Jumping off the cliff

The past few weeks have revealed the astounding wisdom of the traditional teachings of faith — that salutary advice found in pearls like the Letter of James of the Christian corpus and in the traditions of the Prophet of Islam alike.

Advice like ‘do not act on your anger’: that the strong man is not the one who fights hard, but he who restrains himself in anger. Advice like ‘control your tongue’: consider what a vast amount of timber can be set alight by the tiniest spark.

Alas, politicians are heedless of the timeless wisdom of sages down the ages, and so the world burns. Here is an instructive insight into what happens when rhetoric and rage take hold of a nation:

J J Goldberg: How politics and lies triggered an unintended war

The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount were not esoteric counsel, but a practical prescription for the ailments of life in the world. Likewise, the teachings of our Prophet, peace be upon him, were not idealistic notions divorced from reality. We were not taught to purify our hearts only for times of peace and plenty, but for all times. Yes, in times of war, a soldier must be brave, fearless and strong, but he must also be just, merciful and true.

May God give us the wisdom to restrain ourselves in anger, to humbly serve the poor and oppressed, to do what is just, to speak the truth, be compassionate and to live a life that enables us to draw closer to Him.

Investment opportunity

I don’t understand the contemporary concern that charities have become businesses.

I expect an international relief organisation to have governance in place to comply with legal and statutory requirements. I expect it to have a board of trustees and directors, and specialist staff. I expect it to have HR, finance and IT responsibilities, to have to manage its facilities. I would be worried if it didn’t.

I also expect it to pay its workers on the ground, to put diesel in their vehicles, to arrange flights, visas and security. I expect it to recruit doctors, nurses, engineers and educationalists who have the necessary skills to make a difference on the ground. I expect it to make strategic decisions as to which type of tent to buy and which type of wheat; I expect it to invest in research to ensure the solutions they put in place are the right ones. And yes, I expect it to have an army of volunteers too.

Not every charity has to be run like a global corporation, but to be effective, all charities have to run like a business to some degree. The alternative is running yourself into the ground.

I once worked with a national helpline charity, which worked on a completely voluntary basis. All staff and trustees were volunteers. Income came solely from a small band of concerned donors, and was spent solely on rent for the office and telephone bills. Nothing was spent on stationery or on marketing the charity, except for a small website.

Unsurprisingly, although the need of the community remained for a helpline of this kind, the charity eventually wound up, because it could no longer sustain itself. Had it been run more like a business, making key investments to carry it forward, I am almost certain it would have survived and thrived.

Charity in itself is an investment:

“those who spend their wealth in Allah’s cause are like grains of corn which produce seven ears, each bearing a hundred grains” — Quran 2:261

It will be the believer’s shade on the Day of Resurrection, and so I have not issue donating to charities which are transparent and accountable in the way my money is spent. If only 90% of my donation is spent on relief and development and what is left is used to support delivery and future fundraising, so be it. I trust that God will reward me and them for our combined efforts.

British values

To me, British values are:

– To stop for pedestrians at Zebra Crossings;

– To pull over in busy traffic to let emergency vehicles through;

– To queue up in orderly fashion, even when nobody told us to;

– To be patient, even when inconvenienced, and then to say sorry to the person who inconvenienced us;

– To give up our seat on public transport for the elderly;

– To grumble about things which upset or annoy us, but then do nothing about it;

– To introduce ourselves to strangers by commenting on the weather;

– To believe everything we read, even when it is patently ridiculous or false;

– To apologise when it wasn’t our fault;

– To refuse to apologise when it was our fault;

– To give generously to charity;

– To fondly make fun of regional accents and stereotypes;

– And finally: to religiously mow the lawn.

Awake

Pinch yourself. Awake! The Internet is like Alice in Wonderland, a strange unreality, so unbelievably true. The maddening clamour of decapitated voices call to folly, chaos and the obscure, like a cloudy magic-mushroom induced alternative dimension. This tenacious entanglement is a web indeed, a pretender to reality, an exaggerated representation of a billion souls unfiltered by the constraints of worldly life; of eye contact, the weather forecast, the human touch.

A voice from within whispers, “Drink me,” and all of a sudden we are incredible characters on a tiny screen, engaged in amazing trancelike adventures, so fictitious that soon we believe that our lives in this alternative realm will never be held to account.

It scares me that so many appear willing to answer the call of an unknown entity, its impeccable social-media savvy unmatched; unquestioning masses in a stupor obeying without reflection, pledging allegiance to an idea made true only by its own propaganda. Verses of the Qur’an are passed on like business cards. Hadith are launched from great silos in a tale of shock and awe. To the young and uninitiated it is ever so convincing. But the rest of us have seen it all before.

Every time an army emerges in the East, its black flags a fulfilment of prophecy, the overexcited look on in wonderment at their messianic saviours and rush to pledge allegiance to the amir. At the turn of the century, it was the Taliban’s turn, celebrated by the naive as the perfect Islamic state. On the nascent internet, viral petitions were circulating by email, condemning the bedraggled band of students for its violation of women’s rights, but activists were undeterred, responding in kind with propaganda of their own. Then, as now, it was the Muslim’s duty to support these men without question; the Northern Alliance would become the great infidels to be vanquished, and after that the world.

But, just as it was not the last time, nor was it the first. In our own time, at the turn of the Islamic Century on 20 November 1979, a small band of heavily armed men likewise saw themselves as fulfilment of a prophecy about the end of times. It was the first day of the year 1400, after all, so significant and telling that it could only be true. After months of dreams, doubts and visions, the time had come to act: they would overthrow the House of Saud. With ecstatic self-belief they stormed Masjid al-Haram during the Hajj pilgrimage and made for the Kaaba. Here was the long awaited and promised Mahdi — Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani — the saviour of the Muslims. Then, as now, all the sincere Muslims of the world were supposed to pledge their allegiance the new Caliph. But instead blood flowed in that holiest of places and it became just another footnote in a long history of uprisings sold as the redemption of a nation.

But this time will be different, say the young activists, like the Zealots of Qumran on the edge of the Roman Empire 2000 years ago, clinging fast to prophecies of antiquity. Today’s Muslim does not need to study history, ancient or modern, for everything they need to know has been expounded by links fed via Twitter. Today’s Muslim does not need to ask questions, to scrape beneath the surface, to verify the news that has reached him. He will not ask, are these people friend or foe? He will not trace down IP addresses, lookup whois data on a domain. He will not wonder if it is a sophisticated honey trap, a malicious stunt, a family feud, sectarian hate-mongering, a counter-offensive, a rabble of bandits or even just an apparition created online, far removed from realities on the ground.

Many are confused — and rightly so — for on the internet truth and falsehood is irretrievably combined. Extremists spew hate, we learn one day, only to learn another that the extremists were counter-extremists fighting on the frontline of the war on terror, bringing down yet another extremist, who it turns out had extraordinary links to the security services. A young impressionable man reads of the tragic suffering of women and children overseas and is determined to go to their aid, we learn one day, only to learn another that he has been sucked into a dangerous war, unable to tell who is an innocent anymore. The kind and sincere have always easily been led astray, but in theses times, with these technologies, misguidance is boundless, uncertainty is the only certainty and time has no worth; everything is instantaneous. There is no time for reflection, no time to pause for thought. Patience is a virtue for which there is no time today. You must decide where you stand, here and now. Too late: it’s all over.

One hundred years ago, a small band of Serbian nationalists took action into their own hands, with a plan to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo. With that burst of bullets, Gavrilo Princip accidentally sparked a war spanning continents, resulting in 16 million dead. Knee-jerk reactions by politicians across Europe resulted in one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.

And that’s the trouble with narrowly defined, self-declared noble causes: there is very little nobility in them at all. Just transgression of all boundaries. Only disaster lays ahead. Pinch yourself now, before it’s too late. Awake!

Keyboard warriors

The keyboard warriors are doing battle, clashing on all frontiers. With rage they tap ever faster on keyboards of glass and plastic, outdoing their opponents with snippets of sentiment, oblivious to the weight of their words. All is fair in love and war, they believe, unconscious of the cautious wisdom of old that sought to restrain the tongue from its visceral temper.

With unrestrained brutality, their opponents will be vanquished, indignation seething through their veins. It is a battle that must be won, right now, right there on a tiny screen, for all to see and witness. It is a battle that must be won at all costs, no expenses spared — work may suffer, a prayer might be missed, real life companions might sit neglected — all must wait, for in the heat of war, everybody must know of the rightness of the warrior, and every other view, opinion or passing thought must be defeated.

He who forsakes argument, even when he is right: a sunnah unheard. Speak good or remain silent: another sunnah ignored. Be just even against your own selves: a command unpracticed. He does not utter a sentence except that an angel is near him ready to record it: an observation unobserved. The most excellent are those from whose tongue and hands other Muslims are safe: the best of advice unheeded.

Isn’t it strange that war is so easy and peace so difficult, because peace just requires everyone to do nothing, while war requires them to do so much? Peace costs nothing, while war costs all.

On physical battlefields great armaments are fired, lives squandered, money dissolved, emotions crushed, innocents obliterated, passions heightened, humanity aborted.

On virtual battlefields words are weapons, emotions are bullets, anger bombs, but in the rage of the battle it is the soul of the attacking combatant that dies; it is his heart which shrivels up, his ego inflated. Incline to peace remains unrecalled. On this battlefield his words must reign victorious, and all others must be vanquished.

And so the battle rages on. Into the night and the following day. These words can never be exhausted. There is still so much more to say.

Exit Strategies

Those who have migrated call back to those left behind: migrate! But where to? Qualified professionals will find lucrative jobs in rich Gulf States, but the poor have no easy choices. Migrate to the country of your ancestors, where you will be exploited for your perceived riches, or oppressed because your mindset no longer fits with that of your neighbours, or blown up because, well, you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time?

We are on the brink of catastrophe, say the émigrés, warning of a fate like the fate that befell the Jews: soon we will be expelled, or locked up, or prevented from practicing our faith! It is possible. But have the émigrés seen the state of the countries those left behind are supposed to migrate to? Nigeria? Pakistan? Somalia? Egypt? Syria? Iraq? Afghanistan? Libya? Would you swap stability and relative freedom for anarchic lawlessness? Even those rich Gulf States are growing less accommodating of their migrant citizens, making life difficult for those no-longer considered economically viable.

Plan your exit strategy say the migrants. Well it is always wise to keep your options open, to make provisions for all possible eventualities. Of course it is possible that we will see pogroms on our streets. Of course it is possible that the Police force will collapse, or that a calamity will occur that will cause the law enforcers to become militia. Of course it is possible that our practices will be proscribed, that our faith will be criminalised, that it will no longer be possible to believe except in our hearts. Certainly it has happened before, in recent times and in nearby lands. But it is also pays to be pragmatic, analytic, to take a long-view. Would you cut off your nose to spite your face?

How many people before us sold everything with a dream of returning to the lands of their ancestors, only to abort the mission to return to their neat semi-detached home and comfortable job, when they discovered the reality of life in that land they never knew? How many have we heard of who tried to return to Pakistan, only to be defrauded, robbed and violated? How many have we heard of who tried to build a new life elsewhere, only to face racism, exploitation and a closed door when the going got tough. The family that settled in the UAE for years, suddenly no longer welcome. The family that moved to Pakistan, grieving a family member all of a sudden murdered. The grass is always greener on the other side.

Of course these are generalised tales of woe. Of course many who migrate make a success of it, finding comfort and ease and peace. But this tale of woe is a response to the tales of woe of the migrants, who look from afar at what they see to be the writing on the wall, at stories in the press, and see a great calamity drawing near. From where we stand, each has a vision incomprehensible. From here — viewing civil wars in Ukraine and Syria, unchecked killing in market places from the Equator to the Himalayas, and sectarian squalor everywhere — it seems like we’ve got it pretty good here. From over there — reading of political collusion with News Corp, of government witch-hunts, perverted morals, a shattered welfare state and a growing underclass of the poor and helpless — it seems like we’re on the road to hell.

Somewhere between the two extremes runs the middle way. Where the grateful utter alhamdulilah for blessings untold. Where we are thankful for another day to worship our Lord. Where we try our best to live sensibly and considerately with our neighbours, exuding kindness and patience and generous spirit. Politics is the same in every land, for power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We should be wary of the machinations of the political class wherever we find them. So make preparations — certainly — plan for the worst of outcomes. But in the meantime, plant those seeds, build those bridges and mend those relationships. It doesn’t have to end in catastrophe.

Beyond means

Is there a disconnect between fund raisers and ordinary folk? I accept that there are some very wealthy people in our community for whom a hefty donation is easy.

But to say to those living close to the edge, “you couldn’t buy a small car for that” or “that’s less than you’d pay for an extension to your house” is hardly a helpful analogy.

Many of these people do not even own a house, work multiple jobs or none at all and live from month to month with very little to spare in their bank account, or else are struggling to pay debts to get to a point where one day, God willing, they will be able to spend with ease.

I am a firm believer in giving of your wealth to the poor as charity; it does indeed come back to you, beyond measure. But I object to the wealthy telling the poor to dig deeper than they can afford to help those poorer still.

We all want to do more — our hearts haven’t turned to stone — but sometimes the demands are beyond our means. Ask for less and more will respond. Ask for more and more still, and many will run for the hills.

Knee jerk reactions

This week a Saudi student named Nahid Almanea was brutally murdered in a park in Colchester, Essex. We do not yet know why she was stabbed or who attacked her, but already the belief amongst a significant number of Muslim commentators is that she was killed because she was recognisably Muslim; because she was wearing hijab.

That may be so, but why can we not await due process before jumping to conclusions which fan community tensions? Her murder could just as well be linked to that of James Attfield who was also brutally stabbed to death in the same area in March.

For those lamenting alleged media apathy, his murder also passed unremarked by much of the media at the time. It is not double standards; in truth, most murders — except political murders — generally receive very little attention at all. There were over 500 murders in 2013; who can tell us anything about any of the victims of these crimes?

When the suspect is apprehended, faces trial and has been found guilty — then will be the time for reflection. Then we can ponder on motives, on crimes of hate, opportunity or insanity. Until then, let’s not make political capital out of two families’ tragic loss.