Boris Johnson, The Handmaid’s Tale & The Alt-Right – an unholy alliance?

Dear Mr Johnson

It was a pleasure to meet you earlier this year, at the reception hosted at Buckingham Palace for representatives of the Commonwealth diaspora in the UK. I must admit I was pleasantly surprised to see you there, as it gave me the opportunity to offer my thanks and congratulations for the excellent coverage of your visit to Myanmar that I had seen a couple of days previously. You showed true leadership and did not pander to the Burmese leader. You spoke with passion, referring to what was happening to the Rohingya Muslims as ‘industrial level ethnic cleansing’. So to be able to discuss this with you personally and hear about your visit gave me a sense of relief that our government was genuinely acting to ensure that Rohingya Muslims received the assistance they so desperately needed internally in the country and externally from the international community.

I also realised that day that unlike your media persona, you are in fact a very clever man and not a blundering buffoon. Unfortunately, your recent comments ridiculing women who wear the niqab are text-book Bannon and Breitbart.  I do not like the burqa or the niqab and certainly do not think it easily fits in with the society in which we live. The majority of the public think that too. But telling women how they should dress is not British either.

Some people are suggesting a national niqab day in solidarity with those who wear the niqab, which quite frankly is daft and will poison the genuine debates we need to have as a society.

Your choice of words in describing Muslim women who choose to veil in this manner were very badly chosen and reminded me of a conversation I had a few years previously. I was working with Muslim girls, discussing with them issues they were facing in their hometown of Luton. One young woman, a niqabi said to me “we are hit by both barrels of the gun. We walk down one side of the street and we are called letter boxes and bin liners by the EDL. We walk down the other side of the road and if we refuse to take the leaflets being handed out by Al Muhajiroun we are called traitors and kuffar. We can’t win”. This statement has stayed with me because of how upset the young lady was. All she wanted to do was go about her daily life, get an education, shop, and go out with her friends without having to face a barrage of abuse. And thanks to your comments, (I won’t even insult you by saying they were ill-thought, off -the-cuff comments because nothing you say is) abuse such as this is set to continue, very likely increase. Comments such as yours play into the hands of the alt-right, it legitimises their anti- Muslim hatred and gives them the green card to harass, attack and abuse some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I heard yesterday about a woman who had been urinated on by three men simply because she was wearing the niqab. The abuse and attacks on Muslims will continue, and your comments will give some people the justification they need to commit these offences. The niqab debate is a very convenient rallying call for the extreme right wing anti-Muslim elements in society who will use this to scare people about the impending ‘Islamification’ of Britain and ‘creeping shariah’. What has not been covered in the press is that this is also a very convenient rallying call for Muslims on the extreme right, who see the niqab as a symbol for promoting a version of Islam based on theocracy and not democracy. To them I say no, thank you very much. I do not wish to live in a Muslim society based on a version of The Handmaids Tale. I do not want to be punished by the state for choosing to dress as I please.

There is absolutely no doubt as to who are the ultimate losers in this vicious dogfight – the ordinary British Muslims who simply want to go about their lives and practice their faith. Other minorities will inevitably be targeted after Muslims (some already are.)

I am a British Muslim. I value the freedoms that living in a democratic society affords me with. Whilst many people in this country dislike the niqab and what they perceive it to represent, they will be equally appalled by racist attacks on Muslims, that your comments have no doubt incited.  Albert Einstein said that a leader “is one who, out of the clutter, brings simplicity… out of discord, harmony… and out of difficulty, opportunity.” I hope that out of the clutter your comments have created, you will find the simplest and most honourable option is to apologise to Muslim women who choose to veil for your insensitivity and poor choice of words. This will hopefully provide us with the opportunity to draw a line under this saga, move forward and perhaps even have more grown up conversations about things that actually matter in society, not the banal and the ridiculous.

Men, Women and the Hijab – a never ending debate

“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them; and God is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty, and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appear thereof, that they should draw their veils over their bosoms…..” (24:30-31)

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A few days ago I was asked by someone why I became so sensitive over the issue of the head covering being addressed. Today I’ve been reading about a young Kuwaiti woman being chastised because she publicly chose to stop wearing the headscarf – something that was being seen as an affront to God but also her father, a prominent Islamic scholar

Now I don’t claim to be a scholar nor do a profess to be particularly knowledgeable in relation to Islamic jurisprudenceBut I felt this was one blog I needed to write – for my own sanity and the sanity of other women who are constantly put under pressure, one way or another, in relation to the head scarf.

Most of us know that there are some topics associated with Muslims and Islam that are generally regarded as the proverbial “hot potato”.  Women in Islam is possibly seen as the most controversial, certainly in the eyes of non-Muslims. But the rights of women, particularly around dress and modesty seems to be an area that is much debated (I would add almost relentlessly) not by non-Muslims, or even Muslim women, but by Muslim men.

What is this bizarre obsession, this almost unhealthy fixation, I would say that borders on stalking, that some men have with how Muslim women dress & in particular whether they wear the head scarf, or what has become known as the hijab?

For those unfamiliar with the word, the Arabic word hijab actually means barrier or curtain. It is used on five separate occasions in the Quran. For example 

“Mention in the Quran the story of Mary. She withdrew from her family to a place to the east and secluded herself away. We sent Our Spirit to appear before her in the form of a perfected man.”(19:27-27)

“It is not granted to any mortal that God should speak to him except through revelation or from behind a veil, or by sending a messenger to reveal by His command what He will: He is exalted and wise.”(22:51)

Now it may be a revelation to many that both these verses and subsequent others do not use the term ‘hijab’ to mean a 24 inch square of cloth that covers a womans hair. It does however mean a barrier / curtain and way of seclusion. So what is this fixation about?

I have many good friends who wear the head covering for a variety of reasons, all very different. In fact, I wore the headscarf for three years as well in the 1990’s. Some wear it because they believe it is a religious instruction from God, who instructs them to cover up not just the bosom area but also the hair. Some don the head covering because it brings them closer to God, it becomes a form of worship in the same way that prayer and fasting are. Others use the head covering as an outward expression of their religiosity – literally wearing their faith on their head. Some wear it as it supports them in observing modesty, an instruction for men and women, in the Quran.  There are more and more women, particularly younger women who have adopted the hijab by way of protest – to make a political statement – ‘I am a Muslim and I have no issue with you or anyone else knowing’. And there are political movements were wearing of the head scarf is synonymous with political affiliations and groups. There are those women who have been ‘shamed’ into wearing the hijab because all the other women in the family wear it. Some wear it because it has become ‘habit’ and to remove it would mean they are no longer accepted as ‘authentic’ Muslims, would lose their credibility within certain circles and might possibly have to forfeit positions of authority within the community. And unfortunately, there are those women who wear it because they are forced to do so by their families, fathers in particular. And there are those who wear it because their husbands have told them they would divorce them if they didn’t.

It’s worth pointing out that women who choose not to wear the head scarf do so for equally valid and diverse reasons. Some believe you can be just as pious and modest without covering the hair. Others believe the Quranic verse does not extend to the hair as it specifically mentions the bosom area. And others are of the opinion that you can still appear immodest whilst wearing the headscarf.

Just as there are contrasting reasons behind why women choose to wear the head covering or not, we must acknowledge that there are diverse scholarly opinions  associated with whether or not the head covering is compulsory.

Eminent, outstanding scholars appear to have adopted various positions around whether the head covering is or is not compulsory.  Abdullah bin Bayyah and Abdullah al Judai, for example, are of the opinion that the view mentioned by scholars, in  their commentaries,  like Ibn Ashur (he says some opined it wasn’t necessary) and Muhammad Asad (he said it was all changeable by custom, as what is ordinarily shown changes from one society to the next)  are valid positions. They also opine that in societies where women who wear the head covering, are attacked , they are permitted to remove it. In fact, it may even be necessary to remove it. Hamza Yusuf said the same both in his books and speeches and has stated that

“The laws are there to serve human beings; we are not there to serve the law. We are there to serve Allah, and that is why whenever the law does not serve you, you are permitted to abandon it, and that is actually following the law. … The law is for our benefit, not for our harm. Therefore, if the law harms us, we no longer have to abide by it.”

Abul Fadl also gave the same edict saying it may not be obligatory.  Others are of the opinion that the head covering is not obligatory on the basis that hair does not form part of the ‘awrah’ (intimate areas). In 2005 after the 7th July London bombings, the Egyptian scholar Dr Zaki Badawi issued a fatwa saying that women did not have to wear the head covering as it was unnecessarily putting them at risk in the current climate. An article by Sheikh Usama Hasan presents a very detailed piece on the issue of dress within the Islamic context,  and can be accessed here . What is clear is that there is no consensus and the topic of how women should or should not dress has been blown out of all proportion.  So, are men just incapable of looking at women whose hair is showing without lust? Can they not ‘lower their gaze’ as instructed? Why have they positioned themselves as custodians of Islamic ethics and integrity? Why do they feel they have a right to judge total strangers and compare 50% of God’s creation to inanimate objects whether they be lollipops or iPhone covers? Do they feel they have a God given superiority that allows them to dehumanise their fellow companions in the world?

I do not wear the head covering. Many of my friends and relations do not wear the head covering. Many of them do. But I will not be bullied into interpreting my religion from the eyes of anyone else. We are all more than capable of making our own decisions based on what we have read, taking into account the views of eminent scholars and teachers and our own understanding of the issue. If that does not comply with someone else’s interpretation, that’s fine. ‘To me my religion and to you your religion’. For me, the head covering is not the crux of my faith. On the day of judgement, I believe that I will be judged for all my actions – what did I do to help the poor, the destitute, the elderly, the orphan and the infirm. Did I lie, cheat, steal? Did I go to bed with an overfilled belly whilst my neighbours went to sleep hungry? Did I leave the world a better place for future generations or did I contribute to its destruction? Did I give water to the thirsty and food to the hungry? Did I bring up my children well? And yes maybe, just maybe, God will ask me why I didn’t I cover up my hair. But in the bigger scheme of things, I suspect that will come pretty low down on the list.

But ultimately these are my views – and God knows best!

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If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves “

(Hamdun al-QassarFrom Tafsir ibn Kathir)

Welcoming God into our Mosques

“Winds in the east, mist coming in

Like somethin’ is brewin’ and bout to begin

Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,

But I fear what’s to happen all happened before”

(Bert – Mary Poppins)

The weather experienced by the UK over the last week has been nothing short of riotous and ferocious. Whilst we’ve had crazy weather before, it seems every time it happens, it’s a new experience for us and as a nation we are just never adequately prepared. Most likely because it happens so infrequently.

From across the country we’ve been hearing reports of tragedy striking with traffic chaos, death and injury being caused as a result of the snow and the storm. However, what we do find is that when hardship comes to Brits, The Brit resolve kicks in and we have also heard some heartwarming stories. The couple who managed to get married thanks to strangers who helped clear the path to the church by bringing shovels and diggers to the rescue. Or the car dealer who sent 4×4’s to rescue a wedding party and get them to the church on time. And most importantly the  wedding cake too! And of course our emergency services including the military coming to the rescue across the country and providing much needed assistance.

But the stories that have made me smile the most are the stories from up and down the country of mosques opening their doors to allow the homeless to come in and shelter  from the freezing temperatures, get warm and have something to eat.

I was in two minds over whether to get myself some heroin or crack, so that I could be okay for the night. As I was thinking about this, a guy came over from the side and said “you’re homeless, would you like to spend the night in a mosque?’  (Al Jazeera)

Mosques in Manchester, London and Ireland for example have all featured in various news reports for opening their doors and welcoming in the homeless. But why is this only done when such extreme weather kicks in and a ‘good news’ opportunity arises? Why are our mosques not ‘open all hours’ as they are in many other countries? I am well aware of the current climate and yes there is a chance that problems could occur, but surely the need to provide shelter and warmth out weighs any concerns we should have. Opening mosques to everyone needs to be more than just a method of publicity seeking. Even if it is some much needed positive publicity surrounding Islam and Muslims.

A mosque was never supposed to be just ‘a house of God’ in the sense that everyone else needed permission to enter. In the early days of Islam, mosques were the centre of the community, open and welcoming. They were the place everyone would congregate as a community. They were open to Muslims, but also those of other faiths. We have examples from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (may Peace and blessings be upon Him) that show Christians who had come from Yemen were permitted to pray within the mosque. And many other examples of the respect He gave to ‘People of the Book’. One such incident illustrates this, when a funeral passed by the Messenger he stood up and someone commented  “It is a Jew.” to which The Prophet responded, “Was he not a soul?”.

Hundreds of mosques across the country (and i suspect churches, synagogues and temples as well) are locked up every night when the space could be used to shelter the homeless – whether the temperatures are 10 degrees or -10 degrees. No doubt they are kept locked because of the fear they will be damaged, property stolen or desecrated if left unattended. Perhaps if our mosques were kept simple and not adorned to the extent that we worried about valuables being stolen, the true essence of what a mosque should be, can be returned to. I find it hard to believe that our houses of God that close their doors to His creation in the most difficult of times, could possibly be occupied by God.  In order for this to happen however, as Muslim communities, we do need to take more of an interest in our mosques and particularly in ensuring our mosque leadership understands the reasoning behind developing mosques suitable for 21st Century Britain. A leadership that can affect change and is effective in delivering a service for all the local community. A mosque should never be treated as a private venture owned by a handful of individuals who will only give up their seat of influence when carried out in a wooden box. If our mosque governance does not allow for community participation, then it is our responsibility, our duty, to make a fuss. Our mosques must be inclusive and not exclusive and seen as the (halal) old boys club.

Maybe when our mosques  can achieve this, when they are open 24 hours a day, welcome everyone, become part of the local community and allow the cold and the destitute to seek shelter we might just find God residing there as well.

And when our mosques have achieved this, maybe they’ll consider letting women in as well.

A Very Merry (Muslim) Christmas Greeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas and a very happy 2019! 

We’re Loving & Living Islam!

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“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!

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And it’s a wrap – till 2018!

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.

Happy New Year (Let’s Hope It’s a Good One)

“By time, Indeed, mankind is in loss. Except for those who have believed and done righteous deeds and advised each other to truth and advised each other to patience”.

(The Declining Day 103:1-3)

Using an analogy commonly associated with vintage wines, 2015 hasn’t been a particular good year. Whilst 1992 was the year Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II referred to as her ‘Annus Horribilis’ for very personal reasons, I would say 2015 has probably been pretty close.  Based on global events that have affected us all in some way or another both in this country and further afield. There were days when the media frenzy around what was seen to be news worthy reporting appeared nothing short of bizarre. Zayn Malik’s exit from One Direction left thousands of young girls heartbroken and the emotion displayed by people when discussing the colour of ‘The Dress’ are just two examples of what constituted news. But the sadness, death and destruction seems to have far outweighed any good or amusing elements of the last 365 days.

Charlie Hebdo, Bethnal Green, Chapel Hill, Baltimore, Kathmandu, Charleston, Tunisia, China, Bangkok. Kuwait, UK elections, France, Turkey, Da’esh, Trump, Aylan, FIFI, San Barnadino, Trudeau, Canada, Hajj, Syria, Calais.

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list. But I’m pretty sure that with each of the names, places, events mentioned above, there will have been recognition of the specific events referred to and in most cases the aftermath.

The world of 2015 appeared dominated by news of more deaths, shootings, natural disasters and man made disasters than in previous years. Peaceful law abiding communities across the globe were left having to defend themselves because of the selfish destructive actions of a minority. It took the image of a dead three-year-old on a Turkish beach to shake up the world from what could almost be described as a drug induced coma, to the reality of refugees trying to escape their war torn homelands. The Jungle in Calais can only be described as an abomination and it is almost a given that in the UK people need food banks and there are homeless people living on our streets. Welcome to the civilized society of the 21st century. Welcome to 2016.

Okay so there have been a few silver linings in an otherwise grey sky. The knife attack on Leytonstone Station was another unprovoked attack on an innocent man, but what followed when a young man (who wasn’t, as originally believed a Muslim) shouted “you ain’t no Muslim bruv” was unexpected. The social media frenzy using the hashtag #Youaintnomuslimbruv was not only amusing but renewed your faith in humanity. It was of great significance to at last hear the Prime Minister refer to “Da’esh” leading the way for our politicians, media and community activists to use the term.  What a star Cristiano Ronaldo turned about to be when he walked onto the pitch for Real Madrid’s league game against Granada with the son of the Syrian refugee tripped by a Hungarian journalist. Nadia Hussain won the Great British Bake Off leaving some people dumbfounded that a Muslim in a hijab could bake! And the international development goals set by the United Nations in 2000 by the 189 member bodies appear to have made some headway in reaching the targets that had been set for 2015.

This year we commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide that saw the killing of 8372 men simply because they were Muslim.  The 70th anniversary to mark the end of World War 2 reminded us of how often over the years we have said “never again”, yet never again appears to be happening again. Is history beginning to repeat itself by the indiscrimate targeting of another faith group? This year has seen a marked increase in hate crimes, particularly Islamophobic attacks on Muslims and especially those most vulnerable in our society. People seem more interested in videoing incidents on their phones than intervening and stopping these verbal and physical assaults from taking place.  Men, women and children have been attacked and abused on buses, trains and planes. People have got up en masse and left carriages simply because of the someone dressed in a particular way, just happened to get on. And no one has spoken out. The bus drivers and train drivers might be scared of intervening in case the attackers turn on them, but let us try and remember that no one could be more scared than the victims. Much of this is down to the continuing effect of social media on our lives. Unfortunately many people who engage in being ‘social’ are unable to distinguish between the real world and the virtual reality they create around themselves and their alter egos. Social media is responsible for creating its own brand of Frankensteins in the shape of experts, leaders, activists, doyens, gurus and specialist advisors. And the rest of us will no doubt continue into 2016, shaking our heads in wonderment at the damage being inflicted by all the above on wider society.

So as we begin the new year, I pray that 2016 brings the world peace, security and reconciliation. May those who are ill be healed. May those who have been bereaved find comfort. May those who are lonely find companionship. May the hungry be fed and the homeless find shelter. May those living in conflict zones find some solace and may those in positions of power work for the betterment of our world. May those who have lost their homes find new and better places to live. May they be welcomed with open arms and generous spirits. May those who are oppressed find freedom from tyranny. May those who are lost find their way home. May the ignorant find enlightenment and discover the true beauty within diversity. May we all learn to respect the other, regardless of our differences, be they be based on race, religion, culture or lifestyles. And may we all work to create a world worth leaving to our future generations.

Happy New Year everyone. May 2016 bring happiness and contentment to you and your loved ones xxx.

 

 

 

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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