A new paradigm of self

At risk of gaslighting myself — very popular contemporary terminology — I am prepared to concede in my mid-forties that I may have completely misread and misunderstood events that occurred all around me in my youth. This concession is, of course, the result of hours spent reading research papers investigating different aspects of the impact of a chromosome disorder that I am wholly unqualified to interpret. But such is the quest for understanding.

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Unspoken

There’s something I never told you. Actually, there’s lots I never told you. But this one is bigger than everything else. I never told you, I suppose, because our relationships were fractious then. And, well, because I was struggling to come to terms with it myself. And because I had little reliable information at my disposal to make sense of it then. So I just carried it within, and never spoke of it to anyone.

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Go with the flow

In 2001, a close friend of mine from university days invited me to go with him to Brixton for another friend’s wedding. A convert of West African descent, he was always much more rigorous in his approach to faith than I ever was, converting five years before me, in his mid-teens. Despite trying his best to steer me in one direction, he knew I was a lost cause, too laidback for my own good. But still he was going to try.

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The way of peace

As a result of his life experiences up to that point, nerd-face is fiercely egalitarian. He’s anti-racist, pro-justice, passionate about human rights. Due to a lifetime of bullying due to some imperceptible difference he can’t even see in himself, he’s developed a strong emphatic attunement with the underdog. In his personal relationships, he gravitates towards those apparently on the fringes of society, who themselves have faced a lifetime of discrimination, bullying and harassment.

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That ship has sailed

For a few days, I toyed with the idea of sharing with my family all that I have been pondering on my blog lately. To speak of my diagnosis for the first time and explore its impact on me back when our relationship was so poor, in my late adolescence and early twenties. But in the end I concluded: “What’s the point?” What’s the point of speaking of it eighteen years later, when it can change nothing at all?

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Embracing what we are

The present is the first time since my early childhood that I have been content with my face. Ramadan losses excepted, it has filled out, my cheek bones no longer so pronounced, my face fatter and more proportioned, my skin aged. Most people spend their lives seeking the elixir of eternal youth; I spent mine attempting to counteract it. I have photos of myself at the end of a Masters degree programme, aged 23, still looking about seventeen.

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Hidden

I’m hidden, but I’m not hiding. For note, though I’m barely read, I am a prolific writer, revealing my innermost thoughts before the entire world. Those thoughts are not locked behind a paywall or multi-factor authentication. I am right here, in the public domain, hidden in plain sight. There is no mystery surrounding the man; my soul is wide open, on full display.

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Look beyond

Of course it is disappointing that the first thing a person asks me on learning of the path I have walked for the past quarter of a century is my view on terrorism. Of course it is upsetting that a path that brings such peace to so many is forever associated in the minds of others with such unspeakable barbarity. Naturally, it hurts that even sensible people believe such evil to be representative of our normative tradition. But of course I understand: they have two decades of pervasive propaganda to unravel. It is all they have heard for twenty years.

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Fat and thin

It’s a shame that when fasting we lose weight in all the wrong places. My arms are like sticks again, my face drawn. But my fat gut: alas, I still look pregnant. An undesirable look for a bloke, which I cannot even blame on beer. For my belly, I must take up Couch to 5K again. For my face, a 5K jaunt to Ashridge House bakehouse for a caffè mocha and an almond croissant.

I am who I am

Gradually, we come to terms with reality, that we are what we are; I am who I am. My soul was inserted into this skin and this form, with this gender, to live in this land under that sky. I was raised in that family, with those privileges and that ease, but was nevertheless built shy and slow by the One who created all things. I am the sum of many parts. I am who I am. I cannot be other than as I am. If I am unread, I am unread. If I am uncool, then uncool. My reality, in every facet, is the decree of the One. And so I wander on, embracing my medium of expression. This is me.

A name

In his own Aramaic tongue, his name was Yeshu, Eesho or Eshoo; two thousand years later, it is impossible to say how it was pronounced back then. In Hebrew, we think it was Yeshua, from Yehoshua, derived from the verbs to rescue or deliver. His name was transliterated phonetically into Greek as Iēsous, roughly pronounced “ee-ay-soos”. Transliterated into Latin for the Catholic Vulgate, Iēsous became Iesus, the name by which he was probably best known until around 400 years ago. In seventeenth century England, the pronunciation of the name evolved from Iesus to Jesus.

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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.

The politics of identity

From our children we are learning the politics of identity as we hear what they have learned from their white and brown friends, who regurgitate the opinions of their parents.

In modern times, Muslim does not mean follower of the Islamic faith, but is shorthand for non-white. These little kids have been brought up to view all white people as Christian and all non-white people as Muslim.

Our children come home from school confused, adamant in face of all contrary evidence that what their friends say is true.

One day their teachers are going to have to address this nonsense, but it will be hard work in the face of the politics of identity at home. Our own counter-arguments, though momentarily convincing, are soon forgotten back in the playground.

And so I guess our children will keep on coming home repeating the preposterous notions they have learnt from their friends.

There is only them and us: the world neatly divided into two vast camps. Muslim and Christian. There are no Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics. No Catholics, Protestants, Methodists. There are the Muslim kids and the Christian kids.

It’s terribly sad.

The Propagandist

In one breath you dismiss the faith of millions of your brothers, writing them off as sell-outs, apostates and hypocrites, while in the next you agitate on behalf of millions of others, unknown. Here are the contradictions of the Muslim propagandist. A brutal oppression is raging out there, elsewhere, in distant lands, and it is the duty of every believer to respond. Yet in times of peace, those same oppressed would stand repudiated by your tongue, their faith undermined, their words and deeds attacked. Yours is a call to action which demands no questions be asked. Your propaganda paints a compelling portrait, edited, refined and contorted: Muslims alone are victims, persecuted around the world, relentlessly. But about Muslims killed by Muslims of a certain kind, you are silent. Of those maimed and cut to pieces by a bomb in a marketplace, you have nothing to say. About Christians killed by Muslims, Christians killed by Christians, Hindu-Buddhist rivalries, ethnic conflict, drug wars, persecution of other minorities… not a word. There is no room for acknowledgement of the suffering of others in the propagandist’s toolkit. We must be moved, by whatever means possible. Yours is a humanitarian mission that demands that nobody asks, “Where is your compassion for your neighbour and brother near at hand?”

Inverted Beauty

Who convinced these people to embrace the hideousification of the face? Why uglify yourself that way? Grateful to have preceded Generation Mipster; we were blessed with the natural elegance of an unassuming modest beauty. The grotesque, gargantuan inventions of today’s fashionistas are like comic turn. Clowns revelling in an identity without its core.

Where you from, brother?

It is sometimes supposed that converts to Islam get special treatment in the mosque, but I’m not so sure. Moving in the circles I do, it has become quite apparent over the past few months that the notion of the convert is still alien to many people’s minds.

A Palestinian friend I often walk back into town with after the midday prayer at lunchtime told me that he thought I was Syrian or other-Arab when he first met me. In my own town, England is the last place I could possibly be from when a Muslim shopkeeper interrogates me about my roots. Are you Palestinian, asked one of them? Are you Bosnian, asked another.

On Monday as I made my way to mosque following my new more pleasant route, another old man stopped to offer me a lift. He didn’t say much at first and then he suddenly piped up with the question I’ve become used to from my kind volunteer chauffeurs. ‘Where you from, brother?

Until that day, I had always heard it as, ‘Which town are you from?’ because I know they don’t see me in the evening when I have driven back home. So I offered my usual reply. ‘Chesham,’ I said.

‘No originally?’ he asked.

‘Ah, you’ve noticed my funny accent? Originally I’m from Yorkshire. Well Hull, but I won’t go into that.’

‘No brother, where you from originally?’

Hmm, I thought, that must have been what all the other drivers meant, and they were just too polite to pursue my origins to the end, concluding I was either stupid or obstructive. ‘Well I’m English,’ I said, suddenly realising that the identity I am so comfortable with just doesn’t figure in their minds. ‘But my grandmother’s Irish if that’s any help. How far back do you want to go?’

‘Oh no, brother,’ he said, his laughter causing him to choke, ‘it’s alright.’

Last night my wife’s Qur’an study partner gave us a clue about the misgivings of some in our community. Her children, she explained, believe that all brown people are Muslims and all white people are Christians. They were once much perturbed by the sight of our white faces in the mosque, but we can excuse little children their strange questions.

I was reminded then of that strange conversation on my way back from tarawih prayers in Ramadan one year, when a man of Pakistani lineage ran though a list of all the East European and Caucasian states I could possibly be from, before telling me that he had lived here for forty years. I have no idea why I strung him along with monosylablic replies to each ethnicity he proffered, or if he just could not accept my, ‘I’m from here’ and had to delve deeper. Either way, by the time we parted company, I knew my place as the fresh faced arrival from a modern EU state: there was a pecking order here. It was all quite surreal. I knew about the north-south divide, but this was ridiculous.

I’m sure most people don’t think this way, but all of these experiences have got me thinking. When I moved to this town I never thought to introduce myself formerly, to stand up in the mosque and announce that I was an English Muslim. I just assumed, as people tend to when they’re content in their skin and culture, that my from-here-ness was taken for granted. But now, digesting my Palestinian-Bosnian-Czech-Syrian-Ossetian-Tunisian roots, I am starting to think that maybe I should have said something.

But then, does it really matter? What difference does it make? We’re all strangers, really. I can’t say as I write this that it consumes me inside, making me burn with rage. Instead I sit here smiling as I type it out. I don’t know about anybody else, but I just find it bloody hilarious. Though I do understand my more serious friends don’t quite see it that way. Skin heads and bovver-boots.

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. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWcGOt4btwY (spiritofstgeorge)] 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. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z6o5Ccwb0A (SuperAceofDiamonds) ] 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. 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 ] 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. Gospel of Mark 12:29-31]

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. Gospel of Matthew 5:44] And if they insist on bringing, ‘I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword,’[6. Gospel of Matthew 10:34] 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. See for example Jesus the Prophet: His Vision of the Kingdom on Earth by R David Kaylor, John Knox Press, 1994]

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. Gospel of Luke 6:20-23 and of Matthew 5:1-14] 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. Manchester Evening News, 2 October 2009 — http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/s/1153293_muslim_graves_targeted_in_hate_attack ] 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.

The Semitic Way

In British politics today, there is so much talk of identity, of what it means to belong, of shared values. Sometimes it is assumed that we must all trace our values back to Hellenic roots, as if this were the foundation of civilisation. Yet my heart has always felt comfort in the Semitic pathway. As a child, the Parables spoke to me, but Paul’s Epistles did not. As an agnostic it was the Letter of James. And now: well you know the journey I am walking, the road I am taking.

My burgundy-bound Bible from those days before faith is filled with scribbles in pencil, with scruffy underlining and highlighter ink: the etchings of a searching soul. But one book stands out. On the title page of the Letter of James there is a handwritten note which reads, ‘The most beautiful book in the Bible.’ I was yet to learn of Islam—yet to tread this path—but looking back now it seems clear to me that the author was a Muslim. A Muslim of the era before Muhammad, peace be upon him.

I’m not alone in reaching this conclusion though. James’ address of the twelve tribes dispersed throughout the land nods to the Judaic-Christian world, whose resemblance to another tradition has been widely noted over the years. Hans Küng et al point out in their work on the World Religions, ‘the traditional and historical parallels between early Judaic-Christianity and Islam are inescapable.’ Meanwhile, while I would naturally dispute the case of dependence given my belief in revelation, Hans-Joachim Schoeps writes in Theology and History of Jewish Christianity:

Though it may not be possible to establish exact proof of the connection, the indirect dependence of Mohammed on sectarian Jewish Christianity is beyond any reasonable doubt. This leaves us with a paradox of truly world-historical dimensions: the fact that while Jewish Christianity in the Church came to grief, it was preserved in Islam and, with regard to some of its driving impulses at least, it has lasted till our own time.’

When I put the teachings of the Letter of James and the teachings of Islam side by side, the similarities are striking. About six years ago I began work on a small text that would do just that, for I felt that the parallel presentation conveyed meanings that have sadly escaped many. Much is made of difference when we encounter the Other, but there is a great deal to be gained from highlighting the common ground.

The reality of the focus on identity, on what it means to belong, on shared values, is that what defines our present is a hugely diverse past. While the phrase ‘our Judeo-Christian heritage’ has emerged over recent years, that old focus on Hellenic and Grecian ancestry remains dominant. I have seen it in the current debates on multi-culturalism. That is wrong: Semitic pathways have had a huge influence on our culture. What is more, where would Britain be had the no one translated those ancient works held up so high?

So talk of identity, of what it means to belong and of shared values, but don’t give me a hard time when I say I am proud of who I am: a devotee to the Semitic way.

United Nation?

In 1996 when I went to study at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) – a college of the University of London – I watched as a fellow student when through what he thought was a radical transition in his views. Given the nature of the college, many white students came in with quite similar views: they were generally anti-racist, empathetic for the under-dog, left-wing/liberal and greatly interested in the affairs of particular African or Asian nations. Although this kind of leaning does exist to quite a degree within wider British society, including sections of the media, I would say that a Eurocentric and white ethno-centric viewpoint still predominates ‘on the street’. Thus the views found amongst white students at SOAS could have been considered quite radical.

Young people, however, often have a tendency to rebel against the dominant environment in which they find themselves, as I witnessed in the case of this particular student. He was studying Geography and Development Studies like myself and had spent the previous year doing field research in Zimbabwe. When I first me him, he had hugely Afro-centric views and was very keen on deliberately making friends with ‘ethnic’ students. As time went by, I noticed that these views were starting to shift quite significantly. It started with him playing devils-advocate with his ‘ethnic’ friends, moved on to a passionate defence British colonial engagement in Africa and later derision of the alleged anti-white ethos in the college. He had become a true radical – except that these views were not radical at all. They were just radical within his context.

I often recall this fellow when I am in gatherings made up mainly of white converts to Islam. Many of us were able to make a reasonably easy journey towards Islam precisely because we had a more internationalist perspective on life. Like those students at SOAS, we too had a generally anti-racist mindset, empathy for the under-dog and left-wing/liberal views. But like that radical student at SOAS, there seems to be an increasing trend for gatherings of white Muslims to descend to the level of racist exchanges, particularly about Pakistani Muslims. There is contempt for their culture, derision of their ways and a level of general stereotyping about this group of people.

There is probably a good reason why I have experienced more of this since moving out of London a year ago. London is a hugely diverse city and the character of its mosques reflects this. In every part of the city we find mosques that are not the preserve of one particular ethnic group, but are cosmopolitan instead. They also tend to have good or decent provision for women. In many places outside the capital, however, this is not the case. Mosques are often split along community lines and Islamic identity is conflated with ethnic identity. In my own town, although there exists a fairly large number of European, Arab and African Muslim families, the Pakistani community clearly dominates. The result is a sense of exclusion at the mosque for anyone who does not speak Urdu, although change is slowly underway. No doubt it is this sense of exclusion which fuels the somewhat racist talk of some white Muslims – and particularly women who have been refused entry to the mosque – in these areas.

I have another theory about this attitude though. A prominent characteristic of dawah over the past decade has been the separation of Islam from ‘culture’. This has led to a sense of superiority developing amongst converts (not just white converts) and amongst young people born into Muslim families: that we follow true Islam, not the cultural interpretations of those before us. This sense of superiority is a real disease, which has seen old Bengali men who have prayed in the mosque five times a day without fail for fifty years castigated by young men as foolish ignorant folk. Given that many of these unsettling convert discussions revolve around the question of their (Pakistani) culture – as if we don’t come to Islam with our own – I would say that this Islam versus culture argument has a lot to do with it.

It is fair to acknowledge that the experience of many converts, particularly those residing outside cosmopolitan settings, has been the racism of existing Muslim communities. I once felt that this was more likely to affect black converts, but more and more I see that white converts perceive discrimination. I think it is more likely that white Muslims will be positively received in mosques with larger Arab attendance, but this cannot be said of Pakistani community mosques. The children of some English Muslim friends of ours have been put off Islam because when they were at school their Pakistani schoolmates told them that they could not be proper Muslims because they were white. My general response to this kind of racism – be it the refusal to return the salams of the convert or simply the reluctance to make friends – is to hypothesise that this community probably experienced white racism in its early years and has therefore become quite insular in its outlook. The views of an English Muslim in my town suggests that there may be something in this: he became Muslim back in the 1960s and reports that race relations were extremely poor at that time. Meanwhile, a Pakistani friend of ours suggests that some Pakistani racism is linked to Mirpuri self-image. Whatever the cause, the result is the same: the sense of exclusion felt by those outside that group.

This is all very unfortunate. Our community is at risk of splitting down quite rigid lines, whether that is ethnicity or ‘convert’ versus ‘immigrant’. When people talk about radicalisation in relation to the Muslim community, they are usually talking about a polarisation towards militancy. The radicalisation that I am witnessing more and more is the acceptance of racism, and it is a disease which needs tackling with equal urgency. If we are now all resigned to the fact that we will experience racism at some point from within the Muslim community, we need to act as individuals to counteract this. For my part that means continuing to attend the mosque and not giving in to prejudice. It means saying that the experience of my convert friends is far from the totality of my experience.

Beyond this though, it is recognising why we are Muslims. We need to get away from our obsession about ourselves and recall where our focus should lie. We should be God-centred, not self-centred. When I talk of the obsession with the self, I am not talking about that very real need of ours to correct ourselves: rather I am talking about the debates about identity, about who and what we are.

We are Muslims and our aim is to achieve the pleasure of Allah. Allah has made us into nations and tribes that we may get to know one another: enough said. After this we remember that this brotherhood of ours is one brotherhood. Yes, I know that the atmosphere in my local mosque is not what I was used to in the cosmopolitan big city. I know that I am not easily accepted as I was in the mosques of the capital. But I recall that, revolving around Tawhid, my prayer, worship, life and death are for God, Lord of the Worlds, who has no partner. In this we find our resting place, our home. When we recognise this, it becomes less important whether we are accepted by others: what matters is whether Allah accepts us and whether He accepts our deeds.

For God and country?

Although Lesley White’s article focusing on the social life of the British Muslim community in this weekend’s Sunday Times was not particularly negative, it has irritated me. There seems to be an underlying assumption that the United Kingdom is defined by a monoculture, outside which lie the Muslims. It is not.

I am a native of these isles: my lineage on my father’s side is English through and through, while I am quarter Irish on my mother’s side, with roots tracing back to County Wexford in the south. Growing up, long before I embraced Islam, it was patently clear that there is no such thing as British culture. Our society has always been split along multi cultural lines – cultures of class, creed, political affiliation, dialect, region, social mobility, employment and so on.

My paternal grandfather was a strict Methodist who never drank alcohol, smoked or gambled. When he entered the army in the 1940s the Anglican chaplaincy looked down upon him as the follower of an inferior and erroneous creed. He often said he regretted not staying in the army, but my grandmother thought he might not have been happy in the long term. In the war years the other soldiers tolerated his abstention from mess culture – he would wander off on walks or go away to read as the card games, smoking and drinking commenced – but they may not have been as accommodating as the years passed by.

But these diverse cultures of creed have long existed within British society. My good neighbours belong to the Free Church and their culture too has its own particular mores – they are lovely people, extremely kind, very generous, living a good life, attending church twice every Sunday and once every Wednesday night. This little country town of mine has several Baptist churches, a number of Free churches, a Catholic church, a couple of Anglican churches, a Spiritualist church, a Quaker meeting house and several others of denominations I do not even know. The faithful of each of those churches are marked out by the nuances of their particular culture.

I am sure of this. I was brought up as an Anglican in the Church of England. Unlike my late grandfather, my parents and siblings all drink alcohol, but our culture was still distinct from that of many of my peers at school. Beyond our disinterest in football or regularly going to the pub – those musts of the mono-culturalists – there were the social links maintained predominantly on the basis of affiliation to a common denomination, the home group study circles held in each others’ homes, the regular attendance of church, Sunday school and the Christian youth group.

I was brought up in Hull in the north of England, which was traditionally a fishing economy and thus the culture of the town had its own flavour, dissimilar to that of the mill towns inland around Leeds and Bradford, and so people from Leeds used to look down on people from Hull, and vice versa. I think too of the strong cultural identities of members of the Conservative Party, The Salvation Army and the Socialist Workers.

I could go on, but I think you get my point. The idea that there is such a thing as a unitary British identity is a myth at best and an outright lie at worst. It is being used today as a weapon against the Muslim community – which itself is not clearly defined – by social commentators with other agendas. Lesley White writes:

“The unseen corners of British Muslim life have little to do with militant Islam, but they force an acknowledgment of how intrinsically different, how apart, this community is, and how doomed any demand for assimilation. Religion is not what they do on Sundays – easy to dismiss in our search for comforting common ground. It is a complete identity and a filter through which every relationship, every item of news, every bite of food, is mediated.”

My upbringing as an Englishman and an Anglican taught me that every sub-category of British society provides an identity – sometimes complete, sometime partial – that filters the very same things. My Methodist grandfather who was mocked at work for not drinking. My Anglican mother whose life revolves around her parish. My vegan friends. My football obsessed colleague. Still, the journalist ends:

“If we want to reach them, as Khalid Sharif suggests, we have to address them as a faith group rather than a recalcitrant ethnic subcategory.’ And if you don’t talk to them,’ he had added ominously, ‘someone else will.’ But I think we are allowed to request that they talk our language too.”

They? I invite Lesley White to Amersham, to climb this hill wee hill above my place of work. At the top there is a memorial to the Protestant martyrs, the inscription of which reads:

“In the shallow of depression at a spot 100 yards left of this monument seven Protestants, six men and one woman were burned to death at the stake. They died for the principles of religious liberty, for the right to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures and to worship God according to their consciences as revealed through God’s Holy Word. Their names shall live for ever.”

I remind you, Lesley, of The Toleration Act of 1689. I remind you that we are not living in those days when men and women were burned at the stake because they were non-conformists. We are where we are today because the British gradually learnt to accept that ours is a diverse society. We are Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Adventists, Witnesses, Muslims, Jews, Humanists, agnostics… and this list goes on, and on.

We speak the British language. We are teachers, doctors, administrators, software developers, lawyers, factory workers, shop owners, street cleaners, social workers and students. We speak the British language, but like the Methodists and the Protestants before us we consider our faith a precious gem. It is you, Lesley, who must speak the language: assimilation is not the British way.

You can read her article here:
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2099-2155558.html

Old Amersham

What tremendous weather we have been blessed with today. The sun is shining, the sky is blue and it is hot out there. I have just returned from a short walk in my lunch break. I walked along by the shallow River Misbourne and watched the minnows darting about beneath the surface. Then I ascended the hill where I walked between the yellow flowering oil seed rape – the scent of which was delicious – stopping for a while at the 1930s stone memorial at the top. This tall column in a wild garden of its own behind high hedges is inscribed with the following words: “The Noble Army of Martyrs Praise Thee”. Underneath there continues a short paragraph:

“In the shallow of depression at a spot 100 yards left of this monument seven Protestants, six men and one woman were burned to death at the stake. They died for the principles of religious liberty, for the right to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures and to worship God according to their consciences as revealed through God’s Holy Word. Their names shall live for ever.”

It is followed by the name of each of them. I stood in that garden for a little while, pondering England’s history. I could not stay for long, however, because I had to get back to work. So I walked on along the baked clay pathway across the top of the hill and then passed into the shade of the forest, descending back down the hill. The unceasing whine of the traffic in the valley below impacted on the sense of peace, but still it was a pleasant and welcome break. Coming into the town again, I wandered through the churchyard, where someone asked me if I was the minister and then if I could lend them 20p. Two minutes after that it was back to work for me.

But hark! What a jolly splendid day!

Another tangent

I appear to be going off on tangents a lot these days and here I go again.

In an opinion piece on a US website last week, a British Muslim journalist lamented the growth of pop culture within the Muslim community. She was commenting on the response of female audiences to the nasheed performances in a central London concert hall which in her opinion resembled a boy-band fan club. “Eminent scholars throughout history have often opined that music is haram,” she wrote, “and I don’t recall reading anything about the Sahaba whooping it up to the sound of music.” It was a passionate piece, arguing that we Muslims would be better expending our engery listening to the cries of our brutalised brothers than listening to “what is haram”.

While she was undoubtedly correct about the state of the ummah and our need to do much more than we are, her article became something of a rant against one particularly performer in places. I am not intending to rally to his defence, for I am neither familiar with him nor qualified to contribute to the music debate. I just feel like responding to a couple points.

She complained that the British-born performer asked his audience to cheer if they were proud to be British. “How can anyone be proud to be British?” asked the author, a convert to Islam, “The Union Jack is drenched in the blood of our brothers and sisters across Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine.” Now I have studied political geography with particular reference to the Middle East, so I am well aware of this nation’s shameful engagement in those lands and others. But is this all that can be said about Britain?

Pride is not the word I would use to describe my relationship with my homeland, but hatred is not the alternative. The British can be happy to know that we have a national health service which is free at the point of access, providing healthcare to all. We can commend the British for being generous to those in need: whenever there is a disaster anywhere in the world, we will dig deep and give to charitable causes. We can be enthusiastic about British tolerance which – although it has been eroded over recent years – has granted us freedoms unparalleled in many other parts of Europe. I agree that Britain is a contradictory place in which to live, but I disagree with those who say it is all bad.

The author does not seem to like the idea that Muslims should serve this nation of ours. Our minds should always be on the lives of others elsewhere, while we ghettoise ourselves. I feel like inviting her to engage with the UK charities I am familiar with, to see the affect of our over-there mentality. Social depravation, abuse and mental health problems in our own communities are left untackled, the response under-funded precisely because of this attitude which sees only overseas recipients as worthy causes. Responding to the performer’s alleged plea that Muslims should join the Metropolitan Police Force, that author roared:

“Astafur’Allah! Dude, these are the same cops who have a shoot-to-kill policy and would have gunned down a Muslim last year if they could tell the difference between a Bangladeshi and a Brazilian. This is the same police force that has raided more than 3000 Muslim homes in Britain since 9/11.”

It is also the same force that is working to investigate the fire bombings of Asian businesses over the past week in South London. It is the same force that does its best to fight violent crime, street robbery and social disintegration. In light of the growing culture of criminality amongst our youth (the four drunk Pakistanis who kicked another to death in Leicester Square and the Somali gang who beat up a Pakistani imam in Hayes are sadly not queer aberrations), I should have thought the idea that Muslims should join the Police would be considered commendable. Are we witnesses to this society or mere spectators?

The writer concluded thus: “Quite frankly, I really don’t know how anyone in the Ummah can really let go and scream and shout with joy at pleasure domes when there is so much brutality and suffering going on in the world today.” With great fervour she demands: “Oh, Muslims, wake up! The Ummah is not bleeding; it is hemorrhaging. Listen not to what is haram. Listen to the pain of your global family.”

I cannot argue with that. I just wonder whether she is using too broad a brush. There are many, many people doing the little things in their communities. They recognise where their power to implement change lies; the bigger picture just makes us impotent. So they teach in our schools, nurse in our hospitals, care in fractured homes and police our communities. I have seen my own soul and those thoughts that emerge in the face of despair, and they scare me. The middle ground is better. Surely.

This

I couldn’t understand what he was talking about, but it sure sounded cool. I knew he had all my money in his future and that was red. Red like a London Bus. Did he understand me? I shouldn’t think so. Give me a pint of petrol I said. He didn’t understand that. Well why would he? He was from a different reality from the one I knew. Outside the sky was green. Inside it was pink. Smile and the whole world falls apart.

Continue reading “This”