Reflections for Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

Yesterday I was called a Jewish agent. 

What! Why? I hear you exclaiming. The reason was simple. I had dared to extend an invitation to the local Holocaust Memorial Day event to local Muslims. It is reassuring to report that no one supported the views of this misguided individual and there was robust support for the event from others on the group. 

But the comment was a wakeup call. Whilst we have a lot of work that needs to be done in challenging anti-Semitism across the country, we have not taken up the challenge of addressing anti-Semitism robustly enough amongst Muslims. The reasons for this are many and varied. For one, there is a lack of understanding amongst Muslims surrounding the definition of anti-Semitism. There is a propensity to conflate political issues concerning Israel and Palestine with Jews and Jewish organisations in this country. There is a feeling that by commemorating the Shoah, we are ignoring the injustices and suffering of others (Muslims) across the world. And lastly and sadly, some Muslims have been indoctrinated with anti-Semitic views. 

The working definition developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance clearly defines anti-Semitism and the definition does not include criticism of the state or government of Israel.  The full definition can be seen here . But when you start accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoings, for example, or deny the facts of the holocaust or even the holocaust itself, you are being anti-Semitic.

For Muslims, there will always be sympathy for the injustices suffered by their Palestinian brothers and sisters but this should never prevent us from developing friendships and working relationships with Jews. We must stop blaming all Jews for the actions of the Israeli state or the actions of individuals. This is synonymous with blaming all Muslims for terrorist attacks, British Indians for what the Indian government of Modi is doing to Muslims in India and Kashmir or blaming all Arabs for what’s happening in Yemen. 

Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the Shoah and subsequent genocides, in Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Darfur and Rwanda. It is not ‘just about the Jews’.

I have spent over half my life working with people of all faiths and none. Most recently I have been working with Nisa-Nashim, a Jewish and Muslim women’s network, that strives to develop friendships, respect and understanding between our faiths. I have seen Jewish women be the first to call out anti-Muslim hatred and have the utmost regard for أهلالكتاب‎ Ahl al-Kitāb ‘People of the Book’ . I take guidance from my religion, most especially on how to treat others and I wish others, in particular our keyboard warriors who feel they are defending Muslims and Islam by attacking Jews, would do the same. 

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Reflections from St Mary’s Church Stafford

In the name of God the Most beneficent the Most merciful

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). (Al Hujarat)

Salaam Shalom and Peace 

It is always a source of great honour to be invited to speak at St Mary’s – and especially to be asked to share some reflections, as we commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day on what is, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

I’m sure we’ve all seen a number of news reports and social media posts this week related to Holocaust Memorial Day. Senior multi faith representatives visited and prayed at the site of Auschwitz in a show of unity and friendship. You may have seen reports of global senior politicians and dignitaries in Germany, speaking out about the holocaust as crimes against humanity. The Premier League also produced a very powerful anti-racism film featuring top footballers to mark HMD. This commemoration is about remembering a period in our world history that we really should be ashamed of. A point in history that saw the systematic extermination, of millions. Six million Jews, and countless others targeted because of their racial and political ideologies – the Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, dissidents, communists, social democrats as well as those with disabilities and homosexuals. 

It’s really difficult to try and comprehend the mass scale at which these events took place. And in trying to get our heads around the enormity of the numbers, we sometimes neglect the fact, that every single one of these beings, lived, had a narrative to tell, each individual experienced a life that came to a vicious and abrupt end. If you haven’t yet seen them, you may want to take a look at some of the survivors’ testimonies online  not just related to how they survived but what they lost during this bleakest period of human history. 

But one thing we forget is this. Hostility towards Jews began long before Hitler came into power. It started many years before that – with name calling, stereotyping, character assassination, religious intolerance and bigotry. The Nazi trademark of anti-Semitism blamed Jews for the defeat of Germany in 1918, it “predicted” the annihilation of the Jewish race from Germany and propagated the idea of the dominance of the pure white or Aryan race. The demonization came many years before state-sponsored extermination, by creating a division in society – a ‘them’ and ‘us’ society, where ‘they’ were the root cause of all societal problems. Stigmatisation and persecution became the norm and whilst sometimes we make it sound like it happened overnight, it didn’t.

Closer to home, our own divisions in society sometimes seem overwhelming, with anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, racism, gender-based violence, homophobia and other forms of prejudice growing on the streets of Britain. Today is an opportunity for us to listen, and show compassion to others. Evil acts by states and the slaughter of innocents should never be forgotten, nor should remembering victims of genocide be viewed as a ‘Jewish thing’ – it is a universal and humanitarian obligation, to ensure the world never sees it’s like again. Every year we say ‘never again’. Yet three days ago The International Court of Justice in The Hague ordered Myanmar to prevent a genocide of the country’s remaining Rohingya Muslims — the target of a brutal army crackdown that has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent men women and children. Every year we commemorate the Shoah and the genocides that took place in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. How long before we add Myanmar to the list? How long before we add Kashmir and Xinjiang to that list? Now is the time for all of us to break out of your comfort zones, our religious and collective bubbles, stand together and witness the humanity that exists amongst others. It is only then that we can honestly say that we are taking responsibility, we’re speaking out and will act against all forms of prejudice, racism and indiscriminate violence. We should never attempt to justify what are quite simply acts of evil as anything other than what they really are. We should never be amongst those “that shook their heads or turned away or watched the deeds of others but did nothing”. As Nelson Mandela reminded us “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, because love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I’d like to finish with a short prayer written especially for this years commemorations by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi and a senior Imam, and by quoting Prince Charles who said that ‘I hope and pray that all those who are suffering, all those who are oppressed, all those who are facing injustice, persecution and division find freedom, justice and equality” in the future.

A prayer for Holocaust Memorial Day 
“Loving God, we come to you with heavy hearts, remembering the six million Jewish souls and countless others who were murdered during the Holocaust.

In the horrors of that history, when so many groups were targeted because of their identity, and in genocides which followed, we recognise destructive prejudices that drive people apart.
Forgive us when we give space to fear, negativity and hatred of others, simply because they are different from us.
In the light of God, we see everyone as an equally precious manifestations of the Divine, and can know the courage to face the darkness.
Through our prayers and actions, help us to stand together with those who are suffering, so that light may banish all darkness, love will prevail over hate and good will triumph over evil.”

“For every man there is a purpose which he sets up for his life and which he pursues. Let yours be the doing of all good deeds’ (Al-Baqarah)

 

 

Rod Liddle you’re a …… (fill in your preferred adjective) Election 2019

At a recent event, Margaret Attwood spoke about her book ‘The Handmaids Tale’ and made it clear – that if we don’t like the dystopian societies she describes then we need to do something about it as they can very easily happen. Hearing this, then reading Rod Liddle’s Spectator piece, stirred me to write this blog. His piece yet again effectively demonstrating what a hate monger he is . Whilst it came out a couple of weeks ago, I find myself seething every time I look at social media and see some troll spouting the same hate filled nasty rhetoric his commentary legitimises. Having written blogs before the elections of 2015 and then again in 2017,  I had made the decision that I was going to steer clear of writing yet another blog about why we must use our democratic right and vote, by placing an X beside the name of our choice on the 12thDecember 2019.

However, having read the vile diatribe produced under the guise of ‘journalism’ I felt compelled to say my piece. Considering he does have a reputation for writing such tirades vilifying certain groups, I think the vitriol he has had hurled at him, is well deserved.

Mr Liddell it appears, was having a bad day when he wrote his article. His ‘sense of humour’, unsurprisingly, seems to have gone over most people’s heads. His column was little more than an excuse to vent his resentment and fury at anybody he could take aim at. Politicians being described as mentally ill, students lazy, pig ignorant junkies, he showed utter contempt for women who have been sexually abused and made light of the #metoo movement. Nevertheless his commentary would have been incomplete had he not included Muslims in the torrent of abuse his supporters have claimed was merely ‘satirical’ ‘humorous’ and ‘taken out of context’. His article was not exercising his freedom of speech; under its’ guise, his Fascist anti-Muslims anti-women hate filled comments were morally and ethically abhorrant. The language adopted by Lidell and his ilk have a damaging effect on our society especially when aimed at those already marginalised.

In the run up to a general election, anyone who uses such hateful polarising language must be called out for the damage their divisive language has on society. The free will to elect our political leaders in this country is one of the freedoms we should value about living in Britain and being British. Everyone has the right to have their say in the electoral process. Whichever party you support, whichever party you agree or disagree with, voting is one of the fundamental freedoms of expression we have as British citizens. Think about some of the images we’ve seen on our TV screens from elections across the world. People who are forced to vote one way or another amidst threats of having family members kidnapped or murdered.  Others queuing for hours, votes being forged and others never even having the opportunity. There is a level of dishonesty that exists amongst individuals who want to live in Britain, enjoy the freedoms and benefits that being British citizens affords them, but not being prepared to fulfil their own obligations.

As a Muslim, this is something I am particularly aware of. I have grown up with an understanding of a principle that exists within Islam called “Shura” meaning consultation. This, in its simplest form is a way to harness the views and opinions of those individuals most affected by any decisions that may be made. The Prophet Muhammad would, as instructed by God in the Quran, consult his companions;  “And consult them in the affairs and when you have taken a decision, put your trust in God, certainly, God loves those who put their trust in Him” [Aal-’Imran, 159]. For those individuals who argue that the electoral choices presented to them do not represent the ideals of their faith in its purest form, there are always alternatives available. I can think of several theocratic dictatorships that they may like to consider as places of residency. For the rest of us, let’s make the most of the democratic freedoms afforded to us as British citizens. By voting, we are not violating any Islamic laws. We are making a decision as to who we feel is the best to govern the country we call home.

I am under no illusions that unlike other elections, this one is different. There are all sorts of factors at play, issues that will affect every single citizen depending on the outcome. The noise surrounding this election is toxic from whichever angle you look at it. However, we must and should make our decision based on those things that matter the most to us. Education, healthcare, housing, environment, domestic policies, foreign policy, social inequalities and yes even Brexit. Make the decision about who you will vote for based on which party you belief has the best interests of the things that matter to you.

However we must not let anti-Muslim hatred, anti-Semitism, prejudice and bigotry in any of its form, be turned into the battleground for this election. Nisa-Nashim, A Jewish and Muslim women’s network have this week launched a campaign to challenge those who use hateful and discriminatory language and have pledged to call out politicians, media outlets and users of social media who are generating this hate rather than acceptance and polarisation rather than social cohesion. They are asking everyone to #WatchYourLanguage.  We know that when unchecked, hate has the potential to ultimately turn to violence. So to Rod Lidell and those who support him, I ask, do we really want European history repeating itself?

The Power of Friendship

The power of friendship is something that we underestimate. We form friendships throughout our lives. My 2½ year old granddaughter takes great pride in telling us that her friends in nursery are Neha, Gracie, Frankie and Finley. Friends come and go, because we move away from an area, our circumstances change or we simply grow apart. But there will always be something about all our friendships, that, wherever we go, there will still be a part of that friendship that remains.

The two names I recall from my early childhood friendships are Gail and Rosemary. I was heartbroken when Gail told me she wouldn’t be returning to school after the summer holidays because her family were emigrating to Australia. We must have been 10 at the time. Rosemary and I went our separate ways when after primary school we went to different middle schools. Grace and Tasneem are probably two of my oldest friends that I’m still in contact with. Grace and I met at high school over 30 years ago and she now lives in Scotland. We manage to stay in touch thanks to social media. Tasneem and I grew up within the Muslim community in Leeds. Our mums were friends and our sisters were friends. We exchange the occasional text message, most often when one of my sisters tells me she bumped into Tasneem as a wedding or funeral of a mutual acquaintance.

Many people become friends and touch our hearts in the course of our lives. People of many different cultures and faiths, if we are lucky! But despite growing up in a very Jewish part of Leeds, I didn’t have any Jewish friends. I knew of Jewish people. Our local chemist was owned by Mr Booth, our family GP was Dr Levy and my father would only ever buy fresh bread and cheesecake from Chaultz bakery when it opened on a Sunday morning after Shabbat.

I met my first Jewish friends when I moved to Staffordshire in the early 1990’s and became involved in the local interfaith organisation. They were part of a very small Hebrew congregation based up in Stoke and were in the process of de-consecrating the large synagogue that had now outgrown the diminishing community. The thing I welcomed most about our friendship was the capacity to have difficult conversations, but still remain honest and maintain respect for the views of ‘the other’, and of course, Sydney’s never-ending supply of Jewish jokes!

One conversation in particular I recall was with Sydney and a Christian chaplain. We were discussing the Israel – Palestine issue. Sydney understandably had his loyalty to Israel, but totally accepted that as a Muslim I would feel affinity to the plight of the Palestinians. As our conversation came to a close, Sydney looked at me and said “honestly Hifsa if this is what it takes for the Messiah to come, I wish he’d just stay where he was”. Some might call this blasphemy, I call it one mans’ desire to see peace in the region.

Through my friendships with Sydney, Paul, Martin and many others I was able to discover so much more about Judaism. My father used to say to me – our name is Haroon {Arabic for Aaron} don’t you know he was the brother of Moses & that makes Muslims and Jews brothers & sisters? I became a regular at the synagogue and attended many Sedar meals there. Sadly, I was also able to go and pay my final respects to Sydney when he passed away.

Over the last century, Muslims have suffered terrible conflicts in the Middle East, Bosnia, Africa and South Asia. But this is nothing when compared to the centuries of persecution faced by Jews; the Russian pogroms that saw the large scale targeted and repeated mob-attacks on Jews; and the Holocaust that witnessed the genocide of 6 million Jews, for example. But for the last 70 years our two great religions have been portrayed as being at war over the Israel-Palestine conflict. Indeed, it has been difficult to speak of Muslims and Jews without seeing things through the prism of the Middle East conflict. It needs to be acknowledged however that as a Muslim, it is natural for me to feel the pain of the terrible injustices and suffering faced by the Palestinians, whilst recognising that my Jewish friends will hold a deep connection to Israel and desire for a homeland which is safe and secure. Furthermore, just as I do not have to justify or be held to account for the actions of some Muslims, my Jewish friends do not have to account for the actions of the Israeli government.

Friendship is not about agreeing with everything the ‘friend’ has to say. Friendship is about the ability to listen to views and opinions that may differ from our own. Friendship is about trying to understand a different viewpoint and respectfully presenting your own. Friendship is about accepting that we don’t all have to be clones, it is ok to thing, believe and behave differently. True friendship is based on many factors but ultimately it is about recognising that despite all the things that we may disagree and differ on, our love for humanity is the one commonality that binds us.

Our faiths are different but the same. As Europe heads into uncertain times, the far-right and the far-left increasing in their vehemence towards the Muslim and the Jew, perhaps now is the time for us to rekindle old relationships. Friendship must always be used as our baseline. This is the foundation on which we build our communities and ensure they are interlinked & bound together, whatever our differences, in a way that will not allow minor tremors to bring down the structures we work so hard to raise.

{This blog post was first published on the website of Nisa-Nashim, the Jewish Muslim Women’s Network at http://www.nisanashim.org/the-power-of-friendship/ }

Our annual conference will be taking place in London on Sunday 7th April and will be about Faith and Friendship Shaping the Future Together Please do join us and purchase your tickets here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/nisa-nashim-annual-conference-2019-faith-and-friendship-tickets-53727142329

 

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 2020! 

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

(First published in 2016)

“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.

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