• who would you like to be the new Pope?

    I was featured on earlier this week as part of a range of people commenting in advance of the Papal election on who should be the next Pope. You can hear my thoughts by clicking through the video.

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  • What should the voice of the Muslim world sound like? Lessons from the elections of the Pope

    This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National today

    Europe is one of the least religious regions of the world, and yet later this month it will be home to the election of the new Pope. This single man is arguably the most influential of all religious leaders, heading a strictly hierarchical Catholic church of 1.2 billion people.Video: Pope gives last Sunday address

    Despite an image of Catholicism as a white western religion, reflected in a long tradition of a Eurocentric papacy, only 24 per cent of Catholics live in Europe, and this number is falling. Most live in Latin America (41 per cent) and Africa is the only region where it is growing.

    The resignation of the current Pope has therefore prompted questions about whether his successor will follow centuries of tradition in the European mould – the last non-European pope is recorded as the Syrian Gregory III in 741 – or whether he will come from the more populous regions like Latin America. Such a departure from a European papacy will demand a re-imagining of the shape and nature of Christianity today.

    The politicking over the next Pope’s provenance and what this says about Catholicism should make the Muslim world think about its own relationship between the Arab and non-Arab worlds. What does the Muslim world think about the question?

    Islam too has a traditional heartland, which naturally is focused around Mecca and Madina. As the language of the Quran, Arabic is the lingua franca of Muslims. And since the early history of Muslims is intertwined with Arab history, Muslims feel a strong affinity with Arab lands.

    But, analogous to the heartland and diaspora of the Catholic church, in today’s Muslim world most Muslims are not Arab, nor do they live in the Arab world. Nearly 65 per cent of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region, and there are nearly as many Muslims in Indonesia alone as the whole of the Arab world. Muslims in the subcontinent outnumber both put together.

    Yet global Islamic discourse and culture is heavily dominated by Arabic culture. That’s not to say this is right or wrong, rather it’s a frame for us to ask questions about the cultures, representation, voices, and leadership that are given primacy and legitimacy for the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims.

    Could we ever imagine that the leading authorities and voices for Muslims might be Asian? With growing numbers of Muslims in America and Europe, could we accept a shift of intellectual, economic and political Muslim leadership from those regions? Could the Muslim world ever imagine African leadership?

    Religious authority is undoubtedly tied together with political and economic influence, and so it’s no wonder that Muslim majority nations jostle for position in leadership of the Muslim world.

    Saudi Arabia is undeniably home to the cradle of Islam. Asia-Pacific is seeking to claim commercial leadership through industries like Islamic finance, European and American Muslims believe they will drive modernity and bring Islam into the modern era. Iran asserts its culture and civilisation. Turkey wants to reclaim its historic political power and sees itself as the legitimate leader.

    It doesn’t need to be a competition. There is space for many voices and representations, and a multiplicity would offer greater value, strength and resilience to the Muslim world. And most of all, it would support the ummah’s promise of respect for multiple tribes and nations.

    Chart from the Pew Forum report: the global religious landscape

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  • Warning: Muslims have a sense of humour and we’ll be using it

    This is my op-ed published in The National today

    The last year has been no laughing matter in the Middle East. But its epic events – especially its use of peaceful protest and national unity as resources towards building self-determination – have made the wider world realise that Muslims are not as alien as they might have thought.

    Image: Pep Montserrat for The National

    Amid the darkest moments, the world also saw another glimpse of the universal humanity of Muslims – through comedy. Reuters reported that before his death, eastern Libya was full of anti-Qaddafi humour. Graffiti showed the colonel in a Superman costume with a dollar sign instead of an “S” on his chest. Another showed him in a dustbin labelled “history”. A particularly damning cartoon urged him to “surrender himself to the ‘national council of hairdressers'”.

    It’s a secret that needs to be let out: Muslims have a deep-rooted sense of humour and are not afraid to use it.

    Let’s get these important points out of the way first. I know there are deeply miserable people out there who can’t possibly believe what I’m telling them: that Muslims both have and appreciate a sense of humour. Their argument is that Muslims will slap a fatwa on anyone who tries to make a joke or poke fun.

    And we will. But only on anyone who makes a truly terrible joke. Substandard comedy, no matter where it comes from, should never be tolerated and deserves every fatwa it gets.

    There isn’t any place either for dressing up prejudice, aggression or sheer ignorance as comedy. We are all too familiar with those misery-boots types who make barbed cracks, then throw up their hands to say: “What? You can’t take a joke?” Comedy is not a clever way to be rude or offensive. We can see straight through that.

    In an entirely unscientific poll of friends, tweeps and Facebook fans, I asked what the funniest things were that they had been asked as Muslims. While wearing a pink headscarf one woman was asked: “Why do Muslim women wear black all the time?”

    A rather baffling question that is often put to Muslims – who generally belong to quite sociable communities – is: “If you don’t drink, how do you meet people?”

    And what is one to make of the question: “Is it true that light green is the official colour of Al Qaeda?”

    Perhaps my favourite of all time, is: “Now that you’re engaged, will you have a forced marriage?”

    These questions project such a one-dimensional, stereotypical understanding of Muslims that it is hard not to laugh. But we don’t. And that’s probably why some people think we are so serious and earnest all the time.

    In the face of such questioning, Muslims place upon themselves the onerous burden of answering in the nicest possible way. Also, we’re never sure how non-Muslims will respond to humour. I’ve tried being funny when replying, and mostly the reaction is a blank stare. We like that people want to understand, but forgive us if you catch us suppressing an occasional smirk.

    Since 9/11, a crop of young, feisty Muslim comedians have made it onto the scene. This has been accompanied by a growing number of comedy festivals, films, internet videos and blogs. Abu Dhabi last week month hosted an international comedy festival featuring the Lebanese stand-up Nemr Abou Nassar.

    In the United States, a group of stand-up comics call themselves “Allah Made Me Funny“, comprising a black American, an Arab American and an Asian American. In the UK, acts like Imran Yusuf, an East African Asian, and Shaista Aziz, a British Pakistani, vie for attention. We also have stand-ups such as Riaad Moosa in South Africa.

    Slowly but surely we are seeing Muslims depicted on western screens in comedy, rather than just as scary terrorists. Mainstream productions include such films as The Muslims Are Coming!, which follows a Muslim comedy troupe around the American Deep South. The Infidel tells the story of a Muslim who finds out he has Jewish roots while his daughter is being courted by the son of a deeply conservative Muslim family, and Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World follows the actor and comedian Albert Brooks to South Asia. But perhaps the most widely known movie is Four Lions, an acclaimed British comedy about four young Muslim men who plot to carry out a suicide bombing, which was directed by the ever controversial Chris Morris.

    In 2010, the American journalist Katie Couric suggested that what her country needed if it were going to normalise its understanding of Muslims was a “Muslim Cosby Show”. Her wish may be about to come true as Preacher Moss of Allah Made Me Funny is attempting to pilot such a show, currently titled Here Come The Muhammads. He says that “by making it funny, you make it accessible. People can say: ‘You mean I can actually laugh at that?'”

    Yes, it’s true that Muslims and others can in fact joke about Muslims.

    At a preview of Four Lions, I found myself the only Muslim among 30 very serious film critics. While others looked around nervously, I was cackling with laughter (no doubt to their annoyance). The film worked because it showed a deep understanding of Muslim cultures, and the break between expectation and reality, both of which are rich seams of humour. It was intelligent, not offensive.

    The film opens with the would-be terrorist cell recording their suicide video. The idiot of the group is centre stage and is being mocked for holding a small gun. “Not a small gun,” he protests. “Big hands.” Even suicide-video production is subject to the inflated egos common in the media.

    Muslim humour and self-deprecation are, of course, not recent phenomena. There must be thousands of tales of Mullah Nasruddin, one of the great entertainer-comedian-wisemen of Muslim history, dating back to the Middle Ages. I particularly like this one: A certain conqueror said to Nasruddin, “Mullah, all the great rulers of the past had honorific titles with the name of God in them. There was, for instance, ‘God-Gifted’, and ‘God-Accepted’, and so on. How about some such name for me?” “God Forbid,” said Nasruddin.

    Comedy also serves different purposes within different Muslim communities. While one group of young comedians is using humour to introduce Muslims to a world apprehensive about their faith, another is using it to point out the challenges of their cultures and politics.

    In Saudi Arabia, YouTube comedies address religious and political pressures alongside social observation. On The Fly, for instance, has tackled subjects such as the Egyptian uprising as well as TV coverage of Arabs Got Talent.

    The internet allows usually unmentionable subjects to be tackled. A mainstream TV show, Tash Ma Tash uses humour to explore social convention. One particularly controversial episode addressed the cultural taboos around discussing polygamy by having a woman with four husbands.

    Such developments are the hidden gems of Muslim cultures today. The most powerful thing about their humour is its universality: while the cultural contexts may vary, they take down human foibles and misadventures in ways that all cultures can connect with.

    After all, the funniest jokes are the ones that you see yourself in, and which connect to your own experiences.

    So here’s a multi-faith one to sign off with. A priest, a rabbi and a mullah walk into a bar. The barman says: “What is this, a joke?”

    Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at

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  • “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.

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  • 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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  • 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.

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  • Gallup report adds to mounting evidence that Muslims are loyal (shock!), non-violent (shock!) and tolerant (shock!!!)

    This is my weekly column published yesterday in The National newspaper. It refers to a poll released by Gallup this week about Muslim Americans.

    At first glance, the headlines covering this week’s Gallup report on the state of Muslim Americans, were pleasing. “Muslims are loyal to the US,” reported The New York Times. “Muslims condemn attacking civilians,” said the United Press International news agency.

    Here was clear evidence challenging those who perpetuate fear and prejudice by claiming that Muslims are some kind of fifth column.

    The evidence is plain to see

    My pleasure turned to irritation the more I read. Exclamation marks implicitly followed findings that Muslims oppose civilian deaths!!! Muslims do not see conflict between faith and country!!! Muslims oppose violence!!!

    In between the implied surprise of the headlines, the media coverage gave us snippets of new and fresh information. I wanted to know more. Despite the financial crisis and campaigns such as that against the so-called Ground Zero mosque and real attacks on Muslim places of worship, Muslim Americans are feeling optimistic. Since the last iteration of this report, the feeling among younger Muslim Americans that they are thriving rose to 65 per cent from 40 per cent. Jewish Americans are most likely to have the greatest empathy with Muslim Americans.

    Yet, instead of columnists trying to make sense of such intriguing phenomena, it was Muslim loyalty, tolerance and opposition to violence and terrorism that were seen as news.

    This, despite the fact that these same results keep being found, keep being published – and keep being greeted with surprise.

    In 2006, CNN-IBN-Hindustan Times conducted a survey of 29 Indian states, and concluded that Muslims suffered under a “myth of extra-territorial loyalty”, pointing to the fact that all but two per cent of Muslims said they were “proud” or “very proud” of being Indian. Levels of pride in being Indian were at almost identical levels between Hindus and Muslims.

    In 2009, the Co-exist Index published by the Coexist Foundation in conjunction with Gallup found that European Muslims show as much or more loyalty to their country as the wider public.

    Fully 86 per cent of British Muslims said they were loyal to the UK compared with just 36 per cent of the wider population. French Muslims identify with France as much as the general French public (52 per cent vs 55 per cent). Forty per cent of German Muslims identified with the country against 32 per cent of the wider public.

    But the myths persist.

    According to Europol’s EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, out of 249 terrorist attacks carried out in the EU in 2010, only three were related to Islamist terrorist groups.

    A January report on terrorism statistics based on publicly available data from bodies such as the FBI and other US crime agencies concluded that terrorism by Muslim Americans has accounted for a minority of terrorist plots since September 11.

    The latest report’s findings are great news in terms of adding to the growing mountain of evidence that, like other right-minded human beings, Muslims oppose violence, are as tolerant – and often more tolerant – than their peers and are deeply loyal to their countries.

    These facts must stop being such a surprise. But can the minds of those who uphold the myths in spite of the evidence be changed? If so, that would be a surprise I would greet with as many exclamation marks as I could muster.

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  • 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.

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  • European leaders legitimise anti-Muslim sentiment: latest is burqa ban in France

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

    France has gone all burqa-phobic again. As of Monday, it will be illegal in France for anyone to cover their face in public. The ban has been on the horizon for some time, so nothing much new here, but the wider context has intensified.


    The leader of the far-right Front National, Marine le Pen, is campaigning hard against Muslims and immigration, and her popularity is increasing. She has compared crowds of Muslims praying in the streets outside mosques to the Nazi occupation.

    Not to be outdone, the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, this week organised a debate on secularism and the role of religion. His prime minister, François Fillon, refused to attend, saying that it would further stigmatise Muslims. Abderrahmane Dahmane, who was fired from his post as Sarkozy’s adviser on integration for criticising the debate, called on Muslims to wear a green star in protest against the discussion. It is aimed to echo the yellow star that Jews in Europe were forced to wear during the Nazi era.

    With such emotive references on both sides to the Nazi era, it’s clear that France still needs to come to terms with its own history in dealing with minorities.

    Despite arguing that the ban and the debate are in defence of secularism, Sarkozy has had no qualms in simultaneously praising the “Christian heritage” of the country.

    And even though a 1905 law separated church and state, churches and synagogues still receive indirect subsidies from the state. If mosques were included in this it might help put an end to the lack of space in them that forces worshippers to overflow onto the streets.

    It is easy to understand the motivation behind the ill-conceived debate on secularism held this week, as it is the political context for the ban on face veils in public.

    However, this would fail to illuminate the bigger picture. By pandering to the far-right to gain votes, Sarkozy is giving anti-Muslim sentiment legitimacy and a national platform that it does not deserve and that could have long-term and dangerous consequences.


    He is not the only leader guilty of this. Germany’s Angela Merkel was keen to score cheap political points last year when she stated that the “multikulti” project had failed, and pointed her finger at Muslims. Merkel would do well to remember that Germany’s earlier mono-culture project in the 1930s and 1940s did not work out so well.

    Following hot on her heels was the UK’s prime minister, who repeated the same vacuous mantra in February this year at a conference in Munich.

    He told world leaders that state multiculturalism had failed in the UK and pledged to cut funding for Muslim groups that failed to respect basic British values such as freedom of speech and democracy. Strange words from a government that harped on about “stability” when the protesters of Tahrir Square were demonstrating for democracy.

    Europe must be more principled in its approach to dealing with its Muslim populations. Countries such as the UK and France are taking bold actions in Libya to support the movement towards freedom and democracy. At the same time, domestically they wish to suppress Muslim self-expression.

    You can’t have it both ways. Freedom, self-expression and democracy need to be accompanied by one more value to be meaningful: a consistent standard for all.

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  • OgilvyNoor survey on Muslims, your chance to take part

    Remember the guys who I wrote about last year at OgilvyNoor?

    In case you missed this piece and this one too, I wrote about Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world’s largest marketing and advertising agencies, which commissioned research to better understand the world’s 1.8 billion Muslim consumers. They came up with some interesting segmentation based on their research across various Muslim countries and launched the “world’s first bespoke Islamic branding consultancy” called OgilvyNoor. Here’s a quick recap:

    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’.

    Well, they’ve put out a survey which you can participate in. It’s open to anyone who is Muslim, and only takes a couple of minutes.

    As a marketeer myself, I’m always curious about such surveys into the Muslim population. I’ve just done the survey myself, and it asks some questions which prompt a little thinking about what it means to be Muslim, what kind of values are important, what kind of leadership Muslims aspire to and so on. Interesting coffee table conversations will probably be sparked, and I’m curious to see the findings.

    Here is the link if you want to give it a go yourself, although they state that it’s open only to Muslims:

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