Thursday, 24 of July of 2014

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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.

courtesy ska-p.net

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.

courtesy politicshome.com

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.


Female death in Bahrain protest

Those of you who have been following my blog will know that I’ve been writing about the incredible role that women have been playing in the uprisings across the Middle East. I’ve been commenting especially on how women have changed the expectation and the stereotype that they are oppressed or trapped at home or not political.

Well, this week we hear of the death of the first female ‘martyr’ of Bahrain. I highlight it because of the incredible protest you see below that ensued during her funeral. Just look at all the women who are out on the street, it inspires awe.

Women attend the funeral of Bahiya al Aradi who was shot in the head. Photo courtesy of The National

According to The National which is based out of Abu Dhabi:

Bahiya al Aradi was en route from her elderly mother’s home in central Manama to the home of her best friend of 40 years, a woman who would agree to be identified only by the name Salwa.

After the violent events of the morning, there was a heavy police and military presence on the roads as al Aradi drove Salwa’s car from Manama towards the area of Budaiya.

A drive that would normally take 20 minutes ended up taking hours, as she was stopped by multiple military checkpoints.

Umm Mahmoud said her sister was rerouted several times, struggled to find petrol and became increasingly alarmed about driving in the dark with armed soldiers on the streets.

As she was driving through the village of Qadam, al Aradi was on the phone to one of her sisters, who suddenly heard what sounded like shots being fired on the other end of the line.

“My sister heard Bahia scream,” said Umm Mahmoud, 37, in the family home’s majlis in Manama. “My sister called me and said ‘Maybe she’s dead’.”

Three days later, the al Aradi family were informed that she was at the Bahrain Defence Force Hospital. After several unsuccessful attempts to enter the facility, Habib al Aradi, her brother, was finally given access and found his elder sister hooked up to life-support.

On Monday night, the family were told that she had passed away.

There has been no comment from the government about al Aradi’s death, but the official death certificate issued to the family yesterday said she died from the “shock” of a “severe brain injury”.

By yesterday, a wound in the back of her head had been stitched up, making it difficult to determine the exact entry point of the bullet.

Of course Libya is gaining huge coverage in the media, events there are horrific, but it seems that Bahrain has been forgotten – or at least its importance and the suffering of its population has drifted down the news agenda. Foreign troops have come in to suppress protest – protest for democracy – and deaths are ensuing. There are reports also that access to hospitals – this one at the very least – is being restricted, and with heavy military presence.

Our prayers are with all those across the Middle East – and the world – who are engaging in such protests. I feel whatever we can do to support the movement for change, and the blood with which people are paying, it is not enough.


Foreign ministers and their slip ups – funny or frightening?

My weekly column in The National was published today.

If you’ve ever felt nervous before delivering a speech to a high-powered audience, then spare a thought for India’s foreign minister. He stood up to address the Security Council at the United Nations, but instead of giving his own speech, he read out the notes of the Portuguese minister. An Indian official had to stop him as he read out statements of pleasure at seeing other Portuguese speaking officials in the audience. Oh dear.

Ordinary folks like me might be forgiven for thinking that the role of foreign minister is only ever occupied by those of the highest professional standards, and who have somehow been immunised from embarrassing gaffes. Not so. Reading out the wrong speech might have left the individual a little red-faced and provoked giggles from the audience. But it’s not uncommon for slip-ups to have more serious repercussions.

Jack Straw, during his tenure as foreign secretary of the UK, was infamously photographed shaking hands with Robert Mugabe. He claimed that although he had previously worn glasses, he had just started wearing contact lenses, and through his blurry vision had failed to identify the Zimbabwean president in time.

Of course ministers can and will get in a pickle and do embarrassing things. The trick is to ensure you have a credible excuse that explains it away without compounding the shame.

courtesy of the-spine.com

This week, the UK’s foreign secretary, William Hague, has failed to do exactly that. There must have been a lot of burning cheeks and nervous laughter at the failure of the James Bond-style SAS mission that was authorised to go into Libya. Eight operatives, at least six of them from the SAS, were dropped by helicopter near Benghazi at 3am, and suspicious local rebels took them prisoner. The irony is that the rebels suggested that there was no need for subterfuge, and the British would have been allowed entry to the east of Libya – all they had to do was ask.

So what is Mr Hague’s excuse for the macho mission? Er, it wasn’t my fault; it was the military. If you’re going to pick someone to blame, Billy-boy, I wouldn’t pick the guys with the tanks.

You might find these incidents to be the funny side of diplomacy. But poor judgement in the international arena can have serious consequences.

France’s foreign minister offered Tunisia help in restoring order shortly before the fall of the Ben Ali regime. In simple terms, France was advising on how to put down the protests. Definitely on the wrong side of history.

As the Quartet’s envoy to the Middle East, Tony Blair is a foreign minister of sorts. His words with regard to Hosni Mubarak of Egypt were so ludicrous that one might be forgiven for thinking he himself was having a go at satire. In February, as the Egyptian protests began to gather momentum, Mr Blair said with a straight face that the Egyptian president was “immensely courageous and a force for good”. If the consequence of his words wasn’t so deadly serious, it would have been funny.

Foreign ministers hold a high degree of responsibility for peace between nations. Their errors are funny exactly because of the contrast between the stupidity of some of their actions and the high pressure stakes under which they operate. When their actions remain on the side of humour instead of crossing the line into horror, then we feel safe to chuckle, as we have at the French and the British in the past few weeks. But if things had gone wrong in Tunisia or Egypt, I don’t think any of us would have been laughing then.


LSE Literary Festival Saturday 19th feb, I will be speaking there

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Update 25/2/11: you can listen to the podcast here: http://richmedia.lse.ac.uk/publicLecturesAndEvents/20110219_1830_literatureAndIslamophobia.mp3

I have been invited to speak at the LSE ‘Space for Thought’ Literary Festival this Saturday on Literature and Islamophobia.

The event will be held at LSE (London School of Economics) on Saturday 19th Feb from 630pm to 8pm. You can see more about the event and book tickets for free, here: http://www2.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2011/20110219t1830vWT.aspx#generated-subheading2

The panel will additionally feature two Dutch Muslim writers Şenay Özdemir and Naema Tahir who will comment on the subject from their perspectives of Turkish origin based in the Netherlands.

Do come along – will be great to see you. Oh, and I’m braving my first outing after baby! (who may well come along with me!)

Some blurb about the event:

There are few places in Europe in which the voices of multiculturalism and Islamophobia have clashed more forcefully than in the Netherlands, often in the most dramatic ways. To name just a few, Pim Fortuyn, Theo Van Gogh, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and most recently Geert Wilders have been very much in the international press over the last decade.

In the UK we are now 14 years on from the publication of the influential Runnymede Trust report Islamophobia: a Challenge for us All which sets out an agenda for overcoming social exclusion of British Muslims.

Fiction writers from Muslim backgrounds have played an important role in the debate about multiculturalism and Islamophobia. We will explore how they see their art as a tool to facilitate cross-cultural dialogue and political discourse about integration.

Our panel consists of Şenay Özdemir and Naema Tahir, two women Muslim writers from the Netherlands, and Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, a woman Muslim writer from North London, who will talk about what motivates their art as women Muslim writers in respectively the Netherlands and the UK.


WikiLeaks proves that the whole world loves to gossip

This is my weekly column for The National, published over the weekend.

This week’s big story was the publication and aftermath of the leaked US cables by WikiLeaks.

Yes, we’re interested because we get to see the inner workings of the US machinery of state in its uncensored form. We’re avidly eating popcorn as the Hillary Clinton saga unfolds as she calls for China to be more open about sharing state information and embracing the internet whilst at the same time advocating “aggressive steps” against those at WikiLeaks.

image via wdavidphillips.com

But what we secretly love is the utterly trivial gossip that even high-level diplomats exchange.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-il was described as a “flabby old chap”, Colonel Gaddafi’s long-time Ukranian nurse is a “voluptuous blonde” and Russia’s Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev were described as the double act “Batman and Robin”. Partying makes Berlusconi tired (we learnt separately of his “bunga bunga” parties) and Turkmenistan’s president wanted a yacht as big as that of the Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich, but he couldn’t have one, as it would have been too big for the waters he sails in. My favourite story, though, is the one of Sarkozy chasing a rabbit around the office. And no, that isn’t a euphemism for anything.

See – now you’re interested, aren’t you? You’re going to go and tell your colleagues, friends and families about the rabbit story. You’re probably Googling it as you read this.

We shouldn’t be horrified that US diplomats are engaging in this sort of secret office activity under the banner of classified information – please admit it, the rest of us are just as guilty. For us it is Monday-morning banter by the coffee machine, for those political animals it is all hi-tech cables and online memos.

Ooh, those naughty juvenile diplomats with deplorable moral standards, is what journalists as well as ordinary folk have been saying, before turning to the unbelievable thing that Sara wore at the office do, or the unfortunate turn of phrase that your colleague used in a meeting with the company’s biggest client. The only thing is, none of us expect to have our confidential opinions put on such public display, otherwise we too would be a lot more careful.

The question is, where is the line between the useful information that you need to exchange in order to do your job, and the superfluous details that we like to share in order to dish the dirt? The former makes you successful in your career, the latter makes you into a Bad Person.

There is a gender dimension to this as well. We say that women gossip, while men engage in “networking”, “bonding” or perhaps even “international diplomacy”. The latter is surely the name for some of the gossipy content of the cables published by WikiLeaks.

Nicole Hess, an anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, calls gossip “informational warfare”.

And that is exactly what every office worker – from admin staff at your local business all the way up to senior officials at the US state department – is engaged in every day.

Information has never been so powerful. And with so many unverifiable sources of information production and an even greater number of channels through which to disseminate it, how will we learn to distinguish what is truth and what is malicious rumour? More worryingly, perhaps there are those who don’t want us to know the difference. After all, gossip sticks. You’ll never think of Sarkozy without the image of a rabbit, and in your mind Gaddafi’s voluptuous blonde will always be by his side.


Selling impossible dreams

This article was just published in EMEL magazine.

Yes, it’s true, you too can be perfect. L’Oreal can give you the perfect hair, Oil of Olay can give you perfect skin, and Ralph Lauren can dress you in the coolest clothes.

You too can be like the perfect models in their adverts. You just need to believe in the dream, and oh yes, cough up a few pennies to buy the products. Thick glossy hair created by L’Oreal products, demonstrated by Cheryl Cole. Smooth wrinkle free skin under your eyes courtesy of Oil of Olay, as seen on model Twiggy, and a hip outfit demo’d on skinny models at Lauren.

Cole spends up to £200,000 per year to achieve her beauty, of which hair extensions are a regular cost. L’Oreal don’t feel it is misleading for her to promote their products even though their shampoo could never give the look of Cole’s extension-enhanced hair. The Advertising Standards Authority said this level of deception was acceptable because for two out of the thirty seconds of the TV advert, in small writing, it indicates that ‘some’ extensions may have been used. Twiggy’s advert for wrinkle-reducing eye-cream had all her under-eye wrinkles airbrushed out in post production.

Ralph Lauren's model looks impossibly ridiculous

Ralph Lauren’s model had been photoshopped so that her head was bigger than her pelvis. When criticism of the adverts was posted online, their lawyers sent round threatening letters to silence the critics. 

The beauty industry justifies airbrushing because it claims it is selling a dream. But their products are sold based on a deception and incapable of delivering the advertised airbrushed perfection.

These are con artists – people who set out to sell a product to meet a state that has been manufactured to be unattainable. And con artists have always existed.

Yet we are deceived today into believing this perfection is attainable through a number of more modern tools. We have a more visual culture now, where images visualise on giant billboards the perfection that our lives ought to be. Of course, those lives are airbrushed and carefully staged, impossible for the products to deliver against. However, because we can now actually see the utopia that the products will turn our lives into, the impossible dream reaches a new dimension – suggesting to the believing innocent eye that the impossible is in fact possible.

But the bigger problem is this: selling dreams that can never be realised is now sanctioned. Corporations have now established as legitimate ‘right’ to sell impossible-to-achieve dreams.

The financial sector sold things that were never real, products that were derivatives of products and not real actual things. We were told this was good for us and for our economy. But what was sold was so vapid and intangible that it took but a blink of an eye for it to disappear. No wonder ordinary people with ordinary common sense were left baffled as to where did all the money suddenly go? The boom was built on fluff that never existed and as soon as one part of the manufactured dream was exposed as an ephemera, the whole thing vanished in an instant.

Political parties are doing the same – they create a brand like “Broken Britain” and then ’solve’ it with their own branding and puff. The Conservative party will solve Broken Britain with Big Society.  It’s all just so much upper case branding, and so little real product.

Even extreme religious leaders sell the ‘dream’ of paradise to persuade innocents into killing themselves and others. They say: it’s us or them, and then offer a solution of violence and criminality, where the death of innocent people is airbrushed out of the equation, and utopia is created from an act of violence.

We’ve institutionalised the legitimacy of selling a dream that can never become reality. In fact, selling dreams has been made to seem to be a good thing because shopping for a dream life is supposedly in the interests of consumers. We’ve been told that what consumers want most is to buy into a dream. No matter the hollow feeling that’s left when failing to achieve perfection from oversold products.

We’ve been told that the fluff and stuff is important in creating our dream lives. Fluff is not fulfilling. And aspiring to something impossible simply results in heartache.

Our institutions are condoning selling ephemeral intangible fluff, rather than real things that will make things better in real terms. But it is to producing and selling real things, that can achieve real outcomes, based in reality, that we must return.


Guest Post on Spirit21 from David Miliband, Foreign Secretary.

It’s Friday today, Jum’ah, and as a special treat, the Foreign Secretary has written his first ever posting on a Muslim blog, here at Spirit21. David Miliband is no stranger to cyberspace and writes his own prolific blog over at the FCO website.

It would be fair to say that the relationship between the Foreign Office and the British and global Muslim community has been a tumultuous one (ahem, understatement), and many Britons, including British Muslims, believe that the Foreign Office needs to be held more strongly to account, and should adopt a more proactive and ethical approach to Foreign policy, working in partnership with Muslims and the Muslim world.

So here is your chance, people: our Foreign Secretary is reaching out and wanting to create dialogue, so take up the opportunity to question him – that’s how we create change. I’ll be posting my own comments a bit later, but dear readers – grill him, debate with him, criticise him, offer him positive and innovative policy ideas.

Foreign Secretary: here is your opportunity to listen and to make real change. And you should keep going with more direct engagement like this with the electorate – we like it when our elected politicians talk to us directly, really listen, and then make real the aspirations of the people of this nation.


David Miliband: Compromise and coalition of consent required

There is hardly a more important issue than how we build strong coalitions with Muslim majority countries on issues as diverse as non proliferation or climate change, or how we deepen understanding between people of different faiths. This was the theme of my speech yesterday in Oxford.

There is a need for humility in the West but there is also a need for responsibility from all sides rather than finger pointing. No speech can be the end of the matter. The speech focuses on the importance of politics and arenas for politics where compromise and communication are the order of the day. That is why I am grateful for the opportunity to engage through Spirit 21.
There are hard questions left unanswered in my speech and tensions within it. But if Gallup are right that the vast majority of people in Muslim majority countries say they admire the commitment in the West to the rule of law and free speech, but want to see these values consistently applied, then there is more than enough room for all of us to shape common rules for what the Prime Minister calls “the global society”. As this morning’s FT editorial says, if we are asking the rights questions, then at least we are on our way to getting the right answers.
David Miliband

Save the Children’s World Record Run this weekend…

I’m not one that usually advertises many other events on my blog, but this one caught my attention: Save the Children, and a new charity called IF which seeks to raise money for worthwhile causes through fun and innovative ideas, are staging a World Record breaking attempt for “the most people running 100 meters in a 12-hour relay.” (according to the Guinness book of records official title). I think the number will be around 3000 – 4000 people, who will run in relay at Mile End Stadium, and hopefully bring the record in for London. Each runner is being asked for £100 sponsorship minimum, which means that the run could raise upwards for £300,000, which will be donated to Save the Children’s Humanitarian fund for Gaza.

It’s great to see innovative ideas for fundraising, especially those which challenge the participants themselves. I wish all the runners well.

You can read more here, and of course, remember to get out your chequebook, or access your paypal account: http://www.ifcharity.com/gaza100.html


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.


We must face the crisis in Darfur

This was published today in The National

One of the loudest voices raised in support of Darfur has been George Clooney’s. He is one of a number of American stars, including Angelina Jolie, Mia Farrow and Macy Gray, who have been working to raise the profile of this crisis. Their actions have been met with cynicism in the Middle East and in Sudan. “Hollywood celebrities think they can come and be famous by claiming they support the people of Darfur,” said one of the president of Sudan’s advisers.
Whatever their motives, Clooney and co are at least doing something. Middle Eastern countries, by contrast, have shown a shameful lack of interest in the suffering of the Darfuris.The nation’s crisis began just as the 20-year conflict between northern and southern Sudan looked to be coming to an end. Rebel groups in Darfur began attacking government targets, accusing Khartoum of oppressing “Black Africans” in favour of “Arabs”.
The language of race used to describe the conflict has been virulent, and evoked rather simplistic passions. In the West race is a sensitive issue, which may be one reason why Darfur has become a pet cause of Hollywood stars.

By the same token however, the apparent indifference of Middle Eastern countries may be because they consider Darfur to be a tribal or “black” issue.

But the conflict is not about race: closer analysis reveals that it began as a dispute over tribal lands between the nomadic tribes, referred to in shorthand as “Arab”, and the permanent farmers, referred to as “African”.

Famine, drought and changing land usage led to clashes about territorial rights which have yet to be resolved.

In addition, Darfuris became increasingly angry at the low level of services they received from the government by way of water, sanitation, health care and education and felt they had been left out while the government focused on Khartoum and the south.

I went to see Darfur with my own eyes at the end of last year. In the camps outside Al-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, I saw families living in tents no more than three metres square, with rationed food and water.

Aid agencies were doing their best, but the Sudanese government is not keen on their presence and, with the crisis into its sixth year, donors are growing weary.

At one school I visited, scores of fidgeting youngsters dressed in white stood under the midday sun facing inwards to a small centre stage where their head teacher led them in vibrant song. Their joillity belied the pain many had endured, especially those old enough to remember the bloodshed, fear and crisis that began in 2003. I spoke to two young girls.

“I’d like to become a lawyer when I’m older,” 16-year-old Fatima told me. “I want to be a writer,” said her friend Layla. “Why?” I asked. “To make our country better,” said Fatima. “So it doesn’t happen again,” said Layla.

From Darfur, I went on to Cairo, Jeddah, Riyadh and Doha to highlight its plight. In these Middle Eastern cities, however, people were strangely angry that the conflict in Darfur was being raised as an issue. “What about Palestine? Why aren’t you talking about Palestine?” they said.

But the oppression in Gaza and the West Bank does not outrank the suffering of Darfur, or vice-versa. Suffering is suffering wherever it takes place, and must be spoken about, fought against and stopped, no matter who the perpetrator, no matter where the location.Why should the suffering of Darfuris be diminished? Human hearts are big enough to remember and mourn the plight of many, not just one.

More than 1,400 people were killed in Gaza during Israel’s recent onslaught, an event that can only be described in lay terms as a contained massacre, part of more than 60 years of killing and suffering.

In Darfur too, the numbers are heart-wrenchingly high. According to the UN, 300,000 people have been killed since the crisis began, a further 2.7 million people have been displaced from their homes, and five million people are living on aid. It makes for grim reading. Khartoum puts the figure of those killed closer to 10,000.

Whatever the number, the crisis is real, and the lack of instinctive empathy concerned me. It was as if people did not want to believe that such brutality could happen in another Arab Muslim country. Darfur is a complex issue, but this should not stop any movement for sympathy and aid to support the human beings who are suffering daily.

Middle Eastern countries, Arabs and Muslims, need to step up and start contributing to the aid effort. If they are serious about relieving suffering, then first they need to contribute financially. The amount donated so far has been pitiful, and has gone straight into the hands of the Sudanese government.

In addition, the Middle East needs to contribute human resources by training and dispatching more aid workers.

In terms of taking an active role in negotiating peace, Middle Eastern failures abound both for Palestine and Darfur. Only the recent Qatari initiative for peace in Darfur appears to have a measured, sustainable – and dare I say it – hopeful glimmer.

Last month the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for the arrest of the Sudanese president Omar al Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Many Darfur campaigners questioned the wisdom of such a move, fearing it would hamper their own efforts to resolve the crisis, especially when Sudan was moving with democratic elections and the Qatari initiative looked hopeful.

Mr al Bashir in response called the ICC “undemocratic”, accused it of “double standards” and expelled 13 aid agencies from Darfur.

In defiance, he attended the Arab League summit in Qatar last weekend, which rejected the ICC warrant. “No Arab president will be let down,” said a statement. “We are going to fight until the end.”

The ICC along with aid agencies are seen to be pursuing a biased western agenda, leading Arabs to instinctively side with the Sudanese government without any real assessment of the situation. What Sudan actually needs is not blind support, but critical friends.

For the Middle East and for many Muslims, the contrast in approach to Darfur and Palestine is revelatory. Darfur is complicated.
Darfur means disentangling the moral rights and wrongs of all parties who are Muslim, and bluntly put, there is not the moral fibre nor the political will to do so.

Palestine is a simple moral judgment – them and us. The oppressor and the oppressed are clear, and the swell of public opinion is in one direction, making it easy to shout and protest. Both conflicts are horrific and are taking a huge humanitarian toll. Each life lost is a loss to all humanity, whether it be in Gaza, Darfur or elsewhere.

We must reach through the complexities of the political situations and apply universal moral standards. Only then will we be able to identify where in the conflict lies justice and ultimately peace.

To have the credibility and moral authority to do so, we must show an even and compassionate hand no matter where or against whom the suffering is being perpetrated.

When Clooney visited Darfur in 2006 as a reporter, he was accompanied by a man who is now president of the United States.

At that time Barack Obama said: “If we care, the world will care. If we act, then the world will follow.” President Obama is sticking to his message. Last week he sent his envoy Scott Gration to kick-start peace talks between the Sudanese government and the rebels.

It is part of his wider outreach to the Middle East.

The time has come for the Middle East to reach out as well. An important first step will be to focus on achieving peace in Darfur.