• Spirit21 in 2008 – a year in review

    We are nearing the end of the year, and it is the traditional time to look back and see how we fared over the last twelve months. In particular, it’s been a year since I won Best Blog and Best Female Blog at the Brass Crescent Awards. Much to my excitement I’ve been nominated again. It’s not the only recognition the blog has received. I won Best Non-Fiction Writer at the glamorous Muslim Writers Awards, and was named an ‘influential blog’ by the BBC.

    Shari’ah was big news this year. The Archbishop of Canterbury made some comments about Shari’ah courts which created a national controversy, and which reverberated round the world. I tried to get underneath the dense text with a detailed analysis of his speech. I mentioned a few other words too to highlight that we need to have a conversation about real meaning, not just tabloid screaming. (I used words like Shariah, fatwa, hijab, apostasy, niqab, cousin-marriage, Imam, Muslim women. I think some readers had anxiety attacks after that.) Separately, the Lord Chief Justice re-ignited the debate started by the Archbishop, and I commented that we had a significant problem with the S-Word.

    I spent a lot of time writing about Muslim women, and declared that it was Time for a Womelution. It is time for things to change, and I kept up the pace demanding “Let Muslim Women Speak” both here at Spirit21 and at the Guardian. It seems that everyone out there is happy to tell Muslim women what they should think and say, but won’t let them say it for themselves. It wasn’t the only thing that made me cross. I was riled by the book Jewel of Medina, written by an American author about Ai’shah the wife of the Prophet. It wasn’t about blasphemy or censorship that the author annoyed me, but rather at her delivery of a sex-obsessed Mills and Boon frippery, about a woman and a period of history that was crying out for a high calibre text. What a wasted opportunity. I read the book and wrote a review for the BBC. It was painful. Watch paint dry, I advised readers, it is more fascinating than the book.

    I was still fascinated by hijab, niqab and modesty and wrote several articles trying to understand the different perceptions of modesty and hijab. Modesty is not a black and white issue got some interesting feedback – some people told me in person that it was the best piece I’ve ever written, others said they didn’t get it at all. I also asked, whose body is it anyway, and wondered why it is considered inflammatory by some for a women to cover her hair or face. I made reference in the former article to the rise of the muhajababe, the fabulously stylish and sometimes skimpily clad be-headscarfed Muslim woman, and posted a cartoon asking, what is the meaning of hijab, and wrote a piece considering, can you dress provocatively and be religious? It should all be based around a woman choosing her clothing for herself, but is it really a free choice, and what exactly is she choosing?

    The amazing Muslim women who often are considered oppressed and forgotten inspired me to create The Magic Muslims, ordinary Muslims with Extraordinary superpowers, foremost amongst them being SuperJabi. They also included MagicMullah, HipHopHalalMan and WonderBibi. Watch out for them, there will be more in the coming year!

    I was also published in the book Conversations on Religion, alongside other high profile dignitaries in the field of faith (or absence of) such as Richard Dawkins, the Chief Rabbi, AC Grayling and the Archbishop.

    On the subject of conversations, I had some amazing dialogues with people in Indonesia and Turkey, where I spent a good amount of time this year. Indonesia prompted me to think of sun, smiles and spirituality, whilst in Turkey I found myself asking, what does a Muslim country look like? Hopefully I made some fans whilst out there too…

    My comments about Valentine’s Day being banned generated some interest as i was asking if it was the day or love that was being prohibited; just as exciting was an interview with the charming and sparky Riazat Butt for the Guardian about hajj. They also enjoyed posting a piece exploring our modern ideas about what kind of hero, messiah or mehdi, we are looking for these days. Do we really need one?

    Most controversial were two pieces related to what was happening on the political scene. I had people respond to them with enormous prickliness (or excitement, depending) even months later in person, so they’ve hit a chord! I tried to separate out the political agendas that have confused the need for social cohesion with preventing violent extremism, and seems to see Muslims only through the prism of (potential) terrorism. Later in the year the political insinuations that Muslims were not wanted in politics appeared to grow stronger, and I wrote with much passion that it seems that we Muslims were being told that “The only ‘proper’ Muslim is a non-political one.” The article proliferated wildly and despite a certain level of anonymity as a writer, i had people ‘in person’ searching me out to comment on it.

    Phew! What a year! And inshallah, 2009 is going to be even more exciting – there are already some fabulous things in the works – watch this space!

    (p.s. vote for Spirit21 Best Blog and Best Female blog at the Brass Crescent Awards to show your support!)

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  • The Global Ummah Needs to Start Local

    Muslims are rightly proud of the diverse global ummah, but we should be more willing to embrace the diversity of the British Muslim communities, and channel it to drive forward new ideas

    Outside of the period of hajj in Makkah, the UK is home to the most diverse Muslim community in the world. The extraordinary mix of ethnic origins and opinions from across the theological spectrum make it a unique moment in the history of the Muslim world, representing a microcosm of the diversity that Islam has always aspired to.

    Islam and Muslims have travelled fluidly through history – across the Arabian Peninsula on horseback, by boat along the Eastern coasts of Africa and across to India and into the South Indian seas. It was often trade, by sea, or across the Silk Road, that flung Muslims eastward to China and Indonesia and west towards Morocco and Spain. In fact, records of the slave trade to the Americas suggested that Muslims had made it across the Atlantic long ago.

    The re-drawing of national boundaries, wars, post-colonialism and the ease of travel and communication which have been the driving forces of the twentieth century, have once again shuffled Muslims around the world. Their movement has been mostly into Europe and North America, and nowhere has this redistribution and melting pot of Muslims been more apparent than in the UK.

    In 2001, the British census estimated that there were 1.6 million Muslims in the UK, a number which is now forecast to be close to 2 million. This makes Muslims the second largest faith group in the country, and Muslims make up more than half of the non-Christian faith community. Almost three quarters of Muslims in the UK are from an Asian ethnic background. Those from Pakistan make up 43 per cent, from Bangladesh 16 per cent and Indians and other Asians make up 14 per cent. We probably could have guessed that. But did you know that 17 per cent consider themselves to be from a ‘white’ background, whether that is White British, Turkish, Cypriot, Arab or Eastern European? And did you know that 6 per cent of Muslims are of Black African origin, from North and West Africa, particularly Somalia.

    We also know that all these figures are out of date, and show little of those of Middle Eastern origin who have joined us on this green and pleasant land in the last few years. If you haven’t spotted your country on the list, then you make up that great overlooked fact of British Muslims – that they come from all the blessed corners of this God’s great earth.

    But so what?

    First, it is important to take note of these astounding facts. We live in an historic time and place for Muslims. We have more ideas, cultures and perspectives in a concentrated space than ever before, to inspire, motivate and produce more than ever before. If ever we were to create something overwhelming, tumultuous and inspirational, then the time has never been more ripe. The great age of Muslim learning flowered because minds were open to new ideas, perspectives and cultures. Thinkers would wait eagerly for new books and learnings to travel across the ethnicities and languages of the Muslim world.

    Islam is also about appreciating different people and knowing them. The Qur’an is quite clear about this, and Muslims love to quote that Allah created people into “tribes and nations” so that we may “know each other”. We take positive pride in the diversity across the global Ummah. We claim that we love all our brothers and sisters, and that we feel their pain, wherever and whoever they are! Of course, this statement of bravado only lasts as long as we don’t have to go to a mosque that ‘belongs’ to those of a different ethnicity. As long as we don’t have to marry them. As long as we don’t have to have children with them. As long as we don’t have to work in communities together. There are exceptions, but they are relatively few.

    We will protest vehemently for the Palestinian cause, and we may deplore the terrible situation in Iraq, but do we know any Palestinians or Iraqis here in the UK? It is easier to care for those thousands of miles away, then to look after those on our doorstep.

    Nowhere in the world do we have more opportunity than in the UK, to put into action the ethos that the Prophet taught us – to treat all human beings as equal in worth, and to appreciate our variations and differences. At no time in history have we had the opportunity to infuse so much culture, so many ideas and so much vivacity into the future of Muslims.

    History will judge us harshly if we remain enclosed in our ethnic and ideological bunkers. Our future generations will be even less forgiving if we fail to create the magic of cultural fusion and intellectual development that history has shown is in the DNA of the Muslim spirit.

    This article was published in The Muslim News
    Statistics quoted can be found in greater detail at the National Office of Statistics

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  • 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

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  • Indonesia, the land of sun, smiles and spirituality

    Here is a brief account of my recent trip to Indonesia. I’ll be posting a video in the next few days, and then publishing a more formal piece about the visit.

    It was a hot sticky evening in Jakarta, and we were about to return to our hotel after an amazing day visiting schools, women’s groups and an Ambassador’s reception. I was being a typical Brit complaining in the face of the torrential rain, imminent flooding and lengthy traffic queues. My Indonesian host on the other hand, smiled gently and serenely: “It will be ok, we’ll be there very soon”. He smiled again, a heartfelt peaceful smile.

    You could read his response as the typical Indonesian approach to ‘rubber time’, which allows for timing to be flexible and unstressed. In the face of Mother Nature’s stormy interventions into our plans, living by time elasticity is probably a sensible approach. But I preferred to see it as an example of that other Indonesian trait – a positive smile in the face of adversity. As my host explained, a smile can often ease away immediate problems.

    This smile was prevalent wherever I went. People were gentle, hospitable and friendly and had ease and kindness in dealing with people. A smilier bunch of people I’ve never met, it certainly gave me pause for thought.

    I began the journey in Jakarta, the financial heart of Indonesia. The country has the largest Muslim population in the world, more populous than the entire Arab nation. The country crams in 221m people of which about 88% are Muslim. It stretches from Aceh in the north which is parallel to Thailand, enveloping Malaysia and Singapore all the way to Papua in the East, and barely within spitting distance from Australia.

    About 13 million people reside in the huge sprawling metropolis of Jakarta, a city lit up with bright neon lights by night, and overcast with monstrous smog by day. My lasting memory is of the wide boulevards which criss-cross the city, but which are crammed with standstill traffic for most the day and night. The city has no metro system, and even a trip a few miles away can take a couple of hours.

    The city has South East Asia’s largest shopping mall (Mangga Dua), Indonesia’s largest mosque (Masjid Istiqlal) and the largest share of Indonesia’s population and economy. Quietly hidden amongst the skyscrapers are small simple mosques which are woven into the fabric of the city, but which are rarely front and centre. Except on Fridays, when a drum is beaten before the adhaan to announce Juma (Friday prayers), and streams and streams of people pour into and then back out of the mosques. Scooters are the vehicle of choice, filling up the scooter parks next to the mosques.

    The mosques have space for women to pray – again a reflection of the relative ease with which women participate in public life. The scholars, politicians and activists which I met dealt with women in a natural, un-contrived manner. The respect was innate and natural. It was a non-issue.

    Jakarta is also home to Mini-Indonesia, a drive-thru theme park that is home to traditional houses from around the country, plus a rather spectacular lake that has islands in the shape of the Indonesian archipelago. Built by Suharto’s wife it proved unpopular to start with as many locals were evicted to make way for the enormous site.

    Next it was off to Yogyakarta, commonly called Jogja, a much smaller, gentler cultural town. It is home to South East Asia’s largest Hindu temple (Prambanan) and the largest Buddhist temple (Borobudur). The former was built around the 10th century and the latter in the 8th and 9th century, but they were quickly abandoned for unknown reasons. As the guide to the sites said, “These sites are Hindu and Buddhist, but most of the visitors are Muslim. This is Indonesia.” A statement that is the perfect summary of the respectful spirituality of this vast diverse nation.

    This should have come as no surprise in a country where one of the five principles upon which the state is built is “Unity in diversity.” These five pancacila were the foundation of the new nation that declared its independence from the Dutch in 1945. The country was based on a theistic vision of statehood: belief in the one and only God. It also envisioned 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. Jogja was a perfect example of this with the ease with the which the locals look after Prambanan and Borobudur. They are horrified at the attempted terrorist attacks aimed at destroying them.

    Yogyakarta was heavily affected by an earthquake measuring 6.2 in 2006. Bantul, a small suburb of Jogja was almost entirely destroyed taking a hit of almost two thirds of the 3500 dead. I visited some house rebuilding projects being run by the British NGO Muslim Aid. I spoke to one family that had been housed. The father had been injured by falling debris in the quake and was unable to work to support his four children. Muslim Aid had given them a brick house with three rooms so they could re-build their lives. This was a huge boon to the family whose breadwinner is the mother. She earns their living by peeling garlic cloves by hand, for which she earns about 30 pence per day. Each house costs 4 million rupiah – a mere £240, in order to give a family a home, and allow them to get on with their lives.

    I also went to visit House of Lawe, (“Conserving tradition, empowering women”) a local project not far away which gives people the resources to create yarn, fabric and handicrafts to sell in the local community and with which to support themselves. It is the oldest such project in the area, and the day I arrived was the launch of their new women’s handicraft project.

    Earthquakes and tsunamis are not the only epic disasters to befall Indonesia. Set in the ‘Ring of fire’, volcanoes are widely prevalent throughout the country. Merapi is Jogja’s own volcano, and it erupted in 2007. Since this was still monsoon season, the path to the volcano was closed due to potential torrential rain and sodden ash in the path. On the way, we chanced upon a missionary church built in one of the poorer villages. It stood in the same style of rectangular thatched building used for mosques, town halls and prayer areas.

    Before leaving town, I visited the local shopping mall, another ‘biggest…’, which was jam-packed with the same American brands wherever I turned – Starbucks, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, Hard Rock Cafe. It was like home away from home (note the irony). What was surprising was that the prices were similar to those in the UK, in a country where poverty runs at approximately 40 per cent.

    Next stop was Bali, the Ibiza of Asia. The Ozzies had popped over just as the Brits might have done to the Spanish coast. My base was Legian, just north of the infamous Kuta, made notorious by the Bali bombings of 2002. The public face of Bali was a body shock coming from quiet sleepy Muslim Yogyakarta. Bali is mainly Hindu, although quite different in flavour to Indian Hinduism. It is sprinkled with in-your-face adult entertainment and fast food joints. A gentle walk on the sea front led to a disconcerting number of offers for marijuana from dreadlocked Indonesians.

    The spirit of the island changed heading further inland. The landscaped changed from frenetic building work to jaw-dropping green paddy fields with unbelievable curved terraces, with hot steam rising when the rains came pouring down. Hobbits could be seen traversing the greenery. The taxi-driver trailed me through batik shops, art houses, wooden carving joints, furniture shops and silversmiths trying hard to earn commission from any sales I might generate, but the quality was sadly too tourist-y. But then we reached Ubud, the touristic and artistic centre of the island which is replete with expensive shops, and fortunately balanced by a cheap bustling market (bargain hard!). I ventured nervously into Monkey Forest where about a hundred cute little monkeys bounced around chasing after visitors and snatching away any loose items.

    I imagine that Bali was once what Lombok is today which was the next stop – an unspoilt magical island to the east of Bali. Affected heavily by the drop in tourism after all the catastrophic events, Lombok’s fledgling tourist industry took a downturn. As a result, top end hotels are a bargain (book your rooms now! Sadly I get no commission). The sands are soft, the sea is calm and deep blue, the food is tasty and cheap, the people are helpful and friendly. I felt like I was in paradise. Until a trip to Gili Trawangan, part of the Gili Islands. After an hour on a motorised catamaran across perfect inky blue waters, I really did find paradise. Perfect white sand beach. Perfect turquoise sea, perfect gentle breeze. I drank fresh lime soda stretched out on a sun-lounger watching the waves kiss the shore. Did I really have to come home?

    Lombok is stunning. The roads wind dramatically along the coastline revealing mile upon mile of idyllic beaches on one side, and lush green palm groves on the other. It is called the Island of a Thousand Mosques, and lives up to its name with tiny mosques dotted subtly throughout the forests, paddy fields and small towns. The countryside is punctuated with small huts to allow for both shelter from the rain, but also for convenient prayer places. And this is the story of Indonesia. It is a country that seems at ease with its faith at a human ordinary people level. It is interwoven into the rhythm of life, not in-your-face.

    Only ten years on from the reformasi and the country’s move to democracy, the nation is showing signs of an active civic engagement in democratic process. People are asking questions about nationhood, democracy and faith. I was asked many times – how do you reconcile your faith with being British – by people who were asking how they could create Indonesia into a country that was at ease with all its faiths as well as its nationhood.

    Coming from a country where participation in the political process is at an all time low, the Indonesian vigour and enthusiasm at civic engagement was overwhelming. In Britain the shutters have come down on exploring our national identity in an open and progressive manner. In Indonesia I found the opposite – ordinary people, not just politicians – asking questions about the values that bind its people irrespective of faith and ethnicity, and how to deal fairly and intelligently with minorities. They do not have all the answers, and they are certainly far from perfect in many areas. In fact, their record in some areas is poor, and there are many trouble spots the country will have to negotiate through at a political and state level, extremism being at the forefront of everyone’s minds. But whilst extremism dominates the world’s view of Indonesia, at a local people level they want to be known as a people of moderation and peace (check out the video I will be posting soon).

    It was exciting to travel in a country of such variety in its people, places, ethnicities and faith that is asking questions of itself and is capable of creating change so rapidly. From the bustle of Jakarta to the serenity of Lombok, and all the places I didn’t even get a chance to visit, Indonesia is a place that should be firmly on everyone’s radar.
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