Friday, 25 of April of 2014

Category » social cohesion

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

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.


Spirit21 in 2008 – a year in review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rahmah not Rubbish

We love to tell the stories of the life of the Prophet, but have we really learnt to apply them to our daily lives?

One of the favourite stories that Muslims like to recount is that of the woman who threw rubbish at the Prophet. We like it because it tells a simple human tale of compassion that wins out over malice. It is the triumph of patience and good manners over hatred.

The Prophet walked along a particular street every day on his way to conducting his affairs. From one of the windows, a woman who was angry at him for preaching the message of one God, would throw rubbish at him. Each day he would walk past, and each day she would throw her fetid refuse at him. One day, as he is walking past, there is no rubbish thrown at him.

Let us pause for a moment, before completing the story, and really truly think about what it must have been like to face this daily occurrence. We recount it very glibly, and don’t really feel it in our hearts.

Dear reader, please take a moment to create this situation as though it is real to you, and feel the emotions that rise up within you. You are walking under a window, and a pile of stinking vegetable peelings, rotting banana skins, three day old meat trimmings and some used toilet roll hits your head. You live in a hot environment, and so the mixture of putrid waste is particularly disgusting. A voice rings out above you: “******* Muslims! Terrorist! Osama lover!” and the abuse continues. We can all easily fill in blanks of the insults that Muslims face everyday. I would feel angry, furious. That is the natural human response.

Now we return to the behaviour of the Prophet himself. One particular day, there is no rubbish thrown at him. He is concerned and so he enquires after the whereabouts of the woman. When he is advised that she is unwell, he goes to visit her to see the state of her health. She is shocked when he arrives, knowing full well the extent of her abuse. His kindness and patience in dealing with her cruelty wins her over, and she accepts the message that the Prophet has been preaching.

How much we love to tell this story! How proud we are of the Prophet’s exemplary character! But we fail to apply this in our daily lives. Let us return to our imaginary scene above. Would we have asked about the well-being of our abuser? Would we have taken time to get to the bottom of why they abused us? Would we have dealt with compassion and reason with them?

Many Muslims today already do suffer this kind of abuse, from simple rude comments on the street, to derogatory content in the media, to smearing in political circles, to books which cause offence. Sometimes we find it hard to connect it to the stories of the Prophet because we have not internalised the human experiences of the individuals whom we rightly venerate. And this is because we have not put ourselves in the shoes of their real human experience.

When we see an attack on Islam or Muslims, we ignore the example of the Prophet to return violence with rahmah, compassion, and concern, and instead return it with anger, protest and in a handful of cases with violence. It is easy to wax lyrical about the Prophet’s patience, but have we really ever imagined ourselves in the situation, as we did a moment ago? Can we now imagine how hard what he did was? When scorn is poured upon Muslims, upon Islam and heartbreakingly on those whom we respect, we must rise above the instinctive response to retaliate with base violence. Defending yourself, and asserting your rights is indeed critical. It is right and proper to rise up to the full extent of law and justice. But we have to also bear in mind the vision that Muslims ought to have for society: to create an equal, fair and tolerant world that is based on knowledge and compassion.

A visionary can only take a dream and turn it into reality by meeting abuse with knowledge. And when those who are thirsty to know about all the values that can make us the best of human, they will look to wherever they can find that knowledge. If Muslims are not offering accessible knowledge, then that thirst will be quenched wherever even the mirage of truth appears. Where there is abuse, it must be replaced with knowledge and compassion, rahmah. That is what happened when the Prophet stepped into the woman’s home. As the Qur’an says, when we face those who are ignorant, we should return it with peace; that is the spirit that leads to quantum change.

This article was published in The Muslim News


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.


The Global Ummah Needs to Start Local

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

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

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

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

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

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

But so what?

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Muslim World is Larger Than We Think

The Muslim world is made up of more than just people from the Middle East and the Subcontinent, and drawing on our wider heritage and perspectives could help us address the pressing questions of Islam and modernity

It would probably come as a surprise to most people to know that the largest ethnic group within the world’s billion or so Muslims, are not in fact, Arab. Nor are they Pakistani, or even Bangladeshi for that matter. Even the entire Muslim populations of Europe and America do not feature at the top of this list, and neither does China.

In Britain, our perceptions of Muslims – and thus of Islam – are shaped by the fact that the media shows us coverage of the Arab world as ‘Islam’ and also because the majority of Muslims in this country are of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. The issues and challenges that raise themselves in the Muslim community, and which spill over into the national discourse about Muslims and Islam, therefore naturally stem from our Arabic and Sub-continental-shaped spectacles. Even within the Muslim communities the problems we see and the solutions we propose continually hark back to world-views and religious paradigms based in Arab and Sub-continental perspectives on history and modernity. British Islam tastes of korma curry with a side-serving of hummus. In the global political arena too, the Sub-continent and the Middle East (read ‘Arab’) are also front and centre when it comes to ‘The Muslim World’.

With this restrictive bi-focal approach, we try to address the big questions facing Muslims today. We ask in this context, how do we get to a meaningful understanding of Islam and governance in the modern world order of nation-states? Should we choose to interact (or not) in democratic processes, and if so, what methods should we use? What should our identity and role be in this globalised world? Is there a dichotomy between nation and ummah, and if so, how do we reconcile them?

The biggest challenge out of all of these for Muslims, is to find meaningful proposals to create a framework for participation with positivity and integrity in this new world order. Muslims constantly hark back to a ‘better time’ of Islamic empires and Caliphates, which were the spiritual home of Muslims, and for the most part were their physical homes too. However, such an empire, or a universal ‘home’ state no longer exists. In many cases Muslims live as minorities within non-Muslim majority countries. There is no option – and in many cases no desire – to ‘go home’. Muslims should already feel respected and at home, and should not be treated as aliens. In the context of such a relationship, it is timely for Muslims to construct a robust place within the national community that they are part of and establish very clearly the contribution that they will make.

This desperately needed enterprise is being subverted by a small minority who wish to hijack this process of development and change. Their desire is to return to a ‘better time’, and to ‘Islamicise’. But they created these false notions through Arab-Sub-continental lenses. The neo-conservatives who have created their empty identities and standing in opposition to this so-called ‘Islamist’ political ideology also see the world in these two blinkered dimensions.

So here is the surprise. Large swathes of Muslims are asking the above-mentioned first set of positive questions about this new globalised world that we live in. The groundswell is to participate and contribute, to explore traditional notions of Islamic governance and to advance new ideas of engagement and civic participation. By no means are they getting it all right but, as Confucius says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

The most significant and flourishing example of this is Indonesia. This is a country of 221 million people, of which 88% are Muslim. This makes Indonesia the world’s largest Muslim population, a fact unknown and overlooked by most people. The country stretches from Thailand to Australia, punctuated by lush rainforests and epic lively volcanoes. Its spirituality is understated but intricately and gently woven throughout the fabric of society. Mosques are plentiful (as are other places of worship), almost on every street corner, but they are softly tucked in, little oases in the hubbub of day to day life. Scattered liberally amongst the emerald green rice fields are small huts, used to protect workers from the tropical rain storms, and offer an accessible place for prayer.

The country is founded on five principles, the first of which is the ‘belief in the one and only God.’ For a country with an overwhelming Muslim majority, its political principles define it not as Islamic, but as theistic. There is concern to ensure that the huge variety of ethnicities that make up the nation, as well as its six official religions, share a sense of cohesion which is expressed in another of its founding principles: ‘Unity in diversity’. It also envisions a just and civilised humanity, social justice for the whole of Indonesia and finally, and perhaps most significantly democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives. It is this fusion of democracy and faith that makes the physical, spiritual and social landscape of Indonesia so fascinating.

Ten years after the overthrow of a totalitarian government, the country is racing through a reformasi, and asking piercing questions about nationhood and faith. Whilst travelling there, I was constantly surprised by the strength of feeling amongst all the people I met about driving their country forward.

How did the fact that I am both British and Muslim manifest itself, and how did I relate to my nation, I was constantly asked. Instead of simplistic shock at the existence of Muslims in the UK, the Indonesians greeted my fusion of British Islam with thoughtfulness. They reflected on what they could learn from the experience of British Muslims, to create a cohesive nation state that could respect faith, benefit from it, and use it as a force to create unity – a slippery and elusive goal for a country of its huge geography, variation and population. They wanted to learn about how minorities were treated, and apply positive experiences to their own nation.

There was no possible question of not participating in political and civic processes. Faith – whether Muslim or otherwise – was a natural part of civic life. There was no need to make a headline fuss of it. It did not dictate the political agenda. Instead, it offered fresh perspectives on dealing with social, political and economic issues. None of this is to say that Indonesia is not dealing with pockets of extremist activity like we are in the UK. Indonesia has many human rights and security issues of its own to deal with. Despite the challenges it is facing, it was refreshing to be in a Muslim majority country, amongst politically and civically active Muslims, for whom Islam was not the only item on the agenda – if in fact it was on the agenda at all. Creating a society where faith is woven into nationhood, and exists happily under its banner were of greater concern to people on the street.

I came away thinking that as British Muslims we had many things we could learn from them. Indonesia sits very firmly as part of the Muslim world, and sees itself as a key player amongst Muslim nations. It is attempting to deal with some of the questions that face both Islam and faith in general in this new millennium. And like a child learning to sit up and survey the world around it, their experience can offer Muslims fresh eyes onto our modern day challenges. Muslims speak with pride about sharing the joy and pain of a global ummah. But sometimes we forget that the ummah stretches much further not only in geography, but also much further in culture, politics and creativity than we might think.

This article was published in The Muslim News


Bishop Nazir-Ali to speak at Interfaith forum about pluralism

Imagine my surprise when I came across a listing for a lecture being held this evening by the East London Three Faiths Forum: “FAITH IN A PLURAL COMMUNITY with Bishop Nazir Ali (Bishop of Rochester)”. Surely an interfaith group should be worried about some of the comments he has made?

The Telegraph wrote: ‘In an outspoken attack on the custom of Muslim women to cover their faces, the Pakistani-born bishop said that the Islamic community needed to make greater efforts to integrate into British society. “It is fine if they want to wear the veil in private, but there are occasions in public life when it is inappropriate for them to wear it,” he said.’

[shelina's comment: if the Bishop knew anything about the veil, then he would know that the concept of wearing it in 'private' is comical - the veil is a public matter, not a private one]

In January 2008 Nazir-Ali wrote that Islamic extremism had turned “already separate communities into ‘no-go’ areas” and claimed that there had been attempts to “impose an ‘Islamic’ character on certain areas”. When he was challenged to name such areas, by various leading figures including Hazel Blears, he has failed to provide such evidence. He has failed to actually back up such a divisive statement. For a man of faith, it seems a strange way to build up community links and inter-faith work.

I have sent some people along to attend the lecture, and will post up their comments once they are in.


Spirit21 reveals The Magic Muslims…

Spirit21 is proud to reveal The Magic Muslims – Ordinary Muslims with Extraordinary Powers. Fun-loving, quirky and joyful in life, once you’ve met them, you’ll want to keep coming back for more. Any Muslim you meet could be a MagicMuslim – a quiet superhero trying to bring happiness, humour and compassion to the world.

I’m really excited to bring you these characters – created and commissioned as original Superheroes by Spirit21 for everyone to enjoy and interact with. Every month or so a new cartoon with the characters will be published, so you can check out their antics in the world. I hope you enjoy them, as much as I enjoyed creating them. Please share your comments and thoughts, but do remember the copyright!

Make sure you get to know The Magic Muslims better here


Time for a Womelution

The Muslim community needs to make a quantum leap in addressing the issues of gender roles, gender worth, and gender relations, and so this week I am declaring a ‘womelution’.

The debate about Islam, women and rights seems to have reached a dead end. We are stuck, all of us together – Muslim and otherwise – in a groundhog day regurgitation of the same arguments about women and Islam. It’s all talk with few new ideas and intellectual works being produced, little social change happening, and Muslims still not facing up to the fact that we need to address the subject of gender. We must reject this status of ’stuck’. Stuck, is no longer an option. God does not change the state of a people until they change it themselves.

We must also reject the notion of ‘fixing women’. Fixing women, doesn’t fix the problem. Let’s replace the issue of ‘women’ with a debate about women and men. After all, God does say He created human beings in pairs.

What we need is for men and women to work together so that we can make substantive change and real improvements. What we need are open hearts and inquisitive minds so that we can make a positive move forward. What we need, is a womelution.

Inspired by women, but for both men as well as women, the womelution is positive, engaging, creative and forward-looking. This is not a bloody revolution, but looks inside all traditions and heritages, to both genders, to all ages and multifarious ethnicities and languages.

The womelution is about making real change: intellectual change but most importantly, real social change. It is characterised by compassion, humanity and humour and most of all by respect. It is not about women versus men, but about being on the same side, creating the best for everyone. It is rooted in Islam and its foundations are within the Muslim conception of the world. Its premise is that Islam has more to offer than it is currently given credit for, and it has a blueprint that can contribute to humanity in general. The womelution encourages questioning, respectful challenging and constructive criticism.

1. We need to re-ignite the tradition of intellectual debate

We need new thinking and output that moves forward Islamic scholarship on the issues of gender. The world has changed and we need to face up to that. We must ask challenging questions – but with respect and within the spirit and ethos of the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet. Every time we look at the words of the Qur’an we are advised that they will reveal something new. In the same way, when every new generation looks at Qur’anic verses and the Prophetic traditions it will be through new lenses.

In 2008, I invite every Muslim scholar, every Imam, and academic to tackle the issues around Islam and gender. It can be in the shape of a theological discourse, or a social reform, small or large, but it must offer something new and positive that leads to real change.

2. Communal spaces, particularly mosques, need to re-balance gender participation

Although a womelution is about both men and women, it is undoubted that in some areas – such as those of mosques and other public forums – getting women involved is the first priority. This will benefit both men and women. Those mosques or community centres which currently have no space for women need to create areas for women and start engaging with them. The many mosques where women are already actively involved need to make sure that there is at least one woman who is on the management or executive committee of that mosque or centre, and that she has actual authority and empowerment vested in her.

Let 2008 be the year for asking questions and offering answers about how men and women should share mosques and community spaces, and when every single mosque up and down the UK succeeds in appointing a woman into an official position.

3. Women must themselves actively pursue improvement and change – for the sake of society as a whole

Men need to open hearts, minds and doors, but women must also grasp the mettle and engage in change. It can and will be difficult and will feel uncomfortable. Both men and women need to understand that women must participate to create a successful community. Women have new perspectives and approaches, and will bring forward issues that have not yet been addressed. Women will double the resources, brains and energies at the disposal of the Muslim community.

4. Change must be based on addressing the needs of both men and women

What are the traditional gender roles that we are upholding? How do men and women currently interact, how are responsibilities distributed, and are these rooted in culture or faith? Once we’ve asked these questions we need to assess: what should be our definitions of gender roles and what should be our notions of gender worth? We don’t live in a traditional world anymore. It is worth remembering that the greatest failing of the community of the Prophet Abraham was that they did what their fathers and forefathers before them did without questioning it.

The biggest social and practical issue facing us today though, is that of gender relations – how should men and women relate to each other, and how do we implement personal law? Muslim women have become the bastions for maintaining and regulating gender relations. The concepts of hijab, niqab and segregation have been confused with the real concept of modesty in etiquette, behaviour and personal relationships. What does modesty really mean? What is its role in Muslim society, how should both men and women practice it, and how should it regulate the world of gender relations?

5. Confidence, compassion and curiosity are the values that will drive positive change

It’s time also to put paid to the frankly silly but insidious suggestions that Muslims are alien to Britain. Muslims must be confident in themselves, in their Islam and in living in Britain. We must have curiosity and confidence in asking questions to make the lives better of everyone around us – Muslim and otherwise. It also requires compassion and empathy for our neighbours which, of course, comes with the right to be treated with respect and love in return.

This year should be the beginning of a womelution, a marked change in the tempo and confidence of the Muslim community, with a particular focus on gender. We will need vision and creativity and to be positive and work together. This is the only way that we will move forward.

And if you’re still confused, it’s pronounced wi-mah-lou-shun.

P.S. We also need a little inspiration and some humour. As my own personal contribution, I dedicate four Superhero characters, which you will find on my blog www.spirit21.co.uk/magicmuslims

This article was recently published in The Muslim News