Monday, 22 of September of 2014

Category » british

Tariq Jahan’s response to his son’s death shows a dignity and respect that teaches us all an important lesson

This article was published today in The New Statesman. Tariq Jahan’s response to his son’s death shows a dignity and respect that teaches us all an important lesson

From the terrible events of the last week, an unexpected hero has emerged in the shape of Tariq Jahan.

In the face of the loss of his son and two friends in a hit-and-run incident in Winson Green in Birmingham on Tuesday night, he has shown a dignity and wisdom that has been lacking in public figures. And it is his belief in shared humanity and community that has touched the soul of the nation and put him on the front pages of newspapers across the political spectrum.

He talked of his loss as something that “no father, mother, brother, sister should have to endure”. His appeal to us at this terrible time of violence and uncertainty is that he reaches out to our common human instincts.

But the fact that he had to emphasise that “this is not a race issue”, and that he had received messages from people of “all faiths, colours and backgrounds”, tells us more about how our society has been carved up by political and media rhetoric than we might care to admit. To the backdrop of the mantra that multiculturalism has failed, and the background voices that this is black violence, it has taken a voice from the grassroots — essentially an ordinary man that sees a reality that politicians have failed to acknowledge — to remind us that a strong sense of community still exists, in spite of what politicians say divides us.

And, as Cristina Odone explains in the Telegraph today, this is especially strong amongst immigrant and faith communities. The “Big Society” and the “community” that Cameron is so keen on have been in greatest evidence in these places.

But what makes Jahan the unlikeliest of British heroes is the fact that he is a British Muslim of Asian background from Birmingham. Jahan’s city and faith has been cited in the past with accusations of segregation, ghetto-isation and a rejection of “Britishness” and “British values”. Yet he has expressed that it is his faith as a Muslim that is giving him strength at this difficult time. His words “I’m a Muslim” have been published in newspapers across the political spectrum, including in the right-wing press who days earlier might well have featured him further into the paper attending prayers during this current Islamic month of fasting Ramadan under the title of “creeping Islamisation”, “Muslim ghettoes” or some other such fear-mongering.

He has tied his faith in Islam with his belief in community, specifying that whether it is your own community or the local community, “it doesn’t matter who you are, we’re here to help everybody.”

Does that mean Muslims will now finally be seen as part of society? Given that Jahan publicly declared his Muslim faith, will the positive effect of his religion be acknowledged?

He is not the only one whose religion has been playing a positive role. Since this is Ramadan, a time when Muslims generally display a very strong sense of community, it comes as no surprise that Turks in north London stood outside their premises to defend them. “Bloody immigrants. Coming over here, defending our boroughs & communities”, half-joked the Twitterverse.

Outside East London Mosque — maligned endlessly for being an alleged hotbed of extremism — young men leaving the mosque after Ramadan prayers chased down the looters. In the same way that the Turks were not described by their Muslim faith, these worshippers were not described as Muslim either, but rather as Bengalis and Somalis. There was little acknowledgement of the positive role of their faith. Even some of the victims are airbrushed: there has been little coverage of the mosque opposite the burnt out carpet shop in Tottenham whose worshippers contended with night prayers during the mayhem.

These events must make us think differently about our approach to immigration and to Muslims. They are not the demons of our society, they are not the scapegoat for our woes. Rather, they can and should be our heroes.

Jahan, the grieving father said: “Please respect the memory of our sons.” Accepting Muslims and immigrants as an integral part of our communities is the most powerful means we have to show that respect.


Foreign ministers and their slip ups – funny or frightening?

My weekly column in The National was published today.

If you’ve ever felt nervous before delivering a speech to a high-powered audience, then spare a thought for India’s foreign minister. He stood up to address the Security Council at the United Nations, but instead of giving his own speech, he read out the notes of the Portuguese minister. An Indian official had to stop him as he read out statements of pleasure at seeing other Portuguese speaking officials in the audience. Oh dear.

Ordinary folks like me might be forgiven for thinking that the role of foreign minister is only ever occupied by those of the highest professional standards, and who have somehow been immunised from embarrassing gaffes. Not so. Reading out the wrong speech might have left the individual a little red-faced and provoked giggles from the audience. But it’s not uncommon for slip-ups to have more serious repercussions.

Jack Straw, during his tenure as foreign secretary of the UK, was infamously photographed shaking hands with Robert Mugabe. He claimed that although he had previously worn glasses, he had just started wearing contact lenses, and through his blurry vision had failed to identify the Zimbabwean president in time.

Of course ministers can and will get in a pickle and do embarrassing things. The trick is to ensure you have a credible excuse that explains it away without compounding the shame.

courtesy of the-spine.com

This week, the UK’s foreign secretary, William Hague, has failed to do exactly that. There must have been a lot of burning cheeks and nervous laughter at the failure of the James Bond-style SAS mission that was authorised to go into Libya. Eight operatives, at least six of them from the SAS, were dropped by helicopter near Benghazi at 3am, and suspicious local rebels took them prisoner. The irony is that the rebels suggested that there was no need for subterfuge, and the British would have been allowed entry to the east of Libya – all they had to do was ask.

So what is Mr Hague’s excuse for the macho mission? Er, it wasn’t my fault; it was the military. If you’re going to pick someone to blame, Billy-boy, I wouldn’t pick the guys with the tanks.

You might find these incidents to be the funny side of diplomacy. But poor judgement in the international arena can have serious consequences.

France’s foreign minister offered Tunisia help in restoring order shortly before the fall of the Ben Ali regime. In simple terms, France was advising on how to put down the protests. Definitely on the wrong side of history.

As the Quartet’s envoy to the Middle East, Tony Blair is a foreign minister of sorts. His words with regard to Hosni Mubarak of Egypt were so ludicrous that one might be forgiven for thinking he himself was having a go at satire. In February, as the Egyptian protests began to gather momentum, Mr Blair said with a straight face that the Egyptian president was “immensely courageous and a force for good”. If the consequence of his words wasn’t so deadly serious, it would have been funny.

Foreign ministers hold a high degree of responsibility for peace between nations. Their errors are funny exactly because of the contrast between the stupidity of some of their actions and the high pressure stakes under which they operate. When their actions remain on the side of humour instead of crossing the line into horror, then we feel safe to chuckle, as we have at the French and the British in the past few weeks. But if things had gone wrong in Tunisia or Egypt, I don’t think any of us would have been laughing then.


British Muslim women tackling stereotypes head on

This article was published yesterday by Common Ground News Service.

London – When it comes to discussing British Muslim women, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we lead a one-dimensional lifestyle: the niqab (face veil)-and-nothing-but-the-niqab. The image of long draping black cloaks and sad-looking eyes comes to mind, and it is part of the discourse of defining Muslim women entirely by what they wear.

On the other hand, there is the danger of painting a “Pollyanna-ish” gloss on the progress that British Muslim women are making by taking the examples of those in the public eye. For example, last month Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and arguably one of the most powerful people in the country, has been out in the press – and not because she’s a Muslim woman, but for defending the government’s spending cuts. She’s joined in the media by two female members of parliament in the opposition Labour Party’s shadow cabinet, and one of the presenters of the globally popular X Factor’s sister programme, The Xtra Factor.

I created this image about three years ago - since it has been copied and re-used (without my permission, or without crediting Spirit21 I should add!)

It’s good to see the faces of Muslim women as part of the fabric of the nation, not because of the “Muslim woman” label but because of their talents and contributions. Yet this dichotomy of oppressed and hidden versus liberated and public is simplistic as well as untrue.

Most Muslim women’s existence in the UK is not defined by their decision to wear a veil or not, nor is it all glamour at the highest echelons of politics and entertainment. Like most other women, their concerns focus on the ordinary issues of day-to-day life such as education, employment, health and family. But, worryingly, they face additional barriers.

Take the arena of work. According to a 2010 report by the UK Equalities and Human Rights Commission, only 24 per cent of Muslim women in the UK are employed, and those who have little knowledge of Islam and Muslims are quick to pretend that this is correlated to Islam’s so-called ”oppression” of women by their families.

However, a 2008 report by The Young Foundation that looks at second-generation Muslim women concludes that such “common perceptions about attitudes and barriers are misleading – most women are supported by their families in their decisions to work”, adding that “some of the barriers which affect British Muslim women affect all women, such as gender discrimination, inflexibility, and lack of childcare. But British Muslim women also face additional challenges, including discrimination based on clothing and faith.”

British Muslim women, however, are tackling this head on. We have a generation of Muslim women politicians, community leaders, businesspeople and writers like me. We’re all working hard to change the narrative and create new images, stories and cultures. This will break the gridlock of the too simplistic stereotypes that hold about Muslim women and offer them the freedom and opportunity to define who they are on their own terms.

We must do this by creating a shared vision of a better future.

Take my own example: I set up my blog, Spirit 21, five years ago to provide an outlet for the unheard British Muslim woman’s voice. The BBC referred to it as one of the UK’s most influential Muslim blogs. It is quoted across the breadth of press and I am invited to be one of the voices of Muslim women in the national and international media. As a result I was named one of the UK’s 100 most influential Muslim women.

And my book, Love in a Headscarf, which tells the story of growing up as a British Muslim woman looking for love, is translated globally and sits at the number two spot on the bestseller list in India.

Or consider Jobeda Ali who organised a Cineforum showcasing films from around the world featuring Muslim women. Or Shaista Gohir’s Big Sister website, providing young Muslim girls with female Muslim role models from across the spectrum of professions.

Sarah Joseph, a British Muslim convert set up emel, perhaps the world’s first glossy Muslim lifestyle magazine. And Roohi Hasan is a television news editor and part of the team that set up Channel 5 news, one of the UK’s most popular news programmes. Meanwhile, Professor Maleiha Malik, a barrister and professor of law at the prestigious Kings College London, focuses on discrimination law, minority protection and feminist theory.

With such bright, innovative and motivated Muslim women crossing the frontier of so many disciplines, we must remain optimistic that the simplistic stereotypes will be forgotten and the richness of talent that Muslim women present will be recognised and harnessed.


The Muslim wedding, British manners and the Minister who walked out

This article has just been published at the Times Online.


Politics.co.uk carries this report on Jim Fitzpatrick, the Minister for Food, Farming and Environment, who walked out of a Muslim marriage ceremony in his constituency, apparently in a state of shock that men and women would be segregated and sit apart.

Our guest blogger, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, author of Love in a Headscarf, argues, with justification, that Fitzpatrick was extremely rude to the couple in question. What do you think?

Shelina writes: Fitzpatrick’s constituency, Poplar and Canning Town, includes Tower Hamlets which has a 35 per cent Bangladeshi Muslim population. He claims, rather surprisingly, that he was unaware of the custom of segregation at Muslim weddings. It worries me that the representative of a ward where a large minority are Muslim is completely ignorant of this tradition. I’m even more shocked that he is proud to profess his ignorance. Whether he likes or dislikes the custom is a different matter: surely he ought to be aware of how a significant chunk of his community conduct a central event in their personal lives. What else is he ignorant of?

Let’s start with the meaning of integration. Fitzpatrick says that separate seating for men and women is stopping integration. Yet here is a family who only knows him through a friend and possibly as their MP, inviting him to their most important day. That to me is reaching out and encouraging integration.

Then we can move onto good manners. Weddings have always been a very personal matter and as with all occasions, there is etiquette which the guests must follow. If there is one thing that the British can truly pride themselves on, it is (or at least used to be) excellent manners. We know how to respond to invitations, use the right cutlery, queue in line. In fact many a book over the centuries has been written on developing the right social graces. The bride and groom are under no obligation as to who they invite to the wedding, and to be invited at all is a great honour. And at a time when budgets are tighter than ever, and weddings are becoming increasingly expensive, it is a real privilege to be invited to someone’s wedding.

I feel very sad for the bride and groom that their special day has been hijacked by a rude ungracious guest who decided that their personal choices for the day were not to his taste.

But here is the rub of Fitzpatrick’s ignorance. Segregated weddings are extremely commonplace and have been so for decades. Only a handful of the many Muslim weddings I have attended in my life have not been segregated. And this is not just the case in Britain but all over the world. Women have their own celebrations, as do the men, and both of these are incredibly joyful vibrant occasions. A half-Iraqi half-English Muslim friend who married a British born Bangladeshi had her marriage celebration for women only, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Her husband is delighted that the women got to “let their hair down” (literally in some cases of hijab-wearers). A wedding I attended in Bahrain of a minor royal was held in a glamorous marquee catering for a thousand people. Nine hundred and ninety nine were women. The groom popped in briefly to give his bride the ring.

If we look closer to home, segregation is still prevalent in other wedding traditions too. Some orthodox Jewish marriages are segregated. And we still hold dear to our separation of the stag night and hen do. Would Fitzpatrick have wanted to take his wife along on a drunken weekend in Prague?


Muslims 2.0?

I’ll be speaking this evening at an event hosted by the Radical Middle Way entitled “Divan 2.0: Wired Warriors for the Soul of Islam”. It will be a panel discussion and Q&A between some of the UK’s most active cyber citizens.

So here are some of my inital thoughts: the web has certainly opened doors for Muslims – especially young Muslims – to have their voices heard and hold discussions that had very little space elsewhere. I’m one of those and my blog is testament to how the web helped me discover and shape my voice. But I do worry that there is a lot of yelling that goes on, and that we have lost the ability to discern wisdom and learning from polemic. And how does the invisible, intangible blogosphere fit into the social structure of a faith that is built around physical congregations such as the Friday prayers and the hajj? Are we destined to turn into two parallel ummahs, those who go to the mosque and those who go online?

Come along to the event to hear the panel talking about Wired Warriors for the soul of Islam

Date: Friday 22 May 2009
Location: Old Theatre, London School of Economics
Address: Houghton Street (off the Aldwych) London WC2A 2AE
Time: Doors open 6:45 pm; Starts 7:15 pm; Ends 8:45 pm


Muslims: beyond the caricature

This article was just posted at the Guardian’s Comment is Free

The Muslim attitudes survey reveals a loyal community, keen on integration – far from the usual stereotypes

My British glass is half empty. According to a Gallup poll released yesterday, only half of the UK population identifies itself as very strongly British. And in Germany only 32% of the general public feels that way about being German. Who then identifies most strongly with their nation, reaching a whopping 77% in the UK? Muslims.

This refreshing piece of information is part of a wider picture that Gallup paints of a European Muslim population that is more tolerant and integrated, as well as more strongly identified with Europe’s nations than other communities. It is an excellent and much-needed study, capable of informing the ongoing debate about the situation and place of Muslims in Europe.

The report investigates the usual allegations levelled at Muslims. It establishes that religiosity is no indicator of support for violence against civilians and that in the UK and Germany Muslims are more likely to state that violence is not justified for a noble cause than the general public.

This vital information needs to be channelled immediately into policy, where Muslims are only ever seen through the prism of violent extremism and are falsely considered to be predisposed to violence when in fact the opposite is the case.

The idea that Muslims want to live in isolated “ghettos” is also untrue. Muslims are in fact more likely to want to live in a neighbourhood that has a mix of ethnic and religious people: 67% of Muslims vs 58% of the general public in the UK, 83% vs 68% in France.

Muslims also believe that it is nonreligious actions that will lead to integration – language, jobs, education. For example, over 80% of Muslims in the UK, France and Germany believe that mastering the local language is critical.
Whilst both the general and the Muslim populations believe these things are essential for integration, these are the areas where Muslims are found to be disproportionately struggling. They have lower levels of employment and lower standards of living. For our public discourse and for government, this is where the focus needs to be and funding need to be applied.

The really worry is the gulf between how Muslims see their integration into society and how the wider population sees them. Some 82% of British Muslims say they are loyal to Britain. Only 36% of the general population believe British Muslims are loyal to the country.

This has its roots in misinformation and miscommunication across society and means we all need to work hard to dissipate the dark cloud of fear that hangs above our heads. The Gallup report points to other countries like Senegal, Sierra Leone and South Africa which have a very high level of tolerance and integration across society and suggests that this may be a result of governments that actively promote religious tolerance, recognise multiple religious traditions in official holidays and national celebrations and enshrine religious freedoms in the constitution.

As a British Muslim woman who wears the headscarf, I was particularly proud to see that in Britain the headscarf is seen positively. When asked what qualities it was associated with, a third said confidence and courage, and 41% said freedom. Some 37% said it enriched European culture.

Instead of building on the platform for understanding and communication that this report brings, the mainstream media coverage has sensationalised the report by reducing it to one thing: Muslim opinions about sexual relationships.

To be sure, Muslims are indeed more conservative than the general population, but this is perhaps a trait shared with other religious communities. In fact, the areas which concern Muslims are in some cases those that we find socially contentious anyway: pornography, abortion, suicide, homosexuality and extra-marital relations.

French Muslims appear to be more “liberal” with regards to sexual mores than German or British Muslims. This is a red herring. It does not necessarily mean that they have “more integrated” sexual attitudes. All it seems to reflect are broader views on sexuality in those countries. For example, the French public considers married men and women having an affair far more morally acceptable than Brits or Germans, and this difference is reflected in the Muslim population across all three countries.

The danger in focusing on sexuality as a litmus test of integration is that in turns this into a one-issue debate. The point here is that it is that it is completely irrelevant to a discussion of integration and a happily functioning society, where mutual respect and understanding for each others moral codes – whether we agree or not – ought to be the foundations for a shared vision of a shared society. We see this in the statistics about homosexuality: it’s true that no Muslims in the UK found this to be morally acceptable (though there is a 5% margin of error for Muslims across all the statistics in the report). However, this needs to be seen in context of the fact that Muslims are more respectful of those different to themselves than the general British public. The important point here is not that we should have homogeneous social and moral attitudes, but that we can respect and live with those who hold opinions at different ends of that spectrum.

The message is this: we should use this report to silence those who spread hate once and for all. We need to move on from the monochromatic discussions of loyalty being either to the state or to religion, discussions that force a choice between “my way or the highway”.

Our glass is actually more than half full. There is much hard work to be done, and many aspects of economic and social policy that need to be addressed, but the status quo offers all of us much hope for an integrated future. It is a future that can be built on the evidence before us of ample scope for dialogue and understanding.


"Love in a Headscarf" shortlisted for Muslim Writers Awards

Exciting news! My book Love in a Headscarf has been shortlisted by the Muslim Writers Awards for the Published Non-Fiction category.

The competition is stiff, with some great books also on the shortlist, but I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed. The awards will be announced on May 27th.


Spirit21 celebrates its 3rd birthday

Over the weekend Spirit21 was three years old, and it’s been an exciting three years! This year has been packed full of new year resolutions, conferences and some thinking about Palestine and about love. You can read what happened in 2008, as well as a few thoughts I’ve had previously about birthdays.

Over these years since I first dipped my toe into the blogosphere, and into the wider world of the media, I’ve been asked constantly to write a memoir of my experiences as a Muslim woman. I’ve been asked to share the honesty, humour and insight that I try and put into my articles in a book. And this weekend, just as we celebrate Spirit21’s third birthday, I will be announcing the publication of my first book, called “Love in a Headscarf“.

You can read more about it at www.loveinaheadscarf.com

And for those of you who are in and about London you are invited to the launch on Friday evening at the City Circle.

Protest in London over the killings in Gaza

Yesterday I participated in the protest march in London, to show our outrage as human beings as the enormous and flagrant loss of innocent civilian life in Gaza, as numbers of dead have exceeded 800 in the last two weeks.
The atmosphere was electric, and the roads were absolutely utterly jam-packed. Human beings from up and down the country literally poured through the streets. Estimates vary between a paltry 12,000 up to 100,000. It certainly felt much closer to the upper end of that spectrum.
People completely filled Bayswater Road from Speakers Corner, to Notting Hill down Kensington Church Street and along Kensington high street. The presence was solid and full across the whole road for that whole stretch. The police was present in huge numbers right from the very beginning. Check out these photos. The first shows the vigour with which the police was present – this is right near the beginning, but they’ve already knocked over a protester. Also notice the huge range of people who attended, and the passion with which they came from so far away, to show this: that the killing must stop.

The Problem of the S-Word

Let the tabloids and politicians spend their time foaming at the mouth over words like Shar’iah, we should be spending our time pioneering services and solutions to meet our community needs

Shari’ah is once again big news. The Lord Chief Justice has said that, “There is no reason why Shari’ah principles, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution.” His comments follow a speech earlier in the year by the Archbishop of Canterbury who had been discussing the role of faith in the public sphere and had used the issue of Shari’ah courts as an example of where this could be done. The Lord Chief Justice commented about that speech: “It was not very radical to advocate embracing Shari’ah law in the context of family disputes, for example, and our system already goes a long way towards accommodating the Archbishop’s suggestion.

Predictably, the tabloids went berserk, and sadly some of our sound-bite simplistic politicians followed suit. What a furore! This was a simple discussion about civil arbitration, a provision that is rooted deep in English law. As Madeleine Bunting wrote in the Guardian, “Because of the provision for mediation by a third party in English civil law, there is already a degree of accommodation for Shari’ah law in our legal system.” In fact, she argues, if we don’t want Shari’ah we would have to remove the “fundamental option of mediation outside the legal system when agreed by both parties… [which]…will require a pretty radical reform which would stir up a lot of opposition.”
Clearly then, our politicians and media are not concerned with the actual essence of what the mediation process will be, but more upset about the word ‘Shari’ah’ itself.
The Shari’ah courts were a solution that Muslims created to deal with life for their new communities in the UK. It is important that we are clear that it is absolutely right and proper that a community should be able to create structures and institutions to support its individuals and families to operate smoothly and according to its principles and values. Of course those structures should and do operate within the law of the land. However, their creation was based on models familiar to the communities from their countries of origin, where the decision-making role of the ‘court’ was its primary purpose. The courts in those countries would have been supported by more accessible and prevalent mosques and Imams, and a community that was most likely majority Muslim. Most of these support services – which acted as buffers to problems and disputes before the final limit of legal jurisdiction – are not easily available to us in Britain.

So today, Muslims turn to bodies like Shari’ah courts as much for their Islamic decision-making status, as increasingly for their pastoral services. However, dealing with disputes requires counselling, therapy and support before a case can reach any final definitive verdict, all of which are an extension of a legal court’s traditional role. Individuals who are trapped in a dispute – whether marital or of another personal nature – want both support and recognition for their distress, which today they find may not be available elsewhere. They wish to feel the supportive hand of guidance and authority in resolving their pain based on the same principles by which they try to govern their own lives. It is therefore exactly in this grey area between civic dispute and any mediation ruling that an arbitration service based on Islamic principles can add tremendous value to our community.

Those who participate in the existing Shari’ah courts give a great deal of their time and energies, but in order to achieve this goal they need more skills and resources, more focus, more participation from the community to meet the growing needs for pastoral care. We need more women, more counsellors and more youth workers to name but a few of the skills required.

Most importantly what they need – what Muslims need – is to give themselves the freedom to think more freely about the purpose and function of such resources within the community. We must not diminish the need and importance of such mediation and resolution centres. They are a vital component of Muslim community institutions. But thinking of them within the prism of decision-making only, carries so much history and expectation with them that sometimes it can become impossible to create new models of operation.
Will we ever find the freedom to dive into the very essence of our needs and pioneer new tools and methodologies to meet our changing times and circumstances? Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Caliph says, “Do not bring up your children the way that you were brought up, because they live in different times.” We live in a different time, and we need to pioneer new solutions.

Note: Cartoon is taken from Spirit21’s own MagicMuslims superheroes, visit www.spirit21.co.uk/magicmuslims