Posts Tagged ‘religion’
Is it time for Britain to separate Church and State and become a secular state? – read it here on the BBC website
Myriam Francois-Cerrah and Symon Hill approach the debate from different perspectives
As part of the Perspectives series, BBC Religion and Ethics asked two contributors to BBC One’s The Big Questions to develop some of the issues.
Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a writer, academic and a Muslim. She believes that the UK today is largely a secular society and that this is already reflected at the level of the state.
She says that separating church and the state runs the risk of marginalising religious people and in some cases forwarding an anti-religious agenda.
Symon Hill is a left-wing Christian writer, blogger and associate-director of the not-for-profit Christian think tank Ekklesia which “examines the role of beliefs, values and faith in public life”.
He is author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion and believes that the church and the state should be separate.
A secular state?
Myriam: Britain is already a deeply secular country. The exception is the Church of England and the privileges it continues to enjoy, including unelected Bishops in the House of Lords. There is certainly public support for a reform of the House of Lords, and that is a good thing.
A moderate inclusive secularism is evolving in Britain, rather than a reactionary secularism, such as is found in France, which seeks to banish religion entirely from the public sphere.
Do we need to banish all Christian symbolism, rooted as it is in British history, in order to become ‘truly’ secular – I’m not sure we do.
What is critical is that the state evolves in a manner which reflects the changing makeup of its citizenry. Prince Charles suggesting he’d rather be referred to as “defender of Faith” rather than defender of ‘the’ Faith is one such example of this.
However I am deeply wary of the trend which seeks to hijack arguments for greater secularism, ie: more equal access to the state by all, in order to seek to marginalise religious people and their presence and voice in the public sphere.
This is an intolerant strand within the secularist movement which misinterprets secularism and seeks to redefine it to advance an anti-religious agenda.
Symon: I agree that Britain is in some ways a more secular society than it once was, but it is not a secular state. The monarch promises to uphold Christianity. The Church of England’s leaders can vote on legislation in Parliament. Religious schools are allowed to discriminate in selection and recruitment.
In 2010, the House of Lords narrowly passed an amendment to the Equality Act exempting employees of religious organisations from some aspects of homophobic discrimination. The amendment was passed so narrowly that, without the bishops, the vote would have gone the other way.
I reject all this, as a Christian committed to religious liberty.
I don’t support French-style “secularism” in which religion is marginalised and privatised.
Faith in schools
Myriam: I think we agree that the state is not yet fully secular. The vestiges of a Christian state in Britain are symbolic. The monarch promises to uphold Christianity, true, but in practice the future king Prince Charles has shown himself very committed to giving real value to modern Britain’s multi-faith identity (while being politically impotent!)
What does it mean to be a secularist?
A secular state is a neutral state – it should provide for the needs of all its citizens, religious or not.
It is the right of tax-paying religious citizens, as all citizens, to access facilities suited to their needs. Discrimination would principally be a problem if these were the only schools on offer, which clearly they are not.
I’m in favour of a broader selection process so children of all faiths and none can benefit from faith-based education.
You claim to oppose people being forced to adopt certain values and yet it seems you wish to do exactly that.
Liberal mores are not neutral – they are one of many ethical perspectives which a neutral, secular state must accommodate.
Symon: I’m pleased we agree on some things! For example, faith schools should not be allowed to discriminate.
You say that faith schools are not the only ones on offer. For some people, in rural communities, they really are. I went to a Church of England school as a child because it was the village school.
The religious teaching that I got there put me off Christianity and turned me temporarily into an atheist, though I later turned to Christ in spite of it!
Some of the vestiges of Christianity are indeed symbolic, but symbolism can be important. As a Christian, I am disturbed by what these symbols say about Christianity. During his life, Jesus took the side of the poor and marginalised. He reserved his harshest words for the rich and powerful and for religious hypocrites. In contrast, the monarchy and House of Lords represent privilege and inequality.
The radical, subversive message of Christ has been hijacked.
Myriam: The lack of non-faith schools available in rural areas suggests we need more schools to cater for different choices, not that faith schools themselves are problematic. I agree with you that the socially hierarchical Christianity represented by the royal family seems at odds with the message of egalitarianism promoted by both our faiths.
My main concern with a desire to do away entirely with Christian symbolism is that it contributes to the fostering of a sense of national identity and culture.
If Christianity can be inclusive and embrace the changing nature of British society, then I wouldn’t object to its continued presence in the public sphere .
Symon: National symbols tend to change over time. There are many people trying to cling on to symbols while forgetting what they represent. There are those who talk of the right to wear a cross, but forget that the cross represents the execution of Jesus by a brutal empire whose power he challenged. It symbolises resistance to oppression.
Yet there are right-wing lobby groups that talk up the idea of “preserving Britain’s Christian heritage” or insist that “Britain is a Christian country”.
They overlook the fact that the British Empire was claiming to be Christian while engaged in the slave trade and while committing genocide in Tasmania.
While Christian symbols are still attached to an outdated and reactionary idea of what it means to be British, Christian language can be misused as an excuse for homophobia and racial prejudice.
Myriam: Like you, I would like to see religion siding with the poor and disenfranchised rather than seeking to perpetuate privilege and an antiquated social hierarchy based on class.
But I hope to see more religion, rather than less religion in the public sphere in the future, including voices with which I may profoundly disagree.
A secular state – in other words, a neutral state – shouldn’t seek to impose a particular vision of morality beyond the very basic bounds of avoiding direct harm to others.
Today, religious voices are often ridiculed and derided as outmoded, with little value for the modern world. But this is throwing out a rich inheritance – we shouldn’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water.
Religion is about fostering compassion, love and kindness towards others – it seems tragic that we as a society have virtually relegated religion to the history books.
A secular state and a rich religious life are absolutely not in contradiction, but I do hope secularism isn’t used as a Trojan horse to advance anti-religious intolerance, which fails to recognise the true value of religion and religious individuals to the greater good of our society.
This week’s show focused on the Catholic Church and whether we need ten new commandments…
You can watch it on i-player here for a week: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01qxrzw/The_Big_Questions_Series_6_Episode_7/
(This was a lecture I was kindly ask to deliver at Mill Hill School on Tuesday November 13th.)
I’d like to thank Karen Willetts and the staff at Mill Hill School for inviting me to address you this evening. The topic I’ll be discussing in light of your overarching theme of ‘Turning Points and Breakthroughs’ is ‘Faith in the modern world’.
I’m acutely aware of the irony of my topic this evening, in light of the fact this lecture series represents a celebration of Francis Crick, whom Wikipedia reliably informs me believed that: “Christianity may be OK between consenting adults in private but should not be taught to young children.” I will have to respectfully disagree with Mr Crick’s stance this evening, in full deference to his monumental contributions to the realm of science.
I purposefully selected the title “Faith in the modern world” with its inherent ambiguity over the meaning of faith. Am I discussing the faith we ought or ought not to have in the modern world, arguing for a more critical perspective in the face of some of the assumptions which underlie our contemporary societies? Or am I seeking to address the location of faith in the modern world, the question of the relevance of spirituality in post-enlightenment Europe, where the dwindling influence of religion in the public sphere has largely gone un-mourned. In a sense, I intend to seek to address both of these. The challenge posed to me by this discussion, one which hardly had me hanging off the edge of my seat as a teen, was to make this interesting – or at the very least relevant to a younger audience. I’m not certain I’ve succeeded.
After all, faith in our day and age is often associated with the two extremes of theological tedium or political violence. There is an ad currently running for Old PAsos fajitas which pretty much sums up the dominant perspective on religion – a young and hip ‘modern’ family, is at a food fair seeking out the latest culinary thrill –the camera pans onto a gormless priest, dozing at a stand offering dull ‘cucumber sandwiches’ – the only possible choice is fun, funky fahitas – party food for those who really know how to enjoy life.
Implicit of course is the idea of religion as outmoded, as stifling of our inner fajitas eating selves.
In a culture which extols the virtue of giving in to our sensory desires, the idea of restraint and patience, sobriety and contemplation seem terribly old fashioned.
Where’s the fun in that eyh? Because of course, the point of life is to enjoy ourselves…. right?
Of course, we all have a right to pursue happiness. And spiritual traditions are there to point to the best way to achieve balance and serenity in our lives and the world more broadly. But the central objective of religious traditions, whether Islamic, Buddhist or other, is not happiness for happiness’sake. It is the recognition of certain universal principles, from which states such as peace, serenity, happiness and others can flow.
We might even ask, despite the incessant mantras about finding happiness in self help books and TV series - how important happiness actually is? Ask yourself this, ‘Was Jesus happy? Was Mother Teresa happy? Socrates? Martin Luther King Jr.? Gandhi? Once we ask the question in this light, we can see that meaning, purpose, significance, flourishing and fulfilment are different from happiness. Happiness is a by-product of a much deeper search for significance.
At this point, I can hear a few of you stirring. You’ve just referred to different religious traditions which all lay claim to their own truth. How can you speak of these religionS as ‘religion’ when they are seemingly mutually contradictory. I’ll answer this if I may, by recounting a west African tale, full of wisdom and humour.
The story is told of a trickster, Edshu, one of those trouble-makers found in a number of mythologies who set snares for the foolish and, at the same time, enlighten the wise. This same Edshu walked one day down the path between two fields wearing a hat that was red on one side, white on the other, green in front and black behind. The farmers watched him pass and, meeting that evening in the village, discussed the odd-looking stranger they had seen. “ A little fellow in a red hat” said one. “Red? Nonsense! It was a white hate.” Another: “Green!” And another: “Black!” The farmers came to blows, each knowing himself to be right, and they were brought before the headman for judgement. Now Edshu revealed himself, complete with multi-coloured hat; deceptive dancer, trickster, prankster.
My take on this particular issue is better expressed by the Poet Rumi than I ever could, when he said: “Religions are like different rivers flowing into the same Sea. They may have different ways, but the destination is the same.”
In Islam, as in many other traditions, life is about seeking peace. Inner peace, learning to master the ego, control one’s impulses and free ourselves from the tyranny of base desires. And outward peace, by working to establish justice and its corollary peace in the expanding circles of family, community, society and world.
A short poem by imam al Haddad recounts this wrestling with the ego: “To discipline the ego, always isolate yourself. Keep silent, sleepless, hungry, you’ll then control yourself.”
Similar ideas are found in Buddhism. Not the fashionable wishy washy stuff about meditation and the personal psychological goods derived therefrom. No, actual Buddhist philosophy which teaches that there is abundant suffering in the world, that much suffering is caused by avarice and clinging to what we want but don’t need; that everything is impermanent including ourselves; and that we ought to live like a bodhisattva, attuned to the exploitation and misery in the world, not only in oneself. I’d love to see Jennifer Aniston promoting that.
Seeking peace is not an introverted, individualistic search for self serving satisfaction. It’s not a yoga class on a Sunday morning. It involves service to others alongside that belief. The Quran teaches that to be a Muslim is to believe AND do good deeds. In Islam, there can be no true belief without commensurate action.
I remember listening to the Queen’s xmas message a few years ago in which she said that of all the people she’s met over the years, the happiest and most content were those who’d dedicated their lives to the service of others. It struck me that service, obligations, caring for the marginalised and the disenfranchised is not, apparently the ‘coolest’ thing to do, but apparently, it is the most fulfilling. Commercialised pop stars sell us dreams of happiness through consumption. But the vaccuousness of an existence without higher purpose can only temporarily be ignored. Eventually, we all seek our own plugs to fill the gaping hole. We all find things to worship, power, wealth, fame as a substitute for the ultimate connection.
Our contemporary view of religion, here in Britain and Europe more generally, does require some contextualisation. We often assume that what is taken as normal and standard here and now, is recognised as such elsewhere. That the view of religion as a relic from a bygone era is widely shared globally. It is not.
Unlike Britain which may arguably no longer be described as a Christian country, the majority of the world still considers faith to be important and relevant.
It would be ahistorical and myopic of us to examine our relationship to religion today without examining how we got here and why. After all, the bishops in our House of Lords and the fact our Queen is also the head of the Church suggest a time not so long ago, when religion was perceived as having a positive influence on the public sphere.
In my earlier days investigating Islam, I came upon the writings of a British diplomat, Charles Gai Eaton who had himself converted to the faith. Discussing religion in general, he spoke of religious wisdom as a type of inheritance, a form of knowledge which we’d acquired from previous generations but failed to recognise the value of. The wholesale dismissal of religion, he compared to a young person who receives an inheritance but dismisses it without examining it more closely. He or she could, he speculated, inadvertently be overlooking immense wealth.
My own evolving view of such matters is indeed that a very specific socio-historical juncture , namely the enlightenment, has led too many of us to often wholesale dismiss religion, without examining the rich heritage which religions-plural-offer us. Could we actually be overlooking centuries of wisdom in so doing?
Quite understandably, the excesses of the church and abuses of institutionalised religious authorities, the conflict between science and religion, as well as some of religion’s most literal readings, gave rise to a movement, The enlightenment, which associated religion and religious people with hypocrisy, a deficiency in reason and discrimination. Many of the critiques which emerged during this period were valid and contributed to purging religion, but specifically institutionalised religion, of some of its worst excesses. But my own examination of religious philosophy has led me to conclude that we mistakenly threw out the baby with the bathwater.
As someone raised in the UK but educated in a French school, many of the enlightenment’s assumptions were moulded into my DNA. As a teenager, I was excluded from English class by a Catholic teacher for suggesting Pope Pius XII was aware of the Nazi’s atrocities and failed to speak out-(I’d just read the, in parts historically questionable, book “Hitler’s pope” and was high on self-righteousness) . When later, my philosophy teacher described Jesus and Mohamed as ‘impostors’ during a philosophy lesson, and a Muslim Moroccan friend squirmed uncomfortably, I sniggered at his naivety. After class, I lambasted this gentle soul with accusations of sexism, referring to a Quran I’d never read. That same philosophy teacher signed my yearbook later that year with a note which reads “I look forward to seeing you perform at the ‘Lido’ a topless Cabaret in Paris.”
He was aware that I was an actress and presumably this was a reference to my performance background. Though clearly an entirely inappropriate one.
Despite my youthful antipathy towards religion and my prejudice that religious people were, well a tad weird, I could still see, objectively, that religion did seem to encourage some people to do more good than I did. Volunteer their spare time WITHOUT getting paid, not give their mum chatback, offer random acts of kindness like helping me with a maths problem I was struggling with. Not that these traits are exclusive to religious people mind due, but I did recognise that these were the sorts of actions religious people considered important. My view was that they were all goody two shoes who made me look worse than I was. They were naïve I told myself and duped by an elaborate conspiracy theory.
I recognised that my grandmother’s Irish catholic upbringing had instilled in her a compassion and kindness which were grounded in the values of the Church, but as a hardened teen, I confused kindness with weakness. These values would see you ‘eaten alive’ nowadays I reasoned, You can’t just walk around being kind to people – you might aswell hand them your cheque book and dignity –(tied as they are to one another) – No, in a dog eat dog world, these religious people were dinosaurs whose unfolding extinction I watched not so much with glee, as a sense of validated satisfaction.
I told you so.
This wasn’t to say that I was a ‘bad’ person as such – I felt guilty when I passed a homeless person, I decried grannies being mugged and the exploitation of the third world. I was just so deeply cynical about my ability to affect change within this grand scheme, where Machiavelli seemed to have won the day – that I caved in to the “if you can’t beat’em, join them” mantra. Once I’d made it by trampling on the weak along the way, I’d set up a sizeable direct debit to a charity or five – I might even establish a foundation in my name – good deeds and some kudos to go with it. Result.
Although I’d been raised with a number of friends who had religious beliefs of some kind, I’d remained largely blinkered to them, convinced that their cultural attachment to what I then viewed as fairy tales would soon fade in the overwhelming face of ‘reason’.
Of course, I represented reason in this scenario.
This sense of arrogance vis a vis the views of religious believers was certainly compounded by my French education and upbringing which confirmed and validated this view of religion as archaic. Sartre, Nietzche, Freud essentially had all the answers I was looking for and anything else I deemed either a political soporific or a mental crutch. These people were clearly just obsessed with an infantile need for a powerful father figure. I on the other hand, at 17, definitely didn’t feel like I needed a SECOND dad.
Clearly, I was not alone in this view. Modernization theory holds that all societies are evolving according to a linear model, with Western industrialised societies as the epitome of human development and so-called primitive, i.e. preindustrial cultures, viewed as backward and doomed. This outlook continues to underpin much of how we view the rest of the world. We assume that technological development is concurrent with human, social and ethical development. That the most technically advanced and wealthiest nations are somehow beholden to superior knowledge in all realms. Is to be more technologically developed to be necessarily more ethical? After all, our governments spend far more money thinking of ways to destroy human life by investing in military technologies than they do in seeking to save it.
Inline with modernization theory, there is a widespread assumption that progress means becoming more secular. Here in Britain, Half of those brought up in a religion say they have abandoned it. We often assume that our economic success and relative wealth are tied to this secularisation, noting as many do how much of the third world remains deeply religious, evidence some claim, of their economic and moral backwardness. And yet, the somewhat large exception to the secularisation and development rule is the US, which was and continues to be very religious and also very modern. In the US, 92% of adults believe in the existence of God or some kind of universal spirit, 70% are “absolutely” certain of God’s existence.
In their book “God Is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith Is Changing the World”, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both of the Economist magazine, trace how in the 19th century, the most influential thinkers predicted that modernity and secularization would go hand in hand. Throughout most of the 20th century, it seemed this was the case. But by the late 1960s and 1970s religion began to reappear in the public square and in the people’s lives, confounding -modernisation theorists who couldn’t understand how we could be DE evolving!
In this sense, not only does the period in which religion disappeared from the European public and private spheres appear to represent a small blip in an otherwise consistent presence of religion throughout human history, but that blip is a distinctly European phenomena which is at odds with the manifestation of religion globally.
Globally, it is our societies in Europe that are the anomaly.
While just half of Britons say that faith is important to their life (only 44% identify as Christian), according to Ipsos Mori, almost everyone in Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and India say faith is important to theirs.
For many people of faith, religion offers both tangible and less tangible benefits: a sense of community in an otherwise highly individualistic world, a sense of purpose when we’re bombarded by a consumerism which seeks to define our very identity through our consumption patterns, a support system in the form of people who believe in the obligation of service to others.
You can’t see God but you can certainly see him through people’s actions.
Like many elderly people today, a family friend of ours is currently living in a care home. A recent survey showed that more than a third of older people in the UK are plagued by loneliness, living with neighbours they barely know only feet away. According to a recent campaign, almost one in five old people sees family, friends or neighbours less than once a week – and about one in 10 of them experiences such social interaction less than once a month.
Our family friend is a childless widow, he has no family to visit him, and relies on church friends and his priest for regular companionship. I can safely say he is one of the residents who receives the most visits. For him, religion has both spiritual and very tangible benefits.
I recounted his situation because for many people, religion is far removed from the intricacies of theology or the nuances of dogma. Rather it represents an assurance of a social bond, it represents human warmth and support.
For others, the discovery of one’s ultimate sense of purpose is unquestionably the single most significant realisation in one’s life. I would compare it to a redirection, a reorientation of the spirit from which necessarily flows a reprioritisation of what one deems important.
In this sense, I view my daily prayers as a ‘distraction from the real distraction’ and a reminder of the greater scale of things. More than anything, God consciousness is about awareness. Full awareness, of one’s blessings, one’s responsibilities and what ultimately matters on the grander scale.
Interestingly, studies suggest that people of faith are general more content.
According to Gallup- Healthways data (that has surveyed 1,000 people a day for several years).
“Americans who attend a church, synagogue, or mosque frequently report experiencing more positive emotions and fewer negative ones in general than do those who attend less often or not at all. This relationship holds true even when controlling for key demographic variables like age, education, and income.”
As a sociologist by training, I can safely say that as I got to know more people of faith at university, it helped redefine my view of religion. From hostility and contempt, I came to see religion as relatively benign and largely socially useful. I came to the view, and I’m stealing this from Academic Terry Eagleton, that : “Dawkins’s refusal to admit that “a single human benefit has ever flowed from religious faith, [is] a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false”.
But I wasn’t convinced it was for me. There was no big, burning hole, no longing or deep dissatisfaction I could identify then or that I might even work into a rereading of my own history. I grew up reading the works of French existentialist philosophers, the majority of whom were atheists, Albert Camus and in particular Jean Paul Sartre. I had a philosophy, namely that we humans are the sum total of our actions, a philosophy which considered the importance of doing good deeds central to our self definition as humans. Speaking as a Muslim today, I recognise in existentialist philosophy a very similar premise to that contained within my current belief system, namely the idea that ultimately, we stand each and everyone of us alone, faced with the balance of our good and bad deeds. The added perk is that in Islam, even your intentions are rewardable, making it easier to stake up that good deeds pile than relying on actions alone!
My exploration of religion was an extension of a heightened sense of curiosity. I was particularly blessed in growing up in a multicultural school, in a multicultural city, with bicultural parents, all of which contributed I believe, to an openness on other experiences and view points.
Within the fairly small remit of my city alone, I visited Morocco, Ghana, India, Venezuela, and these experiences fed the curiosity within. After my baccalaureat, I headed to Thailand with my best friend. Of all the memories I have, one of the most poignant is that of arriving at dawn on a small island and being dropped by a Buddhist temple. Exhausted and disorientated backpackers that we were, only seventeen at the time, we huddled together and tried to sleep a few hours before the buses would start working. A Thai lady took pity on us and invited us onto her terrace where she prepared breakfast for us, alongside two young children. A small act of kindness, guided by a culture which places a primacy, as so many traditional cultures do, on welcoming the guest and hospitality. I can’t say Buddhism drove this women to act the way she did, but I can say that Buddhist rooted values of compassion and kindness are still very commonplace in Thailand.
The year after, I travelled to Equador where I witnessed the devastation that neo liberal economic policies had wrought on that poor country. The overwhelming memory I have is of abject poverty, people barely surviving while huge billboards advertising virtually only coca cola peppered the landscape, wherever we went. In many places, coke was cheaper than bottled water. They didn’t and still dont have their own currency but rather used the US dollar. Today 40% of the population lives below the poverty line, more than double the rate five years ago.
In my final year at university, my friends and I headed to Morocco, where we back packed across the country and often stayed with family of a Moroccan friend we were travelling with. My overwhelming memory was of a hyper masculine public space, where, despite being tomboyish in character, I was suddenly made acutely aware of the fact I was a woman and that this meant something very different to being a man. That summer in Morocco might well have put me off Islam altogether if it wasn’t for the warmth and kindness, inflected with references to the Almighty, which softened the blow of travelling on a micro budget, in a country with flying coackroaches the size of small rats.
I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the male entitlement I was encountering was somehow grounded in their religion. After all, it conformed to much of what I already believed. I’d read “Not without my daughter”, the shocking story of American Betty Mahmoody whose Iranian husband kidnaps her children following their separation and who finds only discrimination in the Iranian courts. I’d heard about Islam. Women’s inheritance was half of a man’s, women have to walk ten paces behind, the men force them to cover. I knew what this religion was about. Kinda. If you counted heresay…
As I returned to the UK, a small verse from the Quran hung around my neck, a trinket purchased in a market. “It’s for protection” my friend’s mother had said. I thought it looked pretty and moreover, I was coming round to the idea that it is humans alone who transform the beauty of the sacred into oppression. God, Allah, whoever was greater than these ridiculous rules men devised to control women. I believed there was something sacred about it without even understanding the verse itself.
I have omitted to mention so far the fact that I was a professional actress. From the age of 12, when I landed the role of Margaret Dashwood in Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, I had kept a finger in the acting pie, making two more films whilst still at school and many more amateur plays. I loved acting. To me, it was an extension of my love for reading, the possibility to conveying an added layer of emotion and depth to text. It was 3d books before the idea of 3d even existed.
Once I’d graduated from university, I was faced with the prospect most actors must contend with. Work part time in a dead end job and hope you land THAT big audition that will change your life. The transition from child actress to adult actress was one I experienced with difficulty. I had always enjoyed playing characters, multifaceted people, but found that many of the jobs I was going up for were looking for a bit of eye candy, it was always the girlfriend, the love interest, that girl. The scenes often involved kissing and often significantly more. Some involved varying degrees of nudity. Some around me sought to convince me that there was artistic value in these depictions. Not to worry about it. To see it as part of the job. Noone loves all parts of their job.
But all I could think of was my granddad watching the film and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the scenes were exploitative. Female characters written in only to provide eye candy to otherwise poor scripts. This wasn’t acting.
It is interesting to me in the years since then, to read what some of the young actresses who’ve found fame this way, say about their experiences. Interestingly, Meghan Fox who made her name in the Transporters franchise was cut following suggestions she’d begun to rebel against Director Michael Bay’s lascivious way of shooting her. Her former co star Shia Leboeuf is quoted as saying : ““Mike films women in a way that appeals to a 16-year-old sexuality. It’s Michael’s style. And I think [Fox] never got comfortable with it. This is a girl who was taken from complete obscurity and placed in a sex-driven role in front of the whole world and told she was the sexiest woman in America. And she had a hard time accepting it. When Mike would ask her to do specific things, there was no time for fluffy talk. We’re on the run. And the one thing Mike lacks is tact. There’s no time for [LaBeouf assumes a gentle voice] ‘I would like you to just arch your back 70 degrees.’”
As some of you may know, Megan Fox was then replaced with a model, someone who might comply more readily with the order to ‘arch your back’ a little more and whose physicality was clearly placed over and above her, until then unexistant, acting credentials. Movies don’t even need actresses anymore, they need compliant bodies…
Turning up for auditions only to have people look you up and down felt very reductive. I was uncomfortable with the importance being attributed to my physique and I was itching for mental stimulation.
Concomitantly, I’d started to read the Quran and was immediately convinced I’d stumbled on remnants of ancient wisdom. Like a sceptical archaeologist tripping over a dinosaur bone, my eyes were opened to a whole new dimension to the world, one in which my physique was totally alleatory and where my soul, a fairly new concept to me then, was the true essence of my being. Rather than investing so much time and energy in this never ending fight to be the most outwardly attractive, I was confronted with the ultimate equaliser. That this exterior counts for nothing but that it is only the good deeds and pure heart that we cultivate which ultimately are real.
In a society which values wealth and beauty over almost all else (in women at least, in men it is power and wealth), where the elderly, the disabled, those defined as unattractive, the poor and the disenfranchised are ignored in favour of what is typically vacuous but aesthetically pleasing, this felt like a just reordering of the world.
Those we herald as ‘modern’ saints tell us a lot about what we value. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple was the visionary behind the idea of making technology fashionable. Applauded for adding another layer of consumers to the market, he ensured that obsoleteness no longer occurrs through technological innovation alone, but also as a product of seasonal changes in fashion. As if the planet wasn’t struggling enough with our waste, we now throw out perfectly functioning objects which are no longer ‘cool’.
IPhone 4S? Pfwww. Everyone knows it’s all about the iphone5.
When Jobs died prematurely, he was eulogised. But Jobs was a pure, unabashed capitalist. One of the first things he did when he rejoined Apple was to cancel all of its charitable donations. The company was run for profit he responded to critics, not charity. In 2011, Apple’s annual revenue was $108 billion.
My journey towards faith occurred alongside a growing disillusionment with the modern world and its charades of advancement. Beauty disguised as goodness. Wealth as success. Destruction as progress.
My decision to ‘convert’ to Islam in 2004 felt very natural to me. It was an extension of all I’d always felt was right and a recognition of my place within the Universe. What was less easy perhaps was dealing with people’s reactions. I was aware of the hostility towards Islam, particularly post 9/11. In fact, I was prompted to look further into the faith following a book recommendation from someone very close to me. The book was by Italian polemist Oriana Fallaci and in it she argued that Muslims were a type of ‘vermin’, comparing them to a mangy dog. I was perfectly aware of how one deals with a mangy dog and the language and tone of the book concerned me deeply. As someone who’d be raised on the works of Primo Levy, Joseph Joffo and other Holocaust survivors, I shuddered at the thought we Europeans were yet again referring to a minority in our midst using the dehumanising language of vermin. At the time, I never contemplated that minority would ever be me.
Reactions from loved ones ranged from the all out hostility, to genuine concern I’d be brainwashed by some sort of a cult, to sheer dismay. Some of my closer friends smiled with a look of “oh just the latest fad, we get it”. Eight years in, some think the joke is wearing a little thin.
I began wearing a headscarf a few months before my conversion. One of my points of contention with some of the Muslim ladies I’d been speaking with concerned their style of dress. I was certain their parents must be making them wear it and couldn’t conceive of the fact they’d actually rather be dressed this way. Gradually they challenged me. Why was I wearing that particular style of garment? I was being dictated to by fashion norms which I never questioned, I adopted styles which I found uncomfortable and sometimes difficult to move around in because they were said to ‘look good’. And what did ‘look good’ mean anyway? That they ensured my body conformed to males expectations of feminity. Not that they ever would, fashion magazines and advertising had taught me that I’d never be truly adequate since you cant airbrush your waist to 6 inches in real life and nobody actually has flawless hair and skin at all times. Gradually, I came to view the idea of clothing as a means of minimising the importance of the body in human interaction as deeply empowering feminist stance. No longer could I be judged on my weight and ‘sexyness’, but instead, shielding the body from the gaze of all but those closest to me, was a means of placing greater emphasis on my voice.
Truth be told, it made life a lot harder. If I didn’t have the right bus fare, I could no longer rely on my “charms” to get me by. I wasn’t offered “free” stuff quite as regularly. Unless you count a free Quran. And it struck me that the importance we attribute to the female form in particular, in the evaluation of a woman’s worth, actually led to a diminished importance being afforded to her voice. I could speak as loud as I wanted, but I wasn’t playing the game right. You cant just be smart. You have to be smart and sexy to be seen. And then possibly heard.
For me, modesty is central to my conception of faith and I don’t mean physical modesty alone. I mean humility as a concept, is at the core of my faith. The struggle to combat the ego and its desires is limited only by an attempt to retain humility in the face of God. Arrogance (kibr) is considered a disease of the spiritual heart, as are anger, the ocean of all sins, avarice, envy, backbiting, prejudice, hypocrisy and others. For myself and many muslims, the word ‘jihad’ has nothing to do with Al Qaeda, but rather everything to do with learning to master the self, tame the ego and maintain humility in the face of God. In the words of Kanye West, “we’re at war with terrorism, racism and society, but most of all we’re at war with ourselves.” Word.
Physical modesty, with or without a headscarf, is a part of that for me. It is a tool in that struggle against the ego. It is a reminder to limit the importance I place on the ephemeral and focus on the higher, more noble values which I should seek to cultivate in myself. It isn’t about negating objective beauty, of design, of fabrics, colours or textures, but it is about not fetishizing the human body. There is a saying in Islam, “God is beautiful and He loves Beauty.” Recognising the divine origin of anything, but beauty in particular, limits the extent to which it can be sacralised on its own terms. Beauty points to God, so worship not the sign but the origin of all things.
To me, spirituality is meaning in action. The very purpose of our life on this earth is to satisfy God by serving the people. Prayers throughout the night should feed the desire to serve during the day. Rituals serve as reminders on this path.
Since I’m speaking in a school today, I’ll end by saying a word or two about education. There is a very common prayer which the Prophet (saw) taught “I seek refuge in God from a knowledge which has no use” and he also said “the knowledge from which no benefit is derived is like a treasure from which no charity is bestowed in the way of the Lord.”
When the Prophet spoke of useful knowledge, he did not mean useful in the utilitarian sense – he meant of course knowledge which fails to be actualised, practised, lived for the benefit of others – and as Gai Eaton so eloquently put it “embodied through the transformation of the lower self through inner work (the greater jihad) and thereby through right action in the world.”
Ultimately, we stand alone, each of us, burdened with all that we have done and all that has been made possible through our presence in a particular place at a particular time. IF I have any advice at all to bestow, it is to make sure, you make your time in all places count.
… Say not, then, that all these creeds are false,
The false ones ensnare hearts by the scent of truth,
Say not that they are all erroneous fancies,
There is no fancy in the universe without some truth,
Truth is the ‘night of power’ hidden amongst other nights,
In order to try to spirit of every night.
Not every night is that of power, O youth,
Nor yet is every night quite void of power.
In the crowd of rag-wearers there is but one Faqir;*
Search well and find out that true one.
Tell the wary and discerning believer
To distinguish the king from the beggar.
If there were no bad goods in the world,
Every fool might be a skilful merchant;
For then the hard art of judging the goods would be easy.
If there were no faults, one man could judge as well as another.
Again, if all were faulty, skill would be profitless.
If all wood were common, there would be no aloes.
He who accepts everything is a true fool,
But he who says all is false is a knave.
*Faqir: Literally, a beggar, but here used to mean someone with real spiritual knowledge and humility.
Muslims eh, they just cant seem to take a joke can they? It would be very easy to cast, as many commentators have, the latest riots in response to the islamophobic film, as another example of intolerant Muslims lacking a funny bone. The Rushdie affair, the Danish cartoons, the murder of Van Gogh – surely the latest saga fits neatly into a pattern of evidence suggesting Muslims are over sensitive and violent. After all, critics will argue, Christians are regularly derided through the arts and media and they don’t go around burning embassies and killing people. Only the situation is hardly analogous. The power relations in which a dominant majority can be perceived as insulting and humiliating a disgruntled and feeble minority, cannot be ignored in the analysis of Muslim responses to offensive art works. But the truth is, the protests across the Arab world are about much more than the usual ‘free speech’ Vs ‘Islam’ blah. In fact, at the heart of the unrest is a powerful current of anti-Americanism rooted in imperialist policies and bolstered dictatorships and the expected instability to be found in post-revolutionary states.
Firstly, although the film may have been the catalyst for the riots, it would be wrong to assume that all the riots have exactly the same cause. The murder of American embassy staff in Libya appears to have been the work of an Al Qaida fringe which had been plotting the revenge of one its senior leaders and used the protest against the film as a smokescreen for its attack. What brought regular Libyans to the embassy was undoubtedly initially, opposition to the film. However there and elsewhere, the anger of the masses has appeared to morph into something much broader – a reflection of anti-American sentiment grounded in the USA’s historically fraught relationship to the region.
This is hardly the first demonstration of anger against Western targets in any of the countries at hand, it is only possibly amongst the most mediatised because of the spin placed on the story, represented as it has been, as some sort of reflection of the fundamental intolerance of Islam.
For those with a short memory, it was only last month that a pipe bomb exploded outside the US embassy in Libya and both the Red cross and other Western aid organisations have come under fire there in recent months. It is certainly a misnomer to think that NATO intervention in support of the rebels against Gadhafi somehow erased deep-seated grievances against the US, not least the sense of humiliation of the Arab world against decades of Western domination. Sure, we may have helped get rid of Gadhafi when it was expedient, but for a long time, we traded quite happily with the man whilst he brutally repressed his people. In some cases, we even helped him do it. A recent Human Rights Watch report, Delivered into Enemy Hands: US-Led Abuse and Rendition of Opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya , details the stories of Libyan opposition figures tortured in US-run prisons in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and then delivered back to Libya, with full-awareness that they were going to be tortured or possibly killed. Even in the “new Libya”, not all sections of the Revolution feel the outcome of the elections was truly representative of popular feeling. Not to mention Egypt, where Mubarak, whom Hilary Clinton once described as a “close family friend”, tortured and killed innumerable dissidents in a US backed dictatorship. To think the elections which happened just months ago would transform popular opinion concerning the US’s role in the region is ludicrous. And that’s before we even get to Iraq.
Broken by poverty, threatened by drones, caught in the war between al Aaida and the US, to many Arab Muslims, the film represents an attack on the last shelter of dignity – sacred beliefs – when all else has been desecrated.
It is no surprise that some of the worst scenes of violence come from Yemen, where US policy has resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, fuelling anger against a regime whose brutality and corruption has left the country ranking amongst the poorest in the Arab world. Given that it is also one of the countries where people have the least access to computers and the internet, it is also entirely likely that many protestors never even saw the film. It also seems unlikely anyone believed the film was actually produced by the American government. Though many might have believed the US government could act to restrict the film’s diffusion, censorship being altogether common in many of these countries, the focus on American symbols – embassies, American schools – even KFC – suggests the roots of popular anger is not hurt religious pride. These symbols of America were not the unwitting target of frustration over a film – rather the film has provided an unwitting focal point for massive and widespread anger at US foreign policy in the region. If the Arab revolutions let the dictators know exactly how people felt about their repression, these demonstrations should be read as equally indicative of popular anguish with the US’s role in the region.
The film is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back – to stand in consternation at the fact a single straw could cripple such a sturdy beast is to be naïve or wilfully blind to the accumulated bales which made the straw so hard to carry.
This is not an attempt to minimise the offense caused by the film – Mohamed is a man whose status in the eyes of many Muslims, cannot be overstated. When your country has been bombed, you’ve lost friends and family, possibly your livelihood and home, dignity is pretty much all you have left.
The producers of the film may have known very little about film-making, but they knew lots about how to cause a stir. Despite its obscure origins, mediatised references to an “Israeli” director living in the US, to a “100 Jewish donors” who allegedly provided “5 million dollars”, to a hazy “Coptic network” – all played into a well-known register. When 2 out of five Arabs live in poverty, a 5 million dollar insult has more than a slight sting to it.
Those who sought to bring winter to an Arab spring and possibly destabilise a US election, were keenly aware of the impact those words would have, situating the film within on-going tensions between Israel and the Arab world and stirring up the hornet’s nest of minority relations in a region where they remain unsettled.
In a tweet, the Atheist academic Richard Dawkins decried the events by lambasting “these ridiculous hysterical Muslims”. In so doing, he, like others, not only failed to read these events for what they are – predominantly political protests against US meddling, but he also failed to recognise the basic humanity of the protestors. To dismiss deep anger as mere hysteria is to diminish to decades of oppression experienced by many Muslims, particularly in the Arab world, often with US complicity.
If you deny any relationship between the systematic discrimination of Muslims and stigmatization of Islam and the overreaction of the Muslim community to offensive jokes, or films, or cartoons, then you are only left with essentialist explanations of Muslim hysteria and violence. These protests aren’t about a film – they’re about the totality of ways in which Muslims have felt humiliated over decades. Humiliation doesn’t justify violence, but it certainly helps explain it.
Reporting on the “incident” as somehow indicative of Islam’s essential incompatibility with the West not only conveniently omits the realities of Muslim oppression globally, but also reinforces them in many ways. Before we start searching for the nebulous network behind the film, or the reasons why “Muslims are so prone to getting offended”, we would do better to actually search for the conditions that have contributed to rendering the mass dehumanization of particular group of people socially unobjectionable and do well to remember that the right to protest, angrily even, is just as central to the concept of free speech, as the right to make offensive movies.
Update: this piece was written in the very early days of the protests and consequently, I would want to nuance some of the points I’ve made here in light of more recent developments.
Firstly, popular anger in many countries might well have as much to do with the instability of a post-revolutionary context as it does with anti-US feelings. In Tunisia, in Libya, these protests might also be seen as occasions to vent anguish at more localised concerns.
Secondly, the protests were clearly instrumentalised very quickly by ‘islamist’ groups to bolster popularity by waiving the ever unifying banner of anti-US feeling. This suggest they took on a local, political dimension very rapdily.
Thirdly, in some countries, such as Libya, local people even took to the streets in following days to oppose extremist elements and express solidarity with the murdered embassy staff. This doesnt discount mistrust or anger with previous US policies in the region but it certainly suggests a more complex relationship wit the US following the NATO support to rebels.
Fourthly, only a very very small proportion of people protested and an even smaller number engaged in violence. In many stable countries, such as Malaysia or Turkey, protests remained peaceful. Those countries which saw the most violence were often the most unstable and local factors – disaffection, unemployement, anger at government, poverty – are all essential components having contributed to people’s behaviour during the protests.
Earlier this month, James Bloodworth wrote a blog for the Independent comparing Islamophobia to a type of Orwellian doublespeak, “PR jargon”, designed to shut down public debate. He joins a chorus of voices on the Left who reject the term on grounds of the ‘freedom to criticise’ Islam. This particular argument is disconcerting in that Islam is regularly subjected to the sort of scrutiny rarely if ever, afforded to other faiths, and many of those who seek to counter islamophobia, myself included, have been equally committed to defending free speech. The term ‘islamophobia’ is many things, but it is not an attempt at muzzling critical inquiry.
Some on the Left have gone further still, joining voices on the Right in denouncing Islam on the grounds of its alleged anti-liberal tenets. Chief amongst these, the late Italian writer and left-wing journalist Oriana Fallaci insisted that Islam is a violent and totalitarian creed; British novelist and former New Statesman editor Martin Amis has previously stated Muslims should be deprived of their civil liberties as a form of collective punishment and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee frequently regurgitates the most odious and decontextualized translations of the Quran as if they were, well – Gospel. Paul Hockenos argues that “the left and liberals have largely capitulated, unable to address the issue of Islam and the Muslims among us in a constructive way.”
There have been many attempts at defining islamophobia and debates rage over its Orientalist or Post-9/11 emergence and the appropriate response to it (legislation vs. education). However, despite the frequently erected straw-man of stifling free speech, countering islamophobia is not about limiting discussion of the faith itself. It is about ensuring a largely socially, economically and politically disenfranchised minority is not stigmatised, stereotyped, further marginalised and consequently left open to hate crimes.
A personal bugbear is the suggestion that Islam or the Quran ‘says’ – Islam doesn’t speak – people speak in the name of Islam, filtering the texts through their experiences and drawing on interpretive traditions. Islamophobia is when influential figures like Tonybee or others define Islam in a public sphere where Muslims struggle to make themselves heard, over and above how Muslims themselves understand their faith. In other words, it is to ascribe meaning to Islam which most Muslims do not. The reification of faith by public figures with prominent platforms, assumes that, unlike other religious traditions, Islam is monolithic and can be gleaned from a brief perusal of sacred texts. It can’t. To do so is to misrepresent Islam, the faith of over 1.3 billion people in the world, and to leave its practitioners open to the accusation of complicity in a depraved hate cult.
What’s more, despite a clear ontological distinction between race and religion, it cannot be ignored that Islam is associated with racialized minorities – South Asians in the UK, Arabs in France, Turks in Germany. When critique of religion overlaps so significantly with a particular racial group within society, and is often used as short-hand for that racial group, the line between religion and race becomes obscured. The Daily Mail’s choice to use the term “muslim gang” to refer to rapists who plied young girls with alcohol and raped them, is one such example. The recent case in Rochdale further illustrated this confusion. While Chief Crown Prosecutor in the case Nazir Afzal blamed “imported cultural baggage”, commentators such as David Aaronovitch promptly interpreted that to mean Islam. Although Pakistan is a Muslim majority country, to assume Islam is the central motivating factor in the behaviour of all Pakistanis, is a form of cultural racism.
The close imbrication of religion, race and culture in almost every part of the world makes disassociating them a complex affair. Take the case of Nouredine Rachedi, a young Frenchman who was returning home late one evening in Paris when two men approached him and asked him if he was Muslim. They then proceed to beat him so savagely, he was incapacited for three weeks with severe head injuries. Nouredine is clean shaven and was dressed inconspicuously. His aggressors singled him out on the basis of his ethnic profile, before determining his religious identity based on his verbal confirmation.
Islamphobia, as a term, is required to refer to precisely these cases where the focus of abuse is a projected understanding of what someone stands for based on their being identified as Muslim. This represents the shift in emphasis from classical biological racism to cultural racism, described by critical race theory. New forms of discrimination are complex and subtle, they largely avoid the crude biological markers of racial stereotyping and have been replaced with a focus on cultural differences, real or imagined, to rationalize the unequal status and treatment of different racial groups.
The assumptions is, there are some cultures that are more backward than our highly evolved selves and that honour killings, forced marriages and blood feuds are reflections of an ‘islamic’ culture, which through the presence of Muslims in Europe, poses a threat to our identity and values. Such pernicious assumptions are then reflected in people’s attitudes and behaviour towards Muslims. One recent study showed 58 percent of Germans in favour of restricting religious freedom for Muslims. According to recent findings by Faith matters, Muslim women face increasing harassment by EDL sympathisers.
The topic of Islam has had a uniquely harmonising effect on Left and Right, uniting unlikely pundits in a shared concern that Islam – assumed to be a hegemonic influence on people’s behaviour- is responsible for virtually all social ills from sex trafficking to benefit fraud. Perceived ethnic uniformity is taken to mirror a uniformity of belief and outlooks, despite the fact, all religions have plural expressions, with as many implications for freedom of expression, women, democracy or the use of violence for political ends.
The concern is that the racist essentializing of “Muslimhood” is ignored on the grounds that the term ‘islamophobia’ isn’t clear enough. I would wager the term is crystal clear for those on the receiving end – such as when Muslim columnist Mehdi Hasan was described by one blogger as a “moderate cockroach” whose Islamic faith was “no different from the Islam of Abu Hamza, Abu Qatada, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Anjem Choudary”. Or when the American writer Laila Lalami ‘s husband was asked by an immigration officer “So, how many camels did you have to trade for her?”
Islamophobia is only unclear to those who see to obfuscate its meaning. It is the tendency to reify Islam - that is to assume the behaviour of given individuals (typically extremists) reflects an accurate concretisation of the theoretical underpinnings of the faith itself, and it is the tendency to view its practitioners, Muslims, as a monolithic block, whose every behaviour is a consequence of that essentialised identity.
The struggle against Islamophobia is in fact the struggle for more accurate and less lazy explanations of phenomena, getting to the root of the issues rather than seeking to pin the blame on a theoretical body of ideas. There is no more one ‘Islam’ to blame for people’s behaviour, than there is one ‘Christianity’. That might seem like a truism, but whilst it would be comical to speak of the US nuclear arsenal as the ‘Judaeo-Christian bomb’, it has become all too common to speak of the weapons of, say, Pakistan, Iran or Libya as the ‘Islamic bomb’. Rather than investigating and investing in countering rape culture, we claim the muslimness of particular rapists is to blame, absolving popular culture from blame when the men themselves refer to the young women using the sadly popular playground put down “slags”. We regularly see ‘Islam’ used as a catch-all phrase to explain complex phenomena, distracting us from the real issues at hand.
Islamophobia is rejecting the ease with which dejecting and insipid stereotypes of Islam and Muslims are accepted as normal, such as the recent claim, popularised by the Daily Mirror, that Zain Malik of boyband One Direction, was “pimping Islam” on young girls through “boyband jihad”. Or the use of imagery to fan the flames of fear, as the Sun on Sunday, did by superimposing the image of a woman in a burka against a caustic article entitled “Foreign-born population in the UK” of which ironically India, a Hindu majority country topped the list. Or the ease with which columnist and writers can refer to Muslim women as “shroud-swishing zombies” or “silly little misguided Muslim girls” (Julie Burchill; The Sun June 24th, 2009) dressed like “a Dalek in a full veil’ (John Gaunt;The Sun June 20th, 2008) or Dame Ann Leslie’s reference to Muslim women as ‘dressed in bin bags’ on last Sunday Morning Live.
Raising awareness of islamophobia is also about recognising the danger this discourse poses in legitimising the Far-right, a growing trend across Europe where the National Front recently won two seats in the French parliament. In light of the Breivik massacre, it is acknowledging that far from being a lone sociopath, his actions were grounded, according to his manifesto, in an all too common view of Islam and Muslims as a fifth column within Europe and a threat to Western values. In fact, a report by the Cardiff school of journalism found that from 2008, stories in the media on Islam’s alleged incompatibility with dominant British values outnumbered those relating to Islam and terrorism. A consequence of this ‘theoretical’ islamophobia, the intellectual jousting over the place of Islam in Europe, is that Muslims in Europe are facing increasingly tough conditions.
According to a report from Amnesty International, “European Muslims are regularly denied employment and educational opportunities because of widespread cultural and religious stereotypes that lead to discrimination against them.” Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief warns of the “existing notions of a collective mentality that is stereotypically, and often negatively, ascribed to all followers of various religions or beliefs. In extreme cases, such ascription of a collective mentality may amount to ‘de-personalised’ perceptions of human beings, possibly with devastating dehumanizing repercussions.”
Just as minarets or headscarves or face veils or beards have become visible markers of Islam and have become imbued with a significance beyond that attributed to them by Muslims themselves, discrimination against those bearing religious symbols becomes justified through the fallacious reasoning that people have chosen to subscribe to those ideas, in a way people don’t choose their ethnicity. The truth is we don’t choose the significance people attribute to our symbols – especially when we have so little access to defining them ourselves. We have no choice in the stereotypes and assumptions people make on the basis of our skin colour, nor do we have choice in those concerning the symbols which people interpret naively or willingly according to the dominant narrative of extremism and cultural incompatibility.
John Mullen of France’s radical left-wing Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste has argued that “opposition to religious practices on the basis of progressive values can easily turn into a thinly disguised form of racism.” It is time the Left take a stronger and clearer stance against islamophobia and stop giving the Right free rein to dictate the terms of European interaction with Muslims based on misplaced and ill-informed assumptions about religion in general and Islam in particular.
The struggle against islamophobia is the struggle for a nuanced and contextualised appraisal of events involving Muslims, a refusal to accept that everything can be explained away through a facile reference to ‘Islam’ and a defence of a European minority group. There is nothing Orwellian about that.
You can find me in this series presented by Bettany Hughes on the forgotten history of women in religions. This is part of the opening sequence.
Wednesdays, 9pm, BBC2.
Directed by Ruoiri Fallon.
The questions this week were:
1. IS THE NIQAB A BARRIER TO JUSTICE?
2. IS FOOTBALL STILL RACIST?
3. DO WE NEED RELIGION TO CREATE A MORAL SOCIETY?
with guests including Susan Snushall, a human rights law student, Khola Hassan an Islamic law consultant, Barbara Hewson, barrister and Abhijit Pandya Daily Mail blogger, Stephen Law, humanist philosopher, Anthony Clavane, Jewish writer, the bishop of Birmingham and yours truly…
Actress Emilie François, Kate Winslet’s Little Sister in ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ Takes a Different Path
(this is a very kind piece written by Danny Miller…)
I’ve admitted before that I’m a huge fan of the ultimate “chick flick,” Ang Lee’s definitive version of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” released in 1995. Emma Thompson won an Oscar for her brilliant screenplay (based, of course, on Austen’s work). She also played Elinor Dashwood in the film which starred Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Gemma Jones, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, Tom Wilkinson, and so many other great British actors.
After making her extraordinary film debut the year before in Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” Kate Winslet shined as Thompson’s sister, Marianne Dashwood. She received her first of six Oscar nominations for the role. I always wondered what happened the youngest Dashwood girl, Margaret. 12-year-old Emilie François was so charming, funny, and smart in this pivotal role that I felt certain she’d have a movie career as rich as Thompson and Winslet’s. But following two more roles in a couple of forgettable films, I never again heard a peep about the actress.
Until last night. I was listening a fascinating BBC report on British citizens who have become Muslims and was surprised to hear a profile of Emilie François—now known as Myriam Francois-Cerrah. The former actress explained that she was deeply affected and enraged by the events of 9/11, and as a result began to learn as much as she could about the Islamic faith. She herself was a skeptical Catholic who had a growing distaste for organized religion. But the more she researched Islam and read the Qu’ran, the more it resonated within her. Following her graduation from Cambridge in 2003, she shocked everyone around her by converting to Islam. Today she is an active and articulate spokesperson for Muslim understanding. Currently finishing up her doctorate in Middle East Politics at Oxford University, Cerrah appears often on the BBC and writes articles for publications around the world.
“As someone who’d always had a keen interest in philosophy,” Cerrah wrote in one article, “the Qu’ran felt like the culmination of all of this philosophical cogitation. It combined Kant, Hume, Sartre, and Aristotle. It somehow managed to address and answer the deep philosophical questions posed over centuries of human existence and answer its most fundamental one, ‘why are we here?’”
Not surprisingly, many of Cerrah’s family members and friends thought she was crazy for converting to Islam, especially at this time. “I think many of my close friends thought I was going through another phase and would emerge from the other side unscathed, not realizing that the change was much more profound…I have never seen my conversion as a reaction against, or an opposition to my culture. In contrast, it was a validation of what I’ve always thought was praiseworthy, whilst being a guidance for areas in need of improvement.”
Whatever you think about Cerrah’s conversion, you can’t help but notice how intelligent and thoughtful she is—what is it with those Dashwood girls? You can almost imagine Margaret Dashwood herself growing up to follow her own unorthodox passions in this way.
In addition to her studies, Cerrah has not ruled out acting in more films. But she would not consider participating in sexually provocative scenes and she would insist on wearing her hijab, or head covering, which would, to say the least, severely limit the parts she could get.
I find it impossible not to admire this woman, who is no blind follower—she freely discusses the difficulties she’s had in certain mosques and in trying to be accepted by certain elements of the Muslim community. To read more of her excellent writing, you can check out her website here.
And for old time’s sake, here she is in the original trailer for “Sense and Sensibility.”