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The Telegraph: Sharia marriage in the UK is not toxic – polygamous men are

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In 2012, I was working on a documentary for the BBC on polygamy in Britain. Researching such a sensitive topic was no easy task. Contrary to the hype, polygamy is not socially acceptable in Muslim communities. It is often frowned upon and many polygamous families tend to keep quiet about their set up. Nonetheless, we managed to find a discreet polygamous Muslim marriage event, where – an overwhelmingly male turnout – had come to find a potential second, or in some cases third wife. Some had even come as a couple, with one woman explaining that she had grown up in a polygamous household in her ancestral country and liked the “sisterhood” she saw among co-wives.

Sisterhood is all well and fine, but as Aina Khan, a leading Islamic family lawyer, pointed out in the latest reports about the rise of Sharia marriage in the UK, polygamy is often far from rosy for the women involved. “Although many people will be cohabiting or having mistresses, Muslims can’t do that. Polygamy leaves women vulnerable. If you’re cohabiting and you don’t know you’re rights, it is the same position whether you’re Muslim or not, because there are no cohabitee rights (..) because women have an Islamic marriage certificate, they feel protected, but it is a false sense of security – they think they can’t be made homeless overnight, but they can. This is a major issue.”
Women in polygamous “marriages” are not recognised as wives under British law and if and when the relationship sours – which is common – the woman is left with no legal claim to her investment in the household. Although historically, Islam emerged in a polygamous society, it sought to dramatically restrict the practise and the Quran describes the Islamic ideal as a couple. Unsurprisingly, some ahistorical readings render the exceptional permission a blanket encouragement to fulfil a wandering eye. And as is so often the case, it is women – and children – who pay the heaviest price.

Talking me today, Khan expressed her concern over the press coverage of her comments, some of which appear to stigmatise Sharia law and link Muslim ‘nikah’ (Islamic) marriages to Isil-style extremism. “I see no link to Isil” she tells me bluntly. “I see no problem with Sharia, I am a lawyer and for me, it is a legal issue – it is wrong to see that English law doesn’t apply to all faiths equally, that is where the injustice is. The marriage act needs to be reformed to apply to all faiths.”

You see Khan has been campaigning for a reform of the marriage act and her ‘Register Our Marriage’ campaign aims to emphasise the importance of registering religious marriages conducted in the UK, where according to her firm’s estimate, up to 80 per cent of young British Muslims are in unregistered unions. Her campaign has widespread support from leading Muslim organisations as well as women’s groups, who view the issue as an equal rights matter, and recognise the danger of potential human rights abuses.

The lack of recognition of Sharia law marriage – or nikah– the standard Muslim religious marriage ceremony – in British law is part of the reason so many Muslim marriages are going unregistered. While Christian couples who marry in a church, or Jewish couples who marry in a synagogue find their marriages automatically recognised under UK law, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and other religious groups are not afforded the same recognition, requiring them to undertake a separate, civil ceremony. In France, imams refuse to undertake the nikah unless the registry marriage has been completed previously, ensuring that in the vast majority of cases, the nikah and registry marriages are conceived of as the two parts of the marriage ceremony. And in most Muslim majority countries Khan points out, registering nikahs is a legal requirement.

However, in the UK the Government’s reticence to extend the same rights to Muslims – and other religious groups – has contributed to the normalisation of a parallel system, where couples undertake the nikah ceremony but don’t bother with the legal registry marriage. Khan’s clients are not only Muslim, but Sikhs and Hindus too she points out.

There are other reasons also. Nikah marriages in their current UK format are easily dissolved and can be kept discreet – in other words, young Muslim couples may prefer to undertake a nikah marriage – ironically perceived as less binding than British legal mariages – to facilitate a physical relationship prior to committing in the eyes of their family and community. This is less “creeping Sharia” and more, how can we be boyfriend-girlfriend like everyone else, without ‘compromising’ our beliefs.

The lack of official recognition of Sharia ceremonies also leads to issues when relationships break down. As I reported in a piece for the Telegraph and Channel 4 last year, Sharia councils, although not legally binding in their judgements, often provide women with deeply worrying advice as concerns their relationships, and in some cases advising a return to abusive partners. The lack of regulation of these councils – which many women turn to because of their own religious agency and desire to operate within their ethical guidelines – means rogue councils can cement misogynistic practises in the shadows, rather than providing a safe and open environment where religious women can find religiously compatible advice as concerns their marital woes. If the Government is serious about addressing these rogue councils, the solution will not be banning them – a measure which will drive them underground (where they will continue to operate with even less oversight) – but rather to streamline their services. This move would ensure such councils must register, operate within existing legislation and ensure anyone advising couples is adequately trained not simply theologically, but also in matters pertaining to domestic abuse.

Polygamy and unregistered marriages are a serious concern. But stigmatising the religious law of any community and linking religious rituals to extremism does little but contribute to a toxic atmosphere in which all aspects of Muslim life are depicted as a problem in the UK. In reality, it is those like Aina Khan, working to create symbiosis between British and religious laws – including Sharia law – who are doing the most to assist those vulnerable women and children affected by this legal loophole. But as is so often the case with Muslim stories, why let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh?

You can read the piece here

Written by Myriam Francois

July 7, 2015 at 10:19

Middle East Eye: Comic Aamer Rahman on ‘Islamophobia as a flavour of racism’

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aamer rahman

There’s something gripping about watching Aussie stand-up comedian Aamer Rahman in action. Beyond an undeniable personal charisma which has certainly contributed to his sell-out tours here in the UK, Australia and the US, the multi-award-winning comic has the ability to shock and challenge in equal measure, with sketches touching on some of the most controversial issues of the day, from the Islamic State group to Anders Breivik, skin heads to the detention of asylum seekers.

The power of Rahman’s comedy lies in a confrontational style which forces audiences to contemplate the pervasiveness of prejudice, and many people’s awkward complicity in its perpetuation. I caught up with him during his most recent UK solo tour, “The Truth Hurts” – dubbed one of The Guardian’s Top 10 Comedy Shows of 2014 – to talk politics, racism and the limits of comedy.

Until his career took off last year when his now infamous “Reverse Racism” skit went viral, Rahman had been considering giving comedy up altogether. Having split from the award-winning comedy duo “Fear of a Brown Planet” he says: “I felt comedy was at a real dead end, Australia was too small and too limited an audience.”

Despite accolades and critical acclaim – he won the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Best Newcomer Award, opening for hit US comedian Dave Chapelle, and even a TV show to his name – the struggle to turn his niche comedy into a viable career remains a challenge for the 32-year-old, who cringes at some of the proposals sent his way. He reads me out a recent pitch to his agent involving a Muslim pub landlord – to be played by Aamer himself – whose job it would be to “challenge preconceived notions of Muslims”.

“I wanted to throw my phone at a wall,” he tells me. “That is one of the most offensive things anyone has ever sent me. Muslim pub landlord – coming soon,” he jokes sardonically.

I ask him why he thinks his Reverse Racism clip – in which he imagines a scenario where the very concept of “reverse racism” could actually be viable – went viral the way it did. The video now has well over a million YouTube views. “It hit a nerve – it’s an argument that so many people have had. Whenever racism is discussed, reverse racism is discussed. I always say this is actually the point of comedy. People think comedians are very original. No, the comedian confirms what you already know. That’s why you laugh, you already bought that but they re-articulated it in an entertaining way. What I said in that clip, everyone knows, we’ve all felt that our whole lives – it confirms a deep frustration that so many people have.”

Most recently, a poll by the MCB found that 95 percent of Muslims in the UK feel loyalty toward Britain – but is questioning the loyalty of British Muslim citizens the way forward in his view? “I don’t think it changes anything” he says, shaking his head. “It doesn’t convince racists any more than when there is a terrorist attack and Muslim organisations and leaders come out and say: ‘We are British/American/Australian just like you.’ It is fundamentally premised on the idea that maybe these people are all trying to kill us. Surprisingly they’re not, here’s a good news story for the day!”

So, what does he make of the argument that linking Islamophobia and racism shuts down valid criticism of the faith? “I see Islamophobia as a flavour of racism. It is a type of racism. To restrict racism to just skin colour, or just culture – it’s not something I agree with. Racism I see as a systemic oppression, ‘otherising’, marking of a group of individuals according to race, ethnicity or culture, so you are on paper ‘white’, but you are also Muslim, which ticks you as ‘other’ – it is much more complicated than this notion that people don’t like the way you look so they start being horrible on the train.”

For Rahman, anti-Muslim sentiment is deeply political in nature. “The anti-Muslim paranoia which is generated in the West is so useful, because racism is based on imaginary things. The idea of the Muslims can trigger so many things in people’s imagination, you can use it to justify foreign policy, because we’re fighting ‘these kinds of people’. You can use it to justify reparation policies and asylum policies, because these people are coming to invade and steal your jobs. You can use it to attack poor and working people because some of them are or look Muslim. That’s the best part of Islamophobia, you don’t even need to be Muslim – they just need to fall somewhere in the net of vaguely Muslim. It is good value for money.”

So what’s at the root of racism? Is it as simple as what we often hear – the idea of “hatred”? “The biggest mistake people make when they talk about racism is to talk about it without talking about class,” Rahman says. “So racism always has some sort of economic imperative. It isn’t just we hate people like this because their food is different and they wear funny things, and they have beards and headscarves. It is about poor working people, it is about asylum seekers, it is about foreign policy, which are all economically driven. We need to invade these places, so we need to construct the idea that these people need to be invaded – and we need to construct the idea that they don’t deserve to flee those places and come and live amongst us – and we need to construct the idea that they don’t deserve benefits and they don’t deserve housing.”

Rahman isn’t just an armchair theorist on this issue. His adopted brother runs RISE, the first refugee and asylum seeker organisation in Australia to be run and governed by refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees, and a group within which he himself has a history of activism. In one of his skits, he describes being part of a group of activists who trek out into the Australian desert to help free detainees. Without giving away the punch line, it involves blood, a woman handing her baby to strangers through a fence and Rahman spending some time in police custody.

Discussing the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, I put to him the widely touted idea that Muslims are just too sensitive to accept criticism: “This is what came out during the whole Charlie Hebdo situation – you just can’t talk about Islam, you can’t criticise Islam, as if Islam hasn’t been under the microscope since 9/11, as if Islam hasn’t been systematically dissected and pulled apart in the media non-stop for the last decade. The idea that Muslims can’t be criticised – we’re in the middle now of the fourteenth year of a global war specifically targeting Muslims. Muslim communities have been subjected to unprecedented surveillance, monitoring, policing – these are all criticisms of Islam.”

Should some topics be off-limits in comedy then? I ask. Who gets to decide what those topics are? “I’m not for censorship,” he quickly interjects. “I think Muslims hold some things sacred in a way that it is difficult for non-religious people and maybe even religious but non-Muslim people to understand. Given where Muslims sit socially and politically, crossing those lines has quite deep implications. Because Muslims are often poor, marginalised, under-employed, etc.. Obviously any provocation is much much worse. If Muslims were rich and comfortable, I don’t think they’d be as upset about these things – they’d definitely still be upset, there’s no question, but I think that context is important. In France, when you live in a country which is more offended by your headscarf than racist pornographic cartoons that bully a minority, that’s got to be upsetting.”

As we wrap up our interview, I ask Rahman whether his flippant style of comedy can ever transcend the racist divide it speaks to – can it ever speak to the racist? “No,” he responds. “It can’t speak to the racist. It isn’t designed to speak to the racist, it is designed to validate victims of racism and what they think – one thing we’re always told growing up when we experience racism is that it isn’t there. You’re too sensitive, you’re misunderstanding, they didn’t mean it like that, it’s just a joke. It’s not – we have a sixth sense about it because we’ve experienced it our whole lives. It’s absolutely true, I’m not crazy, they shouldn’t have said that – that’s who my comedy is for.”

So when can we expect to see him back on stage in the UK next, I ask as he’s about to embark on the US leg of his tour. In his now trademark style, he smiles: “Look, if this Muslim pub idea takes off, I could franchise that and turn it into a tour show of me opening a franchise of Muslims pubs – Mubs.”

Aamer Rahman is starting a two-month tour of the US; find out more about his tours here.

You can read the original piece on the MEE website, here

Written by Myriam Francois

March 25, 2015 at 13:47

BBC radio 4 PM: myself and Dan Jones (The Sun) discussing that Sun front page aka halal hysteria

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Written by Myriam Francois

May 11, 2014 at 13:19

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

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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

Demonstrating for dignity: why are Muslims SO enraged?

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A version of this article was published on the Index on Censorship website, you can read it here or on my Huffington Post blog, here

Muslims eh, they just cant seem to take a joke can they? It would be very easy to cast, as many ‎commentators have, the latest riots in response to the islamophobic film, as another example of ‎intolerant Muslims lacking a funny bone. The Rushdie affair, the Danish cartoons, the murder of ‎Van Gogh – surely the latest saga fits neatly into a pattern of evidence suggesting Muslims are over ‎sensitive and violent. After all, critics will argue, Christians are regularly derided through the arts ‎and media and they don’t go around burning embassies and killing people. Only the situation is ‎hardly analogous. The power relations in which a dominant majority can be perceived as insulting ‎and humiliating a disgruntled and feeble minority, cannot be ignored in the analysis of Muslim ‎responses to offensive art works. But the truth is, the protests across the Arab world are about ‎much more than the usual ‘free speech’ Vs ‘Islam’ blah. In fact, at the ‎heart of the unrest is a powerful current of anti-Americanism rooted in imperialist policies and ‎bolstered dictatorships and the expected instability to be found in post-revolutionary states.

Firstly, although the film may have been the catalyst for the riots, it would be wrong to assume ‎that all the riots have exactly the same cause. The murder of American embassy staff in Libya ‎appears to have been the work of an Al Qaida fringe which had been plotting the revenge of one ‎its senior leaders and used the protest against the film as a smokescreen for its attack. What ‎brought regular Libyans to the embassy was undoubtedly initially, opposition to the film. However ‎there and elsewhere, the anger of the masses has appeared to morph into something much ‎broader – a reflection of anti-American sentiment grounded in the USA’s historically fraught ‎relationship to the region.‎
This is hardly the first demonstration of anger against Western targets in any of the countries at ‎hand, it is only possibly amongst the most mediatised because of the spin placed on the story, ‎represented as it has been, as some sort of reflection of the fundamental intolerance of Islam.‎

For those with a short memory, it was only last month that a pipe bomb exploded outside the US ‎embassy in Libya and both the Red cross and other Western aid organisations have come under ‎fire there in recent months. It is certainly a misnomer to think that NATO intervention in support of ‎the rebels against Gadhafi somehow erased deep-seated grievances against the US, not least the ‎sense of humiliation of the Arab world against decades of Western domination. Sure, we may have ‎helped get rid of Gadhafi when it was expedient, but for a long time, we traded quite happily with ‎the man whilst he brutally repressed his people. In some cases, we even helped him do it. A ‎recent Human Rights Watch report, Delivered into Enemy Hands: US-Led Abuse and Rendition of ‎Opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya , details the stories of Libyan opposition figures tortured in US-run ‎prisons in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and then delivered back to Libya, with full-awareness that ‎they were going to be tortured or possibly killed. Even in the “new Libya”, not all sections of the ‎Revolution feel the outcome of the elections was truly representative of popular feeling. Not to ‎mention Egypt, where Mubarak, whom Hilary Clinton once described as a “close family friend”, ‎tortured and killed innumerable dissidents in a US backed dictatorship. To think the elections which ‎happened just months ago would transform popular opinion concerning the US’s role in the region ‎is ludicrous. And that’s before we even get to Iraq.‎

Broken by poverty, threatened by drones, caught in the war between al Aaida and the US, to many ‎Arab Muslims, the film represents an attack on the last shelter of dignity – sacred beliefs – when all ‎else has been desecrated. ‎

It is no surprise that some of the worst scenes of violence come from Yemen, where US policy has ‎resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, fuelling anger against a regime whose brutality and ‎corruption has left the country ranking amongst the poorest in the Arab world. Given that it is also ‎one of the countries where people have the least access to computers and the internet, it is also ‎entirely likely that many protestors never even saw the film. It also seems unlikely anyone ‎believed the film was actually produced by the American government. Though many might have ‎believed the US government could act to restrict the film’s diffusion, censorship being altogether ‎common in many of these countries, the focus on American symbols – embassies, American ‎schools – even KFC – suggests the roots of popular anger is not hurt religious pride. These ‎symbols of America were not the unwitting target of frustration over a film – rather the film has ‎provided an unwitting focal point for massive and widespread anger at US foreign policy in the ‎region. If the Arab revolutions let the dictators know exactly how people felt about their ‎repression, these demonstrations should be read as equally indicative of popular anguish with the ‎US’s role in the region.‎

The film is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back – to stand in consternation at the fact a ‎single straw could cripple such a sturdy beast is to be naïve or wilfully blind to the accumulated ‎bales which made the straw so hard to carry. ‎
This is not an attempt to minimise the offense caused by the film – Mohamed is a man whose ‎status in the eyes of many Muslims, cannot be overstated. When your country has been bombed, ‎you’ve lost friends and family, possibly your livelihood and home, dignity is pretty much all you ‎have left.‎

The producers of the film may have known very little about film-making, but they knew lots about ‎how to cause a stir. Despite its obscure origins, mediatised references to an “Israeli” director living ‎in the US, to a “100 Jewish donors” who allegedly provided “5 million dollars”, to a hazy “Coptic ‎network” – all played into a well-known register. When 2 out of five Arabs live in poverty, a 5 million ‎dollar insult has more than a slight sting to it.‎

Those who sought to bring winter to an Arab spring and possibly destabilise a US election, were ‎keenly aware of the impact those words would have, situating the film within on-going tensions ‎between Israel and the Arab world and stirring up the hornet’s nest of minority relations in a ‎region where they remain unsettled.‎

In a tweet, the Atheist academic Richard Dawkins decried the events by lambasting “these ‎ridiculous hysterical Muslims”. In so doing, he, like others, not only failed to read these events for ‎what they are – predominantly political protests against US meddling, but he also failed to ‎recognise the basic humanity of the protestors. To dismiss deep anger as mere hysteria is to ‎diminish to decades of oppression experienced by many Muslims, particularly in the Arab world, ‎often with US complicity.‎
If you deny any relationship between the systematic discrimination of Muslims and stigmatization ‎of Islam and the overreaction of the Muslim community to offensive jokes, or films, or cartoons, ‎then you are only left with essentialist explanations of Muslim hysteria and violence. These ‎protests aren’t about a film – they’re about the totality of ways in which Muslims have felt ‎humiliated over decades.‎ Humiliation doesn’t justify violence, but it certainly helps explain it.

Reporting on the “incident” as somehow indicative of Islam’s essential incompatibility with the ‎West not only conveniently omits the realities of Muslim oppression globally, but also reinforces ‎them in many ways. Before we start searching for the nebulous network behind the film, or the ‎reasons why “Muslims are so prone to getting offended”, we would do better to actually search ‎for the conditions that have contributed to rendering the mass dehumanization of particular group ‎of people socially unobjectionable and do well to remember that the right to protest, angrily even, ‎is just as central to the concept of free speech, as the right to make offensive movies.‎

Update: this piece was written in the very early days of the protests and consequently, I would want to nuance some of the points I’ve made here in light of more recent developments.
Firstly, popular anger in many countries might well have as much to do with the instability of a post-revolutionary context as it does with anti-US feelings. In Tunisia, in Libya, these protests might also be seen as occasions to vent anguish at more localised concerns.
Secondly, the protests were clearly instrumentalised very quickly by ‘islamist’ groups to bolster popularity by waiving the ever unifying banner of anti-US feeling. This suggest they took on a local, political dimension very rapdily.
Thirdly, in some countries, such as Libya, local people even took to the streets in following days to oppose extremist elements and express solidarity with the murdered embassy staff. This doesnt discount mistrust or anger with previous US policies in the region but it certainly suggests a more complex relationship wit the US following the NATO support to rebels.
Fourthly, only a very very small proportion of people protested and an even smaller number engaged in violence. In many stable countries, such as Malaysia or Turkey, protests remained peaceful. Those countries which saw the most violence were often the most unstable and local factors – disaffection, unemployement, anger at government, poverty – are all essential components having contributed to people’s behaviour during the protests.

Islamophobia: Orwellian ‘doublespeak’ ?‎

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Earlier this month, James Bloodworth wrote a blog for the Independent comparing Islamophobia to a type of Orwellian doublespeak, “PR jargon”, designed to shut down public debate. He joins a chorus of voices on the Left who reject the term on grounds of the ‘freedom to criticise’ Islam. This particular argument is disconcerting in that Islam is regularly subjected to the sort of scrutiny rarely if ever, afforded to other faiths, and  many of those who seek to counter islamophobia, myself included, have been equally committed to defending free speech. The term ‘islamophobia’ is many things, but it is not an attempt at muzzling critical inquiry.

Some on the Left have gone further still, joining voices on the Right in denouncing Islam on the grounds of its alleged anti-liberal tenets. Chief amongst these, the late Italian writer and left-wing journalist Oriana Fallaci insisted that Islam is a violent and totalitarian creed; British novelist and former New Statesman editor Martin Amis has previously stated Muslims should be deprived of their civil liberties as a form of collective punishment and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee frequently regurgitates the most odious and decontextualized translations of the Quran as if they were, well – Gospel. Paul Hockenos argues that “the left and liberals have largely capitulated, unable to address the issue of Islam and the Muslims among us in a constructive way.”

There have been many attempts at defining islamophobia and debates rage over its Orientalist or Post-9/11 emergence and the appropriate response to it (legislation vs. education). However, despite the frequently erected straw-man of stifling free speech, countering islamophobia is not about limiting discussion of the faith itself. It is about ensuring a largely socially, economically and politically disenfranchised minority is not stigmatised, stereotyped, further marginalised and consequently left open to hate crimes.

A personal bugbear is the suggestion that Islam or the Quran ‘says’ – Islam doesn’t speak – people speak in the name of Islam, filtering the texts through their experiences and drawing on interpretive traditions. Islamophobia is when influential figures like Tonybee or others define Islam in a public sphere where Muslims struggle to make themselves heard, over and above how Muslims themselves understand their faith. In other words, it is to ascribe meaning to Islam which most Muslims do not. The reification of faith by public figures with prominent platforms, assumes that, unlike other religious traditions, Islam is monolithic and can be gleaned from a brief perusal of sacred texts. It can’t. To do so is to misrepresent Islam, the faith of over 1.3 billion people in the world, and to leave its practitioners open to the accusation of complicity in a depraved hate cult.

What’s more, despite a clear ontological distinction between race and religion, it cannot be ignored that Islam is associated with racialized minorities – South Asians in the UK, Arabs in France, Turks in Germany. When critique of religion overlaps so significantly with a particular racial group within society, and is often used as short-hand for that racial group, the line between religion and race becomes obscured. The Daily Mail’s choice to use the term “muslim gang”  to refer to rapists who plied young girls with alcohol and raped them, is one such example. The recent case in Rochdale further illustrated this confusion.  While Chief Crown Prosecutor in the case Nazir Afzal blamed “imported cultural baggage”, commentators such as David Aaronovitch promptly interpreted that to mean Islam. Although Pakistan is a Muslim majority country, to assume Islam is the central motivating factor in the behaviour of all Pakistanis, is a form of cultural racism.

The close imbrication of religion, race and culture in almost every part of the world makes disassociating them a complex affair. Take the case of Nouredine Rachedi, a young Frenchman who was returning home late one evening in Paris when two men approached him and asked him if he was Muslim. They then proceed to beat him so savagely, he was incapacited for three weeks with severe head injuries. Nouredine is clean shaven and was dressed inconspicuously. His aggressors singled him out on the basis of his ethnic profile, before determining his religious identity based on his verbal confirmation.

Islamphobia, as a term, is required to refer to precisely these cases where the focus of abuse is a projected understanding of what someone stands for based on their being identified as Muslim. This represents the shift in emphasis from classical biological racism to cultural racism, described by critical race theory. New forms of discrimination are complex and subtle, they largely avoid the crude biological markers of racial stereotyping and have been replaced with a focus on cultural differences, real or imagined, to rationalize the unequal status and treatment of different racial groups.

The assumptions is, there are some cultures that are more backward than our highly evolved selves and that honour killings, forced marriages and blood feuds are reflections of an ‘islamic’ culture, which through the presence of Muslims in Europe, poses a threat to our identity and values. Such pernicious assumptions are then reflected in people’s attitudes and behaviour towards Muslims. One recent study showed 58 percent of Germans in favour of restricting religious freedom for Muslims. According to recent findings by Faith matters, Muslim women face increasing harassment by EDL sympathisers.

The topic of Islam has had a uniquely harmonising effect on Left and Right, uniting unlikely pundits in a shared concern that Islam  – assumed to be a hegemonic influence on people’s behaviour- is responsible for virtually all social ills from sex trafficking to benefit fraud. Perceived ethnic uniformity is taken to mirror a uniformity of belief and outlooks, despite the fact, all religions have plural expressions, with as many implications for freedom of expression, women, democracy or the use of violence for political ends.

The concern is that the racist essentializing of  “Muslimhood” is ignored on the grounds that the term ‘islamophobia’ isn’t clear enough. I would wager the term is crystal clear for those on the receiving end – such as when Muslim columnist Mehdi Hasan was described by one blogger as a “moderate cockroach” whose Islamic faith was “no different from the Islam of Abu Hamza, Abu Qatada, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Anjem Choudary”. Or when the American writer Laila Lalami ‘s husband was asked by an immigration officer  “So, how many camels did you have to trade for her?” 

Islamophobia is only unclear to those who see to obfuscate its meaning. It is the tendency to reify Islam  – that is to assume the behaviour of given individuals (typically extremists) reflects an accurate concretisation of the theoretical underpinnings of the faith itself, and it is the tendency to view its practitioners, Muslims, as a monolithic block, whose every behaviour is a consequence of that essentialised identity.

The struggle against Islamophobia is in fact the struggle for more accurate and less lazy explanations of phenomena, getting to the root of the issues rather than seeking to pin the blame on a theoretical body of ideas. There is no more one ‘Islam’ to blame for people’s behaviour, than there is one ‘Christianity’. That might seem like a truism, but whilst it would be comical to speak of the US nuclear arsenal as the ‘Judaeo-Christian bomb’, it has become all too common to speak of the weapons of, say, Pakistan, Iran or Libya as the ‘Islamic bomb’. Rather than investigating and investing in countering rape culture, we claim the muslimness of particular rapists is to blame, absolving popular culture from blame when the men themselves refer to the young women using the sadly popular playground put down “slags”. We regularly see ‘Islam’ used as a catch-all phrase to explain complex phenomena, distracting us from the real issues at hand.

Islamophobia is rejecting the ease with which dejecting and insipid stereotypes of Islam and Muslims are accepted as normal, such as the recent claim, popularised by the Daily Mirror, that Zain Malik  of boyband One Direction,  was “pimping Islam” on young girls through “boyband jihad”. Or the use of imagery to fan the flames of fear, as the Sun on Sunday, did by superimposing the image of a woman in a burka against a caustic article entitled “Foreign-born population in the UK” of which ironically India, a Hindu majority country topped the list. Or the ease with which columnist and writers can refer to Muslim women as “shroud-swishing zombies”  or “silly little misguided Muslim girls” (Julie Burchill; The Sun June 24th, 2009) dressed like “a Dalek in a full veil’ (John Gaunt;The Sun June 20th, 2008) or Dame Ann Leslie’s reference to Muslim women as ‘dressed in  bin bags’ on last Sunday Morning Live.

Raising awareness of islamophobia is also about recognising the danger this discourse poses in legitimising the Far-right, a growing trend across Europe where the National Front recently won two seats in the French parliament. In light of the Breivik massacre, it is acknowledging that far from being a lone sociopath, his actions were grounded, according to his manifesto, in an all too common view of Islam and Muslims as a fifth column within Europe and a threat to Western values. In fact, a report by the Cardiff school of journalism found that from 2008, stories in the media on Islam’s alleged incompatibility with dominant British values outnumbered those relating to Islam and terrorism.  A consequence of this ‘theoretical’ islamophobia, the intellectual jousting over the place of Islam in Europe, is that Muslims in Europe are facing increasingly tough conditions.

According to a report from Amnesty International, “European Muslims are regularly denied employment and educational opportunities because of widespread cultural and religious stereotypes that lead to discrimination against them.” Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief warns of the “existing notions of a collective mentality that is stereotypically, and often negatively, ascribed to all followers of various religions or beliefs. In extreme cases, such ascription of a collective mentality may amount to ‘de-personalised’ perceptions of human beings, possibly with devastating dehumanizing repercussions.” 

Just as minarets or headscarves or face veils or beards have become visible markers of Islam and have become imbued with a significance beyond that attributed to them by Muslims themselves, discrimination against those bearing religious symbols becomes justified through the fallacious reasoning that people have chosen to subscribe to those ideas, in a way people don’t choose their ethnicity. The truth is we don’t choose the significance people attribute to our symbols – especially when we have so little access to defining them ourselves. We have no choice in the stereotypes and assumptions people make on the basis of our skin colour, nor do we have choice in those concerning the symbols which people interpret naively or willingly according to the dominant narrative of extremism and cultural incompatibility.

John Mullen of France’s radical left-wing Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste has argued that “opposition to religious practices on the basis of progressive values can easily turn into a thinly disguised form of racism.” It is time the Left take a stronger and clearer stance against islamophobia and stop giving the Right free rein to dictate the terms of European interaction with Muslims based on misplaced and ill-informed assumptions about religion in general and Islam in particular.

The struggle against islamophobia is the struggle for a nuanced and contextualised appraisal of events involving Muslims, a refusal to accept that everything can be explained away through a facile reference to ‘Islam’ and a defence of a European minority group. There is nothing Orwellian about that.

Fahim Alam: Riots and the Invisible Hand of Race

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This article is published on the Huffington Post, here

The riots of 2011 were a defining moment in modern British history. A recent study undertaken by the Guardian with the London School of Economics showed that despite claims of ‘feral’ gangs, the cause most often cited for the riots by rioters themselves, was poverty (86%), unemployment (79%) and inequality (70%), all of which disproportionately affect ethnic minorities. The research also pointed to a profound dissatisfaction with policing, including a “deep-seated and sometimes visceral antipathy towards police,” with widespread experiences of police harassment and brutality. Journalist Gary Young notes that “almost three-quarters of interviewees said they had been stopped and searched by the police in the last year; 85% said “policing” was an important or very important cause of the riots. Just 7% believed the police do a good job in their area.” At the heart of the rioters’ complaints was a pervasive sense of injustice.

For Fahim Alam, an Oxford and LSE graduate, that sense of injustice has deep resonance. At the height of the riots, Fahim was arrested and falsely accused of ‘violent disorder’. He spent six weeks in jail before being acquitted in under half an hour.
Reflecting on the experience which has left him profoundly scarred, he states: “When you leave prison, a part of you remains. It takes away a part of your soul.” His lawyer, Imran Khan, of the Steven Lawrence inquiry, is lodging a formal complaint against police and CPS, and considering civil proceedings for unlawful arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.
Fahim’s experience of the criminal justice system reveals systematic failures and endemic racism which are all the more worrying considering recent allegations of MET racism.

Prior to his arrest, Fahim had been heralded as the poster boy of inner city success. Born to immigrant Bangladeshi parents on the troubled Pembury estate in Hackney, his youth was marred in racist violence which culminated in the council having to relocate the family. An academically gifted child, Fahim excelled at his local comprehensive and earned a place at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities: “I was driven, I believed education was something which would give me power in the world.” Fahim studied law, but Oxford was a culture shock. He describes becoming a minority for the first time at the predominantly white university, the palpable disdain he felt from some of his peers and the realisation that with the benefits of his education came a responsibility to use it to serve the disenfranchised: ” It was a formative period -over the holidays, I would drive from the spires of Oxford to grey, urban tower blocks – I could physically see the transition on that journey and it was powerful to me, reminded me of where I was coming from, why I was doing this and what I eventually wanted to achieve.” A gap year deepened an interest in history which he formalised through a post-graduate degree at the LSE in race and post-colonial studies, before he began work at the London Civic Forum, strengthening citizen rights.

On August the 8th, he was to discover just how fragile those rights truly are.

Aware that riots had occurred in North London but oblivious that they had spread, Fahim left his office in Bethnal Green and headed towards his grandmother’s home in Hackney. His route took him through Mare street, an epicentre of the riots, where he came across a crowd which had gathered as a local garage was being looted. Rapidly, the mood changed. A car was set on fire and the thick smoke pushed people further down the street, where several lines of police officers were slowly edging in. Minutes later, the police charged, batons raised and shouting, cornering the crowd on St. Thomas Square, where a violent confrontation ensued. Mesmerised by the scene unfolding, Fahim describes a sight of utter chaos in which the police were pelted with rocks and bricks, fireworks were launched and a raging pit-bull let loose.
As people dispersed into nearby estates, a few bystanders were left on the suddenly empty square, most of them visibly residents – an elderly lady, a few kids. The police began to focus their attention on the young Asian male dressed in black jeans and a black cardigan, with a checked scarf around his neck: “In the eyes of the police, I looked like a rioter.”

Suddenly, several officers charged towards him. Fahim’s decision to run at this stage was one subsequently questioned by the prosecution: “As a young brown male, if you see the police charging you, wearing urban military gear and there is a riot going on – I think if you asked many people of my demographic, they would say it’s instinctive to run.” Had they approached him differently, he told the prosecution, maybe he could have helped.

Despite pleading his innocence, he was bundled into the back of a van, held in custody for 48 hours, before being taken to court where he was denied bail on grounds that his ‘story’ of visiting his grandmother seemed implausible. It was then that the realisation that he might be going to jail hit him: “Up to that point, I thought they’d realise there was a mistake – I was in shock, there was a sense of disbelief that this was happening to me – it was so surreal”. He was to spend the next six weeks in some of Britain’s most notorious jails.

Fahim compares his arrival in prison to ‘being trapped in a dungeon’. Having studied law for his degree, he began to experience the theory for himself: “What I had learnt was playing out in real life – everything I know to be violent about the police as an institution, about the criminal justice system, the courts and containing, caging people, knowing about that violence and brutality and then feeling it, was in a sense enlightening. At the same time, it concretised the feeling of injustice I already had towards these systems.”
His description of his arrival ‘at her majesty’s pleasure’ is telling: “Above the entrance to the prison, there was an emblem, a symbol of empire-that symbolism for me summed up what was going on-the fact I was being summoned to prison by her Majesty, so called, really spelt out to me the power relationship – I am effectively a colonial subject, as my parents were, as their parents were – I am diaspora, a brown male and I have limited power.”
Prison was a ‘profoundly dehumanizing’ experience and one which had a profound impact on his self-confidence and personality. From an outgoing and confident young man, he became nervous and withdrawn. Amongst the pivotal moments in his ordeal was the receipt of his prisoner number “I felt really degraded, I’d become a cog in a wider system of oppression, it was very symbolic for me – the epitome of objectification is assigning numbers – it’s done to animals and to objects – when it is done to humans, it has a resonance of slavery, of genocide.”

Throughout his time in prison, he experienced insecurity and violence. He was prone to daily and vivid nightmares and degrading procedures he describes as tantamount to legalised sexual assault: “To me, strip search is a form of rape, it is a matter of routine in police custody for many fellow members of our communities- poor people, diasporic people, people with brown skin, men – there are certain people targeted in this way.” His mood is somber and sullen, though the glimmers of a happier persona can occasionally be glimpsed when we discuss family and friends. He says the impact on them was hardest to cope with. What’s clear is that he struggles with the deep psychological impact of having stood accused of such a socially stigmatising crime.

Throughout his ordeal, Fahim recounts incidents of racial and cultural slurs. A former military man turned police officer who testified against him alleged he was wearing a “shemagh”, a “military style Arabic scarf” which marked him out as ‘trouble’ in his eyes. In fact, he was describing Fahim’s purple and brown checked scarf, purchased in Puerto Rico. Upon his arrival at Wormwood scrubs prison, Fahim’s Bangladeshi cell mate was told by a guard: “you’re training for Afghanistan.” White guards favoured white prisoners and the jail itself was divided along ethnic lines: “In jail, the way you’re spoken to, what you get or don’t get, is very much determined on race lines.”

The feeling of entrenched racism he describes is not entirely unfounded. A leaked report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission says that prejudice among police officers is a reason why ethnic minorities are disproportionately targeted by stop and search. But stop and search is just the tip of the iceberg. A widespread lack of confidence, fear of racism and violence, suggest a far deeper break down in community trust in the police. Indeed, research into the riots suggest police brutality was a central grievance amongst many: “It wasn’t too shocking to me that I was going through these experiences” Fahim notes sardonically, “statistically, when I was born, I am more like than you, a white female, to end up in a prison, to be stopped and searched, to suffer violence from a police officer.” He’s not alone in feeling disproportionately targeted by the police. British Asian actor Riz Ahmed recently stated on twitter: “I have had zero positive interactions with the police. Age 15-racist comment for “loitering”. Age 23- assaulted and threatened at airport – age 21 – head smashed against a brick wall during an arrest where I was not resisting. Age 29-told racist hate mail wont be investigated.” And just this month, Mauro Demetrio a 21 black man from east London recorded a police officer telling him that “the problem with you is you will always be a nigger”. Just hours later, a policeman was captured on tape allegedly assaulting a 15 year old black teenager. What’s more, the IPCC is currently investigating three new cases of alleged racist comments by Met police officers, all of them in the East London borough of Newham.

Fahim’s experience reflects serious problems in police-community relations. According to a recent IPCC report, young people and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds have the least confidence both in the police and the police complaints system: “I didn’t have utmost faith in the criminal justice system prior to my direct experiences and my experiences just confirmed that to me,” Fahim states.

Since his release, Fahim has been working on a documentary to highlight the injustices he bore witness to within the criminal justice system and to raise awareness of the humanity of those whom he feels society has written off: “when I was in prison I thought, they’ve discovered so many ways of containing people, systems of suppression, technologies of violence, psychologies of oppression- but not ways to free people or to give them love, to make them happy.” Though the experience has changed him irrevocably, Fahim is philosophical about the lessons he’s gleaned: “I was privileged to bear witness to that form of oppression -it allows one to develop a rigour against injustice and a deeper sense of solidarity with oppressed people.”

From an “Oxford success story”, his face paraded in an article on education and social mobility, Fahim Alam was turned overnight into a public pariah. The same picture which had previously been used to illustrate the quiet confidence of an Oxford graduate from tough beginnings, was reprinted to tell a different story, the air of gravity re-interpreted as a sign of defiance and revolt, to support allegations of criminal involvement. The experience has had a lasting effect on him, strengthening his resolve to combat inequality: “In everything I do, I remember people I’ve seen, caged, boxed, with no hope, who’ve been rejected by society – in slang terms, when we talk about prison we say “bin” – society has disposed of you – but society needs to do more recycling than disposing of its people.”

Despite talk of Britain being a post-racial society, Fahim’s story fits into broader patterns of institutionalised racism and systematic inequality, which belie such a claim and suggest we have a long way to go toward our ideal of equality and fairness for all. Reflecting on these enduring inequalities, Fahim adds: “I am relatively privileged compared to the average brown male but this isn’t about me and the fact I may have achieved something – its about why am I an exception, and why can’t everyone have those opportunities?”

Written by Myriam Francois

April 10, 2012 at 14:44