Permission to grieve

I hate that we fly into a rage only when we are told to do so… that the whirlwind of sympathy and condemnation only occurs when the critical mass of sentiment drives us to take a stance… until then we must look the other way, or pretend not to notice horrific evil and our own double standards.

So Saudi Arabia and its allies may kill thousands of civilians indiscriminately in Yemen, but it is none of our business: no need to take a stance. They may kill hundreds in a single night, or destroy a hospital, or a block of flats… but we will not seethe and ache, and post news item after news item to our social media pages, and demand reprieve for some of the poorest people on earth.

There will be no wall to wall coverage of these victims of this aggressor. At least not until we are instructed to sit up and take note: when that happens, then we will bang our drums and wail out loud: then we will become enraged. But until then, let’s pretend not to have noticed. Let’s look the other way.

We await the next political crisis, media storm or social media frenzy with baited breath.

Finding our voice

I fear we protest too much, self-centred as we are. In the wake of Parliament’s vote to permit military action in Syria, BBC Question Time invited Maajid Nawaz to join the panel along with Nicky Morgan, Diane Abbott, Caroline Lucas and Jill Kirby. The inclusion of Mister Nawaz prompted immediate consternation online: “Couldn’t the BBC find another Muslim voice?” protested one of our many vocal activists.

I instantly wondered what it must be like to be a Sikh or Hindu living in Britain today, or to be of Chinese or East European heritage. Where are their voices in the clamour for representation?

Over the past year and beyond, Question Time has featured numerous Muslim contributors on its panels. Two weeks ago, for the second time this year, the journalist and commentator Medhi Hassan sat on the panel. Other Muslim voices over the past year have included the politicians Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh and Humza Yousaf. Others of Muslim heritage, who do not actively subscribe to religion in their personal lives have also contributed to the programme.

Now the contributors may not be our kind of Muslim — whatever that means — but individuals of Muslim heritage appearing in 25% of all episodes or making up 5% of all panellists is pretty good representation for a group (if we insist on identifying people purely by religion) that makes up just 4.5% of the UK population. By contrast, there are many other minority groups under-represented and consistently absent in the make-up of Question Time panels.

There is of course a hierarchy of people we really do not like representing us — the likes of Maajid Nawaz, Anjem Choudary and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown most frequently lamented — but the daily reading of the morose Muslim presence on Social Media reveals constant dissatisfaction with any kind of representation. No matter who speaks up, others will be quick to point out that they are the wrong kind of Muslim, or that they do not represent the mainstream, or that they are excluding other voices. Each of us demands that only our voice or interpretation or narrow sectarian viewpoint or political perspective deserves attention, and everything else is condemned.

We protest an awful lot for a community so divided. The truth of the matter is that we each represent ourselves. Religion plays an important part in some of our identities; for others ethnicity, class or political affiliation is more important, or not important at all. For some a love of baking, motherhood, football or mountain climbing is the overarching marker of social belonging. And even for the self-described religious, various sectarian affiliations or philosophical leanings take precedence over a simplistic unified whole.

One of the beauties of maintaining an unpopular blog, rarely read, is that it enables one to represent not the world or a whole religion or community, but personal thoughts, beliefs and sentiments. Within our community are those — of all sorts of persuasions — quick to judge others as heretics and write off their contributions without even first investigating their ideas. We do enjoy to listen to yes men, who reflect our own prejudices and views precisely. We’re not so keen on voices which challenge us and nudge us out of our comfort zones.

In my frequent forays online amongst Muslim activists, both political and apolitical, Traditionalist and Salafi, I frequently regret that I find I have little in common with my compatriots in faith. Perhaps I am too much a cynic, or reside too much on the periphery, to ever see the world through populist eyes. But that’s absolutely fine; it’s as it should be. Blind group think will lead us to disaster.

Bemoan the inclusion of an opposing voice if you must. Bewail those who do not represent you. Weep in sorrow at the amplification of extremist voices on the Left and Right. Petition those who seek to silence the voice of reason, or the voice of puritanical zeal, or of presumed orthodoxy. Protests as much as your like.

Just know that the only person who can truly represent you is you. So speak if you must.

Manufactured schisms

Religious groups are just as capable of engaging in cunning marketing schemes as commercial organisations (if, indeed, such a distinction exists).

The mere mention of a banned video with a traditional religious message in the run up to Christmas was guaranteed to be splashed all over the press in a frenzy of head-shaking disbelief in no time.

What we have seen over the past few days is merely a more sophisticated version of the tried and tested viral marketing campaigns employed by all kinds of religious and political groups daily on social media.

Step one: make an almighty fuss about something nobody would have otherwise known about. Step two: sit back and relax as it goes viral in a self-perpetuating cycle of manufactured hurt, offence and counter-offence.

Give your PR company a raise.

Confirmation bias

Keep in mind that on Social Media we are afflicted with amplified Confirmation Bias.

Most of us would agree that it is unhealthy to read only the Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail or Guardian, for each of these partisan newspapers will only reconfirm the readers’ own political views. A feedback loop is created in which the source and the audience feed off each other.

Yet on Social Media we do just that: we surround ourselves with people with similar views, who echo and mirror our own sentiments ad nauseam, setting in motion an even bigger feedback loop, which creates a distorted picture of the outside world.

We subscribe to news feeds which we believe represent our interests, but which instead channel the world through selective filters. The simple act of Sharing and Liking another’s post, picture, video or article creates viral avalanches the power of which can never be diminished, no matter how hard the voice of reason tries.

Meanwhile, largely unbeknownst to us, complex algorithms designed to sell advertising work away in the background to serve up targeted news and products determined to appeal to us.

In short, Social Media creates a version of reality which only confirms our own fears, prejudices and beliefs correct. We prioritise information that confirm our biases and ignore everything else.

A trip outside, a conversation with neighbours, a walk in the wild, a moment’s meditation, a few hours volunteering or a day without the ever-present smartphone might break the infinity loop of despair. I suggest we try it.

Public gaze

Has nobody seen the vast number of posts on the internet from women complaining about men taking surreptitious photos of them in public places without permission?

Why is it that nobody has bothered to ask if it was okay to share the now famous photo of a Muslim woman on the Basingstoke train, taken secretly as she snoozed?

Too late: it has now been seen by hundreds of thousands of people, shared thousands of times and republished repeatedly by media corporations and bloggers alike over the past 24 hours. It has now been cached on so many servers that it will never disappear from an internet image search, like that poor young artist in the red hijab.

The man who took the photo has been hailed as a hero: a champion of decency and tolerance. Nowhere has anybody asked for the woman in the photo to represent herself or provide consent to be seen by thousands without as much as a lowered gaze.

If that was you, or your sister, or your wife, or your mother, would you allow that photo to be shared ad infinitum by tens of thousands of strangers, just because the person who took it claimed to be your saviour?

What has happened to our ability to probe and ponder, and not just follow the crowd without a second’s pause or moment of thought?

Woman on a train

Woman sitting on a train. Man sits down opposite her. He takes a photo of her on his phone, without permission. He tells everyone on Facebook what a hero he was. Forty-four thousand people give him thumbs up. Four thousand share his post. The Sun, Daily Mail, Express Tribune and obscure newspaper in far-flung backwater make room for the tale in their pages.

Don’t be so judgemental we’re told. But who’s judging hearts here? Who’s to say the other passengers were ostracising her? Who’s to say they weren’t respectfully giving her space? Or just hadn’t even noticed she was there?

Interesting fact: I’ve moved amongst Muslims for 20 years, but I often don’t know how to behave around Muslim women even now. That’s because they’re individuals. Everyone has different expectations. For some, the hijab and the niqab are barriers of sorts. For others they’re just items of clothing.

Try as you may, you will invariably exhibit the wrong behaviour around just about anybody, despite the best of intentions. Suffice to say, I’ve done and seen it all. I have been judged “hater of Muslims” because I lowered my gaze too much or too consistently in the presence of hijab and niqab wearing women. But I have also been judged disrespectful of culture, of those unspoken rules and ambiguous expectations when a host or a guest, when greetings exchanged are almost a sin or when to emerge from banishment in another room is an unholy affront.

In our mosques we consign women to a separate prayer hall, in our homes we ask male and female guests to sit in separate rooms, in our lectures we make women sit at the back of the room or behind a screen… and yet we claim not to understand why non-Muslims might be confused how to behave around us.

How should one react in the presence of another? It all depends on the individual. Perhaps we’re all guilty of over-thinking things: perhaps we just have to be ourselves and behave as we see fit, not as we believe we’re expected to. Perhaps some of us are too worried about causing offence, or crossing an undefined line in the sand. Perhaps we should just sit down, or say hello, or acknowledge the other in our midst.

I have no idea if the woman on the train felt ostracised that morning. Perhaps she was just grateful to find a seat and catch a few winks of sleep. Perhaps she was grateful not to be jammed between an overweight businessman reading the Metro and an uncouth youth with his iPod blasting out tunes too loud for a change. Perhaps she was thinking nothing at all.

Of one thing I’m pretty certain though: she didn’t expect to have her photo taken as she snoozed on her way to college, to be shared en masse with millions of strangers worldwide. The young man with the camera phone may have been a hero momentarily: perhaps the unknown passenger felt momentarily relieved, her loneliness assuaged, by the random act of kindness of a stranger in her midst. Perhaps. But does she feel that way now, or does she just feel that her private space has been invaded by a speculative drifter, presuming to speak on her behalf?

None of us can read the hearts of others: to see what others think, to understand their decisions, to judge their intentions. There are appearances and there is reality. It’s best that we don’t confuse the two.

Balanced voices

I often wish I had access to balanced coverage of Turkish politics. The combination of the anti-government rhetoric of my largely Left-leaning Turkish family and the pro-opposition narrative of the British Press provides a wholly unsatisfactory picture.

This is not the lament of an AKP supporter — I’m not one by any means. I acknowledge that they have done great things for their country, but they also have many shortcomings. As an outsider, many of their actions perplex me. No, this is not the lament of an ardent supporter protesting bias; it is just an ode to balance.

turkeyThe way Turkish politics are reported in Britain, you’d think the leftist HDP obtained the majority vote in the June elections or that they are a dominant force in Turkish politics. But of course the truth is that the ruling AKP obtained 41% of votes, followed by the secularist CHP with 25%. The HDP, by contrast received just 13% of the votes, however significant that may be in their own terms.

I have no idea how November’s elections will play out. One thing is certain though: the British press will continue to ignore the majority who vote for either the AKP or CHP. It is as if only 10% of the electorate matter to Britain’s divisive journalists.

Priorities

So today, in another test of our ability to read the news without taking offence, our activists are alarmed that Great British Bake Off winner, Nadiya Hussain, was dropped from the front page of the Daily Mail. For three years in a row, it is claimed, the paper ran stories about the winner on their front page, but this year when it was won by a hijab wearing Muslim woman the story was relegated to page 7. It is a clear case of bigotry.

nadiyaNow I detest the Daily Mail — claims about bigotry are hardly exaggerated — but this latest wailing lament is just daft. Here are some observable facts:

1. They didn’t run GBBO “stories” on their front page — they just had a photo of the winner and a headline.

2. In the Scottish edition of the paper, they did feature “the Nadinator” on their front page.

3. In their English edition, in the photo slot usually reserved for Bake Off winners, they featured the mourning wife and children of the murdered Police Officer Dave Philips.

4. They published a 5000+ word spread about Nadiya inside their paper from page 7.

5. The article about last year’s winner was also “relegated” to page 7.

6. By my count the Daily Mail has published at least 15 articles about Nadiya over the past two weeks.

There are many unreported stories we should lament, but this really isn’t one of them. The Daily Mail is a newspaper largely devoted to celebrity gossip, scandals, sport, dresses and lingerie, and Islamic Extremism. It is not a serious newspaper by any measure. Its primary objective is to sell and make its investors wealthy — hence the proliferation of photos of under-dressed famous people and lurid click-bate headlines. Nadiya, as it happens, also sells — 14 million people tuned in to watch the Great British Bake Off final on Wednesday; with millions of viewers rooting for her, it would hardly be sensible to ignore the story.

If Nadiya’s success teaches us anything — though I am wary of the spectacle of groups claiming her, as if her hijab, ethnicity or religion is all there is to her — it is that we need to make the most of our gifts and cheerfully strive to accomplish our goals irregardless of the obstacles placed in our way. In short, to be nice, good people, just getting on with things. Our activists still have much to learn.

Trolls

It’s a hard life working as newspaper comments troll, having to constantly come up with preposterous put downs, clothe ever more extreme racism as rational argument and maintain a steady supply of bile and venom without pause. Thank goodness we have innocent victims on whom we can hone our skills. Wouldn’t it be terrible if people were allowed to celebrate success, without being reminded that they are the source of all that is wrong with the country and the world? Thank goodness we have selfless trolls always on hand to fight the good fight at every hour of night and day, lest anyone forget to be spiteful or erroneously say something positive or kind. Three cheers for the trolls!