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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

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Written by Myriam Francois

July 7, 2015 at 10:19

Media Society-Sandford St Martin Trust religion panel – Groucho Club: “Damned if you don’t? Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion”

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This article by the Guardian’s  is a write up of the event mentioned above: “Damned if you don’t? Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion”. Ed Stourton chaired the panel discussion on the media’s coverage of religion, featuring Dame Ann Leslie, Roger Bolton, Professor Steven Barnett and Myriam Francois-Cerrah.

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GUARDIAN: As an atheist, I didn’t expect to be engaged by a panel debate about religion. But last night’s discussion on the topic turned out to be one of the most illuminating Media Society events I’ve ever attended.

And that’s because the most stimulating contributions were all about the need to see beyond a professed faith in order to discern the reasons for people’s actions.

In fact, those opinions appeared to turn the title of the debate, “Damned if you don’t? Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion”, on its head.

Roger Bolton, the presenter of Radio 4’s Feedback, certainly argued in favour of greater journalistic understanding. In modern multi-cultural Britain, he said, religious literacy is essential.

But the problem is that we are illiterate because our journalism is just not fit for purpose in terms of covering religion. The BBC has no editor of religion and there is no centre of expertise to consult at our public service broadcaster.

Bolton thinks British culture is informed by Christianity regardless of whether people go to church, describe themselves as Christian or even believe in a Christian god.

This makes it difficult for non-Christian immigrants to understand our society. Similarly, seen in reverse, the indigenous “Christian” population cannot understand the religious cultures of immigrants.

As for our journalists, they are a largely liberal secular metropolitan crew, according to Bolton, and they cannot therefore understand what motivates people of other faiths and, by extension, cannot help the public to understand.

Freelance journalist Myriam Francois-Cerrah, who writes and broadcasts on the Middle East, and Steve Barnett, professor of communications at Westminster university, were having none of this.

They accepted that knowledge of religion, as with all knowledge, was of value. But what was of overriding importance was to grasp that there were deeper reasons for people taking outrageous actions that only appear to stem from religion.

They were, of course, referring to various deeds by those we call Muslim fundamentalists – suicide bombings, 9/11, the formation of Al-Qaida, various atrocities in Britain, the Charlie Hebdo killings and the rise of Isis.

For Francois-Cerrah, the examination of such deeds and movements through religion is overstated. Socio-economic factors were far more motivating and it was those that required closer investigation.

Religion, in her view, was a rallying point for people in order to confront power. Note, she said, that most of the autocratic regimes overthrown by Muslim groups were secular.

Note also that suicide bombings were a desperate response to territorial occupation. See beyond the veneer of religion, she said, to the real ideological reasons behind people’s apparent adherence to religious extremism. If she said it once, she said it a half dozen times: it’s all political.

Barnett agreed. There were political rather than religious reasons for what has happened across the Middle East. Self-described as “a militant atheist”, he rejected the notion that we should create a religious specialism in journalism because there were far more important and pressing journalistic concerns.

Privileging religion was unnecessary because there were too many other issues that needed greater attention. For example, he pointed out that too many British journalism students know nothing about the workings of government in their own country. They are unaware, he said, how our constitution operates.

Sure, get to know about religion if you must. But knowing how our democratic institutions work is far more important. That was also a task for the BBC.

One telling point made by Barnett was his reference to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Seeing it as clash between Catholics versus Protestants, he suggested, concealed a deeper economic and historic reality of poverty and power.

Ann Leslie, the former Daily Mail foreign correspondent, did not really get involved in the central tussle between Bolton on one side and Francois-Cerrah and Barnett on the other.

But she did think it important for people to know more about other people’s religions, stressing particularly the need to grasp the tenets of Islam. Her view was informed, she said, by growing up on the sub-continent as the daughter of a British colonial family.

“Religion is important to Muslims,” she said firmly. But she provoked gasps from a keenly interested audience – and wide-eyed amazement from Francois-Cerrah – by telling an anecdote about her father’s kindness in hiring Muslim servants.

Bolton didn’t back down. But I felt Francois-Cerrah carried the day. Her warning against Islamic exceptionalism is one that needs to be taken to heart if we are to come to terms with what is too easily regarded as primitive religious fundamentalism and barbarism.

*The panel debate at the Groucho Club was chaired by Ed Stourton, the presenter of Radio 4’s Sunday programme, and it was co-hosted by the Sandford St Martin Trust.

http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2015/mar/19/journalists-must-see-beyond-religion-to-understand-peoples-actions

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Newman Association Lecture: “Secularism: threat or opportunity”

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

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

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

And so reflecting on the topic of secularism, I can’t help but start by considering the good ‎intentions which underpinned the secularist trend in France, the hope of ending ecclesiastical ‎privileges and affirming universal principles including the freedom of conscience and equal rights ‎expressed through the Declaration of Human Rights. The initial objective was to make the church a ‎source of public morals and not the basis for politics, to guarantee that religious practises should be ‎permitted, but with no preference given to any outlook and no one should be stopped from ‎exercising their religion. To ensure as Rajeev Bhargava describes it, that the plurality of society is ‎meet by a type of state neutrality he defines as “principled distance”. Of course today, this ‎aspiration seems far removed from arguments about crosses or headscarves in schools or the right ‎for women who wear face veils to move around freely.‎
In my earlier days investigating Islam, I came upon the writings of a British diplomat, Charles Gai ‎Eaton who had himself converted to the faith. Discussing religion in general, he spoke of religious ‎wisdom as a type of inheritance, a form of knowledge which we’d acquired from previous ‎generations but failed to recognise the value of. The wholesale dismissal of religion, he compared ‎to a young person who receives an inheritance but dismisses it without examining it more closely. ‎He or she could, he speculated, inadvertently be overlooking immense wealth. ‎

My own evolving view of such matters is indeed that a very specific socio-historical juncture , ‎namely the enlightenment, has led too many of us to often wholesale dismiss religion, without ‎examining the rich heritage which religionS (plural) offer us. Could we actually be overlooking ‎centuries of wisdom in so doing?‎

Quite understandably, the excesses of the church and abuses of institutionalised religious ‎authorities, the conflict between science and religion, as well as some of religion’s most literal ‎readings, gave rise to a movement, the enlightenment, which associated religion and religious ‎people with hypocrisy, a deficiency in reason and discrimination. Many of the critiques which ‎emerged during this period were valid and contributed to purging religion, but specifically ‎institutionalised religion, of some of its worst excesses. But my own examination of religious ‎philosophy has led me to conclude that we mistakenly threw out the baby with the bathwater. Or ‎to quote Charles Taylor, the counterview to the suggestion that the enlightenment was a move ‎from darkness into light is the view that is was “an unqualified move into error, a massive ‎forgetting of salutary and necessary truths about the human condition.”‎
Today, largely as a consequence of this massive reassessment of religion, its place within modern ‎secular societies is socially contested and politically divisive.‎

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

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

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

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

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

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

The largest network of food banks in the UK, the Trussell Trust, is a Christian charity, which has ‎doubled the number of people it feeds over the past year. Similar intiatives are run by other faith ‎groups, including Muslim organisations like Rumi’s Cave which runs a soup kitchen for the ‎homeless every Thursday. Although it is my view that the state should in fact be providing ‎sufficiently for its citizens so that none have to rely on charity in order to survive, it remains deeply ‎reassuring that where the state fails, religion steps in to fill the gaps. Studies show time and time ‎again that the social networks developed by religions are stronger, deeper and more effective and ‎areligious equivalents. This is not a matter of who’s better than whom, but rather a testament to ‎the deep social wealth contributed by religion to society and sadly often overlooked.‎
Interestingly, studies also suggest that people of faith are general more content. According to ‎Gallup- Healthways data (that has surveyed 1,000 people a day for several years).‎

‎“Americans who attend a church, synagogue, or mosque frequently report experiencing more ‎positive emotions and fewer negative ones in general than do those who attend less often or not at ‎all. This relationship holds true even when controlling for key demographic variables like age, ‎education, and income.”‎

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

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

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

In academia, Modernization theory, although widely discredited in theory, continues to influence ‎how many of us perceive the world. It holds that all societies are evolving according to a linear ‎model, with Western industrialised societies as the epitome of human development and so-called ‎primitive, i.e. preindustrial cultures, viewed as backward and doomed. This outlook continues to ‎underpin much of how we view the rest of the world. We assume that technological development ‎is concurrent with human, social and ethical development. Inline with modernization theory, there ‎is a widespread assumption that progress means becoming more secular. Here in Britain, Half of ‎those brought up in a religion say they have abandoned it. We often assume that our economic ‎success and relative wealth are tied to this secularisation, noting as many do how much of the third ‎world remains deeply religious, evidence some claim, of their economic and moral backwardness. ‎And yet, the somewhat large exception to the secularisation and development rule is the US, ‎which was and continues to be very religious and also very modern. In the US, 92% of adults ‎believe in the existence of God or some kind of universal spirit, 70% are “absolutely” certain of ‎God’s existence.

In their book “God Is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith Is Changing the World”, John Micklethwait ‎and Adrian Wooldridge, both of the Economist magazine, trace how in the 19th century, the most ‎influential thinkers predicted that modernity and secularization would go hand in hand. ‎Throughout most of the 20th century, it seemed this was the case. But by the late 1960s and 1970s ‎religion began to reappear in the public square and in the people’s lives, confounding ‎modernisation theorists who couldn’t understand how we could be DE evolving!‎
In this sense, not only does the period in which religion disappeared from the European public and ‎private spheres appear to represent a small blip in an otherwise consistent presence of religion ‎throughout human history, but that blip is a distinctly European phenomena which is at odds with ‎the manifestation of religion globally. ‎

Globally, it is our societies in Europe that are the anomaly. ‎

While just half of Britons say that faith is important to their life (only 44% identify as Christian), ‎according to Ipsos Mori, almost everyone in Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and India ‎say faith is important to theirs.‎
If, as some theorists speculate religion is not only not disappearing, but is actually reshaping, re-‎emerging in new shapes and forms, less institutional, more individualistic and personalised, the ‎question of secularism, how we define it and how it relates to the religious becomes ever more ‎pressing. As people of faith, I believe secularism contains in principle important elements for ‎managing a diverse society, values which we might even recognise as part of our moral lexicon, and ‎I would urge you not to allow the term to be hijacked and reframed by those who wish to use it as ‎a means of marginalising faith and its adherents from the public sphere. Secularism contains both ‎opportunities to better express the plurality of religious traditions, and a threat that religion could ‎be increasingly evicted from public life – it is my hope that people of faith will recognise the value ‎of a moderate, accomodationist secularism and help to redress the imbalance in the perception of ‎secularism and its goals.

Thanks for your time. God bless.‎

Written by Myriam Francois

February 5, 2014 at 17:24

ThingsUnseen podcast: THE CASE FOR (AND AGAINST) PEACE JOURNALISM…..

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ThingsUnseen podcast: THE CASE FOR (AND AGAINST) PEACE JOURNALISM…..

My panel contribution to the Agenda Journalism audio programme, presented by Edward Canfour-Dumas, with Peter Hitchens and Prof Jake Lynch, on the topic of “Peace journalism”

Written by Myriam Francois

November 5, 2013 at 17:38

BBC Religion and Ethics: Perspectives: Should Britain become a secular state?

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Is it time for Britain to separate Church and State and become a secular state? – read it here on the BBC website

Myriam Francois-Cerrah and Symon Hill approach the debate from different perspectives

As part of the Perspectives series, BBC Religion and Ethics asked two contributors to BBC One’s The Big Questions to develop some of the issues.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a writer, academic and a Muslim. She believes that the UK today is largely a secular society and that this is already reflected at the level of the state.

She says that separating church and the state runs the risk of marginalising religious people and in some cases forwarding an anti-religious agenda.

Symon Hill is a left-wing Christian writer, blogger and associate-director of the not-for-profit Christian think tank Ekklesia which “examines the role of beliefs, values and faith in public life”.

He is author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion and believes that the church and the state should be separate.
A secular state?

Myriam: Britain is already a deeply secular country. The exception is the Church of England and the privileges it continues to enjoy, including unelected Bishops in the House of Lords. There is certainly public support for a reform of the House of Lords, and that is a good thing.

A moderate inclusive secularism is evolving in Britain, rather than a reactionary secularism, such as is found in France, which seeks to banish religion entirely from the public sphere.

Do we need to banish all Christian symbolism, rooted as it is in British history, in order to become ‘truly’ secular – I’m not sure we do.

What is critical is that the state evolves in a manner which reflects the changing makeup of its citizenry. Prince Charles suggesting he’d rather be referred to as “defender of Faith” rather than defender of ‘the’ Faith is one such example of this.

However I am deeply wary of the trend which seeks to hijack arguments for greater secularism, ie: more equal access to the state by all, in order to seek to marginalise religious people and their presence and voice in the public sphere.

This is an intolerant strand within the secularist movement which misinterprets secularism and seeks to redefine it to advance an anti-religious agenda.

Symon: I agree that Britain is in some ways a more secular society than it once was, but it is not a secular state. The monarch promises to uphold Christianity. The Church of England’s leaders can vote on legislation in Parliament. Religious schools are allowed to discriminate in selection and recruitment.

In 2010, the House of Lords narrowly passed an amendment to the Equality Act exempting employees of religious organisations from some aspects of homophobic discrimination. The amendment was passed so narrowly that, without the bishops, the vote would have gone the other way.

I reject all this, as a Christian committed to religious liberty.

I don’t support French-style “secularism” in which religion is marginalised and privatised.
Faith in schools

Myriam: I think we agree that the state is not yet fully secular. The vestiges of a Christian state in Britain are symbolic. The monarch promises to uphold Christianity, true, but in practice the future king Prince Charles has shown himself very committed to giving real value to modern Britain’s multi-faith identity (while being politically impotent!)

What does it mean to be a secularist?

A secular state is a neutral state – it should provide for the needs of all its citizens, religious or not.

It is the right of tax-paying religious citizens, as all citizens, to access facilities suited to their needs. Discrimination would principally be a problem if these were the only schools on offer, which clearly they are not.

I’m in favour of a broader selection process so children of all faiths and none can benefit from faith-based education.

You claim to oppose people being forced to adopt certain values and yet it seems you wish to do exactly that.

Liberal mores are not neutral – they are one of many ethical perspectives which a neutral, secular state must accommodate.

Symon: I’m pleased we agree on some things! For example, faith schools should not be allowed to discriminate.

You say that faith schools are not the only ones on offer. For some people, in rural communities, they really are. I went to a Church of England school as a child because it was the village school.

The religious teaching that I got there put me off Christianity and turned me temporarily into an atheist, though I later turned to Christ in spite of it!

Some of the vestiges of Christianity are indeed symbolic, but symbolism can be important. As a Christian, I am disturbed by what these symbols say about Christianity. During his life, Jesus took the side of the poor and marginalised. He reserved his harshest words for the rich and powerful and for religious hypocrites. In contrast, the monarchy and House of Lords represent privilege and inequality.

The radical, subversive message of Christ has been hijacked.

Myriam: The lack of non-faith schools available in rural areas suggests we need more schools to cater for different choices, not that faith schools themselves are problematic. I agree with you that the socially hierarchical Christianity represented by the royal family seems at odds with the message of egalitarianism promoted by both our faiths.

My main concern with a desire to do away entirely with Christian symbolism is that it contributes to the fostering of a sense of national identity and culture.

If Christianity can be inclusive and embrace the changing nature of British society, then I wouldn’t object to its continued presence in the public sphere .

Symon: National symbols tend to change over time. There are many people trying to cling on to symbols while forgetting what they represent. There are those who talk of the right to wear a cross, but forget that the cross represents the execution of Jesus by a brutal empire whose power he challenged. It symbolises resistance to oppression.

Yet there are right-wing lobby groups that talk up the idea of “preserving Britain’s Christian heritage” or insist that “Britain is a Christian country”.

They overlook the fact that the British Empire was claiming to be Christian while engaged in the slave trade and while committing genocide in Tasmania.

While Christian symbols are still attached to an outdated and reactionary idea of what it means to be British, Christian language can be misused as an excuse for homophobia and racial prejudice.

Myriam: Like you, I would like to see religion siding with the poor and disenfranchised rather than seeking to perpetuate privilege and an antiquated social hierarchy based on class.

But I hope to see more religion, rather than less religion in the public sphere in the future, including voices with which I may profoundly disagree.

A secular state – in other words, a neutral state – shouldn’t seek to impose a particular vision of morality beyond the very basic bounds of avoiding direct harm to others.

Today, religious voices are often ridiculed and derided as outmoded, with little value for the modern world. But this is throwing out a rich inheritance – we shouldn’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water.

Religion is about fostering compassion, love and kindness towards others – it seems tragic that we as a society have virtually relegated religion to the history books.

A secular state and a rich religious life are absolutely not in contradiction, but I do hope secularism isn’t used as a Trojan horse to advance anti-religious intolerance, which fails to recognise the true value of religion and religious individuals to the greater good of our society.

BBC Biq Questions: my contribution to “do we need 10 new commandments”

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This week’s show focused on the Catholic Church and whether we need ten new commandments…

Featuring: Colm O’Gorman; Tim Stanley; Francis Beckett; Caroline Farrow; Lavinia Byrne; Fr Paul Keane; Alain de Botton; Rabbi Pete Tobias; Deborah Hyde; David Herbert; Jasvir SinghImage

You can watch it on i-player here for a week: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01qxrzw/The_Big_Questions_Series_6_Episode_7/

Written by Myriam Francois

February 18, 2013 at 19:22

Lecture at Mill Hill School: Faith in the modern world

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(This was a lecture I was kindly ask to deliver at Mill Hill School on Tuesday November 13th.)

I’d like to thank Karen Willetts and the staff at Mill Hill School for inviting me to address you this evening. The topic I’ll be discussing in light of your overarching theme of  ‘Turning Points and Breakthroughs’ is ‘Faith in the modern world’.

I’m acutely aware of the irony of my topic this evening, in light of the fact this lecture series represents a celebration of Francis Crick, whom Wikipedia reliably informs me believed that:  “Christianity may be OK between consenting adults in private but should not be taught to young children.” I will have to respectfully disagree with Mr Crick’s stance this evening, in full deference to his monumental contributions to the realm of science.

I purposefully selected the title “Faith in the modern world” with its inherent ambiguity over the meaning of faith. Am I discussing the faith we ought or ought not to have in the modern world, arguing for a more critical perspective in the face of some of the assumptions which underlie our contemporary societies? Or am I seeking to address the location of faith in the modern world, the question of the relevance of spirituality in post-enlightenment Europe, where the dwindling influence of religion in the public sphere has largely gone un-mourned.  In a sense, I intend to seek to address both of these. The challenge posed to me by this discussion, one which hardly had me hanging off the edge of my seat as a teen, was to make this interesting – or at the very least relevant to a younger audience.  I’m not certain I’ve succeeded.

After all, faith in our day and age is often associated with the two extremes of theological tedium or political violence. There is an ad currently running  for Old PAsos fajitas which pretty much sums up the dominant perspective on religion  – a young and hip ‘modern’ family, is at a food fair seeking out the latest culinary thrill –the camera pans onto a gormless priest, dozing at a stand offering dull ‘cucumber sandwiches’ – the only possible choice is fun, funky fahitas – party food for those who really know how to enjoy life.

Implicit of course is the idea of religion as outmoded, as stifling of our inner fajitas eating selves.

In a culture which extols the virtue of giving in to our sensory desires, the idea of restraint and patience, sobriety and contemplation seem terribly old fashioned.

Where’s the fun in that eyh? Because of course, the point of life is to enjoy ourselves…. right?

Of course, we all have a right to pursue happiness. And spiritual traditions are there to point to the best way to achieve balance and serenity in our lives and the world more broadly. But the central objective of religious traditions, whether Islamic, Buddhist or other, is not happiness for happiness’sake. It is the recognition of certain universal principles, from which states such as peace, serenity, happiness and others can flow.

We might even ask, despite the incessant mantras about finding happiness in self help books and TV series –  how important happiness actually is? Ask yourself this, ‘Was Jesus happy? Was Mother Teresa happy? Socrates? Martin Luther King Jr.? Gandhi? Once we ask the question in this light, we can see that meaning, purpose, significance, flourishing and fulfilment are different from happiness. Happiness is a by-product of a much deeper search for significance.

At this point, I can hear a few of you stirring. You’ve just referred to different religious traditions which all lay claim to their own truth. How can you speak of these religionS as ‘religion’ when they are seemingly mutually contradictory. I’ll answer this if I may, by recounting a west African tale, full of wisdom and humour.

The story is told of a trickster, Edshu, one of those trouble-makers found in a number of mythologies who set snares for the foolish and, at the same time, enlighten the wise. This same Edshu walked one day down the path between two fields wearing a hat that was red on one side, white on the other, green in front and black behind. The farmers watched him pass and, meeting that evening in the village, discussed the odd-looking stranger they had seen. “ A little fellow in a red hat” said one. “Red? Nonsense! It was a white hate.” Another: “Green!” And another: “Black!” The farmers came to blows, each knowing himself to be right, and they were brought before the headman for judgement. Now Edshu revealed himself, complete with multi-coloured hat; deceptive dancer, trickster, prankster.

My take on this particular issue is better expressed by the Poet Rumi than I ever could, when he said: “Religions are like different rivers flowing into the same Sea. They may have different ways, but the ‎destination is the same.”

In Islam, as in many other traditions, life is about seeking peace. Inner peace, learning to master the ego, control one’s impulses and free ourselves from the tyranny of base desires. And outward peace, by working to establish justice and its corollary peace in the expanding circles of family, community, society and world.

A short poem by imam al Haddad recounts this wrestling with the ego: “To discipline the ego, always isolate yourself. Keep silent, sleepless, hungry, you’ll then control yourself.”

Similar ideas are found in Buddhism. Not the fashionable wishy washy stuff about meditation and the personal psychological goods derived therefrom. No, actual Buddhist philosophy which teaches that there is abundant suffering in the world, that much suffering is caused by avarice and clinging to what we want but don’t need; that everything is impermanent including ourselves; and that we ought to live like a bodhisattva, attuned to the exploitation and misery in the world, not only in oneself. I’d love to see Jennifer Aniston promoting that.

Seeking peace is not an introverted, individualistic search for self serving satisfaction. It’s not a yoga class on a Sunday morning. It involves service to others alongside that belief. The Quran teaches that to be a Muslim is to believe AND do good deeds. In Islam, there can be no true belief without commensurate action.

I remember listening to the Queen’s xmas message a few years ago in which she said that of all the people she’s met over the years, the happiest and most content were those who’d dedicated their lives to the service of others. It struck me that service, obligations, caring for the marginalised and the disenfranchised is not, apparently the ‘coolest’ thing to do, but apparently, it is the most fulfilling. Commercialised pop stars sell us dreams of happiness through consumption. But the vaccuousness of an existence without higher purpose can only temporarily be ignored. Eventually, we all seek our own plugs to fill the gaping hole. We all find things to worship, power, wealth, fame as a substitute for the ultimate connection.

Our contemporary view of religion, here in Britain and Europe more generally, does require some contextualisation. We often assume that what is taken as normal and standard here and now, is recognised as such elsewhere. That the view of religion as a relic from a bygone era is widely shared globally. It is not.

Unlike Britain which may arguably no longer be described as a Christian country, the majority of the world still considers faith to be important and relevant.

It would be ahistorical and myopic of us to examine our relationship to religion today without examining how we got here and why. After all, the bishops in our House of Lords and the fact our Queen is also the head of the Church suggest a time not so long ago, when religion was perceived as having a positive influence on the public sphere.

In my earlier days investigating Islam, I came upon the writings of a British diplomat, Charles Gai Eaton who had himself converted to the faith. Discussing religion in general, he spoke of religious wisdom as a type of inheritance, a form of knowledge which we’d acquired from previous generations but failed to recognise the value of. The wholesale dismissal of religion, he compared to a young person who receives an inheritance but dismisses it without examining it more closely. He or she could, he speculated, inadvertently be overlooking immense wealth.

My own evolving view of such matters is indeed that a very specific socio-historical juncture , namely the enlightenment, has led too many of us to often wholesale dismiss religion, without examining the rich heritage which religions-plural-offer us. Could we actually be overlooking centuries of wisdom in so doing?

Quite understandably, the excesses of the church and abuses of institutionalised religious authorities, the conflict between science and religion, as well as some of religion’s most literal readings, gave rise to a movement, The enlightenment, which associated religion and religious people with hypocrisy, a deficiency in reason and discrimination. Many of the critiques which emerged during this period were valid and contributed to purging religion, but specifically institutionalised religion, of some of its worst excesses. But my own examination of religious philosophy has led me to conclude that we mistakenly threw out the baby with the bathwater.

As someone raised in the UK but educated in a French school, many of the enlightenment’s assumptions were moulded into my DNA. As a teenager, I was excluded from English class by a Catholic teacher for suggesting Pope Pius XII was aware of the Nazi’s atrocities and failed to speak out-(I’d just read the, in parts historically questionable, book “Hitler’s pope” and was high on self-righteousness) . When later, my philosophy teacher described Jesus and Mohamed as ‘impostors’ during a philosophy lesson, and a Muslim Moroccan friend squirmed uncomfortably, I sniggered at his naivety. After class, I lambasted this gentle soul with accusations of sexism, referring to a Quran I’d never read. That same philosophy teacher signed my yearbook later that year with a note which reads “I look forward to seeing you perform at the ‘Lido’ a topless Cabaret in Paris.”

He was aware that I was an actress and presumably this was a reference to my performance background. Though clearly an entirely inappropriate one.

Despite my youthful antipathy towards religion and my prejudice that religious people were, well  a tad weird, I could still see, objectively, that religion did seem to encourage some people to do more good than I did. Volunteer their spare time WITHOUT getting paid, not give their mum chatback, offer random acts of kindness like helping me with a maths problem I was struggling with. Not that these traits are exclusive to religious people mind due, but I did recognise that these were the sorts of actions religious people considered important. My view was that they were all goody two shoes who made me look worse than I was. They were naïve I told myself and duped by an elaborate conspiracy theory.

I recognised that my grandmother’s Irish catholic upbringing had instilled in her a compassion and kindness which were grounded in the values of the Church, but as a hardened teen, I confused kindness with weakness. These values would see you ‘eaten alive’ nowadays I reasoned, You can’t just walk around being kind to people – you might aswell hand them your cheque book and dignity –(tied as they are to one another)  – No, in a dog eat dog world, these religious people  were dinosaurs whose unfolding extinction I watched not so much with glee, as a sense of validated satisfaction.

I told you so.

This wasn’t to say that I was a ‘bad’ person as such – I felt guilty when I passed a homeless person, I decried grannies being mugged and the exploitation of the third world. I was just so deeply cynical about my ability to affect change within this grand scheme, where Machiavelli seemed to have won the day – that I caved in to the “if you can’t beat’em, join them” mantra. Once I’d made it by trampling on the weak along the way, I’d set up a sizeable direct debit to a charity or five – I might even establish a foundation in my name – good deeds and some kudos to go with it. Result.

Although I’d been raised with a number of friends who had religious beliefs of some kind, I’d remained largely blinkered to them, convinced that their cultural attachment to what I then viewed as fairy tales would soon fade in the overwhelming face of ‘reason’.

Of course, I represented reason in this scenario.

This sense of arrogance vis a vis the views of religious believers was certainly compounded by my French education and upbringing which confirmed and validated this view of religion as archaic. Sartre, Nietzche, Freud essentially had all the answers I was looking for and anything else I deemed either a political soporific or a mental crutch. These people were clearly just obsessed with an infantile need for a powerful father figure. I on the other hand, at 17, definitely didn’t feel like I needed a SECOND dad.

Clearly, I was not alone in this view. Modernization theory  holds that all societies are evolving according to a linear model, with Western industrialised societies as the epitome of human development and so-called primitive, i.e. preindustrial cultures, viewed as backward and doomed. This outlook continues to underpin much of how we view the rest of the world. We assume that technological development is concurrent with human, social and ethical development. That the most technically advanced and wealthiest nations are somehow beholden to superior knowledge in all realms. Is to be more technologically developed to be necessarily more ethical? After all, our governments spend far more money thinking of ways to destroy human life by investing in military technologies than they do in seeking to save it.

Inline with modernization theory, there is a widespread assumption that progress means becoming more secular. Here in Britain, Half of those brought up in a religion say they have abandoned it. We often assume that our economic success and relative wealth are tied to this secularisation, noting as many do how much of the third world remains deeply religious, evidence some claim, of their economic and moral backwardness. And yet, the somewhat large exception to the secularisation and development rule is the US, which was and continues to be very religious and also very modern. In the US, 92% of adults believe in the existence of God or some kind of universal spirit, 70% are “absolutely” certain of God’s existence.

In their book “God Is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith Is Changing the World”, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both of the Economist magazine, trace how in the 19th century, the most influential thinkers predicted that modernity and secularization would go hand in hand. Throughout most of the 20th century, it seemed this was the case. But by the late 1960s and 1970s religion began to reappear in the public square and in the people’s lives, confounding -modernisation theorists who couldn’t understand how we could be DE evolving!

In this sense, not only does the period in which religion disappeared from the European public and private spheres appear to represent a small blip in an otherwise consistent presence of religion throughout human history, but that blip is a distinctly European phenomena which is at odds with the manifestation of religion globally.

Globally, it is our societies in Europe that are the anomaly.

While just half of Britons say that faith is important to their life (only 44% identify as Christian), according to Ipsos Mori, almost everyone in Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and India say faith is important to theirs.

For many people of faith, religion offers both tangible and less tangible benefits: a sense of community in an otherwise highly individualistic world, a sense of purpose when we’re bombarded by a consumerism which seeks to define our very identity through our consumption patterns, a support system in the form of people who believe in the obligation of service to others.

You can’t see God but you can certainly see him through people’s actions.

Like many elderly people today, a family friend of ours is currently living in a care home.  A recent survey showed that more than a third of older people in the UK are plagued by loneliness, living with neighbours they barely know only feet away. According to a recent campaign, almost one in five old people sees family, friends or neighbours less than once a week – and about one in 10 of them experiences such social interaction less than once a month.

Our family friend is a childless widow, he has no family to visit him, and relies on church friends and his priest for regular companionship. I can safely say he is one of the residents who receives the most visits. For him, religion has both spiritual and very tangible benefits.

I recounted his situation because for many people, religion is far removed from the intricacies of theology or the nuances of dogma. Rather it represents an assurance of a social bond, it represents human warmth and support.

For others, the discovery of one’s ultimate sense of purpose is unquestionably the single most significant realisation in one’s life. I would compare it to a redirection, a reorientation of the spirit from which necessarily flows a reprioritisation of what one deems important.

In this sense, I view my daily prayers as a ‘distraction from the real distraction’ and a reminder of the greater scale of things. More than anything, God consciousness is about awareness. Full awareness, of one’s blessings, one’s responsibilities and what ultimately matters on the grander scale.

Interestingly, studies suggest that people of faith are general more content.

According to Gallup- Healthways data (that has surveyed 1,000 people a day for several years).

“Americans who attend a church, synagogue, or mosque frequently report experiencing more positive emotions and fewer negative ones in general than do those who attend less often or not at all. This relationship holds true even when controlling for key demographic variables like age, education, and income.”

As a sociologist by training, I can safely say that as I got to know more people of faith at university, it helped redefine my view of religion. From hostility and contempt, I came to see religion as relatively benign and largely socially useful. I came to the view, and I’m stealing this from Academic  Terry Eagleton, that : “Dawkins’s refusal to admit that “a single human benefit has ever flowed from religious faith, [is] a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false”.

But I wasn’t convinced it was for me. There was no big, burning hole, no longing or deep dissatisfaction I could identify then or that I might even work into a rereading of my own history. I grew up reading the works of French existentialist philosophers, the majority of whom were atheists, Albert Camus and in particular Jean Paul Sartre. I had a philosophy, namely that we humans are the sum total of our actions, a philosophy which considered the importance of doing good deeds central to our self definition as humans. Speaking as a Muslim today, I recognise in existentialist philosophy a very similar premise to that contained within my current belief system, namely the idea that ultimately, we stand each and everyone of us alone, faced with the balance of our good and bad deeds. The added perk is that in Islam, even your intentions are rewardable, making it easier to stake up that good deeds pile than relying on actions alone!

My exploration of religion was an extension of a heightened sense of curiosity. I was particularly blessed in growing up in a multicultural school, in a multicultural city, with bicultural parents, all of which contributed I believe, to an openness on other experiences and view points.

Within the fairly small remit of my city alone, I visited Morocco, Ghana, India, Venezuela, and these experiences fed the curiosity within. After my baccalaureat, I headed to Thailand with my best friend. Of all the memories I have, one of the most poignant is that of arriving at dawn on a small island and being dropped by a Buddhist temple. Exhausted and disorientated backpackers that we were, only seventeen at the time, we huddled together and tried to sleep a few hours before the buses would start working. A Thai lady took pity on us and invited us onto her terrace where she prepared breakfast for us, alongside two young children. A small act of kindness, guided by a culture which places a primacy, as so many traditional cultures do, on welcoming the guest and hospitality. I can’t say Buddhism drove this women to act the way she did, but I can say that Buddhist rooted values of compassion and kindness are still very commonplace in Thailand.

The year after, I travelled to Equador where I witnessed the devastation that neo liberal economic policies had wrought on that poor country. The overwhelming memory I have is of abject poverty, people barely surviving while huge billboards advertising virtually only coca cola peppered the landscape, wherever we went. In many places, coke was cheaper than bottled water. They didn’t and still dont have their own currency but rather used the US dollar. Today 40% of the population lives below the poverty line, more than double the rate five years ago.

In my final year at university, my friends and I headed to Morocco, where we back packed across the country and often stayed with family of a Moroccan friend we were travelling with. My overwhelming memory was of a hyper masculine public space, where, despite being tomboyish in character, I was suddenly made acutely aware of the fact I was a woman and that this meant something very different to being a man. That summer in Morocco might well have put me off Islam altogether if it wasn’t for the warmth and kindness, inflected with references to the Almighty, which softened the blow of travelling on a micro budget, in a country with flying coackroaches the size of small rats.

I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the male entitlement I was encountering was somehow grounded in their religion. After all, it conformed to much of what I already believed. I’d read “Not without my daughter”, the shocking story of American Betty Mahmoody whose Iranian husband kidnaps her children following their separation and who finds only discrimination in the Iranian courts. I’d heard about Islam. Women’s inheritance was half of a man’s, women have to walk ten paces behind, the men force them to cover. I knew what this religion was about. Kinda. If you counted heresay…

As I returned to the UK, a small verse from the Quran hung around my neck, a trinket purchased in a market. “It’s for protection” my friend’s mother had said. I thought it looked pretty and moreover, I was coming round to the idea that it is humans alone who transform the beauty of the sacred into oppression. God, Allah, whoever was greater than these ridiculous rules men devised to control women. I believed there was something sacred about it without even understanding the verse itself.

I have omitted to mention so far the fact that I was a professional actress. From the age of 12, when I landed the role of Margaret Dashwood in Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, I had kept a finger in the acting pie, making two more films whilst still at school and many more amateur plays. I loved acting. To me, it was an extension of my love for reading, the possibility to conveying an added layer of emotion and depth to text. It was 3d books before the idea of 3d even existed.

Once I’d graduated from university, I was faced with the prospect most actors must contend with. Work part time in a dead end job and hope you land THAT big audition that will change your life. The transition from child actress to adult actress was one I experienced with difficulty. I had always enjoyed playing characters, multifaceted people, but found that many of the jobs I was going up for were looking for a bit of eye candy, it was always the girlfriend, the love interest, that girl. The scenes often involved kissing and often significantly more. Some involved varying degrees of nudity. Some around me sought to convince me that there was artistic value in these depictions. Not to worry about it. To see it as part of the job. Noone loves all parts of their job.

But all I could think of was my granddad watching the film and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the scenes were exploitative. Female characters written in only to provide eye candy to otherwise poor scripts. This wasn’t acting.

It is interesting to me in the years since then, to read what some of the young actresses who’ve found fame this way, say about their experiences. Interestingly, Meghan Fox who made her name in the Transporters franchise was cut following suggestions she’d begun to rebel against Director Michael Bay’s lascivious way of shooting her. Her former co star Shia Leboeuf is quoted as saying : ““Mike films women in a way that appeals to a 16-year-old sexuality. It’s Michael’s style. And I think [Fox] never got comfortable with it. This is a girl who was taken from complete obscurity and placed in a sex-driven role in front of the whole world and told she was the sexiest woman in America. And she had a hard time accepting it. When Mike would ask her to do specific things, there was no time for fluffy talk. We’re on the run. And the one thing Mike lacks is tact. There’s no time for [LaBeouf assumes a gentle voice] ‘I would like you to just arch your back 70 degrees.’”

As some of you may know, Megan Fox was then replaced with a model, someone who might comply more readily with the order to ‘arch your back’ a little more and whose physicality was clearly placed over and above her, until then unexistant, acting credentials. Movies don’t even need actresses anymore, they need compliant bodies…

Turning up for auditions only to have people look you up and down felt very reductive. I was uncomfortable with the importance being attributed to my physique and I was itching for mental stimulation.

Concomitantly, I’d started to read the Quran and was immediately convinced I’d stumbled on remnants of ancient wisdom. Like a sceptical archaeologist tripping over a dinosaur bone, my eyes were opened to a whole new dimension to the world, one in which my physique was totally alleatory and where my soul, a fairly new concept to me then, was the true essence of my being. Rather than investing so much time and energy in this never ending fight to be the most outwardly attractive, I was confronted with the ultimate equaliser. That this exterior counts for nothing but that it is only the good deeds and pure heart that we cultivate which ultimately are real.

In a society which values wealth and beauty over almost all else (in women at least, in men it is power and wealth), where the elderly, the disabled, those defined as unattractive, the poor and the disenfranchised  are ignored in favour of what is typically vacuous but aesthetically pleasing, this felt like a just reordering of the world.

Those we herald as ‘modern’ saints tell us a lot about what we value. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple was the visionary behind the idea of making technology fashionable. Applauded for adding another layer of consumers to the market, he ensured that obsoleteness no longer occurrs through technological innovation alone, but also as a product of seasonal changes in fashion.  As if the planet wasn’t struggling enough with our waste, we now throw out perfectly functioning objects which are no longer ‘cool’.

IPhone 4S? Pfwww. Everyone knows it’s all about the iphone5.

When Jobs died prematurely, he was eulogised. But Jobs was a pure, unabashed capitalist. One of the first things he did when he rejoined Apple was to cancel all of its charitable donations. The company was run for profit he responded to critics, not charity. In 2011, Apple’s annual revenue was $108 billion.

My journey towards faith occurred alongside a growing disillusionment with the modern world and its charades of advancement. Beauty disguised as goodness. Wealth as success. Destruction as progress.

My decision to ‘convert’ to Islam in 2004 felt very natural to me. It was an extension of all I’d always felt was right and a recognition of my place within the Universe. What was less easy perhaps was dealing with people’s reactions. I was aware of the hostility towards Islam, particularly post 9/11. In fact, I was prompted to look further into  the faith following a book recommendation from someone very close to me. The book was by Italian polemist Oriana Fallaci and in it she argued that Muslims were a type of ‘vermin’, comparing them to a mangy dog. I was perfectly aware of how one deals with a mangy dog and the language and tone of the book concerned me deeply. As someone who’d be raised on the works of Primo Levy, Joseph Joffo and other Holocaust survivors, I shuddered at the thought we Europeans were yet again referring to a minority in our midst using the dehumanising language of vermin. At the time, I never contemplated that minority would ever be me.

Reactions from loved ones ranged from the all out hostility, to genuine concern I’d be brainwashed by some sort of a cult, to sheer dismay. Some of my closer friends smiled with a look of “oh just the latest fad, we get it”. Eight years in, some think the joke is wearing a little thin.

I began wearing a headscarf a few months before my conversion. One of my points of contention with some of the Muslim ladies I’d been speaking with concerned their style of dress. I was certain their parents must be making them wear it and couldn’t conceive of the fact they’d actually rather be dressed this way. Gradually they challenged me. Why was I wearing that particular style of garment? I was being dictated to by fashion norms which I never questioned, I adopted styles which I found uncomfortable and sometimes difficult to move around in because they were said to ‘look good’. And what did ‘look good’ mean anyway? That they ensured my body conformed to males expectations of feminity. Not that they ever would, fashion magazines and advertising had taught me that I’d never be truly adequate since you cant airbrush your waist to 6 inches in real life and nobody actually has flawless hair and skin at all times. Gradually, I came to view the idea of clothing as a means of minimising the importance of the body in human interaction as deeply empowering feminist stance. No longer could I be judged on my weight and ‘sexyness’, but instead, shielding the body from the gaze of all but those closest to me, was a means of placing greater emphasis on my voice.

Truth be told, it made life a lot harder. If I didn’t have the right bus fare, I could no longer rely on my “charms” to get me by. I wasn’t offered “free” stuff quite as regularly. Unless you count a free Quran. And it struck me that the importance we attribute to the female form in particular, in the evaluation of a woman’s worth, actually led to a diminished importance being afforded to her voice. I could speak as loud as I wanted, but I wasn’t playing the game right. You cant just be smart. You have to be smart and sexy to be seen. And then possibly heard.

For me, modesty is central to my conception of faith and I don’t mean physical modesty alone. I mean humility as a concept, is at the core of my faith. The struggle to combat the ego and its desires is limited only by an attempt to retain humility in the face of God. Arrogance (kibr) is considered a disease of the spiritual heart, as are anger, the ocean of all sins, avarice, envy, backbiting, prejudice, hypocrisy  and others. For myself and many muslims, the word ‘jihad’ has nothing to do with Al Qaeda, but rather everything to do with learning to master the self, tame the ego and maintain humility in the face of God. In the words of Kanye West, “we’re at war with terrorism, racism and society, but most of all we’re at war with ourselves.” Word.

Physical modesty, with or without a headscarf, is a part of that for me. It is a tool in that struggle against the ego. It is a reminder to limit the importance I place on the ephemeral and focus on the higher, more noble values which I should seek to cultivate in myself. It isn’t about negating objective beauty, of design, of fabrics, colours or textures, but it is about not fetishizing the human body. There is a saying in Islam, “God is beautiful and He loves Beauty.” Recognising the divine origin of anything, but beauty in particular, limits the extent to which it can be sacralised on its own terms. Beauty points to God, so worship not the sign but the origin of all things.

To me, spirituality is meaning in action. The very purpose of our life on this earth is to satisfy God by serving the people. Prayers throughout the night should feed the desire to serve during the day. Rituals serve as  reminders on this path.

Since I’m speaking in a school today, I’ll end by saying a word or two about education. There is a very common prayer which the Prophet (saw) taught “I seek refuge in God from a knowledge which has no use” and he also said “the knowledge from which no benefit is derived is like a treasure from which no charity is bestowed in the way of the Lord.”

When the Prophet spoke of useful knowledge, he did not mean useful in the utilitarian sense – he meant of course knowledge which fails to be actualised, practised, lived for the benefit of others – and as Gai Eaton so eloquently put it “embodied through the transformation of the lower self through inner work (the greater jihad) and thereby through right action in the world.”

Ultimately, we stand alone, each of us, burdened with all that we have done and all that has been made possible through our presence in a particular place at a particular time. IF I have any advice at all to bestow, it is to make sure, you make your time in all places count.

 
… Say not, then, that all these creeds are false,
The false ones ensnare hearts by the scent of truth,
Say not that they are all erroneous fancies,
There is no fancy in the universe without some truth,
Truth is the ‘night of power’ hidden amongst other nights,
In order to try to spirit of every night.
Not every night is that of power, O youth,
Nor yet is every night quite void of power.
In the crowd of rag-wearers there is but one Faqir;*
Search well and find out that true one.
Tell the wary and discerning believer
To distinguish the king from the beggar.
If there were no bad goods in the world,
Every fool might be a skilful merchant;
For then the hard art of judging the goods would be easy.
If there were no faults, one man could judge as well as another.
Again, if all were faulty, skill would be profitless.
If all wood were common, there would be no aloes.
He who accepts everything is a true fool,
But he who says all is false is a knave.

Jalaluddin Rumi

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

 

Written by Myriam Francois

November 13, 2012 at 14:08