Monday 31 May 2010

English Defence League: new wave of extremists plotting summer of unrest

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."

Strange coalition

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.

Growing unrest

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

Young. British. Female. Muslim.

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.

Joanne Bailey
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.”

Catherine Heseltine
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.”

Sukina Douglas
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.”

Catherine Huntley
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 fiancĂ©, 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

Is Miss USA an inspiration, or an embarrassment?


The parable of those who choose protectors other than God is that of the spider that builds (itself) a dwelling. But truly, the flimsiest of dwellings is that of the spider. The Holy Quran, 29:41

Tuesday 25 May 2010

How Western journalists reported the ban on burqa

Two weeks ago I was interviewed on an Australian television news program about the wave of proposed burqa bans in Europe, Canada, and now, apparently, in Australia. No one should be surprised about my opinion of the whole thing: It’s dumb.

My argument to George Negus, the interviewer at SBS, was simply that someone in a position of authority should have the wherewithal to ask a woman who wears the burqa whether she is forced to wear it and if she feels oppressed. If she is forced to do something that she doesn’t want to do, then it’s a symptom of possible domestic violence and there are existing laws to deal with that.

I also noted I didn’t see much difference between the Taliban forcing women to wear the burqa and some old white guys passing laws forcing women not to wear it. It’s all the same to me.

Mr. Negus, much to my surprise, had a good grasp of the burqa issue. Except for the briefest of moments when his staff asked me to if it is possible to wear the abaya and niqab for my appearance – as if it were some sort of costume I put on and take off when it suits my mood – I must say they didn’t have hint of Western bias in the way the interview was conducted.

This made an impression because the following week I attended a journalism workshop sponsored by the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations and Search for Common Ground in Beirut. Search for Common Ground is a group that’s been around for nearly 30 years with the goal of dealing with global conflict though collaborative problem-solving instead of taking an adversarial approach. The group uses the media, specifically print, television and radio, to resolve conflict in a constructive manner.

Many of the attendees at the workshop were journalists from Lebanon, Morocco, Yemen, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Although the burqa ban was not discussed specifically at the workshop, the SBS interview could have been held up as an example for Western media of intelligent reporting. The engine that drives the issue of the burqa is the Western press.

European and North American journalists, mostly white males with a sprinkling of their non-hijabi Muslim sycophants, are shaping the public debate surrounding the issue of whether the burqa is an oppressive symbol of Islam.

Commenting and reporting based solely on the Western concept of freedom (and forgetting the basics, such as freedom of choice), pundits and columnists have molded the issue into a battle between civilizations, Christian versus Muslim values, and modern ideals versus culture and tradition. Who’s going to win this argument?

Western media, of course. The West has the resources to use as a sledgehammer to make their point, while the Arab media shrink from the thought of confrontation.

But here’s a thought: The only journalist lazier than an Arab is a Westerner. I can’t think of a single reported instance of a Western newsperson asking a burqa-clad woman her opinion until someone bothered to ask Afghan lawmaker Shinkai Karokhail for a comment. Not surprisingly, she said the only thing she finds more “appalling” at being forced to wear a burqa is a law banning it.

All of this brings me back to the Beirut journalism workshop, which was filled with young, university-educated Muslim women. Many of these ladies wore hijabs and many wore the burqa, or abaya, in their native countries.

These women are visible and have an opinion worth considering. Yet they are virtually ignored by the media. These women simply don’t exist when lawmakers consider punitive laws affecting them and the cultural traditions they hold close to their heart.
The nature of journalism is to tell a story of conflict. No better example can be served than the burqa ban. Yet journalists can serve the international community better if it employed just a few of the goals of Search for Common Ground by seeking collaborative solutions to issues, and at the same time hold lawmakers and the Taliban accountable for the oppressive measures they force on Muslim women.


Monday 24 May 2010

Muslim leader: find wives in Britain not Pakistan and India

Muslim men have been told to marry women born in Scotland rather than import wives from Pakistan and India.

Shaykh Amer Jamil, a Glasgow-born Islamic scholar, warned that Asian women who have grown up in Scotland are being left on the shelf in favour of wives from outside the country.

Parents often prefer their sons to have arranged marriages with women who grew up in the Indian sub-continent, as they are seen as better partners. But this means there are increasing numbers of British women unable to find a husband.

Islamic dating events have been set up to try and address the situation, but the balance is so heavily weighted towards women that few marriages result from these events.

Shaykh Jamil, an Islamic scholar who set up a family counselling service called Unity Family Services, said: “I would say the situation is at a critical level. There are many well-educated women up and down the country who want to get married but are not finding the right match. There is an acute shortage of suitable male options and the ones who are available are getting married from back home.

“Consequently, this leads to many women reluctantly having to bring someone over from south Asia and that can lead to problems. The men coming over have a different mentality and are not used to seeing a female working or having a life outside of the home. It makes sense to marry from within the UK as both partners will speak English and will be familiar with British culture. This will also make raising children much easier.”

There are also community cohesion implications to the trend, as women come over from Pakistan who cannot speak English and are unused to the culture.

Arranged marriages are often facilitated by an informal matchmaking network of women called Aunty Gees. Shaaista Yousaf is one of these women and she has been arranging marriages for more than a decade. Currently, she knows 30 eligible males and 80 females.

She explained: “There are mothers who insist their daughters only marry within a specific caste. They don’t like them getting married outside of the biraderi [extended clan affiliation]. Such an issue automatically narrows their choice.

“There are also girls who are not prepared to stay with the in-laws. They want their own home, their own privacy. Girls brought over from Pakistan know how to live with the extended families and the family politics that come as a result of that. Girls from here are not used to that.”

Naseem Khan ran Muslim marriage events in Glasgow for five years. She said that attitudes are changing amongst the younger generation, who want different things from a relationship.

She said: “Our mothers came here and brought with them some cultural baggage that led them to get their daughters married within the family, within the same caste or someone who they had given their word to back in Pakistan. Such attitudes are not prevalent amongst me or my friends. We are more flexible.”

Figures from the Home Office show that 12,700 husbands or fiances were admitted in 2008, a 16% reduction from 2007. Almost twice the number of wives or fiancees were admitted, with 24,100 in 2008, although this still represents a 14% decrease from 2007. A high proportion of these partners were from Asia.


Amina is a 38-year-old single woman from Glasgow. She is currently unemployed, but worked in accounts before retraining with a degree in music. Amina (not her real name) then worked in London’s music industry for five years before returning to Glasgow.

“People ask questions if you don’t have a partner by my age,” she says. “They realise I’ve had a career and done other things, rather than brought up children.

“Parents want men to marry from back home – it is one of the biggest problems in the Asian community. Mothers think the girls [here] are not good enough; they don’t have the attributes of girls back home, who will be better wives. They think girls here are too independent.”


Love it!

Islam is a way of life, try it. Islam is a gift, accept it. Islam is a journey, complete it. Islam is a goal, achieve it. Islam is an opportunity, take it. Islam is not a mystery, behold it. Islam is a promise, fulfill it. Islam is a duty, perform it. Islam is a treasure (the prayer), pray it. Islam is a beautiful way of life, see it. Islam has a message for you, hear it. Islam is Love, LOVE IT.

Thursday 20 May 2010

Miss USA 2010: The Ugly Aftermath

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.

More than 6,000 people also joined a Facebook group criticizing Rima Fakih being crowned Miss USA 2010, and repeating comments made in the American right-wing media that she and her family have connections to Hezbollah. Self-described conservative commentator Debbie Schlussel who is well-known for her critical position against Arabs and Muslims criticized Fakih on her website, as well as Miss USA organizer Donald Trump saying "Dhimmi Donald Trump simply didn't have the guts to demand that Fakih denounce the Islamic group." Schlussel and other US media figures have claimed that members of Fakih's family in Lebanon are senior members of Hezbollah, and they published names of Hezbollah members who they claim are related to her.

Debbie Schlussel, who frequently writes in the New York Post and the Jerusalem Post, is one of the most prominent figures who opposed Rima Fakih being crowned Miss USA 2010. Schlussel began her campaign against Fakih since she was chosen as Miss Michigan, and Schlussel has made claims that senior US intelligence officials have informed her that Fakih belongs to a southern Lebanese family that is well-known as being affiliated to Hezbollah. Schlussel also claimed that 3 members of her family are senior Hezbollah officials, and that at least 8 members of her family were "Hezbollah terrorists" killed fighting against Israel in past wars. She began one of her articles saying that Rima Fakih's victory represents "a sad day for America, but a predictable one, given the politically correct, Islamo-pandering climate in which we are mired."

Other websites showed images of the new Miss USA side by side with pictures of the yellow and green Hezbollah flag. Right-wing commentators also said that Fakih has "strong and dangerous ties with extremists." However other commentators defended Rima Fakih, and the Politics Daily website published an article entitled "Miss USA, Rima Fakih: A Terrorist in a Bikini?" in which Bonnie Goldstein wrote that "defending herself against claims from bigots that she is connected to terrorist groups should not have to be part of her job description."

The Israeli reaction was less negative than the US reaction, with Israelis generally receiving the news of Rima Fakih's victory in a positive manner, and Israeli television presenters praised Fakih's beauty and intelligence. However some Israeli media outlets also quoted Debbie Schlussel's articles, and many linked Fakih's victory with Obama's election victory, with headlines such as "It is not strange for those who elected Obama President to elect Hezbollah daughter Beauty Queen."

Rima Fakih being crowned Miss USA 2010 has received a lot of attention in Lebanon and news of this fills the newspapers and airwaves, and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman has publicly congratulated her on her victory. As for Hezbollah, it has entered the debate in its own manner, with Hezbollah bloc MP Hassan Fadlallah saying "The criteria through which we evaluate women are different from those of the west."

Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with an Amal Movement official, about the claims that there are ties between Amal movement martyrs and Rima Fakih; he answered "We have martyrs, and they have a beauty queen. Our martyrs are from the Fakih family, and from Srifa, as is the beauty Queen…"

Rima Fakih's sister, Rana, who is currently working in Srifa in Lebanon, told Asharq Al-Awsat that Miss USA 2010 visits Lebanon every year, and that Rima was last in the country on New Year's Eve. Rima's father owns a house in the "Western Market" area of Srifa. Rima Fakih quoted her father during the Miss USA competition as telling her "You don't know who you are until you know where you come from."

Rana Fakih also told Asharq Al-Awsat "we grew up in a non-religious home, we celebrate all Christian and Islamic ceremonies and holidays, and this is what distinguishes our family."

As for whether her family, or Rima in particular, supports Hezbollah, she said "we were brought up to be patriotic but we are as far away as can be from politics, and today we refuse to talk about this issue, because we refuse to allow politics to spoil what Rima has achieved, as politics has spoiled Lebanon and the lives of the Lebanese."

The Fakih family was busy in Srifa yesterday receiving well-wishers and media figures wanting to report the story. Rima Fakih's aunt, Afifah Fakih Saed, aged 62, while providing guests with baklava and coffee said "Rima has made us proud, she had made all of southern Lebanon proud."

Rima Fakhi's aunt Afifa, who wears the hijab, said that she did not see any contradiction in her niece appearing in a bikini at a beauty pageant in a country that many people in Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon consider to be an enemy, due to its support of Israel. She said "Westerners describe us Shiites, as terrorists and killers. However in reality we love life and love and beauty."

Asharq Al-Awsat also spoke with Rima Fakih's brother Rabih, who speaks Arabic fluently with a southern Lebanese accent. Asked about the relationship between the Fakih family and Hezbollah, he answered that "this is a sensitive issue, and we cannot talk about it. We must first talk to the organizers of the Miss Universe contest."

Rima Fakih said that she will focus upon raising awareness of breast and cervical cancer, and defending women's rights, during her reign as Miss USA. The Fakih family is also hopeful that Rima Fakih will soon become Miss Universe.



There is no word as beautiful as Allah, no example as beautiful as Rasulallah (SAW), no lesson as beautiful as Islam, no words as melodious as the Adhaan, no charity as meaningful as Zakat, no encyclopaedia as perfect as the Quran, no prayer as perfect as Salaah, no diet as perfect as fasting and no journey as perfect as Hajj... I ♥ ISLAM!

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Young Muslim women fume at Deoband diktat

Many young Muslim women have reacted sharply to the Deoband seminary's fiat on women and men working together in offices, saying it's high time clerics started looking at real issues plaguing the community such as economic backwardness.

"I don't understand what makes them think it is possible to stop women from working," Farzana Tasneem, a 20-year-old jeans-clad girl who works at a call centre, said.

"I have a request for them. Have they ever considered and done anything for the socio-economic condition of Indian Muslims? If not, they should," Tasneem said.

The April 4 decree by clerics of Darul Uloom, Deoband - located in the western Uttar Pradesh district of Saharanpur - was in response to an online query. But it has invited criticism from many quarters, including Muslim scholars, for what many see as the seminary's "needless" interference.

An anonymous query on the page of 'darul ifta', or the decree section, of the Darul Uloom website, had asked: "Can Muslim women in India do govt or pvt jobs (sic)? Shall their salary be halal or haram or prohibited?"

The reply was: "It is unlawful for Muslim women to do jobs in government or private institutions where men and women work together and women have to talk with men frankly and without veil. (But) Allah knows best."

Though clerics from the seminary said the fatwa didn't prohibit women from working together if they were properly dressed, many Muslim women have reacted vociferously.

Even if the edict is about the dress code, "I am not bound to follow it", fumed Tasneem. "They are preachers and not judges. Their job is to preach and I will decide what to follow and what not."

Fakhra Siddiqui, a social activist in Delhi, agreed. "They should understand what is the ground reality. Is it possible that you stop hundreds and thousands of women in India from going to offices? What is the point of airing such controversial opinions all of a sudden?"

"At a time when Indian Muslims are battling the odds of poverty, illiteracy and backwardness, such fatwas reverse any progress that we may have made," Siddiqui said.

"Wearing or not wearing a veil is superficial. It all depends on your intentions and I can quote a Hadith for that: 'Innamal aamalu biniyaat (Of course, all your actions depend on your intentions)'," said Siddiqui, quoting the Prophet.

"If you wear a burqa and do all that is unIslamic you cannot be a pious Muslim, can you?"

Tuba, a Jamia Millia University student who didn't give her second name, said, "The first thing that should strike the clerics is the real issue of economic backwardness and see that it is related to the social backwardness they force upon us.

"It is the duty of the state and religion to protect all its members. And our rights include non-interference in matters of what we think is good for us."

Established in 1867 as a Muslim college, the Deoband seminary follows and preaches the Hanafi school of thought, the dominant of the four Sunni Islamic thoughts named after the four greatest Muslim scholars -- Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Al Shaafi, Imam Ahmed Ibne Hanbal and Imam Malik.

The founders of the seminary played a crucial role in India's freedom struggle. But the main aim of the school has remained to make Muslims strictly follow the Sharia - the body of Islamic laws.

The aim of the seminary was to create clerics who would preach conservative Islam based on their own interpretation of the sayings attributed to Prophet Mohammed and Shariah.

Deoband has always invited criticism for the failure to reconcile Islam with modern values, attempts for which are being made especially by Muslim scholars who don't owe allegiance to any clerical order.


Tuesday 18 May 2010

Muslim rocker wields guitar in rock’n’roll jihad

HE IS a long-haired rocker who plays a mean riff and cites Led Zeppelin among his influences — and now he has been unveiled as the government’s latest weapon in the fight against Al-Qaeda.

Salman Ahmad, a Pakistani musician whose band has sold more than 30m albums, is to urge Muslim students to choose an electric guitar over extremism.

The self-proclaimed “rock’n’roll jihadist” will this week take his message to students at Oxford University, Imperial College and the London School of Economics, which all have sizeable Islamic societies.

“You counter radicalisation through telling the truth and if that comes from the power of a guitar then do that,” said Ahmad, who has worked with the Obama administration to tackle extremism on American college campuses.

The number of British students linked to terrorist plots has caused serious concern, with fears that some UK campuses have become recruitment grounds for Al-Qaeda-inspired groups. The most recent case involved Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an engineering graduate of University College London, who is accused of trying to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit with a bomb hidden in his underpants.

“I have seen at first hand young Muslims being radicalised by the distorted message of Islam,” said Ahmad, 46, a practising Muslim who was born in Lahore but spends most of his time in New York where he is a part-time lecturer in Islamic music and poetry. “They’re fed this guilt narrative that in order to be a good Muslim you have to give up the electric guitar, or you can’t wear jeans, or you have to cut your hair.”

He said he would discredit radical interpretations of Islam by showing that it encouraged creative flair and his aim was to prevent students being brainwashed by “murderous thugs masquerading as holy men”.

Ahmad, frontman of the band Junoon, added: “Rock musicians and extremists have the same target market — the youth.” His tour of UK campuses is funded by the Home Office via the Quilliam Foundation, a think tank.

Ahmad, who has faced death threats from hardliners accusing him of being “un-Islamic”, said young Muslims who rail against perceived injustices in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine need an alternative outlet to channel their frustrations: “Talking about Islam through arts and culture [could fulfil that role] and open up minds to another point of view.”


Monday 17 May 2010

Israel stops US academic at border

Noam Chomsky, a renowned Jewish-American scholar and political activist, has been barred from entering the West Bank.

Chomsky was denied entry by Israeli immigration officials as he attempted to cross the Allenby Bridge from Jordan on Sunday.

The lingusitics professor, who frequently speaks out against Israeli policy in the occupied Palestinian territories, had been scheduled to give a lecture at Birzeit University in the West Bank.

"I entered with my daughter and two friends who we met in Amman the day before," he told Al Jazeera.

"After several hours of waiting and multiple interrogations our two friends were permitted entry and my daughter and I were informed that we were denied entry after much discussion indirectly with the interior ministry."

Chomsky said the border officials were "very polite" as they "transmitted inquiries from the [Israeli] ministry of the interior".

He said that he believed he was denied entry was for two reasons.

"The government does not like the kind of things I say which puts them into the category of every other government in the world," he said.

"The second was that they seemed upset about the fact that I was taking an invitation from Birzeit and I had no plans of speaking to any Israeli universities as I've done many times in the past, but not this time."


However, a spokeswoman at the Israeli interior ministry, which controls the country's borders, said Chomsky had not been allowed to cross the border due to misunderstanding.

She said officials were trying to get clearance from the Israeli military, which controls access to the West Bank to allow Chomsky to enter.

"We are trying to contact the military to clear things up and if they have no objection we see no reason why he should not be allowed in," Sabine Hadad told the Reuters news agency.

Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian MP who had invited Chomsky to speak at the university's philosophy department, said the scholar had been detained at the border for five hours.

"This act shows the nature of the Israeli government that is against freedom of speech, particularly from such a noted international figure like Chomsky," Barghouti said.

Chomsky, 81, is a professor of linguistics at the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has frequently spoken out against Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories.


Sunday 16 May 2010

Terrorists Kidnap a Hero

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

Scapegoating Middle Eastern women

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

Speaking up: Young muslims take on the extremists

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

I'm a Muslim & the BNP got my VOTE!

I'm a Muslim & the BNP got my VOTE! from Tre Azam on Vimeo.

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 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

In conversation with Muna AbuSulayman

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.”

Personal life
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 ( – SG