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Don’t call me a “convert”/”revert”

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An explanation of why I reject the construct:

My opposition to the use of the word convert to describe someone like myself (Muslim over a decade) is linked to the exclusive and thus exclusionary dimension of the term ‘convert’.
It both identifies those of non-muslim heritage as different to the rest of the community, in some cases, particularly white converts, as somehow superior and more enlightened, worthy of adulation and praise for having left behind the (implied superior) dominant culture to adopt the (implied lesser) subaltern culture, and on the other hand, serves to deligitimise those same voices when necessary by putting into question the ‘true’ islamic nature of their identity.
This process of adulation and deligitimisation contributes to the identification of (usually white) converts as somehow separate to the rest of the community – black and Asian converts are assumed to blend into the Muslim body more seamlessly since their ethnicity means they are already assumed to come from within the (implied lesser) sub-culture – this leads to a hierarchy of converts, whereby white, female converts are typically prized over all others and paraded as evidence of Islam’s superiority. This itself betrays racist assumptions about white supremacy.

When people describe me as a ‘convert’ they typically do this for 3 principle reasons:

1) the convert is deemed to represent an uncritical approval of “Islam” (who’s Islam is unclear), as if somehow the new adherent is a validation of the world view of all Muslims, when in fact, many of these are mutually contradictory (not at the core, but anywhere beyond) and the individual may have a much more complex interaction with the paradigm “Islam”

2) they want to undermine my position by pointing to the ‘new’ dimension of my faith, despite in some cases, it being far older than their own practice of the faith,

3) it serves as a code word for reactionary, eccentric, strange and possibly a bit deranged. In other words, it serves to deligitimise my position by claiming that my adherence to a faith presumed to be regressive in nature necessarily implies my person-hood and views are questionable. It is code word for, she used to be normal, but lost the plot, so beware. It is intended to cast suspicion and doubt over your integrity and respectability. And as such it functions as a process of exclusion from both the dominant body (non-muslim society) and the Muslim community (not quite one of them either). It is also entirely irrelevant to my position 99.9% of the time.

For that reason I advocate Muslims stop using the construction, stop validating it and put an end to the cult of the “convert”. I convertED 11 year ago. Today? I’m just Muslim thanks.

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Written by Myriam Francois

June 15, 2013 at 14:10

Posted in all, musings

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Huff Post blog: Anti-Semitism? Not at our dinner table

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interfaith

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.‎

Written by Myriam Francois

March 23, 2013 at 14:20

Lecture: Muslim women’s contribution: some thoughts….

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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.

Many thanks.

Any good that came from this talk today is from Allah, all errors are my own.

Written by Myriam Francois

December 1, 2012 at 18:14

The case of Hamza Kashgari: When political oppression masquerades as the defence of Islam

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This piece has also appeared on the “Index on Censorship” website, here and the Huff Post Blog, here

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.

Written by Myriam Francois

February 12, 2012 at 21:31

The quest for meaning

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(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)

Written by Myriam Francois

January 3, 2012 at 22:37

Muslimah LTD conference: Muslim youth, Muslim students: The reality, the responsibility

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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?

POLITICAL PARTICIPATION

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.

CONTROVERSIAL SPEAKERS

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

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.

ARTS

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!

Written by Myriam Francois

December 1, 2011 at 14:06

Blood and Gore: Finding Our Human Dignity

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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 )

Written by Myriam Francois

October 26, 2011 at 17:58