Monday, 31 May 2010
In the back room of a sparsely decorated pub in Bolton a man with a shaved head and a tattoo poking out above his shirt collar hands out what look like wraps of cocaine to his friends. It is just after 11am but behind him the pub is already packed with young, mainly white, men. Suddenly it erupts.
"We want our country back. We want our country back … Muslim bombers off our streets." The chants ring out as tables are thumped and plastic pint glasses are thrust into the air.
"It is going to be a good 'un today," says the shaven-headed man, leaning across the table towards me to make himself heard. "We're going to get to twat some Pakis – I can feel it."
The pub, a few hundred yards from Bolton railway station, is the latest gathering point for the most significant rightwing street movement the UK has seen since the heyday of the National Front in the 1970s.
For the past four months the Guardian has joined English Defence League demonstrations, witnessing its growing popularity, from protests attracting just a few hundred hardcore activists at the end of last year to rallies and marches which are bringing thousands of people on to the street – and into direct conflict with the police and local Muslim communities.
The EDL plans to step up its campaign in coming weeks, culminating in marches through some of the UK's most high-profile Muslim communities, raising the spectre of widespread unrest.
With the British National party beset by infighting and recriminations after its poor showing in last month's local and national elections, the UK is facing the prospect of rightwing activists turning away from the ballot box and back to the street for the first time in three decades.
The English Defence League sprang up in Luton last year in reaction to a demonstration by a small extreme Islamist group during a homecoming parade by the Royal Anglian Regiment.
Since then this chaotic organisation – based largely around existing football groups and hooligan networks – has mobilised thousands of people against what it terms "Islamic extremism".
In telephone conversations and face-to-face meetings, members of the EDL's secretive leadership team repeatedly told the Guardian that the group is not racist and just wants to "peacefully protest against militant Islam".
But at each demonstration I attended while making an undercover film for the Guardian's investigative film unit, Guardian Films, I was confronted by casual – often brutal – racism, a widespread hatred of Muslims and often the threat of violence.
It was only possible to film some of the most alarming scenes with a hidden camera. Inside a pub in Stoke in January about 3,000 EDL supporters gathered for the first demonstration of the year. They had spent the past four hours drinking. The balcony around the top of the cavernous pub was draped in flags bearing the names of different football clubs – Wolves, Newcastle, Aston Villa – and the chants "We all hate Muslims" and "Muslim bombers off our streets" filled the air. The atmosphere was tense, and not just because of the growing anti-Islamic rhetoric. The pub was packed with rival football gangs from across the Midlands and the north of England. Twice, fighting broke out as old rivalries failed to be subdued by the new enemy – Islam. "They're just kids," said one man. "That is not what we are here for today."
As we moved outside for the EDL protest – during which supporters became involved in violent clashes with the police – a woman asked me for a donation to support the "heroes coming back injured from Afghanistan". I put a pound in the bucket. "Thanks love," she said. "They go over there and fight for this country and then come back to be faced with these Pakis everywhere." She paused, before adding: "But to be honest it is the niggers I can't stand."
This kind of casual racism is not hard to find on EDL demonstrations. The Guardian has also identified a number of known rightwing extremists who are taking an interest the movement – from convicted football hooligans to members of violent rightwing splinter groups. The EDL says it is doing what it can to keep them away but acknowledged their influence.
"At previous events, we have had far-right groups like Combat 18 turning up," the EDL's self-proclaimed leader, who uses the pseudonym Tommy Robinson, said in a local newspaper interview. "It's naive to guarantee no violence."
Nick Lowles, of the anti-fascist group Searchlight, says these groups have a growing – and dangerous – influence.
"What we are seeing is more organised fringe elements – the National Front, old networks of Combat 18 people and members of the BNP – who are getting involved specifically to try and use the EDL to spark serious disorder," says Lowles. "This is a serious development; we just need one of these demonstrations to go wrong – for there to be a serious incident – and it won't just lead to disorder in Dudley, Bolton or wherever, it will spread to towns and cities across the country."
But the EDL is not a simple rerun of previous far-right street groups. On each demonstration there is a smattering of non–white faces and one of the group's leaders is Guramit Singh, a British-born Sikh. The organisation's core support appears to be young white men who are often fuelled by drink and sometimes drugs. But its Islamophobic message seems to have acted as a lightning rod for a strange coalition – from rightwing Christians who see it as being on the frontline in the "global fight against Islam" to gay rights activists.
At the front of the EDL demonstration in Bolton in March, among the banners decrying Islam, was a man holding up a pink triangle. He looked nervous when I asked him what he was doing there. "This is the symbol gay people were made to wear under Hitler," he said. "Islam poses the same threat and we are here to express our opposition to that." It turns out he is a member of the EDL's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender division, which has 115 members.
Many of the people I met said they had never been involved in rightwing politics before. "I finished my night shift at 5am and we got on a coach down from Wigan about six," says Steve as the Victoria line tube train rattles along towards Pimlico and the EDL's London demonstration a few weeks later. "Reckon I should be back in time for it to start again at 10."
The carriage is packed with around 50 EDL supporters who set off from the north-west that morning. They launch into one of the EDL's favourite songs: "There were 10 Muslim bombers in the air." Steve explains over the din how his factory is being "overrun by immigrants". Like others on EDL demonstrations, he exudes a sense of excitement that "something is happening". "We have had enough, no one is taking us seriously … about anything – but they are going to have to listen now."
But the EDL is not only attracting disaffected working-class men. On a chilly evening in early March, Alan Lake settles into his seat in a cafe in central London. This smartly dressed man in his mid-40s has emerged as a key figure in the organisation and is quickly into his stride – warning that the UK will have Sharia law in the next 40 years "unless something is done".
A London-based IT consultant, Lake has spoken at several EDL rallies and sees himself as one of the organisation's thinkers. "The middle-class intellectuals are coming forward and also American speakers – some of them quite famous, although I can't give you names yet … they love the fact that we can have people that can go on the streets."
Addressing a far-right anti-Islam conference in Sweden last year, Lake told delegates it was necessary to build a united "anti-Jihad movement" and spoke of the need for "people that are ready to go out in the street", boasting that he and his friends had begun to build alliances with "more physical groups like football fans". Lake says he is opposed to violence or confrontation but regularly returns to the importance of the EDL's physical presence.
"The EDL has a lot of support and is growing quickly and crucially what it has done is deliver an activist movement on the streets," he tells me subsequently. Pressed on the levels of violence at the demonstrations, he replies: "These people are not middle-class female teachers … if they continue to be suppressed it will turn nasty in one way or another … We have put bodies on the street, writing letters to the Times does not work … if we are going to have a mess that is so much grist to the mill."
Lake says he is exploring a political future for the EDL – and argues it should consider throwing its weight behind the UK Independence party. He later introduces me to Magnus Nielsen – a Ukip candidate in the general election – who has agreed to speak at forthcoming EDL rallies. Nielsen describes Muhammad as a "criminal psychopath", "the first cult leader" and "psychiatrically deranged". Lake says there is "some synergy" between the two groups.
A few weeks later Lake tells me that he is no longer an EDL spokesman. "I am really working on the Ukip thing so we can offer people an alternative," he says.
A spokesman for Ukip said it would not form any alliance with the EDL or any other "extremist" group.
However, these efforts appear to be part of tentative steps by the EDL to expand its reach beyond its street demonstrations. In March a delegation of activists travelled to Berlin to take part in an anti-Islam rally in support of far-right anti-immigrant Dutch politician Geert Wilders. It is also forging tentative links with the US anti-Islam group Stop the Islamification of America, whose New York demonstration was advertised on the EDL website in April.
The upshot appears to be a movement that, although chaotic and beset by infighting, seems to be growing in scope and sometimes violence. At a protest in Dudley last month, demonstrators threw missiles at the police before ripping down barriers and rampaging through the town in an attempt to confront anti-racist protesters and local Asian youths. In Aylesbury a few weeks later they again clashed with police.
And despite the group's protestations to the contrary, the prospect of serious unrest is growing. The list of towns the EDL plans to hit this summer is lengthening – Newcastletomorrow, Cardiff, Dudley and Bradford over the next few weeks. According to Lowles the stakes are high. "What we are seeing now is the most serious, most dangerous political phenomenon that we have had in Britain for a number of years," he says. "With EDL protests that are growing week in, week out there is a chance for major disorder and a political shift to the right."
But the appeal of the EDL is not just down to the extreme opinions expressed by people such as Lake and Nielsen. In Stoke a group of teenagers who were on their first EDL demonstration said they had come after reading reports that "the Muslims" were planning to march through Wootton Bassett with 500 coffins. The proposed march was called by Anjem Choudary and his small extremist group Islam4UK. The group is reviled by the majority of Muslims and the demonstration did not go ahead. But this was lost on the outraged teenagers who turned up in Stoke and subsequently travelled to two of the next three EDL events.
Outside the Morpeth Arms on the banks of the Thames in March supporters gathered for the EDL's London demonstration. One who had travelled down from Blackburn was eager to know who had seen a television documentary that he thought showed how a Muslim group were taking over politics in east London. The EDL had carried a link to the film on the front of its website and most of the supporters drinking in the sunshine knew about it.
For Matthew Goodwin, an academic who specialises in far-right politics at Manchester University, this is a crucial difference between the EDL and previous far-right street movements.
"The reason why the EDL's adoption of Islamophobia is particularly significant is that unlike the 1970s, when the National Front was embracing antisemitism, there are now sections of the media and the British establishment that are relatively sympathetic towards Islamophobia," says Goodwin. "It is not difficult to look through the media and find quite hostile views towards Islam and Muslims. That is fundamentally different to the 1970s, when very few newspapers or politicians were endorsing the NF's antisemitic message."
"The point for your average voter is that if they see the EDL marching through their streets shouting about how the neighbourhood is about to be swamped by Muslims or how the UK is going to be Islamified by 2040, they are also receiving these cues from other sections of British society … the message of the EDL may well be legitimised if that continues."
The people on the sharp end of the EDL's message echo this view. Mujibul Islam, chair of the youth committee of the Muslim Council of Britain, says the foundations for the growth of the EDL have been laid not just by extremists but by countless political speeches and newspaper articles. "It simply would not be acceptable to say the things that are being said on these demonstrations about any other group – black people, Jewish people. But we are now in a position where it seems almost acceptable to say these things about Muslims."
He said the growth of the EDL was having a real impact on the way ordinary Muslims were being treated. "A woman I know got on to a tube train which had a lot of EDL supporters on recently and was really badly abused; another man was attacked as he made his way home on the train. These are the consequences of what we are seeing now. It is not just a theoretical debate about freedom of speech."
Saturday, 29 May 2010
It’s a controversial time for British women to be wearing the hijab, the basic Muslim headscarf. Last month, Belgium became the first European country to pass legislation to ban the burka (the most concealing of Islamic veils), calling it a “threat” to female dignity, while France looks poised to follow suit. In Italy earlier this month, a Muslim woman was fined €500 (£430) for wearing the Islamic veil outside a post office.
And yet, while less than 2 per cent of the population now attends a Church of England service every week, the number of female converts to Islam is on the rise. At the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park, women account for roughly two thirds of the “New Muslims” who make their official declarations of faith there – and most of them are under the age of 30.
Conversion statistics are frustratingly patchy, but at the time of the 2001 Census, there were at least 30,000 British Muslim converts in the UK. According to Kevin Brice, of the Centre for Migration Policy Research, Swansea University, this number may now be closer to 50,000 – and the majority are women. “Basic analysis shows that increasing numbers of young, university-educated women in their twenties and thirties are converting to Islam,” confirms Brice.
“Our liberal, pluralistic 21st-century society means we can choose our careers, our politics – and we can pick and choose who we want to be spiritually,” explains Dr Mohammad S. Seddon, lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Chester. We’re in an era of the “religious supermarket”, he says.
Solicitor, 30, Bradford
“The first time I wore my hijab into the office, I was so nervous, I stood outside on the phone to my friend for ages going, ‘What on earth is everyone going to say?’ When I walked in, a couple of people asked, ‘Why are you wearing that scarf? I didn’t know you were a Muslim.’
“I’m the last person you’d expect to convert to Islam: I had a very sheltered, working-class upbringing in South Yorkshire. I’d hardly even seen a Muslim before I went to university.
“In my first job at a solicitor’s firm in Barnsley, I remember desperately trying to play the role of the young, single, career woman: obsessively dieting, shopping and going to bars – but I never felt truly comfortable.
“Then one afternoon in 2004 everything changed: I was chatting to a Muslim friend over coffee, when he noticed the little gold crucifix around my neck. He said, ‘Do you believe in God, then?’ I wore it more for fashion than religion and said, ‘No, I don’t think so,’ and he started talking about his faith.
“I brushed him off at first, but his words stuck in my mind. A few days later, I found myself ordering a copy of the Koran on the internet.
“It took me a while to work up the courage to go to a women’s social event run by the Leeds New Muslims group. I remember hovering outside the door thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I imagined they would be dressed head-to-toe in black robes: what could I, a 25-year-old, blonde English girl, possibly have in common with them?
“But when I walked in, none of them fitted the stereotype of the oppressed Muslim housewife; they were all doctors, teachers and psychiatrists. I was struck by how content and secure they seemed. It was meeting these women, more than any of the books I read, that convinced me that I wanted to become a Muslim.
“After four years, in March 2008, I made the declaration of faith at a friend’s house. At first, I was anxious that I hadn’t done the right thing, but I soon relaxed into it – a bit like starting a new job.
“A few months later, I sat my parents down and said, ‘I’ve got something to tell you.’ There was a silence and my mum said, ‘You’re going to become Muslim, aren’t you?’ She burst into tears and kept asking things like, ‘What happens when you get married? Do you have to cover up? What about your job?’ I tried to reassure her that I’d still be me, but she was concerned for my welfare.
“Contrary to what most people think, Islam doesn’t oppress me; it lets me be the person that I was all along. Now I’m so much more content and grateful for the things I’ve got. A few months ago, I got engaged to a Muslim solicitor I met on a training course. He has absolutely no problem with my career, but I do agree with the Islamic perspective on the traditional roles for men and women. I want to look after my husband and children, but I also want my independence. I’m proud to be British and I’m proud to be Muslim – and I don’t see them as conflicting in any way.”
Aqeela Lindsay Wheeler
Housewife and mother, 26, Leicester
“As a teenager I thought all religion was pathetic. I used to spend every weekend getting drunk outside the leisure centre, in high-heeled sandals and miniskirts. My view was: what’s the point in putting restrictions on yourself? You only live once.
“At university, I lived the typical student existence, drinking and going clubbing, but I’d always wake up the next morning with a hangover and think, what’s the point?
“It wasn’t until my second year that I met Hussein. I knew he was a Muslim, but we were falling in love, so I brushed the whole issue of religion under the carpet. But six months into our relationship, he told me that being with me was ‘against his faith’.
“I was so confused. That night I sat up all night reading two books on Islam that Hussein had given me. I remember bursting into tears because I was so overwhelmed. I thought, ‘This could be the whole meaning of life.’ But I had a lot of questions: why should I cover my head? Why can’t I eat what I like?
“I started talking to Muslim women at university and they completely changed my view. They were educated, successful – and actually found the headscarf liberating. I was convinced, and three weeks later officially converted to Islam.
“When I told my mum a few weeks later, I don’t think she took it seriously. She made a few comments like, ‘Why would you wear that scarf? You’ve got lovely hair,’ but she didn’t seem to understand what it meant.
“My best friend at university completely turned on me: she couldn’t understand how one week I was out clubbing, and the next I’d given everything up and converted to Islam. She was too close to my old life, so I don’t regret losing her as a friend.
“I chose the name Aqeela because it means ‘sensible and intelligent’ – and that’s what I was aspiring to become when I converted to Islam six years ago. I became a whole new person: everything to do with Lindsay, I’ve erased from my memory.
“The most difficult thing was changing the way I dressed, because I was always so fashion-conscious. The first time I tried on the hijab, I remember sitting in front of the mirror, thinking, ‘What am I doing putting a piece of cloth over my head? I look crazy!’ Now I’d feel naked without it and only occasionally daydream about feeling the wind blow through my hair. Once or twice, I’ve come home and burst into tears because of how frumpy I feel – but that’s just vanity.
“It’s a relief not to feel that pressure any more. Wearing the hijab reminds me that all I need to do is serve God and be humble. I’ve even gone through phases of wearing the niqab [face veil] because I felt it was more appropriate – but it can cause problems, too.
“When people see a white girl wearing a niqab they assume I’ve stuck my fingers up at my own culture to ‘follow a bunch of Asians’. I’ve even had teenage boys shout at me in the street, ‘Get that s*** off your head, you white bastard.’ After the London bombings, I was scared to walk about in the streets for fear of retaliation.
“For the most part, I have a very happy life. I married Hussein and now we have a one-year-old son, Zakir. We try to follow the traditional Muslim roles: I’m foremost a housewife and mother, while he goes out to work. I used to dream of having a successful career as a psychologist, but now it’s not something I desire.
“Becoming a Muslim certainly wasn’t an easy way out. This life can sometimes feel like a prison, with so many rules and restrictions, but we believe that we will be rewarded in the afterlife.”
Nursery school teacher, 31, North London
“If you’d asked me at the age of 16 if I’d like to become a Muslim, I would have said, ‘No thanks.’ I was quite happy drinking, partying and fitting in with my friends.
“Growing up in North London, we never practised religion at home; I always thought it was slightly old-fashioned and irrelevant. But when I met my future husband, Syed, in the sixth form, he challenged all my preconceptions. He was young, Muslim, believed in God – and yet he was normal. The only difference was that, unlike most teenage boys, he never drank.
“A year later, we were head over heels in love, but we quickly realised: how could we be together if he was a Muslim and I wasn’t?
“Before meeting Syed, I’d never actually questioned what I believed in; I’d just picked up my casual agnosticism through osmosis. So I started reading a few books on Islam out of curiosity.
“In the beginning, the Koran appealed to me on an intellectual level; the emotional and spiritual side didn’t come until later. I loved its explanations of the natural world and discovered that 1,500 years ago, Islam gave women rights that they didn’t have here in the West until relatively recently. It was a revelation.
“Religion wasn’t exactly a ‘cool’ thing to talk about, so for three years I kept my interest in Islam to myself. But in my first year at university, Syed and I decided to get married – and I knew it was time to tell my parents. My mum’s initial reaction was, ‘Couldn’t you just live together first?’ She had concerns about me rushing into marriage and the role of women in Muslim households – but no one realised how seriously I was taking my religious conversion. I remember going out for dinner with my dad and him saying, ‘Go on, have a glass of wine. I won’t tell Syed!’ A lot of people assumed I was only converting to Islam to keep his family happy, not because I believed in it.
“Later that year, we had an enormous Bengali wedding, and moved into a flat together – but I certainly wasn’t chained to the kitchen sink. I didn’t even wear the hijab at all to start with, and wore a bandana or a hat instead.
“I was used to getting a certain amount of attention from guys when I went out to clubs and bars, but I had to let that go. I gradually adopted the Islamic way of thinking: I wanted people to judge me for my intelligence and my character – not for the way I looked. It was empowering.
“I’d never been part of a religious minority before, so that was a big adjustment, but my friends were very accepting. Some of them were a bit shocked: ‘What, no drink, no drugs, no men? I couldn’t do that!’ And it took a while for my male friends at university to remember things like not kissing me hello on the cheek any more. I’d have to say, ‘Sorry, it’s a Muslim thing.’
“Over time, I actually became more religious than my husband. We started growing apart in other ways, too. In the end, I think the responsibility of marriage was too much for him; he became distant and disengaged. After seven years together, I decided to get a divorce.
“When I moved back in with my parents, people were surprised I was still wandering around in a headscarf. But if anything, being on my own strengthened my faith: I began to gain a sense of myself as a Muslim, independent of him.
“Islam has given me a sense of direction and purpose. I’m involved with the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, and lead campaigns against Islamophobia, discrimination against women in mosques, poverty and the situation in Palestine. When people call us ‘extremists’ or ‘the dark underbelly of British politics’, I just think it’s ridiculous. There are a lot of problems in the Muslim community, but when people feel under siege it makes progress even more difficult.
“I still feel very much part of white British society, but I am also a Muslim. It has taken a while to fit those two identities together, but now I feel very confident being who I am. I’m part of both worlds and no one can take that away from me.”
Spoken-word poet, 28, London
“Before I found Islam, my gaze was firmly fixed on Africa. I was raised a Rastafarian and used to have crazy-long dreadlocks: one half blonde and the other half black.
“Then, in 2005, my ex-boyfriend came back from a trip to Africa and announced that he’d converted to Islam. I was furious and told him he was ‘losing his African roots’. Why was he trying to be an Arab? It was so foreign to how I lived my life. Every time I saw a Muslim woman in the street I thought, ‘Why do they have to cover up like that? Aren’t they hot?’ It looked oppressive to me.
“Islam was already in my consciousness, but when I started reading the autobiography of Malcolm X at university, something opened up inside me. One day I said to my best friend, Muneera, ‘I’m falling in love with Islam.’ She laughed and said, ‘Be quiet, Sukina!’ She only started exploring Islam to prove me wrong, but soon enough she started believing it, too.
“I was always passionate about women’s rights; there was no way I would have entered a religion that sought to degrade me. So when I came across a book by a Moroccan feminist, it unravelled all my negative opinions: Islam didn’t oppress women; people did.
“Before I converted, I conducted an experiment. I covered up in a long gypsy skirt and headscarf and went out. But I didn’t feel frumpy; I felt beautiful. I realised, I’m not a sexual commodity for men to lust after; I want to be judged for what I contribute mentally.
“Muneera and I took our shahada [declaration of faith] together a few months later, and I cut my dreadlocks off to represent renewal: it was the beginning of a new life.
“Just three weeks after our conversion, the 7/7 bombings happened; suddenly we were public enemy No 1. I’d never experienced racism in London before, but in the weeks after the bombs, people would throw eggs at me and say, ‘Go back to your own country,’ even though this was my country.
“I’m not trying to shy away from any aspect of who I am. Some people dress in Arabian or Pakistani styles, but I’m British and Caribbean, so my national dress is Primark and Topshop, layered with colourful charity-shop scarves.
“Six months after I converted, I got back together with my ex-boyfriend, and now we’re married. Our roles in the home are different, because we are different people, but he would never try to order me around; that’s not how I was raised.
“Before I found Islam, I was a rebel without a cause, but now I have a purpose in life: I can identify my flaws and work towards becoming a better person. To me, being a Muslim means contributing to your society, no matter where you come from.”
Retail assistant, 21, Bournemouth
“My parents always thought I was abnormal, even before I became a Muslim. In my early teens, they’d find me watching TV on a Friday night and say, ‘What are you doing at home? Haven’t you got any friends to go out with?’
“The truth was: I didn’t like alcohol, I’ve never tried smoking and I wasn’t interested in boys. You’d think they’d have been pleased.
“I’ve always been quite a spiritual person, so when I started studying Islam in my first year of GCSEs, something just clicked. I would spend every lunchtime reading about Islam on the computer. I had peace in my heart and nothing else mattered any more. It was a weird experience – I’d found myself, but the person I found wasn’t like anyone else I knew.
“I’d hardly ever seen a Muslim before, so I didn’t have any preconceptions, but my parents weren’t so open-minded. I hid all my Muslim books and headscarves in a drawer, because I was so scared they’d find out.
“When I told my parents, they were horrified and said, ‘We’ll talk about it when you’re 18.’ But my passion for Islam just grew stronger. I started dressing more modestly and would secretly fast during Ramadan. I got very good at leading a double life until one day, when I was 17, I couldn’t wait any longer.
“I sneaked out of the house, put my hijab in a carrier bag and got on the train to Bournemouth. I must have looked completely crazy putting it on in the train carriage, using a wastebin lid as a mirror. When a couple of old people gave me dirty looks, I didn’t care. For the first time in my life, I felt like myself.
“A week after my conversion, my mum came marching into my room and said, ‘Have you got something to tell me?’ She pulled my certificate of conversion out of her pocket. I think they’d rather have found anything else at that point – drugs, cigarettes, condoms – because at least they could have put it down to teenage rebellion.
“I could see the fear in her eyes. She couldn’t comprehend why I’d want to give up my freedom for the sake of a foreign religion. Why would I want to join all those terrorists and suicide bombers?
“It was hard being a Muslim in my parents’ house. I’ll never forget one evening, there were two women in burkas on the front page of the newspaper, and they started joking, ‘That’ll be Catherine soon.’
“They didn’t like me praying five times a day either; they thought it was ‘obsessive’. I’d pray right in front of my bedroom door so my mum couldn’t walk in, but she would always call upstairs, ‘Catherine, do you want a cup of tea?’ just so I’d have to stop.
“Four years on, my grandad still says things like, ‘Muslim women have to walk three steps behind their husbands.’ It gets me really angry, because that’s the culture, not the religion. My fiancé, whom I met eight months ago, is from Afghanistan and he believes that a Muslim woman is a pearl and her husband is the shell that protects her. I value that old-fashioned way of life: I’m glad that when we get married he’ll take care of paying the bills. I always wanted to be a housewife anyway.
“Marrying an Afghan man was the cherry on the cake for my parents. They think I’m completely crazy now. He’s an accountant and actually speaks better English than I do, but they don’t care. The wedding will be in a mosque, so I don’t think they’ll come. It hurts to think I’ll never have that fairytale wedding, surrounded by my family. But I hope my new life with my husband will be a lot happier. I’ll create the home I’ve always wanted, without having to feel the pain of people judging me.”
Wednesday, 26 May 2010
Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Monday, 24 May 2010
Thursday, 20 May 2010
Beirut, Washington, Tel Aviv- As soon as 24-year old Rima Fakih, who is originally from the town of Srifa in Southern Lebanon, descended from the Las Vegas stage as "Miss USA 2010" she began to face criticism from all directions. Some US and Israeli media outlets went so far as to say that a Muslim winning a US beauty pageant confirms that Islam has taken root in the country since Barack Obama won the presidency a year ago.
Wednesday, 19 May 2010
Tuesday, 18 May 2010
Monday, 17 May 2010
Sunday, 16 May 2010
Militants are holding the Mother Teresa of Somalia hostage, and as a result, dozens of children have already died. Eliza Griswold talks to Dr. Hawa Abdi from the home where she is being held captive.
At dawn last Wednesday, Dr. Hawa Abdi, a 63-year-old Somali gynecologist, woke to the whistle of shells falling around her at her family farm. This was nothing new. For the past four years, Islamist militias have been battling Somalia’s weak and ever-changing government for power over the world’s longest-running failed state. But 10 minutes later, those familiar sounds turned into 500 militant members of al Qaeda-linked Hizbul Islam, one of the two lethal Islamist groups vying for control in Somalia, bursting into her home and surrounding her hospital. They rounded up dozens of Dr. Hawa’s employees and killed two of them. (Twenty security guards are still being held hostage.) They told Dr. Hawa that she could no longer be in charge of the hospital she has spent the last 15 years building, or the refugee camp that has sprung up around it.
“We came three months ago and told you that as a woman you can’t run this place,” the militant leader said. Dr. Hawa recounted this story to me last night by phone from her bedroom, where she was being kept under house arrest by five militant members of Hizbul Islam who were stationed outside her room and in the hospital. “It’s very dangerous for me now. I am still not free,” she said. “It’s strange how they think, these people. They think that women can’t do anything, have property, or be leaders.”
“I’m in my room and afraid to go anywhere,” she told me. “The refugees have come to sleep with me. But the militants are stronger than us, so we are praying to God.”
Hours earlier, the militants had told her to quit talking on the phone, but she refused. She said she had nothing left to lose. “This isn’t government,” she said. “This is my home.”
Dr. Hawa is one of Somalia’s few heroes. A divorced mother of two, she trained in Ukraine as a gynecologist during the Cold War. In 1993, she opened the one-room women’s hospital. Given Dr. Hawa’s reputation as a doctor and humanitarian, people suffering from the famine of the early ’90s flocked to her farm. She buried more than 10,000 people who died of starvation there. The latest wave of refugees has built their homes, which look like overturned bird’s nests, on the hill that serves as a mass grave.
I first walked up this hill with her in 2007, when the camp seemed full to bursting with 20,000 recent arrivals. When I visited again, in 2008, the number of displaced people had grown. Now the population has more than tripled. The numbers are indicative of the spiraling humanitarian crisis that is threatening to outdo the infamous early 1990s. When that famine ended, Dr. Hawa’s work did not. She kept adding on to her hospital.
Hawa Abdi and her operating team during a gynecological procedure. She opened her private clinic for women and children in 1983. (Seamus Murphy/VII Network) All 400 beds were full when last week’s shelling started. Eighty-two children suffering from malnutrition or cholera were waiting for the doctor in her feeding center. Seventy-two thousand other people were squatting on her crammed farm. She sold all her family gold long ago to feed them. She offers every family a small plot of farmland so they can grow their own corn and vegetables. Until two months ago, the World Food Program supplied at least nominal help to Dr. Hawa, providing corn for 500 families. Then things got so bad it couldn’t get shipments of food through. Doctors Without Borders ran a clinic on Dr. Hawa’s land, too—until last Wednesday, when Hizbul Islam had the depravity to take the popular doctor hostage.
The militants have been holding Dr. Hawa under house arrest for the past five days. In the beginning, they hung their black flag outside the clinic to show their power. In response, Dr. Hawa had the nerve to hang up a white one. “This is my protest,” she told them. “Take your flag down. Even the holy Quran says you can’t enter a private house without an invitation.” The militants told her she should not dare to speak to them in this manner. But as usual, she refused to back down.
Somalia’s baffling war has its panoply of villains—from warlords to al Qaeda-linked militants—all vying for control of the country. The fighting began when neighboring Ethiopia invaded Somalia in late 2006 with the backing of the United States. At the time, Somalia was under the sway of a loose group of religious leaders and businessmen who believed that the country’s only hope for survival lay in Islamic law. According to the CIA, al Qaeda-linked militants were also hiding out in this badland. America hoped to uproot these unsavory men and send them fleeing down Somalia’s long coast to the border of neighboring Kenya, where the militants would be easy to arrest. The plan was to dislodge a small number of bona fide terrorists and deny a larger number of their potential recruits any comfortable hiding zone in East Africa. The plan didn’t come off, however, and instead this invasion helped to create the very enemy the U.S. was seeking to destroy: a group of well-armed radical religious fighters who believed that Islam demanded they protect their land and its people.
Over the past several years, these militants, known as both al-Shabab (The Youth) and the newer group Hizbul Islam (the Islamic Party), have put themselves at al Qaeda’s disposal. Hizbul Islam is led by Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former military man who is on both the U.S. and the U.N. terrorist watch lists. (In 2009, al-Shabab issued the popular web video “Here I am at your service, Oh Osama.”) On their own and together, the militants have killed African Union peacekeeping troops, murdered Somali journalists and international aid workers—and attacked fellow Somalis like Dr. Hawa. Their willingness to break all such societal ties is an indication of their power and their unpopularity.
Dr. Hawa says she will rebuild, but much has been lost. At least 20 of the 82 children who were at the feeding center are now dead. There is still some water for every family, but no food, she said: “No food. Totally no food. Peace is more important than food.” I thought this was a kind of platitude, but she corrected me. Without peace—a cessation of violence—no one could go to their farms. They were stuck, like she was, waiting for the militants to leave. Dr. Hawa was already demanding reparations, which she knew Hizbul Islam wouldn’t pay. Still, she kept asking. Her hospital has been decimated. “The windows, the doors, the operating tables, the hospital beds, the sterilization equipment, they destroyed all,” she said. “Every, every, every instrument they took or they broke.”
The only thing protecting her is the sheer number of people surrounding her—the displaced people she has sheltered, many for more than a decade, are now protecting her. They are arriving by the hundreds to visit her in her room. “I’m in my room and afraid to go anywhere,” she told me. “The IDPs [the internally displaced people, shorthand for refugees who haven’t yet crossed international borders] have come to sleep with me. But the militants are stronger than us, so we are praying to God.”
Saturday, 15 May 2010
The other day, my wife related how one of the office "boys" at the NGO where she worked in Cairo had been alone in the building with a female cleaner. In itself, it shouldn't been an issue, but when the office's accountant confronted the office boy (who is actually a middle-aged Egyptian), he stated that this was unacceptable. The reason: the woman could have tried to seduce him.
In the Saudi city of Asir, women were recently banned from jogging and taking physical exercise in certain areas. The excuse was that the local government had to "guarantee their safety from criminals who frequently harass them as they walk in lonely places".
There are many examples of women being "protected" from men in the Middle East.
One would think that the rise of ultra-conservatism, namely the Salafi project emanating from Saudi Arabia, would be more tolerant of Islam's historical support for women's rights and their mobility in public – think of the era of the prophet and the openness of that society. The prophet was adamant that all people were welcome in Medina and that women were to be treated with the utmost respect. At the time, unlike today, there was no sexual apartheid in the mosque, with men and women praying together in a show of unity. Now, what we are witnessing is the rise of a movement that is as vehemently anti-women as it is anti-progress.
"Whenever the conservatives enter a society they don't talk politics or economics, they talk of the honour of women", said Hibaaq Osman, the founder and chair of the women's organisation El Karama. She argues, rightly, that what is important to these conservatives – and she is quick to point out this is not a problem limited to Islam – is that women are the key to society. She added that in all societies, women are the building blocks of forward thinking. She believes that once women have shaken off the need for a male guardian and have entered the workforce, then freedoms and laws against sexual violence can be implemented for the betterment and progress of society.
But, she added: "If the woman is being portrayed as the devil in Friday sermons in the mosque, then in public people are looking for confirmation of what they are hearing."
At the same time many Salafis and conservatives put the blame on society going awry; men are unable to take responsibility for their own actions. Osman says that evidence shows conservative religious folk the world over, including the Middle East, are the most sex-crazed.
This is shown by the large number of "temporary", urfi and mutah marriages. Urfi marriages have no formal contract, while mutah marriages have a defined period of "marriage". Often, this amounts to a form of prostitution where women are "purchased" for a period of time, from their families or pimps, to provide sex for wealthy gulf Arabs, who at the same time push an agenda that attempts to move women away from the public sphere and back into the home. All in the name of honour and moral uprightness.
Men are not the problem, they argue. It is the inherent inability of men to "control" themselves in the face of so much "temptation". It is OK for men to wear cut-off T-shirts and shorts, but for a woman to do so would be tantamount to "asking for it". If conservatives believe men are inherently "weak" in terms of sex, then why do the men remain in public if they can't handle it? It doesn't add up.
Women are objects in many conservatives' views. Things that can be owned and used for a man's pleasure when he desires and when he wants. This is why we have seen the growth of polygamy, the shoving aside of a woman's ability to choose her life's goals, and the unending "debate" over the causes of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Two years ago, one woman in Egypt attempted to challenge the belief that men would not be held responsible for their actions against women. When Noha Rushdi went to the police to press charges against a man who had groped her on the street, the police and bystanders, including women, attempted to talk her out of it. They asked what she was wearing, if she had been doing anything suggestive to "entice the man".
Rushdi, after numerous attempts to silence her, took her case to court and eventually won, seeing the perpetrator receive a $900 fine and three years in prison. Optimism abounded that times were changing, but in the two years since her case, little has improved. The Salafi grip on Egyptian society seems to be growing ever stronger, and with it the continued backlash against women who attempt to promote freedom and justice.
Cairo-based Sheikh Ramadan Mahmoud told me that if women were to get the "freedoms" of the west, "they would resort to promiscuity and this would damage the family and society. This cannot happen because men would not be able to control their behaviour and harassment and sexual abuse would continue."
Highlighting how deep the conservatism of Egyptian society has become, a recent United Nations study showed that the vast majority of men and women in Egypt believe that it is OK for a man to beat his wife if she refuses to have sex with him, if she does not do as he says or if she talks to a man on the street. They are simply objects that can be controlled and dominated. All in the name of faith and religion.
What should be happening is that women should not be blamed for what they wear, whether it is a full niqab or a bikini. There is no justification for harassment of any kind. By sexualising faith, the Salafis are trying to exonerate men. The fault lies with the women, who are presumed to be asking to be harassed, groped or worse.
But men are the ones perpetrating these crimes and making the streets unsafe, so it is about time men started taking action to end this reprehensible current continuing to foment in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia and across the globe.
Thursday, 13 May 2010
How can mainstream young Muslim students get heard when fundamentalists often have a stranglehold on their groups and societies? Saniya Gour, 17, an east London A-level student, has struggled. "Everyone where I live is so extreme. There are very few who are not hardline about things. And, as a girl, they don't want to hear what you have to say. I go to Leyton Sixth Form College and when I asked one of the heads of Isoc (the Islamic Society) if I could speak, he said no. They don't even like me talking to guys. They say: 'You're wearing a headscarf, you shouldn't be talking to boys'."
However, Saniya and other young Muslims now have a national forum where they can learn leadership skills and how to speak up. The Young Muslim Leadership Network (YMLN), funded by the Government as part of its controversial Prevent programme designed to stop violent extremism, is working hard to make its mark. It needs to. Early soundings by some of its two dozen members show that it is up against powerful forces.
The network was founded last year for young people aged 16 to 21, and has three groups – two in London and one in Birmingham. The central London group is researching university Islamic societies, and members have been shocked at what they have found. Hazura Bazeer, 18, a member of the central London branch of the YMLN, is in her final year at Coombe Girls' School in New Malden, Surrey, and has a place to study medicine at King's College, London. She says: "In one case that we heard of, a girl was slapped in the face for not wearing a headscarf, and, in one society, women were not allowed to speak and had to hold up their questions in writing."
On many campuses, societies are run by extremists, and moderate Muslim students avoid them. Such students also know that these societies are now closely monitored by the authorities – even more so after the recent University College London-educated alleged "underpants bomber" – and worry about the consequences of membership.
She points out that a lot of societies don't have any election process. "There is no democracy," she claims. "Posts are just handed on, so it is all just a vicious circle."
Her group is sending out a questionnaire to students and consulting on what changes people would like to see. It is also planning to visit more open Isocs, such as those at Oxford and Cambridge, in order to produce a code of good practice. "These societies have a lot of potential and ought to be a really cool part of university life."
Muhammad Saqib, 20, who is a student at Manchester University and active in the Birmingham group, has only recently become a practising Muslim. "I only started praying last year. Before that, I just thought it was a strict religion with a lot of rules that just seemed quite depressing. All these Muslims blowing themselves up gave quite a negative impression."
However, a talk at the LSE made him realise "that Islam is just the opposite", and now he is helping to produce a series of short video clips aimed at counteracting stereotypes and encouraging young Muslims to become engaged in society. The group has already interviewed Clare Short, the former Cabinet minister, and various prominent Asian figures, and, when the DVD is finished, they plan to show it in schools and to youth groups.
But Naqeeb Ahmed, 29, project officer for the network, knows from his experience at the University of Birmingham that young Muslims are often prime prey for extremists. "They've been brought up in liberal families, but then they get to university and start to explore their own identity and who they are as a Muslim, and they get drawn into these societies and become more and more extreme so that, eventually, even if their own father dies, they refuse to say a prayer in the house for him because they have been told that that is wrong. I've seen it so often myself. And these groups are strong and well-funded. We're up against the petrodollar – and how easy is it to fight that?"
Najda Khan, 18, who works for Bradford Metropolitan District Council, says schisms within Muslim communities can be deep and divisive. "Where do I start?" she says, rolling her eyes. "It can be about someone praying in the wrong way, about the Prophet's birthday, about issues with the Council of Mosques." She has already founded a campaigning environmental group and spoken to the House of Lords. "I'm passionate about getting young Muslims politically active."
These young people are also working to counteract prejudices about Islam. Crude stereotypes of oppressed women and bushy-bearded terrorists are, they say, reinforced by an irresponsible media, while barriers such as poverty, lack of confidence and family tensions stop many young Muslims playing their full part in society.
The network recently held its second national conference in London, and Bazeer, like others, values the chance to meet. "There aren't many Muslims where I live, and I don't have other Muslim friends at school. Alcohol is a big problem. You get invited to birthday parties, and there you are with a load of drunk people and you're sober. It can be difficult. And my friends say: 'Oh you're so innocent. You don't do this and you don't do that'. Everyone in the network is dealing with these kinds of misconceptions and stereotypes."
The network works alongside other organisations, such as the Federation of Student Islamic Societies and the Young Muslims Advisory Group, set up by Hazel Blears, the former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. However the Prevent programme, which has backed the YMLN with £110,000, has drawn widespread condemnation from critics who say it is being used to spy on Muslim communities. In March, a cross-party committee of MPs published a report, after an investigation into the three-year-old programme which has spent £53m on funding more than 1,000 community projects, which found it was doing more harm than good.
But Don Rowe, senior adviser on curriculum resources for the Citizenship Foundation, which administers the network, points out its aim is simply to "increase the young people's understanding of how our society works, so that they will feel more comfortable engaging with people in power and have more faith in the system and how it works. If they can sit down for an hour with someone like Clare Short and discuss a whole range of issues they have identified as important, it is bound to increase levels of trust and understanding".
Wednesday, 12 May 2010
With the rise of the BNP, how much is voting in-action, particularly in Muslim and ethnic minorities to blame?
People all over the world to this day are dying for the right to vote, for the right to have a say and for the right to a fair and democratic society, and yet every year hundreds and thousands of people including Muslim Brits choose not to vote in local and general elections, yet get angered and shocked with the rise of groups such as the BNP.
This documentary will reveal how and why public opinion and engagement with the voting system within Great Britain has changed. It will also look into whether political groups such as the BNPs greatest asset are non-voting ethnic minority communities, and what we can do about it.
The aim of this documentary is to inspire action, get people off their backsides and get involved in an election where we have a voice and CAN tip the scales.full doc coming soon.
Please note: We are not politically inclined, we do not have anything against the BNP (apart from the obvious), we do not have allegiance to any party but are purely trying to inspire people off their backsides and into booths, if we the people become empowered perhaps we can have more of a say in the country we love and live in....it will be the BRITISH PEOPLE who put the GREAT back into GREAT BRITAIN!
Produced by: Tre Azam
Directed by: Abid Mahi
Tuesday, 11 May 2010
For most people, Muna AbuSulayman is a bit of an enigma. As one of the leading media personalities in the Kingdom, she is a founding co-host of one of the most popular talk shows on MBC - “Kalam Nawaem” - and the first woman in Saudi Arabia to be appointed by the United Nations Development Program as a Goodwill Ambassador in 2005. She also serves as Secretary General and Executive Director of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal’s Kingdom Holding Company. In this capacity, she is responsible for the foundation’s global philanthropic activities, including disaster relief to promoting dialog between Islamic countries and the West. Since 1997, she has served as a lecturer on American literature at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia.
In a recent interview, she spoke to Saudi Gazette at length about her life and the importance of education for women.
A fresh perspective on life
Owing to the remarkable course her life has taken so far, Muna AbuSulayman has a refreshing perspective on life. “I want girls to see that there is almost no limitation to where they can go; the most important thing they can do is to work to be content, happy, married and to have children,” she said. “Look at your life and learn from your own mistakes because nobody will tell you what they are.”
She also highlighted the importance of family support. “It was only because of my parents’ encouragement that I was able to achieve anything. My father believed that I could even become something like a medical doctor if I set my mind to it,” she remarked. “In fact, I would still like to become a doctor - though an academic one - but I don’t have the time. I keep thinking that when I turn 45, maybe I’ll do a PhD and then spend my time reading about things I am personally interested in and not just for work.”
“I don’t believe education or passion stops at a certain age. I can be 90 when I get my PhD; I could go back to school at any time,” she added. “But what am I going to do with it then? Would it be important? Or will I be taking the courses for my own knowledge? Will I teach at 90? There’s no limit to timing as long as you have the passion of course and good health. If you don’t have good health, you don’t have the energy. And people don’t work on their health.”
AbuSulayman is passionate about keeping fit and healthy. She believes that a number of social ills are borne of not being healthy enough. “I did this fasting thing a year ago, which was about helping to focus energy. I started learning about yoga and why it focuses on meditation so much and what it means. The concept is very similar to Islam actually. For example, if you look at prayer, there are certain times for it. Fajr is only valid for a certain period of time. Moreover, Eastern studies tell us that the ground absorbs negative energy from the body. Praying five times a day means that the body releases its negative energy five times a day,” she explained. She added that fasting similarly detoxifies the body naturally and exists in a number of cultures for this very reason.
Education in the Kingdom
AbuSulayman is also passionate about education. “Education in the Kingdom is a very complex problem. The solution to good education is great teachers, and to have great teachers, we need competitive exams and high rewards like in Singapore and Iceland where they have great education because their teachers are paid very well.
It is the most important job in the world. When officials talk about rote-learning or adopting the American diploma I cringe because that is not the solution. Students succeed because of great teachers not great curricula, not good school, not American diploma or English diploma,” she said.
“A good teacher is one with passion, and one who is not overwhelmed with other tasks. We need to look at the fact that some teachers need to work two jobs in order to afford a decent living; we have a lot of rural areas where we cannot have teachers and sending teachers there is not right. We need to look at the Teachers College and make sure that the entrance exam allows only the best in certain subjects to actually teach in those subjects. Then when these teachers graduate they need to be paid well.”
“Why don’t we have scientific journals translated into Arabic?” she asked. “I think it would be the second most important step to allow the Arab world to change from being passive society into a knowledgeable society. If we don’t allow people to be able to learn in their own language, we will never become a first world country.”
Questioning the validity of co-educational systems, she said: “I don’t have a problem with co-education. But the issue is who is doing the decision making? If women have to refer to men for decision making and how to allocate resources, then that is not fair.”
Muna AbuSulayman is a single mother of two. She has a unique parenting style, with a no-TV rule at home. “I have two daughters; a 16-year-old and a nine year old. I didn’t like them watching things that I don’t know about and they weren’t reading as much as I wanted them to. They were also bored most, if not all, the time. But since then (the rule) they aren’t bored. They exercise, learn ballet and read now. And on Fridays, for example, if they have nothing to do, I let them watch DVDs. I want them to be able to utilize their time,” she said.
“I overworked myself five years ago and it drained me of a lot of energy. I used to want to show people that just because I’m divorced doesn’t mean I need support, but I have always turned to family for support.”
Slowing down has been essential for her contentment in life. “Now I check my email twice a day rather than having it on all day. I left ‘Kalam Nawaim’ when it was getting too much. Is it worth the recognition and me traveling a weekend every month and leaving my kids? The foundation and my daughters needed me so I made the decision.”
For now, she is traveling around the world and participating in public forums and debates. As a recognized style icon for women, she told Saudi Gazette that her own clothing and fashion accessories line will be launched in stores all over the world next month, as well as on the Dia Diwan website (www.dia-boutique.com). – SG