Month April

  • Moments in New York

    I’m in New York city at the moment, taking a few days of sightseeing before attending the next conference of Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow. I’m on Day 2, and so far I don’t feel like I’ve quite managed to tap into the rhythm of the city yet, but have been observing moments and experiences. I like the cosmopolitan nature of the city so far – nothing is quite what it seems, nothing appears to have a place, and yet everything has jostled into position and asserted its right to be here.

    Take the visit to the Museum of Modern Art, where one of my favourite exhibits was the Huggable Atomic Mushroom Cloud which made me chuckle with its explanation of “we can embrace our fears, literally”.
    This morning’s visit to the Statue of Liberty revealed this gem: at the unveiling of the statue (for liberty, obviously) the suffragettes hired a boat to keep campaigning for the vote for women, and also protested that almost all the official invitees were men. Oh, the delicious irony that liberty is represented by a woman.
    Delicious “stir-brewed” coffee in Greenwich village sitting opposte a preppy twentysomething new york woman crocheting a shawl for herself, explaining her penchant for older men.
    Mother and two sons on the Ellis Island ferry: older son punches younger son viciously and then turns to mother: “I beat him because he’s got no respect.” Mother turns to protesting younger son: “Shut the **** up”.
    Resisting the urge on the subway to experience a marriage proposal (re: Coming to America), or to save the train from oblivion and come screeching to the surface as the tracks end (re: Speed), or ensconce in the cloakroom (re: The pursuit of happyness).
    John D. Rockefeller Jr invests during the Great Depression in creating the almost wildly outrageous Rockefeller Centre (note: English spelling of ‘centre’), creating 75,000 jobs at a time of huge unemployment. A visionary to learn from today?
    Back to the Museum of Modern Art, I ask the guide for directions, which he does not communicate clearly. I ask again, and in what appears to be typical new york style, he slows down to stupid-speed and explains child-like (with physical demonstration) the difference between turning right and turning left. Laugh or cry?
    In London it is sunny and 18 degrees. In NY it is raining and 7 degrees. Irony. Or just annoying.
    Tomorrow, the Guggenheim and Central Park.

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  • Questions on a postcard please

    This was published in the April edition of EMEL Magazine

    I have been missing out on a lucrative business opportunity. Facing a credit crunch before us, and being encouraged by the PM to fight the recession, I have registered a domain name and created my own Cyberservice which I believe will plug a much needed gap in t he Muslim market.

    I base my new venture on investigations into what appears to be a worrying trend in the Muslim psyche. As a set of global communities we are facing unprecedented change and challenges, one of the most significant of which is the nature and relationship of Muslims with Authority. I write it with an uppercase ‘A’ because it seems we are not sure what the archetype of authority should be, and given the various kinds of authority we all deal with on a day to day level, we are not sure how we should relate to it.

    We have Muslim countries whose leaders do not necessarily seem to follow an Islamic ethos. We have others who seek to impose their interpretation of Islamic law with great vigour undifferentiatedly across their entire populations. We have some Muslims who argue that we must follow scholars no matter what, and others who argue the opposite that we must use our own minds and our independent thinking to reach the answers.

    ‘Twas ever thus, for the question of who has authority and how it ought to be exercised, questioned and obeyed lie at the heart of Islam. Even the Prophet’s own authority was constantly questioned, and Muslims under his watch lived under a number of different rulers including the Christian King of Abyssinia, the Meccans who had not embraced Islam, and in fact rejected it thoroughly, as well as leadership of the Prophet himself.

    There are two major changes however that do raise new challenges in our understanding of authority. The first is the immediacy of global connectivity. Where once the religious leader you followed – or opposed – was determined by your geographical location, now we have a global marketplace of leaders who are accessible through websites, video clips and television. It sometimes feels like scholars have to go out touting for business, and ‘image’ is everything.

    The internet has brought another trend with it – the democratisation of knowledge. This is a good thing – knowledge is the lifeblood of Islamic life, and the immediacy, depth and range of information that is now available for people to educate themselves easily and freely is unparalleled. But how to choose which information is accurate and measured?

    The challenge for Muslims is to face the combination of all of this readily accessible information with modernity’s all-powerful individual and with an insecure – and unfounded – desperation to prove that their own understanding of Islam is always alwaysright. The outcome? A global nation of individuals who claim to have all the answers, unwilling to listen or to ask new questions, and who consequently are always stuck in the same debates: the veil, segregation, Islamism, the West.

    With the constant spotlight on Muslims, we are expected to have answers to every question that anyone asks about Islam. But we are also guilty of not being able to just ask questions and spend time discussing them. We don’t need to have a fixed pre-determined answer for absolutely everything. There is a joy and a creativity in asking questions, allowing others to explore them and then engaging in a dialogue about potential answers.

    We need to re-introduce to our vocabulary questions that begin “why” “how” “what if…” We must have enough space to ask questions. Enough time to sit and be with those questions and be able to explore them, and enough confidence and openness to listen to those who propose answers at first or even second glance we do not agree with. Our desperate need to have answers to absolutely every single question has led to an outsized proliferation of the fatwa, where any and all questions are asked. There is indeed a place to ask those who have more knowledge and more wisdom for guidance on matters which we are unclear about, but it is worrying that we’ll ask anyone anything, even things that appear to be common sense and in line with our fitrah, our conscience.

    So, to make sure I cash in on this trend while it lasts, my new online business is this: DialaFatwa.Com. Am I being irreverent? It’s a good question to ask.

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  • "Love in a Headscarf" shortlisted for Muslim Writers Awards

    Exciting news! My book Love in a Headscarf has been shortlisted by the Muslim Writers Awards for the Published Non-Fiction category.

    The competition is stiff, with some great books also on the shortlist, but I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed. The awards will be announced on May 27th.

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  • We must face the crisis in Darfur

    This was published today in The National

    One of the loudest voices raised in support of Darfur has been George Clooney’s. He is one of a number of American stars, including Angelina Jolie, Mia Farrow and Macy Gray, who have been working to raise the profile of this crisis. Their actions have been met with cynicism in the Middle East and in Sudan. “Hollywood celebrities think they can come and be famous by claiming they support the people of Darfur,” said one of the president of Sudan’s advisers.
    Whatever their motives, Clooney and co are at least doing something. Middle Eastern countries, by contrast, have shown a shameful lack of interest in the suffering of the Darfuris.The nation’s crisis began just as the 20-year conflict between northern and southern Sudan looked to be coming to an end. Rebel groups in Darfur began attacking government targets, accusing Khartoum of oppressing “Black Africans” in favour of “Arabs”.
    The language of race used to describe the conflict has been virulent, and evoked rather simplistic passions. In the West race is a sensitive issue, which may be one reason why Darfur has become a pet cause of Hollywood stars.

    By the same token however, the apparent indifference of Middle Eastern countries may be because they consider Darfur to be a tribal or “black” issue.

    But the conflict is not about race: closer analysis reveals that it began as a dispute over tribal lands between the nomadic tribes, referred to in shorthand as “Arab”, and the permanent farmers, referred to as “African”.

    Famine, drought and changing land usage led to clashes about territorial rights which have yet to be resolved.

    In addition, Darfuris became increasingly angry at the low level of services they received from the government by way of water, sanitation, health care and education and felt they had been left out while the government focused on Khartoum and the south.

    I went to see Darfur with my own eyes at the end of last year. In the camps outside Al-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, I saw families living in tents no more than three metres square, with rationed food and water.

    Aid agencies were doing their best, but the Sudanese government is not keen on their presence and, with the crisis into its sixth year, donors are growing weary.

    At one school I visited, scores of fidgeting youngsters dressed in white stood under the midday sun facing inwards to a small centre stage where their head teacher led them in vibrant song. Their joillity belied the pain many had endured, especially those old enough to remember the bloodshed, fear and crisis that began in 2003. I spoke to two young girls.

    “I’d like to become a lawyer when I’m older,” 16-year-old Fatima told me. “I want to be a writer,” said her friend Layla. “Why?” I asked. “To make our country better,” said Fatima. “So it doesn’t happen again,” said Layla.

    From Darfur, I went on to Cairo, Jeddah, Riyadh and Doha to highlight its plight. In these Middle Eastern cities, however, people were strangely angry that the conflict in Darfur was being raised as an issue. “What about Palestine? Why aren’t you talking about Palestine?” they said.

    But the oppression in Gaza and the West Bank does not outrank the suffering of Darfur, or vice-versa. Suffering is suffering wherever it takes place, and must be spoken about, fought against and stopped, no matter who the perpetrator, no matter where the location.Why should the suffering of Darfuris be diminished? Human hearts are big enough to remember and mourn the plight of many, not just one.

    More than 1,400 people were killed in Gaza during Israel’s recent onslaught, an event that can only be described in lay terms as a contained massacre, part of more than 60 years of killing and suffering.

    In Darfur too, the numbers are heart-wrenchingly high. According to the UN, 300,000 people have been killed since the crisis began, a further 2.7 million people have been displaced from their homes, and five million people are living on aid. It makes for grim reading. Khartoum puts the figure of those killed closer to 10,000.

    Whatever the number, the crisis is real, and the lack of instinctive empathy concerned me. It was as if people did not want to believe that such brutality could happen in another Arab Muslim country. Darfur is a complex issue, but this should not stop any movement for sympathy and aid to support the human beings who are suffering daily.

    Middle Eastern countries, Arabs and Muslims, need to step up and start contributing to the aid effort. If they are serious about relieving suffering, then first they need to contribute financially. The amount donated so far has been pitiful, and has gone straight into the hands of the Sudanese government.

    In addition, the Middle East needs to contribute human resources by training and dispatching more aid workers.

    In terms of taking an active role in negotiating peace, Middle Eastern failures abound both for Palestine and Darfur. Only the recent Qatari initiative for peace in Darfur appears to have a measured, sustainable – and dare I say it – hopeful glimmer.

    Last month the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for the arrest of the Sudanese president Omar al Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Many Darfur campaigners questioned the wisdom of such a move, fearing it would hamper their own efforts to resolve the crisis, especially when Sudan was moving with democratic elections and the Qatari initiative looked hopeful.

    Mr al Bashir in response called the ICC “undemocratic”, accused it of “double standards” and expelled 13 aid agencies from Darfur.

    In defiance, he attended the Arab League summit in Qatar last weekend, which rejected the ICC warrant. “No Arab president will be let down,” said a statement. “We are going to fight until the end.”

    The ICC along with aid agencies are seen to be pursuing a biased western agenda, leading Arabs to instinctively side with the Sudanese government without any real assessment of the situation. What Sudan actually needs is not blind support, but critical friends.

    For the Middle East and for many Muslims, the contrast in approach to Darfur and Palestine is revelatory. Darfur is complicated.
    Darfur means disentangling the moral rights and wrongs of all parties who are Muslim, and bluntly put, there is not the moral fibre nor the political will to do so.

    Palestine is a simple moral judgment – them and us. The oppressor and the oppressed are clear, and the swell of public opinion is in one direction, making it easy to shout and protest. Both conflicts are horrific and are taking a huge humanitarian toll. Each life lost is a loss to all humanity, whether it be in Gaza, Darfur or elsewhere.

    We must reach through the complexities of the political situations and apply universal moral standards. Only then will we be able to identify where in the conflict lies justice and ultimately peace.

    To have the credibility and moral authority to do so, we must show an even and compassionate hand no matter where or against whom the suffering is being perpetrated.

    When Clooney visited Darfur in 2006 as a reporter, he was accompanied by a man who is now president of the United States.

    At that time Barack Obama said: “If we care, the world will care. If we act, then the world will follow.” President Obama is sticking to his message. Last week he sent his envoy Scott Gration to kick-start peace talks between the Sudanese government and the rebels.

    It is part of his wider outreach to the Middle East.

    The time has come for the Middle East to reach out as well. An important first step will be to focus on achieving peace in Darfur.
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