Month July

  • Norway attacks can and must change the discourse on violence and extremism

    Here is my op-ed for this week’s The National.

    The attacks of September 11 changed the nature of the discourse about the place of Muslims and migrants in the West. Last week’s tragedy in Norway can and must change it again.

    As soon as news of the Norway killings broke, commentators were quick to point a finger at Muslims, who after September 11 became highly visible, portrayed as inherently violent and intrinsically alien to western democratic values. With the discovery that the perpetrator was a 32-year-old white Norwegian, however, news coverage quickly moved on to focus on the “insane”, “lone wolf” Anders Behring Breivik.

    Nobody ate their words, nobody apologised for the presumption of Muslim guilt. One Norwegian official described the event as “our Oklahoma, not our World Trade Center”. His analogy referred to white supremacism, but he inadvertently highlighted the double standard in collectivising responsibility across all Muslims when the perpetrator is Muslim, but confining it to the protagonist himself when otherwise. The analogy also illustrated the West’s knee-jerk response to such terrorist attacks as having been carried out by Muslims, before considering any facts.

    Facts have never got in the way of the right-wing’s stoking of fear when it comes to Muslims.

    After September 11 and the subsequent attacks in Europe, phrases such as “homegrown terrorism” and “the threat from within” were quickly coined. Emotive terms such as Eurabia, Londonistan and “creeping Islamisation” entered the language. Bearded brown men, burqa-clad women and angry chanting protesters were the accompanying visuals, painting a sensational and fearful picture of the West overrun by hordes of Muslims.

    The right-wing repeated its mantra: Muslims were fundamentally incapable of adhering to liberal democratic values. Though this mantra may have been a fringe viewpoint when September 11 came, through sheer repetition it came to be accepted as mainstream wisdom. Big newspapers contributed to this feeding frenzy with continuing coverage of stories about Sharia courts, forced marriages and banning Christmas. Even leading politicians endorsed the cliché of “multiculturalism gone mad”. Both the British prime minister and the German chancellor declared it a failure, and their policies characterised Muslims as nothing more than potential security threats.

    Their sentiments were aided by policy wonks who supported with “facts” the claim that aspects of Muslim culture – at least those that did not integrate on their terms – provided the “mood music” and the “conveyor belt” for young Muslim radicalisation.

    In many respects, the same discourse is taking place in reverse. The commentariat is grappling with the question: did right-wing commentators provide the mood music for this killer?

    Breivik’s manifesto enthusiastically cited the right-wing message. But those very commentators are now distancing themselves from the killer and protesting in the same vein as the Muslims they have tormented for so long: that the actions of one killer are not representative of their beliefs.

    Among my Muslim friends there was of course horror and sadness, but also a sense of relief that it wasn’t a Muslim perpetrator. You might consider it an unworthy emotion, but it was human, and understandable.

    Indeed, there is even an uncomfortable sense of glee emanating from some quarters towards the right-wing, saying “we told you so” or, even more unworthy, that their “chickens have come home to roost”.

    This is not the time for triumphalism. What has brought us to this turning point is the loss of 77 innocent human beings.

    The deaths should focus our collective mind to reset the terrorism narrative on a different, non-polarised trajectory.

    This is the moment to subject previously unchallenged views to rigorous scrutiny.

    This is also the moment for politicians who pander to an increasingly vocal and aggressive far right to reassess policies that deal with Muslims and to remove the lens that sees Muslims only as extremists, would-be extremists or mood musicians for extremism.

    All those involved in the discourse around extremism and violence would do well to take away some big lessons from the past week to steer us away from the polarised trajectory we are on.

    First, we must be more precise in the language we use for such incidents. Was Breivik a lone wolf or did he act in concert with other extremists? Was he a deranged psychopath or was he radicalised by right-wing sentiment? Just as it is not right to describe the September 11 perpetrators as “Muslim” terrorists, so it is not right to describe Breivik as a “Christian” terrorist.

    Overturning the double standards in description will reduce grievances, but the crucial reason more accurate analysis is required is because these are essentially the same category of incident, and using the same language will allow us to better analyse the causes.

    The same holds true for the idea of mood music, which needs reappraisal. Islam and non-violent Muslims are held responsible for the acts of criminal terrorists. By the same logic, does the right-wing press provide the mood music for actors like Breivik? The answer is not clear. However, the events in Norway should help us to better interrogate the merit of this theory. Can and will such commentators hold up their actions genuinely to test their own theory? Glib responses that because they are quoted by Breivik doesn’t make them mood musicians won’t hold – after all, those are precisely the claims they made against Muslims.

    The presumption of innocence about Muslims also needs to be reinstated. “Facts” that see them as inherently alien or violent must be challenged. It will be harder to unravel the malicious discourse than it was to whip it up, but it must be overturned.

    For every dubious poll that emphasises an alleged Muslim desire for separation – by instituting Sharia, or demanding special food or schools – we must be reminded of more reliable polls demonstrating a sense of Muslim belonging to western lands. Every statistic showing a Muslim propensity to violence must be countered by the real facts that political violence in the western world has been conducted more by non-Muslims.

    The most challenging thing for politicians will be to face up to the fact that their own critiques of multiculturalism are remarkably similar to those of far-right extremists, though not as emphatic. If they critique multiculturalism, it must be based on fact, not the sensational headlines of a tabloid. It might be time to embrace the idea that multiculturalism, far from creating separate communities, is in fact a potent force to strengthen a country. That was the point made forcefully this week by Tarak Barkawi of Cambridge University. Writing for the think tank the Royal United Services Institute, he argued that multiculturalism can strengthen Britain’s role as a world power.

    Although I am calling for greater scrutiny of all these elements, it doesn’t mean we should be complacent in our vigilance against those who commit violence in the name of Islam. They are violent criminals just like Breivik. Nor can we forget the innocent lives lost in Norway; our first thoughts and prayers must go to them.

    Last week’s horror has the potential to change the discourse again, away from the acceptable and even fashionable anti-Muslim sentiment that was stoked in the shadow of September 11. It gives us the opportunity to break free of this fear-mongering, and move towards a more robust, holistic and ideologically agnostic stand against all kinds of extremism.

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  • The pious text message

    This was my weekly column published last week in The National, when Ramadan was ten days away…

    Ramadan is less than 10 days away, and it’s time to get in the mood.

    One of my favourite modern Ramadan traditions is the pious text message. Somebody somewhere (sometimes you don’t even know who) really wants to help you in your religious devotion. And will spend money on messages to ensure you do.

    I think the pious text message is fabulous – a bite-size treat of religiosity designed to perk up the believer.

    Are you in a boring work meeting? An unsolicited message will ping up to advise you never to despair of God’s mercy. At the cinema? A quick SMS from an unrecognised number will remind you of the latest fund-raising dinner. Just managed to fall asleep after a hard day? You’ll be glad you didn’t turn your phone to silent, otherwise you would have missed the fifth message that night reminding you how to distribute your zakat payments.

    This is a one-to-many activity. The rule of pious text message is that if the message you receive looks devout, it must be immediately forwarded to every Mulsim in your phone book. There’s no need to check the content for accuracy – it’s a pious text message!

    The first Ramadan messages start arriving now to let you know, should you need reminding, that Ramadan is soon upon us.

    Next up is the “has the moon been sighted?” frenzy. Messages go backwards and forwards, mostly contradicting each other about where, when, how and by whom the crescent moon that marks the start of Ramadan has or has not been seen.

    Your devotion is then encouraged with verses of the Quran, reminders of what to say when breaking the fast, tips on where to go in the evenings; mosques, of course, not restaurants. And the frenzy peaks as the final 10 nights of Ramadan approach when your phone turns into a vibrating gremlin with “Remember us in your prayers” messages.

    Finally, we reach the controversy on what day Eid should be celebrated and subsequent best wishes.

    Luckily, the pious text message is not just for Ramadan. Special religious occasions will induce a flurry of prayers. Catastrophes trigger messages requesting donations. And of course Friday, the day of “jum’a” has its own round of “Jum’a Mubarak” wishes coupled with sayings of the Prophet.

    What could be more wonderful than piety delivered direct to your phone?

    Well, it seems some are ruffled by the “jum’a mubarak” text message turning into a weekly activity by the faithful, akin to a religious duty. It’s unlikely in my view, as text messaging isn’t mentioned in the Quran or hadith, but nonetheless they’ve posed their question to scholars, some of whom are of the view that this could be an “innovation” and therefore not permitted by Islam. Their scholarly response to the Friday Pious Text Message is to ensure messages are sent on other days also.

    I do wonder who starts off the chains of messages. I’ve never created an original one, have you? But if you’d like to start a fresh line of distribution there are plenty of websites to give you ideas.

    Remember, your messages are not just for the greater good of the faithful. They help keep the telecoms companies in business, too.

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  • Happy half birthday, baby!

    This was first broadcast on BBC Radio 2‘s “Pause for Thought”. It’s available for you to listen to until July 26th.

    Today, my newborn baby is 6 months old. Even though I always loved children and babies, I was never a particularly maternal woman, never felt broody.

    In my twenties, I travelled voraciously around the world, seeing as many places and people as I could afford on my graduate’s salary.

    The world is full of such wonders that I found it addictive – from the eerie Jordanian deserts, to the ancient history of Beijing, to the icy mystery of the glaciers of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I was always on the lookout for love, for that special someone. But babies? No Thanks!

    I did get married, and experienced the fulfillment of having a partner, a new experience after having lived an independent life till then. Yet I found myself reflecting more and more that what I hadn’t yet experienced was the parent-child relationship. I felt a particular longing to do that not because I was broody for a baby, but because of the relationship I have with my own mother – something we’ve both worked hard to cultivate. I didn’t want to miss out on that kind of intimate relationship.

    In these first few months, my love for the little one has grown – I’ve experienced that fashionable thing called ‘bonding’. But watching her first smile, her legs that wiggle in excitement, even the constant wake-ups in the middle of the night haven’t just made me love her more, they’ve made me feel more compassionate and loving to my own parents. After all, they will have experienced the same sleepless nights, the same adoration of me as a baby, the same abandonment of their own priorities in order to cuddle, bathe and play with me.

    The Qur’an tells us that “Wealth and children are the adornments of the life of this world” and it’s true. The baby has certainly brought beauty and wonder to my life. I had travelled to far flung places to experience and explore the wonders of the universe. But – at the risk of sounding cheesy, it was not until the moment that I first held my baby that I realised that ‘out there’ – wherever that is – isn’t the only place to find wonders. The intimate relationships which give love and definition to our lives are a wonder to be found much closer to home.

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  • All that new mothers need is just one hour…

    This was my weekly newspaper column published in The National last week.

    Knowingly or unknowingly, we live our lives according to certain ratios. Our work-life balance is five to two: five days of work, and two of living at the weekend. Our sleep to awake ratio is around one in three. And, if you go to work, your daily productivity is around the same – eight working hours out of 24.

    Except when you have a new baby. My tiny five-month-old infant has taught me some new ratios. Once in every three hours she needs to be fed. She needs a nap in about the same measure.

    My newest ratio is four in 24. I’ve worked out that as a new mum, I can only manage four hours of non-baby-related activity in any one day. Some of this is used up for work, as I work from home. Some of it is used up in household chores like cooking, cleaning, laundry and admin. And some for the necessary fabric of life, like phone calls to family and friends to see how they are doing.

    The rest is all baby, baby, baby. Baby needs feeding, nappy changing, entertaining, stimulating, comforting. When she’s cute (and she is) it is hard to work and not play with her instead. When she’s grumbling (and she does), her complaints – which sound like the hard drive on your computer when it’s about to crash, but at 10 times the volume – grind my inner core to the point where I cannot bear it for more than a few seconds. It’s a God-given talent of babies to be able to make a noise that can instantaneously command your attention.

    The four hours of productivity are hard won, cobbled out of minutes extracted here and there. On a good day, I can benefit from a few minutes of her watching her mobile turning above her, although she likes to attack the flying toys now that she can reach. Or she might happily sit up and turn the pages of her books, which in her mind are not just for reading, but also for eating. And blessed are the days when she lies on her playmat and quietly observes the details of her surroundings.

    There is one thing I look forward to more than anything else now, but it is rare. All I want is an hour of time entirely to myself, no baby, no crying, no feeding, nothing. Just me.

    Unless you’ve been a new mum (or are a very supportive new dad), I think it’s hard to appreciate the sheer joy of an hour of quiet mummy-time. On an unexpectedly good day, baby’s daytime nap stretches to this amount of time. Or, if a kindly relative is present to play with baby, that too gives mummy some time on her own.

    Sometimes I use the hour for my own nap. Sometimes it is surprisingly enjoyable to have an uninterrupted hour to clean the house. And sometimes, it is incredibly stimulating to be able to find the woman that you once were – and to lose yourself in your work. That time becomes one of intense pleasure and sheer happiness, an hour in which you are no longer “mummy” (even my husband calls me that now). It is an hour to do something that makes you who you are. If you know a new mum, the best possible gift you can give her is an hour of time to be herself.

    My time is up: I can hear baby crying as she wakes up from her nap. Now it’s back to being a mummy …

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