What happened?

Do Muslims really exist? I often find myself pondering this question. Do they exist in the workplace? Where are they? Whenever a new member of staff with a Muslim-sounding name joins the team, there is a momentary, fleeting sense of gladness: company at last. But, alas, such glee is always quickly spirited away when they head to the pub each Friday lunchtime instead of to the mosque, and when they dive into the birthday cakes half-way through Ramadan. So do Muslims really exist, except online, where they teem in great numbers, safe in the knowledge that the keyboard is mightier than the sword? Alhamdulilah, I just spent the day with real, breathing Muslims; I know my question, in reality, is really rather foolish.

But something has happened. I wonder what became of all those zealous companions of mine, who championed the hijab and ilm and the ummah when we were students 15 years ago. Where are they now? What became of those bold realities? Why did we disappear? Yes, something has happened. Five years ago, the interwebs teemed with ardent voices, upholding the toughest of stances on this, that and the other. They were critical of those they deemed to have fallen short: orthodoxy was the order of the day. But now? While we were away there was a great exodus. Old homes have been left abandoned. Words scattered like dust. The hot embers have been cast aside.

Who is left who will walk with us? Where now are our companions? Will we grow old and grey and wise together, or will we each cast out on our own path, to wander on alone, chasing after whichever new cause takes our fancy? Will the generation that replaces us fare any better, or are we set to degenerate, to promulgate a faith that blooms momentarily, only to wither away and become dirt under foot? Is there any hope in longevity for our faith? Or will we forever repeat the cycle of zealotry and mockery, turning back on the early days of faith in favour of this ugly cynicism that we have now adopted. Now we are the enlightened: those that come after us are the fools we once were! Really? Or is it just that once we were sincere and passionate and true, and now we are just jaded, compromised and fake?

These are troubled times. A beautiful elixir tastes mostly bitter. The world calls out to us, and we call out for it. We go whichever way the crowd goes. We have learned to laugh much, and to make comedy of our beliefs. We have replaced our heart with virtual spaces, where we speak all, sell all. We have replaced the inward gaze with the outward performance. Where is all that polish we once sought? Where that mission to refine and reform and to be reformed? Where has that desire to be better people gone? What is left of us? What happened?

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.

Denial / Defamation

When I embraced Islam in 1998, one of the first pieces of advice I received from Muslim friends was to learn the names of three people, and then stay far away from them. They were Abu Hamza, Omar Bakri and Abdullah Faisal.

A few months after that, I received an angry email from my father, demanding to know whether I had passed his email address on to a group of Islamic extremists. He had received a mass email purportedly sponsored by a vast array of Muslim organisations which told him to convert to Islam or face the consequences. I most certainly had not passed his email address on to anybody and, glancing at the other email addresses – other public figures in the church – I surmised that his email address had simply been harvested along with others from Christian websites.

My father was a Canon at the time and in charge of all of the lay preachers in his diocese. Rather distressed by my father’s anger, I showed the email to a fellow student who had been involved with Hizb-ut-Tahir a few years earlier: he told me about Omar Bakri, the leader of al-Muhajirun, characterising him as a nutcase, and advised me that none of the organisations listed at the end of the email actually existed. The man, apparently, had a habit of making up names to make his little band of followers efforts seem more credible.

They plot and plan, but Allah is the best of planners. How little their trust in God: believing they had to send shocking emails to Churchmen, as if God could not guide members of their family without their intervention – like the arrogance of the Christian Right who rejoice in a Pentagon-led Armageddon, as if they can dictate their Creator’s timetable.

Over the next few years we heard a lot from the trio I was told to avoid. Around mid 2000, a close friend of mine found himself the focus of attention of an evangelical Christian colleague who spoke frequently of Islamic extremists in our midst; her husband worked for the Police force and apparently had much to say about Muslim radicals. Tired of her constant bombardment, my friend asked her to ask her husband why Abu Hamza was still free to preach despite frequent complaints from the Muslim community at large. That was a question that was never answered.

To be continuously told by the government, media and senior Police officers, therefore, that the British Muslim community is in denial about the existence of extremists amongst us is quite hard for me to grasp. The warnings I received were not from lapsed Muslims who were happy to compromise their beliefs for political gain, but from practising, active individuals. Prior to the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001, I listened to many Muslims lamenting the authorities’ refusal to deal with people well known to be creating community tensions. Indeed, witnessing this laxity, some members of the community even began to entertain conspiracy theories about these free men. The Muslim community complained about their outrageous statements and the authorities appeared to do nothing.

No, I don’t believe the Muslim community is in denial about the threat of extremism. Taking issue with sensational investigations in the media in not indicative of a culture of repudiation. There are good reasons to oppose the trend of smearing individuals and community organisations – even if we may not like these people very much personally. Just because others say jump, it doesn’t mean we have to. Our criteria should always be truth and justice. Not accusation and innuendo.

The Wakeup Call

In the community in which I live I could not say that there is a problem of extremism amongst the Muslim youth. Not ‘Islamic Extremism’ in any case – jahil extremism maybe. In this community, our concerns are with drug use, alcohol consumption and anti-social behaviour. A friend tells me that some young Muslims are bringing drugs into the area to foster a previously non-existent trade in the town. Our local press has reported on a number of occasions about youths in our town being given ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders); troublingly in each case the recipients have Muslim names. Late on Friday and Saturday nights, young Muslims gather in the centre of town, smoking perpetually and ranting aggressively with sentences littered with expletives. This is probably not what the middle-class commentators have in mind when they call for Muslims to integrate with society; still here the Muslims certainly are adopting the culture of those they find themselves amongst.

Undoubtedly British Muslims have a duty to tackle extremism in our midst, where it exists, but there is also an urgent need to tackle the vast array of huge social problems which have emerged. A friend of mine is the head of department in an inner city London secondary school and he is appalled by the behaviour of his students – more so, he laments, because the majority of them come from Muslim families. Apart from having no knowledge of their religion whatsoever, these young people have no manners, no respect for the people around them and are frequently members of gangs. The Muslim community makes up barely 2% of the British population and yet 7% of the prison population. The Muslim Youth Helpline draws the following inferences from research carried out by Muslim organisations:

– Drug abuse and smoking are shown to have a significantly higher prevalence amongst Muslim youth between the ages of 16-25 years, despite the fact that an estimated 45% of Muslim youth have never used illicit drugs, smoked tobacco or drunk alcohol.

– Mental Illness occurs more frequently amongst Muslim youth, particularly those that enter Britain as refugees. Almost one-half of the Muslim Youth Helpline’s clients complain of mental anxiety, depression or suicidal feelings.

– Muslims make up 7% of the country’s prison population, a figure that is five times that of the total Muslim population in Britain today. Numerous clients of the Muslim Youth Helpline have been to prison and one client recently accessed our service from prison.

As I have noted before, I work with a national helpline charity which aims to help Muslim women in crisis. Domestic violence is rife, divorce rates are high and the issue of forced marriage is not going away. My wife used to work as a social worker around the time she became Muslim and it is sad to report that huge numbers of unwanted babies are being abandoned by Muslims in the care of social services, often by Muslim girls who became pregnant outside marriage. Meanwhile educational achievement amongst young Muslims remains poor. All in all, as a community we have huge problems and the question of extremism is only one of them.

With the Prime minister’s words to the Muslim community this week about doing more to tackle extremism, the first response is naturally one of defence. We ask what power we have, given that the extremist groups quite deliberately do not frequent established mosques. If wider British society is understandably not asked to root out the extremism of the BNP, we ask, why should the Muslims be asked to take on the role of the Police and Local Government? But once these initial objections pass, we are faced with a very uncomfortable truth: despite pockets of light – and there are many examples of the Muslim community making a positive and successful contribution to society – there are issues which we as a community must address ourselves.

Merely resorting to the very un-Islamic sense of victim-hood is not going to help any of us. Merely condemning terrorism is not going to help us either. Nor is my writing about social problems going to help. Like my friend who went into teaching or those running the various Muslim help lines, there is a realisation that we need to get out into the community to engage in social works. There has been too much focus on establishing a Muslim media, believing that this is somehow going to improve our situation. But public relations exercises are always bound to fail when what lies beneath the surface is diseased. My experience of this media over recent months suggests that our priorities are confused – I might even say we have our heads stuck in the sand. On several occasions I have been asked to write something about the nasheed business and listening to music. That’s right: at a time when Muslims have a disproportionate representation in prisons, when Muslims believe it is acceptable to target civilians with bombs, when drug use and gang membership is mushrooming, the issue which is causing most debate in our community is listening to music. Has nobody heard the narration of the sahaba who was asked whether it was permissible to kill mosquitoes, at a time when righteous Muslims were being slaughtered in that early great fitna.

It’s time we extracted our heads and awoke to the realities facing us. Coinciding with the first anniversary of the explosions on the London transport system, there will be a lot of focus on the Muslim community this month. Some of it will be unfair, some of it deeply insulting, some of it untrue. But let us not pity ourselves. We have a lot of work to do. If one of you sees something bad, we are ordered, you should change it with your hands, and if you cannot do that you should change it with your tongues, and if you cannot do that you should hate it in your heart, and that is the weakest of faith. For years we have been using our tongues and our typing fingers, but we seem reluctant to use our hands. We are reluctant to get out there on the streets as youth workers, teachers, social workers. The time has come. This anniversary of 7 July should serve as a reminder of this. It is a wakeup call.

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

Knowledge

When I as studying for my Masters degree in Publishing six years ago, I was interested as a recent convert to Islam in the question of safeguarding knowledge now that technology had brought publishing within virtually anyone’s grasp.

Continue reading “Knowledge”

Media-induced Distress

Okay, so I am writing again already. Prompted by the first comment left by yet another “anonymous” under my last post, something needs to be said about media-induced distress. I cannot say that I have no sympathy for sufferers of this ailment; indeed it would be hypocritical for me to deny the anxiety stirring power of the media given the subject of my articles at the height of the cartoon fracas. I was, however, stunned by this comment:

“Why am I reading, and will continue to read, your blog? Because I now view all Muslims as terrorists with one goal; and that is to kill non-muslims. I know my view is being warped by the news media, critics, etc. so am trying to understand why…”

I cannot claim to be fanatical in following the media, but I do get a fair exposure so it is difficult for me to comprehend how anyone could come to the conclusion that “all muslims” are terrorists from this source. Is reporting really that bad? When the earthquake happened in Pakistan, I recall that a number of Muslim charities received very good publicity. Similarly their role in the relief efforts in the Darfur region of Sudan and, more recently, the famine hit regions across East Africa have received a fair amount of attention. On the other hand, much has been said about Muslims as victims of conflict and crisis worldwide. So what is it that blinds people to this reporting?

When my mother was a hospital chaplain some years ago, she used to come home telling us about “a lovely Muslim Doctor” who would come to pray in the chapel every day. When I became a Muslim myself, she asked me, “But what about the terrible way Muslims behave?” What is it that skews a person’s viewpoint despite their own experience? My grandmother once touched on this, telling me that as a child she was told never to trust Jews and Catholics; but when she finally met people of these two faiths she considered them some of the most wonderful people she had ever met. She told me this after meeting some of my Muslim friends at my wedding. They were lovely, she told me, despite what people say about Muslims.

It is interesting because I don’t take this blanket derogation of Muslims away with me from the media. In fact I am conscious that many Jews consider the BBC anti-Semitic because of its reporting from Palestine, many Black people claim it is racist, members of BNP call it anti-white, all while it is labelled Islamophobic. Furthermore, I never found myself thinking that all Irish people or all Catholics were terrorists at the height of the IRA bombing campaigns. I find it impossible to comprehend that one could be so heavily swayed by the news media. Thus, if this is a genuine occurrence I can only conclude that my own viewpoint is affected by the conscious decisions I have made.

The first such decision was to remove the television from my home. My wife and I made this decision around November 2001, primarily because we found ourselves wasting so much time in the aftermath of the attacks on America, coming home in the evening to watch the Six O’Clock News, Channel Four News, the Ten O’Clock News and Newsnight. We realised that our need-to-know attitude as actually false, for in reality we only come to know what editors choose to tell us. Life without television means that I am often out of touch with the latest trends, fashions, music, products, cars and conversations. Big deal. On those occasions when I am visiting friends and the television is on I do feel there is no need to feel regret.

Naturally I don’t have access to a hundred channels of satellite TV, indeed I never have. My newspaper when I choose to buy one is The Independent. I would never buy The Sun, The Mirror, The Daily Mail, The Express or any other such paper. Conscious choices. On the Internet, it is a cursory glance at the BBC on my arrival at work in the morning, perhaps occasionally The Times, The Guardian and The Independent as well. I used to spend a long time scanning all sorts of sources, but again I realised it served no purpose. Consciously I chose to fast my media consumption. My one weakness is Radio 4, which I tend to have on in my car in the morning and evening and to which I listen at home.

A number of my friends have given up the media altogether, recognising the addiction for what it is. It is unnatural in any case, says one of them, for even a century ago our predecessors would have known little more than what was happening across the county. Important news would get through eventually, but decisions were not required based upon the breaking news. It is not healthy to have so much information bombarded at us day and night, he argued; quite an irony given that he works for the world’s largest satellite broadcaster. Other friends go on media-free retreats and come back telling us how refreshed they feel. As for me, I find my TV-free home a true sanctuary, an abode of peace (Darussalam).

Those suffering media-induced distress may find comfort in treating the addiction, fasting for a while, turning off the TV and closing the papers. Some drink green tea to detoxicate their bodies others fast the daylight hours. A similar prescription can certainly be written for the soul.

Behold the believers

Coming to Turkey for the past four years I have largely been in the company of loud and often rude atheist secularists who chain-smoke perpetually and frequently declare their dislike for Muslims. Apart from the elderly who still attend the mosque five times a day, even those Turks who would assign the label “Muslim” to themselves freely drink alcohol and mock their brethren with their atheist friends. One such person who was adamant that I sit next to him in the mosque on Eid two years ago, less that twelve hours after he made fun of me for not drinking alcohol, now exclaims “Al-Fatihah” (i.e. the name of the opening chapter of the Qur’an) as a substitute for a swear word whilst watching football. Sure enough, I have met decent Muslims here, but not many whose teeth still grace their mouths or whose hair has not yet whitened. Instead most of the people I meet my age, younger and into their middle-age follow the Cult of Ataturk which has become a new religion in its own right. Saddened, my depression came to a head last Tuesday whilst staying in a mountain settlement up above the clouds. Sitting in the white walled mosque I scribbled my thoughts down in minute characters on a scrap of paper:

I feel frustrated in this once great Muslim land. It seems like the Turks I come into contact with have lost respect for their heritage, their land and themselves. There is no-one under the age of fifty in the mosque – all the faces are aged and wrinkled, mostly ancient as if soon to pass from this world. Instead the middle-aged men spend their days drinking and gambling, mocking the religion of their forefathers. They do not believe in God or the Prophethood of Muhammad, they say; they believe in Ataturk. In respect for this cult they furiously attack the Muslims, ridiculing them to the best of their abilities. They refuse to say “Salam” because it is Arabca (Arabic) and insist instead on “Merhaba”, oblivious to its Arabic origin. They do not respect the culture which brought them beautiful mosques, gardens, homes and art – their culture is concrete apartments, satellite football and Raki.

Like their disrespect for their heritage they show how they do not care for their land. All around, the ground is little with cans of Efes Pilsner. The streams sourced by natural springs are filled with detritus, plastic bags and cigarette packets. Beneath a sign which reads, “Water gives life, do not pollute it,” the earth is hidden beneath more cans of beer. It is true that the earth will cleanse itself – when the snow comes in a month’s time the streams and land will be washed clean again by the melt that follows it – the huge boulders strewn across this landscape witness to the power of these waters when they come. But how will the people cleanse themselves when they have lost respect for their heritage and their land?

Yesterday, however, I caught a glimpse of another Turkey; one that has been shielded from me since I first set foot in this country. A young generation of Muslims exists after all and I detect an inkling that there is a living Islam out there. The stagnation and opposition I have seen thus far is only one face of this once great Muslim land. A cause for optimism at last.

A life for a life

Apparently the loss of British life is only a tragedy if it is a means of scoring points against Islam. If ever we are unfortunate enough to mention our faith or to walk to the mosque for prayer, our socialist companions remind us that Muslims blew up three tube trains and a bus in London on 7 July. I point out that the leftist PKK blew up British citizens only a few days later; apparently this won’t be condemned with the same ferocity – instead they are silent. Much is being made of the bombings in the Turkish press for it suits their agendas like it does our companions’ – they suffer from selective sympathy and the inability to harbour equal sorrow for all victims of violence. In making their cheap political jibes they forget that Britons have experienced thirty years of terrorism at the hands of the IRA and that Londoners were the target of a white supremacist who planted nail bombs in the hope of sparking a race war much more recently. Were the lives of the victims of these attacks worth less because the perpetrators happened not to be Muslim? They also ignore the fact that July marked the sixtieth anniversary of nuclear bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the tenth anniversary of the slaughter of 10,000 Muslims in Srebrenica. Are Muslims peculiar amongst humanity as perpetrators of extreme violence? The answer is no of course; the last century and the beginning of the present one have been marked by extreme violence – wars on massive scales, the development of the most terrifying weapons ever conceived, the extermination of whole peoples, torture and terrorism. If the lives of all innocents killed in this chaotic madness are not considered to be of equal worth regardless of who they are or who killed them, we ourselves begin to slide into complicity. Our horror, sorrow and anger no longer stem from our reaction to the inhumanity of others, but from on whose side we are on. Let the Turkish chauvinists reflect.

In defiance or indifference?

We observed the two minutes’ silence today collectively as an organization, standing in the blazing sun in the car park. I feel sad and distant from my colleagues at the moment. They talk about these event momentarily, but the happy, jolly mood prevails, as if nothing has happened of significance. I hated some of these people as they stood out in the car park, laughing and joking merrily until the clock struck twelve. Two minutes without words, though all the cars but one continued their journeys onwards. No sooner were the two minutes up, however, and a bunch of fools burst into laughter, the usual suspects with their self-centred nonsense. I returned inside in silence, lamenting the hideous hypocrisy. For the past week I have been wandering around, fearing that our time is up in this country. That we have reached the end of the road. The Reichstag has been torched, thus the pogroms begin. But looking around me, I doubt this now. These people are indifferent in extremis. Like my journey in East London two days after the bombings, the people did not look sad; quite the contrary, it was business as usual, smiles on a thousand faces. Journalists are calling it defiance; I would call it something else.

I arrive at work just after 8am

Today the news about the suspects has reached the world and the conversation in the office when I arrive is all about Muslims. They did it because it is part of their faith. Sinking in my seat I keep my head down. Now is not the time “to come out”.

Sincerity

Islam teaches that actions are only by intentions and everyone has only that which he intended: ‘Whoever’s emigration is for some worldly gain which he can acquire or a woman he will marry then his emigration is for that which he emigrated.’ Therefore sincerity to God is the key to faith in Islam. Believers are asked to ensure that all acts of worship are done exclusively for God’s pleasure. When actions are only by intentions, it means that deeds are only acceptable and rewarded if the intent behind them is sincere, although sincerity does not change the nature of forbidden actions.

Where a person’s intention is to show off, their acts of worship may be nullified. The greatest action, such as feeding multitudes of the poor, could be reduced to nothing because one’s intention was to earn a good reputation. Yet, at the same time, even the smallest action can be made great by the intention behind it. Good intentions are not spoken for they are matters of the heart of which God is well aware.

Starting over

I begin as our close friend and neighbour flies off to a life in a new country. For them the growing hatred of Muslims expressed in our midst had reached its pinnacle and they decided that their future was not with Britain. We watched as they packed their bags and then we waved goodbye reluctantly. Not long ago, another friend – a history teacher by profession – announced his defeated observation amongst friends: ‘Now I know how the Jews felt in the nineteen-thirties,’ he said.

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Blank Canvas

A friend sent me an article in the last few days by a sister about her choice to wear hijab. It was like others I had read before: a defensive response to the perceptions of others. ‘So next time you see me,’ the author concludes, ‘don’t look at me sympathetically. I am not under duress or a male-worshipping female captive from those barbarous Arabic deserts. I’ve been liberated.’

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The Afrocentric

His Afrocentric lifestyle was all very nice. His collections of pottery was extraordinary. But from his lips, words of ignorance slipped. “Nike-ear, nice-eya,” he struggled to pronounce, “Nice-what? I’ve never heard of it.”

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Religion: state of mind or state of being?

Is discrimination a challenge for us all?

You can see the colour of a person’s skin, but you cannot see their soul. To some, religion is a creation of the mind, while for others it is as much a part of them as the eyes in their head. But to be discriminated against on the grounds of your religion is a complex issue. Here I examine some of the initial points and asks, “Is religious discrimination real or just an extension of racism?”

Continue reading “Religion: state of mind or state of being?”