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My year in review at Ogilvy Noor (2012)

If you’ve been following closely, you’ll know that for nearly two years now I’ve been working as the VP at Ogilvy Noor, the world’s first Islamic branding practice for building brands with Muslim consumers globally.  It’s a growing segment that is attracting attention from both the world’s biggest brands, as well as being a flourishing opportunity that is being co-opted by entrepreneurs and new cultural trends.

In this post, re-published from the Ogilvy Noor blog which I write, you can follow the big themes of the year and get some deeper insights into the Muslim consumer market. I’ll also be posting a few of the articles in full on this blog.

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Ogilvy Noor’s year in review 2012

In the last 12 months, awareness, interest and brand engagement with the Muslim consumer has continued on a steep upward curve. From an Ogilvy Noor perspective we take a look back at the events, ideas and highpoints of the year.

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Understanding the opportunity

In any industry segment that is in its early growth stages, it’s natural that establishing awareness, understanding and the scale and shape of the opportunity is the crucial first stage. We spent time discussing the business opportunities for brands today when it comes to Muslim consumers as well as some of the challenges when marketing to Muslims. It’s a population of 1.8 billion people, spending an estimated $2.1 trillion, and 42% of whom are under 25, which is an astonishing 11% of the entire global population.

The big buzz word in the industry is ‘Islamic branding’, but what exactly is Islamic branding and why is it significant? And of course what you really need when assessing the opportunity for your business are somekey facts about the growing segment.

Keeping our focus very much on this rapidly growing segment we set about diving deeper into how brands should establish and grow their relationship with consumers.  In the FT.com we looked at three powerful areas of focus for 2012 – finance, fashion and halal brands.

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Building brands for Muslim consumers

Of course, one of the big questions for businesses in an ever better connected world, with a Muslim population that spans all continents, is how to build global halal brands, another issue we tackled in the FT.

We took some time to focus specifically on how food brands can market to Muslim consumers, and looked at the rising crossover trend of eco-halal.

In trying to understand the vast spread of Muslims around the world along with some of their geographic and cultural contexts we looked at bite size insights with our Fast Facts onBangladeshBrunei Darussalamand Indonesia.

In the eyes of Muslim consumers how friendly are global brands to their needs? This was a question that we at Ogilvy Noor set out to answer. Our findings were published in the Noor Brand Index, a first-of-its-kind study into Muslim consumer attitudes towards global brands. And the results might surprise many. For the very first time, there is a benchmark of the appeal of  specific brands to Muslim consumers.

Reflecting on the appeal of brands to Muslim consumers we asked a crucial question: how shariah-friendly is your brand? Brands seeking to engage the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims need to make sure they’re products and services are “shariah friendly” and as we explained, that’s easier than you might think. And in case you are still feeling nervous, we can reassure you that it’s more profitable and less frightening than you might expect.

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Significant reports on the growth of the Muslim consumer market

The Economist Intelligence Unit published a substantial report on the ‘Sharia-conscious consumer’, featuring insights from Ogilvy Noor. Their finding was that “demand for Sharia orientated products and services is strong, and expected to grow. Among the reasons: expanding Muslim populations, rising purchasing power, shifting consumption patterns, and a broader range of products and services on offer. The range of Sharia-orientated products and services is broadening, from food and Islamic finance products to pharmaceuticals, fashion and tourism, among others.”

BBC Radio 4 covered the rise of the Muslim consumer segment in its radio documentary ‘The Future is halal’. Ogilvy Noor’s Shelina Janmohamed explains to the programme the detailed findings from our pioneering publication “Brands, Islam and the new Muslim consumer”, and paints the landscape across the diverse industries which are embracing ‘halal’. You can read more about the documentary here, and also listen to the programme if you are in the UK.

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Media interest in Muslim consumers continues to grow

Across print, TV, radio, consumer and trade marketing, the media has been buzzing the whole year with the growth of the Islamic branding industry, quoting Ogilvy Noor at the forefront of its reporting.

BBC Radio 4′s flagship consumer programme You and Yours was fascinated by the rising voice of Muslim consumers, asking what is Islamic branding and why do we need it?

The National looked at the popularity with Muslim consumers of Kraft’s Tang and cheese products.

In an extensive report by Swiss Bank Sarasin on Islamic Wealth Management in 2012, Ogilvy Noor’s pioneering presence in the field of Islamic branding and understanding of how brands are perceived by Muslim consumers sets the scene for their explanation of the growth of this segment.

The Egypt Independent looked at making travel halal.

The UK’s Guardian asked ‘Halal toothpaste, anyone? Religious observance has become a global brand.’

London based radio station Monocle 24 focused on retailers reaching out to Muslim consumers in Ramadan.

And PR Week in the USA quoted the growing segment as ‘Affluent and untapped’. “The key to connecting with Muslim Americans is respecting their unique qualities while recognizing the similarities to other US consumer markets, writes PR Week. One look at the American-Muslim demographic will reveal a young, educated, affluent population that’s both highly loyal and eager to be engaged by US companies. Yet, the market is basically untapped.”

The Houston Chronicle echoed that Muslim consumers are growing in the USA and they have money to spend. And the Huffington Post added that Muslim growth is good for business.

Across the other side of the world the Times of India reported that “Indian brands get ‘halal’ stamp, set to woo Muslims in global markets“.

In Malaysia, Marketing-Interactive magazine asked “Is online the new space for halal?

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Communicating with Muslim consumers

Like all consumers, Muslim consumers like to be courted by brands, and we looked at three top tips for talking to Muslim consumers: tete a tete with personal contact, crossovers with mainstream marketing, and through community engagement.

Arts and culture are also powerful media through which to engage with Muslim consumers, and we looked at some world class organisations who are using exactly these methods to build relationships.

One of the lynch pins of a relationship with consumers is to build love for your brand. And on Valentine’s Day – a day which often holds controversy among Muslims and some consumers generally, we asked how you can grow Muslim consumer affection for your brand.

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Getting to know Muslim women

At the 8th World Islamic Economic Forum, Ogilvy Noor Vice President Shelina Janmohamed spoke about ‘Revolution unveiled: how Muslim women are driving innovation.’ With the rise of the Muslim Futurists, and amongst these the epic changes affecting Muslim women, the latter are now demanding innovation from brands and where they are not being heard they are engaging in radical entrepreneurship themselves.

One of these industry trends includes the growth of Muslim lifestyle magazines.

We also spent time investigation the growth of Muslim fashion in a two part series (here and here) on the rise and rise of this global segment.

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Seasonality and the Muslim calendar

Ramadan has an overwhelming significance in the Islamic year, with Muslims joining together for the month of fasting. We delved deep into a number of important symbols and traditions, including the crescent moonknown as the ‘hilal’, with a specific focus on designing the moon.

We looked at the Islamic tradition of dates and its new modern twists, as well as Ramadan traditions in Egypt of lanterns, cannons and night callers.

Ramadan also coincided with the huge global event of the Olympics, and we spent time considering the relationship between Ramadan, the Olympics and Muslim athletes.

Of course since Ramadan has such importance for Muslims, brands must work hard to get it right and cut through the clutter. We considered how brands can make life easier in Ramadan acting as a friend that solves problems, rather than a devil causing distraction.  And we crystallised five top tips on engaging Muslim consumers during the month of fasting.

Finally, the end of Ramadan is marked by the festival of Eid ul Fitr, and in our Eid message we focused on Eid traditions and attitudes towards children, including rituals, gifts and community.

The Islamic pilgrimage, known as the hajj, also plays an extremely important part of the Islamic calendar. For clarity we looked at three things you should know about Muslims and the hajj. Marking the culmination of the hajj is the Eid festival known as Eid ul Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice. In our Eid message we focused on the principles of purity, renewal and community.

And in case marketers were having difficulty in contextualising the significance and meaning behind the events of the Islamic year, we unravelled any misconceptions with a deep look at how to understand the Islamic new year, the crescent moon and Muslim seasonality.

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Ogilvy Noor continues to grow and win awards

For the second year in a row, Ogilvy Noor won a prestigious WPP Atticus Award for original thinking.

Ogilvy Noor, was selected by the World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) Foundation to develop and execute a worldwide public relations strategy for the upcoming 8th WIEF to be held in Iskandar Malaysia, Johor from 4-6 December 2012. The 8th WIEF is organised by WIEF Foundation and hosted by Government of Malaysia and Johor State Government. You can read more about the 8th WIEF here and the ‘Muslim world is open for business.’

We spoke at the 8th World Islamic Economic Forum in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. We’ve already mentioned Shelina’s presentation on Muslim women and innovation. You can also see her thoughts on “Trade is a mutually lucrative means of establishing relationships between the Muslim and wider world.”

At the 3rd Annual Asia Islamic Banking Conference, Ogilvy Noor’s President John Goodman shared his thoughts speaking on from Doubt to Devotion, alongside Ogilvy Noor colleague Hendri Satrio who spoke on Don’t just talk Islamic, walk Islamic.

The last 12 months have seen extraordinary growth and ever increasing interest in the Muslim consumer market. Next year we will be extending our thought leadership in this space. If you feel that you would like to be part of reaching out to the ‘third billion’, then we’d be delighted to hear from you.

In the meantime, we hope you too have had a successful 2012, and look forward to connecting with you in 2013.


Trade is a Mutually Lucrative Means of Establishing Relationships Between the Muslim and Wider World

My column published in the Huffington Post in December 2012

As a British Muslim woman who wears the headscarf, I find myself at the forefront of debates about the kind of relationship that can be held between ‘Islam and the West’, whether ‘Islam and Modernity are compatible’ and why Muslims allegedly can’t engage with the western world. By its very nature such discussions come with a bias and are set against a political backdrop.

But as someone whose family travelled in the early 20th century from India to East Africa for economic reasons, and whose parents did the same by moving to the UK as part of the British empire, I have a different take on this subject: and it comes in the guise of trade. Simply put, many of our social attitudes may be shaped by political grandstanding, but the reality of our lives and our political relationships are much more pragmatically shaped by trade and commerce.

In the eigth century, King Offa of England decided to mint coins with the Islamic declaration embossed on the rear. It was no doubt a practical decision by a ruler who wanted to trade with the increasingly close by and wealthy Muslim world. Sought after spices could only be procured along the old Silk Road, whose route passed through many Muslim nations. And even our increasingly fashionable cup of coffee has its roots in the Muslim world. In fact, coffee houses in the 17th centuries were considered hotbeds of sedition, partly connected to the fact that coffee was seen as the drink of the Ottoman enemy, and it was referred to as ‘the wine of Islam.’

The 21st century is no different: trade still governs the reality of life. And in my view, alongside cultural and artistic transactions, trade is a mutually lucrative means of establishing robust and enduring relationships between the Muslim and wider world.

“Building bridges through business” is the wording used by the World Islamic Economic Forum that is taking place this week in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, a commercial city that sits on the southernmost tip of the peninsula, and once the last built place before the marshes of Singapore.

It’s a lofty goal, and one much needed. We live in a world of 1.8 billion Muslims (1 in 4 of the population today is Muslim) and which is set to grow to 2.2 billion by 2020. And yet today they collectively earn 80% less than world average income.

From 4-6 December, Muslim political, business and cultural leaders including 2,100 delegates from 86 countries will discuss topics from the more economically expected such as innovation, leadership, entrepreneurship and sustainability, to more diverse subjects like nanonetch, waqf investments, and disaster mitigation. There will be the expected dignitaries: the Prime Minister of Malaysia, the President of the Comoros, the Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, special representatives of the Prime Minister of Qatar and the President of Pakistan, and the President of the Islamic Development Bank based in Jeddah.

What I’m particularly pleased about is to see streams focusing on young leaders as well as business women, and I’ll be speaking at the Forum about ‘Revolution unveiled: The rising innovation of Muslim women. ‘

The business world is only slowly waking up to the potential of the global Muslim consumer. With such a young growing Muslim population that is open to brands, and whose faith guides their consumption, it is an opportunity for savvy marketers. But even within this rich seam of consumers are Muslim women. Forget being misunderstood, even when not misrepresented, they are under-understood and under-served. Muslim women have expectations that companies, governments and civic organisations will innovate to meet their needs. And when they don’t, they innovate themselves.

I also mentioned the power of arts, and so it’s heartening to see an unusual development for a Muslim organisation: a Marketplace of Creative Arts, featuring film makers, singers, dancers, musicians, spoken word artists and cartoonists. Western and Muslim art and architecture has been mutually influential over centuries.

The hope – like in times past – is that economics will trump politics in building links and result in a more peaceful and secure combined future.

Thousands of years of trade have told us that the relationship is a positive and fluid, and mutually beneficial intellectually as well as economically.

Ideally, the future ahead of us is one where I stop having to discuss inane and passé questions like the compatibility between the Western and Muslim worlds. Commerce and arts are two of the powerful demonstrations of what is possible.


Save Muslim History

My monthly column from EMEL December 2012

There is no parallel to seeing sites that relate to Islamic history in person. Sadly, these sacred spaces are now being destroyed around the world.

I have always been enraptured with the verses of the Qur’an that direct Muslims to travel the earth and see what has gone before. In Delhi I saw remnants of the astounding golden age of the Mughals, alongside the opulence and indulgence that led to its demise, a lesson in the holistic contribution of Muslims to culture, as well as the perils of hubris. In Granada’s Alhambra Palace I saw the magnificence of Islamic architecture, and its comfort in creating a European Islam. In Makkah I saw the now significantly hidden mounts of Safa and Marwa mentioned in the Qur’an as the ‘signs’ of God. I imagined the difficulties that beset Lady Hajrah in her isolation in the valley.

Other places, like Petra in Jordan, are part of the backdrop to Islam and believed to be mentioned in the Qur’an. I am constantly thankful at the existence of these sites. I begin to understand the ways the people have lived, and the lessons to be drawn from their civilisations, especially when their fates have been described in the Qur’an.

Of course you can read about these in books. But seeing with your own eyes—as every religious seeker will confirm—has no parallel. After all, did Prophet Ibrahim not express to God that he believed, but that to see with his own eyes would bring peace to his heart?

I’m not the only Muslim to have experienced such epiphanies, or to aspire to travel to such sites of historical importance. Muslim travel and tourism is estimated at $126 billion. Countries that care about their connection to Muslim history are preserving sites, which help their own industries, but more importantly makes a contribution to the ummah’s sense of self.

One of my great distresses in recent years is how rapidly and ruthlessly our communal Muslim history is being destroyed, through neglect or willful destruction, which includes destruction by Muslims themselves. It is implicit in the Qur’anic directive to see what has gone before, and that history must be preserved. I am surprised at how easily this is overlooked. There are of course also reasons of sacred space, and love of those who have been part of the birth of Islam. In addition there is a growing movement to discredit the origins of Islam. If these early sites are destroyed, where will this evidence and research stem from?

Muslims are quick to be enraged at the destruction of Muslim heritage by those who are not Muslim. The OIC was in fact founded in response to an arson attack against Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969. Yet secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu has written that the OIC should “spare no effort to preserve the Islamic historical and religious identity of Al Quds Al Sharif”. Is this shrine worship? Of course not. Do these sites impede pilgrims? Of course not. And yet in Muslim countries, these arguments are used by Muslims to destroy Muslim sacred sites.

Muslim heritage belongs to the Muslim ummah and to no one single nation state. It is being destroyed across the world in front of our eyes by Muslims. Yet we are doing little or nothing to stop it. The exquisite mosques of Mali, the mausoleums in Pakistan and the Islamic heritage sites where our Holy Prophet himself was born and lived are disappearing into history.

The first step is for Muslims to re-ignite a passion to save our history—whether that be the Ferhat Pasha mosque being reconstructed in Bosnia, the libraries of Baghdad sacked in the Iraqi invasion, the Joplin mosque burnt down in Missouri, or the historic mosque in Aleppo destroyed by fighting. Our passion must be a global movement that strives to protect and preserve in the interests of the ummah today, to safeguard our future, as well as re-instate what should be instinctive respect for our sacred spaces. We must save Muslim history wherever it is, and from whoever seeks to destroy it. If we don’t take steps now, there will be nothing left. I give you this simple plea: save Muslim history


All Muslims are terrorists and most terrorists are Muslims and other myths: some facts

This is my EMEL column from November 2012

When myths take on an air of authenticity, society is in danger.

A low budget film about the Prophet made in the US was blamed for inciting riots in the Middle East including the storming of the American embassy in Benghazi and the death of the Ambassador.Let’s put aside for one moment the underlying politics of who made the film and why. The entire incident raises some big ideological issues that come up repeatedly pertaining to violence, freedom of speech, and the right to offend. Namely, that Muslims are offended by everything and can’t take criticism. Muslims are intrinsically violent. Muslims aren’t like us, and need a proper education. This is just about religion and blasphemy which Europe managed to get rid of in the Enlightenment several centuries ago. These are myths.

There are other myths. The myth of ‘creeping shariah’ persists: that the overarching goal for Muslims is to impose shariah law wherever they go, and that by 2030 Muslims will apparently make up the entire population of the UK. That Eurabia is a real country. That Muslims are all planning their Islamification strategies. And everyone’s favourite myth, that Muslim women are oppressed and it’s because the Qur’an and the Prophet say so. Honour killings are, of course, the fault of Muslims, failing to mention that this is part of the same heartbreaking story of violence against women that includes the death of two women in the UK each week at the hands of their partners.

So how should such myths be tackled? Facts, oft-repeated facts, in the voice of calm, reasonable logic.Take the myth that Muslims have can never be patriotic to their country. Here are some facts.

In 2006, CNN-IBN-Hindustan Times conducted a survey of 29 Indian states, and concluded that Muslims suffered under a “myth of extra-territorial loyalty”, pointing to the fact that all but two per cent of Muslims said they were “proud” or “very proud” of being Indian. Levels of pride in being Indian were almost identical between Hindus and Muslims.

In 2009, the Coexist Index published by the Coexist Foundation in conjunction with Gallup found that 86% of British Muslims said they were loyal to the UK compared with just 36% of the wider population. In Germany, the figures were 40% versus 32% and in France, the two groups were about the same at 52% versus 55%.

Or what about the myth that all Muslims are terrorists?

According to Europol’s EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, out of 249 terrorist attacks carried out in the EU in 2010, only three were related to Muslims.

A January 2011 report on terrorism statistics based on publicly available data from bodies such as the FBI and other US crime agencies concluded that terrorism by Muslim Americans to date had accounted for a minority of terrorist plots since 9/11.

What all this points to is myth serving as propaganda, the goal of which is inciting violence and hatred. In the USA recently, celebrity Islamophobe Pamela Geller sponsored adverts to be posted on New York subway platforms saying, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

If the adverts weren’t so putrid with hatred, they would be impressive for the number of myths they manage to pack into so few words.

The United Methodist Women sponsored adverts to be posted side by side with these saying: “Hate speech is not civilized. Support peace in word and deed.” Rabbis for Human Rights-North America posted adverts saying: “In the choice between love and hate, choose love.” And the Christian group Sojourners have bought signs to say: “Love your Muslim neighbours.”

What is heartening—and the other plank of countering myths—is the solidarity shown across multiple sectors of the US public in tackling such raving nonsense.

We all need to make such efforts because once myths take hold they are pernicious, long lasting and divisive. What we need is persistence, solidarity and most of all, facts, to counter the fear and ignorance upon which myths are built.


Muslims need to learn how to see themselves on the silver screen

My monthly EMEL column from October 2012

There is a lot about Islam and Muslims on TV, but little of it is satisfying.

“Am I supposed to settle for bad comedy just because I’m a Muslim?”

It is clearly apparent that most instances of Muslims appearing on screen today in minority Muslim countries relate to violence, terrorism, or extremist views. I usually approach the airing of the programmes about Muslims or Islam with a mixed sense of duty and apprehension. I feel the need to be aware of what has been broadcast, but my greater sentiment is apprehension: is the programme likely to share misinformation, or worse still be a platform for stirring up prejudice and hatred? And what will the wider Muslim response be, and what impact will our reaction have on the wider discourse on Muslims?

Last month was a busy time. First was the airing of new BBC sitcom Citizen Khan, centred on the eponymous character who is a self-styled ‘komunity lider’, tight with his cash and childishly incompetent, with a long-suffering Pakistani family. I was very much looking forward to it—a rare lighthearted human portrayal of the foibles of being Muslim. But I was disappointed. It was a throwback to 1970s portrayal of Asians, and was just not very good comedy.

However, what I found baffling was that a small group of Muslims found it offensive, and made their ‘Deep Offence’ known to the broadcasting powers. Note to readers: some of the ‘Deep Offence’ was stirred up by the right wing Daily Mail because they believe that Muslims are offended by everything. What Muslims should have been offended by was the bad comedy. Am I supposed to settle for bad comedy just because I am a Muslim?

The next day, Channel 4 aired Islam: The Untold Story. Presented by historian Tom Holland, his thesis was based on his book In the Shadow of the Sword. Like Citizen Khan, the very book title was a throwback to the 70s when programmes like “The Sword of Islam” were broadcast. The programme’s crux was that instead of Islam inspiring Arabs towards initiating the great Islamic civilisation, it was the Arab empire that gave birth to Islam. The evidence used was, erm, the lack of contemporaneous evidence from Muslims, works by discredited western academics, and some Bedouins in the desert. Islam has a rigorous tradition of criticism, doubt and scholarship, and many if not most of the issues Holland raised have been dealt with in both Western and Eastern academia. Am I supposed to settle for bad Western scholarship just because I am a Muslim?

We need to learn about seeing ourselves on the silver screen, how to be active in what we see, and how to react to such portrayals—which have been pretty constant for forty years. One of the reasons is that Muslims have not been investing in and developing their own pool of cultural talent. The programming on Muslim channels, although important and constrained by limited budgets, is very basic in quality and vision. However, Muslims must understand one basic fact: to see ourselves on the national and international screen requires nurturing talent which the mainstream can draw upon. Mainstream programmes are not born in a vacuum—they come from local radio, TV, and news. Investing in Muslim arts and culture organisations today means we will see our talent on mainstream screens tomorrow.

The other thing we need to tackle is our ‘Deep Offence’ at everything. Before ‘Being Offended’, ask yourself the following question: what is the source of my offence? And then ask: what is the best way to redress this?

I like the following story as a guide to how we can react. When Abraha came to destroy the Ka’ba, the Prophet’s grandfather Abdul Muttalib was part of the delegation that met him before attack. As a last request, the only thing Abdul Muttalib asked for was the return of his camels. Abraha was surprised. Abdul Muttalib replied, “I am the owner of the camels, and this House has its own Owner Who will surely protect it.” We certainly have a duty to respond to misinformation, and damaging prejudice, but we need to do so with more measured and clearer responses.


Urgent attention needed for the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar

My EMEL column from September 2012

One of the world’s most persecuted minorities needs our urgent attention: the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar.

The Rohingya number about 800,000 people, mostly Muslims, In 1982, the military junta stripped them of citizenship, leaving them stateless. Regular victims of violence, rape and forced labour, their marriages are controlled, and they are only allowed two children.

Myanmar’s consul general to Hong Kong described them as “ugly as ogres” and mocked their “dark brown skin” in a speech in 2009. That same year, Thailand’s then prime minister admitted that 1000 Rohingya fleeing Myanmar by boat had been pushed back to sea and abandoned.

But the persecution, harassment and killing are not the end of the story. Those charities who are making efforts to send humanitarian aid are saying that it is being blocked, sometimes by Buddhist monks.

The response of the government of Bangladesh in particular has been outrageous: not only are they not offering refuge within their borders, they are actively stopping others from offering humanitarian assistance. At the time of writing this article the government ordered three charities be prevented from distributing aid; and this during Ramadan, from a country that is almost entirely Muslim.

But the shame is not just upon Bangladesh: the entire international community bears responsibility.

Myanmar is going through an enormous transition from military to democratic rule. It’s most famous daughter is Aung Sang Suu Kyi, feted for remaining under house arrest during the military dictatorship in order to protest against the horrific. For this, she was awarded a Nobel peace prize twenty years ago, but only this year – when transition in Myanmar has begun – did she come to the West to accept the prize. But when asked about the Rohingya, she has avoided any clear statement, only saying that citizenship rights needed to be looked at.

Suu Kyi follows in the footsteps of protestors like Nelson Mandela who have become global icons for their staunch pursuit of justice and freedom for their peoples. But her lacklustre response tells us how deep is the crisis of the Rohingya when even someone who is supposed to be a beacon of fairness refuses to make clear her support. We must hold her to account for her ambivalence on this subject, and also influence her to establish a clear acceptance of the Rohingya and their rights in Myanmar. There are those who argue that she has to proceed cautiously at this time and not alienate those who can influence a peaceful transition to democracy. But I say this: what kind of peace and democracy can there be when a minority are openly abused and persecuted and those in power do nothing, or through their lack of action seem to tacitly approve of it?

Surrounding governments must also do more and not just shrug their shoulders. We must do more.

First and foremost there must be pressure on the Myanmar government to address the issue of the citizenship of the Rohingya sharpish. There can be no true democracy nor justice in the country if a minority is abused in this fashion. Before they are welcomed into the international fold of nations, they must resolve their status. Figures with increasing political power like Suu Kyi must have political as well as moral pressure applied on them.

Whilst diplomatic pressure is being enforced, surrounding governments must open their way to offer assistance to refugees who are fleeing for their lives. They must not prevent any aid reaching refugees. Refugees must not be turned back to certain persecution and death. We can protest outside embassies, send petitions,  and send aid.

Here are some key things you can do: sign the petitions being presented to the UN to escalate the plight of the Rohingya. Write to your Prime Minister or President highlighting the persecution of this defenceless stateless people. Get in touch with your local member of parliament. Send aid through charities who are serving the Rohingya. And of course remember the Rohingya Muslims in your prayers.

A Muslim is not a Muslim if he or she fails to remember the suffering of others. As the traditions of the Prophet remind us, let us act if we can; if we cannot, let us speak out, and if we cannot do that, let us feel their pain in our hearts. The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar – one of the most persecuted minorities in the world – are waiting for humanity to reach out, protect them and restore their rights.


A priest, a rabbi and a mullah walk into a bar… the funny side of being Muslim

My EMEL column from August 2012

Comedy and humour are great ways of enlightening a dour mood, which is just the pick-up needed in these times.

A few years ago, I attended a fundraising event enticed by a line up of budding Muslim stand-up comedians. On a Friday night in central London the place was sold-out with young trendy things who were looking for somewhere they could enjoy themselves after a hard week’s work, ensure they were in an Islamic environment, as well as getting the chance to make new friends, and contribute to charity.

After two acts that helped the audience to relax, the smiles turned into ripples of laughter, and the audience was clearly enjoying themselves. Then, one of the organisers came on stage for a quick interlude. “I’d just like to remind everyone of the hadith that says it is better not to laugh too much.” Not laugh at a comedy evening! The audience became subdued, as though told off by a schoolteacher, now afraid to express their pleasure at the very halal jokes being told to them.
When Muslims are accused of lacking a sense of humour, it is hard not to agree that certainly in some places it is buried quite deep. I am not disputing the advice not to laugh too much—after all, it is hard to maintain the concern we are advised to have for the suffering of people around the world, and then find ourselves cackling with laughter. But it seems to me that comedy is useful as a means of relaxation, as well as a means to understand ourselves, our community foibles, and our core humanity. After all, the richest humour is found in the gap between our aspirations and our reality.

Comedy helps us to come together and bond through the dropping of barriers and differences, but also by helping us to see that the struggles that we think are unique to us are in fact shared, and we are all in this together. Sharing a good joke can bring down barriers, and also offer a little wisdom about ourselves.
For Muslims with a sense of religion and history, this role of comedy is nothing new. Mullah Nasruddin is one of the great entertainer-comedian-wise man of Muslim history, whose stories date back to the Middle Ages. A joke that never fails to make me laugh is this: A certain conqueror said to Nasruddin, “Mullah, all the great rulers of the past had honorific titles with the name of God in them. There was, for instance, ‘God-Gifted’, and ‘God-Accepted’, and so on. How about some such a name for me?” “God Forbid,” retorted Nasruddin, quick as a flash.

The Qur’an also has humour. Every time I read the story of Prophet Ibrahim, I chuckle. He stood as a young man in front of his village elders the morning after he has chopped the heads off the idols and hung the axe on the one remaining statue. Spitting with rage they demand to know if he is responsible. “Just ask the big idol,” he replies. You can imagine them becoming enraged at the young upstart poking their bubble of arrogance. It is a moment combining deadpan comedy with sheer farce.

I have huge admiration for the growing crop of new Muslim comedians: it takes bravery and a great deal of talent to be able to highlight the reality of being Muslim in a way that is sharp and funny, but also exposes the truth of our human failings. It is important work in a community that needs ways to understand itself and its place in the world.

TV and film are increasingly used to explore the reality of Muslim life in the mainstream, comedy often being the medium of choice. There is already far too much portrayal as terrorists, honour-killers and killjoys. And the reality is that Muslims have in their own lives such a great sense of humour. We do not need to repress it when in the presence of religion, as though the two are separate. A good sense of humour is a gift that should be shared.

Such comedy breaks down barriers to other communities, and this is crucial work also. A multi-faith joke might go like this: a priest, a rabbi, and a mullah walk into a bar. The barman says, “What is this, a joke?” Well yes, it is a joke. And yes, it is absolutely fine to break out into a smile.


Avoiding the trophy wife trap

My EMEL column from July 2012

With wedding season upon us, we need to have a serious discussion about mahr, which is the gift given by the groom to the bride.

For those unfamiliar with mahr, it is a reversal of the traditional dowry that brides were obliged to bring to the groom. I’m gob smacked by some of the sums set by brides these days. For young people setting out in life, ten thousand, or even five thousand pounds can be crippling. If there was ever a way to set yourself up as a wife whose primary motivation is money, then asking for a big mahr is surely it.

In marriage, the Holy Prophet advises people to avoid wealth, beauty and status as criteria, instead prioritising piety. Money comes and goes, but a man of good character will always treat you well.

Let’s dispense with the usual protestations against a lower mahr. Most importantly, it is the choice of the bride. If she wants ten, fifty or a hundred thousand pounds, or something non-monetary, that is up to her. I can’t argue against the ‘bridal choice’ factor. But I’ll explain why I—and Islamic tradition—suggest a more modest mahr.

There is also the ‘protection after divorce’ argument. Families argue that the mahr will allow the bride to support herself if she is divorced. Even before addressing this point I say: why have you not equipped your daughter to be able to support herself if circumstances dictate? What if she is widowed, her husband made redundant, or misfortune befalls the family? Even if mahr is for post-divorce support, how far will ten thousand pounds stretch: a year? Then what?

A related argument is ‘insurance against divorce’: if the mahr is stipulated very high, and payable on divorce, then a husband will think twice about divorce. First this flies in the face of the Islamic recommendation that mahr should be paid in full on the wedding night. Second, if the mahr is so high that the husband will not divorce his wife because it’s expensive, that means he sees his wife as a financial transaction. Who wants to be in a marriage with a husband who is only in it to avoid handing over the money he owes? These arguments all boil down to one thing: a marriage predicated on money. That is what is commonly referred to as being a trophy wife.

The mahr is a sign of the husband’s affection, not a purchase price. It sets a tradition of kindness. And the way that the wife approaches the mahr also says something about the tone she wishes to set in the marriage. If we look at the tradition set by Lady Fatima, the daughter of the Holy Prophet, her mahr today would be worth around one hundred pounds. Yes! One hundred pounds.

If you wish to instil love and affection into your marriage, rather than base it on monetary worth, then indicate this to your husband-to-be through your generosity of spirit, and by considering his financial situation. By being considerate of his finances, it conveys that the wellbeing of your husband and your family is important to you. These qualities are crucial as you begin a new and challenging journey. Would you rather be the understanding, mutually supportive wife, or the money-focused trophy wife?

It’s also worth remembering that a large mahr doesn’t just magically appear out of nowhere: the husband must find the money, even from a loan. To ask for this is short sighted; it just means he will have less money and more strain after marriage. And why would you want your husband to go into debt to get married?

Some families feel that because other women receive large mahrs, then if their daughter doesn’t, she will be seen as of lower status. I would say this: do you judge a woman’s worth by her mahr? Is your daughter a financial transaction? Islam teaches us to look at people’s qualities. In fact, there are some traditions that say that the best mahr is the lowest one.

Please do not trade your daughter for a bank balance: give her to a man of quality and worth, who appreciates how to treat her well and respect her, who avoids going into debt, and will show her that he values her not by finances, but by her kindness, compassion and mutual understanding.


Embracing our (British) Muslim identity as we look back on the Queen’s diamond Jubilee

My EMEL column from June 2012

As the Queen celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, it seems fitting to look back at how the British Muslim community has progressed since she took the throne.

This June, the UK marks the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen. As a young woman, Elizabeth Windsor took the throne during the dying days of the world’s once largest empire. Her vast dominion included a sizeable proportion of the world’s Muslim populations in the Subcontinent, Middle East and Africa. Sixty years on she reigns over a nation that is radically different from the one she initially pledged to serve.

Britain’s Muslim population today is very much of Britain, born and raised here and vastly different in its self-definition to their parents who may have seen this country as a temporary abode. So this seems a poignant moment to look back at a period that has seen a huge change in the UK Muslim population.

Although there are records of interactions between Britain and the Muslim world as early as King Offa’s reign in the 8th century, and there had been a steady flow of Muslims into England since the 1800s, the Queen’s coronation marked a time when Muslim immigration grew much more rapidly in number. Waves of Muslims from all corners of the slowly disappearing empire made their way to what they perceived as the land of plenty, only to be faced with racism, difficult employment prospects and even poverty.

Through immigration, global changes in the understanding of Muslims, and changes in the attitudes of the Muslim communities themselves, we find ourselves, at the Queen’s Jubilee, a vastly different kind of British Muslim population. No longer subservient to British masters in far away colonies, but rather a highly diverse population; no longer immigrant, but rather of Britain itself. Today’s Muslims have influenced Britain in areas ranging from its global connectivity to more mundane domestic issues such as modern British cuisine.

A short comment article can never do justice to the huge changes that wider society and Muslim communities have undergone. However, it should prompt a wider discussion on where we were, where are we now, how did we get here, but most importantly, where do we and wider society see ourselves in another 60 years?

Now settled in the UK, with second, third and fourth generations rooted in the nation and who in their own words are nothing but British, there is no more talk of going back home: we are home. And home is a place where we make things better for us, as well as those around us. For me, one of the important transitions we need to make is to establish a sense of confidence in who we are. That means that we have to open out our wagon trains which hitherto have kept us shielded and internally-focused, and when we speak of society, we must speak of all of British society. What goodness we wish for ourselves, we must wish for all.

There are social and economic issues that need to be addressed, such as poor education levels and low unemployment, especially among young Muslim men. Economic activity alongside social mobility must have their standards raised. There are even serious health issues to be tackled. Muslims must draw on their Islamic values to improve their own standards and take those around them with them in their upward travels. Islam cannot tolerate unemployment; the Islamic work ethic demands industry to the best of one’s ability. Achieving an education is a priority in the Islamic worldview; it cannot be sacrificed for any alternative. If standards in educational institutions are not good enough, they must be improved. And health is to be preserved, not frittered away with sugary halwas or deep fried foods as tradition might demand.

If we truly believe as Muslims that we have a set of values through which we can achieve a contented and fulfilled life, then we must strive to achieve that life in all that we do. And we must build that fulfilled life not just for ourselves, but also for those around us


Why Muslim men need to be part of the debate

My EMEL column from May 2012

The Qur’an describes the relationship between men and women as complementary, not oppressive. We need to uplift each other and aim for higher standards, otherwise both will suffer.

Regular readers will know that one of my interests is writing about Muslim women. The joys, the despairs, the challenges, and the triumphs. There is never a moment in the media or in our communities when the subject of women loses its currency. Simply sharing experiences and conveying them to a wider audience who may be unaware of what it is like to be a Muslim woman and how we feel are actions that in themselves can be ground breaking.

There is no doubt that we need to improve urgently the difficult and discriminatory situation facing many Muslim women. However, for me, the subject of Muslim women has an ever-wider importance than just highlighting our plight and offering insights into how we can improve our situation. This is because work on improving the situation of Muslim women (as part of the work towards improving the real-life situation of women in general) challenges us to think as Muslims about much bigger questions which impact our very understanding of human society, faith and the nature of the human being. What is the nature of equality? What kind of society does Islam envisage? And why have we not achieved that? Why are our societies so at variance with Islam’s aspirations? What does it mean to be a Muslim woman, and by extension, what does it mean to be a Muslim man? What does it mean to be a real human being?

I feel a constant pressing need in any discussion around Muslim women to state what ought to be obvious: this discussion is not for women only, and this discussion does not affect women only. Muslim men: you need to step up and get involved. What is the point of women talking only to women about the issues affecting women? Whether it is about discrimination, violence or marriage, women cannot fix the issues alone; it takes two to tango.

A change to the status and situation of women de facto means a change to the situation of men too—but that is a good thing. If women are suffering violence from men, that means some men are perpetrating violence, which is bad for men too. And it will not only be women being abused and attacked; anyone seen as weak or less powerful will also suffer, which includes men. And of course, there is the trauma of the children who witness the violence.

Before you think I am blaming the world’s woes on men, stop! Muslim women are not the only ones suffering from discrimination and inequality. For every stereotype held against a Muslim woman that she must be brainwashed, there is one that holds that Muslim men are brainwashing them. For every monolithic pronouncement that Muslim women are weak and submissive, one paints all Muslim men as violent, uncouth, even capable of mass terror. Even in the relatively mundane sphere of marriage, men must live up to a cultural gold standard of having to be virile, hunter-gatherer, undomesticated, unemotional oafs with no sense of tenderness or intimacy with their wives or children.

We need to change the burden of stereotypes on men, and Muslim writers are trying to do so. But we need to hear more voices from men. With women, the typical narrative is the ‘misery memoir’, which narrates their story of liberation from an oppressive family or culture. For Muslim men, the typical narrative foisted on them and which forms the watermark of the public discussion about them is to fall into extremist or terrorist ways, and then through an epiphany find liberation into more reasonable ideologies. This narrative of Muslim men has become as entrenched—and as unenlightening and stereotyped—as the ‘misery memoir’ genre for Muslim women.

So come on Muslim men, let’s hear it from you. What are the pressures you face? What would you like to say about the reality of being a Muslim man? And how can we work together to make our community and society a better place?