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Franco-British Council: Magna Carta and the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (DDHC): Past, Present and Future – 11 June in London

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This is the transcript of a speech I gave at the Franco-British council event on the Magna Carta and the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (DDHC): Past, Present and Future – 11 June in London

My cop-panelists were: Shami Chakrabarti (Liberty) Andrew Copson (BHA), and pere Matthieu Rougé.

Transcribed by Sophie O’Flaherty, FBC Intern:

Panel 3 Freedom of Speech and Religion in the Public Domain

I am going to come at this as a journalist and also with my political scientist hat which is my other life in academia. I personally am always a little wary of the eulogising of so called ‘founding documents’ which I think are typically reimagined to accommodate modern sensibilities and thus designed in so doing to ignore the deep inequalities, some of which Shami mentioned, which were often less a sort of afterthought a little error in there and more actually part and parcel of the very constitution of who represents a true human being or in contemporary modern political language who is a true citizen. I am wary because it allow us to think of ourselves as arrived rather than working towards the very ideals which we claim to be celebrating, and it also means that those exempt from its application are often ignored and assumed to be undeserving of those rights and that somehow the removal of those rights is assumed to be because of this premise of this conception of ourselves as having necessarily integrated these values as somehow undeserving or justifiably removed from their application. So I am genuinely more interested in those who are seemingly excluded from these rights, the hundred thousands of immigrants left to drown in our seas, terrorism suspects extradited for torture, I did say ‘terrorism ‘suspects’, citizens that are stripped of their nationality both in this country and in France for given crimes, as if somehow there is something you could do that could deprive you of those rights that you were not constitutive of them in the first place. And that reminds me that perhaps we should view such documents as less an achievement and an indication of our presumed greatness and more a mile stone on an ongoing journey. To come to today’s discussion I thought I would speak to each question in a few lines mainly to deconstruct what I perceive as quite a problematic underpinning to a few of the questions.

I will start off with this idea of the secular settlements of Europe which to me speaks to the increasingly popular idea of Europe under siege from scary Muslims, and unsurprisingly perhaps I have a bit of an issue with that. The truth is and I am going to quote Professor Olivier Roy, who I had the honour quite recently of interviewing, who argues that laïcité in France has shifted from a critical judicial principle designed for the management of diversity, to what he calls an exclusionary ideology and I am going to quote professor Roy specifically on what he understands by that and he says, I quote “we demand that the believer disappear as a citizen that his or her beliefs not be known, a demand of cultural normative ethical homogenisation by the state, that is what I call an ideology, an ideology is when a system of values is not just considered dominant, but normative and official and we are no longer in a democracy when we impose a normative system of beliefs on people.” I think this leaves a particular issue for French Muslims and one he talks about in the interview that I did with him in terms of what we call a double bind that is that French Muslim citizens in particular, but people of faith more broadly are called to hide all aspects of their faith and we will talk a little bit about the extent to which that has become ever more intrusive, but they are once called to hide all aspects of their faith but then when terrorist attacks happen they are called to speak as representatives of that faith so at once you are unable to speak as a person of faith in your day to day as you go about doing normal good things within your society as a citizen, but when a terrorist attack happens you are demanded by the state, by society to speak from within that essentialised conception of your identity. So that is one of the issues I think that is very problematic, and I think it inherently problematizes the idea of French Muslims constructing them as the polar opposite of French culture, they are this sort of intractable minority that can never be fully integrated, hence the obsession in French national debates, you cannot switch the TV on in France without having another debate about Islam and integration in France. So there is a sense of Muslims being this inherent challenge to French culture, when in truth French Muslims have been part and parcel of French culture, part and parcel of constructing French culture for generations now and maybe it is about time we stopped asking them to justify that.

Do religions have a legitimate right to be exempted from special treatment?

I do not actually think that is the issue, rather than exemption I think maybe an inclusive conception of society might be more beneficial. I think more often than not we assume that religious folk want differential treatment when actually what they want is to have the same treatment and not be the victims of prejudice. Take the Rushdie affair, which people always refer to as the landmark issue in Europe, the protest that happened in England during the Rushdie affair were calls for the application of the same blasphemy laws which existed in this country until 2008 I believe to all citizens, including Muslim citizens. So they were the calls to the application of the same rights for all citizens, they were not calls for an exemption or for some sort of special treatment, in fact it might be nice not to have special treatment for a lot of people of faith, because it is not that special most of the time.

Freedom of expression and the protection of religious feelings

There are huge national differences on the conceptions of freedom of expression, I often come into discussions on this and if people are not familiar with the French setting its worth pointing out that there are pretty significant restrictions on free speech in France already, some of which might shock an Anglo-Saxon audience. I am not convinced that religions are the issue that pose the greatest threat to the freedom of speech in France or here in the UK for that matter. Just last year a French court fined a blogger and ordered her to change her headline to reduce its prominence on google for a negative review of a restaurant, it is also worth pointing out that Charb did face threats from Muslim extremists but do you know what he also faced? Threats of criminal prosecution, for some of the things he said. So I think free speech is certainly an issue I am just not convinced that it’s the big bad Muslims that are the problem. I would rather ask whether the ideology that Professor Roy refers to, and specifically the political instrumentalisation of the concept of laïcité is not being used to overrule the civil rights of religious citizens, when a Jewish man in a Kippah come to a polling station and is turned away under the guise of laïcité, you need to question whether the civil rights are being applied to all citizens equally. Similarly now we have French citizens who are excluded from public spaces, from schools, from universities, from hospitals, from using public transport, I call that a civil liberties issue, and essentially to me the real civil rights issue is the profound racism that exists in France today, where there are huge inequalities when it comes to access to housing, to access to power even access to funding religious organisations it is worth pointing out there is still a Christian bias in that sense, a Christian citizens is two and a half times more likely to get a job interview in France than an equally qualified Muslim citizen according to a study by Stanford University not that long ago. I think there are numerous indications from human rights organisations including Amnesty International that have pointed to a climate of what I would call pervasive discrimination against Muslin citizens in particular. To come back specifically to the issue that everyone wants to talk about and this is the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, I would make a lot more about the fact that, this discussion is usually framed as Muslims being offended by cartoons. Actually a lot of Muslims were offended by images but a lot of Muslims did not rock up to the offices and to a Kosher store and shoot people. I will end that by saying that actually and I think on this one the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has it right when he says that the Muslim crowds did not react to Mohammed caricatures as such, they reacted to the complex figure or image of the West that was perceived as the attitude behind the caricatures.

Thank you for your time.

Written by Myriam Francois

June 23, 2015 at 17:26

Oxford Union debate: “This House believes Islam is incompatible with gender equality”

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This is the transcript of the debate I (and my team) won at the Oxford Union on Thursday 23rd of May, 2014, opposing the motion: “This House Believes Islam Is Incompatible with Gender Equality”
Final results: 166 opposition, 51 proposition

Ladies and gentleman, I’m here with you this evening to oppose this motion because I believe my ‎faith, Islam, is underpinned by a core principle of justice, which necessarily implies the full equality ‎of men and women. Moreover I urge you to think carefully about the infantilising and frankly ‎patronising implications of suggesting that Muslim women just don’t really know what’s good for ‎them.‎
But the significance of this topic and your recognition that it is entirely legitimate and coherent to ‎be both a Muslim, a practitioner of Islam, and to believe the faith is not only compatible with ‎gender equality, but fundamentally demands it, is far bigger than my personal, particularly ‎privileged position on the issue.‎

I’d like to draw your attention to the story of the little known activists doing the hard graft on the ‎ground. Khatoon Shaikh is a campaigner from one of India’s slums who, despite her lack of formal ‎education, decided to challenge injustices she saw meted out to women. She did this by ‎establishing a sharia court, which reclaims Islamic texts through a feminist perspective, challenging ‎prevailing patriarchy in the justice system and demanding gender parity. For her, like for millions of ‎women worldwide, Islam is an ethical framework of reference through which to affirm their ‎absolute equality with men. ‎

As a Muslim feminist, I’m acutely aware of the struggle over authority and meaning within Islam. ‎As Muslims, we can’t control who interprets the faith or how. But we can call people out for ‎inconsistencies between the proclaimed authenticity of their interpretation, and the very sources ‎they claim to derive their legitimacy from. ‎

I could have spent this entire speech highlighting ways in which the Quran seeks to affirm the ‎equality of men and women, but one simple saying by Prophet Mohamed (pbuh), who is referred ‎to as the embodiment of the Quran, sums it up: “Certainly, women are the equals of men, ‎whomever honours them is honorable, and whomever disdains them is worthy of disdain” (Imam ‎Ahmad).‎

What you’ve unknowingly stepped into via this debate is a struggle over religious authority in Islam ‎and who actually gets to speak for ‘Islam’. Really what supporting this motion would mean is ‎validating those with the power to assert their sexist interpretations – in other words, upholding ‎the view that those, predominantly men in power, somehow get to define Islam, and this, typically ‎at the expense of women. ‎

What you may not be aware of, is an ongoing struggle by a movement of Islamic reformists, for the ‎re-insertion of women’s voices. Religious literalists uphold the idea that they alone have the ‎authority to dictate to women where they belong and that usually is not far from the stove. ‎
But many other Muslims, male and female would dispute their religious authority, pointing to ‎empowering precedents of Muslim female leaders, businesswomen, scholars, activists, judges ‎from Islam’s inception onwards. What is often missing in discussions about the very real injustices ‎experienced by some Muslim women is a profound and nuanced understanding of the intersecting ‎circles of oppression they experience, and the consequent impact on Muslim women’s ability to ‎define the faith. ‎

After all, how in the face of illiteracy, is a woman meant to become a religious leader? How can ‎Muslim women assume positions of political authority within the context of widespread political ‎dictatorships, which are themselves a form of neo-patriarchy? ‎

Like many Muslim feminists, I spend a significant portion of my life unpicking the presumed truism ‎that Islam promotes gender inequality, both among some of my co-religionists and within broader ‎society. I am a feminist because I recognise there is a problem with misogyny in all societies and I’m ‎a Muslim feminist because I firmly believe that my faith, Islam, is inherently egalitarian.‎
It never ceases to amaze how much overlap can be found between the position of religious ‎puritanicals and those who try and claim Islam is inherently misogynistic. In many ways, the ‎positions are co-dependent, since the assumption that sexist interpretations represent an ‎authentic reflection of the faith, is critical to the argument that Islam is inherently misogynistic.‎

The problem is, such a position only really emboldens the sexism, it only serves to confirm the ‎perception of puritanicals that they, alone, reflect a true vision of the faith and that those of us ‎who refer to example of Prophet Mohamed as a pioneering feminist – who insisted on women’s ‎education, religious authority and tied the very notion of piety to the just treatment of women – ‎are either naïve or just plain deluded. ‎

I have no doubt that today the proposition will pull out decontextualized verses from the Quran ‎and herald them as a damning indictment of Islam’s inherent misogyny. What I would urge you to ‎do is not fall into the trap of thinking that sacred texts are books from which random excerpts can ‎be pulled and the significance of which is seemingly obvious. Let me assure you that is not the ‎case. ‎
The Quran is a context specific set of revelations which cannot be read without due consideration ‎of the higher objective of any given injunction. There is good reason theology is an actual academic ‎discipline – it requires years of study to understand how practitioners of a faith approach their ‎textual sources and one does a huge disservice to religion by claiming anyone can pick up the ‎Quran and understand what is intended by the text.‎

Similarly, I’m sure Iran or Saudi Arabia will be touted as examples of Islam’s inherent inequity ‎towards women, but the question does pose itself – Who says that the pseudo religious practises ‎of a given state actually represent the most authentic reflection of Islamic theology? In fact, the ‎entrenched sexism institutionalised in these countries has far more to do with political interests ‎and literalist interpretation, than with careful consideration of a faith which, in its earliest ‎incarnation, sought to radically reverse the deep misogyny of a society which buried its daughters ‎alive and treated women as chattel. ‎

Back in the 7th century when it was revealed, Islam instated a new set of values according to which ‎women have inalienable rights, among them the right to choose your spouse, the right to divorce, ‎to earn your own money, to take on public including political roles, to inherit and much more. But ‎above all else, Islam brought a message of fundamental human equality.‎

You will rightfully ask, if Islam has given women such clearly defined rights and established their ‎fundamental equality, why do so many Muslim communities reflect such inequities between the ‎sexes. The truth is there is no simple answer. Certainly, the marginalisation of female voices within ‎Islamic scholarship historically has given men free reign to institutionalise their authority and ‎cement it through the construction of religious legitimation. ‎

The consequence is a body of scholarship which perpetuates male privilege and a political body ‎which justifies its discriminatory practices through reference to those same texts. ‎
But to locate the root of women’s unequal treatment in religion, is to minimise the very real ‎multifaceted struggles women face –poverty, famine, disease, illiteracy, violence, occupation, war. ‎In other words, claiming Islam is to blame for women’s oppression is to be essentially blind to ‎‎“intersectionality” namely to the impact of the interrelated systems of race, gender, class, ‎ethnicity, etc.‎

Support for today’s motion equates to denying women agency in defining their faith and rejecting ‎the legitimacy of their struggles for equality expressed through paradigms which are meaningful to ‎them. ‎
You might aswell suggest that the Taliban extremists who shot Muslim educational activist, Malala ‎‎(Yousafzai) are actually the true representatives of Islam. Such neat binaries which present religion ‎as the source of all evil fail to recognise the value of religion to millions around the world and its ‎transformative potential, sometimes for bad, but often also for good. ‎

To quote the Iranian Muslim Nobel peace prize winner, Shirin Ebadi: “An interpretation of Islam ‎that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith. It is not religion ‎that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered.”‎

To support this motion is to lend credence to the likes of Boko Haram in Nigeria who kidnap young ‎girls and claim their education is a sin, rather than recognising the vast majority of Nigerian Muslims ‎who demand justice for women because of their faith, not despite it. ‎

Illustrating this is the largest ever study of Muslim public opinion globally by Gallup, which indicates ‎that religiosity does not actually correlate with less egalitarian views towards women, but rather ‎that in the majority of countries, men who support women’s rights were actually found to be more ‎religious.‎

What opposing this motion is truly about is recognising that there is no one-size-fits-all call for ‎gender equality. What there should be is a recognition of the myriad ways in which women ‎express their full emancipation, and sufficient respect for the intellect and integrity of Muslim ‎women to recognise that they are not passive victims of their religion, but active combatants in ‎reclaiming its true nature.‎

I’m asking you to oppose this motion because the struggle for gender equality is not the struggle of ‎white, secular middle class feminists – it is a struggle for justice and humanity which innumerable ‎devout Muslims around the world are involved in every day. By failing to acknowledge the ‎legitimacy of their voices in the struggle against gender oppression, by marginalising those who ‎articulate gender equality in terms other than our own, we only ultimately succeed in weakening ‎the struggle for gender equality itself. ‎

Islam isn’t just compatible with gender equality, it is a meaningful articulation of the full humanity ‎of women for millions around the world. I urge you to oppose this motion.‎
Thank you.‎

Written by Myriam Francois

May 23, 2014 at 11:18

Newman Association Lecture: “Secularism: threat or opportunity”

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This lecture was reprinted in the Newman Association’s journal.

Firstly, I’d like to thank the Newman Association for inviting me to speak this evening on this ‎important topic.‎

Edward Said, the Arab academic used to say “I’m Christian, but I’m culturally Muslim”. Inversely, I ‎would say “I’m Muslim, but I’m culturally Christian”. Christian festivities and holidays are built into ‎my life, whether I choose to incorporate them or not. I recently returned from Paris with a ‎traditional cake we eat in France for the epiphany, called “La Galette des rois” – I explained to my ‎children its religious significance for Christians, which although not an event marked in the Muslim ‎calendar, I’m happy to incorporate into our hybrid home culture, where I always emphasise the ‎importance of gleaning the wisdom of other Divine traditions. I mention the cake story because ‎I’m always reminded when I return to the fatherland (my mother being irish), that France despite ‎all its protestations over secularism, is also a deeply traditional country in many ways, where ‎Christianity, although arguably marginalised from the political sphere, continues to hold ‎tremendous importance in national culture. It dictates the holidays, the patisseries we eat and ‎when, but it is also the unspoken language of birth, marriage and death, an unconscious backdrop ‎for many, but a backdrop all the same. And I often consider how much poorer French culture ‎would be without a Christmas “buche” or the cathedral of Notre Dame or the philosophy of St ‎Augustine.‎

And so reflecting on the topic of secularism, I can’t help but start by considering the good ‎intentions which underpinned the secularist trend in France, the hope of ending ecclesiastical ‎privileges and affirming universal principles including the freedom of conscience and equal rights ‎expressed through the Declaration of Human Rights. The initial objective was to make the church a ‎source of public morals and not the basis for politics, to guarantee that religious practises should be ‎permitted, but with no preference given to any outlook and no one should be stopped from ‎exercising their religion. To ensure as Rajeev Bhargava describes it, that the plurality of society is ‎meet by a type of state neutrality he defines as “principled distance”. Of course today, this ‎aspiration seems far removed from arguments about crosses or headscarves in schools or the right ‎for women who wear face veils to move around freely.‎
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. Or ‎to quote Charles Taylor, the counterview to the suggestion that the enlightenment was a move ‎from darkness into light is the view that is was “an unqualified move into error, a massive ‎forgetting of salutary and necessary truths about the human condition.”‎
Today, largely as a consequence of this massive reassessment of religion, its place within modern ‎secular societies is socially contested and politically divisive.‎

For people of faith, what exactly is the concern? It is that religion becomes merely tolerated, no ‎longer a moral compass and a social glue, but a quirky eccentricity, derided at best, and often ‎denounced as a form of intolerance and close mindedness. The fears of religious folk also vary to ‎some extent as a consequence of their place within broader society. C of E folk may feel rather ‎differently than Hindus about secularism and the opportunities, or restrictions, secularism is ‎deemed to afford. And of course, across the world, secularism takes many different forms. In the ‎Middle East for example, secularism is associated with brutal dictatorships and religion with people ‎power. Even within Europe, France’s intrusive approach to secularism differs greatly from our ‎experience of secularism here in the UK.‎

I recently debated the issue of secularism with a Christian colleague from Ekklesia for the BBC, ‎examining the question as to whether we need greater or lesser secularism here in the UK. My ‎friend, a committed Christian himself, argued that the presence of bishops in the house of Lords, ‎the fact the monarch promises to uphold Christianity and the selectiveness permitted in ‎recruitment in religious schools are all examples suggesting that secularism has not gone far ‎enough in the UK. In his words, Jesus (pbuh) “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.”‎

My main concern with a desire to do away entirely with Christian symbolism is that those symbols ‎contribute to fostering a sense of national identity and culture. Nations need common values and ‎perhaps more than that, common symbols of the sacred. Like the academic Tariq Modood, I ‎believe it is “quite possible in a country like Britain to treat the claims of all religions in accordance ‎with multicultural equality without having to abolish the established status of the Church of ‎England, given that it has come to be a very “weak” form of establishment and that the church has ‎come to play a positive ecumenical and multi-faith role.” ‎

Prince Charles’s suggestion that he seems himself as “defender of Faith” rather than defender of ‎‎’the’ Faith is one such example of this. His commitment to highlighting and cultivating the rich ‎traditions of a variety of faith communities is another such example. But moreover, free, ‎democratic societies require a high level of commitment and participation which can only be ‎achieved with a strong sense of collective identity. It seems to me that Christianity very much ‎ought to play a part in that collective identity, both in terms of its historical significance but also in ‎terms of the contribution of Christians to modern Britain, alongside that of other faith and non-‎faith communities. All modern societies must and will undergo a redefinition of their historical ‎identity and it is essential for societal cohesion that all members of society are included in and ‎reflected in this redefinition.‎

But also, my concern with marginalising Christian symbolism stems from the fact this inadvertently ‎lends legitimacy to the view that religion ought to have no presence or voice in the public sphere. ‎

This is problematic to me on a number of fronts, not least in terms of the loss of invaluable wisdom ‎offered by diverse religious traditions, but also the potential impotency subsequently imposed on ‎religious organisations who time and time again are shown to be an invaluable element of our ‎social tapestry, supporting the most deprived, offering an inclusive space for the elderly, the ‎disabled, those often marginalised by the mainstream. Just today, a survey from Manchester ‎University found a direct correlation between higher visits to religious places and lower crime ‎figures, especially in relation to shoplifting, drug use and music piracy. The findings suggest this is ‎because religion not only teaches people about ‘moral and behavioural norms’, but also spending ‎time with like-minded people makes it less likely they’ll get mixed up with the ‘wrong crowd’.”‎

The largest network of food banks in the UK, the Trussell Trust, is a Christian charity, which has ‎doubled the number of people it feeds over the past year. Similar intiatives are run by other faith ‎groups, including Muslim organisations like Rumi’s Cave which runs a soup kitchen for the ‎homeless every Thursday. Although it is my view that the state should in fact be providing ‎sufficiently for its citizens so that none have to rely on charity in order to survive, it remains deeply ‎reassuring that where the state fails, religion steps in to fill the gaps. Studies show time and time ‎again that the social networks developed by religions are stronger, deeper and more effective and ‎areligious equivalents. This is not a matter of who’s better than whom, but rather a testament to ‎the deep social wealth contributed by religion to society and sadly often overlooked.‎
Interestingly, studies also 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.”‎

Of course, this isn’t to say people of no faith don’t also do good, volunteering and donating, but as ‎I regularly argue, religion, as opposed to faith, is all about the social, the societal, it is about the ‎meta-narrative which drives how we perceive the world and our place within it and a totally secular ‎public sphere, with all the good will of the Alain de Botton’s of the world, lacks an overarching ‎coherent narrative to drive citizens to do good. Good becomes alleatory, the product of, as all ‎things increasingly are, individualised and individualistic decisions about one’s own relationship to ‎the world. At the risk of reducing religion to a cost/benefit ratio, the connection between doing ‎good and salvation cannot be reproduced by a focus on the “feel good factor” or an overly ‎optimistic (in my view) hope that people will do the right thing. ‎
How can these injunctions possibly be compared with the depth of religious traditions which teach ‎that our worth as human beings is inherently tied to the good we spread in the world. To centuries ‎of teachings about charity and selflessness, about concern for the meek and the disenfranchised – ‎to structures and habits which orient all of our actions towards concern for the welfare of others ‎and awareness of the impact of our choices on society.‎

And so, the push for greater secularisation must be approached cautiously. In some ways, the ‎attempt to create a neutral public sphere, one which might prove blind to religion or its absence, ‎could help to foster greater tolerance, insure that the diverse nation which is modern Britain is ‎reflected at all levels and that the privileges of a historically rooted religious group do not ‎supersede the right of each and every citizen, whatever their faith or lack thereof, to be ‎represented in and influence the public sphere. Like the academic Charles Taylor, it seems clear to ‎me that secularism should not be about religion per say, but about managing diversity, not ‎favouring any basic position be it religious or not. Rather than focusing on the separation of church ‎and state, or the notion of removing religion from the public sphere a la French republican model, ‎Taylor argues that we should focus on the objectives of secularism – which he lists inline with the ‎french revolutionary trinity as “liberty, equality and fraternity” as well as harmony of relations – and ‎derive the concrete arrangements from there – in other words, what are the objectives of ‎secularism? To defend plurality – therefore how can the state best achieve this.‎

Like many people of faith, I have profound reservations about the radical secularism being pushed ‎from some quarters which seek to depict religious views as antiquated and outmoded at best, and ‎archaic and discriminatory at worst. Such currents pose a significant challenge to religious ‎communities because of the intransigent assumptions concerning the assumed universality and ‎immutability of liberal norms, some of which are anti-religious arguments masquerading as ‘liberal’ ‎principles. Most recently, the Grand Mufti of Atheism himself waged his own mini war against the ‎Times for referring to “Muslim babies” in an article, contending that babies are not Muslim or ‎Christian or otherwise. Tim Stanley has written a rather brilliant response to him in the Telegraph ‎today pointing out that this ignores how religion and culture work. He states that Muslim or ‎Christian or Hindu parents are adherents of a narrative which includes their loves ones within it and ‎that ignoring the ways in which cultures transmit beliefs, including religious beliefs, is in this ‎instance, a case of selective outrage. Of course Muslim parents have Muslim babies because that’s ‎how Muslim parents perceive things. The issue of course is a much deeper one, the idea pushed ‎by radical secularists that rather than creating a neutral public sphere in which all religious views can ‎coexist, that the state must impose a pseudo-neutrality which banishes any trace of religion from ‎our midst. And of course, this is a worry. Not least because, as fully fledged, tax paying citizens, ‎religious folk have as much right as anyone to see their views respected by the state and expect ‎accommodation of their perspective, within of course the given boundaries of not harming others.‎

In academia, Modernization theory, although widely discredited in theory, continues to influence ‎how many of us perceive the world. It 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. 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.‎
If, as some theorists speculate religion is not only not disappearing, but is actually reshaping, re-‎emerging in new shapes and forms, less institutional, more individualistic and personalised, the ‎question of secularism, how we define it and how it relates to the religious becomes ever more ‎pressing. As people of faith, I believe secularism contains in principle important elements for ‎managing a diverse society, values which we might even recognise as part of our moral lexicon, and ‎I would urge you not to allow the term to be hijacked and reframed by those who wish to use it as ‎a means of marginalising faith and its adherents from the public sphere. Secularism contains both ‎opportunities to better express the plurality of religious traditions, and a threat that religion could ‎be increasingly evicted from public life – it is my hope that people of faith will recognise the value ‎of a moderate, accomodationist secularism and help to redress the imbalance in the perception of ‎secularism and its goals.

Thanks for your time. God bless.‎

Written by Myriam Francois

February 5, 2014 at 17:24

House of Lords presentation: “Turkey and the Arab Awakening: Do the Arabs need Turkey as a role model?”‎

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This is a presentation I delivered on “Turkey and the Arab Awakening: Do the Arabs need Turkey as a role model?”‎ in honour of the launch of the Turkish Review at the House of Lords on Friday 11th of Jan, 2013. The event was chaired by Lord John Alderdice and my co-panelists were Dr Gulnur Aybet- Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Rutherford College, University of Kent at Canterbury and Kerim Balci- Editor of the Turkish Review.

A (poorly) edited short clip of proceedings can be viewed here:

Firstly I’d like to thank the organisers for inviting me to address this important topic. I should point ‎out that my own research is focused on Morocco and specifically on the social movement from ‎which emerged the main Islamic political party, currently in government, the Party of Justice and ‎Development (PJD). The PJD very much looks at the AK party as a ‘role model’, it has certain ‎criticisms, particularly in terms of what it views as laxity in the party’s ‘islamic’ credentials, but it ‎aspires to emulate its rise to power. When I interviewed senior figures, they went so far as to ‎suggest the AK party had in fact drawn inspiration from their logo, a lamp, for the AK’s symbol, the ‎bulb and meetings had occurred between the two groups previously.‎

Clearly, the PJD is not alone – the leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, Rashid Ghannouchi, said in July ‎‎2012, that he saw “Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) as a model of success ‎for his country to follow”‎ ‎ and Egypt’s new Prime Minister Mohammed Morsi, when he visited ‎Turkey in September 2012, also acknowledged the inspiration of Turkey’s ruling Justice and ‎Development Party (AKP).

Many in the Arab world are reassured by the combination of a democratic process and a ‎commitment to religious identity. A recent poll (by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies ‎Foundation (TESEV) over the last three months of 2011) found that Arabs see Turkey as a ‎champion of regional peace and role model for religion and democracy living side by side ( with a 78 ‎percent approval rating for Turkey and its policies.) In fact, 61% view Turkey as a model for their ‎own countries – On what basis? 32% cited its democracy, 25% its thriving economy and 23% its ‎Muslim identity.‎

It is no surprise that Turkey scored highest in countries where the Arab Spring has ended the rule ‎of dictators ‎ and politics is in flux, with a 91% approval rating in Tunisia and 86% in Egypt. ‎Unsurprisingly perhaps, Turkey polls rather more poorly in Syria.‎

This also tells us a bit about what Arabs tend to value in the models they aspire to – democratic ‎practises, a booming economy, an attachment to identity. Those who don’t consider Turkey a ‎model also tell us about Arab public opinion, notably their view of its “insufficient Muslim identity” ‎and its “ties to the West”.‎

However, the question here today, is whether Arabs, both those who identify with the Islamic ‎political movements and those who do not, should regard Turkey, which of course, means the ‎Turkish political model, not simply the AK party, as a model.‎
Firstly, I’m not fan of models in general. They might be useful conceptual tools, especially when ‎teaching, but the idea of blueprint capitalism or blueprint democracy is problematic. All countries ‎have their specific history and its legacy will ultimately shape their development far more than a ‎prescriptive model ever can or perhaps should. Surely we have something to learn from the errors ‎of blueprint capitalism as applied to the former Soviet East. Why assume blueprint democracy ‎could work any better?

More useful I think are universal standards and principles that all countries ‎should be held to. Transparency, accountability, the separation of power, economic growth, etc. ‎When we look at the evolution of countries according to these standards, we can say, for example, ‎that Turkey has significantly improved on the corruption scale (despite a long way to go), or we can ‎note that it has regressed on the scale of free speech and the freedom of the media. It is ‎principles, married to the specific context of different Arab countries, which I think will be more ‎beneficial in helping them achieve popular aspirations.‎

Secondly, one of the reasons we are talking about Turkey as a model for the Arab world today is ‎because Turkey has an islamically inspired party in power, the AKP and in many Arab countries, ‎islamically inspired political parties (or islamists as some might call them), have taken the lead.
From ‎Morocco, to Egypt, via Tunisia, Islamically referenced political parties have proven to be the ‎people’s choice at the polls.
Because of a longstanding view in certain sections of academia and ‎politics that Islam and democratic politics cannot be reconciled, Turkey is advanced as a model of ‎balance, having successfully integrated an islamically inspired party into a staunchly secular political ‎system, returning the army to the barracks and fostering the type of economic growth ‎ we in ‎Britain can only currently dream of. There were no hand-choppings, no bans on alcohol or ‎nightclubs, and ties with the so-called ‘West’ have been strengthened. Which I’ll translate into ‎layman terms as ‘business as usual’ with our Western partners, which is to a large extent, what it ‎comes down to. ‎

However, I share the view of Turkish academic Shebnem Gumushju, who writes: ‎
‎“there is no “Turkish model” of an Islamist democracy; rather, there are Muslims in a secular-‎democratic state working within a neoliberal framework.”‎

Do I think this is a model which is applicable elsewhere and specifically in the Arab world? I can say ‎speaking of Morocco, which is I case that I know particularly well, that would be a resounding no ‎there. Why? In Morocco, the king who is also known as ‘amir al mouninin’, is both the head of state ‎and leader of the believers, a religious leader heading in all other regards a ‘secular state’. Despite ‎a widespread desire for the King to relinquish power to elected bodies, most Moroccans do not ‎want to get rid of the king, or his religious symbolism, altogether. ‎

‎ Turkish style secularism is not widely desired in Morocco, even if it can accommodate an islamically ‎inspired party like the AK party. I wager this is the case in most Arab countries which will have to ‎grapple between the Islamic identity a majority want reflected in the political system and ‎international laws and standards premised on a religiously neutral public sphere. ‎

However, Islamic political parties will benefit from the precedent of a party which has established a ‎strong parliamentary system and which has worked with the opposition in devising the ‎constitution. Egypt take note. ‎

Economically, do I think neo-liberal economic policies are best for Egypt or Yemen or Algeria which ‎don’t have Turkey’s skilled work force, its strong industries and bargaining weight – no I don’t. ‎There are no equivalent ‘Anatolian tigers’ to fuel the construction of new businesses, no money in ‎the coffers to build cities, schools, and infrastructure which could boost the economy as they have ‎in Turkey.‎
Economically, Turkey’s model of growth is based on premises which are not found in most Arab ‎nations. Tackling youth unemployment, as Turkey has done, and as Arab states must if they are to ‎avoid future instability, is not a ‘Turkish model’, it is common sense. Turkey has made impressive ‎social reforms with universal health insurance now covering almost the entire population and the ‎increase in early childhood education and preschool enrolment. Prioritising health and education ‎are important precedents for Turkey to set, but how Turkey has achieved this, namely how it has ‎financed these, cannot be replicated in the Arab word. ‎

Turkey is the 18th largest economy in the world, compare that with Egypt, which ranks at 43 and ‎Tunisia at 77, according to IMF figures (and given the instability of the past year, this is likely to have ‎dropped over 2012.)‎

Besides which, I’m not even certain neo-liberal economic policies are best for any of us, let alone ‎developing nations. Turkey’s deficit measured in dollars is second only to America’s ‎. Reliance on ‎debt has become increasingly prevalent and you needn’t look much further than Europe to see ‎where that leads. ‎

So in answer to the question, Do the Arabs need Turkey as a role model? – I think at this moment ‎in time, they need inspiration and polls suggest this is what Turkey offers, since a widely held ‎perception is of a country which has built itself on its own terms. A country which appears to have ‎tamed the military, which has a booming civil society, economic growth coupled with a growing ‎regional weight. However, Turkey has its own issues. The resurgence of authoritarianism is of ‎concern, Turkey’s Kurds have been the major source of human rights violations and Turkey is rated ‎as 148th in the Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders, below the Democratic Republic of ‎Congo and only slightly above Afghanistan. It has one of the highest incarceration rates for ‎members of the news media in the world. ‎

I have argued against the idea of viewing Turkey as a model not because I don’t believe that it ‎hasn’t been successful on a number of fronts, but because of the prescriptiveness of models. ‎

Among the unresolved tensions of Turkish politics are the public role of religion, minority rights and ‎civil and religious freedoms. Given that both Egypt and Tunisia are experiencing the same tensions ‎to a greater or lesser degree, they can look to Turkey for policies to adopt or avoid.‎
What the Arab world needs is to be held to the same standards as all nations, but to be given the ‎flexibility to adapt these to their socio-cultural context. Precedents in managing similar conflicts ‎are helpful – Tunisia in particular seems to me have interesting lessons for other Arab states in ‎working with the secular opposition, managing extremist elements and reforming the judiciary.‎

Turkey, despite its pitfalls, offers the alternative of an islamically inspired party which also ‎successfully manages the country in the public interest. Islamic political movements, most of whom ‎are still very new to the political game, have a precedent in the AK party which should broaden ‎their view of what is ‘permissible’ and desirable. Or not, as the case may be. At the very least, ‎Turkey, rather than model, is an aspirational example for nascent independent Arab nations.‎

Written by Myriam Francois

January 11, 2013 at 17:37

Lecture at Mill Hill School: Faith in the modern world

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(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.

Jalaluddin Rumi

*Faqir: Literally, a beggar, but here used to mean someone with real spiritual knowledge and humility.


Written by Myriam Francois

November 13, 2012 at 14:08

Lecture: “Mohamed, a mercy to mankind”

with 3 comments

This is the audio of a lecture I gave at various universities on the topic of “Mohamed, a mercy to mankind”

I may post the text once I’ve finished giving it, end of April (ish)

ps. I didnt post the talk, nor did I put up the image, which erroneously describes me as an “Oxford grad” – still working on the “grad” part 🙂

Written by Myriam Francois

March 3, 2012 at 18:35

Lecture: Islam and feminism – common ground?

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This is a lecture I delivered at the university of Southampton, a join Islamic society and Feminist society event in January 2012.

Written by Myriam Francois

February 20, 2012 at 13:55