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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: Theological explanations are a diversion when looking at the rise of Islamic State

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You can read the original piece on the New Statesman site here

In a “post-ideological” West, the “East” is persistently filtered through the lens of ideology, and, specifically, through the lens of Islam, with the latest moral panic over Islamic State (IS) its most recent manifestation.

For all the talk of ideology, our knowledge of IS is actually extremely limited. As Professor Alireza Doostdar points out, “We know close to nothing about IS’ social base. We know little about how it made its military gains, and even less about the nature of the coalitions into which it has entered with various groups — from other Islamist rebels in Syria to secular Ba‘athists in Iraq.” The fact is, much of what we take as “knowledge” about IS is gleaned either from their uncritically reproduced propaganda videos, which aim to present the group’s narrative as coherent and substantiated, or from Western devotees to the cause who in fact, make up only a small proportion of the group’s estimated 20,000-31,500 fighters and who’s motivations for joining might have far more to do with our representations of the group – as a counter-cultural challenge to the supremacy of Western ideals – than what the group is actually about. IS is certainly “anti-Western” in its outlook, but its objectives are local — controlling land and resources in order to establish a state in which a previously disenfranchised group will experience pre-eminence.

Given that a majority of recruits are in fact local, it is worth questioning the notion they’ve all undergone an ideological conversion before joining a group, which is just one of many arguing for the mantle of legitimate struggle and leadership in the region. Rather than ideas – because let’s face it, Al Baghdadi’s view that the world’s Muslims should live under one Islamic state ruled bysharia law is hardly an intellectual innovation – perhaps it is the group’s strategic and tactical abilities which have won them repute among fighters seeking a united leadership. Or in some cases, the calculation may simply be financial, with salaries reportedly ranging from $300 to $2000 per month.

The ideological narrative also implies widespread Sunni Iraqi support for IS which, less than a newfound commitment to radical ideals, is more likely often a reflection of political calculations in an extremely precarious climate. The populations within IS controlled territory are in many cases victims many times over of a systematic use of extreme violence to force population compliance. Why else do IS display severed heads on town railings? As useful as essentialist arguments for bloodthirty barbarians may be, the truth is violence is usually a strategic calculation to advance political objectives, in this case widespread docility of terrified locals.

The focus on theological explanations also obscures what the polls tell us about popular opinion in the Arab world. How else are we to reconcile the allegedly wide pool of IS supporters in Iraq with the fact the entire region, Iraq included, has seen a decline in support for political Islam (including the non-violent, participationist variants) and that despite a fall in support for democracy in Iraq – likely the result of domestic factors – 76 per cent of Iraqisagree or strongly agree with the statement: “A democratic system may have problems, yet it is better than other political systems.”

In fact, defining conflicts in strictly ideological terms is simply a way of relieving ourselves from any substantive assessment of the environmental factors at play. Forgotten are the discussions of the real causes of a country’s malaise – which in the case of both Syria and Iraq are manifold, and instead is a singular discourse focused on a theological argument for an Islamic State. To quote Jeremy F. Walton, what is missing in the current discourse is “an account of the decades of communitarian inequality and war in Iraq and Syria, where two Ba‘thist regimes — Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq and that of the Asad’s in Syria—yoked political representation and economic privilege to sectarian and ethnic identity, Sunni Arab in the case of Iraq and Alawite in the case of Syria.”

This isn’t to say that ideology or ideas more broadly have no explanatory power in assessing groups like IS, but surely the ongoing bloodshed in Syria and Iraq, the absence of viable, let alone representative and accountable governments, and the use of violence as a political tool by both governments, like the Assad regime, or militant groups across the region, should be afforded greater prominence than the ‘ideological’ outlook of a group who’s most sophisticated theological output so far has been a Friday sermon!

Our obsession with textuality – even when in this case the texts themselves are conspicuously absent – is indicative of the persistence of philological readings of events in the Middle East. This has allowed for a variant of the same argument – Islam is the problem – to be used to both exculpate all other factors, be they foreign interventions or domestic dictatorships, from responsibility, while pinning blame on the populations themselves for their state of woe. What transforms Ancient Texts into radical handbooks for justifying mass murder? The political conditions under which they are being read.

And just as texts don’t speak for themselves, neither do IS propaganda videos, specifically designed and edited to convey the impression of a coherent narrative. And yet, we see very little effort to unpick the discourse, the constructed self-definition, little effort to look beyond the smokescreen because it reflects back precisely the sort of organisation we expect to see emerge from the ME, ideology incarnate. History, politics, economics, all deemed irrelevant in the face of this Islamic “essence” which represents the consistent explanatory variable in the behaviour of Eastern folk.

A recent report by the Washington Post pointed to Camp Bucca, one of the Iraq war’s most notorious prisons, as having funnelled 100,000 detainees through its barracks, and described the center as “an opening chapter in the history of the Islamic State” with many of its leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and nine members of his top command previously incarcerated there. These men had formerly been part of the insurgency fighting the US presence in Iraq and in prison, a convenient collaboration was to emerge between previously longstanding enemies, Baathist secularists and radical Islamists, united in a common purpose. There is no more telling evidence of the pragmatic accommodation of ideology to political necessity than the marriage of these two diametrically opposed and historically antagonistic outlooks, secular leftist and religious literalist.

The discussion of IS needs to move beyond both eschatological and philological diversions  – The roots of its violence isn’t cultural, but rather, as long argued by the scholar Mahmood Mamdani, political violence demands a political explanation.

Written by Myriam Francois

November 13, 2014 at 15:33

France Legislative Elections: A Left turn for Europe?

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This piece is featured in the New Statesman here and on the Huffington Post blog, here

Yesterday saw a record low level of participation (48.31%) in France’s legislative elections as 6500 candidates campaigned for 577 seats. People headed to the booths to choose between an average of ten candidates, including a number of smaller fringe parties such as the Pirate party and the Blank vote party, which reflect the broader European tendency towards a balkanisation of politics.

Despite tepid public interest in the elections, their outcome could have a significant impact on the government and its ability to undertake its agenda, which includes raising taxes on the wealthiest, tougher measures to regulate the finance sector, the creation of 60,000 new jobs in education over the next 5 years, reducing the deficit to 3% by 2017 and outlining a new Franco-German treaty. The high level of abstention increased the number of ‘three ways’ in the second round on June 17, whereby three candidates reach the second round, and which traditionally sees the formation of alliances to achieve a majority, a situation in which smaller parties can become King-markers. Such an outcome is likely to favour Hollande’s Socialist party (PS) which already has a national alliance with the Ecology party and a less formal agreement with the Far-Left.

The party which wins the presidential elections traditionally achieves a majority in the national assembly, a result which could see the Left dominate all the major government institutions and consolidate Hollande’s power. Whether the PS will have to be drawn into a coalition with the anti-capitalist Far-Left in order to achieve that majority will determine its ability to manoeuvre subsequently and could further complicate negotiations with European partners on the already thorny issue of austerity, just as Spain has conceded a bailout. Leader of the Leftist Front, Melenchon, who wants a ‘citizen revolution’, has previously expressed his desire to weaken the Right in France in order to create a precedent for Leftist policies in Europe, starting with Greece, which will vote straight after France and Germany, set to vote in October. Such a prospect has Layla and Florian, a young Parisian couple and Melenchon supporters, enthused. They claim the Leftist Front offers a way out of this “corrupt and unjust capitalist system” and reflects the only real alternative: “We don’t need three cars or big houses – the current system means the middle class and the elite get richer whilst the poor get left behind – we need a revolution.” But their conviction the Far-Left can resolve France or even Europe’s problems, is far from unanimous. An elderly couple queuing at the polling office tell me they’re concerned there could be a ‘return’ of the communists, as occurred under the government of Leon Blum in 1936, which they recall was marked by “near constant strikes.” After casting a vote for the UMP, they praise Le Pen’s views on immigration, but say their memory of the war and “the fratricide which occurred” means they would not contemplate voting for an anti-EU party.

The elections have highlighted tensions with the UMP, which suffered significant losses, over its ideological outlook and strategy . The traditional UMP alliance with Centre right parties has been negatively affected by the poor showing of Francois Bayrou’s ModDem party, as well as by the rise of the Far-Right, which has drained some of its electorate. Since the departure of Sarkozy, the party has been embroiled in a power struggle between Party leader hopefuls and the public squabbling has served the interests of the National Front, which seeks to position itself as the ‘New Right’. Despite some pressure from its base to form UMP-FN alliances to keep the PS at bay, the UMP has so far resisted such a move, with Alain Juppé warning of the dangers of an alliance with a party which seeks to weaken the Right, in order to subsume it. But MP for the Gironde and representative of the UMP’s right wing, Jean-Paul Garraud, has called on the party to move beyond an ‘ideological blockage’ for pragmatic reasons and unite with the FN, a strategy which though officially denounced, may end up being reflected on the ground. The pressure on the UMP to concede is even more accute, in light of the thirty two ‘three ways’ in which the FN remains present for the second round.

A UMP-FN alliance, though grounded in electoral concerns, also reflects Marine Le Pen’s success in transforming the image of her father’s party, distancing herself from his racist and anti-semitic rants through a focus on anti-EU rhetoric and economic protectionism, coated in xenophobia. The FN which achieved almost 18% in the Presidential elections, has traditionally failed to gain seats in the National Assembly, a fact that reflects both an element of protest vote in its score at the Presidential election and the higher levels of abstention in local elections, which disproportionately affects smaller parties. Yesterday, it achieved 13.77% of the votes, a three fold increase on its 2007 showing in the legislatives elections then, through considerably lower than its score in May’s election. In the second round, the FN may achieve between 0-5 MPs, under the banner of the “Marine blue gathering”, a symbolic gain which reflects the growth of the Far-right in Europe and which would undoubtedly negatively impact France’s Muslim citizens.

While it looks likely Hollande will get his socialist majority parliament, the chorus of anti-austerity voices from both the Far-Left and the Far-right, which may be rewarded with a parliamentary presence, will complicate his ability to act against the significant challenges faced, including 10% unemployment, sluggish growth, a lack of competitiveness and a massive deficit. Despite the lack of enthusiasm for them, these elections will have a decisive impact on France’s policies and given its place in Europe, on the very nature of European policy.

New Statesman: Was race a factor in Rochdale?

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My article in this week’s New Statesman (print and online) can be found here

Simon Danczuk, the town’s MP, and Myriam Francois-Cerrah discuss the relevance of race and religion to the grooming case.

On 9 May, nine men were jailed for their role in a child sex abuse ring in Rochdale, Greater Manchester. Eight were of Pakistani origin and one was from Afghanistan. Their victims – teenage girls from local care homes – were white. Far-right groups have tried to exploit the issue while debate rages over whether race or religion played a role in the crimes. Here, we present two perspectives on the case.

We can’t ignore it
Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale

This month, Labour experienced some of its best ever local election results. Turnout, however, was worrying, falling as low as 13 per cent in parts of Greater Manchester. For me, one of the abiding memories in Rochdale was the exhilaration of new councillors as they won their seats; but I also recall walking up to a group of youths fixing a motorbike outside a house on a council estate in the Littleborough area on polling day. “Will you be voting?” I asked. They shifted uncomfortably, looked askance and mumbled, “No, but we would if the BNP were standing.”

A few weeks earlier I had sat facing a distraught mother in one of my weekly surgeries, watching her shake with fear and anger as she described how an Asian man had raped her daughter.

If politics is to mean more than bureaucratic white noise to people, it has to give a voice to the voiceless. When mothers tell me their daughters are being hounded by groups of Pakistani men, I will not leave it to the likes of the BNP to address their concerns.

Economic anxieties, high unemployment and uncertainty about the future blight the country, but in working-class Pennine seats like mine in the north-west of England, a host of other complicated issues follows in their slipstream.

I thought long and hard before telling the media this past week that race was indeed a factor in the grooming scandal that has brought shame on our town, and that a small Asian subculture has to be confronted. Anti-racist vigilance is the default position of many politicians like me who remember the deeply entrenched societal racism of the 1980s, but this should never blind us to uncomfortable truths in some sections of the Asian community – or any other, for that matter.

For a while now, I’ve had concerns about disturbing attitudes towards women shown by some of Rochdale’s Asian residents. It goes way beyond casual chauvinism to something far worse. In the two years I have been an MP, I’ve had to throw people out of my surgery because of their violent views on women.

I have been asked to write letters of support for rapists and, in one case, for a man who had attacked a woman with a hammer. Research by Professor Roger Penn of Lancaster University shows that a good proportion of young white women in Rochdale have been subjected to verbal abuse by young Asian men.

It sickens me that law-abiding Asians in our town might be stigmatised because of the actions of a minority of warped individuals. But I believe that neither the police and social services nor community leaders can afford to duck this issue any longer. If even Asian councillors were writing letters of support for people now found guilty of horrific sex crimes, it is clear we have a culture of denial.

Since I spoke to the media, other MPs have told me privately that they agree with what I said. Asian campaigners who have spoken out against predatory Pakistani men say that white people have thanked them for saying what they could not say themselves. This is a sorry state of affairs.

It is time we abandoned the shibboleths that leave the political classes isolated from the realities debated on buses, in pubs and on the factory floor. Compare this position to the inspiring bravery shown by the young girls who stood up to evil predators in a court in Liverpool. They were doubly let down, because their background led some within the police and social services to think it was a lifestyle choice that had driven them into the arms of abusers. Vulnerable people need help and support, so we must have the courage to face up to these problems.

As I write, I hear the English Defence League is planning another march in Rochdale. Such racist thugs will not be welcomed in our town and neither will the BNP. But we will not resist them simply by denial. We need to take this debate out into the open and make sure it is led by reasonable voices that want to build a strong and cohesive community – not by siren calls of hatred from those who want to divide it.

Race is a distraction
Myriam Francois-Cerrah

“We need to talk about race,” pleaded one guest on Question Time – and the Rochdale case has certainly thrust the issue back into the spotlight. Yet the focus across a wide range of media on race as an explanation for sex grooming misses why Asian men are over-represented in poorer areas where street grooming occurs and why white girls are over-represented among vulnerable groups in such areas. About 95 per cent of the men on Greater Manchester Police’s sex offenders register are white. Most sex gangs are not Asian. The criminologists Ella Cockbain and Helen Brayley warn: “If on-street grooming continues to be reduced to the big Asian networks alone, a whole host of other offenders will get overlooked.” Asians are not over-represented in the sex-slave trade or among paedophiles.

What’s more, to link sexually predatory behaviour with race is reminiscent of the racist terminology that was used to refer to black gangs in the 1980s. Take Jack Straw’s comment in January 2011 relating to a separate case in Derby: “These young men are in a western society – in any event, they act like any other young men, they’re fizzing and popping with testosterone, they want some outlet for that.” Straw both singled out the men as “foreign” and reduced their behaviour to physical urges, ignoring the dimension of power inherent in rape, which is primarily a crime of violence, not sex.

Confusing matters further has been the tendency of some writers, such as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, to conflate race with religion. “The rapists are all probably in one sense ‘good’ Muslims, praying and fasting
in the daytime, then prowling and preying at night,” she wrote in the Independent on 9 May.

This overlooked how, as Cockbain and Brayley pointed out, “the defendants in question are at most nominally Muslim”. Practising Muslims certainly aren’t supposed to rape children.

Other writers, such as David Aaronovitch, have presented the common view of some women as worthless and thus open to abuse as somehow inherent to Islam. Aaronovitch wrote in the Times on 10 May that grooming is the “cousin of honour killing”. Surely if this were the case the main victims would be Muslim girls.

Furthermore, such assertions ignore the inequities of power based on gender at every level of society, and expressed through a wide range of social and cultural idioms. The terminology expresses a shared disdain for women, even if it is inflected with culturally specific justifications – “slut”, “ho”, “skank”. Sexism is not an “Asian/Muslim problem”, though it does affect Asians and Muslims, too.

The focus on the race or religion of the perpetrator conveniently obscures the failures by the police, Crown Prosecution Service and social workers in bringing these men in Rochdale to trial sooner. What’s more, it makes us look past our own rape culture, in which victims’ claims are dismissed and where one in three rape allegations involves alcohol. The methods used by the Rochdale criminals are common to many white British sex offenders.

Those who seek to locate these crimes within some inherently Asian or Muslim characteristic fail to acknowledge that the vast majority of such men are law-abiding. They also choose to overlook the sheer diversity of Asian cultures – and that the chief prosecutor who reopened the case, Nazir Afzal, is an Asian Muslim.

To express these concerns is not a mark of political correctness; it is about avoiding the stigmatisation of an entire community based on the crimes of a group of men who happen to be Asian. The more important question is why some people have been so keen to attribute a racial dimension to this crime and what that says about our assumptions of Asian men.

Historically, it was black men who were viewed as the antithesis of white femininity, or as sexually predatory on white innocence and beauty. We would be naive not to notice how the same rhetoric is playing out now about men who are Asian and Muslim.

Written by Myriam Francois

May 16, 2012 at 14:49

BBC Big questions: Do we misunderstand Islam?

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The BBC Big Questions – I shared the panel with the lovely Beverley Knight and Rev. Peter Owen-Jones, presented by Nicky Campbell

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Thinly veiled threat

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Written by Myriam Francois

May 28, 2010 at 23:31