The Office Eccentric

My current colleagues at work do not know that I am a Muslim, but they have concluded that I am an eccentric. There is something not quite right about me, they think, pondering on all the strange things I have let slip over the past year working with them. I do not own a television and have been caught sighing as the running commentary on I’m a Celebrity and Big Brother picks up in the office. I do not read The Sun and I once rather foolishly read out a comment I saw on my computer screen that said, ‘Those who read tabloids deserve to be lied to.’ I do not drink alcohol, I am young-but-married and I haven’t put a Christmas Tree up.

Today I came across a poster in the office featuring a picture of William Shakespear. Underneath it somebody had written my name. It has been there for ages apparently, and my manager laughed: actually they were calling me Shakespear since before I even started. I can’t claim to have been mortally offended at being named after England’s greatest playwrite, but I was slightly surprised. It is my peculiar beard apparently. Another nickname they have for me, I learned today, is Oliver Cromwell. I am sniggering at that one even now.

I really enjoy my job and so I have had fun as the last twelve months have passed by. I haven’t really minded the odd dig about my eccentricities. There is a running joke about me that my house is made out of things other people would throw away because I once made a stand for my monitor out of the polystyrene packaging from a new computer. My colleagues think I come from another age because I buy my fruit and veg from the market instead of Tesco. Well, in all honesty, I don’t mind being the office jester if it makes people smile.

Two things over the past couple of weeks, however, have slightly dampened my humour: Christmas and meeting up with old friends. Christmas because answering all the questions about my participation in the festivities remind me that my role as office odd-ball is a bit of a lie. And meeting up with old friends because I noticed that I was distant from them spiritually and intellectually; my mind seems to have become dull.

The drawbacks of keeping my faith private, as is the Englishman’s way, have hit me all of a sudden. At some point last week a colleague asked me if I had put a Christmas Tree up yet and if I intended to. Well obviously I could not lie. I hadn’t, I didn’t and, in all honesty, I hadn’t even realised it was two weeks until Christmas. As you can imagine, it wasn’t long before I had a new nickname in the office. Scrooge they call me now.

At the weekend, our elderly Christian neighbour had some advice for me. She said I should have said, ‘No, I’m not getting a Christmas Tree because I’m a Muslim.’ She said she could understand my point about not announcing my faith in ordinary conversation earlier on in my employment—’Hi, I’m Tim and I’m a Muslim’—but she couldn’t understand the need to hide my belief so extensively that I have to pretend to be Scrooge for three weeks of the year. She speaks with some authority, for as a practising Christian she had to exempt herself from the Office Christmas Party throughout her career and thus expose herself to the constant mockery of her peers.

On reflection, I think she was right, but I wonder if the whole Scrooge shenanigans have gone too far already. Possibly, since arriving at work last Wednesday I found that somebody had placed a present on my desk. I thought it was slighly odd, but I proceeded to open it anyway. Inside there was what we would call a Santa Claus hat, except that it was black, and it had the words, ‘Bah Humbug’ emblazened across it. Well I can have a laugh too: this weekend I bought a packet of reindeer droppings (chocolate covered raisins) from Oxfam and sent them back to the sender.

Despite such silliness, there is a serious point here. Every time I downplay my lack of enthusiasm for the great festival before us, I am in fact downplaying my faith. I do not have a Christmas Tree because I do not celebrate Christmas.  Can I not just say this? Well perhaps if my colleagues were Christian they would understand, but for the atheists of the entertainment generation, there is an irritating question that returns: ‘What has religion got to do with it?’ For many, Christmas is merely part of our culture; it has no sacred value. So what could be wrong with celebrating it whether you believe in Christianity or not? In a secular world, nothing at all.

But I am a Muslim and I do not celebrate Christmas because I have not lost sight of the sacred. Christmas is sacred for Christians, regardless of its origins and the views of the early Church Fathers. It is a time of worship and thanksgiving for them, and it has theological resonence. This is why I do not celebrate Christmas, because it is not my festival and it is not of my faith. I am clear on this within and comfortable with my position, so what goes wrong in the office? Why this great pretense, that I am merely a kill-joy, a Dickensian Scrooge? Surely it is hypocrisy.

I often tell myself that I keep my faith to myself because it is the English way, and there is certainly some truth in this. There is nothing the English hate more, we are told, than people wittering on about religion. So my faith is a quiet thing: I hurry down to the mosque to do my prayer at lunchtime, and hide in a disused room for the afternoon prayer, and fast in the month of Ramadan in secret, and inscribe everything else on my heart. Perhaps I am just too English in that regard.

But perhaps there are other things that keep me from sharing my beliefs. Perhaps all those petty comments about Muslims that I have heard in the office over the months indicate that my confession would be unwelcome. Unwelcome because some have clearly conveyed their dislike of Muslims, but also because some would be embarrassed to know that I had been listening to them all along and I never said a thing. That was certainly how my previous manager felt when she outed me in a team meeting two years ago.

Later on in that old job of mine, my manager decided to tell all of my colleagues that I was Muslim. I believe she had good intentions, hoping that social gatherings would be less drink-centred. The consequence, however, was that many of those colleagues stopped talking to me. Perhaps I am after an easy life; perhaps I don’t particularly look forward to a repeat of that scenario all over again.

And so in the office I am Scrooge. Not a principled believer in an alternative faith, but the great eccentric of the office who will not have Turkey on Christmas Day, mulled wine on Christmas Eve or presents around the tree. And at Easter there will be no Chocolate Eggs. And in summer I will turn down the birthday cakes in the office for an entire month, as if I am on a diet. Such pretense, when four short words would suffice: ‘I am a Muslim.’

Meeting up with old friends last week showed me the consequence of all this. My role as court jester has somehow stunted my intellect. I am not a fool actually. I have brains and interests, but somehow I have become the caricature that I have been made. My friends seemed to soar high above me both spiritually and intellectually. And I, somehow, have just dumbed myself down.

I cannot promise

This weekend I intended to tidy my study, which is indisputably the messiest room in our house. Unfortunately, as often happens, I soon found myself side-tracked from the task and absorbed in reading a document that had no obvious place amongst my piles of bills and letters. It turns out it may not have been the most appropriate reading material for a Sunday afternoon, because now imagined images keep flashing before my eyes, causing me to weep.

I had barely dug into my huge pile of paperwork when I chanced upon a dossier of newspaper clippings from 1997, most of which were photocopied articles from The Observer, The Independent and The Financial Times. Each article related to the brutal massacres that ravaged Algeria that year, whether to the murderous rampages themselves or to the behaviour of the Algerian police.

Looking back to 1997, I was clearly aware of what was happening in a general sense, for I remember writing an article about it for the student magazine, but I am not sure that I was conscious of it. I mean, I am not sure I really appreciated how horrific it was, for my reaction then was not as it is now. I remember looking at it—as a non-Muslim with left-liberal leanings—as the media painting Muslims in a bad light, again. Where my sympathy for the victims was, I do not know.

I don’t know that I can bring myself to summarise what I read, or to pull out extracts to help you to understand. I am not even sure where to start. Won’t the headline from The Guardian on Monday 20 October 1997 suffice? ‘This is where they shot my wife. Here they killed my daughter with an axe’. Or from The Times on 23 October? ‘Algerian terror victims plead for death by bullet’. I am sorry, but I cannot go on, for the tears come flooding back.

At first those massacres were reported as the work of the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group, but within weeks suspicion had fallen on the police and army instead. In The Observer on 26 October 1997, ‘Robert Moore visits the Triangle of Death but doubts the official line’:

Women had been slashed to death. Infants thrown off balconies. Old men shot, and even pregnant women mutilated. All of it happened. I have never had a glimpse into such brutality and fanaticism.

We were told that those responsible for such crimes were solely the guerrillas of the GIA.

It was finally becoming clearer why the Algerian authorities were facilitating these trips to Sidi Moussa, Benthala, Rais and Larbaa. We were the tools that could be used to show the international community that there is no point negotiating with the militants…

If the public relations had ended there, both sides would have been contented. Shocked but mesmerised journalists would have had their story. And the Algerian government would have seen the GIA described as brutal killers, devoid of ideology…

But instead, witnesses started giving disturbing testimony about the role of the security forces and the behaviour of local militias. It was evident to all of us that many of the most harrowing attacks took place only a short distance from police stations and barracks. We could see that for ourselves.

Local people looked down at their feet when we asked how long it had taken for local troops to intervene. Four hours, some answered. Four hours to move a few hundred yards and engage the GIA? More questions followed, all of which hinted at collusion between the attackers and the security forces…

In the same edition, ‘A deserter in London tells Francoise Sergent of the army’s role in the killings’:

One evening last June his squad went on a mission. ‘They injected us with something, telling us it would makes us strong, so that we would not be afraid. People said it was cocaine.

‘They took us by plane, then by truck. Around three o’clock in the morning we were near a village, about 120 to 130 men. They told all the conscript soldiers to stay on the hillside overlooking the village and not to move, unless we saw a flare fired over the village streets.

‘About 25 enlisted men left in the direction of the village. We saw nothing and stayed without moving. Around 5.30 they came back. They were dirty, with false beards and smelling of musk like the Islamists. They were still wearing army trousers but had civilian T-shirts and really looked like typical Islamists. Some had blood on their trousers and their paratrooper knives were also bloody. They were asked nothing. No one asks anything in the army.’

The unit returned to the barracks in the morning. ‘I learnt that there had been a massacre in the village where they were. We knew it from the police who were nearby. There would have been about 30 dead. We made the connections, but nobody talked about it. We were terrified.’

On 12 January 1998, John Sweeney wrote in The Observer of Algerian policemen who said they had killed for the state:

The ninja – slang for the Algerian junta’s feared Balaclava-clad paramilitary police force – spoke quietly as he gave the details of the October 10 massacre last year.

“We were in a convoy of 16 vehicles, Nissan Jeeps and Peugeot 505s, four ninjas to each car. We left Chateauneuf police station (three miles to the west of the Casbah in central Algiers) at around 1.30am. The journey to the Algiers suburb of Rais Hamido took about 45 minutes. We were armed with Kalashnikovs and 9mm Berettas.

“Close to the target house, we stopped and waited for the special forces of the securite militaire. As soon as they arrived, one of us killed the electricity supply for the area, turning 20 to 30 houses completely dark. Switching off the electricity is one of our jobs,” explained “Robert”, a ninja trooper who fled from Algeria to Britain last month and only spoke to the Observer in the strictest anonymity.

“Our orders were clear. We should guard the surrounding area but not act unless we were given specific orders. The securite militaire went in and came out after a time, maybe two hours, maybe less. After they had gone, we went in to clean the place up. There were about 16 bodies, two families. I saw with my own eyes dead men, women and children, even a baby, all with their throats slit. I cannot tell you what it was like…”

So who is doing the massacres in Algeria?

“It’s us,” said the two ninjas in unison. Their testimony is damning evidence contradicting the official line of the Algerian government – that Islamic activists alone are responsible for the slaughter.

“Robert” and his fellow ninja, “Andrew”, gave detailed evidence of the state’s involvement in a whole range of human rights abuses: massacre by military security death squads, torture of the regime’s opponents, spying, and the murder of difficult journalists and popular entertainers to blacken the name of the Islamic activists in carefully organized psychological warfare.

Surely all of this is gruesome enough, but I have spared you the details reported in the dozens of newspaper articles in that dossier. My stomach turns as I look over them once more. Here is an article in The Independent on Saturday 1 November 1997 about the nightmares of torture—of a torturer. Here an article from The Independent on 31 October about the women who wait for their husbands and sons, even daughters, to come home—the thousands of men and women ‘disappeared’ by the security forces. Here an article detailing how the police forced prisoners to drink acid, how they pulled out their beards and finger nails. There is worse, but I dare not copy those words.

Some of my colleagues enjoy a good horror film at the cinema, which to me is a sign of a sick mind. But what we have witnessed here is not fiction, but reality. What we have witnessed here is all the horror of the worst horror film multiplied a thousand times over. These people existed, had dreams and desires, feelings and thoughts. Like you and I, they had mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters. And like you and I, they too could be broken by brutality.

As I read through all of those newspaper clippings when I should have been tidying my room, a thought lodged itself in my mind: I don’t think I could survive such brutality. I don’t think I could survive my nails being ripped from my fingers. I don’t think I could survive such terror perpetrated against my family. I think my mind would die and my sanity leave me, even if my body survived.

I have always condemned terrorism, for I believe it is an abomination in the sight of God. Reflecting on the sunna, I believe Muslims are duty-bound to condemn it wherever it occurs, regardless of the perpetrator or the victim. A study of Islamic Law reveals that there is no place for the targeting of civilians even during a war. I have no room for extremism.

But as I sat reading those newspaper clippings on Sunday, a thought lodged itself firmly in my mind. I cannot promise that if I am ever exposed to violence of that kind I will not resort to extremism. I cannot promise that I will not lose my mind. And I cannot promise that I will survive.

Must we condemn? Yes we must

Two Muslim authors have told us today that we must not condemn the terrorist atrocities carried out in India yesterday: Umar Lee argues that American Muslims should not condemn them and Yusuf Smith that Western Muslims should not. They both argue their case effectively and I can see where they are coming from, but I must confess: when both of their headlines appeared in my blog-reader, I was utterly disgusted. To one of them I responded as follows:

I beg to differ. We should condemn them. We just should not condemn them because others demand us to do so.

We should condemn every single terrorist atrocity until we are blue in the face and until there are none.

This is because our religion teaches us to enjoin the good and forbid the evil. I just don’t care about this “we should not” because of what people think; it’s not about what people think.

It’s about getting the message through to terrorists that this is evil.

If one of you sees something bad he should change it with his hands, and if he cannot do that he should change it with his tongue, and if he cannot do that he should hate it in his heart, and that is the weakest of faith.

Your headline doesn’t sit well with me this evening I’m afraid. I utterly disagree.

Peace.

Someone argues that we do not know who was responsible for it yet. What has that got to do with it? We do not condemn it because we share some innate guilt. We condemn it because it is evil, because it is wrong, regardless of who did it or their reason. When bombs are rained down on a foreign land from a high-altitude bomber I condemn it because it is evil. When a gunman opens fire on civilians I condemn it because it is evil.

Someone argues that Muslims have condemned terrorist atrocities repeatedly but nobody pays any attention. What has that got to do with it? We condemn it not because a social commentator tells us to, but because Allah subhana wa ta’ala tells us to: “you enjoin right and you forbid wrong, and you believe in God”. And indeed because our beloved said:

Towards the latter days of indiscriminate violence, be like the first and better of the two sons of Adam who said, ‘If you raise your hand to kill me, I will not raise mine to kill you; surely I fear God, the Lord of the worlds.’ (from a sahih hadith in Tirmidhi)

Someone argues that we have no influence on people far away who have done this. Who says we have no influence? Do we not have prayers for rain? Do we have influence on the clouds of the sky? Yet we pray and it rains. You may have a neighbour who knows nothing about Islam, who sees this behaviour and believes it is of his religion. Perhaps your condemnation might make him think again.

Have some compassion. It does not matter who the perpetrators are or who the victims are. We condemn terrorism because it is wrong.

Another April

We first posted these photos on 16th April last year – that year when summer came early before the summer filled with April showers. Alhamdulilah, we’ve had plenty of showers this April, not to mention hail and snow. We’ll have to wait to see what the next few months have in store for us. Continue reading “Another April”

Falling

When I moved down to Cambridge in 1995 to work as a software tester for an IT company, I encountered a programmer who said he was quitting IT, heading off to work for the National Trust instead. The new-fangled email system and nascent internet were loading too many pressures on his shoulders and he could not wait to get out, to drive a tractor or something. The world has completely changed since then—in the course of my career I have only known this always-online world—but I can appreciate his sentiments perfectly. I often wish I could just turn off and disconnect. I sometimes think I might survive those old dreams of mine to disappear into the hills to live a subsistence lifestyle.

I mentioned my current feeling about the internet to my colleagues the other day and they all looked at me somewhat stunned. I have just got myself a job as a web application developer. ‘Don’t you think you might have chosen the wrong career path then?’ they asked me. Quite possibly.. I had just told them that I often think about cancelling my broadband internet connection, except that my wife now benefits from it greatly for staying in touch with family and friends overseas. ‘Okay, put it another way,’ I said, ‘I use the internet all the time, and that’s the problem.’ It wastes my time and worse.

I remember that feeling of relief we had after we disposed of our television six years ago. I can imagine such relief returning for me personally if I unplugged from this giant network. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with television: there is good in it as well as bad. The same is true of the internet. I am not condemning it as the ultimate source of evil. I am just saying I could live better without it, I think.

Today my heart is weighing heavy in my chest and I feel like I am burning up inside, and a memory keeps on recurring in my mind’s eye. A few years ago my wife and I holidayed in south Wales. One morning we were driving down hill along a private road. For a split second we freewheeled and I quickly lost control of the car. We hit a sharp rock and ripped one of the front tyres open. I managed to get the car back into gear, slow it down and regain control. But a minute on down the road, just round the bend, came a walker, rambling up the slope. I realised in that instant that I could have killed that man. The past few weeks I have been free wheeling (or free falling) just like that in my life. And now I see that walker, standing in my path. I think this pain in my chest is going to accompany me for a while now. I want to head for the hills and disappear.

Lamentations

Although my wife often reminds me that believers do not grieve over the past nor worry for the future, I often find myself lamenting the many mistakes I made over the years of my life and the numerous opportunities that passed me by. Sometimes it looks like it might subsume me as I begin to dwell on those experiences that caused me pain or regret. A decade has passed since I set out as a student in London, but sometimes it feels as if it was just yesterday. Sometimes the wounds still feel raw. Those “poems” that some were so keen that I restore arose from a dark period of my life. It is true that light came after darkness, but trouble still followed me.

This May it will be ten years since I embraced Islam, since I embarked upon this journey, and over three thousand days have passed since then–and eighteen thousand prayers. Yet it still hurts that a person I had immense respect for–whose character had been silent dawah for me–came to view my decision to embrace Islam with suspicion and went on to warn my fellow students not to trust me. It still hurts that my landlord accused me of a serious crime after learning that I had become a Muslim. It still bothers me that my closest friends turned their backs on me.

It is seven years since I left my first job after graduation, but it still irritates me that my managers asked me if I mistreated my wife because they learned that she wears hijab. It still annoys me that my colleague sent me the harrowing surviver’s account of an escape from the twin towers of the World Trade Centre shortly before they collapsed–telling me that this would help me understand.

And so I sit here often, lamenting that I did not respond, that I was polite and patient, refraining from asserting myself. I lament that my shyness prevented me from confronting them head on. I regret that things worked out the way they did.

Today, however, I am saying “Alhamdulilah”; today, however, I am grateful. On my return from a meeting this morning I tuned into Vanessa Feltz’s phone-in programme on BBC Radio London, which I was able to pick up all the way until I reached the outskirts of Aylesbury, where the signal died. Amongst the topics being discussed was whether listeners would be truthful to their partners concerning the number of “lovers” they had had in the past, prompted by the case of an eighteen year old girl who claimed she had had intimate relations with at least 50 men in two years which came to light in a BBC programme entitled “Sex… With Mum and Dad“. As people rang in to talk about their sex lives–or rather their past lives–I started to feel incredibly grateful.

Though things have not always gone as I wanted in life, I have to say, “Alhamdulilah”. Alhamdulilah that I was this shy character. Alhamdulilah that I feared my parents. Alhamdulilah that whatever errors I made in my life, they really were of little significance. When I married my wife, she was my first, my only. Alhamdulilah. Over the preceding years many laughed at me, mocked and scoffed, but today I can say “Alhamdulilah” for I saved myself for one person absolutely, and I am not of those people who today lament, “I wish I had saved myself for you.” Alhamdulilah.

Looking back, should I really lament the path that led me here? Should I be subsumed in sorrow? I know the answer now. It is as my wife frequently reminds me: believers do not grieve over the past nor worry for the future.

Alhamdulilah.