• There’s something about Mary: The Mary Initiative, peace, conflict resolution and motherhood

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

    Earlier this week I was invited to a late-night soirée. The evening was held at the invitation of an organisation called “The Mary Initiative” that uses Mary – or Maryam in Islamic terms – the mother of Jesus, as a springboard for peacemaking and conflict resolution. What better way to come together than by connecting through the most famous mother in history, asks the organisation. No matter how different we all are, even people in the mafia (so the adage tells us) love their mum.

    Why had no one thought of this idea before? It’s genius.

    Image from 'The Mary Initiative', by artist Husein Nuri

    This initiative is designed for Muslims and Christians to come together and connect: not by comparing theology or doctrine but by connecting hearts. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is central to both religions. But this discussion was not about Jesus, but entirely about the role of Mary, her meaning and her status.

    “It’s incredible to hear these men talking about how important Mary is,” exclaimed our facilitator. The magic of the conversation is that the point of departure is a shared person. And what makes it more powerful is that it is a woman, something deeply unusual in a time when dialogue and peacemaking is usually conducted by men who dominate the positions of power, whether it be in politics or religion.

    Nearly all of us had tiny babies, and so the conversation inevitably turned towards Mary as a model of motherhood. The Quranic description of the excruciating pain she experienced at childbirth, the gossip at her predicament and her fortitude in the face of social disgrace were subjects that brought us closer to Mary and her humanity. One of the women had named her daughter Maryam. Surprisingly, Maryam is now in the top 100 names for baby girls in the UK.

    Our conversation was filmed, and would be shown to Christian women so they could hear our views first hand. But after a while, the departure point for our discussion was quickly forgotten.

    With tea and cheesecake to fuel the conversation, we debated late into the night, like carefree students. Who are we? What does womanhood mean today? What is our place in the universe? It was liberating. I realised that in the daily grind, I had little time or impetus to debate, explore and test out ideas.

    The night’s conversation was much more raw than activities such as reflection or evaluation, both of which are very measured and task-orientated. This was about looking afresh, from a different vantage point, to see whether the truths we hold about the world were still valid.

    The discussion around Mary would still have held potency even if it had involved women of other or no faiths. That’s because despite the reduction in value of motherhood in today’s consumerist world – where a person’s value is measured by their financial contribution – we all know that motherhood is not a commodity.

    Every activity, policy decision, or initiative today is measured by politicians in terms of economic loss or gain. But if you ask people who was the most influential person in their lives, their mother often tops the list.

    The Mary Initiative has hit on something more powerful than it realises. It opens the doors to dialogue with others. At the same time, it opens an inner door to realising the soft power and influence of women, and the way that their voices continue to guide us throughout our lives. There’s no way you can put a price on that. With these thoughts, I left the evening thinking there is definitely something about Mary.

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  • Anatomy of an Islamic Country

    This is my monthly column in the latest edition of EMEL Magazine.

    What do we mean – if anything – when we ask what does an ‘Islamic’ country look like? This is the question that I puzzled over as I sat in a traditional dhow at sunset, sailing down the creek that lies at the heart of old Dubai.

    On one side was the historic area of Bastakiyya, where little houses and minarets populated the water’s edge. As darkness fell, the adhan began to echo from both sides of the creek.  I felt at peace; the call to prayer in stereo around me and the beauty of the reddening sun reflected on the water.

    The UAE is at its core an Arabic nation with Arabic language and the traditional domed mosques with minarets that we think of as typical for an Islamic country. Next door to Saudi Arabia, it lies barely 12 hours by road to Makkah and Madinah. Despite a large expatriate population, which means that many people who live in the Emirates are not actually Muslim, practicalities like halal meat, the observance of Ramadan and national holidays in line with Islamic events are the norm. But does all of this make it Islamic?

    What about Indonesia? Eighty-eight percent of its 237m population is Muslim – which means in absolute terms there are more Indonesian Muslims than all of the Arab Muslims in the world put together. Unlike most of its Arab counterparts, Indonesia’s constitution is democratically based, and in principle at least allows for minorities to have their rights protected and participate fully in the nation’s civic and political life. Yet Indonesians don’t speak Arabic, don’t wear abayas and are comparatively liberal when it comes to women participating in the public domain.

    And what of India? According to the Pew Research Centre, Muslims make up over 13% of the Indian population and 10% of the world’s overall Muslim population. Couple that with India’s vast and powerful Mughal heritage and you have to wonder: if numbers and heritage are important, then surely India is an Islamic country?

    Then we have Turkey – home of the Ottoman empire, and once again held in positive esteem by Muslims as its leaders speak up about Gaza, defend women’s rights to veil and whose government is led by the AK Party – AK being the acronym for Justice and Development – but which has been dubbed an ‘Islamist’ party.

    Is this the list of Islamic countries? Or does 'Islamic' or 'Muslim' mean something else?

    But if we’re looking at size and history as markers of being Islamic, then there is a whole list that qualifies. A few surprising examples might include: China (21 million, early to mid 7th century); Kazakhstan (almost 9m, in the 8th century), and even the USA (6.4m and possibly as early as the 10th century via Spain).

    Clearly, population size, history, Arabic ethnicity and language, or sub-continental origins and even proximity to the Holy Cities go a long way towards shaping our ideas of a country that we consider ‘Islamic.’  But do these criteria still stand when countries that we might consider ‘un-Islamic’ appear to offer more freedom to practice Islam, and that also expound what appear to be Islamic principles. Consider examples such as the welfare state to take care of the poor, or laws to prosecute racial or sexual discrimination.

    So, the answer to our question is not so clear-cut – the idea of a checklist of qualities by which we can identify an ‘Islamic’ country doesn’t appear to hold water in the modern world. And this realisation has profound implications for the oft-repeated phrases of Dar al Islam and Dar al Kufr which are still used to shape Muslim thinking about world affairs. Those phrases relate to a time when religious identity was closely tied to citizenship. But even then, the Muslim empires had populations that were not Muslim but who held significant sway.

    This means we need to think more carefully about glib categorisations of countries and populations as ‘Islamic’ or ‘un-Islamic.’ Today’s world is not so black and white.

    As for my boat ride along the Dubai creek – one thing I realised is that whilst we may want be wistful about a traditional past, what lies beneath is the drive towards a modern multicultural reality. As Muslims, rather than hark back to romantic images of what once was, what we need to address is how to implement Islamic values for the future.

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  • What kind of Muslim are you?

    This article was published in November’s edition of EMEL Magazine.

    Recent marketing and advertising research concludes that ‘Muslims are diverse’. Why can’t Muslims be of the same opinion?

    In the political, social and religious spheres, there are plenty of labels to define what kind of Muslim you are.  Are you a moderate or a fundamentalist? A Sufi or a Salafi? A progressive or a conservative?

    More often than not, a Muslim will be defined by how outwardly pious they appear – how long is his beard, how expansive is her head-covering – as though a Muslim is defined on one axis only. Such lazy and judgemental labelling has prevented us from seeing the human aspirations, motivations and even foibles that make up the great mosaic of the global Muslim nation.

    So when two of the world’s largest marketing and advertising agencies commission research into better understanding Muslim consumers, it is a good time to ask ourselves: can the commercial world get past these labels and help us gain better insight into the attitudes, diversity and aspirations of Muslims?

    JWT’s aim was to identify the common values at the core of the Muslim market. Five segments emerged. It is worth noting that no segment is more or less merit worthy in terms of humanity.

    ‘Social Conformists’ (19%) believe social norms should be adhered to even at the cost of personal choice. They lack self confidence and rely on others for decisions. They are not religious and feel positively about Western values.  ‘Religious Conservatives’ (17%) follow and expect others to follow religious practices, which always override personal choice. They are anti-media and information averse. They support gender segregation. ‘Pragmatic Strivers’ (24%) are non traditional and ambitious, open-minded and willing to compromise on religious values in order to get ahead. ‘Extreme Liberals’ (21%) are independent and assertive and not particular about tradition or religious practices. They will explore options even if they don’t conform to religious or societal norms. ‘New Age Muslims’ (19%) are traditional and religious but do not expect others to be so. Whilst religious, they believe in gender equality, are pro-media and pro-Internet.

    Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide published their report earlier this year, and have even set up a specialist Islamic branding and marketing agency. The CEO made an interesting remark about how piety is often confused with understanding the state of being Muslim: “While segmentations of Muslim consumers have been attempted before, they have often tended to merge into relatively simple scales of devoutness in terms of adherence to Islam on a scale of liberal to conservative. It seems more profound to look instead through the lens of the role that religion plays in their lives.”

    The research identified six segments.  The ‘Connected’ (27%) who see themselves as part of the web-like network of the Ummah, saying ‘religion connects me’. Technology is positive, and compassion ranks highly. The ‘Grounded’ (23%) say ‘religion centres me’: Islam is their anchor, religion and culture are inseparable. They seek peace and closeness to God. The ‘Immaculates’ (11%) say ‘religion purifies me’ are younger, seek discipline and perfection, and may incline towards rejecting the impure. These three segments have a more ‘Traditionalist’ mindset; a desire for harmony and belonging; quietly proud of their faith; aligning with values of tolerance and compassion.

    The remaining three segments were noted as of key importance in influence, labelled as the ‘Futurist’ mindset who 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’. They believe in education and question intention. ‘Identifiers’ (27%) wear Islam with pride: ‘religion identifies me’ and want it strengthened and defended. The ‘Movers’ (6%) say ‘religion enables me’. They are internet savvy and act as change agents. The ‘Synthesizers’ (6%) are pragmatic, and adapt religious practice to their needs saying ‘religion individuates me’.

    If we are to take any first insights from these commercial models, it is to learn that the aspirations and motivations of Muslims are not homogeneous, and Muslims should not be judged in a one-size-fits-all fashion. Muslims have complex and varying motivations, and yet their religion still informs what they do.

    Muslims expect others to recognise and respect Muslim diversity. Such research highlights this, and if anything the immediate next step is to hope that we can learn to apply the same level of complexity to how we as Muslims ourselves see other Muslims, rather than just judging them by how pious they ‘appear’ to be.

    Surprisingly, such commercial research may help us better understand our co-religionists, and what motivates and inspires them.

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  • My name is Mohamed, (Shelina Zahra) Janmohamed

    This article was just published in this month’s EMEL Magazine.

    A woman is not usually called Muhammad. So imagine my surprise when the BBC rang me up to ask if I was interested in appearing in a documentary called “My Name is Muhammad“, to explore the lives of different Muslims in Britain.

    Still from the BBC documentary "My name is Muhammad" (Shelina Zahra Janmohamed) (C) BBC

    “Do you have a strong relationship with your surname?” she asked. “Not really, other than it being my father’s name. But I do have a bittersweet relationship with my first name, does that count?” I am a firm believer that individuals can and do have a relationship with their name, and although Shelina is pretty and memorable, I felt sad that it didn’t have any spiritual, religious or wisdom-oriented influence. I only discovered the fact it did, and its meaning latterly in life. Shelina is “full moon.”  Perhaps I could aspire to the notion of reflecting beauty and light?

    I had always longed for a name taken from the Islamic tradition, and so when I started writing, I adopted ‘Zahra’ as my middle name, in honour of the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. As though my unwieldy seven syllable name wasn’t already long enough.

     Which reminded me when I spoke to the BBC producer of one strong experience I did have about my surname: “It’s a pain to spell on the phone, with all those letter Ns and Ms.” 

    I had in fact had had the opportunity to change my name to something far more manageable when I got married – one of those names that sounds like a modern celebrity brand. (I’ve always hankered in

    BBC Documentary "My name is Muhammad" (c) BBC

    BBC Documentary "My name is Muhammad" (c) BBC

    particular for a one-name recognition). However, in homage to the Islamic tradition of women keeping their names when they get married, I stuck to my own polysyllabic identifier. It always struck me as strange that women still change their surnames when they get married – after all, this tradition originates from a time when the surname reflected whose property a woman was, and she changed it to her husband’s name to show she was now his belonging.

    Muhammad is the second most popular name in Britain today, second only to Jack, registered under 14 different spellings. This does not include cultural variations like the Turkish Mehmet or the Mamadou of Senegal. The name’s popularity is unsurprising given how dear Muslims hold their Prophet. Also, Islamic tradition advises that one of the parental responsibilities is to give their child a good name.

    I remember fondly my all-time favourite email campaign invitation which lobbied for the standardisation of the spelling of ‘Muhammad’ so the ummah can finally be united under the banner of one lexicography. I failed at the first hurdle, my own name being the culprit. Muslims ought to focus on more important things than squabbling over which transliteration is right. The answer: none of them, it’s an Arabic name, so. Instead, let’s move on to fighting prejudice, Islamophobia and discrimination against the name itself and the people who hold it.

    For example, a study by the Department for Work and Pensions  showed that racial discrimination occurred for those applying for jobs with just a name suggesting they were from an ethnic minority, rather than white British. For every nine applications sent by a white applicant, an equally good applicant with an ethnic minority name had to send sixteen to obtain a positive response. In the current time of high unemployment and recession it is a particular worry that a name like Muhammad along with other such names can restrict employment opportunities.

     Of course, whilst I have not seen statistical evidence on profiling by name, anyone who has the name Muhammad or similar will give you plenty of anecdotal evidence that they have been singled out and pulled aside for questioning or investigation while travelling.

    And yet whilst holding the name of the Prophet in such high esteem, Muslims appear to have a peculiar relationship with it, the name being more than its meaning. The case of the Sudanese teddy bear named Muhammad was the most peculiar demonstration of this. The children chose to name their bear Muhammad, presumably indicating a familiarity and endearment with this name by attaching it to something that they loved. Yet this was considered by some to be an ‘insult’.  

    In my opinion, an insult to the name Muhammad are criminals like Mohammad Sidique Khan who kill innocent human beings. To honour the name is to live its meaning, like Muhammad Ali who stood up as a man of conscience.

    As a (Jan) Mohamed, I’ll be trying my best to honour it too.

    You can watch the documentary here:

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  • Echoes of a darker age for women – beware a new Jahiliyyah

    This article was recently published in The National

    There are few concepts in the Muslim psyche that paint an image as vivid and forceful as the era of The Jahiliyyah, the Period of Great Ignorance, that preceded the advent of Islam. It is considered by Muslims to be a dark, ungodly, forsaken time when men and women believed in many deities, lived lives of tribal partisanship and warfare, showed immense racism, inflicted oppression on the poor and meted out gruesome treatment to women.
    Of the horrors of the Jahiliyyah that Islam eradicated, some of the most salient are about women. Women had little control over their lives. They could not own property, in fact wives themselves were treated as chattel and were inherited by their sons when their husbands died. Worse, young girls would be buried alive by their fathers, to prevent shame falling on the men. In fact, this latter tradition was so abhorrent to the nascent Islam that it is even mentioned in the Quran with disgust.
    When Muslims today talk about this practice of female infanticide, it is almost a form of shorthand to refer to the terrible state of human society before Islam.Islam was a radical set of propositions. Its foundation was the belief that there is no god but (one) God. Pre-Islamic Arabs were ardently polytheistic. They were happy to add on one more deity to their collection, but the problem was that Mohammed wanted them to dispense with all the others and take Allah as their only divinity. This meant dispensing with the traditions of their forefathers, and this was unthinkable for them. Mohammed was clear in his response: cultural traditions are no reason to keep doing the wrong thing.

    Polytheism also brought wealth to the pre-Islamic Arabs in the form of the pilgrimage to the gods kept in the Kaaba. Destroying the gods would mean a significant reduction in trade resulting in diminished status and wealth.There are signs that monotheists were already present before Islam’s advent, suggesting that the idea of one God was not rejected just on ideology but also on grounds of culture, economics and power.

    The same applies to the treatment of women. The early Muslims who migrated from Mecca to Medina, were perturbed that their usually docile women were picking up what they saw as insolent behaviour from the Muslim women of Medina who were more used to having discussions with their menfolk. The new free status of women and their right to own property was also seen as problematic by the early Muslims, who not only were no longer in possession of the women and their women’s wealth, but now had to share war booty with the women as well, further impacting negatively on their wealth.
    Again, culture, power and economics were the driving forces behind maintaining the un-Islamic practices of the Jahiliyyah.
    Why am I analysing the history of the Jahiliyyah in an article which is going to discuss the startling horror of the violence and abuse against Muslim women today? The answer is very simple: because exactly the same things are happening today, and for the same reasons.
    Muslims must learn from their history to understand that these practices are once again with us, and that if we are proud that the advent of Islam eradicated them, then we must honour the promise of Islam and eradicate them again today.

    In February of this year in Turkey, a 16-year-old girl was buried alive by her family. Police found a two- metre hole that had been dug underneath a chicken pen in the family home. Inside it, they found the body of the girl, in a sitting position with her hands tied. Media reports said the father had told relatives he was unhappy that his daughter had male friends. A post mortem examination revealed large amounts of soil in her lungs and stomach, indicating that she had been alive and conscious while being buried.
    I feel sick when I think of the poor young woman, buried for supposedly bringing shame on her family. It is horribly reminiscent of the same way that girls during the Jahiliyyah were buried for bringing shame on theirs. And although this case connects the two in a very graphic way, many women are murdered in similarly motivated so-called “honour killings” all over the world. How have we returned to a society where the most abhorrent acts of the Jahiliyyah are once again being perpetrated?

    Such violence and death used against women is, of course, not limited to Muslims. Tragically, women are treated badly across all societies, irrespective of culture and religion. Those who wish to propagate their vile anti-Muslim vitriol should look closer to home and to the suffering of women wherever they are. For example, the World Health Organisation reports that worldwide up to one in five women reports experiencing sexual abuse as children, that trafficking of women and girls for forced labour and sex is widespread, and that rape is increasingly becoming a weapon of war.

    More specific to the Muslim world, it is true that women’s suffering once again echoes the Jahiliyyah. A Saudi tribal court ruled that a woman’s marriage could forcibly be broken up against her will but in line with her family’s wishes. In India, a Muslim woman raped by her father-in-law was forcibly divorced from her husband because the judge ruled that even though it was she who was the victim, the rape had nullified her marriage. In Afghanistan, women are bought and sold in public markets. (Thankfully both the Saudi and Indian rulings have been overturned)

    It is hard not to come to the conclusion that these are cases of women being treated as property, with no self-determination, no marital rights and being killed or kept alive at the whim of men. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that this is reminiscent of the time of Jahiliyyah.Such incidences make it clear that when it comes to improving life for women, the barriers that faced the early Muslim community are still the same today. Many societies control women by claiming that “freedom” is breaking with culture and tradition, that that is not “how we do things”. But Islam is adamant that “following our forefathers” is a fallacious reason. Using women as tools to assert status and wealth show us that the motivations of economics and power are still widely prevalent today as well.

    The word Jahiliyyah has a powerful impact on the Muslim psyche, and so I use the word with careful consideration. It is not an easy choice to do so, but I feel that the time has come that the only way to wake up the Muslim world to the enormity of the suffering and horror that some Muslim women face is to use terminology from within the Muslim tradition that conveys the magnitude of that suffering: Jahiliyyah.

    The Muslim world needs a wake-up call to ensure that the violence against women stops. Anyone who has any connection or pride in the remarkable changes that came with the advent of Islam must open their eyes, see what is happening to women in the Muslim world and work to change the status quo. Anything less is to open yourself up to the charge of hypocrisy.
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  • Idolising Islam

    This was published in EMEL Magazine

    Do you want to be the next Islamic Idol? An Egyptian TV programme earlier this year pitted 12 hopefuls against each other in an American Idol-style singing contest in order to achieve that most perplexing of accolades: “Islamic Idol.” Yup, go ahead with the double take on the title. I did the same, unable to imagine two concepts so diametrically opposed to each other being brought together in a serious manner.

    The show aimed to find talent for a new Islamic pop channel in the Arab world, 4shbab, For the Youth, which appears to be a sort of halal MTV for an upcoming generation of young Muslims who are conscious of observing their Islamic faith. Ahmad Abu Heiba whose idea lies behind the channel says his mission is to spread the message that observant Muslims can also be modern and in touch with today’s world.

    Muslims are not alone in wanting to create alternative choices to the mainstream in order to meet their beliefs. Those who keep kosher, observe a vegetarian diet, or make efforts to live an environmentally friendly life are amongst many others trying to create product options. If by creating “Islamic” options we also create opportunities for Muslims to live their lives at their most spiritually fulfilled level, then this is a good thing.

    However, something still niggles with some of these “Islamic alternatives”. Remember the rise of “Islamic cola” a few years ago? Brands like Mecca Cola, Zamzam Cola and Qibla Cola sprung onto our shelves during a period of great encouragement in the Muslim community to boycott mainstream brands. They sold millions of bottles across the world to a cola-thirsty ummah. The political situation had made Muslims conscious of what they were drinking, so why didn’t Muslim entrepreneurs take the opportunity to introduce different beverages in healthier and more innovative flavours instead of mindlessly aping a high-calorie drink which rots your teeth?

    Not only would boycott-conscious Muslims have been helped to support their efforts, but such new products might have served a wider audience all of whom are looking for new alternatives. The political opportunity would have been the perfect platform to highlight not only the political change Muslims were demanding, but also the social value they were adding to everyone. By thinking only within the confines of the label “Islamic”, products are not necessarily designed to be good from the bottom-up for the benefit of all in the long run. Instead, they focus on a short-term need.

    You will tell me that there is nothing wrong in meeting an urgent short term requirement that meets the technical specification of your need, and you would be absolutely right. Except for the following facts: if all you ever do is focus on today, your future can never be any different to your yesterday. If all you ever do is tweak the products and paradigms of others to conform to your technicalities, you will only ever be a follower, never a leader.
    So, whilst we must support the efforts of those who try to help us live more Islamic lives by giving us “Islamic” options, we must at the same time push harder for original thinking in the civic, social and business spheres which will create a better future not just for Muslims, but for everyone.

    One very obvious example is the eco-industry. Islam at its very core is about maintaining respect and balance with the environment. Whilst we are busy spending all our time on getting the technicalities right, (remembering that they are indeed very important) we forget that other extremely important point: Islam is a big-picture way-of-life, concerned with equilibrium at a cosmic level. Muslims therefore have a great deal to contribute to setting the very parameters of this nascent debate. Muslim thinking and entrepreneurs are well-placed to shape this new paradigm, contribute to its development and then to capitalise commercially.

    There is one bigger, more critical worry when we focus on creating me-too products with the label “Islamic”. When we tick off the list of requirements for something to be “Islamic”, we must be wary of serving “Islam” itself rather than the Creator and that ‘Islam’ itself does not become an idol that must be placated. Is our intent “for the sake of Islam” or is it for the sake of the Creator? When “Islam” or being “Islamic” are the end goals, then we find that titles like “Islamic Idol” are easily created, and that must be a cautionary lesson for all of us.

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  • The Fall and Rise of Religion

    This was published in the June edition of EMEL Magazine (apologies for the delay in posting it up).

    Religion is not important; not in the daily life of almost three quarters of the British public. The French exhibit similar levels of irreligiosity. By contrast, the Muslim populations in both countries say that religion is important to almost 70% of them. Can this vast gulf in the belief of the importance of religion ever be overcome? Will Muslims along with other faith groups follow the wider public into religious oblivion? Or will the believers be able to persuade the public of the value of religion, and if so, how will they do it?

    In May 2009, Gallup published the Coexist Index, designed to measure global attitudes toward people from different faith traditions. Spanning 27 countries across 4 continents, the report gave special focus to attitudes and perceptions among Muslims and the general public in France, Germany and the UK about issues of coexistence, integration, values, identity and radicalisation.

    Religion is not important in the daily lives of the French and the British, and there is an indication that the general public’s view of religion is that religion itself is not of value. The UK, France and Norway, the three countries that came bottom of in rating the importance of religion in daily life, also showed lower ratings on two related issues: whether ‘religious faiths make a positive contribution to society’ and on the indicator of whether they had ‘learned something positive from a person of another faith’ in the last year. It seems they are becoming less and less respectful and impressed by religion.

    There was a time in the near past when it was enough to point to something as condoned or recommended by religion to gain approval and understanding. Now, adding the label ‘religious’ seems a hindrance rather than a positive attribute. No wonder then that Muslims have gained little sympathy when they have stated that they have found certain books, cartoons and other incidences to be offensive. Religion itself no longer carries inherent respect. In fact, there is a palpable fear of religion, particularly visible in the UK where 26% of the public felt that people of different religious practices threatened their way of life.

    Muslims, like others to whom religion is important, need to think carefully about how to express their religious values to the wider public, and how to convey how dear those values are to them. At the moment, the methods and language used do not seem to be working, and Muslims see themselves quite differently to how the wider public see them. 82% of British Muslims thought that Muslims were loyal to the UK. That figure fell to 36% amongst the British public.

    Of course the fear-mongering whipped up in the media and by the far right must take a great deal of blame for this mistrust. They must be held accountable for the constant and lie-laden coverage of Muslims and for whipping up a frenzy of phobia and hatred. What the data also doesn’t indicate is whether this level of mistrust applies to other faith groups too, although my suspicion is it would be at significantly reduced levels, if at all.

    Working with the mainstream media, politicians and policy-makers is essential in changing widespread opinion, and reducing this chasm of misunderstanding. However, there are other clues in the research as to how Muslims can make proactive change.

    One of them is getting involved in civic society. Muslims polled significantly lower than the general public in France, Germany and the UK on whether volunteering in organisations serving the public was important. Shockingly, in the UK only 24% of Muslims versus 64% of the public felt this was important, the lowest across all three countries. If Muslims don’t invest in the public sphere then on a purely selfish level they will not weave themselves into the fabric of society. But this is not about being selfish: alongside belief in the Creator, a Muslim’s purpose is to serve other human beings and work towards social justice. Showing disregard for involvement in public organisations ought to be anathema to Muslims.

    Muslims need to step up fully to the civic engagement and responsibility that are part of their faith heritage. They need to be engaged more in these activities – not just as much as their public counterparts, but more so. This is because they are people to whom religion is a part of daily life; and religion is about making a positive contribution not only to your own daily life, but to the lives of those around you.

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  • 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.

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  • Created from a single soul

    This week, The Guardian’s Comment is Free has been asking “Is religion good for women?” My response has just been published.

    The Question: Is religion good for women?
    Created from a single soul: If there is unequal treatment it is because those with power have forgotten the underlying principles of religion

    I am irked by this question, the sense it carries with it that women are some kind of second best, an after-thought for religion, that require special attention. Women aren’t a remnant, or an aberration whose existence is there simply to sweep up the leftover genetic code off the floor and perpetuate the species. Women are fundamental to successful human flourishing – both physical and spiritual. It comes as no surprise to me that with the constant oppression that women face – whether in the name of religion or the cultural codes that seem to exist across all societies – the result is human society as a whole lurching from one failure to another. How can the human environment we all live in blossom if half of its inhabitants suffer in so many ways because of their gender?

    As a Muslim woman, I was annoyed by the opening blurb introducing the question “Is religion good for women?” that set the background to the question saying that the Abrahamic faiths “believe in a father God, ruling the world through a network of men”. Islam emphatically does not believe in a father God. The divine is gender-neutral. The more I have discussed religion, the more I have found myself veering away from the word “God” for the very reason that it seems to carry historical baggage with it that in vulgar terms is very male, with a long beard and throne somewhere on high, which immediately engenders (yes, pun intended) a sense of exclusion in all of us who are non-male, or at the very least non-bearded, or non-throned.

    Instead, I have found myself using other terms from within the Islamic paradigm like “the divine”, or “the creator” or even borrowing from other mystical traditions with a word like “enlightenment”, in order to get rid of the accepted male status quo within religion.

    The fundamental way of knowing “the divine” as a Muslim are the 99 names which describe the qualities of the deity. Islamic scholars have grouped these broadly into two halves, male and female, and any comprehensive understanding and connection to the divine must understand and embrace both the male and the female attributes. By extension, human beings also aspire to manifest all of these qualities, which therefore underlines the critical importance of the female within any sort of understanding and practice of religion.

    Men and women in Islamic theology were “created from a single soul”, as quoted in the Qur’an, and are “made in pairs”. The origins and relationship of men and women are therefore equal and equitable, neither one being able to exist or fully function without the other. The assumption behind the phrase “a network of men” is therefore also false. Every story related in scripture almost invariably has a man and a woman who carry the message together. Jesus and Mary, Moses and Miriam, Muhammed and Khadija. These stories are told in Islamic scripture with feisty, spiritual women who change the course of history.

    Take the story of Mary as related in the Qur’an. Her father promised that his unborn child would be dedicated to God and would serve in the temple. He was surprised to find it was a girl – Mary – as only boys were traditionally dedicated for this purpose. He is instructed by the divine to continue with his dedication, and Mary went to live in the temple, shocking those around him with the idea that a woman could be worthy enough to serve the divine, a privilege previously accorded only to men. Mary’s very presence in the temple was designed to crush oppressive and misogynistic ideas, but many of these are still perpetuated vigorously today. As an aside, I should mention that Islamic tale of Mary’s birth of Jesus is told without reference to any male father figure. There is no Joseph, instead Mary is the epitome of the strong single mother whose neighbours gossip about her, but who raises a great child.

    With such a powerful parable to draw on, and with the fundamental blueprint of gender relations in Islam being framed in the paradigm of “a single soul” I often ask myself why women are still treated as second best. I find it incomprehensible that women are excluded from some mosques, when by decree Mary was placed at the place of worship. I find it equally baffling that men treat women as lesser beings when the clear instruction is that both are created from the same spiritual fabric. All other actions must be carried out in the context of this basic human blueprint.

    The problem is, those who have power will justify keeping it in any way they can, sometimes by conveniently forgetting the underlying principles of religion. The challenge is to reject black-and-white polarising questions like “Is religion good for women” and start from the basic fundamentals of equality. “Created from a single soul” seems a pretty good place to start to overturn the misogynists.

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  • Islam says let love blossom

    [I am posting this article belatedly. It was published in The National a few weeks ago to co-incide with the day which in Arabic is charmingly called Yawm-al-hubb, the Day of Love.]

    Before reading this article I should warn you that it might be considered subversive. It may lead you into the paths of disbelief. Beware dear reader, for we are about to discuss Valentine’s Day.Even though I am a Muslim, or perhaps because I am one, I will quite readily wish you “Happy Valentine’s Day” today. Even this simple act might land me in trouble with a handful of Islamic scholars such as the Egyptian cleric Hazem Shuman. He warned young Muslims this week that Valentine’s Day was “more dangerous than Aids, Ebola and cholera”. Wow, I had no idea that a red rose could be so lethal.
    We enjoy such perplexing tales courtesy of the right-wing press, keen to promote the view that Muslims see Valentine’s Day – and by extension love itself – as evil. Fox News last year covered a Kuwaiti MP who chaired a committee to prevent “such alien events from impacting on Kuwaiti society and spreading corruption”. Britain’s Daily Star tabloid newspaper elevated the former head of Al-Muhajiroun, Anjem Choudhary, to cleric status and quoted him saying that those celebrating Valentine’s Day “would rot in hell”.

    Boy, if there is anything that Muslims are good at it, it is melodrama. But are Muslims such as these just as guilty as the right-wing press of confusing the celebration of love with love itself?

    The origins of Valentine’s Day lie not in the romance with which we associate it today, but in events any person of faith would uphold. The celebration is usually traced to a number of early Christian martyrs called Valentine who were persecuted by pagan rulers.

    Another Valentine performed secret marriages for Roman soldiers forced to remain single by an Emperor who believed unmarried men made better soldiers.
    Since these events happened well before the advent of Islam, it is notable that the individuals are remembered for standing up for their belief in God and upholding the sanctity of marriage, two fundamental pillars of Islam as a deen, a way of life.
    There were already Roman celebrations linked to fertility, so it is possible the church decided to celebrate the feast of St Valentine at the same time to “Christianise” the festival. In the same way, Muslims in Egypt proposed to rename February 14 as “Prophet Mohammed’s Day”. One can only imagine that this was to defuse misconceptions young people may have about love and its various expressions.

    Those who argue for moving to a more “proper” Islamic celebration are most likely the same who argue against a specific day for love in the first place, their objection being why should love be limited to Valentine’s Day? But doesn’t the same argument apply to celebrating Prophet Mohammed’s Day? Shouldn’t that be every day as well?

    The connection with romantic love began with Geoffrey Chaucer, whose 14th century poem celebrating the king’s engagement described it as the time when birds choose their mate. From then on romance and Valentine’s Day become increasingly entwined. The French set up a “court of love” on Valentine’s Day in 1400 to deal with love contracts, betrayals and violence against women, with the judges selected by the women themselves.

    With the constant discussions about sharia courts, which deal mainly with women and personal law, perhaps they too should be renamed courts of love and aim to instil love and compassion between those in dispute? They could even allow female plaintiffs to choose the judges as in the French model – they would be selecting from a panel of judges, so all would be equally qualified. It seems a courteous and civilised way of resolving the current legal imbalances in many courts which do not allow women to be fully heard.
    The modern Valentine’s Day was created by Esther Howland, who mass produced cards of paper lace in 1847. Her seemingly innocuous act changed the face of the US greeting card industry which now credits Valentine’s Day with the second largest sales after Christmas.

    Approximately one billion Valentine’s cards are sent each year, with women buying 85 per cent of them. Many are sent anonymously. It is a worrying echo of the stereotype that women ought to be shy in expressing their liking of someone, the hunted rather than the hunted.

    Conversely, men spend twice as much as women on the day, suggesting that they too are under pressure to conform to a stereotype of wooing a woman with their wealth. Advertisers and marketers have turned love into a cosmetic, superficial experience.

    On the other hand, Muslims seem to have reduced romance to a legalistic directive, determining their three words to be “it is bid’ah”, a worldly innovation contrary to Islam. Expressing love on days such as Valentine’s is “bid’ah”. What is perplexing is not just this legal opinion, but that Muslims need to ask such questions. How did we reach the point where we ask legal authorities about matters of celebrating love? Consider other questions that are asked: “Is falling in love allowed in Islam?” or “Can a husband express his love to his wife?” They reflect the increasingly legalistic approach Muslims are taking in all matters of life.

    These two polar opposites have both reduced love to a caricature of its true self, forcing us to choose between cheesy superficiality on the one hand and heartless rigidity on the other. It sounds almost like a “with us or against us” choice, and we all know the trouble that causes.

    Presented with this stark absurdity, all human beings – which, of course, includes Muslims – will be forced to look into their hearts and realise that expressing love is simply common sense. Instead of fatwas on how, what and where to celebrate, we need legal scholars to decree a return to the way of the Prophet – common sense and humanity.

    Those people of faith who oppose Valentine’s Day are missing a trick. Faith is about celebrating love – love of the Divine, love of humanity, love of your companion. There is no need to reject a celebration of love; rather those who believe in the sanctity of marriage should recapture such events for their original celebration of marriage. And each Valentine’s Day let us see love blossom and a thousand marriages bloom.
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