Boris Johnson, The Handmaid’s Tale & The Alt-Right – an unholy alliance?

Dear Mr Johnson

It was a pleasure to meet you earlier this year, at the reception hosted at Buckingham Palace for representatives of the Commonwealth diaspora in the UK. I must admit I was pleasantly surprised to see you there, as it gave me the opportunity to offer my thanks and congratulations for the excellent coverage of your visit to Myanmar that I had seen a couple of days previously. You showed true leadership and did not pander to the Burmese leader. You spoke with passion, referring to what was happening to the Rohingya Muslims as ‘industrial level ethnic cleansing’. So to be able to discuss this with you personally and hear about your visit gave me a sense of relief that our government was genuinely acting to ensure that Rohingya Muslims received the assistance they so desperately needed internally in the country and externally from the international community.

I also realised that day that unlike your media persona, you are in fact a very clever man and not a blundering buffoon. Unfortunately, your recent comments ridiculing women who wear the niqab are text-book Bannon and Breitbart.  I do not like the burqa or the niqab and certainly do not think it easily fits in with the society in which we live. The majority of the public think that too. But telling women how they should dress is not British either.

Some people are suggesting a national niqab day in solidarity with those who wear the niqab, which quite frankly is daft and will poison the genuine debates we need to have as a society.

Your choice of words in describing Muslim women who choose to veil in this manner were very badly chosen and reminded me of a conversation I had a few years previously. I was working with Muslim girls, discussing with them issues they were facing in their hometown of Luton. One young woman, a niqabi said to me “we are hit by both barrels of the gun. We walk down one side of the street and we are called letter boxes and bin liners by the EDL. We walk down the other side of the road and if we refuse to take the leaflets being handed out by Al Muhajiroun we are called traitors and kuffar. We can’t win”. This statement has stayed with me because of how upset the young lady was. All she wanted to do was go about her daily life, get an education, shop, and go out with her friends without having to face a barrage of abuse. And thanks to your comments, (I won’t even insult you by saying they were ill-thought, off -the-cuff comments because nothing you say is) abuse such as this is set to continue, very likely increase. Comments such as yours play into the hands of the alt-right, it legitimises their anti- Muslim hatred and gives them the green card to harass, attack and abuse some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I heard yesterday about a woman who had been urinated on by three men simply because she was wearing the niqab. The abuse and attacks on Muslims will continue, and your comments will give some people the justification they need to commit these offences. The niqab debate is a very convenient rallying call for the extreme right wing anti-Muslim elements in society who will use this to scare people about the impending ‘Islamification’ of Britain and ‘creeping shariah’. What has not been covered in the press is that this is also a very convenient rallying call for Muslims on the extreme right, who see the niqab as a symbol for promoting a version of Islam based on theocracy and not democracy. To them I say no, thank you very much. I do not wish to live in a Muslim society based on a version of The Handmaids Tale. I do not want to be punished by the state for choosing to dress as I please.

There is absolutely no doubt as to who are the ultimate losers in this vicious dogfight – the ordinary British Muslims who simply want to go about their lives and practice their faith. Other minorities will inevitably be targeted after Muslims (some already are.)

I am a British Muslim. I value the freedoms that living in a democratic society affords me with. Whilst many people in this country dislike the niqab and what they perceive it to represent, they will be equally appalled by racist attacks on Muslims, that your comments have no doubt incited.  Albert Einstein said that a leader “is one who, out of the clutter, brings simplicity… out of discord, harmony… and out of difficulty, opportunity.” I hope that out of the clutter your comments have created, you will find the simplest and most honourable option is to apologise to Muslim women who choose to veil for your insensitivity and poor choice of words. This will hopefully provide us with the opportunity to draw a line under this saga, move forward and perhaps even have more grown up conversations about things that actually matter in society, not the banal and the ridiculous.

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A big thank you from Stafford’s skydiving granny!

Have you ever looked up at the sky and wanted to touch it? Have you ever looked at the cloud formations and looked for signs and images and wondered what it might feel like to touch a cloud? Have you ever looked at a bird and wished you had the gift of flight, to glide through the skies and get a ‘birds eye’ view of the world below?

I’ve never been afraid of heights – whether that was climbing up a ladder into the loft or looking down from the Empire State Building. In fact i’ve always wondered what it would be like to jump from a high place (no I do not have suicidal tendencies, this is just the effect of something called cognitive dissonance apparently – look it up!) Doing a skydive is something I’ve always wanted to do, to experience that thrill, that fear of falling through the skies. And last week I did just that.

I decided to combine this crazy idea of mine with raising some funds for charity and decided to support an organisation I have admired for a very long time for the work they do worldwide in alleviating poverty and giving hope to those most in need, Oxfam. I also decided to support a women’s charity, Hestia, a London based organisation working with victims of domestic abuse and modern day slavery.

For almost two months I have harassed, cajoled and practically trolled friends, family, colleagues, followers and complete strangers in every possible way to *encourage* them to make a donation by way of sponsorship. I really am sorry and I hope you will forgive me, but it was for two very worthwhile causes! Thanks to everyones generosity and kindness, after gift aid was added we reached a grand total of £6195! All this money has now gone to the two charities and I have no doubt will be used to benefit those most in need.

As for the skydive – well that was quite an experience! I was delighted to be supported by family and friends on the day, the sun shone for us and the whole experience was one I can highly recommend (so long as you’re not afraid of heights!). Having seen the footage there are some moments which generated a sharp intake of breath, some of hilarity and others which renewed my faith in God! However there are three comments caught on camera that will forever sum up how much love I have been blessed with. The first is the sound of my husband, on seeing me land ask “is she ok?”. The second is my daughter exclaiming “oh my God, that was so stressful”. And lastly by granddaughter holding her arms out to me and saying ‘daado’ ”

Thank you again everyone for supporting me and my crazy venture. Thank you for helping me remind Oxfam that there are still many of us who value the work that they do and will continue to work side by side with them in their endeavours. And thank you for helping me help Hestia support some of the most abused and tormented in our society.

Enjoy the pictures – now what shall I do next year?

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“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”

A sure fire way to see who your real friends are, is to see who sticks around to help you when the chips are down. 

On the 21stJuly, I will be doing a tandem skydive in aid of two charities. Oxfam, a world-renowned organisation that supports people in over 90 countries, providing millions with the support they need to escape the vicious cycle of poverty.  And Hestia a London based charity that supports adults and children in times of crisis. Last year alone they supported more than 9,000 people, including victims of modern day slavery, women, and children who have experienced domestic abuse.

The most frequently asked question since I made my intentions known has been “why Oxfam”? A question that I have been answering with a simple “why not”? However, perhaps it is time I actually made it clear as to why I have supported Oxfam and why I will continue to do so.

A report earlier this year in the media, that some members of Oxfam staff, including the Country Director, had paid women for sex during their emergency response to the Haiti earthquake in 2011, left many people saddened and disturbed as to what had been happening within an organisation trusted by millions. I am not going to dwell on who said what and why certain incidents occurred as I feel that more than sufficient column inches have been dedicated to this over the last 3 months. However what I will say is that as a consequence of the 2011 incidents, Oxfam have stipulated that they have been working hard to ensure the mistakes of the past are never repeated. After the initial revelations related to the sexual misconduct in Haiti, Oxfam conducted internal investigations and subsequently improvements were made to their own procedures. This included the establishing of a whistle blowing hotline and the setting up of a dedicated safeguarding team to ensure that vulnerable individuals around the world were protected, with mechanisms in place to ensure reports of any misconduct were dealt with immediately. However Oxfam also recognise these processes did not go far enough and since February they have been working closely with the Government and the Charity Commission to expand their safeguarding capacity globally to better protect the very people they serve, ensure they are listened to and look after those who come forward as a result of the new measures. They are looking to establish an Independent Global Commission to review their approach to safeguarding and improve the organisational culture to safeguard women from sexism, discrimination and abuse. These are just some of the changes that have been put in place. Oxfam is committed to the work they do and are unswerving to ensure this never happens again.

Nevertheless, what probably shocked me just as much, was the reaction in the mainstream media and the unleashing of what can only be described as a massive media campaign to discredit one of the largest and most effective charities in the world, to prevent them from executing their work abroad. It appeared to be little more than a concerted attack on an agency that supports millions in more than 90 countries across the globe, not just with emergency aid, but also with their long-term goals – to alleviate poverty, run education projects and campaigns. Goals that ultimately focus on saving lives and improving the quality of life for many people. The media campaigns attacked international aid and ultimately affected Oxfam where it would hurt them the most. Fundraising.

The atrocities in Haiti were not committed by an organisation. Individuals who, unfortunately, worked for the charity committed them. Over the last couple of years, we have seen a number of very high profile cases in the media involving actors, philanthropists and politicians who have been accused of sexual abuse and harassment. At no point have I seen the media attack the companies or political parties they are associated with, with the sort of venom I saw the media attack Oxfam. Maybe that has to do with the nature of the organisation. I am inclined to believe it has more to do with those groups and individuals who for whatever reason do not belief in international aid. Those who do not believe that as a rich, first world country, we should be contributing even 0.7% of our GDP to the poorest of nations providing a hand up and supporting them getting out of the cycle of poverty they find themselves in.

I have been supporting Oxfam for many years, because they tackle the very root causes of poverty, making changes that will not just provide someone with their next meal but many future meals. They support people with no shelter, no food, no clothes and no clean water. Oxfam have provided millions with the opportunity to escape the vicious cycle of poverty and has given them hope. I am a friend of Oxfam and if I can support them in raising some much needed funds to help the poorest in our world I will continue to do so. So I’ll be sticking around to support Oxfam for a while – will you?

A sure fire way to see who your real friends are, is to see who sticks around to help you when the chips are down.

Thanks for taking the time to read this – if you feel able to support my chosen charities, please click on the link below and donate whatever amount, big or small. It will be gratefully received.

https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-display/showROFundraiserPage?userUrl=HifsaHaroonIqbal&pageUrl=1

 

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” Martin Luther King 

 

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Men, Women and the Hijab – a never ending debate

“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them; and God is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty, and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appear thereof, that they should draw their veils over their bosoms…..” (24:30-31)

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A few days ago I was asked by someone why I became so sensitive over the issue of the head covering being addressed. Today I’ve been reading about a young Kuwaiti woman being chastised because she publicly chose to stop wearing the headscarf – something that was being seen as an affront to God but also her father, a prominent Islamic scholar

Now I don’t claim to be a scholar nor do a profess to be particularly knowledgeable in relation to Islamic jurisprudenceBut I felt this was one blog I needed to write – for my own sanity and the sanity of other women who are constantly put under pressure, one way or another, in relation to the head scarf.

Most of us know that there are some topics associated with Muslims and Islam that are generally regarded as the proverbial “hot potato”.  Women in Islam is possibly seen as the most controversial, certainly in the eyes of non-Muslims. But the rights of women, particularly around dress and modesty seems to be an area that is much debated (I would add almost relentlessly) not by non-Muslims, or even Muslim women, but by Muslim men.

What is this bizarre obsession, this almost unhealthy fixation, I would say that borders on stalking, that some men have with how Muslim women dress & in particular whether they wear the head scarf, or what has become known as the hijab?

For those unfamiliar with the word, the Arabic word hijab actually means barrier or curtain. It is used on five separate occasions in the Quran. For example 

“Mention in the Quran the story of Mary. She withdrew from her family to a place to the east and secluded herself away. We sent Our Spirit to appear before her in the form of a perfected man.”(19:27-27)

“It is not granted to any mortal that God should speak to him except through revelation or from behind a veil, or by sending a messenger to reveal by His command what He will: He is exalted and wise.”(22:51)

Now it may be a revelation to many that both these verses and subsequent others do not use the term ‘hijab’ to mean a 24 inch square of cloth that covers a womans hair. It does however mean a barrier / curtain and way of seclusion. So what is this fixation about?

I have many good friends who wear the head covering for a variety of reasons, all very different. In fact, I wore the headscarf for three years as well in the 1990’s. Some wear it because they believe it is a religious instruction from God, who instructs them to cover up not just the bosom area but also the hair. Some don the head covering because it brings them closer to God, it becomes a form of worship in the same way that prayer and fasting are. Others use the head covering as an outward expression of their religiosity – literally wearing their faith on their head. Some wear it as it supports them in observing modesty, an instruction for men and women, in the Quran.  There are more and more women, particularly younger women who have adopted the hijab by way of protest – to make a political statement – ‘I am a Muslim and I have no issue with you or anyone else knowing’. And there are political movements were wearing of the head scarf is synonymous with political affiliations and groups. There are those women who have been ‘shamed’ into wearing the hijab because all the other women in the family wear it. Some wear it because it has become ‘habit’ and to remove it would mean they are no longer accepted as ‘authentic’ Muslims, would lose their credibility within certain circles and might possibly have to forfeit positions of authority within the community. And unfortunately, there are those women who wear it because they are forced to do so by their families, fathers in particular. And there are those who wear it because their husbands have told them they would divorce them if they didn’t.

It’s worth pointing out that women who choose not to wear the head scarf do so for equally valid and diverse reasons. Some believe you can be just as pious and modest without covering the hair. Others believe the Quranic verse does not extend to the hair as it specifically mentions the bosom area. And others are of the opinion that you can still appear immodest whilst wearing the headscarf.

Just as there are contrasting reasons behind why women choose to wear the head covering or not, we must acknowledge that there are diverse scholarly opinions  associated with whether or not the head covering is compulsory.

Eminent, outstanding scholars appear to have adopted various positions around whether the head covering is or is not compulsory.  Abdullah bin Bayyah and Abdullah al Judai, for example, are of the opinion that the view mentioned by scholars, in  their commentaries,  like Ibn Ashur (he says some opined it wasn’t necessary) and Muhammad Asad (he said it was all changeable by custom, as what is ordinarily shown changes from one society to the next)  are valid positions. They also opine that in societies where women who wear the head covering, are attacked , they are permitted to remove it. In fact, it may even be necessary to remove it. Hamza Yusuf said the same both in his books and speeches and has stated that

“The laws are there to serve human beings; we are not there to serve the law. We are there to serve Allah, and that is why whenever the law does not serve you, you are permitted to abandon it, and that is actually following the law. … The law is for our benefit, not for our harm. Therefore, if the law harms us, we no longer have to abide by it.”

Abul Fadl also gave the same edict saying it may not be obligatory.  Others are of the opinion that the head covering is not obligatory on the basis that hair does not form part of the ‘awrah’ (intimate areas). In 2005 after the 7th July London bombings, the Egyptian scholar Dr Zaki Badawi issued a fatwa saying that women did not have to wear the head covering as it was unnecessarily putting them at risk in the current climate. An article by Sheikh Usama Hasan presents a very detailed piece on the issue of dress within the Islamic context,  and can be accessed here . What is clear is that there is no consensus and the topic of how women should or should not dress has been blown out of all proportion.  So, are men just incapable of looking at women whose hair is showing without lust? Can they not ‘lower their gaze’ as instructed? Why have they positioned themselves as custodians of Islamic ethics and integrity? Why do they feel they have a right to judge total strangers and compare 50% of God’s creation to inanimate objects whether they be lollipops or iPhone covers? Do they feel they have a God given superiority that allows them to dehumanise their fellow companions in the world?

I do not wear the head covering. Many of my friends and relations do not wear the head covering. Many of them do. But I will not be bullied into interpreting my religion from the eyes of anyone else. We are all more than capable of making our own decisions based on what we have read, taking into account the views of eminent scholars and teachers and our own understanding of the issue. If that does not comply with someone else’s interpretation, that’s fine. ‘To me my religion and to you your religion’. For me, the head covering is not the crux of my faith. On the day of judgement, I believe that I will be judged for all my actions – what did I do to help the poor, the destitute, the elderly, the orphan and the infirm. Did I lie, cheat, steal? Did I go to bed with an overfilled belly whilst my neighbours went to sleep hungry? Did I leave the world a better place for future generations or did I contribute to its destruction? Did I give water to the thirsty and food to the hungry? Did I bring up my children well? And yes maybe, just maybe, God will ask me why I didn’t I cover up my hair. But in the bigger scheme of things, I suspect that will come pretty low down on the list.

But ultimately these are my views – and God knows best!

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If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves “

(Hamdun al-QassarFrom Tafsir ibn Kathir)

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Welcoming God into our Mosques

“Winds in the east, mist coming in

Like somethin’ is brewin’ and bout to begin

Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,

But I fear what’s to happen all happened before”

(Bert – Mary Poppins)

The weather experienced by the UK over the last week has been nothing short of riotous and ferocious. Whilst we’ve had crazy weather before, it seems every time it happens, it’s a new experience for us and as a nation we are just never adequately prepared. Most likely because it happens so infrequently.

From across the country we’ve been hearing reports of tragedy striking with traffic chaos, death and injury being caused as a result of the snow and the storm. However, what we do find is that when hardship comes to Brits, The Brit resolve kicks in and we have also heard some heartwarming stories. The couple who managed to get married thanks to strangers who helped clear the path to the church by bringing shovels and diggers to the rescue. Or the car dealer who sent 4×4’s to rescue a wedding party and get them to the church on time. And most importantly the  wedding cake too! And of course our emergency services including the military coming to the rescue across the country and providing much needed assistance.

But the stories that have made me smile the most are the stories from up and down the country of mosques opening their doors to allow the homeless to come in and shelter  from the freezing temperatures, get warm and have something to eat.

I was in two minds over whether to get myself some heroin or crack, so that I could be okay for the night. As I was thinking about this, a guy came over from the side and said “you’re homeless, would you like to spend the night in a mosque?’  (Al Jazeera)

Mosques in Manchester, London and Ireland for example have all featured in various news reports for opening their doors and welcoming in the homeless. But why is this only done when such extreme weather kicks in and a ‘good news’ opportunity arises? Why are our mosques not ‘open all hours’ as they are in many other countries? I am well aware of the current climate and yes there is a chance that problems could occur, but surely the need to provide shelter and warmth out weighs any concerns we should have. Opening mosques to everyone needs to be more than just a method of publicity seeking. Even if it is some much needed positive publicity surrounding Islam and Muslims.

A mosque was never supposed to be just ‘a house of God’ in the sense that everyone else needed permission to enter. In the early days of Islam, mosques were the centre of the community, open and welcoming. They were the place everyone would congregate as a community. They were open to Muslims, but also those of other faiths. We have examples from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (may Peace and blessings be upon Him) that show Christians who had come from Yemen were permitted to pray within the mosque. And many other examples of the respect He gave to ‘People of the Book’. One such incident illustrates this, when a funeral passed by the Messenger he stood up and someone commented  “It is a Jew.” to which The Prophet responded, “Was he not a soul?”.

Hundreds of mosques across the country (and i suspect churches, synagogues and temples as well) are locked up every night when the space could be used to shelter the homeless – whether the temperatures are 10 degrees or -10 degrees. No doubt they are kept locked because of the fear they will be damaged, property stolen or desecrated if left unattended. Perhaps if our mosques were kept simple and not adorned to the extent that we worried about valuables being stolen, the true essence of what a mosque should be, can be returned to. I find it hard to believe that our houses of God that close their doors to His creation in the most difficult of times, could possibly be occupied by God.  In order for this to happen however, as Muslim communities, we do need to take more of an interest in our mosques and particularly in ensuring our mosque leadership understands the reasoning behind developing mosques suitable for 21st Century Britain. A leadership that can affect change and is effective in delivering a service for all the local community. A mosque should never be treated as a private venture owned by a handful of individuals who will only give up their seat of influence when carried out in a wooden box. If our mosque governance does not allow for community participation, then it is our responsibility, our duty, to make a fuss. Our mosques must be inclusive and not exclusive and seen as the (halal) old boys club.

Maybe when our mosques  can achieve this, when they are open 24 hours a day, welcome everyone, become part of the local community and allow the cold and the destitute to seek shelter we might just find God residing there as well.

And when our mosques have achieved this, maybe they’ll consider letting women in as well.

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100 Years of Women’s Suffrage (so are we done then?)

I’ve just caught a glimpse of the headline on the front page of this evenings Evening Standard. “Rudd: We may pardon the Suffragettes” it screamed. Not unlike the screams of the same women 100 years ago trying to get women the rights they – we – so rightly deserved. As the vendor called out ‘Home Office to pardon the suffragettes!’ instinct took over and I heard myself shout “about bloody time too”! I wasn’t expecting the response I got from the older looking gentleman who replied ‘you’re not wrong there love. My nan and my gran were both suffragettes and I’m proud of what they achieved’.

And that got me thinking. If I had to name 100 inspirational women who have achieved amazing things because of the sacrifices made by the suffragettes, who would they be? Women in politics, medicine, education, activism, writers, artists, musicians, sports and media. Women in the church, women who fly planes or women who risk their own lives in war zones to send us the news report that inform us of world-wide events. As a result of the struggles and the hardship endured by the suffragettes just 100 years ago, women have achieved goals they could only have dreamed of. And the men within the corridors of power who would no doubt at the time have put every obstacle in place to prevent any advancement and achievement, must be spinning in their graves.  But we must also remember the people around them who helped and supported them. Husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. Not all men thought the suffragettes were insane and needed to be restrained by their menfolk! Many, just like the Evening Standard vendor, were rightly proud of what the suffragettes stood for and even today stand by them.

However there is still much to be done. There are still many glass ceilings that need to be reached, especially by women from minority groups and faith groups. There are still many equality ceilings that need to be broken. The world is indeed in a sorry state of affairs. Maybe it’s’ future lies with the women of the future. We’re getting there but we’re not quite there yet!

We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help free the other half.  (Emmeline Pankhurst)

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To “Prevent” or Not to “Prevent” – that is the Question!

Two reports published last week have again put the spotlight on Prevent. At the launch of the Citizens UK report entitled “The Missing Muslims – Unlocking British Muslim Potential for the Benefit of All”1, The Right Honourable Dominic Grieve MP, QC Chair of the independent group of Commissioners stated that there appeared to be an ‘induced paranoia” amongst Muslims in relation to Prevent. Jenny Watson, Vice Chair of the Commission further stated that she was surprised to hear the extent to which Prevent was mentioned by Muslims she engaged with, indicating that it bordered on an obsession. Researchers have recently tried to dig beneath this paranoia with the educational context and a second report published by academics from three British universities, looks at what the Prevent duty means for schools and colleges in England2.  The researchers stated that in both the interview and survey data fairly high and widespread levels of confidence existed amongst educationalists around implementing the Prevent Duty. They stated that this had also ‘provided an opportunity to reinvigorate areas of work around equalities, diversity and anti-racism”. It further states that “The overwhelming majority of respondents had engaged with and accepted the core government message that Prevent should be understood as part of school/college safeguarding responsibilities.’ and that there was “widespread acceptance and repetition of the government’s message that Prevent relates to all forms of extremism.”

For transparency, I need to declare from the outset that I am a Prevent practitioner and I am proud of what I have achieved. I know of countless examples where vulnerable young people have been prevented from crossing the boundary into the criminal space, avoiding prison sentences and ruining promising careers. I have trained tens of thousands of young people and professionals who have often had little or no exposure to Islam, offering both reassurances about my religion as well as a demonstration of Islamic behaviour.

It goes without saying I have come across challenges to my work, very occasionally through the training and workshops I’ve delivered, but mainly through social media. Mostly of the ‘keyboard warrior’ variety who profess to know everything and anything. What isn’t quite so well known is that for about seven years I was a member of the Staffordshire Police Authority and part of the Strategic CONTEST Board. I have also had very personal involvement with young people who have been arrested on suspicion of terrorism. So, it’s only fair to say that I have, in some way, shape or form, been involved in this area of work for over 12 years.

So, what are the challenges?  The clear majority relate to myths about Prevent promulgated by those who do not like Prevent and who I would classify into four following categories that are not mutually exclusive:

  1. Those who believe Prevent is poorly implemented and would like to see improvements and a stronger evidence base for its future development. However, they recognise that a Prevent type of programme is needed as it helps prevent some causes of terrorism that are a major cause of Islamophobia.
  2. Those who feel Government should not be introducing a programme that operates in the pre-criminal space as this should be left solely with Muslim communities to develop their own prevention programmes. A government sponsored programme, they believe, generates Islamaphobia.
  3. Those who do not want the government or Muslim communities to operate in the pre-criminal space or develop such programmes. They believe that if the government changed its foreign policy there would be no terrorists. The security services should be supported and be left to get on with their job without a Prevent type of programme that is little more than an excuse to spy on and stigmatise Muslims.
  4. There is also a small minority who are against Prevent because they covertly sympathise with the terrorists’ political aims.

I have for some time wanted to address some of the misconceptions that are commonly voiced by individuals, Some of these people may not fully understand how prevent works, but there are also those who vociferously lobby against the governments counter terrorism strategy, particularly the Prevent element. Some of their often repeated ‘observations’ include (in no particular order of importance);

  1. It’s all about Muslims.
  2. Prevent is based on a ‘conveyor belt theory’.
  3. Channel is a secretive, police led initiative that splits up families and criminalises people.
  4. Prevent stifles debate and infringes on our free of speech.
  5. It is based on flawed science.
  6. It refuses to acknowledge that foreign policy makes people vulnerable.

 

  1. So, it’s all about Muslims?

The Prevent strategy states: “The UK faces a range of terrorist threats. The most serious is from Al Qa’ida, its affiliates and like-minded organisations”. Of course, the most serious threat now comes from Da’esh and those inspired by Da’esh. Eighteen plots inspired by Da’esh have been disrupted since 2013 and three have very recently caused a tragic loss of life.

“Prevent will address all forms of terrorism but continue to prioritise according to the threat they pose to our national security. At present, the majority of our resources and efforts will continue to be devoted to preventing people from joining or supporting Al Qa’ida, its affiliates or related groups”. Bearing in mind the Revised Strategy was produced in 2011, it is important to note that there has been a significant rise in far-right extremism with 30% of cases supported by Channel nationally (50% in some regions) coming from far right related cases. We have also seen far right inspired acts of terrorism in the murder of Jo Cox in June 2016, that resulted in the proscribing of National Action, a far right organisation, and also the far right terrorist attack on worshippers at Finsbury Park during the month of Ramadan.

“Prevent must deal with all forms of terrorism “

The Strategy further recognises that “There have been allegations that previous Prevent programmes have been used to spy on communities. We can find no evidence to support these claims. Prevent must not be used as a means for covert spying on people or communities. Trust in Prevent must be improved”.

Prevent does rely on identifying individuals who may be vulnerable to being targeted by extremists. This is not spying. This is in fact no different to the work that has been done in schools, colleges and communities in supporting people around gangs, child sexual exploitation, female genital mutation and forced marriages for example. There is nothing wrong with adopting a conservative form of your religious beliefs as long it is within the law. There is no evidence that a conservative form of Islam leads to terrorism. In fact, many of the terrorists have limited theological understanding. The security services spy on individuals who are a threat, not on vulnerable individuals. Perhaps some Muslims who have been wrongly accused, have been at the receiving end of badly delivered training or believe their freedom of expression has been curtailed, do feel stigmatised. My personal view is that nothing stigmatises Muslims more than a terrorist attack committed in the name of Islam by individuals who call themselves Muslims.

 

  1. Prevent is based on a ‘conveyor belt theory’

Despite the rumours, Prevent is not based on a so called linear “conveyor belt” theory. Prevent training around radicalisation is publically available. It can be easily accessed as both face-to-face training or via an e-learning package and puts forward the Government’s understanding of radicalisation. It references those circumstances or factors around an individual that might “push” them towards a group or ideology that is attractive to them. There are also “pull” factors that might include people or messages that are communicated in such a way that others find them appealing. These individuals may be at a point in their life where they feel that they want to be part of a movement, something bigger, more meaningful or significant, that gives them a sense of purpose, identity or belonging. Interestingly the only time I have ever heard reference to a conveyor belt theory is when elements of the anti-prevent lobby use this to discredit the strategy.

 

  1. Channel is a secretive, police led initiative that splits up families and criminalises people

I listened to the mother of a now deceased British Da’esh fighter speak last year 3. She spoke of her horror at discovering that her son had left home and gone to Syria. Shortly after, she discovered that her son had been killed. She described how she had wished someone had picked up the changes in her son and referred him to Channel. She wished he had had the opportunity to listen to ‘the other side’ instead of just the propaganda he was being fed via social media. “I don’t have the luxury of knowing where my son is buried let alone being able to go and pray by his graveside’. It’s not Channel that splits up families – it’s the evil divisive ideology of the far right and Da’esh that do that. Channel is a voluntary multi agency scheme headed by the local authorities. The panel includes representation from many sectors including education, housing, police, social services and prisons, as they all have a part to play in keeping people out of the criminal justice system. Channel works by ensuring that the individual who wants support has a mentor to work with, who can guide them away from the influences they have come under, who can ‘channel’ their energy towards more constructive matters. It is an open and transparent process. Ask those who have been involved.

Successful interventions drawing people away from extremism and terrorism can come in the form of an Imam, or former far right activist, mentoring a young person to get them to see how they’ve been manipulated into viewing the world through a binary lens. But supportive interventions could also include counselling or family support. Each case is different. Those working on Prevent understand the complexity of radicalisation and the need to consider each case carefully to be sure that those who require support are steered away from ruining their own lives and potentially those of their families and others. I have in my mind the comments from one mother who “thanks God” for the support her son received after he had viewed extremist material online and indicated support for Daesh. Let’s make sure we don’t let down families like this.

 

  1. Prevent stifles debate and infringes on our freedom of speech

The Prevent strategy makes several references to freedom of speech including:

“We remain absolutely committed to protecting freedom of speech in this country”

“Challenging ideology is also about being confident in our own values – the values of democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind”.

“We are completely committed to protecting freedom of speech in this country”.

“Universities and colleges have an important role to play in Prevent, particularly in ensuring balanced debate as well as freedom of speech “

Freedom of speech is something that is protected in our laws, it is a privilege that comes with living in a free and democratic society. For our educational establishments, freedom of speech is enshrined within Section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986 that states “Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”.

Prevent does not stifle debate nor infringe on freedom of speech, indeed it is necessary to allow extremist views to be aired for them to be challenged and to allow intervention if necessary.  Lord Justice Sedley stated in 1999 that “Free speech includes not only the offensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome, and the provocative, providing it does not tend to provoke violence”. Freedom of speech cannot be taken in isolation and if views are being expressed that are breaking other laws, whether that’s incitement to commit violence or equality laws, challenging ideologies becomes a collective responsibility. Where our further and higher education institutions are concerned, it is vital they protect academic freedom. However, they also have a duty of care to their students and “must safeguard vulnerable young people from radicalisation and recruitment by terrorist organisations “.

 

  1. It is based on flawed science

Prevent’s understanding of radicalisation is based on Government research on individuals that have engaged in terrorist activity. It is clear there is no single socio-demographic profile, or pathway, that leads an individual to become involved in terrorism. These cases tell us that the process is based on several factors coming together that convert radicalisation to terrorism.

Firstly, background factors: aspects of someone’s history or situation that might make them vulnerable to involvement in terrorist activities. Examples can include involvement in criminality, a failure to integrate, disrupted childhoods, and growing up in an extremist subculture.

Secondly, initial influences that help push an individual towards a terrorist group. The most significant are parents, siblings and friends engaged in extremist activity as well as terrorist influencers and extremist ideological material. There has been an increasing move by terrorists to use the internet and social media to brainwash people using sophisticated propaganda. Daesh’s propaganda has been prolific.

Thirdly, ideological opening: before becoming involved in terrorism, individuals need to be receptive to its ideological message. This ideological opening can be because the individual’s experiences make them sympathetic to the terrorist narrative. For example, an individual may become disillusioned with their previous beliefs, leaving them vulnerable to terrorist ideology, or because they are naive, lacking the theological or ideological knowledge to counter terrorist ideology they have been exposed to. For some individuals, involvement in terrorism meets, or promises to meet, important psychological needs: the need to belong, the need for self-esteem and the need for meaning and purpose. The overwhelming majority of people who have these background influences above do not go on to engage in terrorist activity – this is because they have protective factors or obstacles that stop them becoming engaged in terrorism. These factors can either compete with terrorism (e.g. a strong family life that already satisfies the individual’s need for belonging, self-esteem and purpose) or conflict with it (e.g. part of a friendship group that would be lost if the individual became involved in terrorism).

Overlaying the above is the fact that the radicalisation process is overwhelmingly a social process and centres on networks of influential extremists and propagandists. It is about ‘who you know’ and group bonding, peer pressure and indoctrination are necessary to encourage the view that violence is a legitimate response to perceived injustice. The internet has reduced the barriers that exist in the real world for certain groups to become involved in extremism and provides radicalisers the capability to connect and convince a greater audience who would otherwise not have been reachable.

 

  1. It refuses to acknowledge that foreign policy makes people vulnerable

One of the greatest myths about Prevent is that the government’s understanding of what causes people to become radicalised omits any reference to the international context or foreign policy. This mistaken belief exists even though the 2011 Prevent strategy states that: “Support for violence is associated with an aspiration to defend Muslims when they appear to be under attack…Issues which can contribute to a sense that Muslim communities are being unfairly treated include… UK foreign policy”. Former Prime Minister David Cameron said this about the role of foreign wars back in 2015, “I am not saying these issues aren’t important. We could deal with all these issues and some people would still be drawn to Islamist extremism”. And that surely must be right. Lots of people care deeply about, and are angered by, foreign military interventions but there must be something more fundamental going on in someone’s life for them to believe that this justifies murdering innocents.

I would encourage people to do three things. To keep an open mind; fact-check and ensure what you are hearing is not ‘fake news’, such as cucumber bombs, terrorist houses or Palestinian conversations causing Prevent referrals. Talk to people who work in Prevent. It’s not perfect and there will be mistakes made. Constructive feedback and engagement is necessary for any improvement to happen. And finally, if you feel strongly that Prevent should be scrapped, ask yourself: what do we replace it with and how do we stop vulnerable people from being drawn into terrorism of all forms and destroying lives? Sadly as we’ve seen from recent events, the challenge from terrorism is likely to be with us for some time. Safeguarding vulnerable people and protecting our country is a job for us all.

 

References

  1. ‘The Missing Muslims – Unlocking British Muslim Potential for the Benefit of All’. Report by the Citizens Commission on Islam, Participation and Public Life. https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/newcitizens/pages/1261/attachments/original/1499106471/Missing_Muslims_Report_-_Electronic_copy.pdf?1499106471

 

  1. ‘What the Prevent duty means for schools and colleges in England: An analysis of educationalists’ experiences’ by Joel Busher, Tufayl Choudhury, Paul Thomas & gareth Harris. July 2017 https://pure.coventry.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/11090509

 

  1. My Son the Jihadi by Nicola Benyahia New York Times 8th July 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/08/opinion/sunday/my-son-the-jihadist.html

 

 

 

 

 

Featured post

Political Correctness or Has Someone Really Gone Mad?

Please note: this post has absolutely nothing to do with the 45th President of the United States of America. It has nothing to do with stable geniuses (or should that be genii?) or unstable stupidity. Actually I take that back. It has EVERYTHING to do with unstable stupidity.

So this evening it was brought to my attention by a friend that a newspaper report from February 2016, was doing the rounds on social media platforms. It was being shared by supporters of far right groups and being used to sow further discord and division. Ultimately being used to recruit individuals to a shared ’cause’ that hates anything remotely associated with Muslims and providing a platform for hurling abusive comments at Muslims.

The article relates to a report claiming that Welsh councils had banned the use of the word ‘purdah’ in case it upset Muslims. Clearly indicating to me that no Muslims had been asked prior to the decision being made. Now, if I had been consulted on the matter, what would I have said?

I may have gone onto the veranda at the back of my bungalow to perform some yoga to clear my head. I may have even changed into my khaki coloured pyjamas and tied my hair back with a bandanna for added comfort, ignoring the typhoon raging overhead. After which i might have decided to have a quick shower and shampoo my hair, to finally relax with a non alcoholic punch. Before making rash decisions about anything its important to consider the consequences because, as they say, karma is a b…h!

The word purdah is an Urdu / Hindi word meaning to screen or curtain. A word that has been used for many years in the English language to refer to the period between an election being announced and the election results being made. There are various rules around what can and cannot be done by governments during this period, hence the use of the word. It is not a ‘Muslim word’ or one thats use would be offensive to anyone, let alone The Muslims.

It is surprising how ignorant some people are about the very ‘Englishness’ they claim to be defending. The word purdah is just one of many words adopted into the English language that have their origins in Hindi and Urdu, some highlighted above.  Veranda, bungalow, yoga and pyjamas for example. The word bandanna means ‘to tie’ and shampoo comes from a Hindi word meaning ‘to rub’. And how many people know that ‘punch’ comes from the word ‘panch’ meaning five, as the drink punch was originally made from five ingredients and when you punch someone you make a fist using your four fingers and thumb!

Please note, this has been said many times previously by many Muslims. We are not offended by the use of the word purdah, or Christmas, or any other nonsense someone might want to dream up. What offends me is social injustices, seeing people sleeping rough on the streets and the rise in demand for soup kitchens in the 21st Century in a first world country. What offends me is the rise in hatred and bigotry, mindless attacks on innocent people and ridiculous reports in tabloid newspapers designed to turn communities and neighbours against each other. Surely there are bigger issues going on the world that we need to be dealing with together, without wasting time and energy on stories that are two years old and have nothing to do with reality.

“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please”

(Mark Twain)

 

A Very Merry (Muslim) Christmas Greeting

 

As people across the world begin the festivities, my heartfelt greetings to everyone this Christmas. May Christmas and the New Year bring us all comfort, joy, and happiness.

May the New Year bring the world some much needed peace.

May those who are hungry be fed, may those who are lonely find companionship.

May those who are homeless find shelter and may those who are cold find warmth.

May those who are oppressed in the world find relief and may those doing the oppressing, those who are deaf dumb and blind to the anguish they are causing humanity, see the error of their words and their actions.

May the challenges, discomfort, tears and sadness of this year be replaced by all that is good for you and your loved ones.

Merry Christmas and a very happy 2018! 

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