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How to solve geo-political problems : is games theory the answer?

This article was published in The National.

One definition of insanity, it is said, is doing the same thing the same way over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

Yet tuning in to the news cycle of depressing political events that seemingly repeat themselves unchecked can lead to the sensation that we are stuck in a perpetual rerun of Groundhog Day.

BP’s oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico is reminiscent of the gas explosion in Bhopal, for which Union Carbide has still not been held fully accountable. The United Nations was steamrolled as the United States led the war against Afghanistan, then the war in Iraq. Now America is sending worrying signals of similar action against Iran. And the Israeli attack on the recent Gaza flotilla, followed by a barely lukewarm condemnation from the US, echoes the Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2008 and Lebanon in 2006.

If the same old responses create the same old outcomes, is it insane to suggest we should try new approaches? Whatever out-of-left-field solutions I can offer, will they be any less sane than what we have now?

Well, perhaps, but here we go.

Pep Montserrat for The National

The World Cup, that arena of nationalistic pride, could become a possible forum for international relations. Although in footballing terms the UK vs US match may have been a disappointing draw for England, the final result shows that England is not the puny side-kick, but very much on a par with America.

It’s a shame that neither the Saudis nor the Iranians made it through on this occasion, otherwise 90 minutes on the pitch could have been a much more amicable way to decide who is champion in the Middle East league. If we’d followed the World Cup model for power politics in 1998, when Iran defeated the US 2-1, then we could avoid the possibility of another Middle Eastern war. And perhaps North and South Korea could settle their dispute with a penalty shoot-out.

Maybe football isn’t your thing, or you think it is too sexist in its exclusion of women – although, to be fair, serious international problems such as war and conflict, like football, do seem to be a male preserve. So what about Facebook as a talking shop instead of the UN?

The Irish comedian Patrick Kielty imagines international relations according to Facebook going something like this: “America and South Korea are now friends. China likes this.”

“Hizbollah has poked Israel. Would you like to poke Hizbollah back?”

“America and Pakistan have gone from ‘In a relationship’ to ‘It’s complicated’.”

For the more culinary-inclined, we could have a cook-off in the form of an international Masterchef competition with nations cooking up their traditional cuisine. At least the audience would have something to eat afterwards, which might make negotiations more congenial.

Perhaps Turkey and Greece would make some happy discoveries: “This hummus, and these vine leaves – the same! We’re brothers! What have we been fighting for?” And perhaps India would be able to annexe the UK by dint of the fact that chicken tikka masala is Britain’s most popular dish.

We could use a different technique to moderate the scramble for Africa between China and the US. Play Monopoly, with the streets replaced by the African countries – first to arrive can buy; otherwise, you pay rent.

I wonder if we can apply this process to other international questions facing us today? Here are four big issues that need resolution:

First up, it’s the United Nations. When it comes to the structure of the UN Security Council, there is little that can be done about the five permanent members. As international relations theorists point out, their presence does not mean they are forces for good; rather it is to rein in the greatest potential to wreak havoc on Earth. But what about the remainder of the 15 council members? There is always a tussle over who should be appointed, but does it really matter? We could use a simple method to identify those with most cunning and savvy – rock, paper, scissors. In successive rounds of play-offs, the most adept at beating their opponents make it on to the council.

Next on my list is the global recession. Should we bail out every country on the verge of bankruptcy, or should we be more discerning? Perhaps Simon Cowell and his Got Talent TV format could help decide who is in and who is out. Picture Spain up first, a matador flapping his red cloth in front of a raging bull. Cowell bleats with his usual disdain: “I’m not convinced and not everyone’s going to like you, but at least you know who you are, and you’ve made it your own. We’ll see you in the next round.”

Next up is Greece, with a play about Socrates and Plato. Cowell’s verdict? “Yeah, it’s well done, but it’s not really contemporary, is it? A bit out of date, all this historical stuff. And the audience is asleep. It’s a ‘no’ from me.”

Then comes climate change. How can we get a speedy international consensus on reducing harmful activities and a commitment to more environmentally friendly approaches by our governments? Maybe the game of Twister is the solution. Each spin of the wheel means each country has to manoeuvre its activities into a different circle – all trying in theory to reach the green dots. I fear we might see a bit of wriggling around to get out of the targets, though.

Climate change isn’t the only threat to long-term human and planetary well-being. I for one still worry about the threat of nuclear weapons. But how do we first get full international commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and then real action towards disarmament?

Today’s current situation feels more like playing Cluedo – who’s got the weapon, and where are they hiding it? (“Colonel al Qa’eda, in the caves of Afghanistan, with the enriched uranium.”) Maybe Scrabble is the solution. If you can spell the names of all the components correctly with the letters you’ve already got, then you get to keep them.

I know that some reading my analysis of these issues will not find my commentary comedic. Well, I don’t find the solutions offered by today’s world leaders very funny either. Can we really solve climate change by trading in fictitious carbon-production commodities? Can the global recession really be resolved by reviving the same banking system that created the mess, and allowing corporations such as BP to play havoc with our environment as long as large US shareholders get paid their dividends?

I think you’ll find that it’s not me who’s the comedian.

Of course, none of my suggestions is meant to belittle the terrible crises going on in the world and the genuine efforts being made and that are necessary to put an end to poverty and war and to create stability, justice, freedom and peace.

But maybe, just maybe, by looking at some crazy but very human ways that we’ve developed to manage relationships, we might realise that we don’t need to be bound by the same failing paradigms. We might realise that by doing things differently we are no longer beholden to insanity, but we actually have cause for hope.


Shelina’s (belated) Friday Miscellany, 25th June

Shelina's Friday Miscellany (Spirit21)Okay, okay, so I’m a little bit late for the Friday Miscellany this week, but what’s a girl to do when there’s a lot going on? This week I’ve been enjoying the glorious sunshine in London, although I must confess that it’s been a bit hot for me. In my search to discover the cause of the warming, I discovered according to The Spoof website, that the solution is simple: global air conditioning.

The big news in the UK this was of course the announcement of the budget.  One of the statistics that caught my eye was around housing benefit.  The chancellor said the new caps were needed because the cost of the payments had risen 50% to £21bn in 10 years. Of course the system isn’t perfect and it’s easily imaginable that some people are getting more than they should, but isn’t the bigger question – how is it we live in a society where so many people can’t afford shelter?

Last week I raised the issue of loneliness – which of course puts pressure on people financially and emotionally. But one of it’s by products is the current shortage of housing we have which pushes prices up, making housing too expensive for large tracts of the population.  Another possible issue is that people simply aren’t paid enough. Businesses complain that they’ll be untenable with a higher minimum wage (and what a battle there was over that!), but it’s not good enough to pay people a wage which they can’t subsist on. BTW, corporation tax has come down. One campaign which I admire is the Living Wage campaign which argues not for the minimum wage, but for a higher wage which people can actually live on.  Living wage is a term used to describe the minimum hourly wage necessary for shelter (housing and incidentals such as clothing and other basic needs) and nutrition for a person for an extended period of time (lifetime). According to the London Citizens, who participate in the campaign the living wage in London due to its higher costs is actually £7.60 per hour; £1.87 above the National Minimum Wage.

This week I reviewed the Seen and Not Heard: Voices of Young British Muslims report which raises the issues that young Muslims themselves want to raise about identity, intergenerational experiences (feeling different at home, and out in the ‘world’) and feeling disconnected for wider society.

Sadiq Khan gave me hope that there are politicians out there who take rape seriously when he wrote a letter to the PM challenging proposals to give anonymity to rape defendants. Anonymity was in fact removed for defendants in 1988 following police claims that it was preventing women from coming forward to report rape. Why should rape defendants have more protection that defendants of other crimes, he asks? Of course, in the case of false allegations, these are harmful to the defendant, but Khan states: “where there is a balance to be struck, I would urge you to take no risks and give the benefit of the doubt to the victim,” adding: “What evidence is there that false allegations, which we all agree can be extremely damaging, are higher for rape than for other crimes?”

In slightly more positive news, it seems that in Kyrgyzstan, religion may be helping to heal ethnic tensions during the horrible conflicts that are ravaging the country. But, according to Al Jazeera, “It is rare for government officials to turn to religious leaders of Imams for help. But as ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks attempt to reconcile in the wake of ethnic violence, government officials in Kyrgyzstan are hoping that Islam will help smooth tensions.”  You can watch the video clip at the bottom of the post.

The Corporation that Changed the WorldThis week I’ve been reading the fabulous “The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational” by Nick Robins. The book blurb says: Founded in 1600, the East India Company was the forerunner of the modern multinational. Starting life as a trader in Asian spices, the Company ended its days running Britain’s Indian empire. In the process, it shocked its contemporaries with the scale of its violence, corruption and speculation. This is the first-ever book to expose the Company’s social record. Robins reveals a hidden story of tragedy and intrigue. War, famine, stock-market bubbles and even duels between rival executives are all to be found in this new account. For Robins, the Company’s legacy provides compelling lessons on how to ensure the accountability of today’s global business.”

With current corporations seemingly wreaking havoc with humanity – think BP, think the banks, think child slave labour, think Halliburton, think the wars in the Middle East – the book is prescient, and has certainly given me pause for thought on how today’s corporations are really calling the shots, just as the East India Company did during its long existence.  As Robins describes: “It remains an oddity that although companies are among the most powerful institutions of the modern age, our histories still focus on the actions of states and individuals, on politics and culture, rather than on corporations, their executives and their impacts.”

Remember how during the period of governmental uncertainty after the UK elections in May, what people were worried about was how “the markets” would respond.

What started out as a commercial organisation, used force and conquest to generate profits. As the Dutch historian Steengard writes “the principal export of pre-industrial Europe to the rest of the world was violence.” Of course the British were not alone in their use of force. At the beginning of maritime trade with Asia when the Portuguese were in the ascendancy, only those who bought Portuguese permits were allowed to do business on pain of confiscation and death, on the grounds that the right to free trade was limited to Christians. Barros comments that the rights of others hold against them in Europe but not beyond and since the Moors were “outside the law of Jesus Christ which is the true law” then violence and even death was acceptable. Hmm, wonder if today we could replace that with ‘western democracy’ or other similar ideological descriptions. It just seems to echo horribly.

Overall, an excellent insight into how the corporation’s unfettered drive for power and profit with no mechanism for constraint was a problem then, and continues to be one now.


Seen and Not Heard: Voices of Young British Muslims

Last week I mentioned that I’d been reading the report “Seen and Not Heard: Voices of Young British Muslims.” You can download the full report at the link.

The report raises some interesting points beginning with the premise that young Muslims  - the under 25’s make up over half the communities – are in fact seen and rarely heard, and in particular that they feel that other people don’t see them as they see themselves – modern young people who want a voice but are denied one. The report highlights intergenerational experiences and identity as challenges facing young people, and that these are exacerbated for women who additionally have to deal with challenges from within and outside the immediate British Muslim population.

Three key issues surface in the report:

Identity: young Muslims are surprisingly class aware, and how they view Muslims in other parts of Britain is shaped considerably by their local life. When looked at in a general way, this seems obvious, but somehow it’s not been stated this way before. No one homogeneous national Muslim profile or psyche exists. In addition, young people do not regards themselves as a contradiction between their religious and national identities, but these are in a state of flux responding to discourses, experiences and pressures such as debates around Muslim women, roles in society and so on.

The report also introduces the idea of ‘intergenerational’ issues, by which it means that some young Muslims face different worlds in their lives, one in the home and one outside and see a communication divide between the two. This is an issue that I address in my book Love in a Headscarf – living multiple lives and not knowing how to integrate them together.  However, I think this is a particular issue for teenagers generally and specifically for those from immigrant cultures where finding a way to balance the parental culture with the school/outside environment can be challenging. The report adds that whilst statistical evidence is needed, this split-world is unsurprisingly creating social and emotional disorders.

And finally, ‘disconnection.’ The report says that although much is written about young Muslims, they are aware that they are not the authors and sources of that content. It’s worth noting that this report is compiled entirely of interviews with young Muslims themselves and analysis applied to their comments in order to draw the conclusions. The book itself is peppered with their quotations. What is more worrying is that it’s not just wider society that they feel disconnected from, but also the platform institutions and umbrella bodies that claim access to a large chunk of British Muslim thought and opinion.

So what does the report say needs to be done? Capacity building, upskilling and training in meeting the needs of young people, along with investment in their development. It suggests mentoring schemes and role modelling.  Some of this exists already, but if young people are not benefitting, then maybe there is not enough around, and perhaps this ideas need to be institutionalised at a local level so it’s ingrained into community structures.  The programme mentions its own next step: a national Muslim heritage programme looking to capture the experiences of 1st generation Muslims to build young Muslims’ sense of local pride and belonging, and to increase their sense of being stakeholders in this society.


Shelina’s Friday Miscellany, 18th June

Shelina's Friday Miscellany (spirit21)What have you been up to this week? Here are my miscellaneous thoughts and activities that have got me thinking…

I started the week with one of the Sunday Times magazine supplements which covered the subject of loneliness. It made for heartbreaking reading. A study by Lloyds TSB predicts that over the next 10 years the number of single households will increase by 2m, and 51% of single people cited loneliness as the biggest stress factor in their lives.

It’s sad to think we live in a society that encourages people to move out of their family home and into single person accommodation, but nearly half of people who live on their own suffer from loneliness. Our society actively encourages them to do something that will make them unhappy? Not to mention the additional financial strain of buying/living in your own place, the shortage of accommodation that it creates nationwide, and all those older parents who could probably do with some company rather than being left alone. I’ve never really understood the ‘embarrassment’ that British society heaps on adults who live with their parents – it doesn’t seem quite as widespread on the Continent or elsewhere. Where’s the freedom in being lonely?

I was impressed this week by the Malaysians of Penang who were ‘outraged by  the statement of the Tourism Minister that Malaysia is going to have “the first ever Ramadan Summer Festival featuring food, shopping and other fun-filled activities” to attract Middle Eastern tourists during the Ramadhan month in August. Ramadan is not a tourist product, they stated. It’s a sentiment I echo, and one which is sadly lost in commercialisation and extravagance, something I wrote about last year.

The letter published in the Consumers Association of Penang added: “Ramadhan is not a tourist product but a sacred month of spiritual enrichment for Muslims throughout the world.  It is during this month that Muslims perform extra prayers and zikir to glorify Allah and discipline themselves. Many travel to Mecca to perform Umrah and pray in Masjid al Haram. It is certainly not for fun, food and frolic!!”

In relation to another big consumer product (yes, it’s another World Cup story), I was entertained and horrified at the same time by the description of the matrimonial matchmaking events to be held this Sunday at the United Muslim Convention in Birmingham. Such services are much needed and very important, so I fully support Islamic Circles ongoing efforts in this area. However, it was this line in the event’s description that caught my eye:

“Please note for brothers there will be TV screenings of the World Cup if they are worried of missing key games.”

On the one hand, the organisers are being sensitive to their target audience’s interests. But on the other hand, isn’t it a sad indictment that the

Marriage and Football t-shirt, from Zazzle

brothers consider World Cup football to be more important than looking for a marriage partner? It is a huge social comment on the pitiful state of marriage amongst the younger Muslim community, where men rate football over the Prophetic sunnah of marriage.

And by the way, maybe sisters want to watch the football too?

I also posted this week an open letter to the French President Sarkozy about the French plans to ban the burqa and the niqab. It seems that arguments that resort to freedom, choice and human rights are falling on deaf ears, and the only option available now is satire. You can read the letter here. Because I can do geeky things like track visits to the blog, I know that this has been one of my most popular blog posts.

This week I’ve become strangely addicted to watching “Who do you think you are?” I think it may have to do with the book I read last week and seeing how human generations change over centuries.

And this week I’ve started reading “Seen and Not Heard: Voices of Young British Muslims.” It’s not my usual fiction/creative non-fiction that I pick up, but I thought I’d get an up to date insight on what it is exactly that these young British Muslims want to say. Watch out for a review in next week’s Friday Miscellany.

And finally, yes, I have to admit it, I’m off to watch the England vs. Algeria match…


Dear Monsieur Sarkozy…

This article was originally posted up at Altmuslimah.com.

The events of the laws to ban the burqa in France have escalated very rapidly in the last few months. Nobody seems to actually listen to what the Muslim women who cover their faces want to say for themselves. So here is what I would say to the French president…

Dear Monsieur Sarkozy…

I have never in my life wanted to wear a niqab or a burqa, but I do want to wear one now, thanks to you.

Perhaps it’s something to do with being British, and doing the opposite of whatever the French want to do. I might even fashion my new niqab out of a Union Jack and ‘invade’ French soil via Eurostar, a cup of nice English breakfast tea and a traditional buttery scone with home-made jam. Or maybe it’s to do with the fact that I’m a woman, and no man is going to tell me what to wear, (except maybe Gok Wan) and no politician is going to determine how I dress.

That’s not your job, is it? Don’t you have other stuff to worry about – like the economic recession, climate change or unemployment levels? I know that you are worried about the reputation that French women have for beauty and glamour in the world, and you don’t want your lovelies to be covered up. However, since you are the global fashion capital, there are probably other more lucrative ways to solve the problem: perhaps a Chanel niqab, or a Louis Vuitton burqa with matching shoes and handbag?

You might think that change is bad, and moving France into the 21st century is a bad thing too – you know, with things like equality of rights and freedom. Oh, hold on. You guys are supposed to have that already aren’t you?

I understand your anxiety about giving women the right to make their own choices, and run their own lives, wear the clothes they want. It’s all a bit well, modern, isn’t it? And you can’t let Muslim women just get on with their lives exercising self-determination and autonomy, can you?

Actually, I’m wrong to say that you don’t like change – after all you altered the French constitution so that you could make the first ever presidential speech in the Palace of Versailles. Really pleased that you focused the historic occasion on women in veils. All 367 of them. You might want to take note of President Obama’s words – who’s a bit more popular than you: it’s up to Muslim women to decide what they wear.

So you’ve said that these poor women are oppressed and that the niqab is incompatible with French values. I imagine you and your mates must have been waiting for all those feminists and civil rights activists to stop banging on about the 40,000 French women who are violently abused by their partners every year, and the 1 in 3 that are raped. Did you explain to them that banning the burqa is a priority above all else, because it is about defending the values of the Republic. Banning will lead to freedom and equality. And fraternite is about brotherhood, so women don’t count anyway.

Your latest proposal to fine husbands whose wives wear the niqab or even send them to jail for a year, could prove very handy, merci beaucoup. Women who want to get rid of their pesky husbands just need to cover their visages, and ‘bam!’, off he goes out of her life for a bit of porridge.

So why do you dislike it so much when women cover their faces? Is it because you want to look at other people’s wives? After all, French presidents do have a reputation for a roving eye. Well, a bit more than just the eyes roving, eh? I noticed that you bonded with President Berlusconi over your shared interest in philanthropy philandering.

Seeing as you know exactly who these veiled women are, perhaps you could just ring them up and ask them nicely to stop wearing the niqab? You know, like a favour to the president.

Or if you want to be a little more classy in your request you could send each of them a personalised letter a la Queen (did you see how I used my ‘A’ Level French in that sentence? Impressed aren’t you). You could even use a similar tone to her letters to those who’ve reached 100 years old: “Thank you for your contribution and presence so far, but I think you may not be around for much longer.”

We should take a moment to be serious – although to be fair it is a bit hard to take you seriously when you feel scared of an itsy bitsy teeny weeny bit of cloth. When it comes to security, Muslim women are generally happy to comply with checks. If you are worried about integration then these women should be included, rather than excluded. And there is one point we agree on – there are indeed women who are forced to cover up through fear and convention. You’re not helping them, because you’re imprisoning them at home and reducing their engagement with the world around them – the world that you say will make their lives better. It’s a case of two men fighting to oppress women. Monsieur Sarkozy, your face should be red with shame.

Which brings me to my final point and what to do about your face – I think I have a good suggestion of what you can do with any unused stocks of niqabs and burqas. Just place the cloth over your face and tie the ends around the back of your head to cover your face and voila! The world will become a better place for everyone else. Come to think of it, you might need two of them. You are a politician after all,

Yours,
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, from behind my Union Jack niqab which I am wearing in temporary protest


Shelina’s Friday Miscellany

Every week I’ll be posting a Friday round-up of what I’ve been up to this week, interesting places I’ve been, things I’ve read and random thoughts I’ve had. This is the first in the series – so welcome to Shelina’s Friday Miscellany.

This week I went along to the launch of the Inspired by Muhammad campaign. The campaign is designed to tell those unfamiliar with Muslims and what motivates them, about the inspiration they gain from the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the positive values Muslims feel he exemplified. As part of the campaign, a YouGov poll was commissioned that provided some very worrying statistics. Whilst 50% of over 2000 people polled associate Islam with terrorism, only 13% associate it with peace, and a measly 6% with justice. A mere 16%  think Islam promotes fairness and equality (a whopping 69% believing it encourages the repression of women) and 41% disagree or strongly disagree that Muslims have a positive impact on British society. As The New Statesman says, this makes for depressing reading, and means the campaign faces an ‘uphill’

Inspired by Muhammad campaign poster

struggle.

It’s one to scratch your head about though – as despite these very strong attitudes, 60% say they don’t know very much about Islam and 17% say they know nothing at all. One of the few positive findings is that 33% would like to know more about Islam.

So the campaign is very welcome – bringing to life the reality of Muslims’ experiences and their beliefs. And whatever those of other faiths or none may feel about Muslims, at the very least it is worth getting to know what inspires and motivates over 20% of the world’s population. And perhaps on the way they may learn some positives about Muslims and Islam.

I’ve posted up the image of the poster related to women’s rights – and it was definitely a Muslim women’s week as on Wednesday Faith Matters released a report listing the 100 most ‘women-friendly’ mosques in the UK.

I wrote a commentary about why I thought this was a ‘great first step’ in encouraging women’s participation in mosques for the Guardian.

By analysing the challenges mosques were facing, it seemed that failing to include women at a strategic decision-making level was one of the obstacles. But as I noted, this is a general societal problem – the cabinet is only 14% female, and only 12% of FTSE 100 company directors are female.

On a different note, anyone walking around the London underground will have noticed the multitude of posters for the upcoming “Clothes Show London” which is being billed as the “Ultimate Girls’ Day out.” *sigh* – it’s that old attitude of going shopping is the ‘ultimate’ sign of girliness. It got me thinking about the World Cup which is due to kick off tonight, and how men and women are so easily cast into their ‘ultimate’ gender stereotypes of clothes vs. football.

The clothes show is due to  take place 25 – 27 June, in the middle of the World cup tournament, which of course is a male-festival, and women will be getting out doing what women do best (apparently) – shopping.

But if I’m being flippant about having a good giggly girl’s day out – and nothing wrong with that, then there’s nothing flippant about the macho beer-fuelled problems that are currently being highlighted about the social impact of the World cup. Divorce rates rise in the period immediately after the World Cup. Even more worrying is that rates of domestic violence increase during the period of the world cup, and based on historic data, this can be by as much as 30% on days that England is playing. Various campaigns including “Don’t let the world cup leave its mark on you” have been launched.

World cup 2010: The Revival's Fantasy Muslim XI

On a lighter note, I was tickled by this World Cup Fantasy Football punt over at The Revival which analyses the abilities of the Muslim footballers attending the tournament, and picks out a Muslim XI. Hey, whatever floats your boat.

Finally, this week I’ve been watching The Art of Spain, in particular the 16th century period of Felipe II.

And this week I’ve been reading “The Idols will Fall”. Here’s the blurb: “Maximilian and his friends are living a double life, posing as royal counsellors for the despotic, pagan governor of Roman Philadelphia (present-day Jordan) while secretly spreading the outlawed religion of Jesus of Nazareth. As their brethren fall victim to torture and murder, their situation becomes more and more dire until they take a daring step that sends shockwaves throughout the whole Roman Empire. Although they are forced to flee, nonetheless, their story lives on as generation after generation carry on their epic battle and an unimaginable miracle changes their world forever. The Idols Will Fall is a unique presentation of the miraculous story of these young men referred to both in Christian historical literature and in the Qur’an. This is the story of the Sleepers of the Cave.”

I’m always a bit sceptical of historical fiction (or non-fiction, however you describe it), but I was very moved by this book, and felt a sense of loss as I said goodbye to the characters at the end of the story. It was illuminating seeing the human struggle towards propagating faith, set in a

The Idols Will Fall

different time, context and even religion. The characters are of course Christian, as it is set in the 2nd to 5th century A.D. during which time the Roman empire is in full force, and persecutes the believers. It’s an easy and unstressful read, but conveys many of the same themes that people of faith struggle with today – separating religion from culture, knowing when to fight your battles, the price for standing up for what you believe in, and the power of media and communication. And of course, the wisdom that comes with the vicissitudes of time.


A boost to women-friendly mosques

This article was published today at the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

A report is being launched today focusing on mosques that have demonstrated good practice in relation to women’s involvement and participation.

Five key criteria for assessing “women-friendly” mosques were distilled by holding over 100 interviews with Muslim women and listening to what the they themselves wanted. These were: a separate prayer space for women, services and activities geared towards women, such as childcare, women’s training or mentoring sessions, an imam accessible to women or a female scholar, the inclusion of women in decision making and women holding office on the mosque committees.

Out of 486 mosques that were invited to participate in the benchmarking exercise, the “top 100″ are listed in the report as “five star” and “four star” mosques. The list is prefaced by pertinent verses from the Qur’an to set the context for the report’s impact in the Muslim community. They make for interesting reading, and I’d encourage anyone interested in what the Qur’an has to say about the equality of participation to take a look.

I have a few quibbles with the methodology. Of around 1600 mosques in the UK, only 486 were asked to participate, and this was not a representative sample. And the authors admit that it’s just a start. The 100 women interviewed to identify the five criteria may or may not have been representative of the schools of thought, age and ethnicity the UK Muslim population.

But, you know … so what? From reading the report I sense that this was never meant to be a piece of quantitative analysis. What is important about this report is that it should ignite a public discussion about women’s participation in mosques, why it’s important and how to achieve it. The report highlights some of the key criteria that women feel are important to them, and we get a qualitative sense of the challenges. It’s a great first step.

And here’s my advice on where the report needs to go next: it needs to be rolled out across all mosques – and ideally all faith centres (Muslims are not the only ones with issues around gender participation). We need to identify the factors that led to high women’s participation in mosques, and we need to share that best practice across faith centres.

Mosques are already a vital part of British civic society. And, as society gets “bigger”, community run organisations that cater for local needs will become increasingly important – even more than they are now. So our job is to make them the best that they can possibly be. Encouraging and then institutionalising transparency, standards and best practice is part of that work. In this regard, the support the report’s launch is receiving from the Mosques and Imam’s National Advisory Board (Minab) which was set up to encourage standards and best practice across mosques, is an excellent partnership.

Mosques have been set up through the voluntary efforts of ordinary working Muslims up and down the country in order to build a sense of community, and to offer moral and emotional sustenance. In addition to this, they provide a range of services from English and computer classes, to yoga and crèche facilities, to gyms and function halls. At a time when funding will no doubt become scarce, such services are important. In particular, where they offer support to women and young people they need to be encouraged. When stories of violence come to the fore it is usually where mosques have not been able to deliver a high level of support and services tailored to its community’s needs.

This report echoes wider societal concerns about women’s participation in the public square. If we look at the criteria where four-star mosques fell down, the lack of women’s inclusion at a strategic and operational decision-making level was one of the key failings. But this is an area where women’s participation is generally problematic.

In the political arena, much has been rightly made of the fact the Cabinetis only 14% female – a measly four women. But it’s a wider issue than that – only 21.8% of MPs are women. And the corporate sphere is little better. Only 12.2% of FTSE 100 directors are female, and only four companies have female chief executives.

So let’s see this report as a small step towards that wider social goal of women’s inclusion and participation in the civic arena. Looking through this wider lens will almost certainly effect much faster and more effective change.


Re-Building Islam’s Brand

This article was published in EMEL magazine

What are the biggest brands in the world today?  Is it Google, Coca-Cola, Apple or Microsoft? In commercial terms, you may be right. However, in terms of human impact and social and political importance, religions are today’s real global superbrands.

In 2008, Gallup conducted a poll across 143 countries and territories asking whether religion was an important part of daily life. Across all populations, the median proportion of residents who said religion is important in their daily lives was 82%. By comparison, Coca-Cola is the world’s number 1 brand and daily consumption of their products totals 1 billion – only 20% of the world population.

We also see the dominance of religion – for better or for worse – in global media and politics. By contrast, commercial brands mostly have to pay for coverage, imposing themselves on target audiences.

Global brands transcend their geographic, cultural or ideological origins, and create strong, enduring relationships with those who consume the brands across countries and cultures.

Brands like Coca Cola retain their strength by having what industry insiders jokingly call the Brand Police – people whose job it is to monitor a company or product’s brand and ensure that everything that goes into the public domain follows the branding guidelines and exceeds consumer expectations.

When religions first come into existence, the foundations of the brand are generally laid by one person. Think Buddha, Prophet Jesus or even Ron L. Hubbard.

Let’s take the example of the Prophet Muhammad. He was the living embodiment of the brand of Islam. He laid out clear guidelines about Islam’s values encompassing notions such as: a complete way of life; a code for serving the Creator as well as creation; how to uphold the values of freedom, justice, respect and equality; building an ultimate relationship with the Divine to achieve a prosperous life in the dunya and the akhira.

Over time, the ‘brand’ of a religion becomes diluted because it loses its intense and pure brand advocate, and is no longer managed centrally. That’s one of the reasons why religious brands are so strong at the start, but weaken as successive generations develop different ideas about the values of the brand and how the brand should be maintained.

Even more detrimental to the brand is the fact that the actions of each person who subscribes to that brand come to represent the entire brand. Any Muslim who has lived through the last decade will tell you how a handful of men in September 2001 not only hijacked aeroplanes, but also hijacked the entire peaceful, justice-oriented, compassionate branding of Islam. No wonder Muslims round the world felt compelled to declare the words “Not in my name”, short for ‘not in the brand name of my Islam’.

As any brand manager will tell you, to spread positive messages about your brand, you need at least 13 customers tell other people how good your brand is. To spread negative messages, it just takes one bad experience.

Religion – especially Islam – is in a bad place branding-wise, and it needs some emergency branding work.

In re-asserting its global brand, Muslims face three challenges. First, what exactly are the brand values of Islam that Muslims agree on? With ongoing disputes around sectarian, political and social differences, this doesn’t seem likely to be answered anytime soon. But if Muslims want to reclaim the brand of Islam they will have to find some core common ground.

Second, the agreed values must be exhibited throughout all aspects of the brand. It’s not just a technical tick-box exercise to say “Islam is about freedom” or “Islam is about equality”. People only believe brands when they have demonstrated the brand values over and over again. For example, it’s no good just saying that Islam believes in the rights of women, if women aren’t given those rights, in every situation and context.

Finally, how will the brand values be patrolled? Unlike the case of commercial brands, you can’t force people to behave according to the brand values. Scholars will need to take the lead, but this has to be done through peer-to-peer influence and motivation, with a huge emphasis on individual responsibility.

Re-invigorating Islam’s brand cannot be a cynical superficial ploy. People see straight through that. The most important value in building a brand is trust – trust that what the brand says about itself is what the brand will actually deliver. The key to this is engagement, communication and transparency. That is how trust will be re-established, and how Islam’s brand values of peace, compassion, justice and being in tune with human needs will be re-built.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk. She has fifteen years of experience in marketing and new product creation.