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

 

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.

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.

A Very Merry (Muslim) Christmas Greeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas and a very happy 2019! 

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

 

 

 

 

 

General Election 2017 – To Vote or Not to Vote – That is the Question!

I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t politically active.

In my house, not voting was never an option. The one phrase guaranteed to infuriate my late father was “I can’t be bothered to vote”. My family came to the United Kingdom in 1965 and I cannot recall a local or general election taking place in which my father didn’t vote. He would say that if you cannot be bothered to vote, you do not have the right to complain about anything, whether that’s the state of the roads or how often your bins are emptied. He would remind us of how, in countries across the world, people are prepared to give their lives in order to have a say in how they are governed.

I was reminded of this particular comment of his when, many years later, I was waiting for children to arrive at a session I was running for Muslim youth. One of the parents, an Iraqi mum, came bounding towards me on her arrival and as she got closer, I noticed she was shaking her finger at me. As she got closer, I noticed the beaming smile on her face and that her finger was purple. In between her excited exclamations of “sister Hifsa” she explained she had just returned home having been to London. For the first time in her life she had been able to vote in the Iraqi elections to determine who would govern her country. Her delight was infectious. A middle aged woman overjoyed at finally having the right to have a say in her country’s governance. A right that,  in our democratic nation, every single British citizen over the age of eighteen has, regardless of gender, colour, race or religion. But a right that is only taken up by 2/3rd of the eligible population with over 13 million “not bothering”.

Yesterday our Prime Minister Theresa May called a general election on what would have been my fathers 101st birthday, 8th June. And a number of thoughts immediately went through my mind, including that we now have 7 weeks of election preparation and social media posts in which every single person will want to have a say no matter how much of what they have to say might very well be “utter bollocks”. Aah the joys of living in a democracy!

One particular issue however is going to cause me particular angst over the next few weeks. And that is the anti-voting Muslim campaigners that will be trying to prevent Muslims from taking part in the General Election because they regard voting as being “haraam” (forbidden/unlawful). No doubt they will be using the usual scare tactics, telling adherents they’re condemning themselves to the hellfire if they vote,  by leafleting outside mosques on Fridays, running poster campaigns and producing the dreaded memes as their backup.

Is Voting Haram?

As a Muslim, 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]

By voting in the election, you are being given a stake in the decision making processes around every aspect of how your country will be run. Every single vote counts and it is imperative that any government that is elected has the backing of the majority of the population that they are serving. There is almost a level of dishonesty that exists amongst those 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 to the nation. 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 – our country. And we should make our decision based on those things that matter the most to use. Education, healthcare, housing, environment, foreign policy or social inequalities; make the decision about who you will vote for based on which party has the best interests of the things that matter to you, your family and your local community at the very epicentre of their manifesto.

This the Islamic thing to do. It is not unIslamic to vote, it is unIslamic not to.

 

 

 

Dear Mr President Trump

Dear Mr President

21st January 2017 marked the day when you officially became the most powerful man in the world and I find myself saying three words that in my wildest dreams I never thought I would hear myself say, let alone write. But I’ll come back to that at the end.

The result on the morning of  9th November was one that I was not expecting to hear, any more than I expected the result of the referendum in the UK on the 24th June. Brexit in June and your success in November saw the second half of 2016 taking a curious turn and one, as we know, you yourself were not expecting.

Your country, Mr President, is made up of over 325 million individuals, of which 72% are white, 13% are black, 5% are Asian and the remainder are American Indians, Hispanics and other races. 1% of Americans (that’s over 3 million people) also happen to be Muslims, just like me. Americans are proud of their diverse heritage, where not everyone is white, not everyone is a Christian and not everyone speaks English. However, everyone believes in hope and the American dream. It is your responsibility Mr President to make that hope and the American dream a reality for everyone. I am not sure about you, but that’s a task that would give me sleepless nights.

Unfortunately, you did engage in some rather inflammatory oratory during your presidential campaign. From expressing your opinions about undocumented Mexican immigrants who you described as “rapists” and “drug dealers”, outlining your foreign policy; “…..if we kept the oil, you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money … so we should have kept the oil. But, OK, maybe we’ll have another chance“. And not to mention the most distasteful, misogynistic terminology and characterisations you have used about women. But maybe, ‘the odds were always in your favour’. Less than a week ago you solemnly swore to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and to the best of your ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution that refers to “We the People”.

Sadly your inauguration speech has left me, a middle aged Muslim grandmother, even more disturbed, contemplating the world my children and grandchildren are going to inherit. I visited New York in 2014 and Los Angeles in 2016. The United States of America is a magnificent country made up of beautiful people of all faiths, beliefs, colours, shades and hues. Yet over three million Muslims will not sleep soundly for the fear you and your supporters have generated. A culture has been established where racism, Islamophobia, bigotry, anti-Semitism and homophobia are not only admissible but openly proclaimed. We have all been witness to the clips on social media sites of physical and verbal attacks on Muslims by those who proudly claim to be your supporters. I have heard many reports of Muslims receiving abuse on streets, in supermarkets, schools and cafes by people who have used you, Mr President, as the reason they can be flagrantly disparaging and abusive. Not quite the badge of honour I believe you want to wear.

Your patriotic speech spoke of the transferring of power back to the citizens of “our” country from a protected establishment in Washington and promised it was now all about making America strong, wealthy, proud, safe and great again. You have pledged to improve schooling, neighbourhoods, employment, defence, law enforcement and security. And you promised all this by placing your hand on not one but two bibles. Your own and the bible that belonged to Abraham Lincoln. The irony of which I am sure wasn’t lost on people. You took the oath of allegiance to ALL Americans by placing your hand on the bible that belonged to the President who freed slaves, abolished slavery and made them equal members of society.  As a consequence almost 150 years later we saw the election of the first black President of the United States. You spoke of a united America but America has never been more divided. Whilst your armed forces, your law enforcement agencies are made up of people of all faiths, colours, cultures and creed, you spoke of reinforcing old alliances and forcing new ones – uniting the ‘civilized world‘ against “radical Islamic terrorism“, “which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth“. That’s fine Mr President but what of radical Christianity, white supremacy and fascism? Terrorism has no faith, belief or religion and it is more pertinent to talk of eradicating hate, intolerance, bigotry, social injustices and discrimination in all it forms.

To say opening your heart to patriotism, leaves no room for prejudice is to not fully understand the power of emotion around patriotism.  Emotions that in fact encourage and permit prejudice to flourish. American citizens regardless of whether they are black, brown or white, Christian, Muslim or Jewish, do indeed bleed the same red blood and do most definitely and proudly salute the American Flag. Mr President do not disregard them. Do not dismiss over 3 million Americans because you believe they (and 2 billion adherents of the religion world wide) are all in some way associated with terrorism and the terrorist atrocities that have taken place in America, France, Germany, Australia, Pakistan,  indeed across the world. Do not forget that first, second, and third generations of American Muslims, men and women, have contributed to education, health, justice, defence, policing and government within America. America has been promised change but where is that change going to lead? The vocal crowds that gathered to oppose your inauguration will not go away. The women’s marches that have taken place in Washington, Detroit, New York, Chicago, London in fact in countries across the globe, have seen thousands upon thousands of women on the streets because they, like me, are fearful of what the future holds. This is real democracy in action. You have a long hard task ahead Mr President and unity is a long long way away.

However, you have made quite a transition,  from reality TV star to becoming the 45th President of the United States of America and if I may be so bold, I would like to end with a quote from the Quran and of course those three words I promised:

My people! Give full measure and weight with justice, do not diminish the goods of others,          and do not go about creating corruption in the land.” (11:85)

Congratulations Mr. President.

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