Month November

  • Muslims who can lead in multicultural societies

    This article was written for Common Ground News service.

    LONDON/DOHA: Multiculturalism has come under increasing attack in the last few years in Europe, as societies struggle to make sense of how to bring together communities of diverse backgrounds. German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared multiculturalism a “failure” and her sentiments were echoed by British, Italian and French leaders. Their comments came following rising far-right sentiment against the growing Muslim populations in these countries.

    Theos, a public theology think tank based in the UK, released a report this October, “Multiculturalism: A Christian Retrieval”, which calls on political leaders to support multiculturalism, asserting that it is the only way to deal with today’s diverse societies.

    Borrowing the definition from Tariq Modood, one of the leading authorities on ethnic minorities in Britain, the report refers to multiculturalism as “the political accommodation of minorities formed by immigration to western countries.” The Theos report argues from a Christian perspective to “not lose sight of its [multiculturalism’s] indispensable contribution to realizing a just society.” The very fact that they are addressing the issue of multiculturalism is important for the debate because it highlights that it’s not just Muslims, but other civil society actors as well, who deem it a positive and much needed contribution to society.

    The report also says that multicultural justice is a concept that offers governments a method to deal with the challenges of establishing “fair and respectful public relationships among the minorities.”

    Establishing justice is also a priority for all religions, as well as for modern society. If multicultural societies hold the key to realizing a more just society, then the only wise option is to harness their vitality.

    Interestingly, the report highlights that a just multicultural democracy best emerges when moral bonds are nurtured within wider civic society rather than by government alone. This means that civil society needs to take up the important work of protecting its minorities and establishing their place at a leadership level to achieve the kind of justice the report refers to.

    One initiative that draws its inspiration from Muslims – in order to address exactly these challenges of multicultural societies – is the Mosaic International Summit, which began on 15 November in Qatar.

    Global society is in the midst of a “youth bulge”, which is especially pronounced in many Muslim-majority countries. In fact, 780 million Muslims under the age of 25 comprise 11 per cent of the entire world population. As we’ve already witnessed in the Arab Spring, the future significance of these youth is undeniable.

    Muslims are inherently connected through the concept of the ummah, the global multicultural Muslim nation. Future leaders will need to deal with the diversity of its population of 1.6 billion, as well as with the diversity of the entire global community. Furthermore, most Muslim countries have large minority populations, or are themselves significant minorities increasingly taking up leadership positions.

    The summit, open to delegates from all backgrounds — not only Muslims — brings together 80 individuals, aged 25 to 35, from 17 countries as diverse as Afghanistan and Algeria to Indonesia and Iraq. It is the third such summit organized by Mosaic, a charitable initiative based in the UK under the auspices of HRH Prince of Wales. Mosaic’s mission is to create opportunities for young people of all backgrounds growing up in deprived communities.

    Delegates at the summit are taking part in a structured, ten-day program of skills-based workshops and project work aimed at familiarizing them with leadership theories while also equipping them with practical leadership skills.

    Following the summit, Mosaic will support its delegates for an additional year and ask them to report back every three months on how they have applied their new insights and skills. Delegates from last year’s summit developed projects like a workplace volunteer program, fundraising events for local families in need, and even created a social entrepreneurship module for students pursuing advanced degrees in business.

    As a result of this summit, Mosaic’s delegates are able to experience new countries and cultures, and meet potential leaders from a diverse range of backgrounds. In turn, part of the training entails ensuring delegates are exposed to a mix of new perspectives and environments, which is one of the reasons why Qatar was chosen for the summit’s location. In light of this year’s events surrounding the Arab Spring, the Middle East continues to offer inspiration to young leaders.

    As it turns out, building a community out of multiculturalism is not a paradox. Rather, leaders trained to lead multicultural societies can create stronger, more cohesive and more just communities.

    Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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  • Mark Twain’s century old story still has something to tell us about wealth and financial crises

    This week’s column from The National

    In 1893, Mark Twain wrote a short story called The Million Pound Bank Note. Two wealthy British brothers give said note to an American pauper who arrives in London. They have secretly made a wager on whether he can survive for a month without ever cashing the note.

    By presenting the note, the American eats in restaurants, buys clothes and acquires lodgings. Since no ordinary shop can change it, he is extended credit, and becomes the object of sycophancy. Realising that he never need actually spend money to gain goods, he offers his name to back a mining project being floated by a friend on the stock exchange, and walks away with £200,000.

    Light-hearted the story may be but it offers insightful social commentary. The richer you appear to be, the more money you can make, the more people fawn over you and the less you actually need to contribute to the economy and society. The mere illusion of wealth is sufficient.

    In 1953, the tale was adapted into a film starring Gregory Peck. The updated plot reflected the slow death of the British Empire, with Peck representing America’s rising sun. This time, the American loses the note, which prompts a loss of confidence at the stock market in his mining venture. With the illusion of his wealth exposed, he tries to explain to the stock exchange that the mine is a solid investment, and that the loss of a piece of paper shouldn’t change that. But he is thrown out of the old boys’ club, whose members only listen to those from within their own elite.

    Although the film was made 60 years ago and Twain’s story is more than a century old, both could easily have been produced as a parable on today’s financial crisis. Growth was pegged to confidence, big names and crowd mentality, and when confidence flagged, prices crashed and the market collapsed.

    Does this mean we should accept that when it comes to wealth twas ever thus, and shall forever be so? I don’t think so. There has been a public mood shift. Social networking tools, the unparalleled enormity of the financial crisis, the rising concern over environmental sustainability, the growing disparity between rich and poor, but mostly people’s awareness of all of this, are the ingredients of rising discontent. Banks are bailed out, bankers are paid bonuses, MPs in Britain justify extortionate expenses, European MEPs refuse to reduce their pay. The head of the Indian Grand Prix says stop talking about India’s poor and concentrate on the country’s affluence.

    One manifestation of the mood change is the Occupy movements around the world, most notably in New York and London. A few thousands of protesters they have rattled the closed club.

    Occupy’s critics say they offer no constructive alternative. In response, Occupy points to the fact that their presence is symbolic, representing deep global discontent with those who uphold a system that protects only its own interests. Their protest is clearly aggravating, despite being peaceful. Importantly, Occupy offers a space to discuss new options and learn from the perils of our attitudes to illusory wealth.

    Even though wealth continues to be distributed unequally, knowledge and awareness since Twain’s time is more accessible. Perhaps this is the trigger we needed.

    And if you were wondering what happened in the film, it all worked out. The American found his note and confidence was restored in the market. If only our current crisis were so easy to solve.

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  • When death comes to the young

    This is my weekly column published today in The National (UAE) and a tribute to a friend who I lost this week.

    There are many things that we fear in this modern age of ours, but none more than the loss of youth. Our celebrities never age, skin creams ward off the signs of ageing, television clothes shows help us dress 10 years younger. And yet this week I was confronted with a stark loss of youth. A beautiful young woman, a new mother, not even 40, was taken by cancer.

    When death visits the young, we have many clichés to express grief: a life snatched away, the loss of potential, the unfairness of life. But she wasn’t a cliché, she was a person.

    I can’t trace the exact time I met her. She was one of those people I have always known, a beautiful, charming and effervescent individual. I see her in my memories smiling, working on community projects, excelling in her profession.

    They found the cancer while she was expecting her first child.

    After hearing the news of her death, I spent the day overwhelmed by the intensity and volatility of conflicting emotions. First, there was an almost frantic hysteria to get as much done as quickly as I could. Then, I felt abandonment. Nothing was important, nothing needed to be done. I felt numb. Then, I surrendered to the sheer sadness and wept, kept on weeping.

    I even felt guilt, at the depth of my melancholy, feelings that I felt should be reserved for her close ones. I can’t claim sadness, sympathy or trauma for myself. That is the right of her immediate family.

    I wonder why this death has affected me so deeply. I think about the cycle of life being broken, a daughter passing before the mother, a baby being left without a parent. Is it sentimentality?

    I gaze at my daughter, an innocent and entirely helpless creature, not yet a year old and only slightly younger than the woman’s own little girl. Do I fear for my own precarious situation?

    We imagine families with two parents, and bouncing children. It is easy to be lost in that fairy tale, immersed in a utopia where death follows old age. It’s frightening when reality is not so Disneyesque.

    Such an out-of-the-ordinary event makes us stop and reflect. But the surprise is that this is not as extraordinary as we might think: the risk of a woman contracting breast cancer is one in eight. And cancer among the young is not so unusual, as campaigns such as Breast Cancer Awareness month in October try to highlight.

    The loss of youth is not just about cancer. Add to this other illnesses, accidents, violent crime and in some places even famine and war, and suddenly our refusal to face up to death in youth becomes stark. In the developed world we pretend we are immune from early death, that it only happens elsewhere.

    The loss of one person changes the course of an entire family. Watching the news I am confronted with reports of thousands of people – individuals – killed in natural disasters and man-made conflicts. We rarely talk of the fact that the deaths of thousands of individuals actually mean thousands of families whose futures have been radically altered, often destroyed.

    I attended my friend’s funeral, an occasion filled with a community’s sadness and love, bearing a communal loss. What we don’t see, and what fills me with even greater sadness, is the grief of families in their own homes, once the last mourner has gone. All we can offer at a distance is prayer, and hope for their hearts to be healed.

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