities do not celebrate birthdays of any sort, either their own, or even that of the Prophet Muhammed. I know that they cite this as “bid’ah”, based on the view that this was not part of the Prophet’s way (something I don’t feel is strictly correct, but that’s my personal view). However, I was curious to discover that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate it either as they state it is a pagan custom. Apparently some Jews do not celebrate birthdays either (I’d be interested to find out more from any Jewish readers if this is the case), stating that the day of death is better than the day of birth, and also citing the only example of a birthday celebrating in the Torah being that of the Pharaoh, and who would want to emulate him?
In any case, I find birthdays a great way to take some time out to show someone they are special. Yeah, yeah, I get that you are supposed to show them everyday, but let’s be realistic – a day specially focusing on someone is a real treat to renew and strengthen loving attachment.
And of course, birthdays are a good excuse for a get-together and some cake. Mine’s a double chocolate with fresh strawberries, if you were wondering.
Tomorrow is the launch of a new book entitled Conversations on Religion edited by Mick Gordon and Chris Wilkinson. “A stimulating collection of interviews on the subject of religion and belief, including high-profile names such as Richard Dawkins, Rowan Williams and Jonathan Sacks.” Here is the blurb:
Conversations On Religion addresses questions such as; How do we define religion? Can we define faith? Why in our twenty first century world are so many people religious? and What should our ambition for religion be?
Mick Gordon and Chris Wilkinson explore these questions together with 18 well-known religious thinkers and commentators, including: AC Grayling, Giles Fraser, Rowan Williams, Lewis and Matthew Wolpert, Don Cuppit, Muhammad Yusuf Al-Hussaini, Tariq Ramadan, John Gray, Alistair McGrath, Abdelwahab El Affendi, Richard Dawkins, Julia Neuberger, Fraser Watts, Azzam Tamimi, Ann Widdecombe, Karen Armstrong, Shelina Janmohamed, and Jonathan Sacks.
The result is a fascinating insight into human nature. We human beings are strange in our commitment to beliefs which we inherit, imbibe and choose. We find them difficult to let go. For better and for worse, this is our commonality. The task is to better understand and attempt to take responsibility for those different beliefs and positions which seem to mean so much to us. Conversations on Religion is an important part of that process.
Yes, well-spotted! There is a chapter with me amongst all the well-known names, reflecting on what faith and religion mean to me, and answering some of the questions that come up time and again about extremism, Muslim women and organised religion.
Last week was a busy week. Apologies to readers who noticed a complete blank on the blog – I was out listening, learning, thinking and in a few rare moments, I was moved too.
On Tuesday evening, Dr Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core, based out in Chicago, was speaking at the British Library on “In Martin Luther King’s Footsteps”, on the 40th anniversary of his death. Dr Patel is a remarkably eloquent presenter and wove a powerful narrative about the role of faith – and in particular interfaith – in addressing the issues of identity, division and extremism. He spoke of his own journey to be comfortable in living in the spaces of being Indian, Muslim and American and how he has reconciled the three, no longer feeling the need to hide or crush any aspect of his being. What shook him was when he realised that whilst he was busy struggling around ethnicity and nationhood for himself and his peers, the discourse he was part of paid scant or no attention to faith and religion as forming a sense of self and citizenship. Around the same time he also realised two further things about young people – that religious extremism seemed to be on the rise amongst – and appealed most strongly to – young people. He wondered why? He also noticed that young leaders – like Dr King – who play such an important role in our social consciousness as change-makers and peace instigators, rarely have their faith discussed. Dr King, he pointed out, is rarely spoken about as Reverend King. Where was the narrative about faith informing young leaders and the contributions they have made? How could these stories reach out to young people of faith to embrace them into a positive contribution by contributing their own faith stories?
Tony Blair later in the week also spoke about Faith and Globalisation at Westminster cathedral. Outside the stunning building were hordes of protesters who could be heard inside the hall throughout the lecture. “Murderer! Murderer!” they cried. Their placards said “BLIAR”. Inside he spoke about how faith needs to be reclaimed from extremism, and how it can be a tool for good. He also spoke about how as the gravity of power moves from West to East as political and economic change happens, that faith can be one of the channels through which we can create conversation about shared values and ‘purpose’. Given his record in political office, particularly with regards to war, I think there will be widespread scepticism about his new role and that of his foundation: The Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Great name – can it deliver what it promises? It seems to be we ask the same question whether Blair is a political or a religious leader.
However, much to my embarrassment, I have to confess that in a week of big ideas, I was most moved by the closing moments of Eastenders on Friday evening. Yes, sorry, I know I’ve just blown my credibility, but let me explain… Long-lost chav Bianca, with four children in tow, is thrown out of her home. She is too proud to ask for help, and too worried that the authorities will separate her from her children if she admits to her homeless penniless situation. After sleeping the night at the bus-stop, and trying to wash up in the park toilets, they have to face the police patrol who has been observing them and who now feels they need to step in. Fearing they will take her children, Bianca punches the officer, who then arrests her and bundles her into the police car and leaves the children in the park. It’s not high-brow TV but it got me right under my skin and into my heart – the vulnerability of humanity. I’m hoping there are huge inaccuracies – why would they arrest her when her plight is obvious? Why would they leave the children unattended?
All this to one side, it was this that made me actually weep: the easy slip from comfort into poverty, criminal record and homelessness, the high level of child poverty. As someone blessed with comforts, the fact that 600,000 children in London alone live below the poverty line still holds me in shock, when we are in the top 5 richest nations on earth. With the London mayoral elections coming up, I checked the websites of the three candidates of the big parties, and I have to report that it is certainly not obvious what they are planning to do to alleviate this issue, this huge massive issue that faces what should be a world-class city, and a world-leading country.
I’m no expert about homelessness and poverty, but each day for a long time now, I have felt that this is an area I need to learn more about, and then get more strongly involved in. If you can help me learn about the issues, but more importantly about how to solve these issues medium-term, long-term – nay, forever, please help me learn. Even bloggers need those who can offer education and learning.