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.continue reading
Last week was a busy week. Apologies to readers who noticed a complete blank on the blog – I was out listening, learning, thinking and in a few rare moments, I was moved too.continue reading
On Tuesday evening, Dr Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core, based out in Chicago, was speaking at the British Library on “In Martin Luther King’s Footsteps”, on the 40th anniversary of his death. Dr Patel is a remarkably eloquent presenter and wove a powerful narrative about the role of faith – and in particular interfaith – in addressing the issues of identity, division and extremism. He spoke of his own journey to be comfortable in living in the spaces of being Indian, Muslim and American and how he has reconciled the three, no longer feeling the need to hide or crush any aspect of his being. What shook him was when he realised that whilst he was busy struggling around ethnicity and nationhood for himself and his peers, the discourse he was part of paid scant or no attention to faith and religion as forming a sense of self and citizenship. Around the same time he also realised two further things about young people – that religious extremism seemed to be on the rise amongst – and appealed most strongly to – young people. He wondered why? He also noticed that young leaders – like Dr King – who play such an important role in our social consciousness as change-makers and peace instigators, rarely have their faith discussed. Dr King, he pointed out, is rarely spoken about as Reverend King. Where was the narrative about faith informing young leaders and the contributions they have made? How could these stories reach out to young people of faith to embrace them into a positive contribution by contributing their own faith stories?
Tony Blair later in the week also spoke about Faith and Globalisation at Westminster cathedral. Outside the stunning building were hordes of protesters who could be heard inside the hall throughout the lecture. “Murderer! Murderer!” they cried. Their placards said “BLIAR”. Inside he spoke about how faith needs to be reclaimed from extremism, and how it can be a tool for good. He also spoke about how as the gravity of power moves from West to East as political and economic change happens, that faith can be one of the channels through which we can create conversation about shared values and ‘purpose’. Given his record in political office, particularly with regards to war, I think there will be widespread scepticism about his new role and that of his foundation: The Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Great name – can it deliver what it promises? It seems to be we ask the same question whether Blair is a political or a religious leader.
However, much to my embarrassment, I have to confess that in a week of big ideas, I was most moved by the closing moments of Eastenders on Friday evening. Yes, sorry, I know I’ve just blown my credibility, but let me explain… Long-lost chav Bianca, with four children in tow, is thrown out of her home. She is too proud to ask for help, and too worried that the authorities will separate her from her children if she admits to her homeless penniless situation. After sleeping the night at the bus-stop, and trying to wash up in the park toilets, they have to face the police patrol who has been observing them and who now feels they need to step in. Fearing they will take her children, Bianca punches the officer, who then arrests her and bundles her into the police car and leaves the children in the park. It’s not high-brow TV but it got me right under my skin and into my heart – the vulnerability of humanity. I’m hoping there are huge inaccuracies – why would they arrest her when her plight is obvious? Why would they leave the children unattended?
All this to one side, it was this that made me actually weep: the easy slip from comfort into poverty, criminal record and homelessness, the high level of child poverty. As someone blessed with comforts, the fact that 600,000 children in London alone live below the poverty line still holds me in shock, when we are in the top 5 richest nations on earth. With the London mayoral elections coming up, I checked the websites of the three candidates of the big parties, and I have to report that it is certainly not obvious what they are planning to do to alleviate this issue, this huge massive issue that faces what should be a world-class city, and a world-leading country.
I’m no expert about homelessness and poverty, but each day for a long time now, I have felt that this is an area I need to learn more about, and then get more strongly involved in. If you can help me learn about the issues, but more importantly about how to solve these issues medium-term, long-term – nay, forever, please help me learn. Even bloggers need those who can offer education and learning.
For those of you who were watching Comic Relief last night you may have seen this clip starring the PM and Catherine Tate’s most famous alter ego Lauren. This character has captured the UK’s imagination as a caricatured representation of younger people today. The sketch is beautifully scripted and Tony does an impressive job with his acting skills. Good for the PM for having the sense of humour and community to participate. Let’s hope he does his own bit for the cause by using the enormous power he holds. If you feel that the sketch was worth watching, you can donate your own little bit here.continue reading