My latest blog post about the rise of far right extremism can be viewed on the Educate Against Hate website.
When I was five years old, I remember being sent to school one morning wearing a lovely purple and white crocheted poncho and matching beret. I was especially pleased because it was school photograph day and I was feeling particularly special.
Unfortunately my headmistress had a very different idea. Upon seeing me in the lineup, she proceeded to forcibly remove my hat and poncho because it was not allowed for the official school photograph. I remember being very upset and distressed because my mother had lovingly made my ponytails so that my hat could sit nicely between them. Mr Villiers, the headmistress, not only took off my poncho and hat but in the process ruined my hair. I was visibly upset and only calmed down when Mrs Williams, my form teacher, promised to bring in her camera the next day and take photos of me in my new poncho. It was a promise she kept. She also kept the pictures as I discovered thirteen years later when my A level history teacher, a Mr Williams, presented them to me one morning in the 6th form common room.
This incident took place almost half a century ago. And yet the incident and the emotion I felt at that time, still remain with me today. I was attacked for the way I dressed but more importantly I felt it was an attack on my mother for doing something ‘wrong’ in preparing me for school that morning. There was no school uniform, so why suddenly should I be told I couldn’t wear my poncho?
The reports today about OFSTED looking to question four year olds about the reason they wear the hijab in school, reminded me of this incident that has remained with me all these years. When a mother dresses a child for school in the morning it is knowing what is and is not acceptable as part of the dress code policy. For many years I wore a grey skirt to school, because the uniform policy made it clear; girls wear skirts and boys wear trousers. Not something I suspect any school would try and enforce for want of being accused of sexism and discrimination. If schools do not want young children in primary education to wear hijabs in school, this needs to be made explicitly clear within the school uniform policy. This is not about racism, being islamophobic or discriminatory. It is common sense. There is no religious edict that warrants girls under the age of puberty, whether that is eleven or thirteen, to wear an item of clothing designed to ‘protect their modesty’. Many schools forbid jewellery of any nature for boys and girls. To subject a young child to questioning about why they are dressed in a particular way is ludicrous as it will always warrant the same response “because my mother dresses me”. A four year old will wear a hijab because they want to. Because they want to mimic their mother, grandmother, sister or aunty. Have you ever tried to argue with a four year old who wants to wear something, whether that is a hijab or underpants over their trousers to look like Superman? Questioning a child can and will leave them feeling alienated, different and could potentially lead to comments in the playground, bullying and name calling from their friends and peers. This may sound trivial, but it can be very upsetting for a young child.
The only questioning that needs to take place is that of the school and their uniform policies. If we do not want young children wearing hijab to school, this needs to be explicitly written within the uniform policy. If the school allows the hijab, to question the child is nonsensical and potentially harmful to the school, the child and more importantly the schools relationship with the parents and the wider community.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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);
- It’s all about Muslims.
- Prevent is based on a ‘conveyor belt theory’.
- Channel is a secretive, police led initiative that splits up families and criminalises people.
- Prevent stifles debate and infringes on our free of speech.
- It is based on flawed science.
- It refuses to acknowledge that foreign policy makes people vulnerable.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 “.
- 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.
- 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.
- ‘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
- ‘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
- 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
“Truly adversity has afflicted me and You are Most Merciful of all who show mercy.” (Surah 21: Verse 83)
I have just returned home after an emotional visit to the Westway Sports Centre in London. Very close to the smouldering remains of the Grenfell Tower that just 48 hours ago turned into an inferno, killing (so far) an unknown number of people and destroying the lives of all the families that lived there. It’s not a sports facility at the moment. On approaching it, I had visions of scenes reminiscent of the Mad Max movies, a tableaus that wouldn’t have been out of place in War of the Worlds. Crowds of people carrying boxes, suitcase and carrier bags. Others handing out ‘missing’ posters with pictures of elderly grandfathers, mothers and children. Groups of people outside Notting Hill Methodist church were handing out food as I approached and inviting people to a prayer at 8.00pm. Others were sticking posters on walls, writing heart-breaking messages to loved ones, tying flowers to railings or just standing and quietly sobbing.
After manoeuvring the many police check points, Haris Iqbal, Head of Programmes for Penny Appeal and the main person coordinating the work of charity on the ground, talked me through what had been happening. I could have been in a Syrian refugee camp. Tables piled high with food and water; croissants, loaves of bread, tins of beans, biscuits, crisps, bananas, apples, cereals – everything you could possibly think of had been donated by local residents and people from across the country who had driven down purely to help those in need. Boxes were piled high against walls containing clothes, towels and bedding. Another table was being set up by a volunteer with the essentials we give little thought to – toothpaste, toothbrushes, toilet paper, tissues, nappies, wipes, tampons – everything anyone could possibly need was there. Someone had already thought about what people might require. People who had left their flats in the middle of the night, with their lives and just the clothes they stood in. Further down were piles of shoes, handbags and yet more clothes. And all the time volunteers in orange Penny Appeal shirts were running around carrying things, organising, moving things and just trying to make life for these individuals whose lives had been devastated, a little bit more comfortable. The main sports hall was covered in mattresses, blankets, sleeping bags and pillows. Small huddles of people stood around, some weeping. One elderly woman had just been informed her husband had died. Words cannot adequately describe what I saw this evening. All day long I have been hearing news about more bodies being found, the number who have perished very likely being in triple figures and friends of friends hearing they have lost a loved one and I keep asking – why God? Why have You allowed this to happen? Why have You allowed such pain and misery to be inflicted on this group of people? Men, women, children, the elderly – individuals who will have gone to bed on Tuesday night fully expecting to wake up in the morning. Why wouldn’t you? They will have gone to bed preparing for the next day, all sorts of dreams and aspirations for the days to come. Maybe they were planning a summer holiday or what to wear to work? Perhaps they were thinking about how they were going to spend the weekend or had promised to take their children to the cinema on Friday evening if they just went to bed early. Not one of them would have expected their lives to change within a few hours. Why didn’t you stop it?
But this disaster didn’t happen because of You. Was this a man-made tragedy, human error or just an accident? No doubt in the weeks and months to come, the public enquiry will uncover how and why this disaster was allowed in happen, in the richest borough, in the richest city, in one of the richest countries in the world, in the 21st Century.
As I drove up to the area, I saw the most amazing properties, fantastic houses, wonderful shopping centres and lavish restaurants. Yet the richest people I saw today were those volunteers on the ground who had been on their feet for near on 36 hours. People like Haris, Haroon and the young girl taking paracetamol but determined to carry on because she was needed. These were the wealthiest people I saw today. Their kindness and compassion, their patience and fortitude, their courage and resilience made them the richest people in Kensington and Chelsea this evening. Where were you God when all of this was happening? You were right there, in the eyes, the hearts the hands, feet and faces of each and everyone of those individuals. You were there with the fightfighters rescuing those trapped, returning time and time again, without a thought to their own safety. And You will be with those injured, bereaved and left destitute over the difficult days, weeks and months ahead.
My grateful thanks go to all those who have been involved in the traumatic events over the last few days. The emergency services, firefighters, police, paramedics, nurses, doctors and volunteers. A special thanks to Haris and Penny Appeal who I saw in action today. Many of us wish we were closer to help and support you. You have shown us all what it means to be human.
My Thought for Sunday from this morning on BBC Radio Stoke. Take a listen!
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.
“Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot?
How is this night different from all other nights?
Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlin chametz umatzah, halailah hazeh, kuloh matzah.
On all other nights, we eat chameitz and matzah. Why on this night, only matzah?
Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlin sh’ar y’rakot, halailah hazeh, maror.
On all other nights, we eat all vegetables. Why, on this night, maror?
Sheb’chol haleilot ein anu matbilin afilu pa’am echat; halailah hazeh, sh’tei f’amim.
On all other nights, we don’t dip even once. Why on this night do we dip twice?
Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlin bein yoshvin uvein m’subin; halailah hazeh, kulanu m’subin.
On all other nights, we eat either sitting upright or reclining. Why on this night do we all recline?”
So I spent yesterday evening in the company of eleven amazing women – five Muslim and six Jewish, to celebrate the arrival of Pesach and take part in my fifth Seder. But this one was different from any of the other Seder meals I’d had. This was in the home of my dear friend Laura Marks and it was an all woman gathering. Laura Marks is the Jewish co-chair of Nisa-Nisham, a Jewish Muslim Women’s network that aims to bring our communities together and promote ways in which Jewish and Muslim women can understand that our similarities are far greater than our differences. It does this by bringing the Jewish and Muslim communities in Britain closer together by setting up groups of women who build personal friendships, grow as leaders and benefit wider society through a variety of programmes and initiatives. All of us around the table were in some way linked to Nisa-Nisham either as trustees, co-chairs, or just friends and family of Laura’s.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Jewish faith and celebrations, Pesach (or Passover) celebrates the Exodus, when the Children of Israel were finally freed by Pharaoh in Egypt, following the 10 plagues (more about that later). Ultimately it’s a story about persecution, bondage and finally freedom. So whilst it may appear to be a time of celebration, there is an element of sadness and reflection.
As with any major festival, there has to be a festive meal and the Passover is no different. During the celebrations that last 8 days, a ‘Seder’ or often two, will be held at which the story of the Exodus will be told in prose, songs and prayers. The book that is followed is the Haggadah and follows a set pattern. There are many different versions but all follow the same basic format and prayers. The version that was used this evening was from the Movement for Reform Judaism with interpretations and perspectives that encourage us to think about the modern world. The service includes a number of symbolic foods being eaten and wine (or for the Muslims grape juice) being drunk (whilst leaning to the left to symbolise freedom from slavery) interspersed with readings and prayers.
The Seder plate includes a variety of key items. Bitter herbs, to remind Jews of the bitterness of slavery and the tears that were shed in slavery are symbolised by the addition of salt water on the table. Jews are reminded of how they built the pyramids and the mortar is symbolised by the sweet charoset made from nuts and fruits. A hard boiled eggs reminds them of the beginning of a new life and a green vegetable such as parsley or lettuce symbolises hope and redemption. The humble matzah or unleavened bread is a central part of the seder and for all Passover meals, anything that has yeast and risen is not permitted. A lamb shank is also placed in the Seder plate and remembers the sacrificial lamb whose blood was used to mark out the homes of Israelites, so that when the Angel of Death came to claim the souls of the first born, they would “pass over” the homes of the Jews. There was one addition to this Seder plate I had not come across at previous Seders. A glass of water, or more accurately Miriam’s Cup. Miriam was the sister of Moses and tradition suggests she carried with her a well that was the main source of water for the Israelites in the desert. Miriam’s Cup is also a reminder that women played a vital role in the Exodus and must not be overlooked, though this is a relatively new innovation and not adopted by everyone.
No Seder would be complete without recalling the ten plagues and spotting the plate with red wine / grape juice; blood, frogs, lice, child beasts, cattle plague, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and slaying of the first born. And I suspect most young children love this bit of the service! But this year, our seder plates had ten additional spots as we included ten modern day plagues; inequality, poverty, bloodshed, torture, persecution, abuse, violence, hunger, prejudice and indifference. I wanted to add an eleventh – Donald Trump. But then realised I should also then add Bashar Al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jung-On, Aung San Suu Kyi – the list would be endless. Because sadly whilst the Israelites may have been freed by Moses 3000 years ago, there are still many examples of modern day slavery, dictatorship, oppression and sheer brutality across the world. This last week alone we have seen almost 100 killed and over 500 still suffering the effects of a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun in Syria. We have seen the devastation caused by a lone individual who drove his truck into innocent bystanders in Stockholm. The Westminster attacker claimed his fifth victim last friday. Suicide bombers attacked two Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday, killing at least 40 worshipers and police officers. Twenty people were tortured and murdered at a Sufi shrine in Sarghoda, Pakistan. And in the first 3 months of 2017 there have been 3,664 gun deaths, 77 mass shootings and 900 children/ teenagers shot or killed in America.
There is still much wrong with the world that needs to be fixed. But there are plenty of good people still around with the will to do something and work towards making the only world we have, a better place. Twelve women sat around a dinner table this evening. Jewish and Muslim. Enemies according to some, sisters as far as we were concerned. We shared food, compared the Judaic and Islamic versions of the Exodus, shared recipes and at times I wanted to shed a tear remembering those who were not quite so fortunate as the Israelites and are still very much prisoners to the system. And we talked, as only Jewish and Muslim women can. Whilst today is the beginning of Pesach, yesterday was Palm Sunday marking the beginning of Holy Week; the day when according to Christian tradition Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, an animal symbolic of peace. Perhaps this week, whatever our faiths, whatever our traditions, we must focus on the things that are important, the things that unite us, the things that can make a difference and ultimately free everyone from slavery and oppression in whatever form it comes.
Chag Pesach Sameach
Last week I was honoured to attend the launch of the very beautiful book written and produced by Daniel Thomas Dyer entitled ‘The 99 Names of God’. So today, the exalted day of Friday, as I sat in reflection and supplication, I was reminded of the beautiful names attributed to God; the Compassionate (Ar-Rahman), the Merciful (Ar-Raheem), the Majestic (Al-Jalil) the Ever Forgiving (Al-Ghaffar) and I thanked the Almighty for all those blessings that he has bestowed upon me and my family. I prayed for the souls of the departed; my wonderful parents who taught me that faith and the world go hand in hand. Do not over-indulge in either that we neglect and forget the other. I remembered my wonderful husband and children, working hard in the world to enable them to succeed (whatever that success might look like) and prayed that Our Creator protect them and keep them safe, grounded and focussed on what is right and moral. I remembered my friends’ mother who died just a few weeks ago and how I was reminded at the funeral of my own mothers’ final journey 27 years ago. I prayed for another friend who cares so beautifully for her elderly parents whilst working yet still finds time to support the homeless every week. And above all I beseeched our Lord to cure those who are suffering, sick and in pain and grant them healing.
We must always remember that the world is not just about me and mine. We are just one tiny dot in a much bigger picture. This week, the terrorist attacks in Pakistan and the indiscrimate killing of men women and children have left me nauseous – especially as I was in both the affected cities in December. I remembered those who are living their lives under constant threat of death in war zones and I thought of those whose lives are dominated by fear and the despair that is sweeping across the world that doesn’t look like dissipating.
As Muslims we say ‘God knows best’ why these things happen and why the world is in the mess it is. But I recall the verse in the Quran “And with Him are the keys of the unseen; none knows them except Him. And He knows what is on the land and in the sea. Not a leaf falls but that He knows it. And no grain is there within the darknesses of the earth and no moist or dry [thing] but that it is [written] in a clear record.” (Verse (6:59) Sura Al An’am) We bear our pain and our burdens with the belief that God is with us. He helps and supports us through the bad times and shares our joy in the good. And whatever befalls us we say “Alhamdulillah” – all praise belongs to God. For he is indeed The Knower of All, Al Alim.
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.