Month January

  • Beyond the bounds of religion

    I had this published on the Guardian website today.

    Beyond the bounds of religion
    Muslims should see Gaza not as a tragedy for the Islamic world, but for all human beings

    Obama is offering a hand of friendship to the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. This week he marked this new relationship, based in “mutual respect”, by dispatching George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. Mitchell is a veteran of the Northern Ireland peace process and is widely held to be a fair broker.

    “I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries,” Obama stated. But is this enough to allow him to connect to the worldwide Muslim community which is watching to see whether his actions live up to his words?

    The internet has exploded with Muslims expressing their anger, despair and frustration at the ongoing war. My inbox bubbles up with the emotion of email after email with photos of death, invitations to rallies and lectures, multiple Facebook campaigns and groups as well as the urgency of fundraising for aid.

    For the first time since the rally attended by a million Britons just before the invasion of Iraq I have joined in protests. Held in London, around the country and across the world, they represented the people’s voice in its most raw and purest form. Those who participated came from all over the country, from all ages, creeds, colours and backgrounds, including, but not limited to, Muslims. Those who raised their voices were all human beings, religious or not. But who was listening?

    Not the BBC it seems, which has drawn huge criticism from across the board for refusing to air the Gaza appeal. Nor Lord Falconer who defended the BBC decision on Question Time on Thursday night by saying that seeing the suffering of Palestinians might make people “sympathetic to the Palestinians” and “hostile to the Israelis”, implying that our instinctive moral judgment was wrong.

    Muslims have expressed their feelings as members of the “ummah“, sharing their anguish and heartbreak at the suffering of other Muslims in Palestine. The notion of ummah is embedded very deeply in the Muslim psyche. Its basis is Prophet Muhammad’s observation that someone who does not wake up in the morning and feel the pain of other Muslims around the world is not a Muslim.

    But Palestine is not a state populated only with Muslims; it encompasses those of Christian faith or none, all of them human beings. As well as the concept of “ummah”, Muslims should be invoking the wider idea of humanity. There might be additional benefits in seeing the crisis in this way: evoking sympathy from the wider public and making common cause with those who support Palestine in order to achieve justice and peace, simply because it is the right thing to do.

    Beyond the labels and stereotypes, Muslims, politicians, the people of the world, should know that this is a human calamity. Human beings are being killed before our eyes with nowhere to run, no food to eat, no water to drink. A Palestinian mother will see leaflets floating down from the sky to tell her that she and her children will be bombed and should leave. But where should they run? Egypt closed the border and places of refuge such as mosques are also hit.

    This is a human crisis that the Palestinians have recorded on film, and which will haunt all of us as human beings. Once we said “never again”. We must live by that promise.

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  • Holding out for a hero

    This is an article I wrote at Christmas for the Guardian, and realised I hadn’t published the whole piece here. With the current political climate, I thought it might be worth asking the question again…

    Jesus is probably the biggest celebrity in the messiah club. He gets a big celebration every year, with prickly trees, shiny baubles and fat chap in a floppy red hat. The nativity story goes that he was born in a manger, made a significant contribution to world theology, shook the Roman Empire and then made the final sacrifice for his people. It is a classic messiah tale – lowly origins, signs at his birth to portend his greatness, epic impact and change on an unimaginable scale, and heroic dedication till the very end. The messiah was the hope of the people, the one popular culture longed for. Think Gladiator, think Moses.

    History is full of stories of such epic figures that saved people from injustice and oppression. Jesus is the best known, and the one we seem to hold onto as a timeless symbol in the western world. But symbol is all he seems to be in the early 21st century. A placeholder in an end-of-year Hollywood B-movie, a story of heroism without the hero. And let’s not beat around the bush, yesterday’s messiah, is today’s hero.

    The theories of the early 20th century that pronounced us to be “superman”, told us about “ego” and gave us materialism, allowed us to put ourselves on a pedestal, and declare that the individual was a god. No longer would we suffer oppression or injustice – we had invented nuclear weapons in order to destroy those who threatened us. We had propelled ourselves into the impenetrable realm of the gods of yore as we sailed effortlessly to the moon and into the stars. We even had washing machines and vacuum cleaners to save us scrubbing and sweeping. We had all the answers and we could do anything we wanted. “They say that a hero can save us, I’m not gonna stand here and wait,” sang Nickelback in the theme tune of the film of Spiderman. Why should we bother waiting for a hero when we could be our own saviours?

    We’re still very interested in heroes, as the latest TV hit series from the US proves to us: its title Heroes is the big giveaway. But we’re less sure about heroism these days, and so are our heroes. The glamorous edge was taken off James Bond who was deliberately rewritten to be a less-than-glamorous gritty hero with serious emotional baggage in his latest film. And the epic hero Beowulf, brought back to life in this year’s movie epic, is no longer the entirely noble character that he was defined as in the original writings.

    In the early Old English story written about a legendary figure from around the turn of the sixth century, Beowulf was a more classic hero, a man to look up to and hail as a saviour. “I will kill your monster,” he declares to the people who can no longer bear the beast’s terror.

    He does rid the people of the monster that is out there, but the monster within him, the child of his shame, continues to eat him alive from the inside and destroy him. We reduce our hero to the level of our own mundane and pathetic carnal trappings. The hero saves us in a burst of glory, but finds his own undoing in what he thought would save and elevate him. The hero and saviour that we once yearned for becomes a tragic figure. Is this a reflection of the hopelessness of our time? Does this mean we need a hero more than ever? This time does our hero need to save us from our own inner torment?

    We thought we had all the answers, but now we discover that we are not as heroic as we once thought. Darfur, Abu Ghraib, rising poverty, the Iraq war and of course our own epic monster called climate change, to name a few have, shown us that we are still flawed, still yearning for the world to be a better place.

    Are we too late? Will climate change spell irreversible doom? As with all messianic stories, we find ourselves battling against time. An independent film being made by a group of British Muslims to explore the idea of the modern day hero asks, “What if our generation is the last?” Like Beowulf, it turns the idea of the hero on its head, “Are we ready for a hero?” it challenges. The hero is no longer a stand-alone figure; he needs us. The film,
    313 The Movie, is based on the concept that the Mahdi – the rough and ready Islamic name for messiah – will come to restore peace and justice to the world when there are 313 good people ready and willing to support him.

    The student-protagonist of the film stamps his feet with our modern day defiance and pride: “You all need to wake up and stop dreaming, there ain’t nobody comin’ to save us.” But his words also give voice to our present-day angst and despair: what if in reality nobody can save us, not even ourselves. Should we hope for a hero as our last resort?

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  • Protest in London over the killings in Gaza

    Yesterday I participated in the protest march in London, to show our outrage as human beings as the enormous and flagrant loss of innocent civilian life in Gaza, as numbers of dead have exceeded 800 in the last two weeks.
    The atmosphere was electric, and the roads were absolutely utterly jam-packed. Human beings from up and down the country literally poured through the streets. Estimates vary between a paltry 12,000 up to 100,000. It certainly felt much closer to the upper end of that spectrum.
    People completely filled Bayswater Road from Speakers Corner, to Notting Hill down Kensington Church Street and along Kensington high street. The presence was solid and full across the whole road for that whole stretch. The police was present in huge numbers right from the very beginning. Check out these photos. The first shows the vigour with which the police was present – this is right near the beginning, but they’ve already knocked over a protester. Also notice the huge range of people who attended, and the passion with which they came from so far away, to show this: that the killing must stop.
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  • Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow

    Today I’ll be speaking at a press event at the Foreign Press Association for a conference to be held next weekend in Doha. 300 young Muslim leaders from 76 countries which include minority and majority Muslim countries, will convene, in an event which is totally unique.

    The press release describes: “In an historic time of change and diversity, young Muslim leaders from a broad range of countries are convening to push for change from within the global Muslim community. An Italian imam, a Saudi fashion designer, an Iranian rapper, a Pakistani madrasa reformer, an American blogger, and a Dutch lawyer are among the participants attending the 2009 Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow conference. This new generation of community-based, forward-thinking Muslim leaders will come together to share a wide range of strategies and leadership styles, to ‘make tomorrow a day when Muslims are known around the world as people of peace,’ in the words of one invitee.

    These young Muslim leaders – from Senegal to Somalia, Indonesia to Iraq, Britain to Bahrain, and Kosovo to Kuwait – will propose innovative solutions to challenges facing Muslims globally such as the crisis of religious authority, violent extremism, competing values, and strained relations with the West.

    The Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow are answering a global call for change on behalf of the world’s Muslim community and will communicate their shared message of tolerance and progressive leadership by authoring a joint statement addressed to world leaders.”

    Now added: video clip from BSN on the conference

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