Archive for the ‘musings’ Category
You can read this on my Huff Post blog here
When news broke that Lord Ahmed had allegedly blamed Jews for his 12-week stint behind bars for killing a man through reckless driving, I tweeted my disgust with his blatant expression of prejudice. Many Muslims echoed my sentiments.
That’s why Mehdi Hasan latest blog “The sorry truth is that the virus of anti-Semitism has infected the British Muslim community” has left me feeling uncomfortable.
A critical factor in Lord Ahmed’s statement was his audience. Speaking in Pakistan where radical groups regularly peddle anti-semitic libel, he thought his words would find resonance. Do I think he would have made that same statement to a British Muslim audience , even if he thought the cameras weren’t watching? No I don’t. Because regardless of the anti-Semitism of certain elements among British Muslims, anti-Semitic discourse is not considered acceptable and does not routinely go unchallenged.
On one hand, Mehdi is absolutely right to point out that anti-Semitic attitudes are not uncommon in Muslim circles and have become somewhat normalised, concealing the ugly face of hate behind objections to Israeli policies and spurious claims of Jewish conspiracies. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the stumbling block in much Jewish-Muslim dialogue. As one interfaith activist told me, “we’re fine as long as we steer away from Middle East politics.” The single biggest issue which fosters animosity towards Jews, whom some erroneously fail to distinguish from expansionist Israelis, is the Israel Palestine conflict. This doesn’t make the intolerance any less inexcusable of course. The other significant factor fostering anti-Semitism is conspiracy theories, an unfortunate import from many Muslim majority countries, where opaque and autocratic governing structures lend themselves to an unhealthy fixation with the machinations of “dark forces”. Both tensions over the Middle East conflict, as well as conspiracy theories go some way towards explaining the existence of anti-Semitic attitudes. They certainly don’t excuse them.
On the other hand, I do not see such views as being tolerated, considered acceptable or even being ignored – on the few occasions I have witnessed anti-Jewish sentiment, I have seen it robustly challenged usually by the “mild-mannered and well-integrated British Muslims” Mehdi refers to. That said, I’ve also witnessed an elderly Muslim man remonstrating an over-zealous youth by reminding him that our forefather Prophet Abraham, whom we praise alongside Prophet Mohamed in all five of our daily prayers, was the Patriarch of the Jewish people. So while I support Mehdi for taking a stand against anti-semitism and urging Muslims to be as diligent in denouncing it as they are islamophobia, I reject the presumed community complicity implied by his reference to ”our dirty little secret”.
It’s disheartening to hear Mehdi’s been witness to so much anti-semitism, but it is important to recognise that his, like mine, is just one experience amongst many. More reliable indicators of Muslim-Jewish relations are the sheer number of cooperative initiatives and evidence of mutual solidarity. In 2009, following the Israeli onslaught against Gaza, British Muslims rallied together to denounce anti-Semitic attacks amid fears of a backlash against Jewish communities in Britain. In March last year when Mohamed Merah opened fire on a Jewish school in Toulouse, killing seven, Jews and Muslims marched together in a show of solidarity against hate. The Gathering of European Muslim and Jewish Leaders regularly brings together over 70 religious leaders as part of an effort to develop good Muslim-Jewish relations across Europe. Such displays of camaraderie are not anomalous.
Mehdi’s presumption of group guilt undermines the valuable work being done by many interfaith groups – the MUJU Comedy Crew, the Joseph Interfaith Foundation and the Three Faiths Foundation, among others – in recognition of our shared heritage. It also unfairly tares the vast majority of Muslims who do in fact reject anti-Semitism and who risk henceforth being viewed with suspicion.
Commenting on a Gallup poll which showed that in the US, the single most powerful predictor of “a great deal” of prejudice toward Muslims is equivalent negative bias toward Jews, James Carroll wrote: “Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are halves of the same walnut. That is surprising because Jews and Muslims are widely perceived–and often perceive themselves–as antagonists occupying opposite poles in the great contemporary clash of cultures.” The reality is that Jews and Muslims share the same struggle against intolerance and prejudice and many are united in opposing regressive legislation which affects the practice of rituals central to both faiths.
When Baroness Warsi stated that islamophobia had “passed the dinner-table test” in Britain, she referred to the way in which anti-Muslim sentiment is increasingly perceived as normal. It is a misnomer to argue that anti-Semitism has passed the same threshold in the British Muslim community. Any intolerance is too much intolerance and so I applaud Mehdi for highlighting the critical importance of standing against bigotry in all its forms. I just hope his somewhat rash generalisations won’t be used to validate anti-Muslim prejudice, and we can all move beyond notions of ‘the other’, in order to find ways to work towards the common good.
This was a lecture I recently delivered at Logan Hall recently for Al Buruj:
I begin in the name of Allah, the most Merciful, the most Kind.
I was asked to talk to you today about the Contribution of Muslim Women in the 21st Century. In a way, there are many things to be optimistic about as we look around, off the top of my head, I can think of a number of Muslim women who’ve successfully drawn on their spirituality as a motor to engage positively with the world and that is certainly an encouraging sign. Our generation has a committed Muslim woman Nobel peace prize winner, Tawakul Karman, to look to as a recent precedent for the recognition of women’s contribution to the struggle for justice in their societies.
We have many an examples of successful models of piety balanced with an interaction with the world – from authors, to inventors, politicians, to athletes, intellectuals, scholars, singers and even members of the film industry, who have sought, despite the pitfalls of any public platform, to maintain a religious integrity alongside their public work. They are often worth citing by name – Hawa Abdi is one of Somalia’s first female gynaecologists and uses her own money to run a small hospital treating everything from war injuries to malnutrition; or Bahrain’s Ruqaya Al Ghasara, the first athlete to ever take part in the Olympics wearing a hijab back in 2004, hopefully inspiring many more young Muslim to get involved in sport. Or Eleanor Martin, a tremendously talented actress who runs the wonderful Khayyal theatre company in the UK, which brings Islamic storytelling to life and just recently produced a play for the Hajj exhibition at the British museum.
At the grassroots levels, a French friend of mine uses street art to challenge public perception of Muslims, using song, dance and drama. Just recently, in responses to the niqab ban, her group headed to the Eiffel tour where they performed the dance sequence to MJ’s Thriller dressed in black abayas and Niqabs, to much consternation from the tourists – the objective? To get people to react differently to an item they were so used to seeing in a negative light – whether people laughed or smiled, whether they appreciated the joke or were just perplexed, they created in that moment a different perception of a much maligned item of clothing. That sort of creative thinking put to the service of our principles is what it’s all about.
Despite undoubted difficulties faced by Muslims in the media, we have more and more inspiring women leading the way –Channel 4 news regularly features the ever perspicacious reporter, Fatima Manji – she is now a regular face on our screens. In the world of film, where Muslims have been slow to make their mark, Usma Hasan, producer of the hilarious comedy “The infidel” was recently nominated for Asian woman of the year award. For those who haven’t seen the film, it is about a Muslim man in Britain who discovers he was adopted as a child and is actually ancestrally Jewish – the film charts his journey as he rediscovers his ancestry and through comedy, highlights our many commonalities. a must watch!
I’ll end with one final example, which highlights the extent to which our contributions are vital and deserve recognition at whatever level they may be at. My good friend Sazan Meran runs “Rumi’s kitchen”, a project by Ulfa aid to provide support to the homeless and other vulnerable members of society by offering free food, company and entertainment to the most marginalised. And in a shameless plug, they are regularly seeking volunteers to help out, so get involved!
I wanted to list these examples from a range of fields, from the high profile to the grassroots, from politics, to sports, to highlight the innumerable ways in which Muslim women are already contributing to society. Our generation, Alhamdulillah, has a multitude of pioneers to look to for inspiration, to challenge us when we see limits and to make us strive to contribute, each in our own capacity.
But you may have noticed something about the examples I have given and they are that there is nothing distinctly gendered about them. When I’m asked about women’s contribution to society, I want to say, let’s talk about the human contribution to society. There is an unhealthy obsession with focusing in on gender as somehow marking us out as having distinctly different aptitudes and roles. Whilst this might be true if you’re talking about weight lifting or SAS training, broadly speaking, women’s contributions can and do look a lot like men’s contributions - a positive involvement with the world around us, drawing on whatever God given talents have been bestowed upon us.
So the question then poses itself, why is it that women - and not just Muslim women incidentally – struggle to make their mark.
To some extent, it the narrowing of our identity to ‘women’, which is to blame – after all, Muslim women speakers are almost solely asked to speak on issues pertaining to women, as if somehow, men are the ‘neutral’ gender who can address all matter of worldly and other-worldly issues whereas women are only qualified to speak on women’s issues. I cannot recall the last time I attended an event in which the main speaker was a woman – and I’m not talking about a woman’s event either, I’m talking about viewing women as figures of authority and reference within our community. I’m talking about women addressing and teaching men – as well women, in the way Aicha (rA) and many of the earliest generation of women taught and guided people, regardless of their gender.
Is there anything particular that women can bring that is unique to their perspective? To that I would answer yes. Women’s life experiences, our struggles as a minority – not in the numerical sense -technically we outnumber men – but in terms of our power – are rarely heard or reflected. In many societies, including the UK, women still bear the bulk of responsibility for caring for elderly parents or relatives – we still do the bulk of child care and midwifery – where are OUR stories, our perspectives? Forget media depictions of yummy mummies, said to be slacking off work to have a frappucino while a perfect baby snoozes in a land-rover sized pram – what is the reality of women who take maternity leave, who often spend considerable hours of the day caring for individuals with, lets be honest, fairly limited capacities for interaction and mental stimulation?
When I see people depicting a mosque as a quiet, serene space for prayer and contemplation, I can’t help but laugh. That is definitely a male take on the mosque. Have you actually attended Jumu’aa prayer in the women’s section of a mosque lately? Have you tried traversing the obstacle course of handbags and nappy holders, dodging the screaming babies and overactive toddlers – have you tried praying lately with a three year using your back as a bouncy castle? And I don’t even mean YOUR three year old.
I know our mosques take a bit of a bashing, but there are some regards in which they are undoubtedly failing women. If mosques are meant to be the center, the heart, the hub of our community, where are our mother and toddler groups? Where are our crèches for prayer time so we can focus on our prayers just as men get to focus on theirs, uninterrupted? How many of us women see the mosque as OUR space as Muslims and not a male space in which we are offered a – typically very small and stuffy – space. How many mosques are places where single mothers – often through no fault of their own – can find non-judgemental support? Where foreign wives can find support on how to speak English, meet new people and find a support network in case things don’t work out, as sadly sometimes they don’t.
And what about converts – our community loves its converts and to some extent I understand why an outsider recognising the beauty of Islam, is inspiring. On the other hand, we don’t embrace all converts equally – as many a marriage proposal as white converts receive, as many black converts tell me they find absolutely no support in the mosque and struggle to be considered for marriage. Are devout, black converts not good enough for our sons and daughters?
A small side notes on converts if I may – it seems a sad truism that those we herald as role models within the Muslim community are all too often white western converts, as if the acceptance of Islam by white westerners were somehow a validation of its truth, as if somehow, their shahada were any more valid or worthy than that of any one else. To me, this has roots in a post-colonial complex concerning ‘whiteness’ as somehow a distinctive marker of superiority – where are the black converts, the Asian converts afforded the status given to the white convert? Are Muslim women of Muslim heritage not as valid in their perspective, contribution or knowledge? It isn’t that they don’t exist, they are simply not given the same platform.
It is all too easy to pay lip service to the fundamental equality which Islam establishes between all human beings, but when it comes down to it, actions speak much louder than words.
With all the ease with which one can grow a beard, I only wish compassion were so easy to cultivate.
There are very real barriers to the contribution of Muslim women. But they are not theological, they are not God given. On the contrary the models we find in the texts and in the earliest period of Islam are diverse and multifaceted. They were not ALL mothers.
There may be cases in which women derive considerable satisfaction through making their contribution to society through their investment in the home. There are women for whom, their incredible commitment to home making and child rearing IS their contribution. And it is no minor one – they are forging their ideal and good for them.
This isn’t a Muslim woman’s issue – Jools Oliver, wife of the cook Jamie Oliver once remarked that she never wanted a career, but always wanted to have a large family. Raising four young children and running her home, I would say her contribution, like that of many women in her position, is immense in forging the next generation of well-rounded citizens. That said, there is a distinctly nefarious trend to limit the possible contribution of Muslim women to this, the mothering role, the usual suspects as I call them a woman as “a mother, a wife, a daughter”.
Interestingly these are all definitions of a woman in relation to a man. So much for sisters doing it for themselves.
Where are the definitions of Muslim women’s conception of themselves – not in relation to a man, but in relation to God. The 8th century mystic, Rabia Al Adawiyya offers us some insight into that might look like, she used to pray:
“O my Lord, the stars are shining and the eyes of men are closed, and kings have shut their doors, and every lover is alone with his beloved, and here I am alone with Thee.”
In reality, we find huge diversity among Muslim women historically and among the wives of the prophet (saw), in terms of their temperaments, their ambitions, their activities. Thus it is also the case with women more broadly.
Throughout the earliest periods of Islamic history, we find women in important positions within society, women as market inspectors, such as Samra bint Nuhayk al Asadiyyya who used to go around the market commanding good and forbidding evil. Or Ash-Shifa bint Abdullah, an early doctor or healer who was also involved in public administration and whose name is very present in early Muslim history. The Prophet (saw) used to visit her and Umar (rA) used to defer to her opinion so much that he appointed her as an officer/wali, in the administration of the marketplace, in what Aicha Bewley suggests might possibly be the first Muslim woman to hold an official position in public administration.
In the battle of Siffin, Hind, (the wife of Abu Sufyan and mother of Muawwiya) led the women in repelling the attacking Byzantines when the Muslims broke ranks – and there are many other examples. It is this historical amnesia of the precedents of our women in all spheres of life which facilitates the exclusion of women. The extent to which these examples may seem radical to us today is a testament to just how far we’ve strayed for the earliest framework of equality established by the Prophet.
There is no single ideal or model of female contribution. To me, Jools Oliver’s dream sounds a lot like my nightmare. Many women will feel the desire to contribute beyond the private sphere, they may feel their skills, their intellect, their knowledge represent an important contribution to society. In these cases, the examples of our sisters who find contentment in domesticity cannot be used as a whip to flog us. It is not the only model of female emancipation. The Prophet (saw) daughter Fatima was more homeward inclined – but Khadija, his first wife was a powerful businesswoman who employed her husband before proposing to him. Umm Salama was a powerful figure whom the Prophet consulted in his decisions and who participated in a number of battles and of course, of Aisha we know that the greatest companions used to consult her about obligations.
Women are not the trampoline from which men get to launch into the world. There is saying that really grates on me, that “behind every great man is a great woman”. Why should she be behind him, in the shadows, easing his advances and successes – if love and partnership means anything, it means supporting one another in your objectives, it is cushioning each others’ falls, it is easing each others’ burdens. Of the many successful men I know, how many of them have dutiful, devout wives at home who keep the wheels turning in order for these men to go out and do their thing. You cannot simultaneously bemoan the lack of women’s contribution to society and expect them to achieve the same things as men, whilst bearing the additional burdens – or as I like to call, the second full time job – of running a home and caring for a family, on their own.
How can a woman possibly seek to contribute to society when in many cases, she is not only working a full time job, but in some cases, working a second full time job as a care giver and home maker. I’ll tell you what, we women would be sooo much more productive if we came home, dinner was made, the table was laid, the washing was done, the kids were washed and put to bed, and all we had to worry about was the tasks ahead. Now take a second and think how many of you men come home to exactly that scenario. You can talk about women’s contribution all day long, but as long as you’re not facilitating it through your own personal sacrifices, they are, as the Palestinians say “haki fadi”, empty words.
What do we teach women about themselves? We hide behind the notion of modesty to encourage our girls to be self conscious, shy and reticent to speak up, praising this as somehow virtuous when we know that that the women of the Ansar were praised for precisely not allowing their shyness to stop them from speaking up.
We teach women that the burden of responsibility for modesty lies with them, making them nervous about participating in sports, or public speaking. I attend a gym where I often seem Muslim men exercising but rarely ever see Muslim women. At the pool, do these men’s eyes not see things they shouldn’t? Is it just Muslim women who have to observe modesty? If you wouldn’t want your wife or sister to be somewhere, what are you doing there? And if you can justify it to yourself, then accept that those same allowances can apply to women. I can safely say that sports has played a tremendously important role in my life.
Beyond keeping fit and healthy, team sports teach you about cooperation, about trust, about reliability and self discipline. Becoming good at a sport allows you to develop self-confidence and bodily awareness, assurance in one’s abilities. In a world where our self worth as women is so often premised on our looks, sports and extra-curricular activities are essential in developing real qualities – skills, confidence and internal strength beyond the superficiality of fashion.
Our girls are often restricted from participating in such activities, typically, they are more closely monitored, much more closely than our boys – but what exactly is the reasoning here? do we think teenage boys are immune from the sins we fear for your daughters? Or do we think Allah forgives men’s sins more readily – astaghfirullah.
Muslim women often lack confidence in in their status as Muslim women. We have plenty of sexy role models out there, pop stars and actresses who promote a model of female empowerment through playing up one’s sex appeal. I fail to see what exactly we teach women about how to affirm their identity as specifically ‘Muslim’ women. And I’m not talking about a dress code. How sad to see a generation of girls who think their identity as Muslim women is defined by the length of their jilbabs? That our identity as Muslim women is reduced to our dress code just shows the extent to which we’ve bought into the conception of women’s physicality as primordial. If we were serious about Muslim women’s contribution, we ‘d be promoting holistic models of piety, knowledge and success, a diverse range of women who draw on their spirituality in what they do. Such women would be models for our community, as a whole, not just for women and they would be references and teachers to all.
When we see successful Muslim women, they are often criticised for allegedly compromising their faith in order to succeed – in other words, what are we saying is – you can’t be fully Muslim and successful in the public sphere as a woman – what this actually sends out in terms of a message to women, is that you have to choose between your Muslim identity and your public contribution.
The assumption being, the more orientated you are towards the private sphere, the more “Muslim” you are – the more out there you are, the more you are ‘compromising’ that identity. Until we start to herald women as leaders and inspiring figures not for women, but for Muslims more generally, we will continue to promote the idea that public sphere is a male sphere, in which women may make tokenistic contributions but ultimately, their places remains within the home.
I’m all for talking about Muslim women’s contributions, but as a community, we have to be honest with ourselves about how women in the public eye are perceived, about the models of female piety which are peddled and about the extent to which we disable young Muslim women when we teach them that in Islam, the models of piety, knowledge and success are masculine and that women are at best devout wombs fostering great men. Aside from anything else, this is wholly inaccurate.
As far removed as this is from the model taught by the Prophet (saw), it is a widely held perception. Lest we remember that when the prophet (saw) was away, he told people to refer to Aicha, that when companions differed on a hadith, she was the authority figure they consulted after the death his death. Lest we remember that Allah in the Quran praises strong models of female leadership, whether in the form of Mariam, a spiritual leader in her own right, or Bilqis, otherwise known as the Queen of Sheba, a female ruler!
I started out this talk on an optimistic note – there are, strong Muslim woman who ground themselves in their faith to make tremendous contributions to this world – their efforts are an inspiration for us all. Tenacity, courage, perseverance – they are qualities which we can all learn from. I have listed a number of concerns I have about the way we present women within the Muslim community, about the singular and restricted notion of Muslim female empowerment which limits an acceptable contribution to the private sphere – I have also mentioned the need for women to start defining their conception of what it means to be a Muslim woman.
What exactly does our femininity bring to the sphere of spirituality? In Taoism for example, pregnant women are revered as models of concentration and meditation, and men developed techniques based on this female model of pregnancy. What exactly do our female experiences bring to the table?
While I still get asked by young educated university students whether they can leave the home without their husband’s permission, or whether they can work after they marry, I will continue to struggle to bridge the gap between the ideals fostered by the Prophet and the earliest community, and the actualisation of those principles today. Muslim women are contributing hugely already, but until that contribution is recognised by all, in its innumerable manifestations and until we can appreciate that that contribution is not a lesser version of what men bring to the table, but a specific Divinely forged avenue for the transmission wisdom, we’ll be letting women down. And we’re a lot poorer for it.
Any good that came from this talk today is from Allah, all errors are my own.
The case of Hamza Kashgari has entered a new and deeply worrying phase as Malaysian authorities have deported the 23-year-old journalist back to Saudi Arabia, where he currently risks execution. There has been widespread and rightful opprobrium of the Saudi government’s response but few seem to question the official Saudi line that their indignation at alleged blasphemy is behind the call for the death penalty. Specifically, the government claims Hamza’s tweets, in which he appeared to express irreverence for the Prophet, is the source of its vendetta.
The tweets represented an imaginary conversations with Prophet Mohamed, in which Hamza expressed both admiration, reproach and confusion around his person: “On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you”, he stated. Few have questioned whether the charges are actually a front to stifle discussion over broader political issues, which Hamza raised in other tweets and writings. According to Hamza himself, he is part of young generation of Saudis who are increasingly resentful of the state’s intransigence and seemingly willing to risk official wrath in expressing their views. “It’s not logical that, if someone disagrees with the Saudi government, that he should be forced to leave the country. Many of those who have been arrested are fighting for simple rights that everyone should have — freedom of thought, expression, speech and religion.”
We shouldn’t be duped by the feigned umbrage –the masquerade of religious offence is a poorly constructed artifice to continue to limit the basic human rights of Saudi nationals, including freedom of speech and gender equality. Fostering a climate of fear and oppression is the best guarantee of compliance and Islam is traditional rallying cry for the masses, ensuring public support at a time of broader upheaval. The Monarchy is particularly concerned about dissent at a time where the region has been rocked by protests which have seen longstanding despots ousted and others relinquishing political concessions to avoid instability. One of Hamza’s tweets was an acerbic critique of the hornets’ nest of the status of women in the kingdom, which the monarchy is keen not to see stirred up, particularly in the wake of the on-going campaign by Saudi women to challenge a longstanding driving ban. It is entirely likely that Hamza’s tweet that “No Saudi women will go to hell, because it’s impossible to go there twice” along with his broader critiques of the regime, are at the real root of the government’s fury.
Saudi Arabia loves to present itself as the defender of Islam and justifies much of its unacceptable legal and political repression through the prism of religious exceptionalism. The reality is that fewer and fewer Muslims look to Saudi Arabia as reflection of Islamic values and many more support the young generation of Saudis’ struggle for basic human rights. The current controversy is an opportunistic attempt to rouse Islamic sentiment for a profoundly illegitimate dictatorship, whose shameful abuses of power cannot and should not be masked by the ill-fitting ‘defence of Islam’. All Muslims love and believe in honouring Prophet Mohamed and the best possible way to reflect that love it to uphold the model of tolerance and mercy which he preached. If Saudi Arabia executes Hamza, it will be in the name of perpetuating its fundamentally un-islamic political oppression and nothing to do with the compassionate model of the Prophet, whose name they claim to be acting upon.
(this piece was featured jointly on the ‘State of Formation‘ website and in the Interfaith Observer, as part of a dialogue between individuals from different religious traditions on what meaning their religion brings to their life)
Philosophy, religious or not, attempts to deal with the inescapable and fundamental question of the meaning of life. Why are we here? What is our purpose, if any? In my teens, I was engrossed by Jean-Paul Sartre, both by the poignancy of his plays and by the existentialist philosophy which underpinned them.
A lapsed Catholic with a residual belief in God and a keen interest in theology, I’d always been fascinated with the choice some humans make to adopt a profoundly disciplined lifestyle, often marked by austerity and asceticism, in a world where the only things which appear to be valued are new, glittery and irreverent.
How in a society which values the here and the now – the bastardized carpe diem of ignoring responsibility in favour of immediate pleasure- could individuals forgo a fluttery existence which assigns value to the ephemeral to the detriment of all that is considered and conscientious, and choose instead a life of stoicism, of conscious abdication from the oppressive drive to conform to our consumerist driven notion of self-worth.
For we all know that to be ‘interesting’ by current society’s standards is to be eternally youthful and beautiful (if you’re female) and powerful and wealthy (if you’re male), combined with a ruthless and relentless struggle to fight one’s way to the top of the human pile, regardless, as the well imbibed Machiavellian philosophy suggests , of concern or regard for those individuals or sacred precepts one may need to trample on route… The sacralisation of ambition is sanctified by the consecration of modern saints, the Steve Jobs of this world, for their relentless commitment to profit disguised as innovation.
“Celebrities”, or the pantheon of demi-Gods, paraded as they are, as the culmination of human existence, have come to fill the inherent human desire to worship, filling the gaping hole left by the gradual effacement of the sacred. The desire to embody the Divine wisdom has been replaced by a commitment to the vacuous and slavish obsession with the material – the ten commandments by Kate Moss’s dictum that “nothing tastes like skinny feels”, a dedication to the beautification of the soul, with a multi-billion dollar industry which exploits our anxieties by advocating the primacy of the beautification of the body… Weight loss now a means of redemption as formerly shunned celebs, the pariahs who’d fallen off the fame treadmill attend retreats dedicated not to re-centering the ego in relation to God, but reducing the sinful waistline as a means of accession to the higher levels of the celebrity cult.
Young girls no longer aspire to actual achievements but rather a quarter, according to cable television network Oxygen Media, would rather win “America’s Next Top Model” than the Nobel Peace Prize, while half would rather get hit by a bus than get fat and 51 percent say that becoming famous is their number one or number two goal in life.
Growing up in a world where the value of being human lay not in what I intuitively recognised as virtue, but on meaningless and aleatory assets bestowed by a gracious genetic code or filial descent, was always dumbfounding to me.
That we as a society could at best confuse beauty and goodness and at worst consciously prefer the former to the latter, seemed reductive and superficial. I was looking for something more. Or at least at first, I was looking to ignore the nagging voice which kept me questioning whether life was really merely about the accumulation of wealth, power and things. Or, whether the traditions I’d forgone, but which still chimed with my inner core in a striking of the Divine chord, closer we are told than our jugular vein, retained some mysteries which, my enlightenment driven French education, had allowed me to prematurely dismiss as outmoded fairy tales and manipulative dogma.
My research into Islam led to the recognition of a central myth of modernity. The idea that all that is modern is good, and all that is traditional is antiquated and irrelevant. Rather, I learnt to recognise the remnants of the Divine message in the core scriptures or philosophies which have marked every great civilization from India, through to China and the Middle East.
Islam is the last in a series of revelatory messages, of Divine milestones which offer a path to peace, the source from which the word Islam itself is derived. Though these messages may differ in shape and manifestation, and some may be barely recognisable, due to human degradation or merely the passage of time, they contain within, the often elliptical signature of Higher consciousness, and prescriptions through which one might discipline the body in order to free the soul.
The free soul is the conscious soul, the soul at one with the Divine. The world is a transient resting place where every soul has the possibility of radiating Divine values by practising love, compassion and mercy in the testing interaction with a world which challenges one’s dedication to these precepts. Ultimately, commitment to Divine guidance ensures a serenity in this life, but moreover accession to God’s bliss in the hereafter, where each soul will taste what his or her actions on earth, have paved for her or him, in the ultimate and quintessential manifestation of Justice, the weighing of the Divine scales.
In Islam, humans are meant to be God’s viceroys on this earth, carriers of a Divine wisdom which through a conscious decision to favour the higher, rather than the lowly nature of Man, renders him the carrier of a transformative ethic, the positive ripples of which should reverberate in her or his surroundings. The meaning I derive from my practise of Islam is of a God centred life in which my ritual prayers interrupt the matrix of delusion of the material world, reminding us that ultimate reality lies not in the material, but in the weightless and yet weighty relationship of the soul to the creator. To quote Gai Eaton, “Spiritual life is primarily an effort to drag our attention away from pandemonium and uproar which rivet it and to turn towards the ‘open’, towards the splendour of the Real. It is also a work of transformation-alchemist’s work-since our leaden nature is to be turned into gold, a metal fit for heaven.” (King of the Castle, p215)
A short speech I delivered at the Muslimah Ltd conference in London on November 30th 2011.
Muslim Youth, Muslim Students – The Reality, The Responsibility
I’m here to talk to you about my experience of working with students on campuses across the UK. There are over 100 000 muslim students going through university at the moment – I’ve been in what I consider the privileged position of both being part of an active isoc for the first three years of my PhD at Oxford, but also a ‘public speaker’ who gets to visit campuses up and down the country speaking to students about the issues of concern to them. In my short time, I’ll aim to convey a snapshot of some of the issues, positive and negative which I’ve encountered on British university campuses.
Student Islamic societies have been getting a fairly bad rep in the press lately. From allegations of fostering extremism, to hotbeds of radicalisation, through to controversial speakers – many Muslim students are actually wary of joining their Islamic society (isoc) due to some of the fear mongering which we’ve heard. And in my view, that is a real shame. Over the last 5 years, which is in effect a very short amount of time, I’ve seen pretty significant improvements in British isocs – or certainly those I’ve visited. And it is worth making the point that those who know me and my views may not choose to invite me to the isocs where such perspectives are not welcome – i’m aware such places do exist.
I love working with students and I say working because public speaking for me is at its best an interactive process in which I can hope to convey the tiny knowledge I have to impart, and the students can share concerns and queries which we seek to tackle together. Young people are great – they’re vibrant, enthusiastic, energetic and brimming with ideas – they’re also young, inexperienced, and often naïve. As goes with youth – and mine being not that long ago I do still recall – they can also be intransigent, overly self-assured and convinced they know it all. With a decade on most of them, they greet my predication that the reality they currently often perceive in black in white, will with time morph into varying shades of grey – with raised eyebrows. So I hope in their assessment we can bear in mind that isocs are, like all student organisations, run by tired, stressed teenagers on essay deadlines, and their errors are more often than not the product of shambolic organisation rather than malevolent intent.
Today we’re looking at “integration, identity, social unrest and division” – those who know me know I’m allergic to the word integration as applied to individuals born and raised in this country, so let’s talk about civic responsibility instead – how do isocs fare in terms of inculcating a sense of citizenship and its attendant responsibility?
The topic of voting and whether it is permissible from an Islamic perspective was a fairly hotly debated topic not that long ago in the Muslim community and yet this to me is one example of significant progress, whereby many isocs host MPs or media figures who encourage political participation in all guises. This isn’t to say the issue is resolved – but it seems a far more marginal view nowadays that voting is proscribed and enthusiasm, interest and participating in politics, from the NUS through to campus political associations seems to be much more significant. This is partly fuelled by a feeling that Muslims must address what they view as unjust wars or occupations through the means available to them and in this, I see broad coalitions across campuses with isocs joining forces with anti war groups and human rights organisations to raise awareness of such issues. But it is also the product of efforts by isocs and fosis and various speakers to encourage political participation and it is working! Osman Ali is now the first Muslim vice-president of the NUS and he started in his isoc. Furqan Naeem, a pharmacy student from Bradford university, is now the chair of Manchester Young labour. Rehana ali is the Vice president of Student Education and Welfare at LSE Student union.
Most isocs also run a charity week in which they raise funds throughout the week for charitable causes, in some cases, running in the 10 000s of pounds, a huge achievement for a student organisation! Many run soup trains for the homeless and mentoring schemes and the focus is on giving back to the community and fostering a sense of service.
They also all run Islam awareness weeks in which they seek to inform fellow students about their religion, dispel misconceptions and provide a forum for discussion. One university had a stand entitled “ask us anything” which encouraged fellow students to share their views and concerns. Another had a try a hijab stall – and during Ramadan many host joint fasting events with other students who wish to try fasting or are doing so alongside Muslim students to raise money for charity.
I’ve also seen positive developments in the realm of interfaith at Oxford , a Muslim-Jewish organisation “MuJew” was created as a shared platform for cooperation. Nottingham isoc is currently looking in talks with the Jewish-Israeli society.
Some have had such a positive impact on their university campus, like Manchester uni isoc, that they’ve been awarded the best society across the whole university – a prize which recognises the immense dedication and contribution of Muslim students to their campus.
Are there conservative Muslim speakers espousing views that many of us may find distasteful – sure – there are – but as Muslim students broaden their horizons, they tend to come to that same conclusion. The other issue to bear in mind is that students are often contrarian by nature – they are rebelling, against society, against norms, against boundaries and my experience here again is that by their third year they’ve mellowed out a bit. They’re less drawn to the controversy, most desirous of forging links, cooperating, building.
Some of the issues are undeniably due to budget. Which speakers can afford to work for free? Typically those working for organisations which fund their public speaking – and where the funding comes from is usually indicative of the outlook they’ll be propagating… and the main issue is the outlook they disseminate is not always inclusive, can be discriminatory and exclusivist, perhaps even supremacist and often misogynistic. So much so, that I sometimes get asked if I mind addressing a mixed crowd during my lectures…
There have also been significant efforts by Fosis in particular to address the radicalisation issue, specifically through hosting an event which encouraged policy makers, the police and students to come together to discuss issues of concern. They also encourage communication with university authorities, such as regular meetings with the Chancellors.
This will not eliminate the presence of radical students on campuses – but to some extent, universities are places where radical thoughts are explored and as long as the law is not infringed, one would hope to see freedom of speech upheld. This of course runs counter to what was outlined in the Prevent agenda, namely the government’s position that there are certain religious or theological beliefs which are incompatible with the values on which this country depends; and this is true even if they are compatible with the law. But it seems to me absurd to suggest that everyone in Britain apart from the “non-integrated” Muslim Radical are committed to women’s rights or democracy – as far as I’m aware the Daily Mail is still running and anarchists have yet to be deported!
And my experience again tells me that students are keen to explore sensitive issues and get answers – many talks are intended for a mixed muslim, non-muslim audience and seek to appease fears over islam’s relationship to violence or its stance on women’s rights. In this, they seek reassurance from speakers who can help alleviate both theirs and other people’s concerns.
Women’s participation in isocs have been a delicate issue but is another area where I see vast improvements. Most isocs have two vice-presidents, one of whom is a woman. Salford university’s isoc president was a woman. UE isoc also had a female isoc president. Which of course is not to say there aren’t problems. Some isocs don’t offer an atmosphere conducive to female participation – a strict stance on keeping men and women separate at all times can make communication difficult. The best isocs strike a balance between cooperation on isoc related themes and doing their best to avoid becoming a dating agency. Remember, it is hormonal teenagers away from home, most for the first time, we are talking about here. The reality is that efforts to avoid young people developing too close bonds can lead to the isolation of female muslim students in these isocs, and this should be addressed.
There is still to my mind, a significant lack of female speakers – some isocs only invite female speakers to speak on “women’s issues” – but in my experience, once I point this out – they tend to ask for referrals of other female speakers (a rare breed) who could speak on a diversity of topics. So I do think openness to this issue has significantly improved in a fairly short space of time. There are still significant issues, particularly as concerns a narrow vision of women’s role and place in society, the idea that a woman is either a mother or a wife and a sense her place is ideally within the home. Young women themselves sometimes seem confused about whether they should be vocal or active, confusing the notion of “haya”, modesty, with a mandatory shyness which impedes them from speaking up. I’ve been asked by a young woman studying law whether she would be allowed to work after she was married…another asked if she could leave the house without her husband’s permission. And there is a sense of entitlement amongst many young men as regards what they think women owe them (their laundry, 3 square meals, cleaning, not to mention ‘obedience’) which certainly needs to be talked head on. There is a real thirst for female role models and reassurances that women in the public sphere are not an exotic aberration but a real reflection of Islamic principles.
A recent development has been a greater interest in the arts, which I think shows a significant interest in contributing to our national tapestry – I’m aware that our Isoc at Oxford is for example planning a play which was written by the muslim students featuring both male and female muslim students. Fosis held an art competition last year which received over 200 entries! And I can’t recall how many muslim students have mentioned an interest in film… to me this is another very positive development, opening onto different mediums and a desire to express a positive aspect of their person rather than defensive posturing which it seems a lot of politics can be about. These students want to highlight the beauty of their religion and religious outlook and focus on the positive and to me this is very heartening.
I think you’ve gathered by now that overall I’m very positive about what I see on British campuses – is it perfect? Certainly not. Do I get frustrated when I hear about some of the antics – of course, but I’m reassured by the knowledge that broadly speaking, most people mellow out with age ( which is actually a variable in criminology). A recent report by Demos found that “Overall British Muslims are more likely to be both patriotic and optimistic about Britain than are the white British community,” and this is born out by my experience and time on British campuses.
Thanks for listening!
While gruesome images of Gaddafi’s bloody corpse hit the headlines here, in Libya, people were queuing to see his body, largely in order to ascertain for themselves, that the tyrant who ruled for so long, was indeed gone for good. The choice to print graphic close up images, or play on loop the final moments of a seriously injured man in the hands of an understandably angry mob, was shocking to many, not least those of us who had to explain the images to young children. But rituals of death also tell us a lot about the living. So what does our portrayal of Gaddafi’s death say about us?
Some of the most explicit and disturbing images of Gaddafi’s slumped body seem to play to our base desire for retribution and punishment, transforming our media networks into modern day coliseums, where morbid fascinations are given free rein, the sobriety of death sacrificed at the altar of ratings or high print runs.
There were undeniably serious journalistic challenges to covering Gaddafi’s demise, as the BBC’s editors’ decision to dedicate a post to the topic testifies. Specifically, were graphic images an essential part of telling the story or were they merely victory porn, dehumanizing both the watcher and the watched through a desensitazation to images which should otherwise be deeply distressing and disturbing? Are we revelling in the death of our enemies, the Bin Ladens and Anwar al Awlakis, in our very own rituals of atonement, where human sacrifice is still the ultimate price to be paid for ‘evil’?
Gaddafi’s death, like Bin Laden’s or al Awlaki’s raises significant questions over the appropriateness of extra judicial killings, due process and the human rights of war criminals – but what about basic human dignity? To be convinced that Gaddafi or anyone else should be afforded this, is in no measure an apology for their actions, but surely a marker of unfailing commitment to the very values which underpin our society.
The ethics of journalism have surely been tested by the latest technology which means we have access through camera phones to a dying man’s final seconds. The real question such footage poses is, whether the choice to air it is guided by journalistic concerns or profit margins. And more broadly, whether we don’t demean our own humanity, by the gratuitous parading of bodies like war trophies.
Ultimately, it is how we deal with people in death, as in life, which defines our commitment to human dignity.
(this article can also be found here )
To dub the last ten years the ‘9/11 decade’ seems a rather apt description. Virtually every facet of our lives, from the villains in our Hollywood blockbusters, to Kanye West’s hit tracks, via Nobel Prize winning Literature, has reflected in some way or another, the post 9/11 climate.
Tragedies carry within them the potential to unify our global village as we connect with the humanity of others. In the roots of the violence and in the unfolding of conflict, are the sacrificial pearls for which we paid too high a price. But if we fail to derive any lessons from the calamities which befall us, we’ve paid the highest price of all. Speaking to a Holocaust survivor, academic Mahmood Mamdani asked the man what lesson had to be gleaned from this crime. His answer was ‘never again’.
The phrase, Mamdani noted, could lend itself to two markedly different conclusions. Never again to my people, or never again to any people. At stake between the two possible conclusions, he contends, is nothing less than our common survival.
The 9/11 decade was born out of the tragedy of that day, but it went on to be moulded by the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, (in no European country was support for unilateral war higher than 11%) and of course by the so-called “war on terror”, (a term which everybody from Rumsfeld to David Miliband, is now bending over backwards to reject, recognising as they must be, that you don’t defeat ideas with tanks).
The buzz words which have marked the decade have undoubtedly been ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ , extolled ad nauseum, yet rarely discussed in substance. Whose freedom and what democracy?
“They hate our freedom”, a belligerent Bush Jr informed the nation after the attacks, as his Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age” (the age of freedom perhaps?).
Over the next ten years, in the name of our freedom, so threated was it we were told, our governments undertook the decimation of other people’s dignity and sold us a disgracefully deceitful tale of urgent self-preservation at all costs. At any cost ($3.7 trillion in the US). As long as we’re safe.
And yet, according to John Mueller, an Ohio State University professor, the number of Americans worldwide “who are killed by Muslim-type terrorists, Al Qaeda wannabes, is maybe a few hundred outside of war zones. It’s basically the same number of people who die drowning in the bathtub each year.” Relatively speaking, Americans have been safe this decade. As for us Brits, we’re still six times more likely to die from hot weather (!) than from a terrorist attack. Or heart disease (17,600 times more likely in fact.)
We’re certainly a lot safer than Iraqi babies in Falluja, struggling with chronic deformities.. Safer than Afghan civilians, whose numbers killed hit record levels, in February this year.
Although America has escaped Al Qaida inspired terrorism on its soil since that day, many other nations have been less fortunate. In Algeria, Egypt, India, Kenya, Tanzania, Jordan, Bali, Spain, Turkey, Somalia, Mali – to name but a few, people have been less fortunate. People have been less free.
In the name of protecting our freedom, (which may not be that threatened after all… ), many of us accepted complicity in the decimation of the Iraqi people, their infrastructure, Mesopotamian culture – we accepted the murder of thousands of Afghan civilians in US airstrikes as ‘collateral damage’ – no less innocent working in their market places than those who died in those towers. No less deserving of freedom from fear, from Karzai’s US backed kleptocracy, from drone attacks. Despite being an oil rich country, hikes in oil prices have left over 42% of Afghans living in acute poverty. A journalist friend recounted seeing children walking barefoot in the snow… The price tag of our strange kind of freedom…
Closer to home, we’ve accepted that protecting our ‘freedom’, means spying on our neighbours, students or colleagues. We’ve accepted control orders, restricting our fellow citizen’s liberty for the purpose of “protecting members of the public from a risk of terrorism” – a risk…
We’ve accepted having our phones taped, our emails hacked – we’ve accepted criminalising women who don’t conform to our notion of burka-less freedom. We’ve arrested and detained innocent men and women for undefined periods. In the interest of freedom, we’ve placed limits on free speech, invented thought crimes of Orwellian proportions (ask the so-called ‘lyrical terrorist’ Samina Malik). We’ve accepted that Europe now has the largest proportion of countries in which social hostilities related to religion have risen, (Pew poll).
Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying that “they who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security.” The decisions made in this post 9/11 climate, allegedly to preserve our freedom and democratic “way of life”, have had a hugely corrosive effect on both of these. Have we become complacent about their real value?
The personal tragedy which befell the victims and their families on September 11th was instrumentalised as a casus belli, with all the attendant ethics of exceptionalism which war implies. Military tribunals for terrorism suspects included.
This decade has seen attempts by the British government to rehabilitate torture (in the context of deportation), justify it (the case of Baha Mousa- ‘a few bad apples, under immense strain’), the introduction of extraordinary rendition which Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti refers to bluntly as, “kidnapping and torture”, Section 7, detention without trial, surveillance, profiling, and the discovery of new territories (outer space presumably) in which the Geneva convention was said not to apply (Guantanamo)…
In his now infamous speech to congress in the days following the attacks, Bush Jr pontificated: “They hate (…) our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” If this statement were true – which it is not – the terrorists would have been handed a second macabre victory in the debasement of our democratic values.
“You cannot torture people in democracy’s name,” Chakrabarti recently stated in a sadly necessary truism. And yet, the 9/11 climate has allowed just that. It has given unscrupulous politicians carte blanche with which to wage wars disguised as moral crusades , to claim democracy could be imposed by force, that there were people on this earth who hate freedom (the same people who now go out to vote under mortar fire).
We’ll look back and say the 9/11 decade was that in which the price of our freedom, of the gilded cage variety, was democracy. What Arundhati Roy calls “the modern world’s holy cow”. Reduced to a hollow shell, an imperialist slogan to serve the economic interests of a few powerful fools, the faceless fat-cats at Unocal and Shell.
And all the while, the talking heads continue to insult our intelligence by citing a concern for women’s rights, or invisible WMDs, somewhere hidden in a sand dune (why they wouldn’t have been used when the US actually invaded remains to be seen).
Ali ibn Abi Talib is known to have said: “The only man who can beat me in an argument is the ignorant one.” What more is there to say of the Richard Perles of this world, who on BBC Question Time recently, claimed that ‘Iraqi democracy has been an inspiration for the Arab revolutions…’
We’ve yet to see the Iraqi revolution…
9/11 was not an attack on either our freedom or our democracy. The politically motivated crime, perpetrated by largely educated, frustrated young men has contrary to popular misbelief, been elucidated at length in Bin Laden’s addresses to the world. In his first address to a broad public in 1994, the question of Palestine was central (incidentally perhaps, September 11th 1922 was when the British mandate of Palestine began..), as was the US presence in so-called “muslim lands” – alongside issues of corruption and the subordination of principles to political objectives, (in the form of the subservience of the Saudi clerics to the Saudi government).
In subsequent broadcasts, the issue of imperialism dominates.
Ten years on, we are back where many would have hoped we might have started – with the former head of M15, Eliza Mannigham-Buller stating: “terrorism is resolved through politics and economics not through arms and intelligence, however important a role these play”.
The real threat to freedom and democracy comes from within, from our response to this tragedy and from the concessions we’ve made to fear. Ten years on, we’re like the boy in the bubble. Safe if we remain within our borders, fearful of those who might seek to challenge our sterile safety. But the ‘we’ is narrow and the safety largely illusory. Like Bubble boy, if we have the gusto to throw off our bubble for the sake of our principles, we might recapture those values our bubble of fear has been shielding us from for far too long…
In a week in which a school teacher turned porn star is claiming no conflict between his different ‘professions’, the dissident voices which should be decrying the porn industry’s attempt to gain public credibility in order to further expand its cash driven debauchery into our daily lives, need to make themselves heard. Selling sex is dehumanizing. Glamourizing the sale of sex in the minds of young people who have yet to forge solid personal positions on their sexual views, is a travesty and a desecration of the powerful and intimate union which sex can potentially represent.
In “Living dolls: the return of Sexism”, Natasha Walters picks apart the modern myth that there is something empowering about selling sex, a la “Belle-de-Jour”.
Despite the fact statistics paint a rather bleak picture of women involved in the sex trade- 85% of prostitutes have reported physical abuse in the family, 45% familiar sexual abuse and a majority of prostitutes are lured into the industry before the age of 16- there has been a recent glamorization of prostitution in the mainstream. All the women in the surveys reported in Walters’ book have a problem with alcohol and a majority used hard drugs, with 84% citing drugs as their reason for going into prostitution. Mortality rates for prostitutes are six times higher than the general population. (p. 57-58) A world away from Miss S’s “confessions of a Working girl” with its allegedly “enjoyable” account of a prostitute’s life, packaged in a pastel covered paperback or Billie Piper’s sanitised account of a prostitute’s escapades, minus the inherent violence involved in an industry in which women are paid to put up and shut up while men enact their fantasies on silenced female bodies…
That prostitution or being a porn star are just another “career move”, made by sassy and smart women, in control of their lives who just happen to have a voracious appetite for sex, is just another of the necessary myths which fuel the exploitation of women. There is some irony in the fact the women paraded on the front cover of magazines as the height of female emancipation have spent a life time dedicated to the preening of their bodies to fulfil an elusive sexual ideal which demands starvation, surgery and discomfort.
The truth of the matter, as Walter’s books highlights is far removed from the myths perpetuated by the fastest growing industry in the world, which relies on people’s gradual acceptance of sexual imagery in the public sphere to normalise its product and expand its market reach.
With a reckless disregard for the women who make up its fodder, the porn industry is a money making machine which requires us to be duped into thinking women make free and informed choices about the sex trade in order to be able to counter the shrinking dissenting voices which challenge its claim to be an ‘acceptable’ industry. “The highly sexualised culture around us is tolerated and even celebrated because it rests on the illusion of equality.” (p119)
In order to convince us of the worth of porn, the industry has had to remove any emotion from sex, reducing it to mechanics, a calculated physical exchange for which cash can be traded. No talk of love, of union, of intimacy, of tenderness.
This reduction of sex to an act, rather than a state of love, is partly done by presenting empowering sex, as sex without emotional connection, devoid of feelings, so that “the way that absolutely uncommitted sexual encounters are spoken about now suggests that in order to become liberated, a rather cold promiscuity is the order of the day.” (p. 98)
It is also done by desensitising people to pornographic images through exposing them from younger and younger ages to increasingly lurid and violent sexual images. One survey in 2006 found that 40% of men had viewed pornographic websites in the previous year and more worrying still, a survey in Canada found that 90% of 13-14 year old boys and 70% of girls had viewed pornography. “More than one third of the boys reported viewing pornographic DVDs or videos ‘too many times to count’.” (p107) Speaking to porn addicts, Walters discovers that much of what they view appears to depict women in pain, being brutalised and dominated. In effect, sex as a form of violence against women, is the way in which an increasing number of men are gaining their sexual highs: “I think that kind of violence associated with sex lodges in your mind and you never forget it, however much you want to. It’s always there,” explained Jim (p. 115)
And this reductivism is also promoted through the fallacious argument that since women cannot eliminate porn due to its proclivity in the modern media, they ought instead to enter the porn industry and begin to make demands within it as consumers, which the argument goes, will shift their status from victim to consumer ( and hence empowered?! Only neo-liberal rhetoric could devise such a misguided connection between consumption and liberation…)
Giving voice to young women, Walters indicates that many “feel that their lives have been impoverished by the devaluation of sex into exchange and performance rather than mutual intimacy.” (p. 101) She also highlights feelings of inadequacy as young women’s bodies are compared to those in porn material and a growing dehumanization of sexual partners, viewed only as the sex objects portrayed in what has become the measure of a “normal” sexual encounter: “….too much pornography does still rely on or promote the exploitation or abuse of women. Even if you can find porn for women and couples on the internet, nevertheless a vein of real contempt for women characterises so much photography.”
That capitalism’s uniquely cold approach to profit over people has seeped into the most intimate part of our lives, our sexual relationships, is indicative of a grave sickness. Ultimately this comes down to a very simple economic equation. A billion dollar industry which continues to grow requires an increasingly large market for its goods. Moving from the fringes to the mainstream requires a cultural shift, acclimatisation to what makes us feel intuitively uneasy about porn, the market-value of sex, the cold mechanics devoid of the meeting of minds, which makes so many shudder. Sex as a calculated exchange must become normalised for the porn industry to expand its tentacles. And as in other industries, the younger you get’em hooked, the more likely they are to be lifetime consumers.
The real tragedy in the discussion we have today over sex, is the overarching materialism which permeates the debate. If we are mere animals, where’s the problem? If nothing is sacred, everything can be sold and bought. As talking heads discuss the banalities of an absurd ‘debate’ over the acceptability of porn, the fat cats running the industry must be cackling at all the free publicity. In placing so much market value on our bodies, we necessarily detract from the emphasis on the internal, the self, the person. The sex industry is in effect the epitome of materialism, the body has worth, the person has none. Sex has always sold, but how many of us realised the price was in fact our soul.
This week’s Economist contains an excellent article entitled “The line of Beauty” which discusses the impact looks have on people’s success in life. Unsurprisingly, in an image focused society, that impact is rather important – physically attractive women and men earn more than average-looking ones, and very plain people earn less (we’ll leave the question of measurement to another day).
According to Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the university of Texas, over a lifetime, “a handsome worker in America might on average make $230 000 more than a very plain one.”(p68) This in turn has sparked outrage amongst those who insist looks should not be a basis for discrimination, something Deborah Rhodes of Standford University argues in her book “The Beauty bias”. According to Rhodes, virtually all females consider their looks as key to their self image – hurray for liberation then eyhh ladies! Indeed, “over half of young women said they would prefer to be hit by a truck than be fat.” At a time where a fifth of Americans lack basic health care, Rhodes points out that billions of dollars are spent on the cosmetic industry (90% of it by women!).
The article feeds into an argument made in, “Living dolls: The return of Sexism”, by Natasha Walters. Walters ‘book is a reappraisal of her previous stance that the hypersexualisation of female identity was merely a milestone along the road to liberation and not a problem in and of itself. She now argues, like Ariel Levy and others, that whilst in theory the opportunities available to women have expanded greatly, the hypersexualisation of women in the public sphere has reified the female persona so that one’s sexual allure is now the primary if not the singular means through which women can and do receive public recognition.
“Through the glamour-modelling culture, through the mainstreaming of pornography and the new acceptability of the sex industry, through the modishness of lap and pole-dancing, through the sexualisation of young girls, many young women are being surrounded by a culture in which they are all body and only body.” (p125)
In other words, it’s great you’ve become one of the few female MPs in our parliament, but if you don’t look ‘hot’ doing it, expect to be judged and berated publicly for your lack of ‘femininity’, in other words, your ability to live up to male penchants, and if you do look ‘hot’ doing it, expect your physicality to take precedence over your actions and for any and all attention to be focused on your sex appeal rather than any genuine contributions you may be making to the political domain. In the City, expect to be paid less than male colleagues and to have to spend more time worrying about how you look. Only recently, female lawyers at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer were advised to team their stilettos with skirts rather than trousers to ostensibly ‘embrace their femininity’….
Walter’s lists a number of particularly shocking examples. When Ann Widecombe, the conservative MP appeared on Have I Got News For You in 2007, many of the jokes focused on her looks and how ‘unsexy’ she was said to be and when Harriet Harman, Labour MP called for more women in power in 2009, a commentator in the Spectator responded: “So-Harriet Harman, then. Would you? I mean, after a few beers, obviously, not while you were sober… I think you wouldn’t.” (p121) When Sarah Palin ran for vice-Presidency in 2008, manufacturers released a ‘naughty schoolgirl’ Sarah Palin doll with a red bra showing through the school uniform (we’ll leave the discussion of the sexualisation of school girls for another day) and even a blow-up sex doll… Walters rightly argues that this bullying of women who choose to enter the public sphere, the public berating of any female figure who doesn’t live up to the porn star ideal, leaves many uneasy about entering the field at all. I wonder why!
“This assumption that a woman should be valued primarily for her sexy appearance is having a real effect on women’s visibility in our culture. For instance, in sport, it was revealed in 2009 that in the Wimbledon tennis tournament the women selected to play on centre court were being chosen for their looks rather than their tennis rankings. In television in 2009 an older and more experienced woman, Arlene Philips, was moved aside for a gorgeous but inexperienced woman, Alesha Dixon, in one of the BBC’s flagship family entertainment shows Strictly Come Dancing. In such instances, we can see how a focus on women’s physical attributes means that their other attributes, from their sporting prowess to their articulacy to their experienced, are devalued. So the equation that is often made between hypersexual culture and women’s empowerment is a false one. Far from being empowering, this culture is claustrophobic and limiting. This is particularly true of women who may not have other paths towards success and status.” (p122-123)
Walter’s also found that the more emphasis women are made to place on their physique, the less they are able to focus that energy on the meaningful development of their human potential: “This kind of punishing attention to their looks may have an effect on women’s ability to fulfil their potential in other ways. There has been intriguing research published recently that suggests that women who are put into situations where their attention is directed to their bodies, by the clothes they wear or the advertisements they watch, score worse on maths tests and are less likely to see themselves as decision-makers. Such studies suggest that the narcissism that is being encouraged so relentlessly among young women may be affecting their ability to take up the roles that they would otherwise embrace.” (p. 124)
Following a discussion with a young women who felt stifled by the limited options available to her, Walters notes the lack of dissent amongst feminists, afraid to seem prudish by suggesting that one may not wish to begin sexual encounters so young, nor to offer up sex to anyone who’d take it. The consequence is a generation of girls who confuse sexual objectification with sexual liberation despite the fact the hypersexual culture means boys are more likely to view them as objects (not people whose consent is required!): “There aren’t any other options. There isn’t anyone speaking out against it. You’re just a sex object, and then you’re a mother, and that’s it. There is no alternative culture. There’s no voice saying that girls can be anything else or do anything else.” (p. 83)
This ultimately means that whilst the former and formal barriers which limited women’s entrance into various fields may have been rescinded, the more insidious and pervasive cultural pressure to place a primacy on one’s physicality rather than on one’s skills is actually limiting women’s horizons in a far more pernicious way because it cannot be addressed through purely legal initiatives, but requires a cultural overhaul, a reassessment of the way we portray women and conceive of female success.
Could we be in need of a reassessment of the value of modesty, thrown out as a traditionalist shackle designed to curb women’s sexuality…? and yet, if we consider modesty as a tool to limit the emphasis on our physicality in the public sphere only, there is no need to assume it is stifling of female sexual expression in private. .rather, it contains an equalizing potential by placing the primary emphasis of human interactions on our moral, human worth and not on the ephemeral and aleatory physique which has come to define our very value as human beings. To escape our stiletto jails, we need to reduce the importance we as a society place on the material and recall that human worth is not premised on an anatomical disposition, but on our contribution to the world, to humanity and its betterment. Ultimately, the shift away from materialism requires us to escape the capitalist consumerism which sees happiness as tied to the acquisition of things to the detriment of the development of the self in relation to others, including the Divine other.
Last week, I participated in the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations conference which brought together 100 active Muslim youth from across Europe to discuss the key issues and challenges facing all of us in Europe and to exchange ideas and experiences and cooperate more closely. My contribution is below:
1. OPENING SESSION, Thursday 30th, 9:30 – 11am
My opening statement:
European Muslim Youth often face a multiplicity of challenges which tend to get boiled down to simplistic issues of identity politics in a political climate ill-equipped to deal with the more substantial and substantive issues facing Europe more generally. As Greece teeters on the edge of the abyss, stubbornly high unemployment is plaguing France and in the UK, we can’t seem to shake a stagnant economy – at the same time, unions are calling for strikes, student fees are hitting the roof as are food prices and of course, the only thing politicians seem to be able to agree on in this time of heightened emotion, is that “Muslims” are a problem.
This singling out of the “Muslim” component of one’s identity can often lead to an internalisation of that prognosis, so that in response to riots in France over primarily issues of economic and social marginalisation, a leading French imam issues a fatwa denouncing the violence as “unislamic”. The fact of the matter is, much of what is attributed to Muslims as “Muslims”, by which I mean referencing their religious identity, is often a misattribution. The vast majority of problems faced by European Muslims are faced by other sections of European society, be they issues related to employment, racism, sexism, poverty… and a central challenge, as I see it, is for Muslims not to allow ourselves to be defined in narrow terms and not to define the struggles we face in narrow and exclusionary terms. For every case of so-call Muslim exceptionalism, there is usually a significant universal principle in need of defending. To take a case very close to my heart, in my native country of France – While much of the discussion over headscarves and Burkas has been presented in what I term “exceptionalist” terminology – “those Muslims, at it again, making unreasonable demands”- what is really at stake in that discussion, is a broadening of the French definition of femininity – What does it mean to be an autonomous woman in France? What does it mean to have rights over my own body? Not to be judged for the length of my skirt or the amount of skin I’m showing…or not. And of course, this example, of the attire of French Muslim women, which is in essence a feminist struggle for a woman’s right to choose her own definition of femininity, feeds into another even more universal principle, the right to self-determination, the right to make choices about one’s self, for one’s self, unfettered by the state or anyone else. In France this discussion should and has to some extent been tied into the question of national identity and Muslims mustn’t shy away from this discussion. Europe is home, European countries are our countries and we have a stake and a say in the painful process an aging Europe is engaged in, as it attempts to define its identity in a global village, where those Europe ruled over yesterday have spawned Europe’s dynamism, its youth, who question the very values which spawned European imperialism and which are used to justify today, a two-tier system within Europe.
The crux of the issue for many European Muslims is how do we live out our faith in countries where there may be widespread suspicion if not hostility to it. Of central importance will be a thorough identification with one’s country, not necessarily an easy process when people’s responses to us may be hostile – Being European means understanding our history, our culture, and navigating our values confidently, selectively, in order to best determine how, in our context, we enjoin the good and forbid evil. The answers are unlikely to be uniform across our differing contexts, and that itself will reflect the country specific trajectories which must define how we map out our contribution to the bettering of our society, for all its members. Being true to our faith, means staying true to its values, wherever they may come from and denouncing those it opposes, wherever those may come from.
In a way, we face a double challenge, within our community, to move beyond culturally specific practises which muddy the reputation of our faith and which foster and engender oppression, and distinguishing the broad and rich Islamic ethics, often narrowed by their country or at times even region specific understandings, so that they can be applied to improving not just our community in the restrictive sense, but our society and our global village. Ultimately, being a European Muslims isn’t about forgetting one’s ancestry, nor is it about denying Europe’s historical or more recent wrongs, it is about taking the universal ethics of Islam, and as fully engaged citizens, using those to make the world a better place.
2. SESSION 2: MUSLIM YOUTH: WHAT FUTURE IN EUROPE? Thursday 30th, 11:30am – 1pm
– Is there such a thing as European Islam?
It seems un-doubtable to me that the way, we as European Muslims conceive of our faith, is distinct and reflecting of our environment. Many friends of non-European ancestry have commented to me the extent to which they understanding of Islam, their practise is remarked upon and at times even derided when they visit the country of their origins. From the way they may dress, to what they consider important or central in the faith, when we travel abroad, we tend to realise just how “European” we are and this, has a necessary impact on our understanding of the religion. Of course, we share an inviolable core, the essentials, the foundations – but in our concerns, our activism, we are and rightly so, shaped by our environment. This can be both positive or negative obviously – it can be negative when we internalise a politicised view of ourselves and forget that at its core, Islam is a spiritual program for personal development – once we master ourselves we move out from there, but we always look at ourselves first when there is a problem, when we are irked, when we face hostility – the first place we should be looking for answers are within ourselves – are we living up to our ideals. There is clearly a rich tradition of this in Islam, from making 70 excuses for people to Quranic ayas where Allah tells us he won’t change the situation of a people until we change ourselves.
In our priorities, it seems clear to me that the concerns of the European Muslim community reflects our place in the “first world” – we are not lobbying for clean water, basic human rights or the right to a free press – our problems, whilst not seeking to discount their importance, should never allow us to feel defeated or negative, because frankly, in the grand scheme of things, our priorities as European Muslims reflect first world problems, not the most basic struggle for human dignity which the vast majority of the world continues to struggle for today.
So the priorities for European Islam in terms of our campaigns will reflect the broader concerns of a first world nation.
The recent movement towards ecology is in some regard, a reflection of a growing realisation in the first world, that we can’t keep exploiting natural resources and not pay some kind of serious consequence for that. Those in the third world, despite often being those most affected by the impact of ecological degradation, don’t necessarily understand, due to lack of education primarily, the frustration some of us may feel at how people dispose of their rubbish, or deal with the delicate balance of life – or treat animals…but Muslims have been increasingly present on the eco front, from a Muslim presence at the climate change camp, to emel’s “Eco Jihad” front cover – many European Muslims now conceive of environmental struggles as an integral part of responsibility, as Muslims, to be vicergents of God on this earth…to some extent, it seems obvious to me that the distance between what are clear ethical ideals in this realm and the action of some Muslims reflects just how unbalanced we are – even our basic relationship to the land, to the environment is off balance…not to mention our relationships to one another…
Those who dispute the existence or the relevance even of “European” Islam often like to state that there is only one Islam – of course there is – but let’s not be blind to the particular cultural manifestations of Islam in different settings, from dress codes, to architecture, gender relations and political systems. It seems clear to me that the reason a young woman might choose to wear a niqab in France will differ from the reason given by a woman in Pakistan.
– What do you think should be the priorities of European Muslim youth organisations?
The central priority in my view ought to be overcoming the victim mentality and forging confident, educated young people able to articulate the contribution Muslims can make to improving the world around them.
Determining what Islam has to offer young people is a real challenge when those minds are oversaturated by a constant stream of messages suggesting happiness and fulfilment can be achieved through the material, that our worth as human beings is dependent on our capital, financial capital for men and primarily physical capital for women and that religion is a hindrance to the achievement of the only thing that is scientifically knowable, that is the ephemeral pleasures of this temporal life. It’s important we offer young people – all young people- an alternative to the dominant model of success, one which offers real meaning, substance, a stake in defining themselves and the world around them and empowering them to recognise that Islam offers a paradigm for human fulfilment that is more meaningful, more ethical and more rewarding…
In the marketplace of ideas and ideals, in which we’re competing against the Miley Cyruses and Fifty-cent models, human embodiments of capitalism and materialism, we must align us ourselves with the alternative world order – the one in which profits don’t supersede human dignity, in which we raise our daughters to care more about those going hungry than going hungry themselves so they can’t fit some pseudo-physical ideal –where our boys are valued not on their salaries but on their contribution to helping the poor.
We need to find ways of better communicating Islamic education – there have been vast strides in educating the young – by which I mean we’ve realised that rote learning with a stick is less successful than praise or reward based methods, but I still think we can improve vastly on our teaching methods – we need to capitalise on new media to use the media to access people with the ease of film, TV, art – books are great, but they don’t reach anything like the audience of a blockbuster – we need more young people, solidly grounded in their faith, entering the media, so that we might start producing cultural output reflecting the beauty and richness of our faith – but without necessarily shoving it down people’s throats… I want to see Muslims making blockbuster films, putting on astounding plays and producing music hits which resonate with the youth – we need to be confident enough in what we have, to draw on that and package it to make it more accessible. Contributing to our culture, European culture, means publishing novels which contribute to enriching that culture, which enter into national dialogue, it means producing films which speak to the sensibility and cultural core of each of our countries, while infusing our work with the spiritual message which is a universal language which need not be named to be recognised.
We need to address the problems within our community and not leave other organisations to deal with them – we need to be true to the saying of the Prophet (saw) when he said help your brother whether he is the oppressor or oppressed – when Muslims are behaving badly, not only should we not side with them, by virtue of them being Muslims, but we should actively work to restore the ethical ideals of the faith, educating along the way to ensure coming generations don’t have to go through some of the same oppressive cultural practises disguised as Islam, we see today.
But we also need to contribute confidently to bettering our community with a big C – Homelessness, domestic violence, the aged, youth work, animal shelters – Europe has many problems and very few volunteers – in fact, far far fewer than are needed to cover our needs. Muslims can draw on our immense capital for charity and community activism, to become invaluable members of our society – and many are already doing great work in this arena. The bonus is that community work often puts us face to face with people who might otherwise have limited contact with Muslims…allowing us to break down barriers of fear or misunderstanding.
- Do Muslim youth have enough role models?
The short answer is no – but someone I myself consider a role model once said to me you shouldn’t sit around waiting for one – be the role model you wish was out there! So yes, we do need more role models and we especially appear to need more female role models – I often play a game when I see a Muslim event, by trying to guess how many female speakers they’ll have – I rarely need more than one hand to count on – sometimes I don’t need a hand at all!
- Are we, as a Muslim community, failing our youth?
Definitely – we may even be failing our community more broadly – when I go to university campuses and I get asked by a young woman studying law whether once she is married she is allowed to work or visit her mother without her husband’s permission – there is a serious problem. When I see young girls in headscarves wearing more makeup than a Maybelline model and holding hands with a boyfriend, I know there is a serious problem. When I watch so-called Islamic channels and the youth programs on them, which frankly my 8y daughter finds laughable – there is a problem – I can’t even find a good Quran stories series for my kids – the stories are either badly written or so simplistic, the essence is lost – and yet I grew up reading marvellous Bible stories, which brought alive the prophets and made me identify with their struggles – I have yet to see anything close to equivalent in the literature available to Muslim youths. To some extent, this also reveals the low standards within our community – when we laugh off “Muslim time” or “Muslim organisation” we are becoming complacent with the standards we really ought to be setting in our community. When we host events, for the youth or not, people shouldn’t have to premise their response with “for a Muslim event, (….it wasn’t bad)” – what does that say about what we really understand “Muslim” to mean…
Finally, unless we start to associate Islam with fun for our youth, not dry rules and limitations – I know, controversial – but until then, we’ll keep losing people. Studies suggest children learn best when they are playing – Where are our summer camps where kids can learn to canoe, rock climb, ski or windsurf and enjoy Quranic stories around the campfire in the evening? I know a few, very few organisations, do organise such things, but this is where the future lies, in not secularising our faith to a Saturday morning madrassa, but making it a lived experience, where Quranic learning is intertwined with fond memories of roasted marshmallows and midnight dips.
- Do Muslim mainstream organisations meet the needs of Muslim youth? Do we need a new model away from the older generation?
A few mainstream organisations do seem to be making the very painful leap into giving young people the leeway they need to devise events and activities suited to their needs. But because Muslims don’t trust themselves, and lack confidence in their outlook, they don’t trust their youth and therefore tend to keep a fairly tight leash and firm – some might call meddling hand – in youth activities. Some of the elder generation are still debating whether we can listen to music, maybe with drums – while our kids are humming lady Gaga and Rihanna. FACT. Segregated venues, dry lectures, absence of women, a lack of pedagogical training – all reflects the generally fairly poor efforts made to engage our youth who, overarchingly attend mixed schools, where they listen to engaging singers, rappers, actors addressing them using the latest medium based on solid studies of what young people want to see and hear. FACT.
- What is our relationship as European Muslim youth to the rest of the ummah?
The umma or the worldwide Muslim community is our family – that is to say, if you heard a family member was in need, presumably you would leap to their help. Similarly, we are not lacking in causes, from water sanitation, to basic medical care, to education, political rights, human rights more generally – Muslim youths should be engaged in all of this and more. But to be exclusively interested in your family is selfish and at odds with Islamic ethics – Sayidna Ali (mAbph) said a person is either your brother in faith or your equal in humanity – there are many of our equals in humanity also in dire dire need of a voice. European Muslims are in a privileged position through our access to positions and persons of power, through the innumerable rights we benefit from in our countries, from the voice we can have in the public sphere without fear of repression, persecution or even death – that is a privilege in this world – we are part of a small privileged minority with a voice and it is our responsibility to use that voice, to be the voice of the voiceless, the call for help for those unable to make themselves heard, Muslim or not.