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 close to 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.
My dearest Granddaughter Eliza
There are few things in life that give us immense pleasure, this sense of absolute joy, this awe that life can never get any better than this. Your wedding day, the birth of your child, and beyond all imagination the birth of a grandchild.
You were born a mere forty nine days ago, just 99 days after Britain voted to leave the European Union. Just 120 hours ago America elected its 45th President Donald Trump. And suddenly the world feels like a very dark and dangerous place. The world you are going to inherit is no longer the relatively cosy world I have had the pleasure of inhabiting for the last 50+ years. It has not been perfect, but it seems to have taken a sinister turn. And for that I feel you are owed an explanation.
There have always been concentrations of wealth amongst the few but the plutocrats of today seem to hold absolute power over governments and the global political systems. Crony capitalism goes from strength to strength and the middle class is shrinking. The vortex of minimum wage labour is relentlessly pulling everyone towards it – with the exception of the privileged few.
There has always been racism and discrimination in the Britain I grew up in. But over the last three years there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of violent, racist incidents. Levels of hate speech aimed at Muslims, indeed anyone ‘foreign’ have risen. People appear to be more interested in filming people being attacked or abused on their mobiles, rather than risking their own safety by intervening and stopping these events from taking place. Anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic sentiments appear to be insidious – in our daily lives, in newspapers, online and particularly on social media. The scariest thing is this situation is being worsened by the very people in society who should be protecting these groups and challenging it. Our politicians.
When you have politicians who peddle their dirty politics and incite hatred in the guise of ‘political campaigning’; who claim their country’s problems can be resolved if only we didn’t have so many immigrants; who claim the world would be a better, safer place if one group of people didn’t exist; who use the plight of refugees and the images of drowned children for their own political point scoring and use terms more commonly associated with individuals who committed appalling acts of genocide; we are providing elements of society with the green card they need to go out and attack and abuse those who are different and those who are most vulnerable.
And now the ‘free world’ has gone through an election where the forces of racism, xenophobia, bullying and ignorance have been let loose . Mother Earth must be weeping.
And this is the world you are to inherit. Where climate change and global trade tariffs are going to create misery and death on a biblical scale for the world’s poor, even if we avoid a recurrence of a 1930s style depression. My generation have failed you.
We have failed to mobilise those voices, those individuals in the world who still hold dear the basic human values of kindness, generosity, compassion, caring and respect. It is not that these types of people do not exist. I believe the good people in our world, in their heart of hearts, never thought any of this was possible. And as a result those millions of people who voted for Mr. Trump did so, not because they are racists, but as Bernie Sanders pointed out, did so because they are sick and tired of the economic, political and media status quo that has resulted in the suffering of millions, through unemployment, homelessness and drug abuse. It was these individuals who were taken in by a wave of anger and were manipulated by the lies and scaremongering tactics by the cartoons, adverts and posters. This is what has been used to convince people with genuine grievances who are angry with their lot that the solutions were simple. We were taken unaware. We were caught napping. And your generation is left with picking up the pieces.
And for that I can only apologise.
But there can be no silver linings without clouds and it is that silver lining we now need to find. Angela Merkel drew a line in the sand when she said that her relationship with Trump would only succeed if he upheld “the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political views.”
Secretary Clinton’s dignified reaction gives us hope; “This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it …We need you to keep up these fights now and for the rest of your lives… I count my blessings every single day …our best days are still ahead of us…scripture tells us, let us not to grow weary of doing good, for in good season we shall reap…let us have faith in each other, let us not grow weary and lose heart, for there are more seasons to come and there is more work to do.”
Eliza, Hillary Clinton also had a message for you “And to all of the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”
“The point in history at which we stand is full of promise and danger. The world will either move forward toward unity and widely shared prosperity – or it will move apart.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt) This is the task that my generation has set you, ensuring that as we move forward, we move towards unity. Your generation will have the task of healing the gaping wounds that my generation has inflicted on the world. Be sure to fight for what is right, for democracy, for respect and tolerance and always search for the very best in humanity .
“No reason have we why we should not put our trust on God. Indeed He Has guided us to the ways we (follow). We shall certainly bear with patience all the hurt you may cause us. For those who put their trust should put their trust in God.” (Surah İbrahim, 12)
Lots of love
Your Daadijaan xxx
Right so let’s start with a disclaimer:
I am not in any way condoning racism, anti-Muslim hatred, or any other form of discrimination. There is no room in our society for the insidious form of hatred currently taking root in society – a hatred that we have seen in Nazi Germany, Rwanda and just twenty-one years ago in Bosnia. And we know only too well where this can ultimately lead.
But earlier this week I watched the clip of Louis Smith MBE and simply thought ‘what an idiot’. If you are one of the lucky ones that have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, give yourself a pat on the back. To get you up to speed, Louis Smith and his fellow Olympic gymnast were filmed taking a rug off the wall at a wedding reception; they then pretended to pray and shout ‘Allah Hu Akbar’ (God is Great). OK so they were some what inebriated at the time. But let’s give credit where credit is due, in this case to their RE teachers. There knowledge of Islam clearly extended to them appreciating that in order to pray they needed a mat that was clean and to begin by proclaiming the greatness of God. They were clearly paying attention in their RE lessons. Was I offended – no. Did I find it funny? Actually I did. Unfortunately, despite his sincere apology, Louis Smith is now getting death threats and the Gymnastics association are ‘investigating’ the incident.
I can remember watching Dave Allan at Large on a Saturday night many years ago and his closing greeting,” Good night thank you and may your God go with you” is one that is now iconic. His short clips are just as iconic, particularly the ones involving Catholic priests and particularly the Pope. I remember the one about ‘the fart’ or perhaps you remember the one with the Pope doing a striptease? They were funny right? Saturday evenings were made for comedy acts like Dave Allen – a Catholic making mockery of his own faith whilst the rest of us watched and laughed on. I didn’t find anything remotely offensive about that. Indeed I found it hilarious. But then – I’m not a Catholic. There were those who did – Mary Whitehouse was always writing to the BBC and complaining about the blasphemy (his own mother called him a blasphemer). He was banned from Irish TV and had death threats from the IRA. He mocked and offended the Catholic church to a degree that is quite unimaginable. And I would say he got away with it too.
Every religion has at some point found itself at the sharp end of a comedy act – whether Dave Allen or Jim Carrie in the Wrath of Ganesh. The depiction of Prophet Noah in the recent film left many from the Abrahamic faiths uncomfortable and who wasn’t upset by Bruce Almighty, right?
But what it is about Muslims that makes us belief that we should not ever be mocked or our beliefs made fun of? What makes us think that above all other faiths and beliefs there should be a moratorium on being offensive towards Islam and Muslims. Folk like Azhar Usman and Preacher Moss make there living out of being funny Muslims (‘how come Muslims speed everywhere but are still late for everything?’) In fact, what makes us believe that Islam requires us to defend it to the point we become so angry that we lose sight of something more important – perspective. When are we going to stop being offended by bacon sandwiches in a buffet, or our children taking part in an Easter egg hunt, or being sent a Christmas card (‘honestly don’t they know we’re Muslims?’).
Our Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said “The powerful man is not the one who can wrestle, but the powerful man is the one who can control himself at the time of anger.” But this takes strength, especially when we see something so important and special to us being abused or ridiculed. But surely our faith is big enough to defend itself. Shouldn’t we be channelling our energies and our anger to rectifying the bigger wrongs in the world? If we must get angry, let’s get angry about the REAL physical and verbal abuse being hurled at Muslims going about their daily lives. Let’s get angry about the 7 million tonnes of food and drink being thrown away annually that could have been used to feed the hungry (we are the worst offenders in Europe). Get angry about the hundreds of thousands of Britons being forced to go to food banks. Get angry because of the housing shortages, the cuts to benefits that leave 185,000 people sleeping on our streets. Get angry about the 22,000 children who die in one day across the world because of the abject poverty they are living in. And if you’re really brave, speak out about the persecution of minority faiths in Muslim lands where even the slightest objection can result in individuals being accused of blasphemy and finding themselves under the threat of execution. Or women who have faced years of domestic abuse, some from very tender ages, being tried for murder when they could take no more and took matters into their own hands.
The world is full of injustices – a couple of blokes making fun of my religion isn’t one of them.
“Unity is strength…when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved”. And such was LIFe 2016
I am feeling happy, upbeat, and proud to be a Muslim. Having spent 4 days last week in the presence of around 3000 Muslims from across Great Britain at the Living Islam Festival (LIFe) 2016, I am reassured that the vast majority of Muslims in Britain are proud to call themselves British Muslims.
For those who may not be aware, the Living Islam Festival took place between 28th-31st July in Lincoln. It’s a four-day festival organised by the Islamic Society of Britain (www.isb.org.uk) that transforms the scenic Lincolnshire Showground into a mini village, with attendees staying in tents and caravans and many in local hotels and B&B’s, doing their bit to boost the local economy. LIFe 2016 as it is affectionately known, has been described as the Muslim ‘Glastonbury’ or alternatively the Muslim ‘Hay Festival’. With the missing links being drugs, alcohol and rock ‘n roll! Over the four-day period adults and children have the opportunity to attend sessions aimed at all ages, that run simultaneously throughout the day. Lectures, and debates for adults that provoke and stimulate discussions, such as reforming Islam and finding answers in a plural society. The younger Muslims have the opportunity to enter into interesting conversations around topical subjects or even just attend practical hands on activities such as bushcraft and Islamic Art. For example, one session was titled ‘Grime, Dub Step and Hip-Hop – keeping it real keeping it halal’ and another ‘mum dad you’re driving me ….’. The event provides a safe space for Muslims to BE Muslims, talk and debate the things that are affecting them and their families in the real world. But it also provides a much needed 4-day spiritual retreat. An opportunity to renew your faith, rekindle your connection with God out in the open and under the blue skies, or simply to pray. LIFe can be exactly what you want it to be.
Organising the event requires what can only be described as a military manoeuvre and preparations get under way twelve months, if not more, in advance, before the day when the gates open. With near-on 50 individuals heading up their own department, the project is managed overall by the Festival Director – Dr. Khalid Anis where inevitably ‘the buck stops’. What’s most important to note however is that the event is planned, organised and put on by volunteers. From the registration team at arrivals, audio visual team in the big top and across the event recording seminars and debates, the cleaning team, events programme, scouts, the 0-5 area, Young Muslims, campus, information centre, VIP / guest hospitality, feeding, supporting, transporting, cleaning and of course the security team – the list is endless.
From the spectacular arts and culture marquee set up for the first time by the amazing Julie and Rozina, the must-have bi-annual coffee shop (sorry Anika!), snack shack, bazaar, the food court, the medical centre, the mini rural community that was the Living Islam Festival 2016, had everything you needed and wanted. Freshly brewed coffee, books, clothes, information, support, arts, ice cream, Malaysian cuisine, burgers and chicken, Asian must have such as pakoras and samosas, cakes, smoothies. And without a shadow of a doubt, you had spirituality, prayer, supplication and knowledge in abundance. You could find it all in LIFe as the mini four-day settlement was quite simply a reflection of the bigger society we live in. And thanks to the forward thinking Julie a small group of us were able to give a little something back to the local community we would be staying in for the next few days.
We were privileged and delighted to play host this year to some eminent scholars and speakers including Karen Armstrong, Rabbi Laura Janner-Krausner, Shaykh Ruzwan Mohammed, Shaykh Akram Nadwi, and Ustadh Ubaydullah Evans, to name but a few. A number of entertainers who, over the years, have become our good friends, joined us again for LIFe. This year we were amused by Omar Regan, entertained by Faraz Yousafzai and the Sophistas, and spellbound by the beautiful songs our children have grown up with, by Dawud Wharnsby. There was also a young man there who goes by the name of Harris J that seemed to get everyone very excited!
The early mornings and late nights, the call to prayer during the day, praying in congregation throughout the event, the Qur’anic recitation, the spectacular Friday congregational prayer, the parachute jump, the vast audience in the big top at night, the hustle and bustle in the bazaar area, the constant stream of people in and out of the coffee shop and the crazy rush to take up membership at the ISB stall, all go towards making LIFe what we have seen this year. – spectacular.
The Sunday LIFe event saw a number of VIP’s invited to come and experience LIFe for themselves. Attended by the Bishop of Lincoln and the High Sheriff of Lincolnshire, a representative from the US Embassy and representatives from a variety of faith communities, came to the showground for the Sunday. They willingly took part in an interfaith cricket match (‘MOD ‘v’ The God Squad – no prizes for guessing who won) before moving on to the Islamic Society of Britain’s Celebrating Excellence Awards 2016. The nominations received this year were of an amazing standard and we were delighted to be able to recognise the hard work and commitment of individuals including James O’Brien from LBC for his contribution to the media, Dr. Gill Hicks MBE for her courage in the face of adversity and a posthumous Lifetime Achievement award to Jo Cox MP.
As just one very small cog in the great machinery that is the Living Islam Festival, I am again in awe at the time, patience and commitment shown by every single one of our volunteers to ensure the event is appealing and relevant to the Muslims living in Britain today. The media presence, the inter faith dialogue, the projects that we run, all are important aspects of the ISB. However, nothing is more important than our most vital resource – our members and our volunteers who work tirelessly in their branches the length and breadth of the country. From Glasgow to London, Manchester to Sheffield. The organisation would be nothing without you. Your efforts do not go unnoticed and my grateful thanks for all that you have done and all that you will no doubt continue to do in the future.
The current climate seems to dictate how and why Islam and Muslims can or should be ‘seen and heard’. Suicide bombings, ‘lone wolf’ attacks, such as the recent tragic murder of Father Jacques Hamel are just two examples of when Muslims are expected to speak out, distancing themselves as Muslims and followers of Islam from the atrocities, something unfortunately we do have to do. But today there will be no bowing of the head in shame or remorse. Islam and Muslims are not filled with hate – we are filled with love and compassion, kindness and generosity, patience and sincerity. All of which were evident in abundance at the Living Islam Festival 2016. If you attended, thank you for making LIFe 2016 the best yet. If you didn’t attend, all I can say is take a look at the photographs, judge for yourself and remember to book your tickets to 2018 early!
I recently wrote a blog about my thoughts in relation to the disgraceful article written by Kelvin MacKenzie about Channel 4 newsreader Fatima Manji – you can read it here https://hifsahiblog.wordpress.com/2016/07/19/when-the-sun-doesnt-shine-on-muslims/
I reproduce below the response I have received from the Sun Ombudsman Philippa Kennedy OBE:
Dear Mrs Haroon-Iqbal,
Ref: Kelvin MacKenzie’s column about presenter wearing a hijab.
Thank you for your email. I am sorry that this column has upset you.
Kelvin MacKenzie is a columnist for The Sun but does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the newspaper. The Sun’s views on this issue are better reflected in this piece by our reporter Anila Baig https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/1463714/anila-baig-the-fact-that-fatima-can-present-a-news-bulletin-and-also-wears-a-headscarf-shows-how-great-britain-is/ and our ‘United Against IS’ campaign https://www.thesun.co.uk/archives/news/393327/united-against-i-s/.”
The Sun carries a wide range of columnists whose views are often robust and controversial. The newspaper believes that it is its job to give writers freedom to express these views that are often shared with many readers.
You may be aware that this matter is now being investigated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. They have already rejected several similar complaints on the grounds that the article was ‘opinion’ and the columnist was entitled to express that opinion. They also rejected complaints that the article was discriminatory on the grounds that the Editors’ Code of Practice is designed to protect individuals mentioned and does not apply to groups of people such as Muslims.
Until IPSO has concluded its enquiries, I would prefer not to send you a formal response but your concerns have been noted by the Editor.
Philippa Kennedy OBE
Dear Mr Gallagher
What sort of odious creatures are you employing at The Sun in the guise of professional journalist?
Are these people for real? Is this the only way they can find of ‘making it’ in a world where fame is judged by the number of friends on Facebook, followers on twitter or the number of retweets that you get?
Whatever their reasons, it is becoming more and more evident, that we are living in a world that is far too accepting of hatred towards Muslims, whether that comes in the form of abuse whilst travelling on the buses or from within our media. We are living in a world that once upon a time judged our ‘Britishness’ by which cricket team we supported, but as Baroness Warsi put it, has progressed to one where Islamophobia had passed the dinner-table test and become socially acceptable in the UK.
Forget the fact that Muslim women work in every walk of life from teachers, barristers, doctors, dentists and politicians. It would appear that whilst a Muslim woman can be Chair of the Conservative party, a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf can win British Bake Off and go on to bake a cake for Her Majesty The Queens 90th birthday party, a Muslim man can become Mayor of London. But Heaven forbid a Muslim woman wearing a scarf should be seen on mainstream television reporting on a terrorist atrocity without some hate fuelled tirade by a petty-minded bigot. And I use the word bigot very carefully after having been reminded a few times recently that ‘Muslims aren’t a race’. Muslims do however constitute the second largest world religion and in accordance with the Equality Act 2010 must not be discriminated against because of belonging to a particular religion or holding a particular philosophical belief.
However that is exactly what The Sun and your highly professional reporters appear to do on a regular basis. Why has this not been challenged? Why has this been allowed to continue – both by yourself as Editor in Chief, from your reporter Kelvin MacKenzie and us as British Muslims? Are OFCOM, the communications regulator, not able to see that there is something grossly wrong in the blatant messages certain media outlets are trying to put out there? The appalling language designed to divide communities, promote pure hatred and I believe incite physical and verbal abuse of Muslims has left me and many people disgusted and yes, fearful. Not only for our own safety but for that of our children, our families and our friends. The implication that there is no such thing as a good Muslim, that no Muslim should ever report on a terrorist attack or anything that is even remotely ‘Muslim related’ shows the pure stupidity and mindset of not only the people writing these things but the audience it is aimed at. So should a man never report on a rape attack on a woman? Should a white man never report on an incident of domestic violence by a white man? Or a person who is overweight not present a report on obesity? Was it ‘appropriate’ for a Muslim woman in a scarf to report on the Nice attack? Damn right it was because guess what. Fatima Manji is a highly skilled professional journalist working for Channel 4 and has absolutely nothing to do with a man who allegedly has a history of violence , domestic abuse , petty criminality and a religious affiliation that is highly questionable. She had nothing to do with the attack any more than I or the 1.6 billion peaceful, law abiding Muslims across the world did. It is not Channel 4 that hosts unprofessional journalists – I think we all know where they are currently residing. And Fatima Manji is the epitome of a professional British Muslim, let’s not forget that tiny fact in all this. Reporting of this nature is not only irresponsible it is contemptible and it is dangerous. So dangerous that it should be investigated by OFCOM and the police as it fuels the growing tide of far right extremism, it not only condones but promotes hatred and quite simply glorifies prejudice, division and racism. Should you be in any doubt at the rising levels of far right extremism currently facing our country, I suggest you take a look at Tell Mama’s most recent report ‘The Geography of Anti-Muslim Hate’ (http://tellmamauk.org/geography-anti-muslim-hatred-2015-tell-mama-annual-report/ ). Or just ask a Muslim woman next time you get to meet one.
People like yourself in positions of great authority have a duty to society around you to report responsibly and use your powers to create cohesive societies, not create more division. We should all be responsible for creating communities where the most vulnerable feel safe and secure. History has taught us the harsh realities of what happens when a group of people are targeted and turned into pariahs by their friends and neighbours. We have seen the destruction in Nazi Germany, Srebrenica and Rwanda. I hope you and your journalists at The Sun reflect on their words and the actions that they could potentially lead to.