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a cacophony of ramblings

Tag: representation

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.

To inquire

In her rage at Tony Blair on Friday as he sat before the Chilcot Inquiry she accidentally dashed over a goblet of red wine. To his crimes of forging war and invading a sovereign state, she added the painful stains on the beautiful wooden floor. Thus acts the modern Muslim, scared to take the self to account, always ready to blame another, to upbraid imperialism and the fanatic. The enlightened Muslim seethes at the woman in hijab, the bearded youth and all who embrace a practical faith and eschew the politics of identity, screaming of the intolerable shame they shower upon her. We shall not speak of our abandonment of prayer, of our poison tongues, our short-selling, our aggressive anger. God will not change the condition of the people — recalls the Muslim so chastised, turning back to their faith ever so slightly — until they change the condition of themselves. But the modern Muslim censures everyone but herself. Today, Tony Blair, white imperialism. Yesterday, white liberals, veiled women, Muslim converts. We learn nothing from the upturned goblet.

Chasing wild geese

I opened The Independent this morning to find a photograph of someone I once knew staring back at me. An entire decade has passed since we last set eyes on one another, but this article by Johann Hari brought memories flooding back. Not because his article resonated with me, mind you, but because his narrative troubled me. In Renouncing Islamism: To the brink and back again, Hari presents that old acquaintance as an ex-Jihadi—or he presents him as presenting himself that way. But the fellow I knew back then was nothing of the sort.

I cannot say I was ever a close associate of his—and so it is quite possible that I missed the portion of the tale that Hari recounts in his article—but we did encounter one another frequently between 1997 and 1999, as we were both students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in central London.

I first encountered him in the student common room in the SOAS halls of residence on Pentonville Road, where he would play pool and chain-smoke cigarettes. He wore designer clothes, had a very fashionable hairstyle and was always cleanly shaven. His rhetoric constantly concerned neo-colonialism, but this never had much impact on me as a student of International Development, where the post-colonial discourse was already commonplace. At SOAS, his assault on the mischief of the West was nothing extraordinary, for the socialists’ arguments were the same.

Even as a non-Muslim I found myself socialising with him quite frequently through my Muslim pool-partner, whom I had met going to a bizarre comedy show at the student union earlier in the year. Our gatherings often took place on Friday evenings in the cafes of Edgware Road, where we would drink bitter black tea and smoke fruit-flavoured tobacco. Again, the talk was of neo-imperialism, of western-proxies ruling the Islamic world and the Khilafah, but memorably the sources were Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and John Pilger.

Those social meetings ceased when I became Muslim in 1998, as I considered the smoking and time-wasting un-Islamic, but I continued to encounter him on campus. I largely kept company with a group of apolitical Salafis at the time, who were fiercely critical of HT whom they considered to hold heretical beliefs. The Salafis believed that the Muslim world would only be reformed by individual Muslims reforming themselves and adhering to the sunnah, whereas HT had a Leninist view that change would come about upon the establishment of the State. Thus I frequently stumbled upon arguments between this fellow and my friends, with the latter mocking HT as the Socialist Worker Party for Muslims.

I am puzzled, therefore, when Hari writes that my acquaintance, ‘wanted to be at the heart of the jihad’, for I never heard him talk about this even once, even theoretically. Instead he was perpetually obsessed with the idea that ‘intellectual argument’ would be the driver for change in the Muslim world. He went on about ‘intellectual arguments’ to such an extent that it became something of a joke amongst the other students.

I have no idea whether the tale of a coup plot involving junior Pakistani army officers is in any way true. However, it is the case that he was involved in an attempted coup in 1999 rather closer to home: not in dusty Karachi, but in the tiny second-floor prayer room at SOAS. Here he intended to wrest control of the Islamic Society from the Iqwanis, who had wrested control from the Salafis earlier in the year.

I know this, because he thought this quite amiable, decent chap would help him. His great talent, as I recall, was not so much in being able to convince people and win them over, but in talking them into submission. He would go on and on at you with circular arguments so that in the end you would agree with him just to be able to change the subject.

And so it was one day when he came over to my flat to argue that something had to be done about the Islamic Society, which he claimed was corrupt and unrepresentative of the Muslim students: he talked at my flatmate and me for ages until we finally agreed to put our names to his vote of no-confidence. Unfortunately he did not get the message when I rang him back to tell him I had changed my mind and the next I knew about it was when members of the Islamic Society came for me, demanding to know why my name was listed on a petition pinned to the notice board in the prayer room.

Alas, I never had the privilege of reading the notice, but was in any case called on to attend a special meeting of the Islamic Society to explain what it was all about, for the instigator had disappeared and was unreachable on his mobile phone. As in Hari’s article, he was never drawn on the details of this coup plot either, but it did make my remaining days at SOAS somewhat uncomfortable where the Islamic Society was concerned.

Meanwhile, he continued to organise lectures on campus, inviting academics like Fred Haliday to duels where he would demonstrate the power of his ‘intellectual arguments’. Nobody I knew ever considered him a jihadi, but only something of a friendly bore. Rather than taking him seriously, people dismissed him as a caricature socialist wrapped up in Muslim garb.

Reading Hari’s article, however, he sounds like a great Missionary, steaming off to one Muslim country and then another as if on an adventure inspired by Indiana Jones. Hari writes that he ‘decided to move on to Egypt’. Yet to say that he decided to move on to Egypt is to stretch language a little far. In reality he was undertaking a degree in Arabic at SOAS and was required to spend a year in Alexandria as part of the course, like every other student.

Even there his capacity to talk people into submission was well noted, even by his lecturers, who advised him to reign in his tongue. But he was not one to listen to such advice and was soon arrested for belonging to a banned political party. Upon his release several years later, he appeared on Hard Talk on the BBC News channel, still eloquently and passionately defending HT, once again talking of those ‘intellectual arguments’.

All these memories signal my trouble with Hari’s article. Yes, he was indeed a recruiter for HT and he was dedicated to this cause. But to claim he was a jihadi is to stretch the truth too far. Granted I never attended any of HT’s gatherings to learn what may have lain beyond the mockery of my friends; perhaps, if I had, I might have formed a different picture of him. But in the ordinary interaction between us, and in witnessing his debates with friends and his famous debates with secular academics, I believe I framed a fair picture of the man. He was a passionate and eloquent disputant, absorbed in the kind of post-colonial rhetoric common to many students of the time, like my many socialist acquaintances.

I am not dismissing his devotion to HT or excusing it. I am merely suggesting that the article I read this morning was full of exaggerations. I am not in denial about the threat of extremism within the Muslim community—indeed, I have noted elsewhere the advice I was given to steer clear of known extremists when I first became Muslim. My objection to Hari’s article is that for me it raised more questions than it answered.

Why, I find myself wondering, is it necessary to build oneself up as a great sinner who saw the light—like Paul on the road to Damascus—in order to denounce what is wrong? There are many, many Muslims who have been quietly, modestly, cautiously working on the ground to counter extremism for years and years. Theirs is a thankless task. Condemned by the extremists and ex-extremists alike, their work is ever more difficult. These men and women did not need to venture to the brink and back to realise that it was wrong; they had already delved into their faith and forged a forward path.

Should I be grateful that I saw that face peering back at me from the newspaper this morning, for reminding me of all of this? I’m not sure to be quite honest, but of one thing I’m pretty sure: Johann Hari has just been sent on a wild goose chase. I hope he realises this before he invests too much hope in his new found friends.

More than bricks and mortar

Recent months have seen a sudden upsurge in devotion to the Christian faith amongst followers of the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL). In June the BNP chimed against the Islamic colonisation of Britain, seen in the widespread conversion of churches throughout the land: the Central Mosque of Brent; the former Forest Gate Church; Peckham’s St Mark’s Cathedral; West Didsbury’s Albert Park Methodist Chapel; Oldham’s Glodwick Baptist Church; and 250 year old Brick Lane Church in London’s Spitalfields (once a French Protestant church, a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and now a Bengali mosque). All of these churches — and many more — have fallen to the Islamic invasion.

The BNP are not alone. As the EDL prepare to descend on Manchester on 10 October to protest against Islamic extremism, a video has appeared on the internet, making a rallying cry for England’s Christian heritage.1 In his video entitled, ‘EDL: Defending our heritage & birthright – Manchester Oct 10th 2009’, Lionheart of Luton, Paul Ray, builds a picture of a nation under siege. While it begins with headlines captured from the Daily Mail and the Express to illustrate how Muslims receive special treatment — whilst England’s natives suffer at their hands — this is another ode to the churches of England.

‘Manchester England,’ reads a slide midway through the video, ‘The destruction and desecration of a Christian Church and graveyard to make way for a Mosque’. The slides intersect a video showing a tracked Komatsu digger moving earth within the grounds of Longsight’s St John’s Church. The next slide reads:

Are yesterday’s politically correct Church leaders irrelevant to us in todays United Kingdom? Psalm 81:9 There shall be no foreign god among you; Nor shall you worship any foreign god.

In this video, the EDL has messianic pretensions, likening church leaders to the corrupt Pharisees of old, but they would rather not share the Christian message here. Instead, invoking the book of Samuel, they turn to an earlier saviour for inspiration. The EDL is David to the Muslim Goliath in England’s midst:

The Saul generation of Church leaders is coming to an end with the emerging David’s poised to take their place. Please show God where you stand and pray for the United Defence Leagues and their members

The video from St John’s is followed by newspaper clippings about the resignation of Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali — the only bishop, we are told, who grasped the extent of the threat of Islam to British civil society. Nobody mentions Kenneth Cragg these days, while the intellectually brilliant Rowan Williams is dismissed as some sort of loony. And so it is left to the EDL to defend Christianity, not just from the Muslims, but also from parish priests, pastors and impotent Bishops:

The David generation leaders are already in place and speaking the truth on-behalf of His people
Are you one of them who is willing to stand against the Islamification of this Christian land?

A little probing reveals that the source of the video showing building contractors working on the church site is a BNP supporter, who posts the full version on YouTube entitled, ‘Saint Johns, Christian Graves Desecration’2 with the description, ‘Graves desecrated at Saint Johns Church in Longsight, Manchester, England as Church is converted into Mosque.’ The BNP itself has an article featuring both the video and further photographs on its website.

There is a problem, however. When I researched the history of St John’s, Longsight, I found that it was decommissioned in 1999. Neighbouring St Agnes — ‘in this place will I give peace,’ inscribed above its entrance — now houses the abandoned church’s statue of St John the Evangelist in its nave. It has taken the BNP and EDL an entire decade to lament the loss of this historic place of worship and its descent into disrepair.

Of course, the key issue riling the nationalists is the desecration of the site. But here again there is a problem. A quick enquiry with the City Council reveals that St John’s Church is a Grade II listed building, which means that it is considered nationally important and of special interest.3 To make any changes to such a building requires the owner to apply for building consent.

Lo and behold, we discover that planning permission for a 16 space car park in the church garden was granted early in 2007. In the intervening period, the owners have spent £50,000 repairing the building, which now houses Dar-ul-Ulum Qadria Jilania mosque and Islamic Centre. A photograph on the BNP website clearly shows that the graveyard has been carefully preserved, although the picture has been tagged, ‘grave-in-front-OF-DIGGER’, since the work in the church garden can be seen in the background.

It turns out that the graveyard has not been touched at all. But if it had been, should we not expect the BNP and EDL to be enraged whenever a graveyard comes under the developer’s gaze? Locals certainly protested when a builder obtained planning permission to redevelop a derelict chapel in Coedpoeth, Wrexham, which included plans to build luxury flats and a car park on top of approximately 100 graves in 2007. But as far as I can tell, the BNP did not join their protests.

The truth is, the redevelopment of graveyards is a fairly common occurrence in the United Kingdom. Rehoboth Baptist Church in Horsham, for example, has just completed construction of a seven space car park and garden of remembrance on its former graveyard. Planning permission to remove the headstones without disturbing the actual graves and to block pave part of the site was granted in 2005. The BNP and EDL, of course, will not be protesting about this car park on this graveyard.

And that’s the problem. The BNP and EDL wish to use the redevelopment of church buildings as ammunition against Britain’s Muslim population, but the facts do not support them. Reading their literature, you would imagine that hoards of Muslims were running amok throughout the land, confiscating church property at the expense of lively congregations. Nowhere is the reason for church closures mentioned — ironically for people that speak of a David Generation, a term commonly employed by those concerned with conquering the personal Goliaths of the ego, there is no introspection here.

Nor are the numbers of closures put in context. For while seventeen hundred Anglican churches have been made redundant since 1969, there are still over 48,500 churches of different denominations serving their communities nationwide. Moreover, over the same period, The Church of England opened more than 500 new churches, while continuing to maintain over 16,000 others. If, as some claim, there are now seventeen hundred mosques in the United Kingdom, this is still only 3.5% of the total number of churches in the country (interestingly the Muslim population of the UK is a similar proportion of the whole).

If Muslim worship appears to be more visible than that of the Christian, it could only be because the Muslim still views the Friday Prayer as England’s Christians viewed Sunday Worship one hundred years ago. Even a believer on the borders of his faith still feels duty bound to put on his Friday-best once a week. But it would be misleading to suggest that seventeen hundred mosques have sprung up in place of the seventeen hundred Church of England buildings closed over the past forty years, for Anglican churches have covenants conferred upon them which usually prevent them from being used by other faith communities. While BNP leader, Nick Griffin, has claimed that Church of England buildings are being turned into mosques, ‘up and down the country,’ it is actually rather hard to find any. The closest I can find are a couple of gurdwaras utilised by the Sikh community.

If my own experience reflects a wider trend, I would suggest that only a handful of mosques in Britain are of great note. Converted houses, rooms above shops, disused warehouses and hired halls in multi-cultural centres are all included in the number of mosques in Britain. The Archbishop’s cubbyhole under the stairs for private prayer would not seem out of place in our sometimes ramshackle collection of prayer halls. Nevertheless, it is true that Muslims have bought former churches — notably redundant Methodist chapels which seem to be in great supply.

So the BNP and EDL have a point? Well I don’t think so. While ranting about St John’s, Longsight, they completely ignore St George’s, Hulme, a Grade II listed building built in 1823 which has been converted into a place of residence, a mere two and a half miles away. But why should this surprise us when they also ignore the conversion of former churches into restaurants, gyms, pubs, nightclubs, shops and private apartments? Brixton’s St Matthew’s church is now the Mass nightclub, which promises revellers loud music, all night dance and expensive spirits. O’Neill’s on Muswell Hill Broadway, housed in a grand old church, offers cheap food and Guns ‘n’ Roses. Cheltenham’s St James’ is now an Italian restaurant. St Luke’s in Heywood, Lancashire, located 14 miles from Manchester City centre, has been turned into a huge family home, featuring six double bedrooms. And for between £250,000 and £500,000 you too can own one with estate agents listing hundreds of former chapels, rectories and churches, already converted or waiting to be converted, with planning consent already obtained.

If the BNP and EDL were genuinely concerned about the loss of historic places of worship and the demise of their Christian heritage, they would say to their members, ‘Look, churches are closing all around us because we don’t use them. We need to start making Sunday special again.’ That task, however, would entail asking their followers to take personal responsibility for their lives: that only ten percent of British Christians regularly attend church cannot be blamed on the mainstream political parties, on multi-culturalism or political correctness. It certainly can’t be blamed on the Muslims.

But the likely response of such people would be to say, ‘Don’t bring religion into this.’ Though they claim to be defenders of the faith, they are in fact like the utilitarian jihadis who dispense with the boundaries of religion, claiming that the end will justify the means. Like those who ignore the prohibitions of their faith, the BNP and EDL ignore the message at the heart of the religion they claim to hold dear. When Jesus — peace be upon him — was asked which were the greatest commandments, Christians believe that he replied:

“The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”4

If this message is unclear to those of the David Generation, Jesus — peace be upon him — is reported to go on to say, ‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’5 And if they insist on bringing, ‘I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword,’6 let them read it in context: Jesus — peace be upon him — knew that most of his people would reject his teachings, which would divide both families and communities. His was a vision of a just society: he overturned the tables of the moneylenders in the temple, he promoted fair treatment of the poor and forgave his enemies. In the context of his time, many of the parables appear as much an assault on the social injustices of his society as messages for spiritual growth.7

More famously, perhaps, we have the Beatitudes: blessed are the are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the meek, the merciful, those pure in heart, and the peacemakers.8 A worthy message indeed, but one clearly lost on those self-declared champions of Christianity in Britain, the BNP and EDL.

Last Thursday, twenty Muslim gravestones were pushed over and a number were broken at Manchester’s Southern Cemetery on Barlow Moor Road.9 It is not possible to say at this stage who was responsible and what motivated them, but the Police are treating it as a racially-motivated crime. It is not inconceivable that it was a revenge attack for the alleged desecration of Christian graves at St John’s, Longsight — a mere ten minute, four mile drive away.

Love your neighbour as yourself? Love your enemy as yourself? Blessed be the peacemakers? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the authenticity of the nationalists’ new found faith, and where it is liable to lead us.

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWcGOt4btwY (spiritofstgeorge)
  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z6o5Ccwb0A (SuperAceofDiamonds)
  3. Listed buildings in Manchester by street, Manchester City Council — http://www.manchester.gov.uk/info/514/listed_buildings_register/1908/a-z_of_listed_buildings_in_manchester/18
  4. Gospel of Mark 12:29-31
  5. Gospel of Matthew 5:44
  6. Gospel of Matthew 10:34
  7. See for example Jesus the Prophet: His Vision of the Kingdom on Earth by R David Kaylor, John Knox Press, 1994
  8. Gospel of Luke 6:20-23 and of Matthew 5:1-14
  9. Manchester Evening News, 2 October 2009 — http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/s/1153293_muslim_graves_targeted_in_hate_attack

Risk Assessment

Dear Editors,

Explain to me, would you, what this means: ‘Sebastian Faulks outburst risks anger of Muslims’? Or this: ‘Sebastian Faulks has risked sparking Muslim outrage…’

Does it mean that you have not yet found any angry Muslims and you’re stirring? Or is it just that you’ve taken your risk assessment training a tad too seriously?

‘The bestselling author Sebastian Faulks has courted controversy by saying the Koran has “no ethical dimension”.’

He has courted controversy, has he? And how is his courtship going? Are Muslims engaging, or as it seems to me, are they too preoccupied with a month of fasting and prayer to lap up this manufactured schism? The comment fields are filling up with condemnation of backward Muslims who have no respect for free speech, for sure, but the Muslim voice is strangely absent. Hence ‘risk’.

As for you, Mr Mair, what was with that package on PM last night? No, don’t get me wrong, it was quite fascinating and instructive. I was just wondering about the invitation of Fay Weldon. Well, when I say wondering, I mean I was thinking, ‘Good choice’. For it was Fay Weldon, was it not, whose contribution to the Satanic Verses affair was:

‘The Koran is food for no-thought. It is not a poem on which a society can be safely or sensibly based. It gives weapons and strength to the thought-police — and the thought-police are easily set marching, and they frighten’ (Sacred Cows, 1989, p.6)

And when I say, ‘Good choice’, I really mean — well — on a discussion concerning the literary merits of the Qur’an versus the Old Testament, you could have invited a doctor of literature, an Old Testament scholar, one of the non-Muslim translators of the Qur’an. Rather than an author who is more associated with fictional tales of women trapped in oppressive scenarios. Though I admit, her contribution wasn’t lacking in that regard.

So a good choice if you’re stirring and you’d rather like to move beyond the ‘risk’ stage and onto to something more compelling. Effigies, bonfires, that kind of thing. Indeed, one blogger has already titled his post, ‘I smell a fatwa’ in anticipation. It would be a shame to disappoint.

But perhaps not the best choice if you seriously wanted to enlighten your listeners on the merits of one over the other. Never mind, we had Dr Mir. I can’t say I was awfully disappointed.

My dear editors — pardon me if I speak out of turn — but is it possible that you misjudged this one? Ever so slightly? I don’t even think Mr Faulks needs the publicity; his book seems to stand up on its own merits in the reviews I’ve read.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not averse to risk assessments (for I really must give you the benefit of doubt on this). No, I think they’re a jolly good thing. Indeed, I often think to myself, ‘If only I had done a risk assessment’ when another DIY job has gone terribly wrong.

No, it’s just that while undertaking your risk assessments, in order to have quantified the probability of Muslim anger properly, as well as identifying the hazard (Mr Faulks’ opinion) you really should have quantified exposure to the hazard, taking into account all of the environmental factors relevant to the case. Factors, I might posit, such as the fact that Muslims are currently fasting the month of Ramadan, which has numerous implications.

For example, it could be argued that a person who rises at 3.00am in the morning to take breakfast and then abstains from eating anything until just after 8.00pm might possibly feel somewhat weary, thus exhibiting less interest in manufactured schisms than usual.

Similarly it could be argued that a person who is spending their free time reading the Qur’an and standing the night in prayer, both ingrained habits of this month, may fail to get full exposure to said manufactured schism. Indeed, since many Muslims abstain from TV and internet use during this month, we are at risk of seeing the risk severely diminished.

Furthermore, you might possibly find that conditions of the fast such as restraining oneself from getting angry and holding one’s tongue from ill-considered speech lessens the likelihood of the full blown riot required. I could list other factors, but you’re intelligent folk; you get the gist.

Therefore, dear editors, I suggest you sit on this story for the time-being and then pull it out just as Parliament is debating the Religious Hatred Bill or something. Obviously you will have to think of another piece of legislation, as you used said Bill in 2006 when the issue of the Danish cartoons miraculously reappeared all across the media three months after the actual incident.

Not quite sure how you’ll bring it up again post-Ramadan; with the cartoon issue you had the redundancies at Arla foods. Perhaps when Mr Faulks gets nominated for the Booker Prize and you run the story, you could add this line: ‘Faulks courted controversy in August when he said…’ Well, you know the script already.

Risk assessments are all well and good. But sometimes there’s just no substitute for not publishing the story when you have a non-story.  I know it’s us who look stupid when you run these stories, but the ultimate judge of stupidity lies elsewhere.

Kind regards,

etc. etc.

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