Tuesday, 22 of July of 2014

Category » Extremism

“All-American Muslim” – here is the parody

You’ve probably heard about the controversy over the reality TV show “All-American Muslim”. The Florida Family Association is campaigning against it because it’s too ordinary, and various advertisers are pulling their spots. What other option is there but to just laugh at the absolute ridiculousness of their position?

In my weekly column in The National, it’s time for some fun to imagine the show that the FFA really want to see…

When it comes to reality television, most right-thinking people wish it would disappear into oblivion. But the actions of the little-known extremist group, Florida Family Association (FFA), are having the opposite effect. In response to the series following the lives of five ordinary American Muslim families going about their ordinary lives, it has declared: “All-American Muslim is propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda.” As a result, Lowe’s hardware store pulled their adverts from the show.

The problem, the FFA says, is that the show “profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks, while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish”. It’s all too dull. Instead, what they want is more suicide bombers, virulent niqabis and Sharia-takeover plots. And they want it in reality TV format. Now that’s a show I’d like to watch …

The programme opens with a woman dressed all in black, face covered, holding a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook, turned to the “How to make a bomb” page. (FFA’s Muslim checklist: preparation to blow up the US, check.)

The camera zooms in on her face-veil. Suddenly we hear in an Arabic accent: “Sharia Sharia, jihad, jihad” (face-veiled woman, check; spewing Sharia and jihad, check; “scary” accent, check).

Six children play with dynamite (Muslim takeover by stealth through population growth, check).

“This is Sara Valin,” says the voice-over (a pun on “veiling” but rhymes with Palin, geddit?).

“In the garden, Accchhmed (the pantomime pronunciation of Ahmed) compares beard-lengths with some beardy friends.” Ahmed strokes his copious facial hair like the Bond villain strokes his cat (world domination intent, check).

Next door at the mosque, a group of young men record a suicide bomber video. They are having trouble making the camera work. “Told him to buy the warranty,” mutters one. “But he was too tight. Typical immigrant. Saving to import a wife.”

The cameras follow Sara Valin to a Chai Party meeting. Outside flags with the words “death to America” flutter in the wind. Sara drags a 10 kilogram bag of fertiliser behind her. A woman with a “Sharia4USA” badge opens the door. “Fertiliser is Buy One Get One Free at Lowe’s,” remarks Sara.

The Chai Party meeting begins by discussing strategies to destroy America, how to make all turkeys halal and whether having a Muslim Miss America wearing a bikini was a clever tactic.

“First order of business: the programme Friends. It shows only ordinary Americans and is clearly propaganda for the USA. Friends does not represent America properly and so we must complain. There are no crack addicts, no soldiers abusing their prisoners, no Tim McVeigh character, and not even a hint of political sex scandal!”

Cut to commercial break sponsored by Lowe’s.

Such a programme could save the FBI hundreds of millions of dollars in security and surveillance. After all, no need to hunt out prospective bombers. All they’d have to do is turn on the TV and watch “reality”; well, the kind of reality that only warped and bigoted minds constantly inhabit. How sad for them to live in a world they are trying to fill with so much hatred.


It’s time for Muslims to reclaim their image

This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National (UAE).

A decade after September 11, how I long to declare that warmongering has been vanquished and peace flourishes. But sadly, the 10 years since the horrific deaths in New York have seen increasing war, growing suspicion and greater rather than less terror.

Muslims have been scrutinised, demonised and held to collective blame for the events. They have been accused of plotting to install Sharia in the West, of being violent villains poised to wage global jihad on a liberal enlightened Occident, and of hating democracy.

These types of ideas are memes – thought patterns replicated via cultural means, like viruses of the mind. These parasitic codes have come to proliferate so widely in the West’s collective consciousness and are repeated so often and so brainlessly that they are almost accepted as truth. The fact is they have been deliberately and maliciously implanted into popular thinking since 9/11.

But since the beginning of the year, events have taken an unexpected turn – a turn that offers Muslims a historic opportunity to change the lens through which they have been framed, a chance to expose these memes as the falsehoods they are. Muslims must grasp this moment.

The most prominent memes are that Muslims are inherently violent, opposed to democracy and want to impose Sharia. But the Arab Spring defies these ideas. Across the Muslim world, it wasn’t Sharia that Muslims wanted. People rose up for democracy, deposing dictators one after another. And in Egypt, we saw an object lesson in peaceful revolution.

Muslims who live in the West are eyed suspiciously as fifth columnists. The accusation is that they are disloyal. But in a Gallup poll released last month, 93 per cent of Muslim Americans say they are loyal to their country. And a Pew Research Center poll published last week found that Muslim Americans exhibit the highest levels of integration and the greatest degree of tolerance among major American religious groups.

Another meme is that “all terrorists are Muslim”. But the Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik was the most high-profile proof of the underlying fact that the majority of terrorist acts are not planned or carried out by Muslims at all. Check Europol for figures in Europe. Check CIA statistics for incidents in the USA.

One of the most powerful pieces of information to come to light is a report released last week by the American Center for Progress called “Fear Inc. The Roots of Islamophobia”. It has traced the sources of the fabricated memes to just a handful of funders, and a handful of so-called “experts” who try to take on the mantle of fanning fear and exaggerating threats. The echo chambers they use to amplify their voices are designed to make it appear that this hatred of Muslims is widespread – another falsehood they want to perpetuate – but it is not. The memes by and large stem from them, their funding and their handful of cronies. Their time is now up.

It is Tariq Jahan, a British Muslim who lost his son during this summer’s riots in the UK, who best embodies this moment of change for Muslims. “I’m a Muslim,” he announced on national TV, without fear or apology, but rather to explain that his strength and compassion came from his faith. He united a nation in grief and in dignity where politicians had failed. His dignity and his humanity changed minds about what it means to be Muslim. He instinctively knew that for Muslims the time is now. They must seize this opportunity to lay the myths to rest.


Norway attacks can and must change the discourse on violence and extremism

Here is my op-ed for this week’s The National.

The attacks of September 11 changed the nature of the discourse about the place of Muslims and migrants in the West. Last week’s tragedy in Norway can and must change it again.

As soon as news of the Norway killings broke, commentators were quick to point a finger at Muslims, who after September 11 became highly visible, portrayed as inherently violent and intrinsically alien to western democratic values. With the discovery that the perpetrator was a 32-year-old white Norwegian, however, news coverage quickly moved on to focus on the “insane”, “lone wolf” Anders Behring Breivik.

Nobody ate their words, nobody apologised for the presumption of Muslim guilt. One Norwegian official described the event as “our Oklahoma, not our World Trade Center”. His analogy referred to white supremacism, but he inadvertently highlighted the double standard in collectivising responsibility across all Muslims when the perpetrator is Muslim, but confining it to the protagonist himself when otherwise. The analogy also illustrated the West’s knee-jerk response to such terrorist attacks as having been carried out by Muslims, before considering any facts.

Facts have never got in the way of the right-wing’s stoking of fear when it comes to Muslims.

After September 11 and the subsequent attacks in Europe, phrases such as “homegrown terrorism” and “the threat from within” were quickly coined. Emotive terms such as Eurabia, Londonistan and “creeping Islamisation” entered the language. Bearded brown men, burqa-clad women and angry chanting protesters were the accompanying visuals, painting a sensational and fearful picture of the West overrun by hordes of Muslims.

The right-wing repeated its mantra: Muslims were fundamentally incapable of adhering to liberal democratic values. Though this mantra may have been a fringe viewpoint when September 11 came, through sheer repetition it came to be accepted as mainstream wisdom. Big newspapers contributed to this feeding frenzy with continuing coverage of stories about Sharia courts, forced marriages and banning Christmas. Even leading politicians endorsed the cliché of “multiculturalism gone mad”. Both the British prime minister and the German chancellor declared it a failure, and their policies characterised Muslims as nothing more than potential security threats.

Their sentiments were aided by policy wonks who supported with “facts” the claim that aspects of Muslim culture – at least those that did not integrate on their terms – provided the “mood music” and the “conveyor belt” for young Muslim radicalisation.

In many respects, the same discourse is taking place in reverse. The commentariat is grappling with the question: did right-wing commentators provide the mood music for this killer?

Breivik’s manifesto enthusiastically cited the right-wing message. But those very commentators are now distancing themselves from the killer and protesting in the same vein as the Muslims they have tormented for so long: that the actions of one killer are not representative of their beliefs.

Among my Muslim friends there was of course horror and sadness, but also a sense of relief that it wasn’t a Muslim perpetrator. You might consider it an unworthy emotion, but it was human, and understandable.

Indeed, there is even an uncomfortable sense of glee emanating from some quarters towards the right-wing, saying “we told you so” or, even more unworthy, that their “chickens have come home to roost”.

This is not the time for triumphalism. What has brought us to this turning point is the loss of 77 innocent human beings.

The deaths should focus our collective mind to reset the terrorism narrative on a different, non-polarised trajectory.

This is the moment to subject previously unchallenged views to rigorous scrutiny.

This is also the moment for politicians who pander to an increasingly vocal and aggressive far right to reassess policies that deal with Muslims and to remove the lens that sees Muslims only as extremists, would-be extremists or mood musicians for extremism.

All those involved in the discourse around extremism and violence would do well to take away some big lessons from the past week to steer us away from the polarised trajectory we are on.

First, we must be more precise in the language we use for such incidents. Was Breivik a lone wolf or did he act in concert with other extremists? Was he a deranged psychopath or was he radicalised by right-wing sentiment? Just as it is not right to describe the September 11 perpetrators as “Muslim” terrorists, so it is not right to describe Breivik as a “Christian” terrorist.

Overturning the double standards in description will reduce grievances, but the crucial reason more accurate analysis is required is because these are essentially the same category of incident, and using the same language will allow us to better analyse the causes.

The same holds true for the idea of mood music, which needs reappraisal. Islam and non-violent Muslims are held responsible for the acts of criminal terrorists. By the same logic, does the right-wing press provide the mood music for actors like Breivik? The answer is not clear. However, the events in Norway should help us to better interrogate the merit of this theory. Can and will such commentators hold up their actions genuinely to test their own theory? Glib responses that because they are quoted by Breivik doesn’t make them mood musicians won’t hold – after all, those are precisely the claims they made against Muslims.

The presumption of innocence about Muslims also needs to be reinstated. “Facts” that see them as inherently alien or violent must be challenged. It will be harder to unravel the malicious discourse than it was to whip it up, but it must be overturned.

For every dubious poll that emphasises an alleged Muslim desire for separation – by instituting Sharia, or demanding special food or schools – we must be reminded of more reliable polls demonstrating a sense of Muslim belonging to western lands. Every statistic showing a Muslim propensity to violence must be countered by the real facts that political violence in the western world has been conducted more by non-Muslims.

The most challenging thing for politicians will be to face up to the fact that their own critiques of multiculturalism are remarkably similar to those of far-right extremists, though not as emphatic. If they critique multiculturalism, it must be based on fact, not the sensational headlines of a tabloid. It might be time to embrace the idea that multiculturalism, far from creating separate communities, is in fact a potent force to strengthen a country. That was the point made forcefully this week by Tarak Barkawi of Cambridge University. Writing for the think tank the Royal United Services Institute, he argued that multiculturalism can strengthen Britain’s role as a world power.

Although I am calling for greater scrutiny of all these elements, it doesn’t mean we should be complacent in our vigilance against those who commit violence in the name of Islam. They are violent criminals just like Breivik. Nor can we forget the innocent lives lost in Norway; our first thoughts and prayers must go to them.

Last week’s horror has the potential to change the discourse again, away from the acceptable and even fashionable anti-Muslim sentiment that was stoked in the shadow of September 11. It gives us the opportunity to break free of this fear-mongering, and move towards a more robust, holistic and ideologically agnostic stand against all kinds of extremism.


Neither Bin Laden nor dictatorships: Arab youth choose their own models of leadership

This is a very belated posting of my weekly newspaper column written the week that Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.

Courtesy of Cartoonmovement.com

Osama bin Laden is dead. Bogeyman of western nightmares, and a figure of revulsion for many Muslims, his death brings to a close the ghoulish and virtual reign of an icon – loathed and despised, but an icon nonetheless – of leadership.

This is not to say he was a leader to be emulated, simply that he held a degree of influence. Witness the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre based in Jordan, which placed him on its list of 500 Most Influential Muslims under the category “Radicals”.

His death comes during sweeping changes in the Middle East. Bin Laden wanted these populations to rise up under his charge against the West, but they did it without him. Mubarak is gone. Ben Ali, too. Qaddafi fights for survival. The Arab people didn’t want them, and they didn’t want bin Laden, his philosophy consigned to a compound in Pakistan, his influence diminishing, his ideology rejected by the very people he sought to lead and who on the streets wanted the very democracy he reviled.

But what kind of leadership do Arabs, particularly young Arabs, actually want?

The urge for “participation and representation in the political life of their country of residence” remains a “priority” for young Arabs, according to Asda’a Burson Marsteller’s survey of 2,500 Arab youths in 10 countries, conducted during the recent events. “Arab youth have a deep and enduring desire for democracy” was one of their conclusions, obvious in light of events.

This change is self-driven. The youth are resigned to the fact that their current – and outgoing – leaders do nothing for them. Few bother to voice their opinions to public officials, according to the fourth Silatech Index “Voices of Young Arabs”, published in March, of 20 countries and 36,000 people and produced jointly by the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies and Silatech, a social enterprise addressing opportunities for young Arabs. They are not convinced their leaders are maximising the potential of young people. Instead, they wish to determine their own lives. This trend is clear in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco.

OgilvyNoor, the Islamic branding and marketing consultancy division of the Ogilvy & Mather advertising firm, calls the movers and shakers of the current changes “futurists”, who are “fearless” and “vocal in their beliefs”.

“Their worldview is fundamentally meritocratic, backed by their faith in Islam’s principles of equal brotherhood. Authority is not solely top-down any more. It must make room for equal dialogue,” writes Nazia Hussain, head of strategy for the unit.

It is worth noting that the drive for self-determination, the desire for democracy and the demand that leaders should engage in dialogue are derived from Islam. Additionally, 70 per cent of “futurists” are extremely proud to be Muslim, according to OgilvyNoor’s research.

These young people have come of age in the shadow of September 11 and Osama bin Laden. The war on terrorism offered them two mutually exclusive choices: western democracy or bin Laden’s toxic leadership. They have rejected this bipolar caricature, instead creating their own models of leadership for their future: a future that takes pride in both Islam and democracy, a future fuelled by their belief that change is up to them, a future they can and will make happen.


Despite our differences, we all need to shop

This is my weekly column from The National UAE.

Let’s stop talking about politics and extremism. We need to go shopping.

Trade was arguably one of the things that once made the Muslim world great (and rich), and created fluid and mutually binding relationships with other great world powers.

Star products included spices from as far afield as India and Indonesia, Oman’s sweet fragrances of frankincense.  And coffee, ah, dear wonderful coffee with its warm hug of caffeine first thing in the morning, also came from the Muslim world.

So, at a time when global relations are showing the odd sign of strain (anyone mentioned the mis-labelled ‘Ground Zero’ mosque recently?), what antidote could be more fitting than the resurgence of Islamic branding and marketing as a 21st century phenomenon?

You all think I’ve lost the plot, don’t you? Some Muslims are going to be up in arms that I’m advocating a supposedly consumerist-capitalist-slave-making-spirituality-stifling paradigm. And Islamophobes are going to say that I’m trying to hide an Islamist take-over inside my recyclable plastic shopping bags.

Chillax, people.

Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world’s largest marketing and advertising agencies, has commissioned research to better understand the world’s 1.6 billion Muslim consumers. The segmentation of consumers was not just for shopping’s sake, but to get under the skin of what makes ‘real’ Muslims tick, those1.599999 (recurring) billion Muslims, not the handful of crazy ones who think the way to get your fifteen minutes of fame is to blow things up.

Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the seeming frivolity of shopping versus the scary headlines of bombings that gives rise to this kind of angst. Or maybe it’s that people who stand to benefit most from upholding the “Clash of Civilisations” thesis don’t want us to see the things we have in common as human beings. These shared aspirations include trying to become better human beings, world peace, eradication of poverty, equality and justice for all, and an end to exploitation, violence and suffering. Oh yes, and we all need stuff, starting from the basics like food, clothing and construction materials.

So, given our shared human need for things which we need to buy, perhaps we can use trade and commerce, built on ethical, sustainable and non-exploitative principles, to understand a bit more about each other and to build relationships. Please note that I am not advocating a materialist, exploitative, disposable culture. I’m simply pointing out that all human beings need things to survive, and trade is a basic of human civilisation.

Research produced by Ogilvy & Mather's specialist Islamic Branding division

So what did Ogilvy & Mather’s research tell us about Muslim consumers? Importantly, instead of judging them on a single dimension of how ‘devout’ they are, it looked at what role religion plays in their lives. Their findings identified two broad categories which they labelled ‘Traditionalist’ and ‘Futurist’ and in each one were a further three segments. ‘Traditionalists’ have a desire for harmony and belonging, they are quietly proud of their faith and align with values of tolerance and compassion. ‘Futurists’ see themselves as steadfast followers of Islam in a modern world. They are individualists who ‘choose’ Islam. Their pride is intense, regardless of the extent to which they would be categorised as ‘devout’.

The research insights are meaningful because the trick to successful commerce is the same as that needed for international relations and diplomacy: it is to understand the drivers and motivations of people and to give them due recognition.

So, when we talk about trade with Muslims, we might find ourselves positively addressing wider issues of international relations. In the world of shopping, I believe they call that a ‘two for the price of one’ offer.


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.


Rahmah not Rubbish

We love to tell the stories of the life of the Prophet, but have we really learnt to apply them to our daily lives?

One of the favourite stories that Muslims like to recount is that of the woman who threw rubbish at the Prophet. We like it because it tells a simple human tale of compassion that wins out over malice. It is the triumph of patience and good manners over hatred.

The Prophet walked along a particular street every day on his way to conducting his affairs. From one of the windows, a woman who was angry at him for preaching the message of one God, would throw rubbish at him. Each day he would walk past, and each day she would throw her fetid refuse at him. One day, as he is walking past, there is no rubbish thrown at him.

Let us pause for a moment, before completing the story, and really truly think about what it must have been like to face this daily occurrence. We recount it very glibly, and don’t really feel it in our hearts.

Dear reader, please take a moment to create this situation as though it is real to you, and feel the emotions that rise up within you. You are walking under a window, and a pile of stinking vegetable peelings, rotting banana skins, three day old meat trimmings and some used toilet roll hits your head. You live in a hot environment, and so the mixture of putrid waste is particularly disgusting. A voice rings out above you: “******* Muslims! Terrorist! Osama lover!” and the abuse continues. We can all easily fill in blanks of the insults that Muslims face everyday. I would feel angry, furious. That is the natural human response.

Now we return to the behaviour of the Prophet himself. One particular day, there is no rubbish thrown at him. He is concerned and so he enquires after the whereabouts of the woman. When he is advised that she is unwell, he goes to visit her to see the state of her health. She is shocked when he arrives, knowing full well the extent of her abuse. His kindness and patience in dealing with her cruelty wins her over, and she accepts the message that the Prophet has been preaching.

How much we love to tell this story! How proud we are of the Prophet’s exemplary character! But we fail to apply this in our daily lives. Let us return to our imaginary scene above. Would we have asked about the well-being of our abuser? Would we have taken time to get to the bottom of why they abused us? Would we have dealt with compassion and reason with them?

Many Muslims today already do suffer this kind of abuse, from simple rude comments on the street, to derogatory content in the media, to smearing in political circles, to books which cause offence. Sometimes we find it hard to connect it to the stories of the Prophet because we have not internalised the human experiences of the individuals whom we rightly venerate. And this is because we have not put ourselves in the shoes of their real human experience.

When we see an attack on Islam or Muslims, we ignore the example of the Prophet to return violence with rahmah, compassion, and concern, and instead return it with anger, protest and in a handful of cases with violence. It is easy to wax lyrical about the Prophet’s patience, but have we really ever imagined ourselves in the situation, as we did a moment ago? Can we now imagine how hard what he did was? When scorn is poured upon Muslims, upon Islam and heartbreakingly on those whom we respect, we must rise above the instinctive response to retaliate with base violence. Defending yourself, and asserting your rights is indeed critical. It is right and proper to rise up to the full extent of law and justice. But we have to also bear in mind the vision that Muslims ought to have for society: to create an equal, fair and tolerant world that is based on knowledge and compassion.

A visionary can only take a dream and turn it into reality by meeting abuse with knowledge. And when those who are thirsty to know about all the values that can make us the best of human, they will look to wherever they can find that knowledge. If Muslims are not offering accessible knowledge, then that thirst will be quenched wherever even the mirage of truth appears. Where there is abuse, it must be replaced with knowledge and compassion, rahmah. That is what happened when the Prophet stepped into the woman’s home. As the Qur’an says, when we face those who are ignorant, we should return it with peace; that is the spirit that leads to quantum change.

This article was published in The Muslim News


The only ‘proper’ Muslim is a non-political one

Last week Hazel Blears has announced that the government would fund a “Theology board” for Muslims in the UK. In an interview with Radio 4, she said lots of nice – and true – things about Islam: that it is peaceful, that it is a religion of compassion, and then Kaboom! She claimed that this board will allow for a “proper interpretation” of Islam. I felt like I was stuck in the blurry screen waves of a bad 1970’s sitcom which was transporting us back to the Middle Ages, to a time when the Government dictated to the public what is and isn’t proper in religion. And this was indeed, about as funny as aforementioned sitcom.

The government has stated that it is doing its best to tackle Islamists who are the source of extremism. According to the government, Islamists are all without exception terribly violent and bloodthirsty. Islamists are apparently the cause of the world’s problems – earthquakes in China, climate change, food shortages, the fuel crisis and poverty and malnutrition to name but a few. The only good Islamist is an ex-Islamist. The government has then used this premise to go on to define its entire policy about Muslims in the UK around the issue of security, ignoring issues of economics, society, education and deprivation.

The term ‘Islamist’ was once applied to anyone who used Islam as a political ideology. Muslims who do not have a political ideology of any sort are okay and need not be worried about being infected by Islamism. But the problem is that the term ‘Islamism’ has now been stretched to mean any Muslim who is political.

Blears insinuates that Muslims who are not politically active are the preferred kind of Muslim. She said in a speech to the Policy Exchange: “The fact remains that most British Muslims, like the wider community, are not politically active, do not sit on committees, and do not attend seminars and meetings. They are working hard, bringing up families, planning their holidays, and going about their business.” Jack Straw was also quite clear about this two years ago: you can’t be a Muslim woman in niqab and visit your MP to engage in the political process.

So if you are a poor confused brainwashed Muslim who cannot tell the difference between someone who is peddling violence and someone who is rocking their head with Britolerant chanting, then the government is going to help you decide your opinions, don’t you worry, poor little Muslim.

The stance of the government takes the handful of criminals who have engaged in violent activity and states that this is a perverted interpretation of Islam, and needs to be exposed as such. Tony Blair said in a discussion with young Muslims “we have to accept that this is therefore a Muslim problem, and a problem with Islam.” I reject this utterly.

This is a criminal issue, which needs to be exposed and rejected as such. The criminals are invoking the mantle of Islam as protection. The only way to get rid of them is for everyone together – including Muslims and the government – to isolate those horrible violent activities as outside the philosophy of Islam. There is no need for a ‘proper’ interpretation of Islam, because these activities are not to do with Islam. Rooting the problem falsely within Islam has created a hostile and prejudiced environment where the criminal activities cannot be properly attacked. The government doesn’t like to hear this being said, but this is the only sensible right-minded way forward.

The recent refusal of ministers to attend IslamExpo is a case in point. Irrespective of their opinion of the organisers, it was a chance to engage with forty thousand Muslims who want to create and settle into a comfortable peaceful British Islam. It smacks of an increasing confusion on the part of the government who are now not only failing to engage with Muslims, but are actively disengaging with those Muslims who are working to a positive peaceful agenda. Blears is playing a dangerous and – in my opinion – futile game which can only backfire as it will leave the vast majority of peaceful Muslims feeling resentful at being singled out for undemocratic dictatorship of their religious views, something with which the government has no business.

My government – the one that I dutifully pay my taxes to, the one that I actively engage with through support and through criticism as part of my duties as subject and citizen, the one that I cast my vote for (or against), the one that I have represented abroad on official business, the one that I support through my labour resources and contribution to the economy – this government tells me that I cannot be a Muslim and engage in politics. Government you have failed to understand that it is I, and millions of others who engage in political activity, that have put you into a position of power. And this statement refers not just to the Labour party, but to any party in power, so Conservatives take note too. Your holding of the reins of power is at the behest of those who vote you in.

If our government makes a statement that a Muslim with a ‘proper interpretation’ of Islam is one that does not engage in political activity then our government does not have a ‘proper interpretation’ of its role and authority.

I wrote a piece a year ago stating “Five Things I love About Being a British Muslim Woman.” In it I emphasised the importance as a Muslim of contributing to the nation that you are part of, and that part of being a contributing member is to be proud of what is good in that nation and to offer positive criticism to make the country a better place.

I continue to be committed to the people of Britain and to making our country a flourishing, forward-looking nation. In return the government has made a mockery of Muslims like me who want to engage in the political process by the rules of democracy, shared values and freedom of speech that the government claims underpin our shared vision of society. And the government is also making a mockery of the claims of democracy and freedom of speech by illegitimately excluding from political participation those whose opinions the government does not like. The government needs instead to think clearly for itself and avoid pandering to any which old voice which is popular in fear-mongering circles for their actions are undermining both the positive goals of social cohesion as well as the political process.

Blears said that “You can’t win political arguments with the leaders of groups… who believe in the destruction of the very democratic process of debate and deliberation”. By excluding the Muslim opinions that the government doesn’t want to engage with through the devious method of saying that being a political Muslim is unpalatable, it is the government itself who is destroying the democratic process of debate.


The Muslim World is Larger Than We Think

The Muslim world is made up of more than just people from the Middle East and the Subcontinent, and drawing on our wider heritage and perspectives could help us address the pressing questions of Islam and modernity

It would probably come as a surprise to most people to know that the largest ethnic group within the world’s billion or so Muslims, are not in fact, Arab. Nor are they Pakistani, or even Bangladeshi for that matter. Even the entire Muslim populations of Europe and America do not feature at the top of this list, and neither does China.

In Britain, our perceptions of Muslims – and thus of Islam – are shaped by the fact that the media shows us coverage of the Arab world as ‘Islam’ and also because the majority of Muslims in this country are of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. The issues and challenges that raise themselves in the Muslim community, and which spill over into the national discourse about Muslims and Islam, therefore naturally stem from our Arabic and Sub-continental-shaped spectacles. Even within the Muslim communities the problems we see and the solutions we propose continually hark back to world-views and religious paradigms based in Arab and Sub-continental perspectives on history and modernity. British Islam tastes of korma curry with a side-serving of hummus. In the global political arena too, the Sub-continent and the Middle East (read ‘Arab’) are also front and centre when it comes to ‘The Muslim World’.

With this restrictive bi-focal approach, we try to address the big questions facing Muslims today. We ask in this context, how do we get to a meaningful understanding of Islam and governance in the modern world order of nation-states? Should we choose to interact (or not) in democratic processes, and if so, what methods should we use? What should our identity and role be in this globalised world? Is there a dichotomy between nation and ummah, and if so, how do we reconcile them?

The biggest challenge out of all of these for Muslims, is to find meaningful proposals to create a framework for participation with positivity and integrity in this new world order. Muslims constantly hark back to a ‘better time’ of Islamic empires and Caliphates, which were the spiritual home of Muslims, and for the most part were their physical homes too. However, such an empire, or a universal ‘home’ state no longer exists. In many cases Muslims live as minorities within non-Muslim majority countries. There is no option – and in many cases no desire – to ‘go home’. Muslims should already feel respected and at home, and should not be treated as aliens. In the context of such a relationship, it is timely for Muslims to construct a robust place within the national community that they are part of and establish very clearly the contribution that they will make.

This desperately needed enterprise is being subverted by a small minority who wish to hijack this process of development and change. Their desire is to return to a ‘better time’, and to ‘Islamicise’. But they created these false notions through Arab-Sub-continental lenses. The neo-conservatives who have created their empty identities and standing in opposition to this so-called ‘Islamist’ political ideology also see the world in these two blinkered dimensions.

So here is the surprise. Large swathes of Muslims are asking the above-mentioned first set of positive questions about this new globalised world that we live in. The groundswell is to participate and contribute, to explore traditional notions of Islamic governance and to advance new ideas of engagement and civic participation. By no means are they getting it all right but, as Confucius says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

The most significant and flourishing example of this is Indonesia. This is a country of 221 million people, of which 88% are Muslim. This makes Indonesia the world’s largest Muslim population, a fact unknown and overlooked by most people. The country stretches from Thailand to Australia, punctuated by lush rainforests and epic lively volcanoes. Its spirituality is understated but intricately and gently woven throughout the fabric of society. Mosques are plentiful (as are other places of worship), almost on every street corner, but they are softly tucked in, little oases in the hubbub of day to day life. Scattered liberally amongst the emerald green rice fields are small huts, used to protect workers from the tropical rain storms, and offer an accessible place for prayer.

The country is founded on five principles, the first of which is the ‘belief in the one and only God.’ For a country with an overwhelming Muslim majority, its political principles define it not as Islamic, but as theistic. There is concern to ensure that the huge variety of ethnicities that make up the nation, as well as its six official religions, share a sense of cohesion which is expressed in another of its founding principles: ‘Unity in diversity’. It also envisions a just and civilised humanity, social justice for the whole of Indonesia and finally, and perhaps most significantly democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives. It is this fusion of democracy and faith that makes the physical, spiritual and social landscape of Indonesia so fascinating.

Ten years after the overthrow of a totalitarian government, the country is racing through a reformasi, and asking piercing questions about nationhood and faith. Whilst travelling there, I was constantly surprised by the strength of feeling amongst all the people I met about driving their country forward.

How did the fact that I am both British and Muslim manifest itself, and how did I relate to my nation, I was constantly asked. Instead of simplistic shock at the existence of Muslims in the UK, the Indonesians greeted my fusion of British Islam with thoughtfulness. They reflected on what they could learn from the experience of British Muslims, to create a cohesive nation state that could respect faith, benefit from it, and use it as a force to create unity – a slippery and elusive goal for a country of its huge geography, variation and population. They wanted to learn about how minorities were treated, and apply positive experiences to their own nation.

There was no possible question of not participating in political and civic processes. Faith – whether Muslim or otherwise – was a natural part of civic life. There was no need to make a headline fuss of it. It did not dictate the political agenda. Instead, it offered fresh perspectives on dealing with social, political and economic issues. None of this is to say that Indonesia is not dealing with pockets of extremist activity like we are in the UK. Indonesia has many human rights and security issues of its own to deal with. Despite the challenges it is facing, it was refreshing to be in a Muslim majority country, amongst politically and civically active Muslims, for whom Islam was not the only item on the agenda – if in fact it was on the agenda at all. Creating a society where faith is woven into nationhood, and exists happily under its banner were of greater concern to people on the street.

I came away thinking that as British Muslims we had many things we could learn from them. Indonesia sits very firmly as part of the Muslim world, and sees itself as a key player amongst Muslim nations. It is attempting to deal with some of the questions that face both Islam and faith in general in this new millennium. And like a child learning to sit up and survey the world around it, their experience can offer Muslims fresh eyes onto our modern day challenges. Muslims speak with pride about sharing the joy and pain of a global ummah. But sometimes we forget that the ummah stretches much further not only in geography, but also much further in culture, politics and creativity than we might think.

This article was published in The Muslim News


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.