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New Statesman: State-sanctioned prejudice is at the heart of David Cameron’s approach to countering extremism

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Last year, Olive Tree Primary School in Blackburn was being investigatedbecause a teaching assistant had allegedly discussed, “stoning for gay people” and “condemned music and clapping as satanic”.

As a consequence, Olive Tree primary, as well as other schools within the Islamic trust, Tauheedul Education, were visited by Ofsted. Although no evidence of extremism was found, suspicion here – like elsewhere in the case of schools affected by the so-called Trojan Horse scandal – has lingered.

Unlike the front page headlines parading schools as hotbeds of Islamic extremism, news that Olive Tree primary and three other schools run by the trust have since been classed as “outstanding” in every category by Ofsted has been much less prominent.

Yet accusations of extremism have seen schools struggle to recruit and retain staff – a reality that Sir Mike Tomlinson, Birmingham’s Education Commissioner, has described as “the biggest issue facing schools” in the area.

Cameron’s decision to deliver his big address on how to tackle extremism from within a school in Birmingham was entirely calculated to set the stage for schools as the battleground for counter-extremism.

The choice of location speaks to the recent so-called Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham, which, despite being debunked by at least five official investigations that found “no evidence of a conspiracy” nor of “a sustained plot”, continues to be used as the basis for seemingly never-ending state encroachment into the private sphere of Muslim citizens – now including Muslim children.

All this is despite a huge backlash from educationalists, teachers, as well asacademics against the increasing securitisation of education and the perils this poses to the very objectives of education – namely, a frank exploration of knowledge, within a trust-based environment.

David Lundie, a senior lecturer in Education Studies at Liverpool Hope university, who has actively opposed the new powers of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, points out that the statutory duty now incumbent on teachers to report suspected “extremism” did not apply to educators in the prison system in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, when educators understood the importance of open dialogue in “de-radicalising” the adherents of violent ideology.

But learning lessons from the past isn’t this government’s forte.

The Prime Minister’s address this week was meant to set out a new vision for counter-extremism, but for keen observers of the government’s befuddled strategy (or lack thereof) it sounded decidedly familiar.

But there were a few caveats – the saving graces of an otherwise patronising and ill-advised speech. For a start, the PM recognised the “profound contribution Muslims from all backgrounds and denominations” “in every sphere of our society” and, most significantly, recognised that extremism is a threat first and foremost to Muslims – to Muslims in regions where they hold sway and those in the UK who may be targeted for grooming, or who may come under attack from far-right extremists.

The reality of the latter situation is stark, what with a bomb being left outside mosques as recently as last month, and an Asian man recently hacked at with a machete by a man shouting white power slogans.

Acknowledging Muslims as partners, not a “swamp” harbouring terrorist crocodiles, to paraphrase the rather gauche Michael Gove, is certainly progress.

Some of the initiatives laid out for countering the appeal of Daesh – such as giving a platform to its victims or empowering those communities most affected to speak out – are important in countering its propaganda.

Tackling segregation and discrimination, improving social mobility, and even the proposal to establish a new community engagement forum are constructive ideas.

But while there was some encouraging talk of working with communities, the government’s key failure has been its inability to identify extremism and its causes correctly, a misgiving that can be more than partially attributed to its selective hearing.

Cameron has once again laid out – as in Bratislava last month, and Munich before – a definition of the threat being faced that perpetuates the same tired, misplaced and critically, unsubstantiated notion that “what we are fighting, in Islamist extremism, is an ideology”.

Ideology – or ideas – do not exist in a vacuum. They are the product of material factors, which, when ignored, reduce the battle against extremism to a cosmic battle of ideas. This is exactly the terrain upon which the terrorists would like it to be played out, rather than in the real world circumstances producing anger and disaffection.

Ideology plays its part; it is the packaging of political concepts to render them accessible and attractive. But it’s hardly the core.

The issue of defining the nature of extremism has been a longstanding government struggle. Most recently, a working definition was set out, the brilliant irony of which was typified by a now classic interview with Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, who, when asked to provide an example of the kind of behaviour from a pupil that should trigger an anti-extremism intervention, wriggled nervously before responding – homophobia.

Her intervention might of course have proven more compelling had she not voted against gay marriage twice herself, at least on one occasion in reference to her own religious views as a Christian.

And why not? There are plenty of folk whose views, religious or otherwise, might prompt them to vote against gay marriage, but to suggest this is the basis upon which children – and let’s be honest, Muslim children specifically – ought to be investigated is where comical policy blunder switches to dangerous criminalisation of children.

The speech also reiterated the notion that some ideas, although not calls to violence, are too subversive to be allowed expression. Think carefully about that statement. There are ideas which need criminalising.

Now, I write as someone who frequently denounces what I regard to be institutionalised forms of prejudice – racism. But I have never once suggested that racists should be jailed, unless, of course, they are inciting violence.

I do, however, believe communities and society as a whole have a responsibility to challenge prejudice. Anti-Semitic jokes aren’t funny. Sexist innuendos don’t deserve lockdown, but they should be shut down. The suggestion that we should regard the expression of critical views of anything from liberal democracy to foreign policy as harbingers of extremism should make us all shudder.

In a free society, citizens must be able to express unpalatable views: subversive ideas, counter-cultural perspectives that contribute to challenging the status quo. Shutting down the fringes is counterproductive at every level – it forces such voices underground, limits free speech and fosters a climate of fear in which certain ideas are deemed not simply bad taste, but worthy of police intervention.

The great hypocrisy of Cameron’s speech is of course that the far-right has for generations expressed the sorts of ideas that bear considerable continuity with those who then go on to attack minorities. But groups from Britain First and the EDL, far from being shut down, are permitted to march through some of our most diverse cities in an act of clear provocation.

The parallels being drawn between Muslim extremists and far-right extremists are themselves questionable, not least because Muslim extremists – the limelight-aspiring Al-Muhajiroun aside – don’t tend to be very public. They function underground, often online and, contrary to popular belief, out of sight of the community that has shown itself prepared to ban speakers from premises and flag violent concerns from co-religionists to the police.

The ideals of violent Muslim extremists are not tolerated in your local mosque, nor are they accepted in schools or local community associations. Their voices are not regular contributors to flagship programmes that shape public opinion, such as that of Douglas Murray, from the Henry Jackson Society, who puts a plummy twist on a fascist classic with his view that “all immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop” and who has previously argued that the EDL should be “given the benefit of doubt”.

This brings me to the next trope in Cameron’s woolly speech: the idea that Muslims are somehow in the grip of mad conspiracy theories. Who are the overpaid incompetents who convinced the PM that conspiracy theories should top the list of concerns regarding British Muslims? And why only Muslims? Is David Ike about to become a banned entity?

And how about the decision to throw in a host of social ills with no connection to extremism – from FGM to religious councils to forced marriages – none of which are the exclusive purview of the Muslim community.

Nor do they have any discernible link to radicalisation, unless you count the far-right trope that Muslim communities bring with them an array of “problems” – a stereotyping and essentialising of Muslims for which Tommy Robinson himself couldn’t have dreamt up a more prominent platform.

But the most galling aspect of David’s monologue was the attempt to undermine the most academically-grounded, widely-recognised notion that foreign policy grievances play a significant role in motivating attacks by Muslim extremists; what he attempts to recast as “the grievance justification”.

He spoke as if anger at the death of innocent men, women and children in invasions of sovereign nations, or support for brutal autocracies, could simply be rebranded as an “excuse” to cover up that the true source of anger – recast as “hate” – is something within Islam itself.

Cameron also seeks to undermine the very significant concept of alienation, with attendant concepts such as relative poverty, or the disconnect between aspirations and real world expectations. This feeling can, in fact, be greater in highly-qualified individuals who fail to see their hopes matched by reality, and are consequently more open to counter-cultural messages of self-assertion. A Western education and a flat screen TV are hardly a preserve against a sense of discrimination or thwarted dreams.

It is a sad indictment of the government’s attempts to tackle extremism properly that it continues to peddle the same, unsubstantiated, widely-debunked and frankly self-serving “conveyor belt” theory of extremism. This theory somehow holds that anyone with socially conservative views is merely a few steps away from blowing us all up.

The truth is, the profile of those engaging in terrorist activists, those orderingIslam for Dummies online, is less befitting of the notion of pious devotees, and much closer to the classic model of a political radical enamoured by the latest articulation of subversion.

The notion bandied about in Cameron’s speech that “the extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination” would be true if the definition of extremism wasn’t so broad as to encompass opponents to gay marriage, monarchists, anarchists, communists, Nigel Farage – we’ve now reached a stage where it is no longer possible not to be a liberal within a liberal democracy. Or, more accurately, it is no longer possible to be a socially conservative Muslim within liberal Britain.

Cameron of course would deny that the policies outlined are Muslim-specific, even if, as the Tory insider Paul Goodman clearly indicates on his blog, the speech was “mainly addressed to Britain’s Muslims”.

It is Muslim children being targeted through intrusive questionnaires. It is Muslim majority schools that have become the focus of a witch hunt dressed up as a “neutral” Ofsted inspection. It is Muslims who are primarily affected by our decision to sign away some of our most cherished civil liberties, under the guise of the protection of “British values”, all the while upbraiding those who challenge their “suspension” –  the stripping of British citizens of their nationality, the introduction of secret courts, undermining open justice, and a raft of proposals under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 that civil liberties campaign group Liberty describes as “as unsafe as they are unfair”.

The PM spoke of establishing a “community engagement forum” to marginalise “non-violent extremists” and allow “moderate” voices to be heard, which seems like a perfect antidote if the government weren’t determined to engineer the nature of the discussion by selecting only the types of voices likely not to rock the boat.

We need not look too far back in recent political history to recall the disastrous attempt by Hazel Blears, then Tony Blair’s Communities Secretary, to set up various groups with the intent of socially engineering a politically acceptable form of Islam.

We definitely don’t need more of that, thanks.

For all the berating of community leaders as little more than “professional Muslims”, the fact is their replacement with Whitehall-manufactured voices, dressed up for the sake of legitimacy in half-baked think tanks, is no improvement. Bring back the Mr Khans, I say. At least they actually know where the community centre is.

The notion that government is going to “actively encourage the reforming and moderate Muslim voices” should make any self-respecting secularist shudder. Why is the state meddling in the religious practices of its citizens? And do we really aspire to a state that seeks to dictate the nature of “correct” religious praxis?

This sounds less liberal democracy and more religious autocracy. Unless you’re not Muslim of course, in which case your religious freedom isn’t under threat. And that, I believe, is quite possibly the definition of state-sanctioned prejudice.

“This extremist ideology is not true Islam,” added Cameron – a statement that might have been met with relief were the implication of it not that the government is somehow beholden to the meaning of “true Islam” and prepared to try and enforce it.

“We can’t stand neutral in this battle of ideas. We have to back those who share our values,” he continued. But standing neutral is exactly what the secular state should do.

You can read the original piece on the New statesman website, here

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Written by Myriam Francois

July 22, 2015 at 09:12

The National.ae: Blaming ‘ancient hatreds’ for Srebrenica ignores politics

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There’s something about Srebrenica. Much like when I visited Auschwitz in the 1990s, there is a sense of something profoundly awful having happened there, which stains the very air you breath.

Twenty years have passed since around eight thousand men and boys were systematically killed, dumped in mass graves and then subsequently dug up to be reburied in secondary and even tertiary grave sites, in an effort to the cover up the crimes. To this day, bodies are still being discovered and in many cases, families are left to bury only a few bones, the last remaining evidence of a life lost.

In February, I travelled with the BBC to the site of the killings to make a documentary, A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited, about what impact learning about the events might have on a group of young people, born in the same year as the genocide.

The young people were part of a delegation organised by the group Remembering Srebrenica, a British organisation that takes people to learn about the tragedy.

We followed the group as they learnt about the siege of Sarajevo, the genocide at Srebrenica, the painstaking work of the International Commission on Missing Persons in trying to identify remains. And although the delegations do not usually meet Serb officials, the group accompanied me to speak with Milos Milovanovic, the Bosnian Serb Chair of the Municipal Assembly in the town of Srebrenica itself, who refuses to use the term “genocide”.

Although Serbia has condemned the events as a “horrible crime”, it and many Bosnian Serbs refuse to accept the verdicts of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice, both of which have called the events a genocide. In the context of Bosnia, the genocide was part of a broader process of ethnic cleansing, one aspect of a project of Bosnian Serbian extreme nationalism which sought to create an ethnically and religiously homogenous “Greater Serbia” in lieu of a diverse, integrated society.

Before I travelled to Bosnia-Herzegovina, my knowledge of what had happened at Srebrenica was limited to what I’d acquired within the Muslim community in the UK. The genocide at Srebrenica isn’t taught in British schools, something the young people featured in the BBC documentary felt was a serious omission. I began researching the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and was particularly interested in better understanding how closely the narrative I’d acquired about Bosnia tallied with the facts.

There was – and to some extent there still is – a sense among British Muslims that Bosnia was “our” genocide, unrecognised, and moreover a symptom of a tacit anti-Muslim prejudice, which spilt over into politics, locally and internationally.

As with most narratives, there are undeniable elements of truth, but I also came to feel deeply uncomfortable with the “religification” and appropriation of the events.

Among the core arguments in the narrative is the view that Bosnian Muslims were left to slaughter because “Muslim blood is cheap”. Certainly, the evidence now suggests that western powers were much more aware than previously thought of events on the ground.

In a recent op-ed, former Bosnian foreign minister and ambassador to the UN Muhamed Sacirbey decried that “nowhere in official sanitised accounts has Washington, London or Paris acknowledged its role in leaving Srebrenica naked”, a reference to Nato’s failure to provide air support to Dutch peace keepers despite repeated requests and despite new evidence that American spy planes had images of the killings underway.

Mr Sacirbey also hints at what has become apparent since, that anti-Muslim stereotypes did play their part, with then-French president Francois Mitterrand objecting to a “Muslim-led unified Bosnia” and former US President Bill Clinton acknowledging in his memoir that “some European leaders were not eager to have a Muslim state in the heart of the Balkans”. Did such prejudice contribute to political considerations? It was certainly there.

According to a report in The Guardian, “British, American and French governments accepted – and sometimes argued – that Srebrenica and two other UN-protected safe areas were ‘untenable’ long before the Serb commander Ratko Mladic took the town”. They agreed to sacrifice Srebrenica to leave a political map amenable to the Serb leader Slobodan Miloševic.

Numerous books now indicate a strange affinity among some western leaders with the Serb leadership. But even with this, it is difficult to claim anti-Muslim prejudice specifically drove those decisions, rather than cold, political calculations over whom western powers felt could best manage the disintegrating region.

Part of the sense of injustice felt in connection to Srebrenica for many Muslims lies in the power equation involved.

Far from a “civil war”, as the broader conflict was often depicted, Srebrenica was an assault by a modern, strongly armed Bosnian Serb army against a UN safe zone in which male fighters had been convinced to give up their weapons.

The defenceless nature of the civilians who’d placed their trust in international institutions, only to be handed over to be executed, has cemented a sense that international organisations have long served only the interests of western powers and often failed – as in Rwanda – to protect those whose lives are deemed less worthy.

But to view these events outside of their broader context plays into a depiction of the conflict in the Balkans as the product of ancient hatreds, a view that former aide to Mr Clinton, Richard Holbrook, bemoans as a strategic failure that cemented a sense that the ethnic strife was too ancient and ingrained to be prevented by outsiders.

This perception of the broader conflict as pitting Serbs against Bosnian Muslims ignored the reality that, as Brendan Simms points out in his book Unfinest Hour, the Bosnian government forces, in some theatres “included substantial Catholic Croat and Orthodox Serb contingents” despite being routinely described in the media as “the Muslims”.

This vision was itself internalised by many Muslims, who saw in the conflict an assault on Islam itself, rather than a supremacist Serb nationalism that sought to divide integrated communities along lines that had until then been perceived as broadly indiscernible.

The Muslim identity was one of those lines and the long term consequence of identifying Bosnian Muslims as Muslims first and foremost has been a renewed sense of themselves in religious terms.

To paint the genocide at Srebrenica as the product of pure anti-Muslim hate reduces the events to the inevitable outpouring of age-old hatreds, rather than acknowledging root causes and political failures. The Bosnian people’s suffering shouldn’t be appropriated. Ultimately, it remains a disservice to the victims not to truly seek to understand what led to this tragedy.

Myriam Francois is a journalist and broadcaster. She presented the BBC1 documentary A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited

You can read the original piece on The National website here

Written by Myriam Francois

July 18, 2015 at 14:26

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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

New Statesman: The absurd hunt for “Muslim toddler terrorists” exposes the extent of anti-Muslim prejudice

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Muslim children are being watched closely for signs of radicalisation. Anything from not celebrating Christmas to shunning art and drama is now grounds for suspicion, and reason enough to invade the “private space” of British Muslims. Nurseries are duty-bound to inform on toddlers they suspect of being at risk of becoming “terrorists”, in a sick reworking of genetic justifications for black criminality that somehow presuppose an inherent dispositions towards terrorism in Muslim kids. Just this month, primary schools – key centres of trust and care in the community – were turned into centres of racial profiling in which nine- and ten-year-old children were asked to complete a questionnaire devised “to identify the initial seeds of radicalisation with children of primary school age” (the BRIT project, which was behind the questionnaire, has since removed any references to radicalisation and violent extremism from its website).

It is hard to comprehend how calls for children to be racially profiled, for mass and intrusive surveillance and a criminalisation of some of the most basic elements of religious practice – such as a “sudden negative attitudes towards alcohol” – could seemingly come to pass with so little uproar.

As a parent I spoke to from Buxton School, one of the institutions targeted by the recent questionnaire scandal, put it: “If these children were adults going for a job, this sort of information about their ethnicity, religious identity and views, etc, would not be disclosed and would be protected – why is such data now being collected about young children who might not even know what they’re saying and yet, who may now be profiled based on information collected when they were in primary school? Who is monitoring how this information is being used?” (Buxton School has since disassociated itself from the scheme.)

Even universities, traditionally bastions of free speech, are now expected to refer students “at risk”, with notions of what constitutes “risk” expanding to include “non-violent extremism”, a term so nebulous universities themselves have voiced concern over what exactly it is they are supposed to be monitoring.

The conclusion many Muslims are reaching is that the perception of a tacit complicity of the Muslim community in terrorist activity has gained such traction that the sorts of measures that might see Orwell turn in his grave – formal as well as more tacit restrictions on the basic freedoms of over 2.71 million Muslim citizens – now pass largely unobstructed. Dehumanisation has reached such depths that society is increasing willing to accept a two-tier system in which Muslims simply do not benefit from the same levels of freedom as everyone else.

In a leaked document in March, the Home Office made clear its focus is no longer violence, but has now expanded to include viewpoints – in other words mere ideas – it considers unacceptable.

As the space for dissent shrinks, the arts take on a critical role in vocalising increasingly unacceptable ideas and challenging the status quo, a vital space to humanise those overwhelmingly depicted in terms of a societal threat – Trojan horse, fifth column, potential radicals. Even the language employed to describe vulnerable young people ensnared by violent cults betrays a sense of complicity in their own exploitation – the use of the term “Jihadi brides” in reference to young women groomed for a life of sexual slavery, a term about as sensitive as referring to the victims of the recent child sex grooming scandals, as “loose women”.

A recent double play in particular, Hurling Rubble at the Sun/Hurling Rubble at the Moon by the British Pakistani poet and playwright Avaes Mohammad, explores the far right and Muslim extremism, laying out the complex and intertwined ingredients which come together to produce violent ebullition. More than anything, Mohammad’s play allows the audience to explore the motivations for violence, without dehumanising its perpetrators, and in so doing, the space to acknowledge the centrality of psychological and human factors, so often ignored. It also highlights the absurdity of a hunt for “Muslim toddler terrorists”, recentering factors common to all those vulnerable to messages of violent empowerment, be it through gangs, cults or religious supremacy.

Given the seemingly inescapable lens of “Muslim terrorism”, which Muslim artists themselves struggle to escape, the simple fact of producing a story about Muslim experience which isn’t about terrorism appears a form of resistance in Ambreen Razia’s debut drama, The Diary of a Hounslow Girl at the Ovalhouse Theatre.

Razia’s play isn’t about extremism. Nor should a young Muslim playwright have to explain why young girls join extremist groups, as Razia was called upon to do in a recent BBC interview. What Razia’s monologue does present, however, are the limitations of life through the eyes of a 16-year-old girl.

Her character, Shaheda, doesn’t end up heading for Syria. Instead, after being filled with no less evocative lies, she ends up pregnant and stuck in her Hounslow bedroom. Her vulnerability to the suave ways of a local reprobate is less about the strictures of her heritage and more about her inability to understand what her expectations of love can or should be. In other words, in transcending the particularities of her Muslim-ness, the audience finds universally recognisable challenges faced by young people today. Like Shaheda, long before they’re “jihadi brides”, these girls are lost schoolgirls, desperate for affirmation, love and recognition.

And so while Razia’s play isn’t about young girls drawn to IS fighters, it does offer insight into the kind of apathy which may lead young, ambitious girls to be drawn in by narratives of cosmic love. Whether running away with the local bad boy or the IS pin up, thwarted aspirations, counter-cultural teenage notions of love and heroism and a desire for more than the limited paths perceived ahead are powerful human motivations, often lost in stale political debates.

As the spectre of terrorism is increasingly used to narrow the space for dissenting voices, be they opposition to foreign policy or anti-systemic views more broadly, art feels – as it has so often been – like the last, shrinking space in which increasingly unacceptable ideas can be truly be aired and possibly heard.

You can read the original piece here, on the NS site.

Written by Myriam Francois

June 11, 2015 at 09:50

New Statesman: To talk about race, we need to talk about the problem with “whiteness”

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“As a party they’ve got a problem with race,” declared Labour’s Chuka Umunna, making reference to the latest racist controversy involving Ukip. “And I don’t think you can kick out racism from their party unless you have got a leadership which understands it and understands race in modern Britain.”

Umunna was referring to the growing array of racist comments made by Ukip figures – from one councillor saying she has a “problem with people with negroid features” to another who posted on Facebook “Muslim women: Hang ’um all first then ask questions later”. Ukip’s sinister side is increasingly well documented, but in many ways, its pantomime-esque displays of prejudice serve a useful function for broader society, cordoning off racism as something that happens out there, on the fringes, and thus comparatively absolving everyone else. As if somehow Ukip’s comments happen in a vacuum, as if there isn’t a broader climate of intolerance from which this is just the embarrassing stain that seeps through.

Implicit in Umunna’s statement of course was the idea that Labour – or the “mainstream” – unlike Ukip, does understand issues of race in modern Britain. But is the fact broader society knows not to – publicly at least – make references to “Bongo Bongo land” or compare Muslims to dogs, a real indication that issues of race are understood in modern Britain?

In a recent programme on Channel 4 the former head of the Commission for Racial Equality Trevor Phillips said that Britain has a problem talking about race. The problem Phillips seemed to identify was an almost overbearing anti-racism campaign, which has left white people feeling like they might all be racists. Phillips’ reassessment reflects a shift in the dominant consensus concerning race, from a view of racism as endemic in government and broader society, to an increasingly popular perception that Britain is broadly post-racial and that it is communities themselves that cultivate divisions, sowing seeds of “legitimate” resentment.

Few would disagree that the nature of racism has shifted significantly since the Eighties when “Paki bashing” was a regular occurrence and black footballers could expect to be met with banana peels on the pitch (this does still happen!). The type of open violence associated with racism has been greatly reduced, but this is often taken to mean that racism itself has disappeared. Consequently, when minorities have sought to decry incidents of racism – typically more subtle – their voices have been diminished by a sense that they are no longer ‘buttressed’ by dead bodies. Post- Stephen Lawrence, there is almost a sense that the UK has “dealt” with the issue of racism and that racism can now only be found in the darkest recesses of the white working class.

The assumption that Britain is today a “post-racial” society masks flagrant issues of race-related inequality – from the fact Britain imprisons a higher proportion of its black population than the US, through to Muslim women being 71 per cent less likely to find employment – through to a simple observation of the white elite running the country. There is significant resistance to acknowledging that the historic and present reality of racism has a profound impact on who is poor in this country and who is not.

Although Umunna singled out Ukip as particularly bad, the fact race is the unwelcome guest at the inequality discussion table suggests the issue is not strictly peripheral. To quote Phillips, we do indeed need to talk about race – and racism specifically – but not so much as Phillips’ suggests, by empowering individual bigots to express their “feelings”, but perhaps by starting an honest conversation about structures of racist discrimination. We need a conversation about “whiteness”.

Falguni A Sheth, associate professor and author of Toward a Political Philosophy of Race, defines “whiteness” as a category of power based on “a general, but not universal, correlation between those in power and general racial identity…” Talking about “whiteness” means recognising the complex history of social, economic and political realities according to which ethnic minorities have been considered as innately inferior, and their enduring impact on ways of thinking and current inequalities.

Many conversations about race get bogged down in immediate denials of individual proclivities for a hatred of minorities, an unhelpful distraction from the substance of racism, of which individual bigotry is just one manifestation. In this way, racism can be neatly sectioned off – the naughty renegades at Ukip versus the “good” guys everywhere else. As the American Academic Robin DiAngelo and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, acknowledges: “From the time I opened my eyes, I have been told that as a white person, I am superior to people of color. There’s never been a space in which I have not been receiving that message.” We need to move past the binary that someone is either a racist thug or they’re Benetton – to a large extent we are all enmeshed in racist structures.

DiAngelo’s research suggest a real reticence among white people to discussing issues of racism, something she dubs “white fragility”. She notes that one of the predictable patterns in discussions about race with white people, is an inability to tolerate any kind of challenge to white racial reality: “For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist (…). This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time.”

Such resistance was perfectly illustrated by BBC director general Tony Hall when he responded to accusations by leading ethnic minority voices that the network needs to improve on diversity issues with a call for the channel to be “colour blind”. One of the first things a critical reflection on whiteness might involve would be acknowledging that “colour blindness” often functions as a type of racism – not least in this case by denying the negative racial experiences of minorities. As the Canadian journalist Desmond Cole poignantly wrote: “White people often go out of their way to say they don’t see colour when they look at me – in those moments, I’m tempted to recommend an optometrist. I know they’re just expressing a desire for equality, but I don’t want to be erased in the process.” Part of talking honestly about racism starts with awareness, and specifically, awareness of the myriad forms of iniquitous power associated with “whiteness”.

What’s more, we need to address the increasingly widespread trope, expressed by the journalist Allison Pearson in response to Phillips’ polemic, that it is actually white people now getting the raw deal. Britain, this argument goes, is so post-racial, it is actually white people today experiencing the brunt of “prejudice”. Pearson writes: “…British people, who dared to express any concern about the rapidly changing face of their country, were shouted down as racist or a bigot.” Minorities are to blame for not “integrating”, with no recognition of barriers which might obstruct a sense of belonging within a negotiated sense of the common “us”.

There is increasingly a sense of a disaffected white majority that blames minority “cultures” for various failings, and in the process, absolves white structures of responsibility. The failure to take seriously vulnerable young girls being exploited by criminal gangs, by both the police and the social services – white structures – becomes an issue of “Muslim Asian sex gangs” – minority culture. Culture has replaced ethnicity for the acceptable vocalisation of prejudice, despite the fact no culture is genuinely hermetic and the same minorities typically remain the target.

What’s more, the notion that criticising someone’s culture, unlike attacking their ethnicity, doesn’t play into racist stereotypes, belies the reality that racism has always had a cultural dimension, critical to the construction of racial hierarchies. Sweeping generalisations concerning the cultures of diverse, subaltern peoples, not least in the heralding of the worst examples from a given group as representative of its entirety, has always been a feature of racist rhetoric.

The growing focus on “culture” as a legitimate basis for prejudice has been bolstered by the tide of anti-immigrant discourse, which emphasises the notion of “native” Britons – read white – versus “outsiders”. Umunna was right to link racism to anti-immigrant sentiment in his response to Ukip. Culture is the new acceptable conduit for racism, a disingenuous reformulation adapted to the normative framework of ethnic “diversity”. A diversity of façade, which masks a call for a uniformity of thought, defined according to white culture.

This emerging trend locates societal woes squarely on the shoulders of minorities who’ve allegedly been unduly “ring-fenced from criticism”. Phillips popularised this argument by asserting that political correctness is to blame for stifling free conversation about race and thus driving support for nationalist movements across Europe.

Yet “PC gone mad” Britain hardly has the most virulent nativist parties in Europe, compared with countries like Belgium or France, where the expression of racist views – be it a politician parading in black face or depicting the country’s justice minister as a monkey – are much more open. In fact, the reverse is true. Multiculturalism – the real target of the anti “PC” brigade – has helped protect minorities. In France, where the normalisation of the far right has led to frequent dehumanising language being used against minorities, racism now requires a £70m campaign to tackle it.

The writer Sathnam Sanghera is right to point out that “the single thing that has done most to suffocate discussion about race is the poisonous connection made between anti-racism and “political correctness… those who use the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’ in relation to any mention of race aim to do exactly what they accuse proponents of political correctness of doing: they want to shut down all conversation.”

The real resistance to discussing racism frankly actually comes from that white society that believes itself beyond issues of racism. As a consequence of this, any difficulty experienced by minorities are viewed as at best their own problems, or at worst, an ungracious refusal to recognise white society’s largess.

We need a discussion about race that involves less finger pointing and more introspection. We need a recognition of the continuities between historical and current inequities globally, and current inequalities in society. We need to examine the systematic privileges accrued by white people as a mere consequence of “whiteness” and listen to – and take seriously – the claims of those excluded by it.

We need a conversation about race – let’s start with the problem of “whiteness”.

You can read the original piece on the New Statesman website, here

Written by Myriam Francois

April 28, 2015 at 15:35

Ceasefire magazine: Interview | Aamer Rahman: “I never make up stories, all my stories are true”

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Aamer Rahman is a comedian who doesn’t mince his words. Watching him perform his widely acclaimed “Truth Hurts” show in London, I’m struck by the ease with which he tackles the thorniest of topics and his willingness to tread where angels daren’t. In one skit, he imitates his friends’ disparaging tone as they mock him for questioning whether Bin Laden wasn’t merely a green screen creation – “I believed the Tiger in Life of Pi was real for two hours” he quips. In another he jokes that one follower on twitter accused him of wanting to kill all white people, so he calls for a mass uprising against whites – straight white males though, he clarifies mischievously.

Rahman’s comedy is influenced by both his personal experiences of racism – growing up as a member of a minority in Australia – and his clear identification with a movement that believes historic global injustices continue to translate into systemic inequities and outright racism.

In one illustration of his own experience of racism in Australia – a frequent focus of his ire – Rahman describes having unwittingly attended a massive heavy metal concert in Melbourne in his youth, accompanied by a cousin who was visiting from Bangladesh, only to discover in a half-comical, half-horrifying twist that it was in fact a heavy metal Nazi rally. Is the ‘mosh pit head-banging with Nazis’ story actually true? I put to him slightly incredulously. “Absolutely – I never make up stories, all my stories are true – I always think it’s very obvious when I watch comedians when they’ve made up a wacky story, so I write based on experience.”

As a comedian for whom issues of racism are so central to his sketches, I ask him about the widely touted notion that the UK is now a “post-racial” society, a point often illustrated by figures such as athlete Mo Farah, who became the “pride of Britain” when he represented the UK in the Olympics. “It’s not accurate,” he tells me, “it is identical to all the rhetoric which surrounded Obama’s election – it is inconceivable that a racist nation would elect a black leader – putting out these exceptional examples of people of colour to say institutional racism has been eradicated when, if you look at the stats in America on black unemployment, black incarceration, black murder at the hands of the police, US foreign policy, none of these things have changed under the Obama administration. And, similarly, in the UK, I’m sure if you look at those stats, none of those things have changed because of Mo Farah – not to take anything away from him – but it is obviously, once again, symbolic misunderstandings of racism versus the systemic realities of racism.”

I put to him recent comments by the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, who was quoted as saying that “Campaigners like me seriously believed that if we could prevent people expressing prejudiced ideas then eventually they would stop thinking them. But now I’m convinced we were utterly wrong.” As a comedian who regularly mocks the ease with which racism is overlooked, I ask him what he makes of the idea that people should be free to use racial stereotypes. “So basically, it is the irrational emotions of the victims of racism, who take this too hard and then oppress the racists, which creates more racism – that’s his logic,” he begins in his trade-mark style, “that if we toughened up, let people say what they felt like, they wouldn’t feel so alienated and become racists. That’s kind of what he’s saying, that you, the victim of racism is responsible.”

We discuss Phillips’s recent Channel 4 interview with Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), particularly Phillips’s statement that he “got on well” with Farage, despite the latter using the conspiratorial slur of “fifth column” when referring to British Muslims in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Given Farage’s political rise, with his party currently polling at between 10% and 15%, what does Rahman make of the idea that UKIP is actually addressing very real concerns? “That is something I have seen around the world. Kind of like a corporatizing of that old National Front racism – it’s the National Front in a suit basically. In Australia, the major parties have done it – people shouldn’t be afraid to be called racist because they have concerns about asylum seekers – that kind of thing – giving people the green light to be racist – legitimising it – the main thing about these kind of fringe far right parties is that they are a convenient stooge for the major parties to then come out and do some superficial condemnation, to basically pretend like they too are not racist – and haven’t been racist for decades.”

I suggest to him that although a lot of people object to UKIP, many are sympathetic to this idea that Muslims pose a unique challenge to European societies, that somehow Muslims are a “unique integration challenge”: “It is convenient to think that, because sub-consciously it justifies foreign policy, it justifies your attitude towards people of colour in general, it justifies your attitude towards asylum seekers, creating this ‘Clash of Civilizations’ rhetoric. It justifies all of those things – you can easily condemn Farage for his choice of words, but you can easily push this line in the mainstream and what’s the difference? You have a fall guy, who puts his foot in his mouth and says a little bit too much and then you’ve got the more professional version which is actually able to push through policies based on the same, exactly the same hysteria.”

And this is part of what makes Aamer Rahman such an iconic comedian – his strident critiques expressed through his flippant style of humour tap into the frustrations of audiences globally. “Wherever I go in the world,” he tells me, “the audience is the same – it’s just the size which changes”. And it is without doubt that ability to articulate the frustrations of a global counter-cultural movement which lies at the heart of his success.

Dressed in an army print jacket and cap, there’s a sense with Rahman that his gigs are about much more than just the laughs – there’s a sense of mission about the man. “What’s the dream?”, I ask him, as we part ways, “I don’t know”, he tells me with a sheepish grin, “I was going to quit and then I put up that Reverse Racism clip up and that’s how I got these tours. The majority of stuff I have tried to make happen hasn’t worked out and the other stuff has happened by accident, so now I’m much more like ‘whatever happens is gonna happen.’” And with that typically philosophical approach, he heads off to kick off his two-month tour of the US.

Aamer Rahman is starting a two-month tour of the US. For details visit aamerrahman.tumblr.com.

You can read the original piece here

Written by Myriam Francois

April 1, 2015 at 11:02

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