• It’s time for Muslims to reclaim their image

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

    A decade after September 11, how I long to declare that warmongering has been vanquished and peace flourishes. But sadly, the 10 years since the horrific deaths in New York have seen increasing war, growing suspicion and greater rather than less terror.

    Muslims have been scrutinised, demonised and held to collective blame for the events. They have been accused of plotting to install Sharia in the West, of being violent villains poised to wage global jihad on a liberal enlightened Occident, and of hating democracy.

    These types of ideas are memes – thought patterns replicated via cultural means, like viruses of the mind. These parasitic codes have come to proliferate so widely in the West’s collective consciousness and are repeated so often and so brainlessly that they are almost accepted as truth. The fact is they have been deliberately and maliciously implanted into popular thinking since 9/11.

    But since the beginning of the year, events have taken an unexpected turn – a turn that offers Muslims a historic opportunity to change the lens through which they have been framed, a chance to expose these memes as the falsehoods they are. Muslims must grasp this moment.

    The most prominent memes are that Muslims are inherently violent, opposed to democracy and want to impose Sharia. But the Arab Spring defies these ideas. Across the Muslim world, it wasn’t Sharia that Muslims wanted. People rose up for democracy, deposing dictators one after another. And in Egypt, we saw an object lesson in peaceful revolution.

    Muslims who live in the West are eyed suspiciously as fifth columnists. The accusation is that they are disloyal. But in a Gallup poll released last month, 93 per cent of Muslim Americans say they are loyal to their country. And a Pew Research Center poll published last week found that Muslim Americans exhibit the highest levels of integration and the greatest degree of tolerance among major American religious groups.

    Another meme is that “all terrorists are Muslim”. But the Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik was the most high-profile proof of the underlying fact that the majority of terrorist acts are not planned or carried out by Muslims at all. Check Europol for figures in Europe. Check CIA statistics for incidents in the USA.

    One of the most powerful pieces of information to come to light is a report released last week by the American Center for Progress called “Fear Inc. The Roots of Islamophobia”. It has traced the sources of the fabricated memes to just a handful of funders, and a handful of so-called “experts” who try to take on the mantle of fanning fear and exaggerating threats. The echo chambers they use to amplify their voices are designed to make it appear that this hatred of Muslims is widespread – another falsehood they want to perpetuate – but it is not. The memes by and large stem from them, their funding and their handful of cronies. Their time is now up.

    It is Tariq Jahan, a British Muslim who lost his son during this summer’s riots in the UK, who best embodies this moment of change for Muslims. “I’m a Muslim,” he announced on national TV, without fear or apology, but rather to explain that his strength and compassion came from his faith. He united a nation in grief and in dignity where politicians had failed. His dignity and his humanity changed minds about what it means to be Muslim. He instinctively knew that for Muslims the time is now. They must seize this opportunity to lay the myths to rest.

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

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

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

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

    The evidence is plain to see

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    But the myths persist.

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

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

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

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

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  • Norway attacks can and must change the discourse on violence and extremism

    Here is my op-ed for this week’s The National.

    The attacks of September 11 changed the nature of the discourse about the place of Muslims and migrants in the West. Last week’s tragedy in Norway can and must change it again.

    As soon as news of the Norway killings broke, commentators were quick to point a finger at Muslims, who after September 11 became highly visible, portrayed as inherently violent and intrinsically alien to western democratic values. With the discovery that the perpetrator was a 32-year-old white Norwegian, however, news coverage quickly moved on to focus on the “insane”, “lone wolf” Anders Behring Breivik.

    Nobody ate their words, nobody apologised for the presumption of Muslim guilt. One Norwegian official described the event as “our Oklahoma, not our World Trade Center”. His analogy referred to white supremacism, but he inadvertently highlighted the double standard in collectivising responsibility across all Muslims when the perpetrator is Muslim, but confining it to the protagonist himself when otherwise. The analogy also illustrated the West’s knee-jerk response to such terrorist attacks as having been carried out by Muslims, before considering any facts.

    Facts have never got in the way of the right-wing’s stoking of fear when it comes to Muslims.

    After September 11 and the subsequent attacks in Europe, phrases such as “homegrown terrorism” and “the threat from within” were quickly coined. Emotive terms such as Eurabia, Londonistan and “creeping Islamisation” entered the language. Bearded brown men, burqa-clad women and angry chanting protesters were the accompanying visuals, painting a sensational and fearful picture of the West overrun by hordes of Muslims.

    The right-wing repeated its mantra: Muslims were fundamentally incapable of adhering to liberal democratic values. Though this mantra may have been a fringe viewpoint when September 11 came, through sheer repetition it came to be accepted as mainstream wisdom. Big newspapers contributed to this feeding frenzy with continuing coverage of stories about Sharia courts, forced marriages and banning Christmas. Even leading politicians endorsed the cliché of “multiculturalism gone mad”. Both the British prime minister and the German chancellor declared it a failure, and their policies characterised Muslims as nothing more than potential security threats.

    Their sentiments were aided by policy wonks who supported with “facts” the claim that aspects of Muslim culture – at least those that did not integrate on their terms – provided the “mood music” and the “conveyor belt” for young Muslim radicalisation.

    In many respects, the same discourse is taking place in reverse. The commentariat is grappling with the question: did right-wing commentators provide the mood music for this killer?

    Breivik’s manifesto enthusiastically cited the right-wing message. But those very commentators are now distancing themselves from the killer and protesting in the same vein as the Muslims they have tormented for so long: that the actions of one killer are not representative of their beliefs.

    Among my Muslim friends there was of course horror and sadness, but also a sense of relief that it wasn’t a Muslim perpetrator. You might consider it an unworthy emotion, but it was human, and understandable.

    Indeed, there is even an uncomfortable sense of glee emanating from some quarters towards the right-wing, saying “we told you so” or, even more unworthy, that their “chickens have come home to roost”.

    This is not the time for triumphalism. What has brought us to this turning point is the loss of 77 innocent human beings.

    The deaths should focus our collective mind to reset the terrorism narrative on a different, non-polarised trajectory.

    This is the moment to subject previously unchallenged views to rigorous scrutiny.

    This is also the moment for politicians who pander to an increasingly vocal and aggressive far right to reassess policies that deal with Muslims and to remove the lens that sees Muslims only as extremists, would-be extremists or mood musicians for extremism.

    All those involved in the discourse around extremism and violence would do well to take away some big lessons from the past week to steer us away from the polarised trajectory we are on.

    First, we must be more precise in the language we use for such incidents. Was Breivik a lone wolf or did he act in concert with other extremists? Was he a deranged psychopath or was he radicalised by right-wing sentiment? Just as it is not right to describe the September 11 perpetrators as “Muslim” terrorists, so it is not right to describe Breivik as a “Christian” terrorist.

    Overturning the double standards in description will reduce grievances, but the crucial reason more accurate analysis is required is because these are essentially the same category of incident, and using the same language will allow us to better analyse the causes.

    The same holds true for the idea of mood music, which needs reappraisal. Islam and non-violent Muslims are held responsible for the acts of criminal terrorists. By the same logic, does the right-wing press provide the mood music for actors like Breivik? The answer is not clear. However, the events in Norway should help us to better interrogate the merit of this theory. Can and will such commentators hold up their actions genuinely to test their own theory? Glib responses that because they are quoted by Breivik doesn’t make them mood musicians won’t hold – after all, those are precisely the claims they made against Muslims.

    The presumption of innocence about Muslims also needs to be reinstated. “Facts” that see them as inherently alien or violent must be challenged. It will be harder to unravel the malicious discourse than it was to whip it up, but it must be overturned.

    For every dubious poll that emphasises an alleged Muslim desire for separation – by instituting Sharia, or demanding special food or schools – we must be reminded of more reliable polls demonstrating a sense of Muslim belonging to western lands. Every statistic showing a Muslim propensity to violence must be countered by the real facts that political violence in the western world has been conducted more by non-Muslims.

    The most challenging thing for politicians will be to face up to the fact that their own critiques of multiculturalism are remarkably similar to those of far-right extremists, though not as emphatic. If they critique multiculturalism, it must be based on fact, not the sensational headlines of a tabloid. It might be time to embrace the idea that multiculturalism, far from creating separate communities, is in fact a potent force to strengthen a country. That was the point made forcefully this week by Tarak Barkawi of Cambridge University. Writing for the think tank the Royal United Services Institute, he argued that multiculturalism can strengthen Britain’s role as a world power.

    Although I am calling for greater scrutiny of all these elements, it doesn’t mean we should be complacent in our vigilance against those who commit violence in the name of Islam. They are violent criminals just like Breivik. Nor can we forget the innocent lives lost in Norway; our first thoughts and prayers must go to them.

    Last week’s horror has the potential to change the discourse again, away from the acceptable and even fashionable anti-Muslim sentiment that was stoked in the shadow of September 11. It gives us the opportunity to break free of this fear-mongering, and move towards a more robust, holistic and ideologically agnostic stand against all kinds of extremism.

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  • Neither Bin Laden nor dictatorships: Arab youth choose their own models of leadership

    This is a very belated posting of my weekly newspaper column written the week that Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.

    Courtesy of Cartoonmovement.com

    Osama bin Laden is dead. Bogeyman of western nightmares, and a figure of revulsion for many Muslims, his death brings to a close the ghoulish and virtual reign of an icon – loathed and despised, but an icon nonetheless – of leadership.

    This is not to say he was a leader to be emulated, simply that he held a degree of influence. Witness the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre based in Jordan, which placed him on its list of 500 Most Influential Muslims under the category “Radicals”.

    His death comes during sweeping changes in the Middle East. Bin Laden wanted these populations to rise up under his charge against the West, but they did it without him. Mubarak is gone. Ben Ali, too. Qaddafi fights for survival. The Arab people didn’t want them, and they didn’t want bin Laden, his philosophy consigned to a compound in Pakistan, his influence diminishing, his ideology rejected by the very people he sought to lead and who on the streets wanted the very democracy he reviled.

    But what kind of leadership do Arabs, particularly young Arabs, actually want?

    The urge for “participation and representation in the political life of their country of residence” remains a “priority” for young Arabs, according to Asda’a Burson Marsteller’s survey of 2,500 Arab youths in 10 countries, conducted during the recent events. “Arab youth have a deep and enduring desire for democracy” was one of their conclusions, obvious in light of events.

    This change is self-driven. The youth are resigned to the fact that their current – and outgoing – leaders do nothing for them. Few bother to voice their opinions to public officials, according to the fourth Silatech Index “Voices of Young Arabs”, published in March, of 20 countries and 36,000 people and produced jointly by the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies and Silatech, a social enterprise addressing opportunities for young Arabs. They are not convinced their leaders are maximising the potential of young people. Instead, they wish to determine their own lives. This trend is clear in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco.

    OgilvyNoor, the Islamic branding and marketing consultancy division of the Ogilvy & Mather advertising firm, calls the movers and shakers of the current changes “futurists”, who are “fearless” and “vocal in their beliefs”.

    “Their worldview is fundamentally meritocratic, backed by their faith in Islam’s principles of equal brotherhood. Authority is not solely top-down any more. It must make room for equal dialogue,” writes Nazia Hussain, head of strategy for the unit.

    It is worth noting that the drive for self-determination, the desire for democracy and the demand that leaders should engage in dialogue are derived from Islam. Additionally, 70 per cent of “futurists” are extremely proud to be Muslim, according to OgilvyNoor’s research.

    These young people have come of age in the shadow of September 11 and Osama bin Laden. The war on terrorism offered them two mutually exclusive choices: western democracy or bin Laden’s toxic leadership. They have rejected this bipolar caricature, instead creating their own models of leadership for their future: a future that takes pride in both Islam and democracy, a future fuelled by their belief that change is up to them, a future they can and will make happen.

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  • Protest in London over the killings in Gaza

    Yesterday I participated in the protest march in London, to show our outrage as human beings as the enormous and flagrant loss of innocent civilian life in Gaza, as numbers of dead have exceeded 800 in the last two weeks.
    The atmosphere was electric, and the roads were absolutely utterly jam-packed. Human beings from up and down the country literally poured through the streets. Estimates vary between a paltry 12,000 up to 100,000. It certainly felt much closer to the upper end of that spectrum.
    People completely filled Bayswater Road from Speakers Corner, to Notting Hill down Kensington Church Street and along Kensington high street. The presence was solid and full across the whole road for that whole stretch. The police was present in huge numbers right from the very beginning. Check out these photos. The first shows the vigour with which the police was present – this is right near the beginning, but they’ve already knocked over a protester. Also notice the huge range of people who attended, and the passion with which they came from so far away, to show this: that the killing must stop.
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  • Black Heart, Red Hands, Clear Smile

    You ask for it, you are a tease,
    I know your wish
    For me to crack your jaw
    To slap your face
    To scratch your skin
    To leave my mark.

    You’re pushing me,
    Unlocking your wrists
    “You have no right,”
    Your words are hissed
    Through broken teeth
    “You have no right.”

    You make me laugh,
    Cheap homeless witch
    With talk of ‘rights’.
    Our friends know me,
    My sovereign strength,
    They know I’m right.

    Who’d hear your words,
    Pathetic semite
    Our friends know what to say:
    “Stop pushing, girl,
    It’s not his fault,
    But sovereign defence.”

    Sit quietly in your corner,
    I’ve closed the walls,
    The Pharaohs are my friends.
    The sea is sealed
    You have no rights, no worth,
    Admit you long for me.

    You look at me with children’s eyes,
    You ask for it
    You bare your mother’s breast to me,
    Still asking for it
    Your hands of tormented youth push me away,
    You drive me to it.

    Can’t you see, it’s not my fault,
    You invoke my suffering on you.
    Can’t you see, it’s not my fault,
    You attack, I defend.
    Can’t you see, it’s not my fault,
    You make me do it, you make me do it.

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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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  • 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

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  • Social cohesion not gender confusion

    The government’s latest announcement about funding for Muslim women to help curb terrorism confuses social cohesion with extremism, and it also forgets that women cannot single-handedly solve our social ills.

    Apparently, we’re not very assertive. And apparently, we need the government’s help. And apparently, some training courses are going to solve the problem. Thus spake the government when announcing that they would help us Muslim women to stop extremism. By going on some courses. Once we’ve been suitably trained, we’ll go on to spy on our kids, create community cohesion, and curb terror. We’ll then stop for afternoon tea. After dunking our digestives in our chai, we’ll reverse global warming and achieve world peace. Muslim women will save the day! (I know we’re good, really really good, but I’m not sure we’re superhuman!)

    Please don’t misunderstand me – the initiatives announced by the government, in and of themselves, are good projects. Women do need more support, they are a fundamental building block of the community, they do need more attention. So bring on the training, bring on the resources, bring on the focus.

    The projects proposed by the Department of Communities and Local Government are much needed. The communities in question, and the women that form part of them very much need this support. But why is investment in Muslim communities and in Muslim women about terror rather than social improvement? The very distinct line between extremism and social cohesion has become dangerously blurred – and the government must be called to account on this distortion.

    Muslim voices are denigrated when they complain about ‘spying’, ‘interference’ and state-sanitised and approved religion. The wailing chorus is because ‘Moozlim problems’ are categorised as problems of extremism and terror and are dealt with as such, rather than being addressed as the social and economic problems of unemployment, access, education and opportunity that they are. Government resources are required to get to grips with deep social issues, as a problem to solve in themselves. Extremism and terror need to be tackled in and of themselves as well. But solving terrorism can’t masquerade under the guise of social reform. The two must not be conflated.

    When it comes to the specific question of investing in women, yes women – just like men – need to be involved in facing down the criminals that bring extremism and death to our streets. But we’re falling into the usual trap of gender play-offs. If it doesn’t work with the men, go onto the women? Try one, then the other? The government is beginning to sound like a deeply traditional mosque, or the feminist movement, by dealing with people (in this case Muslims) as two distinct species – male or female – who apparently have little or no overlap. Women can’t do it alone, so don’t set us up to fail.

    Women are not, and should not be a separate project, an afterthought, a curiosity. This is an obstacle to creating a socially cohesive and balanced society. Muslim societies (just like European ones) are very guilty of this problem of falling foul to treating men and women as two separate mutually exclusive entities. But the government seems to be equally guilty. Building projects and goals on such shaky gender foundations may yield short term benefits, but it is predicated on a model of social interaction that is flawed. Men and women are not separate, independent, unrelated. It takes two halves to build a whole.

    In the Muslim world, the longstanding focus of the debate on social relations between the genders has been on establishing the limits and boundaries of Islamic law. By focusing this debate simply on the specifics of the boundaries of Islamic law it reinforces the exclusion and separation of women from society in general. By talking about “women’s rights”, the whole area becomes a sub topic. In the same way, talking about women bearing the brunt of the responsibility to curb terror detracts from the responsibilities of the social whole.

    To put it simply, it is a mistake to consider men on the one hand, and women on the other hand, in isolation from each other, because at every step we are connected to each other. The Islamic model of gender relations describes the equality of men and women as “created from one soul” as well as their interconnectedness and balance “you may find peace and tranquillity in each other”.

    The Quran explains, “It is He who brought you into being from a single soul”. From the very source of the human being, both men and women have the same value, being created from the same beginning. In the Quranic model, women and men are linked right from the beginning and their source is of the same value, they share the same unity.

    The whole area of gender rights and gender relations is very sensitive, and one of the areas of particular sensitivity is around the concept of ‘equality.’ By referring to a society of two equal and balanced halves, the reference is to being equal in value and participation, with no other connotation. And this meaning is quite clear in the verse of the Quran that locates men and women as created from one soul.

    The issue is that women are not being given the opportunity to contribute their value. The government funding should help in a small way to address this – but only if it is aimed at improving the status quo, not as a means to the totally separate goal of dealing with extremism.

    The Islamic model of the two genders as two halves of a whole, is a reflection of the fundamental Islamic concept of Tawheed. This central doctrine can be further explored by looking at the attributes of the Creator, who has names which represent His Jalaal – majesty, and other names which represent His Jamaal – His beauty. For every Muslim, these are both an undeniable part of Tawheed. Then if man and woman are created from a single soul, then are they not simply a reflection of the attributes of Jalaal and Jamaal, of the masculine and feminine attributes of Allah? In which case, how can the two ever be separated? And further, are not both together required to complete the unity?

    The discussion should then not be on “men’s rights” or “women’s rights” but on the rights of the human being, and the respect for each other as human beings. Perhaps the problem is that we do not see the potential of each other as fulfilling the divine in everyday life.

    The Quran is explicit in saying that Allah has created pairs for us that we may find peace and tranquillity in each other. This verse is usually quoted the context of two individuals getting married. But instead of simply looking at this at an individual level of one man and one woman, we can extrapolate it and create a model of social harmony – that women and men are a pair and need to work together in order that society is peaceful and tranquil.

    What will be the key factors in shaping an environment which will be successful in creating a balanced whole with productive participation from both genders? We shouldn’t be drawn into playing the genders off against each other. It is totally appropriate to identify the unique needs of each gender and to address them as part of a holistic approach to solving problems and improving society. It is not appropriate to favour one gender, and punish the other for seeming failure. That would be like holding your hand over one eye to try to see the whole world in three-dimensional glory. Unfortunately, by confusing extremism with social cohesion, and by holding women alone up as social saviours, the government is in grave danger of creating a one-eyed bumbling monster.

    This article was published recently in The Muslim News

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  • The Myth of the Sword and the Veil

    Terror and the Veil are two recurrent symbols that appear in Western discourse about Islam and Muslims. But these were just myths created to serve one political view. Why do these potent historical symbols still haunt us today?

    The Occidental view of Islam has been characterised by two vivid symbols – the sword and the veil. The West built up an image of an Islam that was “spread by the sword”, that forced violent conversion on non-Muslims as the Muslim dominion spread outwards from its origins in Mecca and Medina. The Muslim empire grew quickly geographically and politically as its armies spread both east and westward. Instead of using the sword, the faith of Islam grew more organically, through marriage and trade.

    The West’s Myth of the Sword crystallised into its definition of the Muslim world, and it was hailed as the rallying cry against what was demonised as a violent and barbaric religion. The myth was nothing but political smoke and mirrors, as early as the time of the Crusades.

    The Church and the kingdoms of Europe cleverly counterpoised the newly created idea of the ‘sword’ against the “love thy neighbour” and “turn the other cheek” proclaimed ethos of Christianity, failing to notice the irony of the Crusader hordes that rushed towards the Muslim heartlands to recapture the Holy Land. The conquests and counter-conquests of Christian Europe were not for religious or humanitarian reasons, we should note, but to secure trade and control through the Middle East and to the Far East as well. The irony is not lost till today when the last 500 years have been dominated by ‘Western conquest’ and massive military superiority. Today, the ‘sword’ is wielded by the military hyperpower of the Western United States that uses it to spread and enforce its notions of democracy and enlightenment values.

    The sword was a simple yet powerful symbol that Christian Europe projected from its own lexicon onto a Muslim world that it did not try to understand, and could not fathom from within the prism of its own ideology.

    When Orientalists spoke of the ‘exotic’ lands of the Middle East, they conjured up evocative images of harems and mysterious women with dark eyes hidden behind translucent black veils. The Occident was enthralled by the paradox of how women were covered, often hidden in women’s quarters, or at least behind their modest dress. But what was once a healthy, Islamic yet palpable sexuality of the Muslim world was an incomprehensible contrast to the prudish values first of Puritanism and then of the Victorian Age.

    Again, by interpreting through its own prism of understanding, the Occident turned the veil into a symbolic issue that defined a ‘barbaric’ and ‘oppressive’ personality of Islam. Again, it was the simplicity of the symbol of the veil that raised it to define everything that the West saw as wrong with Islam and the Muslim world.

    These two symbols have come back to haunt us today and still define the West’s view of the Muslim world. Today’s sword has been replaced by its modern counterpart – terrorist attacks. The veil, the small simple piece of cloth that is so rarely worn, still holds its own.

    If the veil did not hold such symbolic and historic weight, why has it ignited such a whirlwind? Muslims reacted passionately not because most Muslim women wish to wear the veil – quite the contrary, only about five per cent of Muslim women in the UK wear a veil – but because where ‘veil’ was written, there was a caveat which said “for veil, read Islam”.

    The same applies to the rhetoric about terrorist attacks, and foreign policies that take Western forces into Muslim countries to ‘help’, but end up creating more strife and destruction to meet their own ends. Indeed, we all agree that there are terrorists out there and their actions are vehemently rejected by Muslims round the world. But Western terminology around terror attacks and the War on Terror, has the same resonance to it as the Myth of the Veil. The same caveat applied “for terror (or sword), read Islam”.

    The Sword and the Veil are once again at the centre of polemics. They uncover the simplistic view that the West holds buried deep inside itself of Islam’s supposedly inherent violence, oppression and barbarism. But they are myths created from icons that have been misrepresented and conveniently fitted to meet a political narrative.

    The Sword and the Veil are symbols that lie deep within the European narrative, and are therefore easy to hook onto. They were myths on which to build a political vision when they were first created. But the power they hold over Europe is only because they draw on Europe’s own heritage. The myth of the sword can only be meaningful in Europe because Europe understands what it means to use force and violence to further its cause. The majority of Muslims are confused by this myth of expansion of faith through violence. ‘Jihad’ for them is simply a spiritual struggle, military force is for defence. “There is no compulsion in religion” is the clear Islamic edict, so faith cannot be induced by bloody means.

    The veil too is only potent because of Europe’s uneasy history of social values regarding women and their status. The issues of oppression and sexuality of women that the Muslim world is accused of, are simply a mirror of the schizophrenic nature of western society with regards to the rights of women and how they should be treated. The West at first could not understand these mysterious women of the Orient who supposedly came from a heritage of liberation, passion and social participation. But this was all hidden behind a veil, behind modest coverings. And this seemingly paradoxical combination, and its contrast with the status quo in Europe where women had no rights till the 20th century, created fear and misunderstanding. The Myth of the Veil was embodied with this recoiling and incomprehension and came to symbolise oppression and mediaeval values.

    Alas, where once the Muslim world led the world in providing a blueprint for the equality of women through the statements of the Qur’an, the Muslim world today also has little to be proud of with regards to the status of women. The veil was clearly a myth because Islam offered a framework that worked towards rights, status and equality. But now it has become paralysed by the same gender relations and sexual guilt, and the oppression of women that it claims to reject and which it accuses the West of. More worrying, is the fact that the Muslim world is in denial. The Myth of the Veil in the West has created a Counter-Myth in the Muslim world – that because the basic laws of Islam liberate woman, give her rights and status – then it follows that the Muslim world is de facto implementing these values. The sad fact is that Muslims have a long way to go before the rights they trumpet about Islam with regards to women become social reality.

    If you watch the media and political rhetoric unfold, you will see the discussions about Muslims and Islam punctuated by the leitmotifs of the Sword and the Veil. It seems that the West can only understand Islam and Muslims through these very simplistic and mythical symbols that evoke such deep-seated and irrational emotion. Talking about “markers of separation” and ‘wars’ only entrenches these myths in an historical and irrelevant narrative, instead of allowing new connections to be built and instead of shattering misconceptions and building an honest and open reality.

    This article was recently published in The Muslim News

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