Tuesday, 2 of September of 2014

Archives from month » September, 2011

There’s something about Mary: The Mary Initiative, peace, conflict resolution and motherhood

This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National (UAE)

Earlier this week I was invited to a late-night soirée. The evening was held at the invitation of an organisation called “The Mary Initiative” that uses Mary – or Maryam in Islamic terms – the mother of Jesus, as a springboard for peacemaking and conflict resolution. What better way to come together than by connecting through the most famous mother in history, asks the organisation. No matter how different we all are, even people in the mafia (so the adage tells us) love their mum.

Why had no one thought of this idea before? It’s genius.

Image from 'The Mary Initiative', by artist Husein Nuri

This initiative is designed for Muslims and Christians to come together and connect: not by comparing theology or doctrine but by connecting hearts. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is central to both religions. But this discussion was not about Jesus, but entirely about the role of Mary, her meaning and her status.

“It’s incredible to hear these men talking about how important Mary is,” exclaimed our facilitator. The magic of the conversation is that the point of departure is a shared person. And what makes it more powerful is that it is a woman, something deeply unusual in a time when dialogue and peacemaking is usually conducted by men who dominate the positions of power, whether it be in politics or religion.

Nearly all of us had tiny babies, and so the conversation inevitably turned towards Mary as a model of motherhood. The Quranic description of the excruciating pain she experienced at childbirth, the gossip at her predicament and her fortitude in the face of social disgrace were subjects that brought us closer to Mary and her humanity. One of the women had named her daughter Maryam. Surprisingly, Maryam is now in the top 100 names for baby girls in the UK.

Our conversation was filmed, and would be shown to Christian women so they could hear our views first hand. But after a while, the departure point for our discussion was quickly forgotten.

With tea and cheesecake to fuel the conversation, we debated late into the night, like carefree students. Who are we? What does womanhood mean today? What is our place in the universe? It was liberating. I realised that in the daily grind, I had little time or impetus to debate, explore and test out ideas.

The night’s conversation was much more raw than activities such as reflection or evaluation, both of which are very measured and task-orientated. This was about looking afresh, from a different vantage point, to see whether the truths we hold about the world were still valid.

The discussion around Mary would still have held potency even if it had involved women of other or no faiths. That’s because despite the reduction in value of motherhood in today’s consumerist world – where a person’s value is measured by their financial contribution – we all know that motherhood is not a commodity.

Every activity, policy decision, or initiative today is measured by politicians in terms of economic loss or gain. But if you ask people who was the most influential person in their lives, their mother often tops the list.

The Mary Initiative has hit on something more powerful than it realises. It opens the doors to dialogue with others. At the same time, it opens an inner door to realising the soft power and influence of women, and the way that their voices continue to guide us throughout our lives. There’s no way you can put a price on that. With these thoughts, I left the evening thinking there is definitely something about Mary.


Journalism and the Islamic moral system

I came across this blog post which was written about the launch of a Communications studies programme at an Islamic University. You can skip past the praise of the course itself, but there are some interesting reflections further down on how Islamic values should be manifested in the way that journalism and media are practised. It’s an interesting perspective…

Here are a couple of quotes:

A journalist who uses his/her faculty of observation, reason, reflection, insight, understanding and wisdom must realize that these are the Amanah (trust) of God and must not be used to injure a human soul or destroy society for the sake of self-promotion or for selling media contents.

and

the Social Responsibility Concept which is one of the four major theories of Mass Communications is not different from the Islamic concept of Al-Amaru bi al-maruf wan- nahyi an al-munkar, to wit, commanding right and prohibiting wrong.’
This implies that it is the responsibility of every individual and group, especially the institutions of social or public communication such as the press, radio, television, and cinema, to educate the public on the need to work for the collective growth of society.

Definitely worth reflecting on given the increasing power of the media in democracies, and of course with recent events including one Mr Murdoch.


People are the power for change not gadgets or websites

This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National.

I worked on the very first mobile phone for Apple. The iPod had already wowed the world, and now a global population was waiting for Apple to take the step into mobile technology. The handset wasn’t the iPhone that we know today, but a precursor: a Motorola phone loaded with an iTunes application. This allowed the user to transfer up to 100 songs onto the phone using the app. It was 2005 and I was the product manager for Motorola responsible for the handset across Europe and the Middle East.

In the trenches at Motorola we were inflated with excitementat bringing the first Apple phone to market, but our delight was tempered by the press, who were frustrated at its limited capability. Real users, too, weren’t willing to suffer compromise.

The public announcement of the first iTunes phone should have been tumultuous. Instead, Steve Jobs eclipsed Motorola with the launch of the iPod Nano on the same day. Our chief executive Ed Zander wasn’t best pleased and publicly dismissed the Nano: “Who listens to 1,000 songs?” History would prove Jobs right, and Zander woefully wrong.

Jobs has recently departed his role at the top of Apple. For all the criticism that Apple receives, its popularity is partly due to the fact that its technology is not an end in itself but instead enables users to do things more easily. On the flip side, as one executive commented on the launch of the Nano and as Zander found out, working with Apple is like dancing with the devil. It’s unpredictable and you may be outsmarted.

The same is true of anyone trying to tame a technology. Technologies take on the life of those who invest them with content and meaning. They are only as powerful as the imaginations of those who use them.

Hosni Mubarak learnt that at his peril. First he tried to shut down the internet and mobile networks to thwart the Egyptian uprising. It did the opposite. Then he tried to use them to disseminate his propaganda, and that just made his position more precarious.

Internet and mobile technologies like Twitter, Facebook and smartphones were credited for the revolutions of the Arab Spring. In the UK, the recent riots were blamed on them.

Take this comment on the role technology plays: “A means of communication, a privileged expression of the general transformation of social communication in a moment of change, a new management of time, speech and political discourse.”

Except this description isn’t about the Arab Spring’s use of Twitter. It was written more than 200 years ago at the time of the French Revolution by the Frenchman Pierre Retat with regards to printed material and its role in the political change.

In the 19th century, such thinkers as Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill wrote about how the move from books to journals to newspapers was changing the dynamic of political power and influence.

All of these technologies, from print to Twitter and everything in between, act only as catalysts in political change – they are not the cause of it. They are not the spark, the content, the aspiration, the blood. Yes, the revolutions may have taken a different course without them. Yes, they heightened the speed and ferocity of the uprisings. But we must be clear that it is people – not technologies – that make change happen. Let’s not diminish creativity and courage by attributing great sacrifice to amorphous, faceless technology.


The Ramadan season is over. So what now for Muslim brands?

This article was published at FT.com

You’ve spent a huge chunk of your annual budget reminding your Muslim consumers that your brand exists. You’ve persuaded them to buy your products during the month of Ramadan and secured sales over Eid. You’re not alone. Your branding peers have been out doing the same.

But now Ramadan is over and Eid is already fading to a distant memory. What do you do keep up the momentum? Do you sit around moping till next year? Do you reminisce about the spike in sales during the month of daylight fasting and the celebrations that follow?

In the UAE consumption shot up by 30 per cent on the eve of Ramadan. Some $2.2bn was spent on advertising in Ramadan in 2010. Some companies use as much as 78 per cent of their advertising budgets during this time. But once Ramadan and Eid have passed – then what? Is the Muslim consumer to be forgotten? This is where deep insight is crucial, but where many brands fall down.

It’s not all over – quite the opposite. According to the Pan Arab Research Centre: “Post-Ramadan there is more economic activity. The month instills new energy into the system.”


It’s time for Muslims to reclaim their image

This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National (UAE).

A decade after September 11, how I long to declare that warmongering has been vanquished and peace flourishes. But sadly, the 10 years since the horrific deaths in New York have seen increasing war, growing suspicion and greater rather than less terror.

Muslims have been scrutinised, demonised and held to collective blame for the events. They have been accused of plotting to install Sharia in the West, of being violent villains poised to wage global jihad on a liberal enlightened Occident, and of hating democracy.

These types of ideas are memes – thought patterns replicated via cultural means, like viruses of the mind. These parasitic codes have come to proliferate so widely in the West’s collective consciousness and are repeated so often and so brainlessly that they are almost accepted as truth. The fact is they have been deliberately and maliciously implanted into popular thinking since 9/11.

But since the beginning of the year, events have taken an unexpected turn – a turn that offers Muslims a historic opportunity to change the lens through which they have been framed, a chance to expose these memes as the falsehoods they are. Muslims must grasp this moment.

The most prominent memes are that Muslims are inherently violent, opposed to democracy and want to impose Sharia. But the Arab Spring defies these ideas. Across the Muslim world, it wasn’t Sharia that Muslims wanted. People rose up for democracy, deposing dictators one after another. And in Egypt, we saw an object lesson in peaceful revolution.

Muslims who live in the West are eyed suspiciously as fifth columnists. The accusation is that they are disloyal. But in a Gallup poll released last month, 93 per cent of Muslim Americans say they are loyal to their country. And a Pew Research Center poll published last week found that Muslim Americans exhibit the highest levels of integration and the greatest degree of tolerance among major American religious groups.

Another meme is that “all terrorists are Muslim”. But the Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik was the most high-profile proof of the underlying fact that the majority of terrorist acts are not planned or carried out by Muslims at all. Check Europol for figures in Europe. Check CIA statistics for incidents in the USA.

One of the most powerful pieces of information to come to light is a report released last week by the American Center for Progress called “Fear Inc. The Roots of Islamophobia”. It has traced the sources of the fabricated memes to just a handful of funders, and a handful of so-called “experts” who try to take on the mantle of fanning fear and exaggerating threats. The echo chambers they use to amplify their voices are designed to make it appear that this hatred of Muslims is widespread – another falsehood they want to perpetuate – but it is not. The memes by and large stem from them, their funding and their handful of cronies. Their time is now up.

It is Tariq Jahan, a British Muslim who lost his son during this summer’s riots in the UK, who best embodies this moment of change for Muslims. “I’m a Muslim,” he announced on national TV, without fear or apology, but rather to explain that his strength and compassion came from his faith. He united a nation in grief and in dignity where politicians had failed. His dignity and his humanity changed minds about what it means to be Muslim. He instinctively knew that for Muslims the time is now. They must seize this opportunity to lay the myths to rest.


Skin whitening – the prejudice, obsession and discrimination goes on

This is my weekly column published in The National yesterday.

During the Eid celebrations this week, aunties gathered in one of the upstairs bedrooms deciding how to distribute presents to the children. Holding up a dress, one of them proclaimed: “There’s no point giving the pretty dress to that baby, she is too dark. Whatever she wears will look ugly on her. Better to give it to the fairer one, she always looks so pretty.”

Obsessions with skin whitening - if the products really work, why aren't we swimming in white people?

I felt anger that a baby could be called ugly, and a more visceral rage that darkness was being equated with ugliness. I felt protective towards this baby who I didn’t know. Being born into a surrounding with these attitudes meant she was due to suffer a double setback – growing up with those who diminished her worth because she is “dark”, compounded by the fact she would be the dumping ground for poorer gifts, opportunities and respect.

This is not a one-off story, but an attitude so embedded in subcontinental culture that people take it as a given that white is better. White females are more prized as wives and daughters-in-law, snapped up in the marriage market, like sheep or cattle.

The whiteness has nothing to do with the beauty of the features. It’s just the colour that is important. White is seen as successful, connected with status and wealth. It’s a trend that echoes across the Far East as well as in the Middle East.

A survey by Asia Market Intelligence revealed that three quarters of Malaysian men thought their partners would be more attractive with lighter complexions. In Hong Kong, two thirds of men prefer fairer skin.

Wherever such deeply-rooted cultural attitudes exist, the commercial world is never far behind. Products that promise to lighten and whiten skin are rife, promising professional and personal success and marriage.

The global skin-lightening market is predicted to reach US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) by 2015. And a Datamonitor report released last month says the market for skin-whitening products grew 16 per cent year on year between 2005 and 2009.

Some of these products contain horrific ingredients such as mercury in mind-boggling quantities, such as 65,000 times the acceptable limit, which can cause vomiting, coma and even death. The fact that many women feel compelled to use these cosmetics despite the health risks, spending a considerable proportion of their income especially if poor, and in some cases contravening bans that exist on such products in many countries, is testament to the intense pressure facing women to whiten up.

At the other end of the market are products that are tested and found safe, usually from big-name brands. But experts suggest that while they do no harm, they are unlikely to do much whitening. If they were, wouldn’t these countries be swimming in white people by now?

There are arguments that this is nothing to do with race or prejudice but about looking different to the norm. Brown people want to be white, and white people want to be tanned.

But white-skinned people don’t want to look tanned in order to look Asian or Black, whereas for brown-skinned people being called “white” is the ultimate compliment.

At the same Eid gathering as the shocking baby incident, a wedding album was passed round. The bride’s face was ghoulish beneath chalk white foundation. “So beautiful!” gasped the aunties. “So white!” But the only face that was actually white in a roomful of brown Asians was mine: white with disgust.