Month May

  • The Olympics are coming to London: along with traffic, warzones and pandemics. No wonder I feel grumpy

    My weekly newspaper column for The National published today.

    The Olympics are almost upon us. The correct response should be “Hurrah!” but that’s not how I feel at all. I am unexcited, despondent and frankly just a teeny bit scared.

    Last weekend, 40,000 people attended an opening ceremony at Olympic Stadium, where the Games will begin on July 27. The day before the weekend event, a newspaper smuggled a fake bomb into the Olympic site.

    I was driving past the stadium going to a wedding, and through the gaps in the glorious infrastructure I glimpsed London’s beautiful people assembled to mark the formal opening.

    While rubbernecking the crowd I had to screech to a halt because of traffic congestion. Not hurrah.

    It’s not just Olympic traffic that bothers me. London is being turned into a war zone. This week, fighter jets flew low above my suburban home, so close that the floors started vibrating and my baby started crying. And missiles are being placed on the roofs of urban buildings.

    Even with more than two months to go, London is morphing into a different kind of city, and I don’t like it one bit.

    Worse, I don’t like not liking it. I believe I ought to feel ecstatic, as though Harry Potter, the Tooth Fairy and Elvis Presley were all gathering for a never-before-never-again magic joy-fest.

    When London won the bid to host these Olympics, we were told we would have to pick up the cost, estimated at Dh33bn, or, as it was described to us, “the cost of a Walnut Whip a day”. This refers to a small, wrapped chocolate costing about Dh3. Now, seven years and 2,500 imaginary Walnut Whips later, I feel short-changed and miserable.

    It’s probably the Brit in me that makes me pessimistic about potentially good things, makes me expect failure. For example, compared to the spectacular Beijing Olympics – in which all one billion Chinese seemed to take part in a perfectly choreographed ceremony – our failure can be nothing but utterly dismal.

    And if fighter jets, missiles and fake bombs weren’t enough, the crowds might kill us.

    With a joyful melange of the global population gathering in one small space from all the world’s infected backwaters, London is at risk of hosting a global pandemic: the black death meets Sars meets I Am Legend. And we won’t even be able to get away, because there will be just too much traffic.

    So I will be languishing in my London living room this August; I won’t get the chance to be an actual part of the Olympics. Just as if the Olympics were in Beijing or Barcelona, I will be watching them on television.

    But I will be all the more despondent, grumpy even, because I have paid for them, and because even though I applied for tickets, I didn’t get any.

    For Muslims, about the only bright side of London as a commercial city shutting down is that the Olympics and Ramadan coincide. So many Muslims will be able to work from home during the long fasts, rather than commuting into muggy crowded London in the summer heat.

    Actually, though, for the price of a Walnut Whip every day for seven years, I could have bought myself a month on a paradise island with no crowded trains, no fighter jets and little risk of deadly viruses.

    And I still could have enjoyed watching the Olympics on television.

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  • Stop this drip feed of hatred in Europe

    A little belatedly, one of my ‘Her Say‘ columns for The National newspaper

    Europe is once again in confusion over how to deal with European Muslims.

    In Germany, a small Muslim group, identified as extreme Salafi by the government, wants to distribute 25 million free copies of the Quran in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The authorities believe the Quran campaign is a cover for jihadist recruitment. The leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s parliamentary group “strongly condemns” the campaign.

    Equating free Qurans with recruitment for terrorism is a rather surprising leap. The campaign and the Quran’s contents are hardly covert. Billions of Muslims around the world read the Quran and lead unexciting, peaceful and boldly un-jihadist lifestyles, and giving out free Qurans is an entirely legal activity in Germany.

    Politicians have conflated those whom they believe are engaging in extremist activities with the core platform of Islam. Rightly, there are no governments in Europe that “strongly condemn” the millions of Bibles that are given away, or the organisations that leave them in hotel rooms. Condemning free Qurans is just another manifestation of the misguided and downright dangerous idea that absolutely anything to do with Islam is a step on the road to terrorism. Such incidents add up to a wider, corrosive atmosphere of hatred.

    We can see this in the case of Anders Behring Breivik, on trial in Norway this week, who claims that his actions, which resulted in the deaths of 77 people, were “self-defence”.

    It’s hard not to see a man who is filled with hatred built up of these seemingly tiny and innocuous negative conflations. His ocean of hatred is being painted as belonging to just one loon, rather than built from the drip drip drip of deep-seated anti-Muslim sentiment that is being allowed to percolate through Europe.

    Yet Breivik’s thinking shows clear evidence of influence from European and American writers and anti-Muslim movements. Breivik also connects himself to Europe’s dark chapter of Nazism by stating: “I have done the most spectacular and sophisticated attack on Europe since the Second World War.”

    Breivik claims he was in touch with English Defence League members in the UK and provided them with “ideological material”. If he is telling the truth, it is further evidence of the fact that he is not a one-off, but instead is part of an alarming wave of hatred building up in the continent.

    The EDL is also a concoction of these ignorant tiny conflations that fuel hatred. The EDL’s co-founder, Tommy Robinson, this week found a photograph of cricket being played outside a mosque on Twitter’s home page and tweeted: “Welcome to Twitter home page has a picture of a mosque. What a joke #creepingsharia”. His attempt at stoking hatred against Muslims was derailed by other more humorous tweets: something that gives us hope against the perfidious drip of hatred.

    Mocking tweets include examples such as “I skipped breakfast this morning. Clearly fasting subconsciously. #CreepingSharia” and “If you look really carefully, a packet of iced gems looks like lots & lots of little Mosques. #creepingsharia”.

    Let’s hope that whether facing tiny drops of hatred, or utter venom, that humour and common sense will prevail. Europe has already once suffered by listening to the drip feed of hatred. It’s time to stop this new tide of hatred right now.

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  • The West appreciates Islamic art – so why don’t Muslims?

    My op-ed published in The National newspaper last week.

    Last week, an unprecedented exhibition about the Haj finally closed at the British Museum in London, having gathered praise around the world. The coverage focused on how this was the first known exhibition of its kind about the Haj anywhere in the world, let alone in the West; and how it moved audiences away from the political discourse about Islam and into the human experience of being Muslim.

    Showcasing Islamic art has become a widespread trend in the West, a movement that can be traced to the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001. There is a palpable desire in the West to understand Muslims better through arts and culture. After all, art is traditionally a vehicle through which the West makes sense of its place in the world, and which acts as a safe space to discuss thorny cultural and political issues. One of the curators of the exhibition captured this by expressing her aspiration that the show would allow people to stand in Muslim shoes. It seems to be working.

    In Paris, the Louvre will open its Arts of Islam gallery later this summer with a specially designed roof inspired by an Islamic veil. At a time of heightened racial and religious tensions in France, and record support for the anti-immigrant Front National, this is both an irony and a sign of hope. Perhaps through art France can suck the politics and hatred out of its relationship with its Muslim citizens.

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reopened its Islamic art galleries at the end of last year after an eight-year closure. Its curator describes how Islamic arts can illuminate the meaning that Islam brings to a vast global population. “Islam is not a single lens through which we view and interpret the art,” said Navina Najat Haidar, curator and coordinator in the Met’s department of Islamic art. “Rather, it’s an inverted lens that reveals great diversity.”

    The surprise, however, is not that the West is producing and devouring art and heritage from the Muslim world, but that Muslims themselves are proving much slower at the same activities. However, they are gradually beginning to grasp that the arts are a means of dialogue and mutual understanding.

    In Canberra, Australia, a Muslim group is seeking to build an Islamic art and history museum to “educate people on their magnificent contribution” and their long history with the nation, with Muslims trading from what is now Indonesia long before the arrival of the first white settlers.

    It would also strengthen ties with two of Australia’s biggest trading partners, Indonesia and Malaysia. They are right that art has a way of revealing humanity and reality that can be obscured by political extremism, rhetoric and downright hatred. There is also a certain symmetry to using historic trade and cultural relationships in order to foster future trade and culture.

    In a global climate where walls are being built between Islam and the West faster than they are being torn down, the arts create a much needed chink of light.

    But these developments also leave me wondering about whether there is an appreciation among Muslims, for other Muslims to experience the joy of creativity and the preservation of heritage? Do Muslims see art as a means of intra-ummah dialogue and an understanding of our own selves and our contexts?

    Sometimes I despair that it is too much for show, trying too hard to prove our artistic and cultural heritage rather than to enjoy and learn from it for ourselves. I want Muslims to enjoy, preserve and use arts for themselves, as well as for dialogue. We need to establish definitively that the arts are important. We need to invest in them. And we need to offer up creative space to them to develop new forms.

    In fact there is a peculiar dichotomy of wanting to show off our arts and culture to others, while diminishing their value to the ummah. When others destroy Islamic heritage (in Israel, for example), Muslims are quick to point it out – and rightly so. However, when respected archaeologists raise similar concerns for heritage sites in countries such as Saudi Arabia, there is thundering silence.

    Heritage must be preserved so that we can understand the context of who we are. In my opinion, for Muslims this is a divine command, as the Quran talks clearly about travelling the world to see what has passed before.

    The Gulf slowly but surely is realising the value of recognising the importance of its cultural roots. There has been a mushrooming of museums and galleries being commissioned and opened over recent years, attempting to tell the story of the region’s heritage. The British Museum and the Louvre are in the forefront of the creation of Saadiyat island’s cultural district.

    The question is, who is this all for, and what is the purpose? The museums, artistic endeavours and exhibitions should be there to help us work through the issues of the present, by offering new lenses on current predicaments. They must allow us to delve into our past – both the good and the gory – to make sense of the current challenges in the Muslim world, to allow us to converse across countries, ethnicities, languages and cultures and make sense of why we are where we are.

    In short, we need the arts to understand how we got here today and why we are facing the challenges we face. We need the arts to offer us up creative vistas on how we move forward from today’s challenges.

    We are still at the early stages – still only able to put forward a rose-tinted view of Muslim heritage that serves the much-needed purpose of building our confidence, and introducing us to our own past. But in getting to know the past we must get to know not just the positives but the ups and downs, the contentions, the challenges and all those stories we might want to forget, that don’t fit with the glorious narrative we wish to display.

    Part of the problem is that we don’t know how to understand, how to embrace and promote arts. We must open ourselves up to new influences in theatre, poetry, music, language, rhythm, architecture even as we remain true to our Islamic artistic heritage. We must incorporate them willingly instead of rejecting new forms as “un-Islamic”, or only reluctantly accept them as part of Islamic expression. Where do we think the art forms we now promote so passionately come from in the first place?

    New music development, for example, is in its early stages but is usually frowned upon. Yet people love Qawwali, which itself must have been a struggling new medium once before blossoming into the art form it is today. Theatre is the same: a new shape to the storytelling heritage of the Muslim world. We need to give time and investment for art forms to develop.

    The arts have their place in civilisational dialogue, for sure. But to limit that dialogue to politics is to short-change the arts and ourselves. Worse is to use the arts as a public relations tool while disregarding their ability to help us understand ourselves, our faith and our history. Used wisely, the arts also have the creative power to help us shape our future.

    Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at

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  • Dear men, time to support us women…

    My weekly column ‘Her Say’ for The National newspaper, published on Saturday…

    More than a year on from the start of the Arab uprisings, it’s time to ask: are things getting better for the Arab world? More specifically: are things getting better for Arab women?

    War, social upheaval and often a low starting point for women’s rights have made us hopeful of radical transformation. But this fundamental question – are things getting better for women? – can be applied to any country, any ethnicity and any religion. In fact it must be applied to all, because women everywhere need things to get better.

    In India millions of pregnancies are terminated simply because the foetus is female. In China women are kidnapped as brides because the one-child policy has led to a surplus of men. In France one in 10 women is a victim of domestic violence. Two women are killed each week in the UK by current or former male partners. In the US women earn approximately 77 cents for every dollar that men earn.

    Across cultural, religious and geographic divides, women are discriminated against in similar ways, just with different manifestations. We are all in this together, and should all be fighting on the same side. But how one defines “we” must change. It is important that men step into this debate, too. Not at a political or academic level, but at the human, emotional and enraged-by-the-lack-of-justice level.

    I understand that this is an issue first for women, and that men might not want to be seen as telling women how they feel and what they want. But the fact is, men rarely ask why women feel this way, and how men can help change things. Why is it that when public cries are raised about women’s issues such as oppression, discrimination, physical and psychological abuse, and downright secondrate treatment, male voices are so rare in the conversation? Men have an innate sense of fairness, love and justice. So why do they show it so rarely on this topic? Why is there such reluctance to hold other males accountable for their silence?

    Perhaps the trouble is that some men see women’s rights as a problem of individuals, nasty single men who perpetuate these crimes. That doesn’t make the collective silence right.

    We need to ask these questions because the answers can help us create strategies that lead to real change. Real change is the ultimate goal for all women, no matter where they are.

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