Down the rabbit hole

The triumphant traditionalists demand that we wipe our memory clean, and forget the rebellion they enjoined at the turn of the decade, when answers were apparently easy and divine right on their side.

And now those same short-sighted scholars, who could not anticipate the anarchy that would unfold, tell us that they are the answer to all this madness. That they alone can deliver us from this nightmare, with their grand appeals to traditional Sunni Islam, which gave the world 1400 years of peace and security. Continue reading “Down the rabbit hole”

In defence of losers

I used to be extremely timid in company. These days I find myself accidentally challenging people when they start making sweeping generalisations and outlandish claims. I don’t mean to be contrary. But really, someone needs to be the dissenting voice, offering an alternative perspective. Even if everyone thinks that the dissenting one is an idiot as a result. Continue reading “In defence of losers”

The schizophrenia of the times

My newsfeed reveals a schizophrenic attitude to faith and conflict. Today’s conflicts and violence are condemned absolutely, while the triumphant conquests of the past enjoy great eulogies, their reality whitewashed and distorted. We pine after a glorious past, oblivious to former transgressions, to doctrines of perennial war and imperial rules of engagement as cruel and unforgiving as the battles of any of the zealots of today.

What a strange situation to find ourselves in. Faced by the realities of war and conflict in modern times, we find ourselves perpetually on edge, worn down by the constant litany of barbaric acts and savagery, craving a legendary past when all men were just, all conquests honourable and six hundred years of war a time of peace. Somehow we are meant to reconcile the two implacable positions: to condemn today’s infractions and praise the misdemeanours of the past at exactly the same time. To take a different stance on the same behaviour, depending on when it occurred and who was in charge.

Too often the only element that differentiates one from the other is the question of authority. Barbarity under the auspices of a legitimate religious or political authority is sanctioned and sanctified, clothed in folklore and pious mythology.

Do not cut the tree, do not kill the child, do not kill old people, do not destroy the temple or church, do not kill the woman, do not kill the monk or priest, be good to prisoners and feed them, do not enforce Islam. Yes, all of these are found in the teachings of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and in the verses of the Qur’an. But open those classical books of fiqh, or read our history. How many times were these noble injunctions — spread so widely today — ignored?

Were not many of those past conquests, so celebrated today, offensive and not defensive? Did armies not seek to expand the borders of the state annually, to carry the faith far and wide? Did the empires of the past not believe they were liberating the people they conquered, like the armies of today bringing democracy to whole peoples with the aid of cruise missiles, stealth bombers, mass invasion and proxy wars?

So this is the schizophrenia of the times — on all sides. Civilised nations which invented the concept of terror bombing in World War II and carpet bombing in the decades thereafter, now look on perplexed at indiscriminate bombs placed in market places, condemning their barbarity without a trace of irony. Meanwhile, the faithful, schooled in the nobility of their tradition with its varnished history, sob and wail at our tragic reality today — the unending conflict and violence — while singing the praises of the vast armies of the past and their magnificent leaders, whether they were just or not, or any less sectarian than today’s bedeviled warriors.

How will we exorcise these demons? Surely not by hankering after an imagined past, or speaking of mythical laws in classical texts, or by petitioning us with tales about legitimate authority, apparently unachievable today. A paradigm shift, it seems to me, is needed — a better way of thinking — that unburdens us of these schizophrenic mindsets which cause us such unrest and discomfort. We need to open our minds and forge a thoughtful forward path.

The challenge of our times

So the tables have turned. As I approach my fifth decade — the hallowed middle age — I find myself in the role of those unwilling advisers I castigated in my youth for their answers to questions of belief and doubt. From my mid-teens to early twenties I would demand guidance from my elders, be it a youth worker, a teacher or priest, insisting that they assuage my doubts and prove to me that God was real and that our faith was true. I would take myself off to church and later an evangelical cult in an effort to be persuaded. I would harangue my parents with questions that I had already decided would never satisfy me. I wanted others to persuade me — on my terms — that I could believe as they did. Continue reading “The challenge of our times”

Active gratitude

Do our self-appointed community activists not find it at all problematic that while maintaining a website documenting alleged discrimination against Muslims, they allow people to post inflammatory statements about the Shia, Jews, and non-Muslims in general on their Twitter feed?

Of course not. For those who deem themselves fit to advocate on our behalf feel no compunction about selling us exaggerated stories, half truths and downright lies. Whether a video sowing the seeds of sectarian hatred or a photoshopped image designed to drive others into despair, the end is believed to justify the means. This is not about the pursuit of truth or peace, but about propaganda.

Have we sunk to such depths that we must now make up stories about Fox News, a pro-war, pro-gun, Republican news broadcaster already famous for disseminating untruths about Black people, Mexicans, Arabs, Cubans, Muslims, Liberals and Leftists? Apparently so!

Not content with highlighting genuine broadcasts of this apparently popular US-only news channel, our activists have now begun sharing an obviously fake screenshot of a Fox News item claiming President Obama used a secret Muslim handshake to greet a suspected Muslim — or Police Constable Michael Zamora — on his way into 10 Downing Street with then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in April 2009 (then reported three years later during 2012’s presidential elections, where it remained in suspended animation for another three years until it was finally screen captured and released to the public yesterday on 29 September 2015).


The image is so poorly edited that it is hardly necessary to do a reverse image search on to source the original undoctored image — but doing so will reveal that the original screen capture has in fact already been twice used for satirical effect. Indeed its current incarnation must have started out as satire, before it was picked up by serious activists intent on tagging it #islamophobia; surely nobody could actually believe this was real. Sadly they could: the activists’ followers shake their heads in disbelief, stamp their feet about the rampant #islamophobia in their midst and share the unbelievable news report on their own timelines, thus setting in motion another viral controversy.

Is it any wonder we look like complete idiots to the rest of the world? We wail about discrimination and oppression of our people (limited though that category has seemingly become, given widespread sub-sectarian posturing), while failing to acknowledge either the existence of discrimination against others elsewhere or oppression promulgated at the hands of Muslims themselves.

We mix truth with falsehood in an effort to make a more potent case for the sense of despair, victimhood and disenfranchisement felt by the social media generation. Our activists spend their days trawling the internet and news channels for tales of discrimination and prejudice, which they will then publicise via Twitter and Facebook without a second’s thought, where it will be picked up and shared by their followers and their followers’ followers for days on end without pause. And if a story cannot be found, an old story from a decade ago will be trawled up and reported again as if it just happened. Or a story will just be made up, or exaggerated, or turned on its head. It doesn’t matter at the end of the day: bearing false witness is just par for the course in the battle for hearts and minds.

Activism in our communities needs a reboot; nay, it needs a holiday. Truth is meant to be our guiding light: “speak the truth, even if it be against yourselves.” The constant drip-feed of desperation and unceasing torrent of despair is clearly designed to drive individuals towards distraction and radical action. In place of gratitude — so emphasised by the Qur’an — we become a heartless, wretched people unable to see any good in others, driven forward not by the light of faith, but by that perpetual inner anger at the world.

If our self-appointed community activists will not desist — and there’s no indication they plan to — many more will simply withdraw, sick to death of the ever increasing polarisation occurring between communities. We are tired of the constant litany of the misdemeanors of the other, when in real life we are all largely rubbing along just fine. The alternative — the anarchic madness of Syria a prime example — does not bear thinking about.

One day we will have to reflect on the lessons of the Qur’an: about truthfulness, kindness, justice, gratitude. Might we recall the words of Sulaiman one day — peace be upon him?

“This is from the favor of my Lord to test me whether I will be grateful or ungrateful. And whoever is grateful, his gratitude is only for the benefit of himself. And whoever is ungrateful, then indeed, my Lord is Free of need and Generous.” — Qur’an 27:40

Or will we just carry on regardless with the constant toing and froing of Left versus Right, Muslim versus Atheist, Sunni versus Shia… scoring points against the other on the basis of a random story reported online or in the press, driving ourselves to utter madness? An individual decision for each of us in these times.

Dear Celebrity Reformer

You probably don’t remember me, but you took me under your wing in the late evening of the day I uttered my testimony of faith. You wanted me to embrace what you now rebuff as Islamism; I wasn’t interested (few of us were, but we were polite enough not to deeply trouble you). I had just embraced the oneness of God. Indeed, I had just acknowledged the existence of God. I had just set out on the road of faith; to you it was all about ideology and neo-imperialism. We were singing from different hymn books, so to speak. Continue reading “Dear Celebrity Reformer”

In this climate

With ever-worsening climate conditions, those of us who live in temperate regions are just going to have to get used to increased incoming migration from regions hit by intense drought.

Conflict over scarce and dwindling water resources is on the increase, though few of us notice, so used are we to the simplistic apocalyptic binary narrative of good and bad, us and them.

We see fanatics waging insane ideological wars, and no doubt many a foot-soldier believes in the cause; we do not see the control of dams, skirmishes over shrinking lakes, the abandoned dust-bowl farms that lead and feed into these battles of epic proportions.

Here in temperate regions, for ordinary people, climate change is still a theoretical phenomenon to be debated in religious terms: we are either believers, disbelievers or agnostics. But for many elsewhere it is already a stark reality.

If we are to understand today’s geopolitical environment we’ll need to start looking beyond ideology at conditions on the ground. There is nothing new in ideologues invoking religion in times of hardship. This is from SOAS Professor, Paul Gifford:[1. P Gifford, Christian Fundamentalism and Development (Review of African Political Economy 52, 1991), p.11.]

“In 1989 I heard a pastor in Greenville, Liberia, preach on Revelation 6, 1-8, a passage which deals with four horsemen given authority over a quarter of the earth ‘to kill by the sword, by famine, by plague and by wild beasts’. He claimed that this text was being fulfilled at that very time. He linked the prophecy of famine with Liberia’s food shortages.”

Today, ISIS in Syria and no doubt others in Nigeria and Somalia, invoke similar apocalyptic hadith from the Islamic tradition, but they are by no means alone. The debate about increased migration into Europe is also clothed in mythology: amongst the Right wing, as a Christian heartland under attack from marauding barbarians; amongst the Left, as a battle between secular modernity and religious backwardness. Realities on the ground are infrequently recalled.

But if we are to understand the years to come — and view our brothers in humanity through more compassionate eyes — we’ll need to equip ourselves with the tools to cut through the propaganda of ideologues on all sides. Most people in the world are in a battle for survival: against environmental degradation, failing crops, diminishing water sources, rising sea levels, flooding, dwindling rainfall, rising food prices, intense heat… and the violent conflict spawned by these conditions.

Simplistic narratives of a war of worlds, of a clash of civilisations or of a battle of ideologies simply leads us towards blaming victims, instead of addressing their needs. There must be a better way to spend 5 trillion dollars than on bombing and maiming people on the wrong side of the ideological divide.

Reading hearts

As a community we need to stop pretending that we can see into the hearts of others, for it is damaging our mental health and preventing us from contributing positively to society. Our sense of victimhood is exaggerated when every event that effects us is viewed though the prism of understanding that is, “It’s because I’m Muslim”. Witness the defeatist threads on social media, in which every misdemeanour of the other is amplified as further evidence that they’re all out to get us. Of course, if you perpetually reside on the comment pages of The Guardian and Telegraph websites amidst the trolls and haters, you will naturally conclude that everybody in the world hates you. But to step outside, carrying those sentiments with you, is to become judge and jury on the intentions of others.

I confess to have lived many years of my life afraid of the opinions of others. If, when out in public, I encounter a group of people laughing amongst themselves, a little voice from within whispers: “They’re laughing at you”; it is my big nose, my skinny frame, my voice, my slouch or my love of stripy jumpers. It could be any of these, or none of them. It could be something that happened a moment ago, a joke amongst friends, inebriation, happiness or insecurity. In these times, at this age, those are the more magnanimous sentiments with which I reply to those paranoid inner voices. Perhaps nerds, as we are considered, will forever be a laughingstock, but you can’t live your life under that spell. A time comes when you just have to shrug your shoulders and say, not that you don’t care, but that you can’t look into the hearts of others.

Wandering amidst the Muslim community, I see a mirror of that lethargic, nervous paranoia constantly. It comes alive in grand conspiracies, so commonly held that you begin to believe them: the black and white narrative of a binary world of good and evil. It is them against us: the schools inspectorate is conducting a witch hunt; child protection has an agenda; the extremists overseas are a CIA black-op; the worldwide media is controlled by our enemies. There is no nuance: no appreciation of complexities, no ability to see how the world is shaped for others. We are like that glum adolescent, struggling to understand his place in the world.

And so it has all become true: the hateful neighbour has contempt for you because you wear hijab. Your customers look at you suspiciously because you have a beard. That ignorant white man blanks you because he despises Muslims. Some driver cut you up on the motorway because he saw everyone in the car was wearing a headscarf. Your friends have stopped talking to you because you’ve started wearing niqab. Yes, everybody hates you.

Or could it be that you have simply convinced yourself that this is the case? Could it be that the hateful neighbour treats everyone like that: that his unaddressed rage causes him to lash out at everybody? Could it be that your customers are just trying to make eye contact so they can ask you a question? Could it be that the shy white man thinks he should lower his gaze in your company? Could it be that the driver has been cutting people up all afternoon? Could it be that your friends have stopped talking to you because they’re not quite sure how to behave in your presence any more? Could there be another explanation?

Over the past two decades, as a white man not presumed to be Muslim, my lowered gaze in the presence of Muslim women has repeatedly been interpreted as hatred of Muslims. I will be the first to admit that, socially inept as I am, I have trouble striking a balance between acknowledging someone respectfully and ignoring their existence. A lowered gaze, as I understand it, sits somewhere between the two, but it is an imprecise science, broadly interpreted through culture, learning and emotional state of mind. Hence my infamous convoluted detours around Sainsbury’s to avoid a hijab-wearing member of staff in whose presence I may once have played the role of excessively polite, presumably non-Muslim white man, demonstrating that not everybody hates Muslims. Lower your gaze too much and you are a rude, impertinent brute; lower your gaze too little and before you know it, it will be the talk of the town.

Assumptions and presumptions are killing our ability to interact with others. Fostered on a social media which frames the non-Muslim world as universally hostile to Muslims, we wander into public with unfounded fears that cause us to find negative explanations for each and every interaction. On one front we become unsympathetic to the feelings of others: we are oblivious to depression, money problems, marital strife, period pains, stress, grieving, illness or any other of a multitude of factors that could account for the particular reaction we received from a stranger one day. On another front we are feeding our own demise, setting up self-fulfilling prophecies, that will only serve to drag us down.

Instead of bringing to life prophetic sunnahs in our own lives — treat others as you’d wish to be treated, forgive him who wrongs you, answer a bad deed with a good deed — we set up false dichotomies. We answer perceived rudeness with rudeness. We respond to perceived wrongs with retribution. We answer a bad deed with another bad deed. And soon our news feeds brim with a sense of entitlement and victimisation. We cannot see each other as humans, each with our own conditions: we are just two tribes, mutually incomprehensible to the other.

Part of growing up is learning to let go of the self-centred ego. The bitter negativity which characterised my younger days was like superglue, thwarting my ability to move forward. The world had a problem with me, I told myself, judging the entire world around me. But of course it was not like that at all. There were aspects of myself which I needed (and still need) to change. But more than that, I needed to recognise that others were as complicated, compromised, confused and anxious as I was. I had to abandon a part of myself, in order to appreciate others more. As a community we need to do the same. This anxious bitterness which characterises our interactions with each other and the outside world is in fact a disease of the heart.

As men and women, there’s only one heart we have been given the ability to read, and that is our own. As that beloved refrain of mine goes: between my soul and God stand my heart and my deeds; nothing else stands between us. The time must have come to turn away from trying to read the intentions of others, towards purifying our own intentions and to act as ambassadors for all that is good and virtuous. Without a doubt there are some who mean you harm; that might be your ticket to the heights of paradise. Without a doubt, there are some who will not respond to kindness with kindness. But know that the world does not stand against you. Treat everybody you meet as an individual, with their own shortcomings, just like your own. Transact with them in the best of ways. Overlook their shortcomings; make excuses for their state of mind.

For, one day, we will stand before the One who truly reads all hearts, and then all truth will be known.

Letter to myself

Dear Younger Self,

Salam alaikum!

I am writing to you from the future. In a couple of years I will be 40; you have just passed 20. The year is 2015 and while it only vaguely resembles to world of 1989’s Back to the Future II, it is shaping up to mirror the dystopian nightmares of other works of contemporary fiction: ours is an advanced technological society, supported by wars without end overseas.

The Internet, which you have recently discovered, has grown exponentially and has had a vast impact on our lives, both for good and bad. That brick of a mobile phone in your pocket has evolved into a handheld computer, vastly more powerful than that huge beige machine on your desk.  Your 100MB Zip disks are long obsolete; today we can store 128GB of data on a slither of plastic smaller than your fingernails. As for your dreams: instead of working in International Development, you work in a new-fangled field called Web Development. I’m not sure how that happened, but I blame you! Continue reading “Letter to myself”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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