• Black Heart, Red Hands, Clear Smile

    You ask for it, you are a tease,
    I know your wish
    For me to crack your jaw
    To slap your face
    To scratch your skin
    To leave my mark.

    You’re pushing me,
    Unlocking your wrists
    “You have no right,”
    Your words are hissed
    Through broken teeth
    “You have no right.”

    You make me laugh,
    Cheap homeless witch
    With talk of ‘rights’.
    Our friends know me,
    My sovereign strength,
    They know I’m right.

    Who’d hear your words,
    Pathetic semite
    Our friends know what to say:
    “Stop pushing, girl,
    It’s not his fault,
    But sovereign defence.”

    Sit quietly in your corner,
    I’ve closed the walls,
    The Pharaohs are my friends.
    The sea is sealed
    You have no rights, no worth,
    Admit you long for me.

    You look at me with children’s eyes,
    You ask for it
    You bare your mother’s breast to me,
    Still asking for it
    Your hands of tormented youth push me away,
    You drive me to it.

    Can’t you see, it’s not my fault,
    You invoke my suffering on you.
    Can’t you see, it’s not my fault,
    You attack, I defend.
    Can’t you see, it’s not my fault,
    You make me do it, you make me do it.

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  • Bishop Nazir-Ali to speak at Interfaith forum about pluralism

    Imagine my surprise when I came across a listing for a lecture being held this evening by the East London Three Faiths Forum: “FAITH IN A PLURAL COMMUNITY with Bishop Nazir Ali (Bishop of Rochester)”. Surely an interfaith group should be worried about some of the comments he has made?

    The Telegraph wrote: ‘In an outspoken attack on the custom of Muslim women to cover their faces, the Pakistani-born bishop said that the Islamic community needed to make greater efforts to integrate into British society. “It is fine if they want to wear the veil in private, but there are occasions in public life when it is inappropriate for them to wear it,” he said.’

    [shelina’s comment: if the Bishop knew anything about the veil, then he would know that the concept of wearing it in ‘private’ is comical – the veil is a public matter, not a private one]

    In January 2008 Nazir-Ali wrote that Islamic extremism had turned “already separate communities into ‘no-go’ areas” and claimed that there had been attempts to “impose an ‘Islamic’ character on certain areas”. When he was challenged to name such areas, by various leading figures including Hazel Blears, he has failed to provide such evidence. He has failed to actually back up such a divisive statement. For a man of faith, it seems a strange way to build up community links and inter-faith work.

    I have sent some people along to attend the lecture, and will post up their comments once they are in.

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  • Tony Blair’s faith, globalisation and poverty

    Last week was a busy week. Apologies to readers who noticed a complete blank on the blog – I was out listening, learning, thinking and in a few rare moments, I was moved too.

    On Tuesday evening, Dr Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core, based out in Chicago, was speaking at the British Library on In Martin Luther King’s Footsteps”, on the 40th anniversary of his death. Dr Patel is a remarkably eloquent presenter and wove a powerful narrative about the role of faith – and in particular interfaith – in addressing the issues of identity, division and extremism. He spoke of his own journey to be comfortable in living in the spaces of being Indian, Muslim and American and how he has reconciled the three, no longer feeling the need to hide or crush any aspect of his being. What shook him was when he realised that whilst he was busy struggling around ethnicity and nationhood for himself and his peers, the discourse he was part of paid scant or no attention to faith and religion as forming a sense of self and citizenship. Around the same time he also realised two further things about young people – that religious extremism seemed to be on the rise amongst – and appealed most strongly to – young people. He wondered why? He also noticed that young leaders – like Dr King – who play such an important role in our social consciousness as change-makers and peace instigators, rarely have their faith discussed. Dr King, he pointed out, is rarely spoken about as Reverend King. Where was the narrative about faith informing young leaders and the contributions they have made? How could these stories reach out to young people of faith to embrace them into a positive contribution by contributing their own faith stories?

    Tony Blair later in the week also spoke about Faith and Globalisation at Westminster cathedral. Outside the stunning building were hordes of protesters who could be heard inside the hall throughout the lecture. “Murderer! Murderer!” they cried. Their placards said “BLIAR”. Inside he spoke about how faith needs to be reclaimed from extremism, and how it can be a tool for good. He also spoke about how as the gravity of power moves from West to East as political and economic change happens, that faith can be one of the channels through which we can create conversation about shared values and ‘purpose’. Given his record in political office, particularly with regards to war, I think there will be widespread scepticism about his new role and that of his foundation: The Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Great name – can it deliver what it promises? It seems to be we ask the same question whether Blair is a political or a religious leader.

    However, much to my embarrassment, I have to confess that in a week of big ideas, I was most moved by the closing moments of Eastenders on Friday evening. Yes, sorry, I know I’ve just blown my credibility, but let me explain… Long-lost chav Bianca, with four children in tow, is thrown out of her home. She is too proud to ask for help, and too worried that the authorities will separate her from her children if she admits to her homeless penniless situation. After sleeping the night at the bus-stop, and trying to wash up in the park toilets, they have to face the police patrol who has been observing them and who now feels they need to step in. Fearing they will take her children, Bianca punches the officer, who then arrests her and bundles her into the police car and leaves the children in the park. It’s not high-brow TV but it got me right under my skin and into my heart – the vulnerability of humanity. I’m hoping there are huge inaccuracies – why would they arrest her when her plight is obvious? Why would they leave the children unattended?

    All this to one side, it was this that made me actually weep: the easy slip from comfort into poverty, criminal record and homelessness, the high level of child poverty. As someone blessed with comforts, the fact that 600,000 children in London alone live below the poverty line still holds me in shock, when we are in the top 5 richest nations on earth. With the London mayoral elections coming up, I checked the websites of the three candidates of the big parties, and I have to report that it is certainly not obvious what they are planning to do to alleviate this issue, this huge massive issue that faces what should be a world-class city, and a world-leading country.

    I’m no expert about homelessness and poverty, but each day for a long time now, I have felt that this is an area I need to learn more about, and then get more strongly involved in. If you can help me learn about the issues, but more importantly about how to solve these issues medium-term, long-term – nay, forever, please help me learn. Even bloggers need those who can offer education and learning.

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  • The Myth of the Sword and the Veil

    Terror and the Veil are two recurrent symbols that appear in Western discourse about Islam and Muslims. But these were just myths created to serve one political view. Why do these potent historical symbols still haunt us today?

    The Occidental view of Islam has been characterised by two vivid symbols – the sword and the veil. The West built up an image of an Islam that was “spread by the sword”, that forced violent conversion on non-Muslims as the Muslim dominion spread outwards from its origins in Mecca and Medina. The Muslim empire grew quickly geographically and politically as its armies spread both east and westward. Instead of using the sword, the faith of Islam grew more organically, through marriage and trade.

    The West’s Myth of the Sword crystallised into its definition of the Muslim world, and it was hailed as the rallying cry against what was demonised as a violent and barbaric religion. The myth was nothing but political smoke and mirrors, as early as the time of the Crusades.

    The Church and the kingdoms of Europe cleverly counterpoised the newly created idea of the ‘sword’ against the “love thy neighbour” and “turn the other cheek” proclaimed ethos of Christianity, failing to notice the irony of the Crusader hordes that rushed towards the Muslim heartlands to recapture the Holy Land. The conquests and counter-conquests of Christian Europe were not for religious or humanitarian reasons, we should note, but to secure trade and control through the Middle East and to the Far East as well. The irony is not lost till today when the last 500 years have been dominated by ‘Western conquest’ and massive military superiority. Today, the ‘sword’ is wielded by the military hyperpower of the Western United States that uses it to spread and enforce its notions of democracy and enlightenment values.

    The sword was a simple yet powerful symbol that Christian Europe projected from its own lexicon onto a Muslim world that it did not try to understand, and could not fathom from within the prism of its own ideology.

    When Orientalists spoke of the ‘exotic’ lands of the Middle East, they conjured up evocative images of harems and mysterious women with dark eyes hidden behind translucent black veils. The Occident was enthralled by the paradox of how women were covered, often hidden in women’s quarters, or at least behind their modest dress. But what was once a healthy, Islamic yet palpable sexuality of the Muslim world was an incomprehensible contrast to the prudish values first of Puritanism and then of the Victorian Age.

    Again, by interpreting through its own prism of understanding, the Occident turned the veil into a symbolic issue that defined a ‘barbaric’ and ‘oppressive’ personality of Islam. Again, it was the simplicity of the symbol of the veil that raised it to define everything that the West saw as wrong with Islam and the Muslim world.

    These two symbols have come back to haunt us today and still define the West’s view of the Muslim world. Today’s sword has been replaced by its modern counterpart – terrorist attacks. The veil, the small simple piece of cloth that is so rarely worn, still holds its own.

    If the veil did not hold such symbolic and historic weight, why has it ignited such a whirlwind? Muslims reacted passionately not because most Muslim women wish to wear the veil – quite the contrary, only about five per cent of Muslim women in the UK wear a veil – but because where ‘veil’ was written, there was a caveat which said “for veil, read Islam”.

    The same applies to the rhetoric about terrorist attacks, and foreign policies that take Western forces into Muslim countries to ‘help’, but end up creating more strife and destruction to meet their own ends. Indeed, we all agree that there are terrorists out there and their actions are vehemently rejected by Muslims round the world. But Western terminology around terror attacks and the War on Terror, has the same resonance to it as the Myth of the Veil. The same caveat applied “for terror (or sword), read Islam”.

    The Sword and the Veil are once again at the centre of polemics. They uncover the simplistic view that the West holds buried deep inside itself of Islam’s supposedly inherent violence, oppression and barbarism. But they are myths created from icons that have been misrepresented and conveniently fitted to meet a political narrative.

    The Sword and the Veil are symbols that lie deep within the European narrative, and are therefore easy to hook onto. They were myths on which to build a political vision when they were first created. But the power they hold over Europe is only because they draw on Europe’s own heritage. The myth of the sword can only be meaningful in Europe because Europe understands what it means to use force and violence to further its cause. The majority of Muslims are confused by this myth of expansion of faith through violence. ‘Jihad’ for them is simply a spiritual struggle, military force is for defence. “There is no compulsion in religion” is the clear Islamic edict, so faith cannot be induced by bloody means.

    The veil too is only potent because of Europe’s uneasy history of social values regarding women and their status. The issues of oppression and sexuality of women that the Muslim world is accused of, are simply a mirror of the schizophrenic nature of western society with regards to the rights of women and how they should be treated. The West at first could not understand these mysterious women of the Orient who supposedly came from a heritage of liberation, passion and social participation. But this was all hidden behind a veil, behind modest coverings. And this seemingly paradoxical combination, and its contrast with the status quo in Europe where women had no rights till the 20th century, created fear and misunderstanding. The Myth of the Veil was embodied with this recoiling and incomprehension and came to symbolise oppression and mediaeval values.

    Alas, where once the Muslim world led the world in providing a blueprint for the equality of women through the statements of the Qur’an, the Muslim world today also has little to be proud of with regards to the status of women. The veil was clearly a myth because Islam offered a framework that worked towards rights, status and equality. But now it has become paralysed by the same gender relations and sexual guilt, and the oppression of women that it claims to reject and which it accuses the West of. More worrying, is the fact that the Muslim world is in denial. The Myth of the Veil in the West has created a Counter-Myth in the Muslim world – that because the basic laws of Islam liberate woman, give her rights and status – then it follows that the Muslim world is de facto implementing these values. The sad fact is that Muslims have a long way to go before the rights they trumpet about Islam with regards to women become social reality.

    If you watch the media and political rhetoric unfold, you will see the discussions about Muslims and Islam punctuated by the leitmotifs of the Sword and the Veil. It seems that the West can only understand Islam and Muslims through these very simplistic and mythical symbols that evoke such deep-seated and irrational emotion. Talking about “markers of separation” and ‘wars’ only entrenches these myths in an historical and irrelevant narrative, instead of allowing new connections to be built and instead of shattering misconceptions and building an honest and open reality.

    This article was recently published in The Muslim News

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