The Beast that Came in Through the Window

“A poet I am not! My verses aren’t worth a piece of bread” (Rumi)

This however was a poem written in utter frustration in the middle of night!

The beast that came in through the window
attacked us last night as we slept
His fangs small and sharp pierced our skin in the dark
not caring how much we both bled.

The beast that came in through the window
cared nothing for man woman or child
He cared not for the old, the black or the white
only flesh he could see and the flesh he could bite

The beast that came in through the window
crawled under the sheets unannounced
His presence unknown till the breaking of dawn
when the havoc he’d reeked was exposed

The beast that comes in through the window
is unhindered by locks, doors or sprays
With precision and ease he swoops drinks and leaves
a sharp buzzing and general malaise

The beast that comes in uninvited
may also attack in the day
The airborne mass flies, he swoops and he dives
not a thought for the victim displayed

Try as we might to seek him despite
the panic and fear he invokes
That damn nasty creature escapes and alludes us
that louse, beast, that vermin

The mosquito


Remembering Srebrenica 25 years on 1995-2020

I first posted this blog following my visits to Bosnia in 2014.

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 According to the Bosnia and Herzegovina tourist board, Bosnia “is one of the last undiscovered regions of the southern Alps. Vast tracks of wild and untouched nature make it an ideal holiday destination for adventurers and nature lovers alike. The central Dinaric Alps are a hikers and walkers paradise. Enchanted by both Mediterranean and Alpine climates, the range of diverse landscapes will stun and amaze you”.

Tourist boards have a habit of inflating reality in a bid to encourage visitors to their part of the world. On this occasion I can say the description is very much understated. The country is stunning. Everywhere you turn you see mountains, trees and lush greenery – hard to comprehend how a land of such exquisite geography could have experienced such gruesome horrors only 25 years ago. In Europe. A short three hours flight from London.

But that is the reality of Bosnia. Those of us of a certain age will never forget the scenes unfolding on our TV scenes as the worst genocide since World War II unfolded before our very eyes. And we sat, helpless, unable to protect the innocent men and boys being slaughtered, the estimated 20-50,000 girls and women being raped and families being torn apart and displaced in a war that would be a reminder of how ineffective we are as a human race. A genocide that took place in a region despite it being declared a safe haven by the United Nations. Over 8372 slaughtered in the fields, farms, school buildings, and warehouses in Srebrenica. Sons torn away from their mothers arms, fathers and sons separated, boys watching their school friends being gunned down whilst trying to escape – these are images that many who survived the atrocity still see every time they close they eyes. But the hardest thing for the women to bear is the burden they carry of not knowing what really happened to their husband, son, father, brother, uncle and nephew. For many, their remains have never been found. Many remains though unearthed are still to be identified. Those that are found and reunited can finally be given a funeral by their loved ones and can be put them to rest. Many families may have only a few bones to bury, but they still fulfil what they see as their religious obligation – to have a proper Muslim funeral, and return the remains of their loved one to their Maker, with dignity.

It was a real priveledge for me to be part of a delegation to visit Bosnia twice as part of the Lessons from Srebrenica visits organised by Remembering Srebrenica in 2014. An opportunity to see and learn first hand about not just the atrocities that unfolded there 25 years ago, but witness the devastation that was left behind and how the Bosnians are still coming to terms with it. As someone who has worked in equality and diversity and hate crime initiatives for most of my life it is very hard to comprehend how such hate can exist in anyone to the extent they want to see the elimination of an entire race.

Lessons from Srebrenica remains a very important initiative for everyone, but particularly our youth. They need to see first hand what happens when hate goes unchecked – how far and how quickly things escalate. Allport’s scale (1954) demonstrates this very clearly when it outlines how this progression takes place. What might initially start as harmless fun, making jokes or derogatory comments about another group, negative stereotypes can very quickly escalate to active avoidance of them, discriminating against them in, for example, access to opportunities, goods and services, to physical attacks (hate crimes), lynchings, burning of property, to the final act of genocide and attempting to ethnic cleanse an entire group of people. Think Holocaust. Think Rwanda. Think Bosnia.

How often have we said “never again”? How many more times must it be said? Until as a human race we begin to recognise that it is human beings, just like you and me who have committed these atrocities and it will be ordinary people like you and me who will commit them again, we will continue to witness these horrific senseless acts of brutality across the world, again and again.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” (Burke)

When we say never again this time let us mean it.

You can find out more about Lessons from Srebrenica at http://srebrenica.org.uk/

 

This photograph of the beautiful landscape was taken as we approached Sarajevo. Hard to believe the horrors this land has seen.
This photograph of the beautiful landscape was taken as we approached Sarajevo. Hard to believe the horrors this land has seen.

Photographs by Tarik Samarah, a Bosnian photographer who compiled the project "Srebrenica - genocide at the heart of Europe"
Photographs by Tarik Samarah, a Bosnian photographer who compiled the project “Srebrenica – genocide at the heart of Europe”

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The grave of Alija Izetbegović, who in 1990 became the first Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The grave of Alija Izetbegović, who in 1990 became the first Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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The delegation at dinner with the British Ambassador to Bosnia Edward Ferguson
The delegation at dinner with the British Ambassador to Bosnia Edward Ferguson

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It transpired His Excellency had lived in Pakistan for a short while and still had a favourite Urdu song!
It transpired His Excellency had lived in Pakistan for a short while and still had a favourite Urdu song!

On the road to Tuzla where we visited the Podrinje Identification Project which included both the forensic facility and the forensic DNA facility)
On the road to Tuzla where we visited the Podrinje Identification Project which included both the forensic facility and the forensic DNA facility)

It didn't seem to matter where we went and where we looked. There were cemeteries everywhere
It didn’t seem to matter where we went and where we looked. There were cemeteries everywhere

The overwhelming smell of death was everywhere. So sad to see how remains of our fellow humans who once walked and talked like us, are now stored,  until such a time they can be reunited with their loved ones.
The overwhelming smell of death was everywhere. So sad to see how remains of our fellow humans who once walked and talked like us, are now stored, until such a time they can be reunited with their loved ones.

The remains of one individual going through the process of being identified. The task made even  harder because, in the effort to hide their crimes, the Serbs moved bodies from mass graves and bones of one individual have been found across multiple sites.
The remains of one individual going through the process of being identified. The task made even harder because, in the effort to hide their crimes, the Serbs moved bodies from mass graves and bones of one individual have been found across multiple sites.

The International Commission on Missing Persons is funded from 25 countries
The International Commission on Missing Persons is funded from 25 countries

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The processes used it trying to identify remains are staggering
The processes used in trying to identify the remains are staggering

 

 

Next stop Srebrenica with a tour of the Potocari Memorial and Battery Factory
Next stop Srebrenica with a tour of the Potocari Memorial and Battery Factory

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Mothers of Srebrenica
Mothers of Srebrenica

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The battery factory where the men and women were separated before the men were taken off to be slaughtered
The battery factory where the men and women were separated before the men were taken off to be slaughtered

 

Inside the factory, a space widely recognised from the photograph showing 600 coffins  of victims awaiting burial
Inside the factory, a space widely recognised from the photograph showing 600 coffins of victims awaiting burial

 

At the Residence of the Grand Mufti of Bosnia
At the Residence of the Grand Mufti of Bosnia

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The Church, the Synagogue and the Mosque all within a short space of each other in the old town of Sarajevo

IMG_5638This photograph of the beautiful landscape was taken on the approach into SarajevoIMG_5625

 

 

And finally an opportunity to have a look at the sights and sounds of the city before our flight back home

 

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A Sarajevo Rose is a concrete scar caused by a mortar shell's explosion that was later filled with red resin. Mortar rounds landing on concrete create a unique fragmentation pattern that looks almost floral in arrangement. Because Sarajevo was a site of intense urban warfare and suffered thousands of shell explosions during the Siege of Sarajevo, the marked concrete patterns are a unique feature to the city. Throughout the city, these spots mark where one or more deaths took place as a result of mortar attacks.
A Sarajevo Rose is a concrete scar caused by a mortar shell’s explosion that was later filled with red resin. Mortar rounds landing on concrete create a unique fragmentation pattern that looks almost floral in arrangement. Because Sarajevo was a site of intense urban warfare and suffered thousands of shell explosions during the Siege of Sarajevo, the marked concrete patterns are a unique feature to the city. Throughout the city, these spots mark where one or more deaths took place as a result of mortar attacks.

"In 1914, war started in Sarajevo, Bosnia. In 1991 it started again".  This stones marks the spot where Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated, triggering the start of World War 1
“In 1914, war started in Sarajevo, Bosnia. In 1991 it started again”. This stones marks the spot where Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated, triggering the start of World War 1Re

Dear Katie Hopkins (a repost from 2016)

This is a blog I posted back in July 2016, but in honour of Twitters decision to remove her from the platform, I thought I’d repost it as a reminder to those who still think “she’s not that bad”.

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I woke up this morning feeling quite chirpy and happy, considering I’d only had 7 hours sleep in total, had been up at 2.30am making breakfast for the family and knowing my next meal wouldn’t be until 9.30pm tonight.

Then someone sent me your article from the Mail. And quite frankly I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’m not sure who does your research for you before you write / speak about things you clearly know very little (if anything) about. Whoever they are, I would sack them.

So where do I start? As the much loved Julie Andrews once sang, ‘Lets start at the very beginning, a very good place to start’.

Thirty days of not eating or drink or having sex? Say what? You may like to be made aware that if you gave up eating and drinking for 30 days you wouldn’t actually last 30 days. Most human beings in the wealthy parts of the world tend to have three meals a day, numerous lattes, ice creams and snack and various intervals. We eat and drink simply because we can. During Ramadan this is reduced to just 2 meals a day, breakfast (suhoor) and iftar (the evening meal). We doeat and we do drink. It’s just that there is a considerable length of time in between meals. It’s doable, and as you rightly point out (surprisingly), those who can’t for a variety of reasons such as ill health, old age or pregnancy, don’t. And no sex for 30 days? Where did you get that one from? OK yes it does mean that there is no sex during daylight hours, but hey, there is still a good window of 6 hours for a bit of action if that’s really what you want!

Now let’s talk personal safety. Absolutely agree with you on that one. If you feel that you are going to put someone else’s life at risk should you be fasting? I know many dentists, firemen and doctors for example who feel that they can’t fast because they don’t want to risk putting someone in danger. And they can make that personal choice and many people do. I’ve driven when I’m fasting and actually my senses are more alert at times and at others I will opt not to drive because I’m feeling drousy. If a Muslim taxi driver is working it’s because he feels he is able to. You have the choice of getting into the cab with him or not. He wouldn’t be working if he didn’t think he was up to it. Let’s not forget that most adult Muslims will have been fasting since they were children. The body is an incredible machine and over many years learns hope to cope with all sorts of hardship. Much like a body builder who over many years trains to lift heavier and heavier weights by increasing the load slowly. I can remember fasting in these long summer months when I was 15. Boy they were hard! This time round, it’s not too bad as over the last 33 years I’ve trained my body and built up to the long fasting days again.

There is a lot of nonsense in the media about employers having to make special arrangements for Muslim staff who are fasting. This is what you’ve alluded to in referring to rearranging breaks, changing exam timetables, giving people ‘special treatment’. But actually that goes against the very grain of the religion. The idea is not to rearrange one’s lifestyle around the religion. The religion is a way of life and we shouldn’t be changing our normal patterns to accommodate it. The vast majority of Muslims will continue their normal routines, still getting to the office for 9 and leaving at 5 (but not having smoking breaks or a lunch break so actually they would be entitled to leave a bit earlier anyway).

Katie how many Muslims have you been around who have become ‘weak and dizzy’ from lack of a cheese sandwich? I have worked since I was 20 (over 30 years). I’ve had three children, worked with many different people and I can say with hand on heart not a single one of my work colleagues will ever describe me as has having become ‘weak and dizzy’ from hunger or thirst. Where young people and exams are concerned, my daughter is currently taking her A levels and over the next few weeks I will not allow her to fast until her exams are over. I’m certain this will be the same for many other young people. It’s about choice and how you feel you can cope. Why does it become ‘madness’ just because you can’t understand it?  Have you ever tried fasting?  I’s a great way to detox, think about those less fortunate than yourself, develop some self-control. Try it – it might do you good!

‘Ramadan typically coincides with a spike in terror violence”. Seriously Katie where do you get this from? Yes I know there has been a bomb attack in Istanbul today and our hearts go out to all those innocent victims killed or injured today. But this attack has not been carried out by your ordinary mainstream Muslim.  This is why it becomes really important that you don’t misrepresent what Aaqil Ahmed Head of Religion at the BBC said;

“I hear so many people say ISIS has nothing to do with Islam – of course it has. They are not preaching Judaism. It might be wrong, but what they are saying is an ideology based on some form of Islamic doctrine. They are Muslims. That is a fact and we have to get our heads around some very uncomfortable things’

ISIS / Da’esh might be Muslim but all Muslims are not ISIS /  Da’esh, nor do we support ISIS  / Da’esh and have absolutely no affiliation to this terrorist organisation. The vast majority of the 1.8 billion adherents of the Islamic state world-wide are peaceful law abiding citizens. Islam is to ISIS /Da’esh what Christianity is to the KKK. But you already know that don’t you.

There is absolutely no tension let alone a ‘strange’ tension in what Ramadan means to the Muslim population in the UK.  For British Muslims as well as those across the globe, Ramadan is a period of self reflection, prayer, supplication and self-control. It is a period of time when we make a conscious effort to think of those less fortunate than ourselves, to give more in charity and to feed the hungry. Up and down the country people will be organising evening meals in their homes, community centres, churches, mosques and synagogues. Personally, I have organised an Iftar in my home for a group of non-Muslims who have probably never had a meal with Muslims in their home before. I’ve also organised an evening meal at the homeless shelter local to where I live. Four Muslim women, cooking a meal for however many non-Muslims during Ramadan and we will be feeding them at 6.30pm, whilst we are still fasting. Britain and Europe are not ‘hosts’, it is  home to Muslims who play a full and active role in the political, social, economic and civil society they live in. ‘We’ are indeed tolerant. ‘We’ are the most tolerant society in the world, where anyone can say and do more or less what they like so long as they’re not breaking the law. And that includes nasty, bigoted individuals vocalising their hateful views and opinions in print and over the airwaves, designed specifically to cause division, hatred and further their own media image. And just for the record. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Church of England, who I have had the pleasure of meeting on more than one occasion, might disagree with you about this being a ‘truly secular society’. Britain is and always will be a Christian country. Get over it.

It’s such a shame that your comments have caused so much upset to people. Only you could have turned what is for Muslims ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ into something to be feared and  despised. You have had something to say about anything and everyone; ginger babies, drug addicts, the overweight, prisoners, stay at home mums, breast feeding mums, working women, feminism, tattoos, children named after places (your daughters called India right?), ebola, grooming gangs, refugees, Muslims and now specifically Ramadan. Nick Hewer said that you had created a new brand , The Katie Hopkins – “Katie Hopkins in a white suit, Pollyanna hair, red lips shaped for sin and so much vitriol and I don’t understand where its taken you, its made you famous but its made you loathed”.

(P.s. I don’t like to finish on a nasty note especially as during Ramadan I try to be nicer than normal. So with that in mind, let me invite you to come and dine at mine one evening during Ramadan and see for yourself what it’s really all about! And if you don’t want halal we’ll go veggie for you (but you’ll miss out on a couple of mean lamb dishes!)

Hifsa

Reflections for Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

Yesterday I was called a Jewish agent. 

What! Why? I hear you exclaiming. The reason was simple. I had dared to extend an invitation to the local Holocaust Memorial Day event to local Muslims. It is reassuring to report that no one supported the views of this misguided individual and there was robust support for the event from others on the group. 

But the comment was a wakeup call. Whilst we have a lot of work that needs to be done in challenging anti-Semitism across the country, we have not taken up the challenge of addressing anti-Semitism robustly enough amongst Muslims. The reasons for this are many and varied. For one, there is a lack of understanding amongst Muslims surrounding the definition of anti-Semitism. There is a propensity to conflate political issues concerning Israel and Palestine with Jews and Jewish organisations in this country. There is a feeling that by commemorating the Shoah, we are ignoring the injustices and suffering of others (Muslims) across the world. And lastly and sadly, some Muslims have been indoctrinated with anti-Semitic views. 

The working definition developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance clearly defines anti-Semitism and the definition does not include criticism of the state or government of Israel.  The full definition can be seen here . But when you start accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoings, for example, or deny the facts of the holocaust or even the holocaust itself, you are being anti-Semitic.

For Muslims, there will always be sympathy for the injustices suffered by their Palestinian brothers and sisters but this should never prevent us from developing friendships and working relationships with Jews. We must stop blaming all Jews for the actions of the Israeli state or the actions of individuals. This is synonymous with blaming all Muslims for terrorist attacks, British Indians for what the Indian government of Modi is doing to Muslims in India and Kashmir or blaming all Arabs for what’s happening in Yemen. 

Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the Shoah and subsequent genocides, in Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Darfur and Rwanda. It is not ‘just about the Jews’.

I have spent over half my life working with people of all faiths and none. Most recently I have been working with Nisa-Nashim, a Jewish and Muslim women’s network, that strives to develop friendships, respect and understanding between our faiths. I have seen Jewish women be the first to call out anti-Muslim hatred and have the utmost regard for أهلالكتاب‎ Ahl al-Kitāb ‘People of the Book’ . I take guidance from my religion, most especially on how to treat others and I wish others, in particular our keyboard warriors who feel they are defending Muslims and Islam by attacking Jews, would do the same. 

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Reflections from St Mary’s Church Stafford

In the name of God the Most beneficent the Most merciful

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). (Al Hujarat)

Salaam Shalom and Peace 

It is always a source of great honour to be invited to speak at St Mary’s – and especially to be asked to share some reflections, as we commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day on what is, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

I’m sure we’ve all seen a number of news reports and social media posts this week related to Holocaust Memorial Day. Senior multi faith representatives visited and prayed at the site of Auschwitz in a show of unity and friendship. You may have seen reports of global senior politicians and dignitaries in Germany, speaking out about the holocaust as crimes against humanity. The Premier League also produced a very powerful anti-racism film featuring top footballers to mark HMD. This commemoration is about remembering a period in our world history that we really should be ashamed of. A point in history that saw the systematic extermination, of millions. Six million Jews, and countless others targeted because of their racial and political ideologies – the Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, dissidents, communists, social democrats as well as those with disabilities and homosexuals. 

It’s really difficult to try and comprehend the mass scale at which these events took place. And in trying to get our heads around the enormity of the numbers, we sometimes neglect the fact, that every single one of these beings, lived, had a narrative to tell, each individual experienced a life that came to a vicious and abrupt end. If you haven’t yet seen them, you may want to take a look at some of the survivors’ testimonies online  not just related to how they survived but what they lost during this bleakest period of human history. 

But one thing we forget is this. Hostility towards Jews began long before Hitler came into power. It started many years before that – with name calling, stereotyping, character assassination, religious intolerance and bigotry. The Nazi trademark of anti-Semitism blamed Jews for the defeat of Germany in 1918, it “predicted” the annihilation of the Jewish race from Germany and propagated the idea of the dominance of the pure white or Aryan race. The demonization came many years before state-sponsored extermination, by creating a division in society – a ‘them’ and ‘us’ society, where ‘they’ were the root cause of all societal problems. Stigmatisation and persecution became the norm and whilst sometimes we make it sound like it happened overnight, it didn’t.

Closer to home, our own divisions in society sometimes seem overwhelming, with anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, racism, gender-based violence, homophobia and other forms of prejudice growing on the streets of Britain. Today is an opportunity for us to listen, and show compassion to others. Evil acts by states and the slaughter of innocents should never be forgotten, nor should remembering victims of genocide be viewed as a ‘Jewish thing’ – it is a universal and humanitarian obligation, to ensure the world never sees it’s like again. Every year we say ‘never again’. Yet three days ago The International Court of Justice in The Hague ordered Myanmar to prevent a genocide of the country’s remaining Rohingya Muslims — the target of a brutal army crackdown that has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent men women and children. Every year we commemorate the Shoah and the genocides that took place in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. How long before we add Myanmar to the list? How long before we add Kashmir and Xinjiang to that list? Now is the time for all of us to break out of your comfort zones, our religious and collective bubbles, stand together and witness the humanity that exists amongst others. It is only then that we can honestly say that we are taking responsibility, we’re speaking out and will act against all forms of prejudice, racism and indiscriminate violence. We should never attempt to justify what are quite simply acts of evil as anything other than what they really are. We should never be amongst those “that shook their heads or turned away or watched the deeds of others but did nothing”. As Nelson Mandela reminded us “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, because love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I’d like to finish with a short prayer written especially for this years commemorations by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi and a senior Imam, and by quoting Prince Charles who said that ‘I hope and pray that all those who are suffering, all those who are oppressed, all those who are facing injustice, persecution and division find freedom, justice and equality” in the future.

A prayer for Holocaust Memorial Day 
“Loving God, we come to you with heavy hearts, remembering the six million Jewish souls and countless others who were murdered during the Holocaust.

In the horrors of that history, when so many groups were targeted because of their identity, and in genocides which followed, we recognise destructive prejudices that drive people apart.
Forgive us when we give space to fear, negativity and hatred of others, simply because they are different from us.
In the light of God, we see everyone as an equally precious manifestations of the Divine, and can know the courage to face the darkness.
Through our prayers and actions, help us to stand together with those who are suffering, so that light may banish all darkness, love will prevail over hate and good will triumph over evil.”

“For every man there is a purpose which he sets up for his life and which he pursues. Let yours be the doing of all good deeds’ (Al-Baqarah)

 

 

Rod Liddle you’re a …… (fill in your preferred adjective) Election 2019

At a recent event, Margaret Attwood spoke about her book ‘The Handmaids Tale’ and made it clear – that if we don’t like the dystopian societies she describes then we need to do something about it as they can very easily happen. Hearing this, then reading Rod Liddle’s Spectator piece, stirred me to write this blog. His piece yet again effectively demonstrating what a hate monger he is . Whilst it came out a couple of weeks ago, I find myself seething every time I look at social media and see some troll spouting the same hate filled nasty rhetoric his commentary legitimises. Having written blogs before the elections of 2015 and then again in 2017,  I had made the decision that I was going to steer clear of writing yet another blog about why we must use our democratic right and vote, by placing an X beside the name of our choice on the 12thDecember 2019.

However, having read the vile diatribe produced under the guise of ‘journalism’ I felt compelled to say my piece. Considering he does have a reputation for writing such tirades vilifying certain groups, I think the vitriol he has had hurled at him, is well deserved.

Mr Liddell it appears, was having a bad day when he wrote his article. His ‘sense of humour’, unsurprisingly, seems to have gone over most people’s heads. His column was little more than an excuse to vent his resentment and fury at anybody he could take aim at. Politicians being described as mentally ill, students lazy, pig ignorant junkies, he showed utter contempt for women who have been sexually abused and made light of the #metoo movement. Nevertheless his commentary would have been incomplete had he not included Muslims in the torrent of abuse his supporters have claimed was merely ‘satirical’ ‘humorous’ and ‘taken out of context’. His article was not exercising his freedom of speech; under its’ guise, his Fascist anti-Muslims anti-women hate filled comments were morally and ethically abhorrant. The language adopted by Lidell and his ilk have a damaging effect on our society especially when aimed at those already marginalised.

In the run up to a general election, anyone who uses such hateful polarising language must be called out for the damage their divisive language has on society. The free will to elect our political leaders in this country is one of the freedoms we should value about living in Britain and being British. Everyone has the right to have their say in the electoral process. Whichever party you support, whichever party you agree or disagree with, voting is one of the fundamental freedoms of expression we have as British citizens. Think about some of the images we’ve seen on our TV screens from elections across the world. People who are forced to vote one way or another amidst threats of having family members kidnapped or murdered.  Others queuing for hours, votes being forged and others never even having the opportunity. There is a level of dishonesty that exists amongst individuals who want to live in Britain, enjoy the freedoms and benefits that being British citizens affords them, but not being prepared to fulfil their own obligations.

As a Muslim, this is something I am particularly aware of. I have grown up with an understanding of a principle that exists within Islam called “Shura” meaning consultation. This, in its simplest form is a way to harness the views and opinions of those individuals most affected by any decisions that may be made. The Prophet Muhammad would, as instructed by God in the Quran, consult his companions;  “And consult them in the affairs and when you have taken a decision, put your trust in God, certainly, God loves those who put their trust in Him” [Aal-’Imran, 159]. For those individuals who argue that the electoral choices presented to them do not represent the ideals of their faith in its purest form, there are always alternatives available. I can think of several theocratic dictatorships that they may like to consider as places of residency. For the rest of us, let’s make the most of the democratic freedoms afforded to us as British citizens. By voting, we are not violating any Islamic laws. We are making a decision as to who we feel is the best to govern the country we call home.

I am under no illusions that unlike other elections, this one is different. There are all sorts of factors at play, issues that will affect every single citizen depending on the outcome. The noise surrounding this election is toxic from whichever angle you look at it. However, we must and should make our decision based on those things that matter the most to us. Education, healthcare, housing, environment, domestic policies, foreign policy, social inequalities and yes even Brexit. Make the decision about who you will vote for based on which party you belief has the best interests of the things that matter to you.

However we must not let anti-Muslim hatred, anti-Semitism, prejudice and bigotry in any of its form, be turned into the battleground for this election. Nisa-Nashim, A Jewish and Muslim women’s network have this week launched a campaign to challenge those who use hateful and discriminatory language and have pledged to call out politicians, media outlets and users of social media who are generating this hate rather than acceptance and polarisation rather than social cohesion. They are asking everyone to #WatchYourLanguage.  We know that when unchecked, hate has the potential to ultimately turn to violence. So to Rod Lidell and those who support him, I ask, do we really want European history repeating itself?

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.

 

 

 

 

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

 

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?

 

 

 

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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