Jack and the Beanstalk in Nepal – Seeing it for myself with Oxfam Part 2

I was heading for an ultra remote area in one of the poorest countries in the world. The flight would take me across Nepal to Nepalgunj, a city that lies on the Terai plains, just south of the outer foothills of the Himalayas. In a rickety plane I experienced some breathtaking views of mountain after mountain, with the furthest being covered with snow.  Ahead of me were remote villages and pothole laden roads.  Actually many of the villages I would be visiting had no access to proper roads and were several days walk away from any small town.

There is a saying that no two days are ever alike. The same can be applied to weeks, and without a doubt the second week I spent with Oxfam GB seeing it for myself was very different but just as enjoyable and enlightening an experience as the first. Week 2 saw us visiting a variety of programmes related to sustainable livelihoods, schools’ programmes, community discussion centres, cooperative boards and families of migrant workers.

The Sahid Samarika Higher Secondary school in Kamdi was one schools based programme I visited. Having been greeted by staff and students and a powerful song composed by the children themselves, I spoke to some of the young people who sat on the board of what was called the ‘children’s club’, or what we would know as school councils. The council is made up of two representatives from each year group and I was particularly pleased to see a fair mix of boys and girls involved. The aim of the club is to empower the young people to ensure they understand the benefits of creating a fairer society. They tackle issues around child marriages, women’s rights, domestic abuse and child trafficking. Child marriage in the region affects young girls and boys who were being married as young as 14 years old. The project aims to empower young people, form their communication and critical thinking skills to develop powerful advocates for their peers, parents and the adults in the community.

One of my favourite conversations was with a young boy, clearly committed and engaged with the programme. One question I asked him was “why are you involved in this – surely you should let the girls get on with it as it affects them, right?”.

His very mature response came back “why wouldn’t I be involved? These girls are part of my society, it is my duty to make sure we are being fair to them and not unfair just because they are girls.”

He went on to tell me the girls had every right to a decent education and choose who they should marry, when they were ready, not when society felt it was time. Another young girl very articulately reminded me ‘these are my brothers, it’s their job as well not just mine’. The aims of the young people in the school were very similar to those of the women who formed part of the community discussion centre I visited. They too wanted to make a difference, and saw the issues with what many see as ‘cultural norms’ and understood that things needed to change in order to help the next generation.  Meeting with the Oxfam Nepal team and partners, we discussed the work around social justice and it became evident the passion with which the work is conducted. Work around women, youth, drug abuse, ‘girls not brides’ and collective campaign for peace (COCAB). The community development work includes religious leader forums and other community forums to enable difficult conversations in safe spaces.

One of the projects I visited was a village where they were collecting wild honey. The beehives were established in tree logs approximately two feet in length. Each home in the village had between 5 and 16 hives and produced between 3-4kg of honey 3-4 times a year. Thanks to support from Oxfam, the farmers were being supported by developing hive boxes that would produce a bigger yield and would be easier to maintain. One farmer described how the worst possible thing for honey farmers was rain, as bees were unable to fly, which then affected the crop. The thing that surprised me most was the lack of safety clothing – in fact there was none! No hoods or gloves – in fact I have never been so close to so many bees. But this was how these farmers make a living. A far cry from the risk averse West!

In contrast, the crop farmers I met were grateful for the irrigation systems and wind tunnels installed by Oxfam that allowed them to grow crops throughout the year. It was at one such farm that I met a real-life ‘Jack’.

Most people are familiar with the childhood fairy-tale about Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack if you recall, took his cow to the market and sold it for a handful of beans, that grew into a beanstalk that took him to a magical land where he found a giant, he stole a golden egg laying hen and lots of treasures. In Nepal I met a real life ‘Jack’ named Naurag who told me a similar tale, minus the giant and theft!

Naurag had been working in India for 15 years for a telephone exchange company when he returned to Nepal feeling he could not return to that life, a life without his wife and family. On his return, he discovered that his wife had joined the cooperative that had been set up in his village and he said, ‘a man gave me a handful of beans and said go and grow these’. Naurag was a bit unsure of exactly what this would lead to, but dutifully planted the beans, that gave him enough of a crop that he was both able to sell in market and still keep some back for his family. He decided that with the money he made at the market, he would buy different seeds and see what happened. Naurag now has a thriving business growing a variety of vegetables from cabbages, chillies and tomatoes. Thanks to Oxfam, he is able to water his crops with ease. He has a wind tunnel that means whether wind or rain his tomatoes are safe. He explained he was able to grow vegetables in and out of season and that a 6kg cabbage in season made 30 Nepali Rupees, but out of season the same cabbage would sell for 300 Nepali Rupees. His farm is thriving. He makes enough to support his family, sells a large amount at the markets and has even been able to set up a shop in the village.

Naurag is testament to what can be achieved with just a little support. I was reminded of the saying ‘give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. This is what Oxfam is so good at. They teach men and women how to ‘fish’, grow crops, build houses, empower communities and generally teach communities how to work for their own furtherance. They teach, they train, they facilitate, they inspire, they energise and they galvanise. This is why I support Oxfam.

Two final livelihood programmes visited involved weaving and pottery making. The weaving workshop visited was made possible through funding by Oxfam of the hand operated weaving looms and work was underway on 2 of the four machines. A fifth machine was based in the home of one worker who wanted to work, but due to personal commitments was unable to go to the workshop. It was great to see flexible working conditions in place even in Nepal!

I was particularly interested in the pottery industry, as a Staffordshire resident I am quite used to seeing the smokeless chimneys across Stoke on Trent, a reminder of the world-renowned Potteries that sadly have dwindled over the years. Having visited the potteries and particularly the workshop of my friend Anita Harris, I was shocked at the comparison. The mixing of the clay was being done openly in the courtyard, but a number of machines were on hand to mix the clay mixture to the right consistency. My pottery skills were put to the test but alas fell short. The potter did not have a kiln and had to transfer his made pots to a nearly kiln to be fired and then returned to him for glazing. I spoke to the recipient of a kiln purchased by Oxfam who described how pots were fired before they had access to the kiln, what would happen if the weather was bad and how life had become much easier with a kiln. The Nepal potteries were a stark contrast to the Stoke on Trent pottery industry and the lack of wealthy investors were paramount.

It is very difficult to fully express just how much I have seen and experienced for myself as part of the Oxfam trip. This blog and the first one simply provide a quick overview, a sample, a taster. I have seen businesses being established,  machines being purchased, water tanks being dug. I have seen corn grinders being brought and chickens distributed to families who lost everything following the earthquake. I have seen bricks being made and houses being constructed. I have seen women digging for soil to paint their houses and women taking up the gauntlet in their communities and pledging to make the future for all women better. I have seen women and children being empowered and I have seen crop farming, apiculture and cattle farming being expanded and developed. I have seen women who used to carry 25 litres of water 5 times a day smile as they tell me of the water tap outside their door. These women tell me they can do so much more with their ‘spare time’; take care of their homes, their children, improve their personal hygiene and farm. Yet none of this would have been possible but for the support they have received from Oxfam, and the support Oxfam receives from their supporters. None of this would have been possible without the donations made my ordinary people to enable the charity to support the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the world.

As a British woman, I am aware that after 2 weeks of witnessing first-hand the life of so many in Nepal, I have returned home to my very privileged life. A life where I don’t run the risk of losing my home and possessions in an eathquake. A life where I don’t have to build my own house brick by brick. A life where I have clean running water, electricity and gas. A life where I can jump into my car and go shop for anything I might want, but not necessarily need.  A life where I don’t have to worry about my child walking an hour each way to school. A life where my 13-year-old daughter has to miss school because the washing needs doing by hand. There was one other reminder for me travelling around Nepal, and that was of the land of my birth and all the commonalities they possess. I left Pakistan in the mid 1960’s. Had I not, my whole life would have been worlds apart from what I have today. My world may have resembled one similar to the worlds of Bhawana, Kayli and Shanti Maya. And I am constantly reminded of one phrase again and again – there but for the Grace of God go I.

 

 

 

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Brick by Brick – Seeing it for myself with Oxfam in Nepal Part 1

At the end of last year, I was invited by Oxfam GB to visit one of their international projects, following an application I made to their ‘see for yourself’ initiative.  The scheme allows Oxfam supporters to personally observe the affect Oxfam is having on the lives of millions of people around the world. Having been an avid Oxfam supporter and fundraiser for a number years, I was being given an insight into the world of Oxfam where it really matters. The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief was founded in Britain in 1942 and campaigned for food supplies to be sent through an allied naval blockade to starving women and children in enemy-occupied Greece during the Second World War. Oxfam International came into being 53 years later, having been developed by a group of international non-government organisations who aimed to work in collaboration to reduce poverty and injustice across the globe. The next two weeks will afford me the opportunity to witness if and how effectively our donations are being used by Oxfam to achieve these goals in Nepal.

When an earthquake struck Nepal in April 2015, it was the worst the region had witnessed since 1936. Nine thousand people lost their lives; 22,000 were injured; over half of the country’s regions and 8 million people, one third of the country’s population, were affected. People not only lost their loved ones, they lost their homes, their possessions, their land, their crops, their livestock and their livelihoods. Above all they lost that independence and self-determination that all these things command and overnight they were let destitute.

Currently Oxfam are involved in facilitating 4 main programmes in Nepal around food sustainability & livelihood, water, sanitation & hygiene (WASH) and water governance, women’s empowerment and humanitarian & disaster risk reduction & climate change adaptation. Kharanitaar is a small village development in the district of Nuwakot that provided homes for those displaced following the earthquakes. But the homes did not materialise overnight. Oxfam worked with local NGO’s, politicians and most importantly the community itself to establish homes for the newcomers and make them feel part of a wider community. The target is to build 70 new homes and to date 24 have been completed. Whilst raw materials and support was provided, so was training and both men and women were able to receive training in masonry to enable them to not only build their own homes but for others as well. I was completely taken aback when I saw Kayli in her hi-vis jacket, hard hat and shovel in hand digging away alongside the men. I asked Kayli if she was building her house and she informed me that no, her house had been built, she was now supporting her brothers in building homes for other people. I asked her why and she responded with a smile and said “why not? They built a home for me – if I have the strength and the ability to support my brothers in building homes for others, why shouldn’t I?” I tried my hand at brick building – it seemed so easy, the ease with which the men were shovelling the mix into the mould and compressing the plates to form the brick. It was not easy. Each house uses 2000 bricks – so they had 92,000 left to go.

Walking through the village, I came across two little girls at the water pump. Aged 10 and 13. I remembered my daughter at that age, running around the garden, laughing and being teased by her brothers. She had what most would describe as a normal childhood.  Actually, our children have a very privileged childhood – these girls were doing the households washing. One was rinsing the clothes, the other soaping them and passing them back for rinsing before hanging them out to dry. I wonder, how many 13 year olds in middle England know how to operate the washing machine let alone wash clothes by hand?

I stopped and sat with Shanti Maya who was cradling a young sleepy child. Throughout our conversation she had a beaming smile on her face.  She told me she was happy. Before the earthquake hit Nepal, there had been a landslide and her home along with all her possessions, had been washed away down the mountainside. They were left with nothing. Thanks to Oxfam and partners, she now had a house with a proper roof as opposed to the tin one her old house had. She no longer worried that the houses further up the mountain would collapse on top of hers. Her children could walk to school within 10 minutes and she did not have to worry about them walking through the jungle areas. She had running water right outside her house, she had a small plot of land to grow vegetables and was breeding chicken. As an only child, she needed to care for her elderly parents, one of whom was housebound and blind. But she again described herself as happy and grateful for what had she now had.

“The great Oxfam provided crucial support in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and the theme of partnership working continues. Efficient working, effective working and above all transparent”

I was informed that without the support provided by Oxfam, there would have been total destruction and poverty. Oxfam have provided food distribution and construction, they have worked collaboratively and continue to provide support.

In Dhading we were able to see how running water has been provided to the remote village communities. I spoke to Swaraswati and Bima, two fiercely independent women who have both benefitted from the instalment of water tanks that now provide safe water to 320 households. Before the instalment of a water tap for every household, Swarswati’s day could start as early as 4.00am, with one hours walk to the water collection point. Once in the queue, she could wait up to two hours before it was her turn to collect 25 litres of water, that she would then carry home, on her back, with another one hours walk. Most days Swarswati could do this same journey 4-5 times a day. When I asked her what difference the tanks had made she said she now had so many extra hours in which she could look after her children, maintain a better level of hygiene, grow more vegetables and water her livestock. The water meant the vegetables she grew were enough for the family leaving some to sell in the market. Both Bima and Swarswati had married their husbands at the age of 14 and 15. Bima’s health was deteriorating and not having to spend hours carrying water meant she could take more care of herself and have some time to relax.

I have been privileged this week to meet some incredibly dedicated and committed Nepalise, people who work for NGO’s, Oxfam Nepal, local government officials and community representatives. But nothing has been as gratifying as meeting the numerous women who have taken the lead in establishing and securing safe and comfortable homes for their families. The all-women’s management committee in Aanptar that have been running planning and organising the safe water project have indeed become my ‘sheros’ for International Women’s Day 2019. I witnessed the women in action, the no nonsense approach to ensuring that in their community, water, the most basic requirement for survival, would not be seen as a luxury but a necessity easily accessible to everyone. And everyone would and should participate actively in ensuring that the water supplies were set up as quickly as possible.

The work being undertaken across Nepal by Oxfam should be seen, not just as a great achievement of Oxfam and their partners. It should be recognised as an achievement of every single individual who contributed to the Nepal earthquake appeal.  It should be acknowledged that without the funds, support and training provided by Oxfam all this could not have been achieved. And every single individual who has ever made a contribution to Oxfam should be uplifted in the knowledge that their donations have been put to good use. But just as the communities cannot achieve anything without Oxfam and their partners, so too Oxfam cannot survive without funds and fundraisers. Without funds, nothing will be achieved. Communities will not receive the assistance whether monetary or otherwise they require to get out of the cycle of poverty. There are many ‘Nepal’s’ across the world that still require that uplift and we have a duty to them. As Kayli said, if you are able to do it, why wouldn’t you?

 

 

 

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The Unknown Fallen – The Muslim Story For Remembrance Sunday

“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart beating. Not one of us is moving. Not even when the trenches went dark.”

(From The Diary of an Unknown Soldier)

“The Unknown Fallen – the Global Allied Muslim Contribution in the First World War” is a recent publication by the Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation.  The deeply moving photography in the book captures the raw human courage, sacrifice and fellowship of soldiers during the World War One.  The pain and fear that, undoubtedly, the soldiers must have been experienced, permeates through the pages .  But the most powerful heart-stopping image for me depicts a group of Christian soldiers praying with a priest, possibly before going into battle, whilst just a few feet away, Muslim soldiers are prostrating, bowing their heads in worship.  Incredible stories of fear, hardship, courage and perseverance are told. The Unknown Fallen takes the reader into a dark world, full of death and separation and one that we can only hope the world never witnesses again. A world where Muslim, Christian and Jewish clergy were fully versed in the methods of performing the last rites related to each other’s faiths. Because it was inevitable that at some point they would be called upon to do so. A dark world, but one where there was the utmost respect for diversity and ‘the other’ – because the other was my brother and they were fighting side by side, not just for each others lives, but ours as well.

Sunday 11th November 2018 marks exactly one hundred years since the guns fell silent and the world, finally, after four long years, saw the bloodiest conflict in history come to an end. A war that witnessed 16 million people die. Across the country at 11.00am people will stand in solemn silence, bells will toll and we will remember all those men, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and nephews, who died so that we might enjoy the freedoms that, sadly, they never survived  to experience.

I was recently privileged to attend a memorial at the Peace Garden in Woking. The event was a dedication to those brave soldiers who fought and died as members of the British Army. But let me be more specific. The memorial was a dedication to the thousands of Muslim soldiers who fought for Britain in two world wars and subsequent conflicts, giving you, me and our future generations the freedoms we enjoy today. They fought against oppressors, racists, bigots and haters. They fought against nations that did not value democracy, diversity or the rule of law. The reality is however, that if you were to ask the ordinary man woman or child in school about who fought for Britain in the wars, very few would be able to tell you that recent figures estimate that four million Muslims contributed to the allied cause either as soldiers or labourers.

One of the speakers at the memorial was Sophie Chisembele, daughter of Yusuf Mohammed Ali, the last serviceman to be buried at the site, which was then the Woking Muslim Military Burial Ground.  The burial ground held just 27 servicemen out of the many thousands of Muslim personnel who died during the two World Wars. She paid tribute to the Muslim servicemen who “died in their thousands in the service of Britain, then the colonial power.  They were born in a different place, centuries past, their lives ended prematurely by wars, and it is right that we and I’m sure generations to come, remember and honour their sacrifice.”

The Right Honourable Earl Howe, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords and Minister of State for Defence reminded us of the “forgotten army. The first Muslim recipient of the Victoria Cross, Khudadad Khan, who is now well known for his selfless actions at the First Battle of Ypres, whilst the other Muslim VC recipients of the Great War, like Mir Dast and Shahamad Khan, have also been deservedly immortalised at the National Arboretum.. We honour not only those heroes, but the many thousands of less well-known Muslim soldiers, whose names adorn memorials the length and breadth of Europe, the Middle East and Asia and whose deeds helped preserve our freedom. We think of how they travelled thousands of miles to the mud and horror of Flanders Fields.”

There is nothing glamorous or thrilling about war and conflicts. Battlefields are not exciting places – they are places of horror, where friends and comrades have to witness each other being blown apart, bleeding to death, losing limbs and calling out the names of their loved ones who they know they will never see again. Wars are abhorrent, they are horrifying, they are destructive and they are never the way to peace. We must never forget the sacrifices made by all those brave men, but we must endeavour to ensure the world never sees such conflicts again.

It has only been recently that the contribution of Muslims to the world wars became known, and certainly this seems to be a very well-kept secret. Perhaps modern day populist movements might benefit from learning not just about the lessons and horrors of war, but about this secret as well. More recent estimates suggest that potentially 4 million Muslims contributed to the allied cause either as soldiers or labourers, a figure known largely in essence to the research undertaken by The Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation and published in their book. This is a history book with a difference and one that needs to be part of every school library across the country. The book opens up a whole new dimension in relation to the wars and the contributions made by many nations including Pre-partition India, Africa, Russia, the Far East and the Middle East, which until today have been largely unrecognised. Until recently for example it was not known that British India sent 1.5 million men to war in Africa, Asia and Europe during World War 1 and of these 400,000 were Muslims.

“Among all the trials and danger, they kept their calm, their fatalism, and the enduring dignity of their profile”.

In 21st Century diverse Britain, we have a duty to salute, remember and make others aware of these heart-rending stories of all these individuals and the sacrifices that were made by Muslims. A group that sadly, is all too often, demonised because of the actions of a very tiny minority. Certainly elements within society seek to divide communities and use the actions of these elements to promote an anti-Muslim, racist narrative that seeks to demonise British Muslims.  We need to understand that these wars were not European wars fought just by white men. They were World Wars in every sense of the phrase, wars that saw people from across the globe, of all colours, religions, traditions and cultures, fight and die for the freedoms we enjoy today. This is not about glorifying war, it is about remembering those who those fought side by side hand in hand for the common good..

We must teach our children, in home and in school, that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength. We all owe a debt of gratitude to ever single individual who gave their life, so we could live a peaceful one. We would do well to remember.

It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.

It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.

It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

Charles M. Province 2005

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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

The Power of Friendship

The power of friendship is something that we underestimate. We form friendships throughout our lives. My 2½ year old granddaughter takes great pride in telling us that her friends in nursery are Neha, Gracie, Frankie and Finley. Friends come and go, because we move away from an area, our circumstances change or we simply grow apart. But there will always be something about all our friendships, that, wherever we go, there will still be a part of that friendship that remains.

The two names I recall from my early childhood friendships are Gail and Rosemary. I was heartbroken when Gail told me she wouldn’t be returning to school after the summer holidays because her family were emigrating to Australia. We must have been 10 at the time. Rosemary and I went our separate ways when after primary school we went to different middle schools. Grace and Tasneem are probably two of my oldest friends that I’m still in contact with. Grace and I met at high school over 30 years ago and she now lives in Scotland. We manage to stay in touch thanks to social media. Tasneem and I grew up within the Muslim community in Leeds. Our mums were friends and our sisters were friends. We exchange the occasional text message, most often when one of my sisters tells me she bumped into Tasneem as a wedding or funeral of a mutual acquaintance.

Many people become friends and touch our hearts in the course of our lives. People of many different cultures and faiths, if we are lucky! But despite growing up in a very Jewish part of Leeds, I didn’t have any Jewish friends. I knew of Jewish people. Our local chemist was owned by Mr Booth, our family GP was Dr Levy and my father would only ever buy fresh bread and cheesecake from Chaultz bakery when it opened on a Sunday morning after Shabbat.

I met my first Jewish friends when I moved to Staffordshire in the early 1990’s and became involved in the local interfaith organisation. They were part of a very small Hebrew congregation based up in Stoke and were in the process of de-consecrating the large synagogue that had now outgrown the diminishing community. The thing I welcomed most about our friendship was the capacity to have difficult conversations, but still remain honest and maintain respect for the views of ‘the other’, and of course, Sydney’s never-ending supply of Jewish jokes!

One conversation in particular I recall was with Sydney and a Christian chaplain. We were discussing the Israel – Palestine issue. Sydney understandably had his loyalty to Israel, but totally accepted that as a Muslim I would feel affinity to the plight of the Palestinians. As our conversation came to a close, Sydney looked at me and said “honestly Hifsa if this is what it takes for the Messiah to come, I wish he’d just stay where he was”. Some might call this blasphemy, I call it one mans’ desire to see peace in the region.

Through my friendships with Sydney, Paul, Martin and many others I was able to discover so much more about Judaism. My father used to say to me – our name is Haroon {Arabic for Aaron} don’t you know he was the brother of Moses & that makes Muslims and Jews brothers & sisters? I became a regular at the synagogue and attended many Sedar meals there. Sadly, I was also able to go and pay my final respects to Sydney when he passed away.

Over the last century, Muslims have suffered terrible conflicts in the Middle East, Bosnia, Africa and South Asia. But this is nothing when compared to the centuries of persecution faced by Jews; the Russian pogroms that saw the large scale targeted and repeated mob-attacks on Jews; and the Holocaust that witnessed the genocide of 6 million Jews, for example. But for the last 70 years our two great religions have been portrayed as being at war over the Israel-Palestine conflict. Indeed, it has been difficult to speak of Muslims and Jews without seeing things through the prism of the Middle East conflict. It needs to be acknowledged however that as a Muslim, it is natural for me to feel the pain of the terrible injustices and suffering faced by the Palestinians, whilst recognising that my Jewish friends will hold a deep connection to Israel and desire for a homeland which is safe and secure. Furthermore, just as I do not have to justify or be held to account for the actions of some Muslims, my Jewish friends do not have to account for the actions of the Israeli government.

Friendship is not about agreeing with everything the ‘friend’ has to say. Friendship is about the ability to listen to views and opinions that may differ from our own. Friendship is about trying to understand a different viewpoint and respectfully presenting your own. Friendship is about accepting that we don’t all have to be clones, it is ok to thing, believe and behave differently. True friendship is based on many factors but ultimately it is about recognising that despite all the things that we may disagree and differ on, our love for humanity is the one commonality that binds us.

Our faiths are different but the same. As Europe heads into uncertain times, the far-right and the far-left increasing in their vehemence towards the Muslim and the Jew, perhaps now is the time for us to rekindle old relationships. Friendship must always be used as our baseline. This is the foundation on which we build our communities and ensure they are interlinked & bound together, whatever our differences, in a way that will not allow minor tremors to bring down the structures we work so hard to raise.

{This blog post was first published on the website of Nisa-Nashim, the Jewish Muslim Women’s Network at http://www.nisanashim.org/the-power-of-friendship/ }

Our annual conference will be taking place in London on Sunday 7th April and will be about Faith and Friendship Shaping the Future Together Please do join us and purchase your tickets here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/nisa-nashim-annual-conference-2019-faith-and-friendship-tickets-53727142329

 

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