• 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.

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  • The time for women’s voices to be heard has come

    This is my weekly column, “Her Say” published today in The National (UAE).

    The old clichés that the women of the Middle East are backward, uneducated and complicit in their oppression have been wrenched away from the global discourse. It was a narrative that sought to take away your voices by claiming to know better than you what you want.

    Egyptian women shout slogans in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Photographer: Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images

    But you have changed all of that. Around the world, we’ve seen your presence across television screens, in newspaper pictures and throughout the internet. We’ve heard your voices on the radio, in interviews and speaking to friends, colleagues and global citizens. We’ve felt the strength of your emotions and beliefs translate into political change – which was unforeseeable three months ago – change that has occurred thanks in great measure to your participation. We have seen you side by side with men demanding justice and freedom. Irrespective of religion, ethnicity, geography and education, you have had your say. And your say has made a difference.

    On January 18, a 26-year-old woman in Egypt, Asmaa Mahfouz, uploaded a video on YouTube, urging her fellow citizens to go out to Tahrir Square, to fight for their country. The video went viral and it is suggested that her say was one of the catalysts that sparked the revolution. She is just one example among many of how a woman’s voice can be clear, true and unafraid; how a woman can and must make a change; how a woman must be listened to and respected. In this case, Mahfouz had her say, which helped to inspire a nation.

    We should pause at this moment in history to recognise the voices of such women at the front line of carrying the aspirations of their people into visible change. Even more important is that society has come to realise that women have voices, that they have something important to say. And more critically, they must be listened to.

    Those in power – whether at the level of high political office, or simply at home – have realised that a woman’s say is fundamental to a healthy and dynamic social fabric. If women’s voices – “her say” – were not recognised, valued and listened to before, the time is now for them to be acknowledged for the importance and value that they hold.

    This column has the most appropriate title for a piece of my writing at this moment. And it is even more poignant because March 8 will mark the centenary of International Women’s Day. Who can say if a century ago I could have written to express my views so freely?

    “Her say” might have been considered inappropriate, might still be considered as such in some quarters, but the seeds of change are flowering today.

    There are those who claim that women should restrict themselves to the private domain. But recent events have proven otherwise. It is only when men and women have come out together, when men and women have raised their voices together, when her say as well as his are articulated, that change can happen.

    The importance of her say in public and political events is clear, but this applies equally to the private domain. Whether you are a man or a woman, take a moment this week to turn to the women in your lives and ask them: “What do you want to say?” Then make sure to listen clearly to her aspirations.

    The answers might surprise you.

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  • Dictatorship: a career for men only? (I’m not aspiring for gender equality in this profession)

    My regular “Her Say” column was published over the weekend in The National (UAE), inspired by the events across the Middle East.

    Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator

    Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, Hosni Mubarak and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali – they’ve all been dominating the headlines over the past few weeks. They’ve a lot in common. They’ve presided over their countries with all sorts of clichés: ruling with an “iron fist”, failing to see the “writing on the wall” for their regimes and not listening to the “voice of the people”.

    They also have one specific genetic factor in common: this career is for men only.

    Although I support gender equality in all walks of life, this is one area where I wouldn’t be in a hurry to see women taking a more equal role. Female dictators are a rare breed. And I’m quite happy for feminism and dictatorship to continue being unlikely bedfellows, thank you very much.

    There are a few that have come close. Indira Gandhi ruled under emergency law, claiming it after widespread communal riots in India and effectively having quasi-dictatorial powers for a few years. Jiang Qing exercised a great deal of power in China as the health of her husband, Mao Zedong, declined, so much so that she was tried along with the Gang of Four. Romania’s Elena Ceaucescu was executed along with her dictator husband for her contribution to his house of horrors. And Imelda Marcos? Now a member of Congress, she is remembered more for her excesses in taste while husband Ferdinand ruled the Philippines.

    By and large, the women practised a twisted form of marital companionship, supporting and goading on a husband in his ruthlessness.

    There are some obvious reasons for so few female dictators. Dictators often achieve power by working their way through the military and then staging a coup. Until recently, women were almost absent from the armed forces. And, in countries where dictatorial power flourishes, all people generally – but women in particular – have precious little themselves.

    Some people say women are inherently selfless and just don’t want to oppress others. It’s the “women are nicer human beings” argument. Others reckon we have better things to do. Personally, I like to spend time with family, enjoy good food and, if I have some time left, maybe squeeze in a manicure or facial.

    I just don’t have the time and effort to brutally suppress, torture and massacre people consistently over time with the kind of obsessive focus and dedication you need to achieve dictator status. I mean, if you’re going to do it, you don’t want to be the dictator that time forgot. You want to go down in history as a cat-stroking, out-of-his-mind madman and badman.

    The last week has seen plenty of madness, badness, horror and tragedy. The brutal consequences of dictatorship are not to be mocked or satirised. They are not part of the war on sexism or the humour that makes us laugh at the gender gap.

    Instead, in the countries where courage has filled the bellies of its people, both men and women have taken what power they do have to ensure they have a hand in bringing the dictatorship to an end.

    But it is the participation of the women that has been incredible over the past few weeks and has made me feel so proud. Heads held high, fists in the air, they have played an active part in bringing down those who have oppressed them.

    Dictators beware: however you got to power, whatever your gender, your time is over. Step aside.

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  • When politics interferes with marriage, it tells us a lot

    This is my weekly column in The National.

    Don’t marry an Arab man: this was the underlying message of a letter written to Jewish women and signed by the wives of 27 rabbis in Israel less than a fortnight ago. The letter added that Jewish women should avoid dating, working alongside and performing their national service with non-Jews.

    Racism can rear its ugly head anywhere, it seems, even in a supposedly modern democracy.

    It’s a small group that wrote the letter, and we should be cautious not to judge the many by the actions of the few. We know, for example, that the violent criminal actions of individual Muslims who perpetuate terrorism do not represent a billion people worldwide.

    However, the letter is not without precedent. It follows another letter, this one from rabbis urging Jews not to sell or rent property to non-Jews. In surveys in Israel about the letters, polls have shown nearly half the population supports the sentiments.

    Last year an Arab Israeli was convicted of raping a Jewish Israeli woman. Even though she had consented to the liaison, when she subsequently realised he was Arab, she had brought the matter to court on the basis she had been deceived and was, therefore, raped even though he had never explicitly claimed to be Jewish.

    It was a first date, and whatever your views on one-night stands, the takeaway message from the case seemed to be that Jewish men engage in consensual sex but Arab men rape.

    The racism in the letters is also deep-rooted. Women are advised that Arab men will use all sorts of tricks to lure them into marriage, changing their names and even being polite. But once the girls are in their evil clutches in their villages, they will suffer “cursings, beatings and humiliation”.

    Some people might find the following comment upsetting, but will the next step be to make Arabs wear yellow crescent-shaped badges in public?

    Initially, these incidents point to discrimination. But there are deeper issues at work here.

    Let’s be clear. I’m not detracting from the serious political and racial implications of this action, given that it comes within a particular political climate. Nor am I justifying its lack of morality: quite the opposite. However, I think we should see what it tells us about the wider issues: even in modern times, why are women used as tools to a particular ideology?

    Whereas women and men were once and, in some instances, still forcibly prevented from marrying someone the family doesn’t approve of, the screws are now applied by appealing to patriotism and nationalism.

    Yet, are those crying racism just as guilty of it in their own lives?

    Last year an Egyptian court ruled that men who marry Israeli women would be stripped of their citizenship, although the cabinet would have discretion on this depending on whether the wife was Arab or Jewish. More than 30,000 Egyptian men are married to Israeli women. The lawyer proposing the ruling said it was meant to protect Egypt’s youths and its national security, and added that the offspring of such couples should be prevented from military service.

    Politics and marriage might seem worlds apart. But these most recent cases suggest that who a society deems acceptable for individuals to marry says a lot more about its social mores and hidden political agenda than we might think.

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  • Despite our differences, we all need to shop

    This is my weekly column from The National UAE.

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

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

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

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

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

    Chillax, people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • 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.

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  • The Muslim wedding, British manners and the Minister who walked out

    This article has just been published at the Times Online.

    Politics.co.uk carries this report on Jim Fitzpatrick, the Minister for Food, Farming and Environment, who walked out of a Muslim marriage ceremony in his constituency, apparently in a state of shock that men and women would be segregated and sit apart.

    Our guest blogger, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, author of Love in a Headscarf, argues, with justification, that Fitzpatrick was extremely rude to the couple in question. What do you think?

    Shelina writes: Fitzpatrick’s constituency, Poplar and Canning Town, includes Tower Hamlets which has a 35 per cent Bangladeshi Muslim population. He claims, rather surprisingly, that he was unaware of the custom of segregation at Muslim weddings. It worries me that the representative of a ward where a large minority are Muslim is completely ignorant of this tradition. I’m even more shocked that he is proud to profess his ignorance. Whether he likes or dislikes the custom is a different matter: surely he ought to be aware of how a significant chunk of his community conduct a central event in their personal lives. What else is he ignorant of?

    Let’s start with the meaning of integration. Fitzpatrick says that separate seating for men and women is stopping integration. Yet here is a family who only knows him through a friend and possibly as their MP, inviting him to their most important day. That to me is reaching out and encouraging integration.

    Then we can move onto good manners. Weddings have always been a very personal matter and as with all occasions, there is etiquette which the guests must follow. If there is one thing that the British can truly pride themselves on, it is (or at least used to be) excellent manners. We know how to respond to invitations, use the right cutlery, queue in line. In fact many a book over the centuries has been written on developing the right social graces. The bride and groom are under no obligation as to who they invite to the wedding, and to be invited at all is a great honour. And at a time when budgets are tighter than ever, and weddings are becoming increasingly expensive, it is a real privilege to be invited to someone’s wedding.

    I feel very sad for the bride and groom that their special day has been hijacked by a rude ungracious guest who decided that their personal choices for the day were not to his taste.

    But here is the rub of Fitzpatrick’s ignorance. Segregated weddings are extremely commonplace and have been so for decades. Only a handful of the many Muslim weddings I have attended in my life have not been segregated. And this is not just the case in Britain but all over the world. Women have their own celebrations, as do the men, and both of these are incredibly joyful vibrant occasions. A half-Iraqi half-English Muslim friend who married a British born Bangladeshi had her marriage celebration for women only, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Her husband is delighted that the women got to “let their hair down” (literally in some cases of hijab-wearers). A wedding I attended in Bahrain of a minor royal was held in a glamorous marquee catering for a thousand people. Nine hundred and ninety nine were women. The groom popped in briefly to give his bride the ring.

    If we look closer to home, segregation is still prevalent in other wedding traditions too. Some orthodox Jewish marriages are segregated. And we still hold dear to our separation of the stag night and hen do. Would Fitzpatrick have wanted to take his wife along on a drunken weekend in Prague?

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  • 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
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  • Audacity of a non-American Dreamer

    Audacity of a non-American dreamer

    Yes we can
    Make a change
    Yes we can
    Find a way
    Yes we can
    Have a dream
    Yes we can
    Make it real

    Is it words?
    That may be
    Is it words?
    We will see
    Is it words?
    It’s in our hearts
    Is it words?
    That’s where we start

    It’s not one man
    That brought us here
    It’s not one man
    That made it clear
    It’s not one man
    That said it’s now
    It’s all of us
    That showed us how

    Change can come
    Our eyes have seen
    Change can come
    But does that mean
    That change will come?
    We’ll wait and see
    For change to come
    Change we must be

    Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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