Posts tagged "Islam"

Woolwich: The counter narrative

The unfolding of events in Woolwich today leaves a deep melancholy in my heart. Even now, hours after the event, confirmed facts are desperately hard to come by - aside from the unthinkable horror of an attack upon and killing of a man by two other armed men. It was Churchill who said:

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on
If this was a truism in Churchill’s day, it is even more so in an age when social media - Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and the like - can be used to drip-feed tiny slivers of information, half-truths and outright lies which the facts struggle to overcome. Serious and lasting damage can be done to both individuals and entire communities before they have even been given a chance to process what on earth is happening.

I watched 9/11 and it’s aftermath unfold on my TV screen, and I was in London on 7/7 and am thankful I may well have barely missed being caught on the underground during the bombing. Though I didn’t want to jump to conclusions on the events in Woolwich, as I kept refreshing Twitter, my heart sank with that familiar “… Oh no, not again!” feeling.

In amongst speculation about the events I was touched that a recurring theme across my timeline was the abhorrence expressed by non-Muslims at comments made on the BBC by veteran reporter Nick Robinson to the effect that the attackers had a “Muslim appearance”. Robinson has since sought to explain this by claiming that he was simply quoting a source. Regardless of where he got that information, it’s not the sort of thing that should be presented as a matter of fact. Robinson could have tweaked the quote to say “possible” or “suspected” Muslims. To regurgitate a quote so self-obviously distasteful was unwise, to say the least.

Whilst It’s heartening to see a great many people call Nick Robinson out on his gaffe, it’s dissapointing at the same time to realise that there is no true mainstream representative of Islam as many Muslims understand it to be. Though there are a number organisations that claim to represent Muslims, it’s difficult to actually find one that can muster a decent media pundit to speak on our behalf and that I would be happy to be associated with.

The debate seems now to have turned to the need for “leadership” within the Muslim community in order to mount an effective counter-narrative against the seemingly pervasive fear of Muslims and Islam in general. But the truth is what ‘leadership’ there is within the Muslim community is patently powerless to project a voice at the national level.

It’s ironic that I’m happy to be associated with a political party rammed full of atheists and non-Muslims in general, and I relate to Liberal Democrat ideals at a political level, but can find no such mainstream group to speak to my religious views.

The video that shows one of the Woolwich attackers explaining his motives - as an apparent Muslim - in terms of “an eye for an eye” motive against the UK Government for who knows what imagined or real grievances is just the latest link in a long chain of disproportionate media frenzies that obliges the Muslim community to apologise and somehow atone for collectively in a way that no other group seems required to do. Muslims are left to state as individuals that random attacks and murder are not called for within Islam, and that to say they are is a gross distortion and abuse of Islam.

But whilst the truth is busy getting it’s pants on, Woolwich has fallen prey to another type of extremism as the EDL apparently needed containing by the riot police. This is a most unwelcome escalation of tension within Woolwich which adds nothing positive to the situation and is in fact an act directed by an organised group with identifiable leaders who, something tells me, will not be placed under any discernable mainstream pressure to denounce any members of their group who tonight have attacked mosques and caused Sikhs to worry about their gurdwaras.

Of course what happened in Woolwich was the work of people who are not right in their minds, let alone their theological conclusions. And yes, the vast majority of Muslims will rightfully be shocked at this brutal act of heartless insanity, and they will disagree vehemently with the very idea of a cold-blooded and random killing of a man on the street, be he a soldier or not.

A thoughtful Muslim counter-narrative is occasionally glimpsed through the lens of mainstream media hype during a chaotic event like Woolwich, but you can be sure we won’t be hearing much from the Muslim community on any hot issue of the moment until the next time some poor sap is wheeled out to self-flagellate and re-iterate once more that right-thinking Muslims don’t agree with acts of terrorism.

How being Muslim is as bad as being a Prince fan

One of the Christmas gifts I was given was a book about Prince, who I’ve been a fan of since hearing Kiss. The book is a great read if you are a fan, though the level of obsession author Matt Thorne displays feels both laudable and slightly worryingly creepy in equal measure.

Reading the book I found myself learning new stuff, recognising things I’d forgotten, but also furiously agreeing and disagreeing with Thorne’s (blatantly biased and fanboy - but that’s OK ‘cos who else would have written that book other than a fan?) analysis on different elements.

And that got me to thinking. If it’s possible to hold such wildly different and yet similar opinions about Prince, the same must be true of most subjects, especially religion. Which got me to thinking how right now, being a Prince fan is not a dissimilar experience from being a Muslim. Honest. Here’s why:

  1. It’s not fashionable to be a Prince fan right now. Tell somebody you were just listening to Prince and they’ll scrunch their face up like they just sucked on a lemon, as if to say “Really? You still listen to Prince?” You get the same type of reaction when you tell people you are Muslim, the scrunching of the face, “Really, you are still a Muslim?”
  2. Everybody has an opinion about Prince. Even if all they’ve heard is Purple Rain, Sexy MF, and Kiss. People seem to have a strong opinion either way on Prince’s music, without the context of the huge body of work - often contradictory - he has produced. Likewise with Islam. People fixate on certain things, lets say, 9/11, mosque minarets and burkas, with little context of the huge body of - often contradictory - ‘Islamic jurisprudence’ and the examples of non-terrorist blouse-and-skirt wearing Muslims living just down the street.
  3. Prince can be misinterpreted. The common mythology around Prince is that he’s a sex obsessed mysoginist, but when you actually listen to his lyrics, (Sexy MF, Kiss, If I Was You’re Girlfriend, When Doves Cry) he’s revealed as a man who fears rejection, who wants his female companions to be his equal, and who is very spiritual in his outlook. Similarly, people can misinterpret Islam, hearing snippets of it here and there - not just from known critics with their own agenda, but also from Muslims who have in their turn made their own interpretations that perhaps don’t accord with how your average Muslim on the street would see it.

So there you have it. Being a fan of Prince presents much the same problems as being a Muslim. I guess it’s a personal artistic or theological issue as to how much you care about those problems, to take note of the apprehension of others, and to allow it to inform your opinion.

In the end I suppose we all have to reach our understanding and judgements on based upon our own (artistic and theological) perspectives. But next time you see hook-wielding self-proclaimed hard-line Muslim theologians on TV bent upon applying their own particular version of Sharia ‘law’, just think of Prince and remember that there is another side to the debate.

Labour, and Muslims, and George? Oh My!

There was recently furore in Reading surrounding allegations of racist ‘dog-whistle’ politics. A leaflet which mentioned a Labour Candidate as ‘born and bred in Reading’ and being ‘one of us’ was distributed in a ward where the opposing Conservative candidate for the election is of Pakistani origin.

The leaflet is reproduced below, (courtesy of Lib Dem Voice) so the reader can make up their own mind.

Personally, I’d say it’s a hard judgement call to make. It can at best be said that this is a very poor choice of words for a leaflet in that particular ward.

But some of the people that support the Labour Party in Reading do appear to have some views about Muslims that I don’t recognise as being consistent with reality.

In his analysis of George Galloway’s victory in Bradford in March, John Howarth demonstrates what I believe to be a myopic view of the Muslim community in the UK*, as well as demonstrating poor judgement in his choice of words.

Howarth says:

Some communities from the 50s-60s wave of immigration engage or otherwise with UK politics on a UK level, but in many Pakistani populations the politics of ‘the old country’ and the Muslim world still matter a lot.

To some extent, I do take this point, but no Muslim (Pakistani or not) I met ever talked about the politics of ‘the old Country’.

It is all a somewhat complex and volatile mocktail.

Ahhh yes. Those ‘volatile’ Muslims eh? Primed and ready to explode in a political rage of non-alcoholic fruit juice! Watch out for the cranberries!

There is also a significant degree of resentment between the generations, particularly in their relationships with ‘community leaders’.

I definitely disagree with the first part of this point.

From whence does the evidence of ‘resentment between the generations’ come from in UK Muslim communities? In fact, I think there is a lot of respect and love between the generations, probably no more or less than love and respect between other religious or non-religious groups.

Successive generations of Muslim immigrant populations have become increasingly better educated, more self-confident and more aware of what they can do and achieve politically within UK society.

Parents, who themselves faced language barriers, who perhaps hold few formal educational qualifications from within the UK themselves, and who simply had to focus on sustaining a stable household, want their kids to build on their success. To assume, as Howarth seems to, that the majority of the younger generations of Muslims active in UK politics today are both ignorant of these facts and resentful of the previous generation, is stretching credulity.

An informed analysis of the Muslim vote for Galloway in Bradford can be found over on Huffington Post, where Reyhana Patel writes:

Gone were the days where Labour could woo the Muslim community by promising extensions to homes and funding for Muslim initiatives. What we are seeing now is a generation of Muslim youth who are disgruntled, disengaged and fed up of the constant negative media spotlight on their religion and names.

Indeed. Muslim youth are disengaged and disgruntled with politics generally, but in particular with the foreign policy that the Labour Party actively pursued.

Howarth is right about a growing resentment towards so-called ‘community leaders’. Though ‘the community’ itself is aware of this, so much so, we can all laugh at the ridiculousness of them. But is this really so different from any other community where power is concentrated in the hands of an older generation that built and support complex power structures, and who, occasionally, cling to them tightly?

Mr G has tailored his politics, or at least his presentation, toward this audience.

Politicians should tailor their presentations to their audience, but one thing you can say about Galloway is that his politics have been demonstrably consistent. Across decades.

Labour List tells us of Bradford and Galloway that the Muslim youth was disenfranchised and “who campaigned for him on mass [sic]”.

Galloway also sent a letter to mosques setting out his position, his long record, and his apparent authentic claim as a Muslim.

This had the effect of showing the Labour candidate up as nothing like the kind of, ahem, ‘community leader’ which Muslims of any age would support. It seems that Galloway united Muslims (and a significant majority of non-Muslims also!) both young and old in Bradford, so Howarth’s analysis of this situation has gaps.

Howarth does seem to flirt with offensiveness, saying:

It is also a sad fact that there remains, though some don’t like to admit it, a section of the white population who prefer not to vote for a Muslim

and

So Mr G was perfectly placed. A ‘friend of Muslims’ playing to the ‘Brothers’ but not involved in ‘community’ in-fighting, a White guy who other White guys can vote for instead of voting for a Muslim…

Where to start? I guess the obvious point is that - shock, horror - white guys can be Muslim. Islam is not a religion that is confined to a particular skin colour.

Also, the idea that ‘White guys’ so inclined to vote along either racial or religious lines, preferring “not to vote for a Muslim”, were not aware that Galloway is “a friend of Muslims” with an, shall we say ‘indefatigable’ history of courting the support of Muslims, or the ongoing debate as to if Galloway is Muslim or not (Google it!) does not stand up to scrutiny.

All in all, it’s disappointing to see such a high-profile Labour figure in Reading draw some of the conclusions that Howarth draws about Muslims and ‘White guys’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not saying Howarth is being racist. But after reading his post I came away with the feeling that he - and perhaps the Labour Party itself when we recall that Phil Woolas lost his seat in 2010 for trying to get “the white vote angry" - has a narrow understanding of the Muslim social and political experience in the UK.

* Disclosure: I was brought up in what was a liberal Muslim household in many ways, and which was conservative in other ways. Many of my relatives either are Muslim or were brought up in the Muslim tradition even if they don’t now follow it, and I’ve known many Muslim friends. Knowing as I do people raised in the Sikh and Hindu traditions, I think it wouldn’t be unfair to say that some parts of this article could also apply to them.

God, L’Oreal and Tim Farron

When I joined the Liberal Democrats, I knew I was joining an organisation that - perhaps more overtly and stridently than any other political party - believes passionately in the separation of State from religion. And though I’m Muslim, it wasn’t a difficult step for me to make to join the Liberal Democrats as secular democracy is not incompatible with Islam.

But in joining the Liberal Democrats I did not sign up to subsume myself into group think. In fact, the Liberal Democrats is a party full of - and I hate this phrase but it’s apt in this case - ‘independent thinkers’. Intelligent people. Passionate people. People who, when asked, will, with a sense of pride, admit to campaigning on issues they know they haven’t a spitball’s chance in hell of winning (Yes to Fairer Votes, anyone?).

So the vehemence with which some members have attacked Liberal Democrat President, Tim Farron, for simply taking a stand on his beliefs has surprised me. My colleague in Reading, Warren Swaine, has labelled it “sneering”, and I don’t think he’s wide of the mark.

Tim Farron has signed a letter to the Advertising Standards Authority complaining against it’s judgement on claims made by Healing on the Streets, an organisation which, at the end of the day, simply invites “peopleto sit on chairs so we can pray for them”.

Let’s get this straight. I don’t want any MP to be an automaton simply regurgitating the party line and/or suppressing their own personality and passions saying whatever it takes to get elected. I want my MPs to be passionate and driven, and if that passion and drive has it’s roots in religious belief, then I’m willing to celebrate that.

We need to separate the State from religious influence, but this should not entail each and every MP having to give up their own individual beliefs.

MPs should be free to speak their minds and to work in cross-party groups if they see fit. Tim Farron was clearly not speaking as part of any Liberal Democrat specific policy, and last I knew he has the right to conduct his religious affairs as he sees fit.

I agree that adverts claiming that God can heal through prayer are questionable, though I think this was a more finely balanced case than Tim’s detractors would have us believe.

Healing on the Streets claimed that their advertising was a genuine statement of their experiences, which is not so much different from the “7 out of 10 people prefer x skin care product” or the small print in many adverts that goes something like this:

"This product may make your hair appear more radiant and with less dandruff flakes at more than 10 feet away, based on a survey of 83 people who were given a free makeover by the company marketing this product"

Perhaps Healing on the Streets should follow that line of thought? On their next leaflet they could print

"God Heals (37 out of 45 people agreed they felt better after sitting in a chair and having a quiet chat with us)".

Wouldn’t that be acceptable? Wouldn’t that actually be holding so-called ‘faith healers’ to the same advertising principles which apply to L’Oreal?

What none of the people I’ve read who have so far commented on this issue have mentioned is that in their response to the ASA complaint. Healing on the Streets said that:

…everyone who received prayer must be given a letter which included the statements “if you are on medication STAY on it. Under NO circumstances should you stop doing anything a medical professional or counsellor has advised. We are not medically trained so please verify with them what has happened and take their advice. If you have been healed, their endorsement is a great encouragement to others of what God has done. 

Is that not just about as straightforward as you can get? Stay on medication? We are not medically trained? Don’t stop doing what your doctor told you to do?

This statement appears to be an huge and inconvinient fly in the ointment of the arguments being made against Tim Farron, which I can only suppose is why nobody else has mentioned it yet. Never let context get in the way of a good argument. 

I take the point made by fellow Lib Dem Jennie Rig, that prayer is nothing but a placebo. But it is recognised that even a placebo can have positive effects. A possible scientific conclusion from my point of view is that, for some people, prayer may well have a placebo effect on the brain, enabling them to reduce or control pain, for instance.

Could it be that Gary Streeter received the effect of placebo healing? He claims in the letter that:

I (Gary Streeter) received divine healing myself at a church meeting in 1983 on my right hand, which was in pain for many years. After prayer at that meeting, my hand was immediately free from pain and has been ever since.

Now I don’t personally believe that praying is a technique that can call upon a higher spiritual power to magically heal hand pain, back pain or cancer or any other malady. If we are to take Gary Streeter on his word that his hand was in pain, and was then healed, there must be an earthly explanation for this. Either he is lying or he is telling the truth about his personal experience, and I get the impression that he honestly believes his hand was healed.

I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility that the quiet calmness and reflection of prayer can be a form of relaxation helping to reduce tension and stress, and perhaps administering a placebo effect of some kind.

UPDATE (28/03/2012): Timely reports inform us that playing music to patients undergoing surgery “could improve healing”. Could prayers not have the same effect on those more inclined towards religious matters than to pop culture? 

Regardless of the science - or lack of it - around praying, Tim Farron has the absolute and inalienable right to write to the ASA stating his opinion. I suspect in this instance that it will get him nowhere, and if it is debated in Parliament, do we seriously think that anything will change?

The idea that Tim Farron is trying to “impose ridiculous Christian doctrine”, or “Christian conformity” on “the rest of us” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Nobody is forcing people to sit in a chair and prey. Healing on the Streests invites people to join them in prayer or not, as they choose. Just like nobody forces people to go out and purchase anti-ageing skin care products, but we still accept that the companies that produce those products have a right to advertise them.

The apparent knee-jerk - and in some cases quite personal - and public attacks on Tim smacks of the very worst of dog-whistle political discourse and a lack of respect for Tim and the religious beliefs to which he is entitled - the very anti-thesis of what the Liberal Democrats stand for.

Demanding that Tim Farron “Just. Stop. It" is deeply patronising. Tim is an adult, husband, a father, an elected MP, and though he is President of the Liberal Democrats, the Party has no right to dictate to him what he can and cannot believe in.

Tim has done nothing so offensive as to actually deserve being called a “fuckwit" as a certain Guardian journalist gleefully calls him. And Exactly what message does sniggering publicly at Tim send out to other people of faith? Christians. Muslims. Jews, Hindus and Sikhs. Who would actually join a party that treats one of it’s own leading lights like that?

Now I’m off to drink some Red Bull. According to the advertising it gives you wings.

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