To “Prevent” or Not to “Prevent” – that is the Question!

Two reports published last week have again put the spotlight on Prevent. At the launch of the Citizens UK report entitled “The Missing Muslims – Unlocking British Muslim Potential for the Benefit of All”1, The Right Honourable Dominic Grieve MP, QC Chair of the independent group of Commissioners stated that there appeared to be an ‘induced paranoia” amongst Muslims in relation to Prevent. Jenny Watson, Vice Chair of the Commission further stated that she was surprised to hear the extent to which Prevent was mentioned by Muslims she engaged with, indicating that it bordered on an obsession. Researchers have recently tried to dig beneath this paranoia with the educational context and a second report published by academics from three British universities, looks at what the Prevent duty means for schools and colleges in England2.  The researchers stated that in both the interview and survey data fairly high and widespread levels of confidence existed amongst educationalists around implementing the Prevent Duty. They stated that this had also ‘provided an opportunity to reinvigorate areas of work around equalities, diversity and anti-racism”. It further states that “The overwhelming majority of respondents had engaged with and accepted the core government message that Prevent should be understood as part of school/college safeguarding responsibilities.’ and that there was “widespread acceptance and repetition of the government’s message that Prevent relates to all forms of extremism.”

For transparency, I need to declare from the outset that I am a Prevent practitioner and I am proud of what I have achieved. I know of countless examples where vulnerable young people have been prevented from crossing the boundary into the criminal space, avoiding prison sentences and ruining promising careers. I have trained tens of thousands of young people and professionals who have often had little or no exposure to Islam, offering both reassurances about my religion as well as a demonstration of Islamic behaviour.

It goes without saying I have come across challenges to my work, very occasionally through the training and workshops I’ve delivered, but mainly through social media. Mostly of the ‘keyboard warrior’ variety who profess to know everything and anything. What isn’t quite so well known is that for about seven years I was a member of the Staffordshire Police Authority and part of the Strategic CONTEST Board. I have also had very personal involvement with young people who have been arrested on suspicion of terrorism. So, it’s only fair to say that I have, in some way, shape or form, been involved in this area of work for over 12 years.

So, what are the challenges?  The clear majority relate to myths about Prevent promulgated by those who do not like Prevent and who I would classify into four following categories that are not mutually exclusive:

  1. Those who believe Prevent is poorly implemented and would like to see improvements and a stronger evidence base for its future development. However, they recognise that a Prevent type of programme is needed as it helps prevent some causes of terrorism that are a major cause of Islamophobia.
  2. Those who feel Government should not be introducing a programme that operates in the pre-criminal space as this should be left solely with Muslim communities to develop their own prevention programmes. A government sponsored programme, they believe, generates Islamaphobia.
  3. Those who do not want the government or Muslim communities to operate in the pre-criminal space or develop such programmes. They believe that if the government changed its foreign policy there would be no terrorists. The security services should be supported and be left to get on with their job without a Prevent type of programme that is little more than an excuse to spy on and stigmatise Muslims.
  4. There is also a small minority who are against Prevent because they covertly sympathise with the terrorists’ political aims.

I have for some time wanted to address some of the misconceptions that are commonly voiced by individuals, Some of these people may not fully understand how prevent works, but there are also those who vociferously lobby against the governments counter terrorism strategy, particularly the Prevent element. Some of their often repeated ‘observations’ include (in no particular order of importance);

  1. It’s all about Muslims.
  2. Prevent is based on a ‘conveyor belt theory’.
  3. Channel is a secretive, police led initiative that splits up families and criminalises people.
  4. Prevent stifles debate and infringes on our free of speech.
  5. It is based on flawed science.
  6. It refuses to acknowledge that foreign policy makes people vulnerable.

 

  1. So, it’s all about Muslims?

The Prevent strategy states: “The UK faces a range of terrorist threats. The most serious is from Al Qa’ida, its affiliates and like-minded organisations”. Of course, the most serious threat now comes from Da’esh and those inspired by Da’esh. Eighteen plots inspired by Da’esh have been disrupted since 2013 and three have very recently caused a tragic loss of life.

“Prevent will address all forms of terrorism but continue to prioritise according to the threat they pose to our national security. At present, the majority of our resources and efforts will continue to be devoted to preventing people from joining or supporting Al Qa’ida, its affiliates or related groups”. Bearing in mind the Revised Strategy was produced in 2011, it is important to note that there has been a significant rise in far-right extremism with 30% of cases supported by Channel nationally (50% in some regions) coming from far right related cases. We have also seen far right inspired acts of terrorism in the murder of Jo Cox in June 2016, that resulted in the proscribing of National Action, a far right organisation, and also the far right terrorist attack on worshippers at Finsbury Park during the month of Ramadan.

“Prevent must deal with all forms of terrorism “

The Strategy further recognises that “There have been allegations that previous Prevent programmes have been used to spy on communities. We can find no evidence to support these claims. Prevent must not be used as a means for covert spying on people or communities. Trust in Prevent must be improved”.

Prevent does rely on identifying individuals who may be vulnerable to being targeted by extremists. This is not spying. This is in fact no different to the work that has been done in schools, colleges and communities in supporting people around gangs, child sexual exploitation, female genital mutation and forced marriages for example. There is nothing wrong with adopting a conservative form of your religious beliefs as long it is within the law. There is no evidence that a conservative form of Islam leads to terrorism. In fact, many of the terrorists have limited theological understanding. The security services spy on individuals who are a threat, not on vulnerable individuals. Perhaps some Muslims who have been wrongly accused, have been at the receiving end of badly delivered training or believe their freedom of expression has been curtailed, do feel stigmatised. My personal view is that nothing stigmatises Muslims more than a terrorist attack committed in the name of Islam by individuals who call themselves Muslims.

 

  1. Prevent is based on a ‘conveyor belt theory’

Despite the rumours, Prevent is not based on a so called linear “conveyor belt” theory. Prevent training around radicalisation is publically available. It can be easily accessed as both face-to-face training or via an e-learning package and puts forward the Government’s understanding of radicalisation. It references those circumstances or factors around an individual that might “push” them towards a group or ideology that is attractive to them. There are also “pull” factors that might include people or messages that are communicated in such a way that others find them appealing. These individuals may be at a point in their life where they feel that they want to be part of a movement, something bigger, more meaningful or significant, that gives them a sense of purpose, identity or belonging. Interestingly the only time I have ever heard reference to a conveyor belt theory is when elements of the anti-prevent lobby use this to discredit the strategy.

 

  1. Channel is a secretive, police led initiative that splits up families and criminalises people

I listened to the mother of a now deceased British Da’esh fighter speak last year 3. She spoke of her horror at discovering that her son had left home and gone to Syria. Shortly after, she discovered that her son had been killed. She described how she had wished someone had picked up the changes in her son and referred him to Channel. She wished he had had the opportunity to listen to ‘the other side’ instead of just the propaganda he was being fed via social media. “I don’t have the luxury of knowing where my son is buried let alone being able to go and pray by his graveside’. It’s not Channel that splits up families – it’s the evil divisive ideology of the far right and Da’esh that do that. Channel is a voluntary multi agency scheme headed by the local authorities. The panel includes representation from many sectors including education, housing, police, social services and prisons, as they all have a part to play in keeping people out of the criminal justice system. Channel works by ensuring that the individual who wants support has a mentor to work with, who can guide them away from the influences they have come under, who can ‘channel’ their energy towards more constructive matters. It is an open and transparent process. Ask those who have been involved.

Successful interventions drawing people away from extremism and terrorism can come in the form of an Imam, or former far right activist, mentoring a young person to get them to see how they’ve been manipulated into viewing the world through a binary lens. But supportive interventions could also include counselling or family support. Each case is different. Those working on Prevent understand the complexity of radicalisation and the need to consider each case carefully to be sure that those who require support are steered away from ruining their own lives and potentially those of their families and others. I have in my mind the comments from one mother who “thanks God” for the support her son received after he had viewed extremist material online and indicated support for Daesh. Let’s make sure we don’t let down families like this.

 

  1. Prevent stifles debate and infringes on our freedom of speech

The Prevent strategy makes several references to freedom of speech including:

“We remain absolutely committed to protecting freedom of speech in this country”

“Challenging ideology is also about being confident in our own values – the values of democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind”.

“We are completely committed to protecting freedom of speech in this country”.

“Universities and colleges have an important role to play in Prevent, particularly in ensuring balanced debate as well as freedom of speech “

Freedom of speech is something that is protected in our laws, it is a privilege that comes with living in a free and democratic society. For our educational establishments, freedom of speech is enshrined within Section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986 that states “Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”.

Prevent does not stifle debate nor infringe on freedom of speech, indeed it is necessary to allow extremist views to be aired for them to be challenged and to allow intervention if necessary.  Lord Justice Sedley stated in 1999 that “Free speech includes not only the offensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome, and the provocative, providing it does not tend to provoke violence”. Freedom of speech cannot be taken in isolation and if views are being expressed that are breaking other laws, whether that’s incitement to commit violence or equality laws, challenging ideologies becomes a collective responsibility. Where our further and higher education institutions are concerned, it is vital they protect academic freedom. However, they also have a duty of care to their students and “must safeguard vulnerable young people from radicalisation and recruitment by terrorist organisations “.

 

  1. It is based on flawed science

Prevent’s understanding of radicalisation is based on Government research on individuals that have engaged in terrorist activity. It is clear there is no single socio-demographic profile, or pathway, that leads an individual to become involved in terrorism. These cases tell us that the process is based on several factors coming together that convert radicalisation to terrorism.

Firstly, background factors: aspects of someone’s history or situation that might make them vulnerable to involvement in terrorist activities. Examples can include involvement in criminality, a failure to integrate, disrupted childhoods, and growing up in an extremist subculture.

Secondly, initial influences that help push an individual towards a terrorist group. The most significant are parents, siblings and friends engaged in extremist activity as well as terrorist influencers and extremist ideological material. There has been an increasing move by terrorists to use the internet and social media to brainwash people using sophisticated propaganda. Daesh’s propaganda has been prolific.

Thirdly, ideological opening: before becoming involved in terrorism, individuals need to be receptive to its ideological message. This ideological opening can be because the individual’s experiences make them sympathetic to the terrorist narrative. For example, an individual may become disillusioned with their previous beliefs, leaving them vulnerable to terrorist ideology, or because they are naive, lacking the theological or ideological knowledge to counter terrorist ideology they have been exposed to. For some individuals, involvement in terrorism meets, or promises to meet, important psychological needs: the need to belong, the need for self-esteem and the need for meaning and purpose. The overwhelming majority of people who have these background influences above do not go on to engage in terrorist activity – this is because they have protective factors or obstacles that stop them becoming engaged in terrorism. These factors can either compete with terrorism (e.g. a strong family life that already satisfies the individual’s need for belonging, self-esteem and purpose) or conflict with it (e.g. part of a friendship group that would be lost if the individual became involved in terrorism).

Overlaying the above is the fact that the radicalisation process is overwhelmingly a social process and centres on networks of influential extremists and propagandists. It is about ‘who you know’ and group bonding, peer pressure and indoctrination are necessary to encourage the view that violence is a legitimate response to perceived injustice. The internet has reduced the barriers that exist in the real world for certain groups to become involved in extremism and provides radicalisers the capability to connect and convince a greater audience who would otherwise not have been reachable.

 

  1. It refuses to acknowledge that foreign policy makes people vulnerable

One of the greatest myths about Prevent is that the government’s understanding of what causes people to become radicalised omits any reference to the international context or foreign policy. This mistaken belief exists even though the 2011 Prevent strategy states that: “Support for violence is associated with an aspiration to defend Muslims when they appear to be under attack…Issues which can contribute to a sense that Muslim communities are being unfairly treated include… UK foreign policy”. Former Prime Minister David Cameron said this about the role of foreign wars back in 2015, “I am not saying these issues aren’t important. We could deal with all these issues and some people would still be drawn to Islamist extremism”. And that surely must be right. Lots of people care deeply about, and are angered by, foreign military interventions but there must be something more fundamental going on in someone’s life for them to believe that this justifies murdering innocents.

I would encourage people to do three things. To keep an open mind; fact-check and ensure what you are hearing is not ‘fake news’, such as cucumber bombs, terrorist houses or Palestinian conversations causing Prevent referrals. Talk to people who work in Prevent. It’s not perfect and there will be mistakes made. Constructive feedback and engagement is necessary for any improvement to happen. And finally, if you feel strongly that Prevent should be scrapped, ask yourself: what do we replace it with and how do we stop vulnerable people from being drawn into terrorism of all forms and destroying lives? Sadly as we’ve seen from recent events, the challenge from terrorism is likely to be with us for some time. Safeguarding vulnerable people and protecting our country is a job for us all.

 

References

  1. ‘The Missing Muslims – Unlocking British Muslim Potential for the Benefit of All’. Report by the Citizens Commission on Islam, Participation and Public Life. https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/newcitizens/pages/1261/attachments/original/1499106471/Missing_Muslims_Report_-_Electronic_copy.pdf?1499106471

 

  1. ‘What the Prevent duty means for schools and colleges in England: An analysis of educationalists’ experiences’ by Joel Busher, Tufayl Choudhury, Paul Thomas & gareth Harris. July 2017 https://pure.coventry.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/11090509

 

  1. My Son the Jihadi by Nicola Benyahia New York Times 8th July 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/08/opinion/sunday/my-son-the-jihadist.html

 

 

 

 

 

When The Sun Doesn’t Shine on Muslims

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.

Kind regards

Hifsa

 

 

 

 

 

What One British Muslim Woman Really Thinks

“I think there are two ways in which people are controlled. First of all frighten people and secondly, demonise them”. (Tony Benn)

In a different life I used to be a researcher and know how easy it is to manipulate your study to say exactly what you ultimately want it to say. The ICM poll looking at the views and opinions of British Muslims from the onset set out to prove Muslims are a ‘nation within a nation’. And that is exactly what it did. Shame on you Channel 4.

The ICM poll clearly had three things in mind; to stir up racial and religion tensions, damage community cohesion and further isolate and stigmatise Muslims. It was designed to prove ‘they’ (Muslims like me) aren’t like ‘us’ (everyone who isn’t a Muslims) and ‘we’ needed to be suspicious of ‘them’. The ‘us and them’ narrative came from Trevor Phillips, a 62-year-old black man whose family are originally from Guyana and who held the role of Chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (that he admits he took on purely so he could shut it down). The poll seems to have been constructed to provide oxygen to the likes of Katie Hopkins and our newspapers who the next day came out with the sensationalist headlines ‘what do British Muslims really think? Now we know and its terrifying’; ‘we’re all going to hell in a hijab’; ‘Muslim views have a different ‘centre of gravity’ and ‘UK Muslim ghetto warning’. Not to mention the fodder that has been provided to fuel the thousands of vile comments on social media describing Muslims as ‘the enemy hiding in plain sight’ who need to ‘adapt to our culture or do 1’. There has, admittedly, also been a very humorous side to the whole affair with some very funny comments being made using the hashtag ‘what British Muslims really think’.

Funnily enough it reminded me of the Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt film ‘What Women Want’. If you haven’t seen it, it is worth watching. It tells the story of a male chauvinist whose world of advertising is being taken over by women. When a freak accident renders him able to ‘hear’ the thoughts of women around him, he decides to use the ‘gift’ for his own benefit. I am going to save you the trouble of having to encounter an unfortunate electrocution before you can hear the innermost thoughts of a woman, so I’m going to share with you what this one British Muslim woman thought during and after wasting 60 minutes of my life.

I could have predicted exactly what was going to be ‘revealed’ and it was really not worth staying up for.

Let’s look at some of the headline grabbers, but be warned. This is not any sort of scientific analysis of the research findings, just #WhatOneBritishMuslimWomanReallyThinks.

According to the ICM poll, one in three believe men should be able to take more than one wife. Okay – but don’t you think it’s fascinating that 2/3rds of those surveyed believe one is more than enough for anyone? It was unfortunate that some sensible Muslim women had been duped into appearing on this programme in the first place. I was more disturbed by the comment made by one of them who stated that {marriage} ‘for a man is a huge responsibility. For a woman it’s a privilege’. I had to rewind that bit three times because I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. What an insult to women and a disgraceful comment to make. What does she think married women should be doing, thanking their men for marrying them? And what of those who are single or divorced? Are they not ‘good’ enough for any man, that they should be elevated to the status of being someone’s wife? Marriage should be seen as a bond between equals. If it isn’t, you fall down at the first hurdle. Our Beloved Prophet Muhammad (Upon Him be Peace) married a wealthy, strong, rich businesswoman. She was incredibly lucky to have Him for a husband. He was just as privileged to have had her for a wife. A wife who believed in him, supported him, financially and emotionally, cared for his children and his community and worked hard all her life. Her role and the role of all women should never be down played in this way. Least of all by Muslim women themselves.

Just over half of Muslims surveyed thought homosexuality should be illegal. Actually, that means that just under half of those surveyed don’t believe that. That’s pretty reassuring to me and indicates that views and opinions have come a long way and are changing. Muslims are becoming more tolerant, understanding and accepting that everyone, whatever their sexuality, has the right to choose how they live their life. Isn’t that the conclusion that should have come out of this part of the survey, instead of yet again looking at the negative?

Apparently almost a quarter want the introduction of Sharia law in this country. That still means 75% of those surveyed really do not want Sharia in Britain. And perhaps if the poll had gone further and asked what those who wish to live under Sharia should do, the response would probably have been to offer them a one-way flight to the nearest Muslim country (and I use the term Muslim country loosely and definitely not to mean a region currently inhabited by a group of murderers claiming to be a state).

It appears that a ‘frightening’ 4% of those polled support violence, including suicide bombings, to ‘defend’ Islam with only one in three saying they would report a suspected terrorist to the police. So let’s get this right, because 43 out of 1081 people surveyed allegedly support violence and suicide bombings, we can conclude that 4% of the 2.7 million British Muslims (that’s 108,000 people) support violence and suicide bombings? This is when I want to say WTF but won’t, because Muslim women don’t swear do we? However, what I will say is this has to be the biggest pile of horse **** this survey came out with. To come to this conclusion is not only flawed but indicates the deeply sinister motives of the question; to create fear, division and alarm amongst society and further turn people against each other. Well done Trevor! The man who coined the phrase Islamophobia is working hard to ensure it not only survives but thrives.

I would have preferred the makers of this programme and subsequently our media to make more of the fact that the survey found that 83% of Muslims are proud to be British, that 77% identify strongly with Britain, over 86% have a strong sense of belonging and 82% want to live in diverse communities, 94% felt they could practice their religion freely and 77% felt British society treated women with respect. But that doesn’t quite fit into the image we’re trying to create about Muslims in our midst, does it.

And seriously, what’s with all the questions relating to how Muslims ‘feel’ about people of other groups, when really all the survey wanted to ask about was how Muslims felt about Jews and Israel? Talk about leading questions! ‘Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country’ and ‘Jews have too much power in the business world’ are just 2 examples of how these questions were worded and clearly suggests the answer the survey wanted to get from people. And the respondents sadly obliged.

What worried me most was the fact that the poll selected those individuals who were living in areas of 20% or more Muslim populations.  Whilst there may not be data available to suggest that those who live in areas with fewer Muslims are more liberal in their views, I do know (from very personal experiences) that when you live in close proximity to a community you identify with (whether that’s based on race, religion, politics, social standing or professionally), you do become part of that group. You will share commonalities, opinions and discuss issues of mutual interest. You will become part of a group who may start to hold similar views because those are the views you will hear more regularly. You will, albeit inadvertently, become locked inside an echo chamber where certain views and opinions become voiced again and again, they become the norm, constantly reinforced and ultimately accepted by everyone. That is how most societies work. And that is what I see when I look at the responses to many of the questions in the survey. People responding to a survey in a way that they feel is expected of them, not necessarily what they really think. People answering a question with a response they do not necessarily agree with themselves, but believe that as a Muslim that is what they should be thinking, because they have been told it often enough by someone else. The survey results do not necessarily reflect what Muslims in Britain really think, but what they believe society expects them to think.

Not long ago, I was challenged by a 16-year-old boy in college. He wanted to know why I and another Muslim female colleague, were doing the job we were doing and not a ‘White British person’. So I asked him what made him think I / we were any less British just because we weren’t white? I explained (as politely as I possible could), that I had lived in Britain for over 50 years, longer than he’d been alive. I explained that my family were working in the fields of medicine, law, engineering, technology, teaching and government. Between us we had most probably paid millions in taxes – taxes that were being used to pay for his education and his health care. I had voted in every single election since I turned 18. I supported a number of UK charities. I had friends who were Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhists, Spiritualists and friends who had no faith. (And by the way I see these friends outside of just work and shopping and definitely more than once a year!) I went to churches and synagogues because in no way did this compromise my own faith and belief but strengthened my friendships and our mutual understanding and respect for each other. And these same friends would attend Eid and Ramadan events to support me. Democracy; the rule of law; individual liberty; mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. These are not just British values to me, demonstrated by posters and words. These are Islamic values I have lived with all my life. And this child had the audacity to try and tell me I was not British because of my skin colour and my religion.

One of the things that used to make my late father very angry was if anyone ever said they could not be ‘bothered’ to vote. I remember my brothers saying that to him just to wind him up – never a good idea! His response was always the same. If you can not be bothered to vote, do not bother complaining when you get the government you do not want. Do not be surprised when society cannot be bothered with you, because you do not want a stake in your society. Do not complain about anything; schools, university places, taxes, state of the roads or your bin collection. Because by not voting, you are opting out of the system. A system that is in effect giving you the opportunity to have your say and make a difference. He was always a believer that it is best to be part of a system and change it from within rather than criticise it from the periphery.

My father would often remind us of how fortunate we were to live in a country where we had the power to to put people into power (and remove them as well). A power not afforded to many people in other parts of the world. I was reminded of what my father used to say in January 2005, when the first free elections were held in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussain. A good friend of mine, an Iraqi, came to drop off her daughter at a Muslim Youth group I was running. She was walking towards me, shaking her finger at me, which I found rather bizarre. Her finger was purple, she had tears in her eyes, but her face was a beaming smile.  She explained that for the first time in her life she had been given the chance to have a say in who she wanted to see govern Iraq. If only people in this country could, like my friend, understand the importance of having a say in the democratic processes. Saying our Politicians are all the same, nothing ever changes, what’s the point, they all lie, is a poor excuse for not taking part in the democratic processes that give us the power to decide who will govern us and how. One vote really does matter.

So there are two things that I want to see.

I want the British media to give ‘us’ a break. How about you stop the ‘us and them’ rhetoric. We are all part of this one tiny island trying to do what we can to make a good life for ourselves and our families. Stop associating religion with perpetrators of criminal acts, you are only legitimising their heinous and barbaric actions and effectively criminalising 2 billion others worldwide. Call them what they are; murderers, butchers, terrorists, groomers, rapists. Just please, do not call them Muslims. And how about occasionally having something positive to say about British Muslims, there is lots out there for you to use. You wouldn’t have to look too far and it might actually build some bridges as well as confidence amongst Muslims that the media is able to be ‘balanced’.

However as Muslims we also need to accept that we have a problem. We have a problem within our communities, we have a problem in the way we have allowed our faith to be misinterpreted and hijacked by a tiny vocal majority. We have not been outspoken enough against those Muslims seeking to put a wedge between us and the rest of society. We have to speak up and we have to speak out. We have to stop being critical of Muslims who are prepared to put their heads above the parapet and do something about the growing problems within our own communities. We have to stop hurling abuses and recognise that we are doing this for the good of society. We must never defend the indefensible. We need to ensure the security and safety of this and all future generations of British Muslims. I do not want my grandchildren growing up in a Britain where they are feared or where I fear for their safety.  My grandchildren will be the next generation of British Muslims and I want them to play a full and active part in the society that is their home, I want them to be respected but I expect them to afford the same dignity and respect to the whole of society, regardless of race, religion, colour or creed, gender, disability or sexual orientation. Always.

Living in a Minority Religion in the 21st Century

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Being a faith minority in some parts of the world can literally be the cause of your death. We have all heard of far too many examples, particularly in recent months: the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar Burma and the fate of the Christian Yazidis in Syria are just two examples of the evil inflicted on the followers of one faith, by the followers (or more accurately the misguided followers) of another.

As people of faith, we believe that there are fundamental laws that govern our daily lives. Laws that we believe are essential prerequisites for a good, caring society. But where do these laws come from? Some of them may be politically enforced edicts, human rights regulations, what we might choose to call our British values, or perhaps they are, what we like to believe, ‘God sent’ or religious commandments.

Now certainly those of us who are adherents of the Abrahamic faith on hearing the word ‘commandments’ will instinctively have thought 10 Commandments. It’s a bit like that word association game we played as children, where someone says a word and you say the first thing that comes into your head.  Some of you may be thinking, well actually the laws given to Prophet Moses do and should present us with a cohesive approach that determines how we live our lives, whether that be in the 20th, 21st or 31st century.

But how many of us actually know what the 10 Commandments are?

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There have been many interpretations of the meaning behind the ten commandments. When I mentioned them to my daughter she went into great detail about the misogynist interpretations of the commandments. However in its most simplistic form, these laws tell us how to live a good life, a life that considers others, a life that puts God above all else. Laws that show that those key attributes of our Creator are very much about love, compassion and courtesy for others. But is this how the majority of people view religion or certainly followers of a particular religion – my religion?

I was asked to come and speak to you about what it is like (or what it has been like) living in Britain as a member of a minority religious group. But who else is a religious minority in Britain today?

If you look at the information from the 2011 census we see that 3.2 million people (59.3 per cent of the population) said they were Christian. Compare this to the 2001 census we see this went down from over 70%. The second largest minority religious group were Muslims with 2.7 million people (4.8 per cent of the population), up from 3% from 2001.

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However, a staggering 14.1 million people, around 25% of the total population in England and Wales, reported having no religion in 2011. Whilst it might appear that the people of England and Wales are turning their backs on religion in their droves, the remaining ‘believers’ appear to be showing greater diversity of belief than ever before. These are just some of the categories that came up in response to the religion question in the 2011 census. Interestingly 6,242 said that they were Heavy Metal (should that be metalists?), 1,893 said they were Satanists and 650 said they were New Age.

Some of you may also recall that when the religion question  was first asked in the 2001 census, a national campaign was run that encouraged people to answer the religion question with ‘Jedi Knights’. So from the 2001 census we see that in England and Wales there were over 330,000 Jedi Knights. However the force began to wane when in the 2011 census this figure was reduced by almost half with only 176,632 Jedi Knights. I have been reliably informed that this was a result of their progression from Jedi to Sith. I have also been reliably informed that this will mean something to the Star Wars fans amongst us!

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I am of the opinion that all faiths and beliefs have as their basis in love of all creation. Jains for example, believe in non-violence and equality of all living things. Buddhists belief that meditation and good living can break the cycle of reincarnation and result in enlightenment. Taoism is a relaxed and peaceful religion that is based on following and accepting the flow of life.So why does it appear that as people of faith we quite simply hate each other, are on a mission to destroy ‘the other’ and destroy any chance of living in a pluralistic society, where the most rudimentary qualities of diversity, tolerance, commitment and communication are not respected?

Conflicts between faiths have always existed. This discourse exists not just between different faiths, but also between or amongst different sects, denominations or traditions within a single religion. Many of these arise as a result of the conflict between the more conservative and progressive factions within a religion. In Britain in truth, thanks to the amazing work that takes place around building bridges and community relations, relatively few conflicts have occurred between different faith groups. Some of these organisations are listed below.

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However, we cannot ignore the facts, as we see them far too clearly reported through various mechanisms such as the Community Security Trust and Tell Mama. Anti-Semitism continues to be a threat and Islamaphobic attacks are on the increase.  And then of course there is the growing conflict between those of faith and those of no faith, particularly those who call themselves ‘scientists’ but I’m not going to go into that mine field nor mention any names!

But for all the studies that have been done, the academic papers that have been written, the books that have been published and the column inches dedicated to analysing this issue, what in reality is it like being of a minority faith in 21st Century Britain? Do I as a Muslim, feel hated? Do I feel scared? Do I as a 50+ year old British Muslim woman feel that I belong?

I grew up in inner Leeds in the seventies. I went to a local comprehensive which could not have been more racially mixed if it had been done deliberately . The school had a three way split between White, Asian and Black pupils. Racial conflicts were par for the course. I remember the race riots in Chapeltown in 1981 and remember listening to the sounds of glass breaking, petrol bombs and screaming crowds from my bedroom window.

Religious conflict however never entered the equation. Whilst I was used to being called a Paki, my religion was never an issue. When human faeces were dumped in our front yard, it was not because we were Muslims, it was because we were ‘Pakis’. When someone tried to set light to my hair on the bus, it was not because I was a Muslim, it was because I was a Paki. I was still one of the lucky ones. Growing up in a racially mixed area like Chapeltown meant those who were ‘different’ were not actually in the minority – we were the majority. That in itself protected me from what could have been much greater levels of verbal and physical racial assaults. But being a Muslim was never an issue. I remember a girl at school saying to me ‘I hate Pakis Hifsa but you’re ok’. My religion was not a major factor for anything or anyone.

So what happened to put Islam, Muslims and ordinary people like me on the front page?

A number of events nationally and internationally transpired that for me were key to the way in which I was going to be perceived by others around me. People who had never known previously I was a Muslim and certainly had never felt it was an issue.

Before I talk about these wider events, I was reminded of one personal incident when I was in Leeds earlier this week. It was 1988 and I had been invited to an interview for a job at a local Catholic school. I arrived for the interview to be met by 4 men, all white, in suits, sitting in a semi circle. They were introduced to me as the Headteacher, Head of Science (the job was in the labs), school Bursar and Head of the RE department. The interview went as most interviews do, being asked a lot of mundane questions about why I wanted the job, my hobbies, etc. It was not until the end of the interview that the real questions started. The headmaster pointed out that as a Catholic schools the ethos of the school was very distinct and would I mind the Head of the RE department asking a few additional questions as they had become aware that I was a Muslim. My response I recall was ‘go for it!’.

After a few questions which seemed unnecessary, the real question was asked.

‘As a Muslim we are aware that you are expected to pray 5 times a day. If we offer you the job, are you at any point going to request time out during the working day to perform your religious obligation’?

After a suitable silence and biting my tongue (my initial response would not have been very polite) I replied, that at that current point in my life I did not pray 5 times a day. But I was aware that I should be doing. Perhaps in a day or a week or a month or three months I may decide that I wanted to be more observant and as such wanted to pray more regularly. Even then there were plenty of opportunity to pray within the given time scales before and after work. It would really only be in the winter months when it might become an issue, but even then I suspected smokers would take a longer break for a cigarette (which was very much the norm in those days) then I would require to say my prayers. If they wanted me to give them a reassurance that I would not at some point ask for 5 minutes during my lunch break or during the late afternoon, to say my prayers, then I was sorry, I could not give them that promise.

They offered me the job. I turned it down. This was my first experience at the age of 20 years old, of having to explain, or more accurately defend, my religion and my practices.

But what were those other significant events that had an impact on me and the wider British Muslim communities? This is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination, but they are just some of those principal episodes I remember vividly.

26 September 1988 happened. This was the day that Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses were published. The novel became instantly controversial as a result of its blasphemous references. Rushdie was accused of misusing freedom of speech and two months later 7,000 Muslims staged the first ever march, demonstration and book burning ceremony on the streets of Bolton.  The demonstrators claimed that they “burned the book to try and attract public attention” and a similar event early in the new year prompted the journalist Robert Winder referring to  “images of medieval (not to mention Nazi) intolerance”.  I recall seeing images of angry Muslim men crowding round a fire, shouting hate filled slogans and shaking their fists and all I could think was, what do they have in common with me?  Their actions not only painted me out to be part of a lunatic fringe but also provided free marketing to Rushdie’s book. Sales of the book actually soared as a result of all the attention. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity!

11th July 1995 in Bosnia  happened.  8372 Muslim men and boys were systematically killed in the worst genocide to affect mainland Europe since World War 2. A country less than 4 hours’ flight from London. The images and news coming out of Bosnia were heartbreaking. Husbands, fathers and sons ripped away from their family. Women and girls systematically raped in an attempt to ethnically cleanse the region of Muslims. (See my blog on my visit to Srebrenica with the Remembering Srebrenica charity last year).

11th September 2001 happened. When 19 militants associated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda hijacked four airliners and carried out suicide attacks against targets in the United States. Two of the planes were flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, a third plane hit the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C. with the fourth plane crashing in a field in Pennsylvania. Over 3,000 people were killed during the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. including more than 400 police officers and firefighters.

7th October 2001 happened. This saw the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom when the United States invaded Afghanistan with the United Kingdom in response to 9/11 and demands by the USA to Afghanistan to hand over Osama bin Laden and expel al-Qaeda. Supported initially by close allies, they were later joined by NATO beginning in 2003. Its public aims were to dismantle al-Qaeda and to deny it a safe base of operations in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban from power. Bin Laden had been wanted by the United Nations since 1999 and In 2001, U.S. President Bush demanded that the Taliban hand him over, a demand they declined unless they could be provided with what they deemed convincing evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks. [Dismissed by the U.S. as a delaying tactic, on 7 October 2001 Operation Enduring Freedom was launched.

20 March 2003 happened. The Iraq War was a protracted armed conflict beginning with the 2003 invasion of Iraq led by the United States. The invasion regime toppled the government of Saddam Hussein. However, the conflict continued for much of the next decade as an insurgency emerged to oppose the occupying forces and the post-invasion Iraqi government. An estimated 151,000 to 600,000 or more Iraqis were killed within the first 3–4 years of conflict. The United States officially withdrew from the country in 2011 but became re-involved in 2014 at the head of a new coalition; the insurgency and many dimensions of the civil armed conflict continue.

January 2004 Robert Kilroy Silk happened Kilroy Silk was an absolute disgrace. When he wrote a newspaper piece entitled “We Owe the Arabs Nothing” in which he spoke of Arabs being “suicide bombers, limb-amputates and women repressors” he failed to distinguish between those who had perpetrated the 9/11 attacks 200 million ordinary Arabs who were both Muslims and Christians. He further associated 2 billion peaceful adherents of the Islamic faith with the 9/11 terrorists. The dangerous and vehement terms in which he spoke about Muslims made observers anxious that there was a genuine threat that this could motivate some to attack those who appeared to be an Arab.

7th July 2005 happened, 22nd May 2013 happened and sadly there have been many ‘happenings’ since then. Including the sad murder of Muhammad Saleem and the attempted bombing of three mosques in the West Midlands by Pavlov Lapshyn and the very recent attack on Dr Sarandev Singh Bhambra, a Sikh dentist mistaken for a Muslim at a supermarket in Mold by a man brandishing a machete who attacked him in revenge for Lee Rigby

And suddenly Britain was the less secure, less tranquil, less accepting place to be for me. A country that can only be described as being the most tolerant in Europe, was developing a new identity. One that singled me out because I was now being identified as belonging to a group that should be feared. We were hostile and aggressive. We were the enemy who had been hiding within the host community ready to pounce for ever 50 years. People were now beginning to look at me with suspicion and contempt. A friend was asked if she carried a bomb in her handbag, by a ten-year-old. Another friend was told ‘my dad says you lot should all be rounded up and shot’. Another friend was asked if there was a bomb under her head scarf. You will no doubt be aware of the many disgraceful, worst cases that have been reported to Tell Mama including both physical and verbal assaults. And the saddest things I heard recently were from a bunch of young Muslim girls who said to me  “you know we get it both barrels. We get abused by the likes of the EDL and get called terrorists and letter boxes on a regular basis. But when we refuse to take leaflets from the likes of Al Muhaajirun and Hizbit Tahir on street corners we get called kafir and worse’. Others said ‘it’s not much fun being a young Muslim woman in some parts of the country any more’.

Yet despite all this, I profess that I am still one of the lucky ones. When I see and hear what is inflicted on Muslims old and young, male and female (though over-whelmingly female) in this country and minority faiths in other parts of the country and across the globe in fact,  it does make me question our ability as human beings to show any empathy to those who are simply different. I am often reminded of the pyramid of hate (below), that depicts the form discrimination and prejudice can take and how quickly things can escalate from being light banter, just a bit of fun and having a laugh, into something more sinister. I wonder where British society is right now on the scale? I wonder how long it took Bosnia, Rwanda, Nazi Germany to make its way to the top?

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The images below are from the world wide web. They are amongst the first to appear when you google ‘images of Muslims’. and depict Muslims overwhelmingly as angry, violent, bearded men shaking their fists  or pointing at you in a threatening manner.

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But as a 21st Century British Muslim minority I would much rather prefer to be associated with the British Muslims depicted below. Individuals who are part of British society, in politics, sports, media, music, law and community activism. Who wouldn’t! 

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“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
― Mark Twain

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