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?

Jack and the Beanstalk in Nepal – Seeing it for myself with Oxfam Part 2

I was heading for an ultra remote area in one of the poorest countries in the world. The flight would take me across Nepal to Nepalgunj, a city that lies on the Terai plains, just south of the outer foothills of the Himalayas. In a rickety plane I experienced some breathtaking views of mountain after mountain, with the furthest being covered with snow.  Ahead of me were remote villages and pothole laden roads.  Actually many of the villages I would be visiting had no access to proper roads and were several days walk away from any small town.

There is a saying that no two days are ever alike. The same can be applied to weeks, and without a doubt the second week I spent with Oxfam GB seeing it for myself was very different but just as enjoyable and enlightening an experience as the first. Week 2 saw us visiting a variety of programmes related to sustainable livelihoods, schools’ programmes, community discussion centres, cooperative boards and families of migrant workers.

The Sahid Samarika Higher Secondary school in Kamdi was one schools based programme I visited. Having been greeted by staff and students and a powerful song composed by the children themselves, I spoke to some of the young people who sat on the board of what was called the ‘children’s club’, or what we would know as school councils. The council is made up of two representatives from each year group and I was particularly pleased to see a fair mix of boys and girls involved. The aim of the club is to empower the young people to ensure they understand the benefits of creating a fairer society. They tackle issues around child marriages, women’s rights, domestic abuse and child trafficking. Child marriage in the region affects young girls and boys who were being married as young as 14 years old. The project aims to empower young people, form their communication and critical thinking skills to develop powerful advocates for their peers, parents and the adults in the community.

One of my favourite conversations was with a young boy, clearly committed and engaged with the programme. One question I asked him was “why are you involved in this – surely you should let the girls get on with it as it affects them, right?”.

His very mature response came back “why wouldn’t I be involved? These girls are part of my society, it is my duty to make sure we are being fair to them and not unfair just because they are girls.”

He went on to tell me the girls had every right to a decent education and choose who they should marry, when they were ready, not when society felt it was time. Another young girl very articulately reminded me ‘these are my brothers, it’s their job as well not just mine’. The aims of the young people in the school were very similar to those of the women who formed part of the community discussion centre I visited. They too wanted to make a difference, and saw the issues with what many see as ‘cultural norms’ and understood that things needed to change in order to help the next generation.  Meeting with the Oxfam Nepal team and partners, we discussed the work around social justice and it became evident the passion with which the work is conducted. Work around women, youth, drug abuse, ‘girls not brides’ and collective campaign for peace (COCAB). The community development work includes religious leader forums and other community forums to enable difficult conversations in safe spaces.

One of the projects I visited was a village where they were collecting wild honey. The beehives were established in tree logs approximately two feet in length. Each home in the village had between 5 and 16 hives and produced between 3-4kg of honey 3-4 times a year. Thanks to support from Oxfam, the farmers were being supported by developing hive boxes that would produce a bigger yield and would be easier to maintain. One farmer described how the worst possible thing for honey farmers was rain, as bees were unable to fly, which then affected the crop. The thing that surprised me most was the lack of safety clothing – in fact there was none! No hoods or gloves – in fact I have never been so close to so many bees. But this was how these farmers make a living. A far cry from the risk averse West!

In contrast, the crop farmers I met were grateful for the irrigation systems and wind tunnels installed by Oxfam that allowed them to grow crops throughout the year. It was at one such farm that I met a real-life ‘Jack’.

Most people are familiar with the childhood fairy-tale about Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack if you recall, took his cow to the market and sold it for a handful of beans, that grew into a beanstalk that took him to a magical land where he found a giant, he stole a golden egg laying hen and lots of treasures. In Nepal I met a real life ‘Jack’ named Naurag who told me a similar tale, minus the giant and theft!

Naurag had been working in India for 15 years for a telephone exchange company when he returned to Nepal feeling he could not return to that life, a life without his wife and family. On his return, he discovered that his wife had joined the cooperative that had been set up in his village and he said, ‘a man gave me a handful of beans and said go and grow these’. Naurag was a bit unsure of exactly what this would lead to, but dutifully planted the beans, that gave him enough of a crop that he was both able to sell in market and still keep some back for his family. He decided that with the money he made at the market, he would buy different seeds and see what happened. Naurag now has a thriving business growing a variety of vegetables from cabbages, chillies and tomatoes. Thanks to Oxfam, he is able to water his crops with ease. He has a wind tunnel that means whether wind or rain his tomatoes are safe. He explained he was able to grow vegetables in and out of season and that a 6kg cabbage in season made 30 Nepali Rupees, but out of season the same cabbage would sell for 300 Nepali Rupees. His farm is thriving. He makes enough to support his family, sells a large amount at the markets and has even been able to set up a shop in the village.

Naurag is testament to what can be achieved with just a little support. I was reminded of the saying ‘give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. This is what Oxfam is so good at. They teach men and women how to ‘fish’, grow crops, build houses, empower communities and generally teach communities how to work for their own furtherance. They teach, they train, they facilitate, they inspire, they energise and they galvanise. This is why I support Oxfam.

Two final livelihood programmes visited involved weaving and pottery making. The weaving workshop visited was made possible through funding by Oxfam of the hand operated weaving looms and work was underway on 2 of the four machines. A fifth machine was based in the home of one worker who wanted to work, but due to personal commitments was unable to go to the workshop. It was great to see flexible working conditions in place even in Nepal!

I was particularly interested in the pottery industry, as a Staffordshire resident I am quite used to seeing the smokeless chimneys across Stoke on Trent, a reminder of the world-renowned Potteries that sadly have dwindled over the years. Having visited the potteries and particularly the workshop of my friend Anita Harris, I was shocked at the comparison. The mixing of the clay was being done openly in the courtyard, but a number of machines were on hand to mix the clay mixture to the right consistency. My pottery skills were put to the test but alas fell short. The potter did not have a kiln and had to transfer his made pots to a nearly kiln to be fired and then returned to him for glazing. I spoke to the recipient of a kiln purchased by Oxfam who described how pots were fired before they had access to the kiln, what would happen if the weather was bad and how life had become much easier with a kiln. The Nepal potteries were a stark contrast to the Stoke on Trent pottery industry and the lack of wealthy investors were paramount.

It is very difficult to fully express just how much I have seen and experienced for myself as part of the Oxfam trip. This blog and the first one simply provide a quick overview, a sample, a taster. I have seen businesses being established,  machines being purchased, water tanks being dug. I have seen corn grinders being brought and chickens distributed to families who lost everything following the earthquake. I have seen bricks being made and houses being constructed. I have seen women digging for soil to paint their houses and women taking up the gauntlet in their communities and pledging to make the future for all women better. I have seen women and children being empowered and I have seen crop farming, apiculture and cattle farming being expanded and developed. I have seen women who used to carry 25 litres of water 5 times a day smile as they tell me of the water tap outside their door. These women tell me they can do so much more with their ‘spare time’; take care of their homes, their children, improve their personal hygiene and farm. Yet none of this would have been possible but for the support they have received from Oxfam, and the support Oxfam receives from their supporters. None of this would have been possible without the donations made my ordinary people to enable the charity to support the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the world.

As a British woman, I am aware that after 2 weeks of witnessing first-hand the life of so many in Nepal, I have returned home to my very privileged life. A life where I don’t run the risk of losing my home and possessions in an eathquake. A life where I don’t have to build my own house brick by brick. A life where I have clean running water, electricity and gas. A life where I can jump into my car and go shop for anything I might want, but not necessarily need.  A life where I don’t have to worry about my child walking an hour each way to school. A life where my 13-year-old daughter has to miss school because the washing needs doing by hand. There was one other reminder for me travelling around Nepal, and that was of the land of my birth and all the commonalities they possess. I left Pakistan in the mid 1960’s. Had I not, my whole life would have been worlds apart from what I have today. My world may have resembled one similar to the worlds of Bhawana, Kayli and Shanti Maya. And I am constantly reminded of one phrase again and again – there but for the Grace of God go I.

 

 

 

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

 

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!

**********************************

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)

Dear Mr President Trump

Dear Mr President

21st January 2017 marked the day when you officially became the most powerful man in the world and I find myself saying three words that in my wildest dreams I never thought I would hear myself say, let alone write. But I’ll come back to that at the end.

The result on the morning of  9th November was one that I was not expecting to hear, any more than I expected the result of the referendum in the UK on the 24th June. Brexit in June and your success in November saw the second half of 2016 taking a curious turn and one, as we know, you yourself were not expecting.

Your country, Mr President, is made up of over 325 million individuals, of which 72% are white, 13% are black, 5% are Asian and the remainder are American Indians, Hispanics and other races. 1% of Americans (that’s over 3 million people) also happen to be Muslims, just like me. Americans are proud of their diverse heritage, where not everyone is white, not everyone is a Christian and not everyone speaks English. However, everyone believes in hope and the American dream. It is your responsibility Mr President to make that hope and the American dream a reality for everyone. I am not sure about you, but that’s a task that would give me sleepless nights.

Unfortunately, you did engage in some rather inflammatory oratory during your presidential campaign. From expressing your opinions about undocumented Mexican immigrants who you described as “rapists” and “drug dealers”, outlining your foreign policy; “…..if we kept the oil, you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money … so we should have kept the oil. But, OK, maybe we’ll have another chance“. And not to mention the most distasteful, misogynistic terminology and characterisations you have used about women. But maybe, ‘the odds were always in your favour’. Less than a week ago you solemnly swore to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and to the best of your ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution that refers to “We the People”.

Sadly your inauguration speech has left me, a middle aged Muslim grandmother, even more disturbed, contemplating the world my children and grandchildren are going to inherit. I visited New York in 2014 and Los Angeles in 2016. The United States of America is a magnificent country made up of beautiful people of all faiths, beliefs, colours, shades and hues. Yet over three million Muslims will not sleep soundly for the fear you and your supporters have generated. A culture has been established where racism, Islamophobia, bigotry, anti-Semitism and homophobia are not only admissible but openly proclaimed. We have all been witness to the clips on social media sites of physical and verbal attacks on Muslims by those who proudly claim to be your supporters. I have heard many reports of Muslims receiving abuse on streets, in supermarkets, schools and cafes by people who have used you, Mr President, as the reason they can be flagrantly disparaging and abusive. Not quite the badge of honour I believe you want to wear.

Your patriotic speech spoke of the transferring of power back to the citizens of “our” country from a protected establishment in Washington and promised it was now all about making America strong, wealthy, proud, safe and great again. You have pledged to improve schooling, neighbourhoods, employment, defence, law enforcement and security. And you promised all this by placing your hand on not one but two bibles. Your own and the bible that belonged to Abraham Lincoln. The irony of which I am sure wasn’t lost on people. You took the oath of allegiance to ALL Americans by placing your hand on the bible that belonged to the President who freed slaves, abolished slavery and made them equal members of society.  As a consequence almost 150 years later we saw the election of the first black President of the United States. You spoke of a united America but America has never been more divided. Whilst your armed forces, your law enforcement agencies are made up of people of all faiths, colours, cultures and creed, you spoke of reinforcing old alliances and forcing new ones – uniting the ‘civilized world‘ against “radical Islamic terrorism“, “which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth“. That’s fine Mr President but what of radical Christianity, white supremacy and fascism? Terrorism has no faith, belief or religion and it is more pertinent to talk of eradicating hate, intolerance, bigotry, social injustices and discrimination in all it forms.

To say opening your heart to patriotism, leaves no room for prejudice is to not fully understand the power of emotion around patriotism.  Emotions that in fact encourage and permit prejudice to flourish. American citizens regardless of whether they are black, brown or white, Christian, Muslim or Jewish, do indeed bleed the same red blood and do most definitely and proudly salute the American Flag. Mr President do not disregard them. Do not dismiss over 3 million Americans because you believe they (and 2 billion adherents of the religion world wide) are all in some way associated with terrorism and the terrorist atrocities that have taken place in America, France, Germany, Australia, Pakistan,  indeed across the world. Do not forget that first, second, and third generations of American Muslims, men and women, have contributed to education, health, justice, defence, policing and government within America. America has been promised change but where is that change going to lead? The vocal crowds that gathered to oppose your inauguration will not go away. The women’s marches that have taken place in Washington, Detroit, New York, Chicago, London in fact in countries across the globe, have seen thousands upon thousands of women on the streets because they, like me, are fearful of what the future holds. This is real democracy in action. You have a long hard task ahead Mr President and unity is a long long way away.

However, you have made quite a transition,  from reality TV star to becoming the 45th President of the United States of America and if I may be so bold, I would like to end with a quote from the Quran and of course those three words I promised:

My people! Give full measure and weight with justice, do not diminish the goods of others,          and do not go about creating corruption in the land.” (11:85)

Congratulations Mr. President.

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