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Lecture at Mill Hill School: Faith in the modern world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I told you so.

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

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

Of course, I represented reason in this scenario.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jalaluddin Rumi

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



Written by Myriam Francois

November 13, 2012 at 14:08

Lecture: “Mohamed, a mercy to mankind”

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

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

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

Written by Myriam Francois

March 3, 2012 at 18:35

Femyso conference: The role of religion in Europe

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Last week, I participated in the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations conference which brought together 100 active Muslim youth from across Europe to discuss the key issues and challenges facing all of us in Europe and to exchange ideas and experiences and cooperate more closely. My contribution is below:

1. OPENING SESSION, Thursday 30th, 9:30 – 11am

My opening statement:

European Muslim Youth often face a multiplicity of challenges which tend to get boiled down to simplistic issues of identity politics in a political climate ill-equipped to deal with the more substantial and substantive issues facing Europe more generally. As Greece teeters on the edge of the abyss, stubbornly high unemployment is plaguing France and in the UK, we can’t seem to shake a stagnant economy – at the same time, unions are calling for strikes, student fees are hitting the roof as are food prices and of course, the only thing politicians seem to be able to agree on in this time of heightened emotion, is that “Muslims” are a problem.
This singling out of the “Muslim” component of one’s identity can often lead to an internalisation of that prognosis, so that in response to riots in France over primarily issues of economic and social marginalisation, a leading French imam issues a fatwa denouncing the violence as “unislamic”. The fact of the matter is, much of what is attributed to Muslims as “Muslims”, by which I mean referencing their religious identity, is often a misattribution. The vast majority of problems faced by European Muslims are faced by other sections of European society, be they issues related to employment, racism, sexism, poverty… and a central challenge, as I see it, is for Muslims not to allow ourselves to be defined in narrow terms and not to define the struggles we face in narrow and exclusionary terms. For every case of so-call Muslim exceptionalism, there is usually a significant universal principle in need of defending. To take a case very close to my heart, in my native country of France – While much of the discussion over headscarves and Burkas has been presented in what I term “exceptionalist” terminology – “those Muslims, at it again, making unreasonable demands”- what is really at stake in that discussion, is a broadening of the French definition of femininity – What does it mean to be an autonomous woman in France? What does it mean to have rights over my own body? Not to be judged for the length of my skirt or the amount of skin I’m showing…or not. And of course, this example, of the attire of French Muslim women, which is in essence a feminist struggle for a woman’s right to choose her own definition of femininity, feeds into another even more universal principle, the right to self-determination, the right to make choices about one’s self, for one’s self, unfettered by the state or anyone else. In France this discussion should and has to some extent been tied into the question of national identity and Muslims mustn’t shy away from this discussion. Europe is home, European countries are our countries and we have a stake and a say in the painful process an aging Europe is engaged in, as it attempts to define its identity in a global village, where those Europe ruled over yesterday have spawned Europe’s dynamism, its youth, who question the very values which spawned European imperialism and which are used to justify today, a two-tier system within Europe.
The crux of the issue for many European Muslims is how do we live out our faith in countries where there may be widespread suspicion if not hostility to it. Of central importance will be a thorough identification with one’s country, not necessarily an easy process when people’s responses to us may be hostile – Being European means understanding our history, our culture, and navigating our values confidently, selectively, in order to best determine how, in our context, we enjoin the good and forbid evil. The answers are unlikely to be uniform across our differing contexts, and that itself will reflect the country specific trajectories which must define how we map out our contribution to the bettering of our society, for all its members. Being true to our faith, means staying true to its values, wherever they may come from and denouncing those it opposes, wherever those may come from.
In a way, we face a double challenge, within our community, to move beyond culturally specific practises which muddy the reputation of our faith and which foster and engender oppression, and distinguishing the broad and rich Islamic ethics, often narrowed by their country or at times even region specific understandings, so that they can be applied to improving not just our community in the restrictive sense, but our society and our global village. Ultimately, being a European Muslims isn’t about forgetting one’s ancestry, nor is it about denying Europe’s historical or more recent wrongs, it is about taking the universal ethics of Islam, and as fully engaged citizens, using those to make the world a better place.

2. SESSION 2: MUSLIM YOUTH: WHAT FUTURE IN EUROPE? Thursday 30th, 11:30am – 1pm

– Is there such a thing as European Islam?

It seems un-doubtable to me that the way, we as European Muslims conceive of our faith, is distinct and reflecting of our environment. Many friends of non-European ancestry have commented to me the extent to which they understanding of Islam, their practise is remarked upon and at times even derided when they visit the country of their origins. From the way they may dress, to what they consider important or central in the faith, when we travel abroad, we tend to realise just how “European” we are and this, has a necessary impact on our understanding of the religion. Of course, we share an inviolable core, the essentials, the foundations – but in our concerns, our activism, we are and rightly so, shaped by our environment. This can be both positive or negative obviously – it can be negative when we internalise a politicised view of ourselves and forget that at its core, Islam is a spiritual program for personal development – once we master ourselves we move out from there, but we always look at ourselves first when there is a problem, when we are irked, when we face hostility – the first place we should be looking for answers are within ourselves – are we living up to our ideals. There is clearly a rich tradition of this in Islam, from making 70 excuses for people to Quranic ayas where Allah tells us he won’t change the situation of a people until we change ourselves.
In our priorities, it seems clear to me that the concerns of the European Muslim community reflects our place in the “first world” – we are not lobbying for clean water, basic human rights or the right to a free press – our problems, whilst not seeking to discount their importance, should never allow us to feel defeated or negative, because frankly, in the grand scheme of things, our priorities as European Muslims reflect first world problems, not the most basic struggle for human dignity which the vast majority of the world continues to struggle for today.

So the priorities for European Islam in terms of our campaigns will reflect the broader concerns of a first world nation.
The recent movement towards ecology is in some regard, a reflection of a growing realisation in the first world, that we can’t keep exploiting natural resources and not pay some kind of serious consequence for that. Those in the third world, despite often being those most affected by the impact of ecological degradation, don’t necessarily understand, due to lack of education primarily, the frustration some of us may feel at how people dispose of their rubbish, or deal with the delicate balance of life – or treat animals…but Muslims have been increasingly present on the eco front, from a Muslim presence at the climate change camp, to emel’s “Eco Jihad” front cover – many European Muslims now conceive of environmental struggles as an integral part of responsibility, as Muslims, to be vicergents of God on this earth…to some extent, it seems obvious to me that the distance between what are clear ethical ideals in this realm and the action of some Muslims reflects just how unbalanced we are – even our basic relationship to the land, to the environment is off balance…not to mention our relationships to one another…

Those who dispute the existence or the relevance even of “European” Islam often like to state that there is only one Islam – of course there is – but let’s not be blind to the particular cultural manifestations of Islam in different settings, from dress codes, to architecture, gender relations and political systems. It seems clear to me that the reason a young woman might choose to wear a niqab in France will differ from the reason given by a woman in Pakistan.

– What do you think should be the priorities of European Muslim youth organisations?

The central priority in my view ought to be overcoming the victim mentality and forging confident, educated young people able to articulate the contribution Muslims can make to improving the world around them.
Determining what Islam has to offer young people is a real challenge when those minds are oversaturated by a constant stream of messages suggesting happiness and fulfilment can be achieved through the material, that our worth as human beings is dependent on our capital, financial capital for men and primarily physical capital for women and that religion is a hindrance to the achievement of the only thing that is scientifically knowable, that is the ephemeral pleasures of this temporal life. It’s important we offer young people – all young people- an alternative to the dominant model of success, one which offers real meaning, substance, a stake in defining themselves and the world around them and empowering them to recognise that Islam offers a paradigm for human fulfilment that is more meaningful, more ethical and more rewarding…

In the marketplace of ideas and ideals, in which we’re competing against the Miley Cyruses and Fifty-cent models, human embodiments of capitalism and materialism, we must align us ourselves with the alternative world order – the one in which profits don’t supersede human dignity, in which we raise our daughters to care more about those going hungry than going hungry themselves so they can’t fit some pseudo-physical ideal –where our boys are valued not on their salaries but on their contribution to helping the poor.
We need to find ways of better communicating Islamic education – there have been vast strides in educating the young – by which I mean we’ve realised that rote learning with a stick is less successful than praise or reward based methods, but I still think we can improve vastly on our teaching methods – we need to capitalise on new media to use the media to access people with the ease of film, TV, art – books are great, but they don’t reach anything like the audience of a blockbuster – we need more young people, solidly grounded in their faith, entering the media, so that we might start producing cultural output reflecting the beauty and richness of our faith – but without necessarily shoving it down people’s throats… I want to see Muslims making blockbuster films, putting on astounding plays and producing music hits which resonate with the youth – we need to be confident enough in what we have, to draw on that and package it to make it more accessible. Contributing to our culture, European culture, means publishing novels which contribute to enriching that culture, which enter into national dialogue, it means producing films which speak to the sensibility and cultural core of each of our countries, while infusing our work with the spiritual message which is a universal language which need not be named to be recognised.
We need to address the problems within our community and not leave other organisations to deal with them – we need to be true to the saying of the Prophet (saw) when he said help your brother whether he is the oppressor or oppressed – when Muslims are behaving badly, not only should we not side with them, by virtue of them being Muslims, but we should actively work to restore the ethical ideals of the faith, educating along the way to ensure coming generations don’t have to go through some of the same oppressive cultural practises disguised as Islam, we see today.

But we also need to contribute confidently to bettering our community with a big C – Homelessness, domestic violence, the aged, youth work, animal shelters – Europe has many problems and very few volunteers – in fact, far far fewer than are needed to cover our needs. Muslims can draw on our immense capital for charity and community activism, to become invaluable members of our society – and many are already doing great work in this arena. The bonus is that community work often puts us face to face with people who might otherwise have limited contact with Muslims…allowing us to break down barriers of fear or misunderstanding.

– Do Muslim youth have enough role models?

The short answer is no – but someone I myself consider a role model once said to me you shouldn’t sit around waiting for one – be the role model you wish was out there! So yes, we do need more role models and we especially appear to need more female role models – I often play a game when I see a Muslim event, by trying to guess how many female speakers they’ll have – I rarely need more than one hand to count on – sometimes I don’t need a hand at all!

– Are we, as a Muslim community, failing our youth?

Definitely – we may even be failing our community more broadly – when I go to university campuses and I get asked by a young woman studying law whether once she is married she is allowed to work or visit her mother without her husband’s permission – there is a serious problem. When I see young girls in headscarves wearing more makeup than a Maybelline model and holding hands with a boyfriend, I know there is a serious problem. When I watch so-called Islamic channels and the youth programs on them, which frankly my 8y daughter finds laughable – there is a problem – I can’t even find a good Quran stories series for my kids – the stories are either badly written or so simplistic, the essence is lost – and yet I grew up reading marvellous Bible stories, which brought alive the prophets and made me identify with their struggles – I have yet to see anything close to equivalent in the literature available to Muslim youths. To some extent, this also reveals the low standards within our community – when we laugh off “Muslim time” or “Muslim organisation” we are becoming complacent with the standards we really ought to be setting in our community. When we host events, for the youth or not, people shouldn’t have to premise their response with “for a Muslim event, (….it wasn’t bad)” – what does that say about what we really understand “Muslim” to mean…

Finally, unless we start to associate Islam with fun for our youth, not dry rules and limitations – I know, controversial – but until then, we’ll keep losing people. Studies suggest children learn best when they are playing – Where are our summer camps where kids can learn to canoe, rock climb, ski or windsurf and enjoy Quranic stories around the campfire in the evening? I know a few, very few organisations, do organise such things, but this is where the future lies, in not secularising our faith to a Saturday morning madrassa, but making it a lived experience, where Quranic learning is intertwined with fond memories of roasted marshmallows and midnight dips.

– Do Muslim mainstream organisations meet the needs of Muslim youth? Do we need a new model away from the older generation?

A few mainstream organisations do seem to be making the very painful leap into giving young people the leeway they need to devise events and activities suited to their needs. But because Muslims don’t trust themselves, and lack confidence in their outlook, they don’t trust their youth and therefore tend to keep a fairly tight leash and firm – some might call meddling hand – in youth activities. Some of the elder generation are still debating whether we can listen to music, maybe with drums – while our kids are humming lady Gaga and Rihanna. FACT. Segregated venues, dry lectures, absence of women, a lack of pedagogical training – all reflects the generally fairly poor efforts made to engage our youth who, overarchingly attend mixed schools, where they listen to engaging singers, rappers, actors addressing them using the latest medium based on solid studies of what young people want to see and hear. FACT.

– What is our relationship as European Muslim youth to the rest of the ummah?

The umma or the worldwide Muslim community is our family – that is to say, if you heard a family member was in need, presumably you would leap to their help. Similarly, we are not lacking in causes, from water sanitation, to basic medical care, to education, political rights, human rights more generally – Muslim youths should be engaged in all of this and more. But to be exclusively interested in your family is selfish and at odds with Islamic ethics – Sayidna Ali (mAbph) said a person is either your brother in faith or your equal in humanity – there are many of our equals in humanity also in dire dire need of a voice. European Muslims are in a privileged position through our access to positions and persons of power, through the innumerable rights we benefit from in our countries, from the voice we can have in the public sphere without fear of repression, persecution or even death – that is a privilege in this world – we are part of a small privileged minority with a voice and it is our responsibility to use that voice, to be the voice of the voiceless, the call for help for those unable to make themselves heard, Muslim or not.

Written by Myriam Francois

July 4, 2011 at 15:01