A Simple Path Made Difficult – Advice for Muslim Sisters

Hi everyone. Inspired by previous discussions, the lovely Ashley from Muslimah According to Me asked me to write a guest post on her blog about moderation and extremism in Islam. Here’s my thoughts and experiences. Take a look!

Muslimah According to Me

Salaam everyone! Today I am jumping back in with a guest post from my dear sister Liz, who blogs over at www.voiceofsalam.wordpress.com.

Firsly, I highly recommend you go check out her blog! She writes about current events, her personal experiences as a revert, and other topics that need to be brought up in our communities. I love her strong point of view, and I always look forward to reading her posts!

Today’s guest post is actually kind of a substitute for another post I was dragging my feet on, but I daresay I like this one better! I was planning on writing the post I mentioned in my last post on different homogenising pressures within the community, but then I got to talking to Liz about these kinds of things and it turns out she has just as much to say about it as me!

So she kindly agreed…

View original post 1,145 more words

10 Photos to remind you that Muslims don’t fit into a homogenous ethno-cultural stereotype

I recently came across a great article by Elad Nehorai entitled “10 Photos To Remind You That Jews Don’t Fit Into a Stereotype (and Never Have)” which showcases the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Jewish community across the globe. This got me thinking and inspired me to do the same for the Muslim community.

Think about it – when a lot of people hear “Muslim”, what do they think of? Most likely this:

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Yep that’s right – Arabs. But did you know that there are also Arab Jews, Arab Christians and Arab atheists? Did you also know that out of the roughly 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, that less than 15% of Muslims are Arab? The Muslim community is rich and diverse, spanning a wide range of cultures, nationalities, nations and languages across the globe – and that’s excluding new convert populations!

So, take a look at this short snapshot of the wide cultural diversity of the Muslim Ummah (community) – including a range of personal photos – and prepare to be surprised!

1. Uyghur Muslim (East Turkistan)

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2. Italian Muslim

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3. British-Pakistani Muslim

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4. Berber Muslim

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5. Bunginese (Indonesian) Muslim

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6Native American Muslim

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7. Malaysian Muslim

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8. African-American Muslim

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9. Sierra Leonean Muslim

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10. Dominican Muslim

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So, that’s just a small insight into the wide cultural and ethnic diversity of the Muslim community but I hope it’s given some idea of how diverse we are. To all those out there thank think Islam is an Arab “Eastern” religion, think again! Stereotypes simply don’t work here…!

Image credits:

Images #1-10 are subject to copyright except for the following:

Evgeni Zotov (CC) (#1), Brad Hammonds (CC) (#4), Phalinn Ooi (CC) (#7), H6 Partners (CC) (#9)

Featured image: Jamie McCaffrey (CC) (Berber Muslim)

Please see source for image usage details.

Thank you to all the lovely brothers and sisters who have donated their time and images to this project! Barak Allah feekum – God bless you all!

The Big Iftar: Breaking Bread amongst Friends

West London Synagogue (WLS) has long been a centre for members of different faith communities to come together and build bridges of mutual understanding, faith and friendship, and I’m delighted to have attended one of WLS’ recent interfaith gatherings.

Whilst Muslims are currently celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, where we fast from sunrise to sunset in remembrance of the poor and needy and celebrate the first revelation of the Qur’an, our Jewish brothers and sisters have also recently celebrated the festival of Shavuot, marking the monumental moment when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The combination of these two festivals this year shows that as members of the Abrahamic family, we really do have more in common than many may realise. Every year, our Jewish neighbours fast for 24 hours during Yom Kippur, whilst for Muslims, Shavuot reminds us of the importance of Prophet Moses and the Torah within Islam.

To mark the joint celebration and bring together the two communities, WLS hosted a joint Tikkun Leil Shavuot study night and Big Iftar, open for all to attend. The evening started with an Erev Shavuot combo service and Q&A debate which I, alongside other members of the Muslim and Jewish communities, thoroughly enjoyed. We then moved to the dining hall as 250+ of us united for iftar – the evening meal following the breaking of our fast.

20170530_223149.jpgWith everyone sat side by side amongst members of both faith communities, the hall had a joyful lively buzz of chatter as everyone got to know one another. The dinner consisted of a lovely mixture of Middle Eastern food including hummous, falafel, bread and a range of salads. As we broke bread together (dipped into hummous of course!), we learnt about each other’s faiths, with further reflections on the meaning of Ramadan and the importance of interfaith unity by both Rabbi Helen and Sheikh Ibrahim Khalil Baye Nass.

Enjoining in a heartwarming gathering of unity, solidarity and faith, the evening was a wonderful success – albeit a bit short for those of us who had to rush off to get the train home! The Big Iftar was later followed by a scriptural reasoning and all-night study session and subsequent Shacharit sunrise service, once again open for all to attend. Little did we know though that the success of the evening and the unity it portrayed were to become more important than ever. As we reflect on the heartbreaking terrorist attacks, merely a few days later, the evening is an inspirational reminder of the need to come together in harmony.

Thank you to Rabbi Helen, Julia, David and Neil plus Nic and all other staff and members of WSL for hosting such a wonderful evening and once again, welcoming the Muslim community with warm, open arms. May we continue to come together and may there be many more big iftars to come, God willing!

Salam, shalom, peace.

Elizabeth Arif-Fear

Co-Chair, Nisa-Nashim Marylebone

Credits and information:

Article feature for WLS Shavuot Review (2017)

Photography: West London Synagogue (featured image) (c), Elizabeth Arif-Fear (c)

Find out more about the Big Iftar campaign via their website and social media platforms (Facebook and Twitter).

#ChallengingTheNarrative – Which narratives do you refuse to endorse? Here’s 10 I won’t…

Last month, in line with International Women’s Day, I attended the Nisa-Nashim conference in London. Nisa-Nashim (meaning “women” in both Arabic and Hebrew respectively) is a UK based organisation which aims to bring Muslim and Jewish women together to build bridges, found friendships and develop understanding between the two communities. We’ve got more in common than you’d think: we both come from the Abrahamic family of faiths, we share many values and practices and  sadly, both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism – at least in visible terms – are on the rise worldwide including Europe and the USA.

However, this unfortunate trend appears to be bringing the two communities closer together. Back in February this year in the US, when thugs desecrated two Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and St. Louis, American Muslims raised over a staggering $140,000 to rebuild the graves. Likewise, when a mosque in Tampa (Florida) was attacked just day later, thanks to the support of Jewish donors, a massive total of $60,000 was raised to repair the damage. Gestures such as this go to show that we refuse to be divided by hate and that we actively challenge the narrative that “Jews and Muslims don’t get on” (due to predominantly Middle Eastern politics one would presume).

“Challenging the narrative” was exactly the theme of the Nisa-Nashim conference – a lovely day spent with lots of lovely Jewish and Muslim sisters (and one lovely gentleman)! We really are stronger together and we really do need to show that stereotypes, narratives and misconceptions must be challenged. During the day the question was posed: What narratives are you challenging? Other than by already being there, this made me think about what I am doing and what I can do – like all of us – to challenge people’s perceptions and to offer a different narrative. Here’s my list – what’s yours…?

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1. Islam and human rights are “incompatible”. Muslims hate “gay people”, agnostics, atheists, non-Muslims, Hindus, feminists, human rights campaigners etc.

I do not hate anyone. End of. God gave us all life and we must respect everyone – with no distinction in regards to ethnic background, nationality, race, religion or sexuality END OF. I myself am a human rights campaigner. I have a Master’s in Human Rights, I run a human rights blog and I’m a member of Amnesty International. I’m passionate about being active – online and offline – and I try and use my voice to speak out against injustice. This is my life, if I couldn’t do this well… there’d be trouble!

As a Muslim, Islam advocates feeding the poor, being just, honest, treating all humans (including women!) with respect, honour and dignity. Islam is serious about human rights. Unfortunately religious extremism, fear, sexism, tribalism, greed, intolerance, xenophobia etc. have all got in the way for many…

2. Muslims and Jews “don’t get on”

I’m Co-Chair of a local Jewish-Muslim women’s group in London as part of the Nisa-Nashim network. I respect and love my Jewish brothers and sisters. I may even have Jewish heritage (long story) and that is something I’m incredibly proud of. I’m forever saying how I’d like to make some Jewish friends! I – like many Muslim women – attended the Nisa-Nashim conference and are involved in its activities. The main hall was full of love! Since then I’ve been able to attend an interfaith Passover Seder and will continue to be involved in interfaith work. We’re sisters in the Abrahamic family and we’re sisters in humanity. And no: being Muslim does not equate to being anti-Semitic or a terrorist just as being Jewish does not equate to being a Zionist or Islamophobe.

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Jewish-Muslim solidarity (Washington D.C.) – Image credit: Joe Flood (CC)


3. Converts are suspicious, strange or wannabe extremists

There are Muslim converts, Jewish converts, Sikh converts (people I’ve met!) – it’s a fact of life. However we come to our new faith, we usually do so with love and enthusiasm – we’ve found something dear. Converts need to learn, they need support and they’re on a journey but hey – we’re normal!

4. You can’t be (truly) British and Muslim

British, Muslim and proud – that’s me. That’s also millions of British Muslims across the British Isles. My history and heritage is mine – it’s what got me here – and Britain accepts me as a Muslim, for who I am. Having spent time in other countries which are far less tolerant – I can tell you I’m proud to be British. Muslims who have spent their lives here, whose friends and family are here or have been offered a new life here – are happy being British too.

There’s no reason why you can’t be British and Muslim. Britain is a multicultural multifaith society and Islam teaches you to respect the law of the land and to be tolerant of others. For those who don’t like “living in a kaffir land” as they say – do they really feel British when they hold such beliefs?! Likewise for Islamophobes who worry about a “cultural clash” – we’re here and we’re happy. If we weren’t we’d go somewhere else! Look at the Muslims out there in politics, education, business, the charity sector, all over – we’re leading integrated, fulfilling and satisfying lives. And for those of you who aren’t convinced: we had an absolutely fabulous time at the British Islam 2017 conference back in February!

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Protester at an anti-Trump protest (London) – Image credit: Alisdare Hickson (CC)

5. Today’s youth are apathetic and superficial

Not sure I quite fit into the youth category any more but here’s the point. We’re young, we’re passionate, we have a voice and we get out there. Going back to my previous points, like many young British men and women, I’m involved with groups. Just look at those standing up against Brexit related hate crime, xenophobia, Trump, Islamophobia, you name it. There’s millions of us focused on real issues.

6. Islam is Sunni or Shia

I’m Muslim. I’m not Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Deobandi, Ahmadi or anything. I am Muslim and Muslim alone. Having said that, there are billions of Muslims who identify under a particular sect or label. Those who label any other as non-Muslim perpetuate intolerant extremist beliefs. Ahmadis are Muslims, so are Sufis, Shias etc.

7. Muslim women cover themselves for men

I do not cover myself for my husband, my father, (male) Prophets or any person – male or female. I cover for Allah (swt) and Allah alone. As a Muslim, I believe that God is not human and has no gender. For more on this point, cick here.

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Image: Elizabeth Arif-Fear (c)


8. Women convert to Islam to get married/for a man

I converted – like all the other converts I know – for faith and faith alone. I also converted before I got married. In Islam, Muslim men can marry Christian and Jewish women so there’s no need for such ladies. In any case, such conversion would be insincere and invalid. Without faith, you cannot be Muslim. Read more here.

9. Islam is an “Eastern religion” which oppresses women

Islam is a religion for the whole of humanity. I’m not from “the East”. There’s Muslims across the US, Canada, Latin America, the UK, France, North Africa – you name it (see point number four). Islam teaches that each land had their own Prophets. Muhammad and Jesus (pbut) were from the Middle East yes but there’s 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as “East and West”. The “Clash of Civilisations” narrative is FALSE. There is the Western hemisphere, countries in the Eastern hemisphere etc. but we’re ONE world – a world that happens to be increasingly globalised. What’s more I’m me. I’m Muslim yes. I’m British yes. But I refuse to put put in a box. You’ll know who I am and what I’m like by talking to me, listening to me and getting to know me.

What’s more, I’m not oppressed. I’m an active feminist. In terms of women’s rights, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught his followers to respect women. When the Qur’an was revealed women were treated as second class citizens with no rights. Islam gave women the right to own property, the right to divorce, a range of sexual, emotional and financial rights within marriage at a time when baby girls were being buried alive and women were sexually enslaved. Islam advocated for women’s education and social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. It forbade forced marriage at a time when women could be married against their will – used and abused for the pleasure of men – teaching people to instead respect their wife, mother, daughter(s), sister(s) etc. Read more here and here.

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Minneapolis (2006) – Image credit: Brian Wisconsin (CC)


10. A woman’s place is (solely) in the home

Women are the one’s who bear children, who go through pregnancy, who breastfeed and if a family can afford to have one salary – great, no reason why the lady can’t stay at home. There is no reason why a woman should be unhappy and unfulfilled staying at home.

However, woman also hold a valid place in society as a whole. We are half of the population. We cannot be completely cut off and shunned into the private sphere. Many women are mothers and carers whilst also holding a career at the same time or whilst being active in their community. Many women do not even have children. Women are doctors, teachers, educators, business women, politicians, writers, journalists, community workers, mentors etc. and as such we build (or aim to!) a more open, richer, more understanding world which represents the diversity of the population both in gender, nationality, ethnicity, culture and religion.

We cannot allow half of society to be misrepresented or even not represented at all. Society needs to serve everyone and therefore be built by both women and women. I like millions of Muslim women work full-time. I am active and I love it! For my sisters who are at home – great. Each to their own.

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So there we are, let me know your counter-narratives. I’d love to hear!

If you’d like to learn more, see also my previous post on the most common misconceptions of Muslim women. You might be surprised!

If you’d like more information about Nisa-Nashim, check them out online via their website and across social media: Twitter and Facebook.

Credits and acknowledgements:

Big thanks to all those who have inspired and supported me for who I am, who I aim to be and in everything I do.

Images: artgraffCarnagenyc, Martha Heinemann BixbyStraßenfotografie Hamburg (CC) (featured image). Image licences available to view via Flickr

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“I only hire beautiful birds” – Sexism in the British workplace

For those of you in the UK, you may remember hearing a few months back in the news about women being forced to wear high heels at work and one lady being told to go home for refusing to do so. The reality is that whilst we should all be smart (depending on your job!) and dressed respectably for work, wearing high heels does not equate professionalism. Such outdated sexist attitudes towards women are unfortunately still alive. The reality is that women face sexual harassment at work, discrimination in being hired due to their right to maternity leave and earn less than men for the same job. In some sectors such as high end City business firms and politics, women find themselves in a male-dominated sphere. This is the 21st century people, yet this is the shocking reality women in Britain today face:

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Shocking isn’t it?! More information on the statistics can be found here. However, I’d like to present some real-life testimony. Here’s the story of Steve*…

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Steve* works for an international business solutions company based in London* and has found that his work environment is very patriarchal. The women in the office face daily regular sexual harassment and bullying. Here’s what the women in his office encounter:

When my female colleagues talk in the office, the men say: “Shhh! Shut up! You’re in a business office – don’t be loud!”. But they’re not loud at all. They are treated like second class citizens and sex objects. On one particular occasion, after a work night out where my colleagues were drinking, one young male colleague named Ryan* got very drunk and couldn’t get home. My colleague Jane* offered for him to sleep on her sofa. The next day at work, she was told that she had “raped him” and that everyone “should watch out for her”. For about two weeks after, whenever she walked into the office, everyone would start “egging” Ryan on saying: “Go on Ryan! Go on Ryan!” She clearly did not find this funny and was not comfortable at all but they carried on bullying her anyway.

On a more day-to-day basis, my male colleagues call our female colleagues “birds” and talk about them in sexual scenarios, describing what they’d do to them sexually. They talk in their male groups but another female colleague can hear. Another male colleague called our colleague Caroline* “bitch” to her face as she wears mini-skirts to work. When Caroline walks in the office, my male colleagues make kissing noises. On another occasion, another colleague Bradley* sat within a small group of male colleagues and compared the breasts of his wife (who works in the office) to those of Jenny*. On this occasion, no women were witness to the conversation. Higher up the ladder, a senior figure in the company also informed the male member of the team that he “only hires beautiful birds” as he likes being in the company of “beautiful women”. One of the women he hired is from overseas and twenty years his junior and married with children. At work he intimidates her. One day he showed her pictures of fully naked women, telling her that he would like to have sex with these types of women. My colleague felt so uncomfortable that she took the following day off work. On a regular basis, he tells us male colleagues how he’d like to have sex with her.

Beyond vocal comments and discussions, at Christmas, Gary* (a married man and father) came back to the office drunk and actually forced himself onto Patricia*, kissing her on the mouth. Patricia did not say anything. She appeared to find this normal but for me: this is not normal.

I feel sorry for all of the women who work with us. In a 20th century working environment, no woman should be treated like that. I’m absolutely shocked by these so-called ‘English gentlemen’. The men I work with have showed their dark side and I have lost all respect towards them. Sexism in the workplace is a big problem and many women are constantly bullied. The women in my office are trapped because they cannot afford to lose their jobs. Action must be taken against these – to be blunt – chavs.

*Names and location have been changed to protect identity. Testimony co-written/edited by Voice of Salam (narrated). Please note: I have presented the testimony of a male witness due to availability of witness testimony. If any women would like to share their stories, please get in touch!

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So, ladies (and men – in reality anyone affected by discrimination in the workplace of any kind): please call out and report such behaviour!

For information and advice in relation to the UK please visit/speak to:

For those of you outside the UK – please seek help. Don’t put up with it! Call it out and get the emotional and legal support you need, deserve and are entitled to.

Credits and acknowledgements:

Thanks go to “Steve” for his time and assistance in providing his testimony. Best wishes go the ladies affected by the issues discussed.

Images:

Pat (Free Images.com) (featured image), graphics: Elizabeth Arif-Fear

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“I can only hope and pray that as I come through the airport I will find my home waiting for me…”- Experiences of American convert to Islam Ashley Bounoura

In light of Trump’s new “career change” and the rise in Islamophobic hate crime both here in the UK and USA, Muslims here in the UK, across Europe and in the US in particular, face being potentially verbally and physically abused whilst going about their daily lives. Discourse around values, identity and belonging feed Islamophobic rhetoric. As a Muslim convert living in the UK, I’ve had no real trouble so far. I feel happy, safe and wanted here in the UK. But what about in the US?

Having met the lovely Ashley – a young American convert to Islam currently living in Algeria with her husband and founder of the blog Muslimah According to Me – I wanted to get an insight into her experiences as a convert: how did her friends and family react to her decision to become a Muslim? Was she welcomed within and outside the Muslim community? What is life like in the US for a Muslim convert? Well, here’s Ashley’s guest post talking about her experiences in both the US and UK. Enjoy!

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15181533_10211268880938203_2784240802646481146_n.jpgAs I began to seriously think about reverting to Islam, I had no idea what to expect. I knew I was scared of the reactions of my friends and family, and I knew to expect some backlash in general from the public as I went out for the first couple of times in my hijab, but I didn’t know what form any of that might take.

Looking back, in the few months after I first reverted, the reaction was far kinder than anything I had come to expect. Especially within my family, the people who are most important to me were the most supportive. My mother, sister, and grandfather all felt some apprehension at first, but as they began to see that I was the same person, and even becoming a better person because of this faith, they were quick to let me know that they supported anything that made me happy.

Within my friendship group there was a slightly more mixed reaction; I had a couple of friends from Los Angeles area that had a little bit of a difficult time stepping out of their affluent republican mindset, and unfortunately my decision to wear the hijab officiated the end of some friendships. My best friend, however, was completely supportive of me, and now even participates in World Hijab Day every year to spread awareness. Of course, I also made a couple of new friends along the way, both born Muslims and reverts [Muslim converts].

Integration into the Muslim community itself – another problem many reverts face – was easy and painless for me, in the beginning at least. I had one very good friend, who acted as a sort of all-in-one mentor, shoulder to lean on, and resource library. She always took me along to classes and lectures with her, and her friends all accepted me as I was. I joined the Muslim Students Association at my university, and the sisters there were all also very welcoming and ready to share in my journey.

However, upon moving to London (United Kingdom), I found that such accepting communities are actually quite rare to find. I had in fact been spiritually “growing up” in a metaphorical bubble. I had been excited to move out of my tiny community into something bigger, and I thought London would be a great opportunity for me to make tons of new friends. I instead found the community there to be far less open, and deeply separated into cultural cliques that had no place for a native-English speaking American university student. Because of this, I ended up being very isolated for the year I was studying there. The one good thing about moving to the diverse city of London however was the fact that the people on the street hardly gave me a second look.

Back in my university town in California, I had found myself in an odd place between the two communities. I found myself experiencing my majority cultural community in a much different way than I ever had before. Though I am always, to some degree, a novelty within the Muslim community, within the wider community, I experienced everything from micro-aggressions and confused stares, to actual violent threats (though this was by far the exception to the rule). For the most part, I got an odd look or two walking down the street, but I made it my policy to just look back and smile, and this tended to put people at ease. The broad majority of interactions I had in my university course, with my colleagues at work, and in my extra-curricular activities were positive. People were curious but kind, sceptical but supportive, and sometimes they just ignored the change completely.

The negative things I did experience mainly consisted of mildly irritating micro-aggression, usually in the form of slightly ridiculous questions. One thing I got asked a lot by random strangers was: “Where are you from?” Of course I would answer with: “California,” but they would almost always follow up with “yeah, but where are you from?” Sometimes I would just be given two choices: “Are you from Iran or Iraq?”, “Lebanon or Syria?”, “Albania or Turkey?” People seemed to have a very difficult time believing that I actually am just from California, and so are my parents, and my grandparents, and my great-grandparents (with the exception of my maternal grandfather’s parents, who are from Italy). Other times I have been asked very strange questions, but as long as there is space for a conversation I am always OK with giving an answer. Beyond the small things though, the biggest problem that I find that people had with me is not the fact that I am a Muslim, or that I “resemble the enemy,” but the fact that I am white and I choose to dress and believe as I do. Many of my most violent and aggressive encounters have stemmed from this type of animosity and the fact that, according to them, my lifestyle choices are not valid.

So, as I am preparing myself here in Algeria to begin the move back to the United States with my husband, I sometimes worry about the situation I will be returning to. I hear stories daily from my Muslim friends of attacks, mosques burning, being sworn at an intimidated in the street. I have been the recipient of not-so-cordial comments on my own blog and social media, and I can only hope and pray that as I come through the airport I will find my home waiting for me, instead of being made to know that I am officially no longer welcome here, in the country where I spent the first 21 years of my life, because I choose to look and believe differently than those who hold the power.

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Credits and acknowledgements:

I’d like to thank Ashley for her time and efforts in writing this guest piece. I’d also like to wish her and her family all the very best for the future and their move back to the US.

If you’d like to find out more about Ashley and her experiences, please do visit her blog and Muslimah According to Me Facebook page. The blog is well worth a visit!

Images:

Greater than Fear (Shepard Fairey, Ridwan Adhami) (feature image) (CC), Ashley Bounoura (c)

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Gender, colour, faith: Tell Mama reveals the shocking truth about hate crime in the UK

I recently met with Fiyaz Mughal (OBE) – Founder and Director of the UK hate crime organisation Tell Mama. As the leading body in reporting Islamophobic and racial hate crime, I wanted to find out in light of Brexit, the rise to power of Trump, ISIS’ ongoing tirade of extremism and the spate of recent European terrorist attacks, how the nature of hate crime has changed in the UK and who is most affected. Here’s what I found out…

[…]

VoS: For Muslims and non-Muslims out there, can you tell us a little about the work that you do?

TM: So, the work of Tell Mama involves many different prongs; the first being direct support to victims who have suffered anti-Muslim hatred who make contact with us through a variety of means (WhatsApp, email etc.). We provide detailed case work support; writing to agencies if need be,  collecting evidence, talking to police forces, trying to get prosecutions with the police in relation to anti-Muslim hatred. Then there’s the other flip side, which is really about advocacy and emotional support. Many, many, many victims are Muslim women and certainly the targeting of Muslim women involves not just Islamophobia and anti-Muslim material but also a lot of misogynistic material – a lot of gender hate material that’s mixed in, as well as racialised language so it’s really unpacking that and giving them that kind of emotional support – so multiple services. […] The two other prongs; creating and sustaining good educational material that’s out there for not just schools but for use in the public domain through social media as well as some small courses for schools that we produce educational material for. Last but not least, we are really heavy on trying to influence policy change – not just with social media companies but with government and police forces around understanding anti-Muslim hatred.

VoS: So you said you deal with a lot of hate crime which affects Muslim women in particular. Especially since Brexit and the rise of ISIS over in The Middle East, there’s been a sharp rise in racist and Islamophobia attacks in the UK and Europe and North America. One shocking case for example was of a Muslim lady who was attacked in London, causing her to later miscarry her twins. I’m presuming this didn’t come as a surprise to you? Were you expecting a sharp increase in the rise of hate crime since Brexit and in the current political situation?

TM: When we started the project with Tell Mama in 2011, we came across an online world which was absolutely full of anti-Muslim bigotry and hatred. There was no checking. There was no counter-speech. There were enormous amounts of accounts that were promoting anti-Muslim bigotry. We knew that that would have a real world impact from the virtual to the real. We could see that. So in 2011, we realised early on that actually there was a wind – a nasty wind – that was coming across the horizon and was going to affect Muslim communities. So, did we expect this? Well, yes. Did the statistics start to pan that out? Yes. And that was also corroborated by police forces. Did we expect more aggressive stance towards Muslims at a street level? Yes. And so this case does not come out of the blue. Sadly, we expect that actually there will be more incidences of assaults and we’ve seen a change at a street level from predominantly verbal abuse before to now over the last few years a much aggressive level of physical incidences taking place – again predominantly at visible Muslim women. So it’s moved from the virtual about what people were thinking into the practical in people wanting to do things and that’s a bad place. This is not going from people thinking about it. They’re actually thinking and doing it now.

VoS: So do you think that it’s simply -as some people have said – that the political and social situation has evolved in such a way that it’s almost been normalised to behave in such way and so people are just expressing opinions and hate they had before or that people’s opinions have actually become more extreme since the recent political crisis?

TM: We also know that international and national incidences create large spikes of anti-Muslim hatred – Paris, Charlie Hebdo, all of them… We’ve got evidence of the numbers of cases coming in. Did we expect Brexit to cause such a large rise? Actually we didn’t but what Brexit did do was clearly bring out the views that people had. These things don’t just fester overnight. They’re there. So Brexit was an amplifying point for them and so to your question: it’s a combination. Today what we’re seeing is a combination of people who are emboldened to think that they what they believe which may be prejudicial bigoted and racist is actually okay to say – that’s the first thing. The second thing you asked is if are there more people who are becoming anti Muslim. The answer is that there is actually an influence of what I would clearly class as extremist material which is anti Muslim in nature and percolating into the minds of younger men in our society who are then targeting Muslims and Muslim women in particular. So yes, there are more people consuming accepting and regurgitating extremist anti Muslim material and there are individuals who had these previous thoughts who now think it’s justified and validated that they can say them. It’s a combination of both.

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Photo credit: Chris Page

VoS: That’s very interesting. Why do you think young non-Muslim British males in particular? You said there was a lot of misogyny and sexist crime. Is that particularly to do with the veil or because Muslim women may appear as less likely to be able to defend themselves?

TM: When we’ve spoken to some of the perpetrators there’s been the notion that they’re not going to be threatened by the victim – the victim is not going to stand up physically to them. That’s the first thing. So there is a validity in what you’re saying. The second thing is that the targeting of Muslim women is quite complex. In some of the perpetrators we have discussed this with, the first thing is an extremist anti-Muslim view promoted by not just far right groups but the new alternative right – the Trump brigade, the people who who believe the nonsense that Muslims are here to take over the world… That alternative right kind of narrative has promoted the view that actually Muslims are here to take over the West by outbreeding everyone. This is the nonsense and the toxic extremism that is promoted that feeds the minds of some of these perpetrators in which Muslim women are the carriers of the future generation, as the “prolonger” of Islam, as the gender which will actually keep Islam and Muslims in Europe. That’s why there’s a drive towards Muslim women subconsciously in the minds of some of these people. So it’s physical – they know they’re not going to be attacked but Muslim women have also become not only symbolic of the longevity of Islam but also symbolic of Islam itself. When you get that combination – that’s why they’re being targeted. What’s bizarre and I think I think there’s a very strange link here which is around the procreation again is that the amount of sexual language that is thrown at Muslim women. We have not seen this behaviour before but it is particularly acute online. So what you find is two women talking on Twitter. They just say, you know: “What do you do today?”, “I went to the cinema” etc.  and suddenly a troll will come in and basically say “Oh you look really sexy in your hijab.” And what they’re trying to do: they’re trying to humiliate the woman by targeting her sexuality because she’s religious to you and so in their minds that humiliates her. They’re sexualising them to humiliate them but let me be very clear: those people who are doing that towards Muslim women will in many instances also have  deeply deeply troubling views towards women in general. So there’s a confluence that they they they think really badly of women but as this is a Muslim women they feel more confident to vocalise this. You know they will be thinking about other women but it’s Muslim women that they’ll vocalise it towards. That’s the distinguishing thing right now.

VoS: So how have you dealt with this sharp increase in hate crime in particular, in dealing with the amount of reports and complaints you’ve received? What’s life been like as an organisation since Brexit in terms of case loads and complaints?

TM: So we’ve seen a year on year increase. What we’ve started to pick up now is a combination because possibly more people know about us but the data also clearly shows that when there  is a major incident like a terrorist incident, the spikes are getting higher and higher. Let me give you a really clear example. We had the brutal murder of Lee Rigby and the pictures were pretty brutal on newspapers. They were all over them. That was the first indicator that there was a huge anti Muslim backlash taking place. We  recorded that and we vocalised that in the press. To some degree you can understand that actually there will be a backlash given the pictures and given that it happened in Woolwich, in England, in our streets. But when you have Charlie Hebdo and when you have Paris and particularly Paris which is 400 miles away and the peak is even higher than after the murder of Lee Rigby: that is indicating to you a disturbing trend that something 400 miles away is even higher than the brutal murder of somebody right on our street. That’s disturbing. That’s where this is going. The more Muslim communities are buffeted by international incidences, the more fractures are taking place between communities, the more brittle, the more hardline views are becoming towards Muslims and even those people who may have been receptive and susceptible to engagement with Muslim communities are now starting to think: “Have these these groups got a point about Muslims?” That’s the problem! Views in some areas are regressing not progressing !

VoS: Well it goes beyond social identity debates into a wider debate about Islam looking at Islam as a whole. Obviously, a lot of your work is going to be confidential but what sort of reports and cases have you dealt with which you can share with us on a broad basis?

TM: So the cases will range from general abuse, through to neighbourhood disputes and cases where people have actively tried to run over women in a vehicle, through to bombing campaigns. After the murder of Lee Rigby, what was reported to us from some of the masjids was that there were explosive devices left in some mosques in Walsall, Wolverhampton and Tipton [in the West Midlands]. One of the mosques in fact informed us about the explosive device and they tipped us off. That’s the kind of variety of work we get in. And by the way – the crossover at that point between the explosive devices being left outside mosques was not because was not triggered by the murder of Lee Rigby – it intersected at the same time. It was  done by a neo-Nazi. So there’s a range of work we deal with. We are becoming quite an intelligence hub about what the threats to Muslim communities are today.  

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Photo credit: Tim Green

VoS: In addition to hatred from outside Muslim committees you also focus on what you refer to as intra-Muslim bigotry. Could you explain a little more about this for people that are perhaps confused by this term?

TM: So intra-Muslim bigotry is basically what we call Muslim on Muslim hate incidences. Members of the Shia community will report to us when they’re targeted for being Shia, members of the Ahamdiyyah community will report to us when they’re targeted because they’re Ahmadiyyah… No other Muslim organization tackling Islamophobia does that. Why is the question and the response should be in life that if you are targeted because of an element of your identity that needs to be recorded and support provided to you in relation to that. So doing this work is really important 1. to honour the victim; 2. to provide practical assistance to the victim; 3. not to take any political view of whether people should be washing their dirty laundry in public. This is not about that. This is about human rights. This is about the rights of individuals. The numbers reporting to us is not high  but I can tell you: the bigotry towards Ahmadiyyah communities is quite significant. And actually the spike we saw after the murder of Asad Shah was worrying. So we record and we call it out because it is wrong. I think this issue of intra-Muslim bigotry is something that Muslim committees need to get over and that actually, they need to start vocalising that this kind of internal hatred is not acceptable.

VoS: Being vocal is definitely important. You’ve faced criticism in the past for being what’s been classed as “soft” on Muslim groups which are often deemed heretical by certain people. How have you responded to members of the Muslim community with these views about the importance of overcoming these issues and divisions and addressing hate crime throughout the community?

TM: It’s a really important question you raise. Look this is where I will revert back to our belief as a staff members in Tell Mama – and we’re not all Muslim. Only one third of the team is Muslim. So Muslims are in the minority running Tell Mama let me just say that to people on your blog because it’s really important to realise that this is a movement which is not just about Muslims: it’s about human rights. The second thing I want to say is let me revert back. I’m a Muslim and for me and those Muslims in the team in Tell Mama – the view is pretty clear that in Islam there is no difference in values of the protection of human rights and the protections of individuals. In Islam there is no difference […]. Islam is very clear about that. The history of Islam is is consistent with that. Islam does not say brush things under the carpet. Islam says defend those who may be weak. It doesn’t say so do because they are Muslim. It says defend anyone who is attacked – whether they’re Christian, Jewish, non-believing… Your right to defense by Muslims is sacrosanct. Your right to be defended by Islam is in the Qur’an. It’s in Islamic tradition. So, we make it clear that if you think that just because members of the Ahmadiyyah community are reporting in and that’s bad and let’s not talk about it and they’re not really Muslims…then you were taking away the very core issue of Islamic theology which is to defend the weak and defend the oppressed and defend those who are targeted. It doesn’t matter who or whey’re your from. It doesn’t matter what sexuality or where you come from. Defend your rights is key.

VoS: Prior to the unfortunate murder of Asad Shah in Glasgow, had you received many reports of hate crime between Muslim groups? What’s the difference ? Has there been a change both before and after this event? Was that a huge marker or was that just one unfortunate incident?

TM: Again brilliant question. The answer is no. There were other markers. The first time we came across intra-Muslim bigotry recorded by us and reported to us was during the start of the Syrian civil war. The first indicators we got was when members of the Shia community started reporting to us around 2012/2013. So we did start to see anti Shia bigotry being reported to us and then the Asad Shah murder created a spike of anti-Ahmadiyyah cases coming to us. So there’s been a general rumbling, just a slow burning rumble of intra-Muslim hate cases that we receive but what’s clear again is national/international impacts don’t just affect Muslims, they also affect intra-Muslim bigotry. The Syria crisis created a lot of anti-Shia rhetoric. Asad Shah’s murder happened and then suddenly you see people thought that because he was Ahmadiyyah he deserved it, even though the murder of Asad Shah was not related to him being Ahmadiyyah. The murderer said he killed him because Asad Shah was saying he was a prophet of God – distinctly different. You see the bigotry just seeped in – completely different to facts and that is what we are dealing with. If we’re to tackle these issues we have to be brutally honest and anti-Ahamdiyyah rhetoric is quite accepted in a large section of Muslim communities. It may not be vocalised but there’s a claim of acceptance. I personally think it’s wrong. Do I think that we need to challenge that? Yes. On the issue of what we receive in cases, these individuals deserve and have every right to access the same service as anyone else.

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Photo credit: Descrier

VoS: Have you received a significant number of calls for help from any other particular group and could you tell us a little bit about this?

TM: Firstly, some individuals will report to us thinking that they can trip us up by thinking “they won’t service us. […] Let’s trip up Tell Mama and say ‘I’m Christian. Will you help me?'” Well, you’re not tripping us up because actually if you’re Christian or you’re Jewish and you report to us we will provide you with the same service. Secondly, the first time another group started reporting to us was after Brexit. Two groups reported to us: Eastern European communities and African Caribbean women. Here we go back to the gender issue. Why? From talking to the African Caribbean women, we found that the “N word” came back into the lexicon – old racism. Three African Caribbean women reported to us just a day after Brexit to say that they had been called that racial word that they hadn’t heard in 20 years. But… all of them were women. That is not a large enough figure to make an extrapolation but certainly the fact that they were women tells us about gender and goes back to what I said before. Gender has to be looked at. Eastern European communities also report to us and we had five cases from Polish communities who were targeted as well.

VoS: Yes there was the unfortunate murder of the Polish gentleman. That’s been a big issue. Do you believe the government is doing enough to tackle hate crime and Islamophobia? Islamophobia is now recorded as a separate category of hate crimes so it won’t fall into the bracket of racial crimes etc. beyond that – do you think they’re doing enough?

TM: Yes, but not enough. The government have made huge headway in understanding that anti-Muslim hatred is a real problem that needs to be tackled. When we started our work in Tell Mama the government was in a different place. It was very difficult for them to understand the nature of the problem and the place the government is in today is substantially different in its understanding of anti-Muslim hatred from five years ago. They’re putting money in. They’re putting resources in. Ministers are standing up and are constantly reaffirming the fact that Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred is something they need to tackle as well as other strands. But, they have also done something else. Looking at the Action Against Hate hate Crime action plan for 2016 that the government produced, within the thread of every page they’ve mentioned Islamophobia as a key issue they need to tackle. So there’s a lot more that can be done but let’s commend the government for what they have done. Many people within Muslim communities constantly bash away at government and I’m one of those people who will absolutely hold government to account if I think that they’re fundamentally wrong. I’ve actively challenged the government on issues. So I’m not sitting here as some kind of a puppet for the government. No. They know I actively challenge them but when they’ve done something right, we need to commend them and they’ve done a lot in this area and will continue to do a lot more.

VoS: What are your predictions for the immediate future? What do you believe are the main challenges ahead for both Tell Mama and British society in terms of social harmony and political based issues and in light of this, what are Tell Mama’s goals for the coming future?

TM: The fact is that 2017 will be turbulent with major political shifts and changes on the horizon. After Brexit, we saw spikes in hate crime and far right groups are becoming more organised in Europe. So, there will be more turbulence. Our goals are to ensure that Muslim communities feel confident to be able to report it, campaign and empower themselves to be able to handle and challenge anti-Muslim hatred AND other forms of hatred. Muslims are not an island and hatred affects other communities, though with a significant international focus on Muslims, they need to become self-empowered right now.

VoS: How can local communities and residents from all faiths and none and from different backgrounds come together to help prevent attacks against Muslims – from both within and outside the Muslim community – and as a whole, anyone affected by hate crime?

TM: Simple things can be done through social media activism, ensuring that faith communities and institutions undertake activities together and last but not least: do not fall into the trap of looking like you’re doing a ‘tea, samosas and steel band’ type activities. Whatever is done together should be practical, realistic and impactful – and sometimes challenging.

VoS: Do you have a final message for those who are concerned about the position or place of Muslims in British society or for those attracted to extremist, hateful or far-right rhetoric in any form?

TM: Yes. Muslims are here to stay in Britain and will be here for the next 500 years or more. So, unless we find a way to live together, are we going to hand down a legacy of conflict to our children?

[…]

If you’d like to find out more information, see:

To report an incident of hate crime in the UK:

  • In an emergency, please call 999
  • To report a case to Tell Mama, get in touch via telephone: 0800 456 1226, email: info@tellmama.org, text: 0115 707 0007 or WhatsApp: 07341846086

Acknowledgements and credits:

I’d like to thank Fiyaz for his time and insights and I wish the Tell Mama team all the very best in their work and future endeavours.

Image credits: Steve Snodgrass (feature image)

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‘In Our World, You’re Either Born With the Right Passport or Not’

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A few weeks ago, French President François Hollande announced the “Calais Jungle” refugee camp would be dismantled, leaving thousands of destitute refugees, including unaccompanied minors, in northern France with nowhere to go. Although many have since been able to submit an asylum claim, it still remains that for months on end these refugees from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea relied on the help of small-scale NGOs and the public, with no assistance from the French government.

Amélie Jacques, a famous French blogger who grew up in Paris and Rome, has lived in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and now resides in Soweto, South Africa. Following the tense situation with refugees in Calais, in a short essay on her blog “Ubuntu” she voiced her concerns about the French government’s harsh policies limiting refugees’ entrance into the country. She also contrasted how easy it is for her to travel with a French passport with how difficult it is for people from other countries: 

No matter whether they’re refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, if they’re fleeing war, persecution, or simply looking for a better future … all migrants should be able to come to France and to elsewhere in Europe. There’s no moral reasoning not to allow people to come and live in another country.

My country refuses visa and asylum claims submitted by men, women, and families who come in search of peace, work, and so on, yet nobody’s ever stopped me from crossing the border to go on a family holiday, to study abroad, or even to work. Each time I travel, there are a few formalities — a bit of paperwork, exchanging or paying a few euros, and last of all getting a vaccination — and then it’s off and away! I’ve been able to come and stay for several weeks — up to several years — in England, the United States, Italy, Burkina Faso, Iran, and now South Africa…

What’s this prejudice and inequality based on? French people are no more worthy of rights than other men and women. More than rights, these are privileges. What’s more, such privileges are based on where you’re born because in our world, you’re either born with the right passport or not. Such inequality of rights is devoid of all morality. We either take a step down on the ladder of privilege and confine each person to the country where they were born, or we allow every human being the right to migrate and move out of their own land.

France has long been a nation of immigration with debates surrounding assimilation and secular identity, in particular concerning migrants from former colonial nations such the Maghreb region of Algeria, Morocco and North Africa. However, in the light of the recent refugee crisis, France’s response has been rather poor, unlike its European neighbour Germany.

The French government originally committed to welcoming refugees from Syria, but in practice is not a main recipient of refugees from Syria. The UK and France have in fact been locked in a battle of wills in an attempt to pass off responsibility for welcoming refugees. France maintains that these refugees want to reach the UK, whilst the UK government neither wants to fully open its doors.

As a whole, Europe remains divided on the issue of resettling refugees from war-torn countries, and some members of the European Union continue to express hostility to the idea.

Credits:

This article was first published via Global Voices (08/11/2016)

Images: Kevin Walsh, feature image – CC BY-SA 4.0

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Welcoming child refugees means listening to them

img_20160917_125813The plight of child refugees in Europe has been an ongoing issue, in particular since the Syrian crisis spiked in the last few years. Last spring, following pressure from civil society and charitable organisations, politicians voted on the Dubs Amendment, announcing it would be accepting 3,000 child refugees from overseas. Just a few weeks ago, according to figures from Safe Passage UK, there were over 1,000 unaccompanied child refugees living in makeshift refugee camps across the Channel in northern France, including the infamous “Jungle” in Calais – aptly named due to the unregulated mass of makeshift tents and complete lack of regulation, assistance from international aid organisations, sanitation facilities or infrastructure.

Here, thousands of refugees fleeing war, poverty and human rights abuses from all over the world including Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria lay in wait to start a new life. In the Jungle in particular, there were around 387 children legally entitled to come to the UK under the Dublin Convention due to the UK residency of their family members. Some tried to start their own journeys to their families – including a 14 year old boy from Afghanistan who this September was killed on a French motorway whilst trying to reach the UK.

Until this point, the only progress being made was for those children referred on the Safe Passage UK programme, a project set up by the organisation Citizens UK to establish safe legal routes to the UK for unaccompanied child refugees and vulnerable adults in Europe. However, after announcing it would be building a wall to block access from across the channel, the UK government responded to the French government’s decision to dismantle the camp in Calais by beginning to process the safe transfer of unaccompanied minors with families in the UK. This could not have come at a more crucial time. These children could simply have disappeared off the radar. According to Europol, there are already over 10,000 “disappeared” refugee children within Europe. The risks these children face are devastating, as they remain vulnerable to such human rights abuses as child labour, sexual exploitation (rape, child marriage, prostitution) and both radicalisation and recruitment by terrorist organisations offering both economic sustenance and a sense of belonging. In light of this, on the 16th October, the first group of children were transferred to the UK. According to Citizens UK, 200 children have now arrived. However, this represents just a small percentage of the children seeking refuge in both France and across Europe. Following the official clearance of the Jungle on 26th October, there were a reported 1,500 unaccompanied child refugees left in the area where the camp once stood, resulting in a subsequent process led by the French authorities to transfer these children out of the area. In such context, it is more essential than ever that adequate preparation and procedures are put in place to both bring and welcome refugee children.

Here in the UK, where these children begin the long process of re-building their lives, we need to guarantee that we do our best to ensure their well-being and social inclusion so they can lead happy, healthy lives in all senses: socially, economically, culturally, emotionally, and physiologically. Ensuring these children’s wellbeing involves more than providing refuge in a safe space, protected from the physical harm of active conflict. It is fundamental that children are safeguarded against all types of harm, including the risk of trafficking and radicalisation.

Above all, to successfully safeguard this vulnerable group of children and help them integrate into British society we must listen to their stories, their views, their opinions and their needs – first of all as children and secondly as refugees.

Child to Child – participation and safeguarding

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Hearing All Voices – Child to Child (London)

As one of the leading international NGOs on children’s participation, Child to Child believes in teaching essential skills and providing safe, inclusive spaces to enable children to give their views, voice their needs, and fully participate within society as active, engaged citizens. Since 2011, Child to Child has been running its project Hearing All Voices in London, working with disadvantaged young people in secondary schools and FE colleges and teaching staff to create an environment where students are listened to, taken seriously and supported to take social action. This project has been immensely successful in terms of both staff and student outcomes. The tools and outcomes of this project – testimony to the value and need for child participation – are something we can build on.

UK government policy, including education, health and social care needs to ensure that refugee children have the means to participate, in order to be safeguarded from harm. If we are to ensure that child refugees lead happy, healthy, integrated lives in which both the traumatic experiences of the past are addressed and their cultural, religious and social identities can also flourish, then let us learn from them rather than excluding them from decision-making processes. If we truly want to welcome this group of vulnerable children and guarantee their wellbeing, then let them participate and let us listen.

Credits:

This article was first published by Child to Child on 02/11/2016 (c)

Feature image copyright: Max Bryan (2016) (c)

Additional blog imagery: Elizabeth Arif-Fear

Mapping out Europe: The “ban the burqa” debate rages on

niqab-2Governments across Europe are talking about the “burqa” once again [in other words: banning Islamic face veils such as the niqab and burqa]. Although very few countries have officially banned the burqa in public places, many are starting to discuss taking this step in the future. […] The debate is heating up across Europe.

It’s become inescapable. Not a week passes by in Europe when Islam generally, and Muslims more specifically, are not dissected in the media or discussed in government chambers. One day it’s the strange Slovakian Prime Minister who feels he must  “protect his people” from Muslims. Another day, it’s the abominable Geert Wilders who wants to implement an outright “ban on the Quran” in the Netherlands. Now in France, a shocking report from the Institut Montaigne entitled “A French Islam is possible“, has sparked further tension.

While there is no case law on lip service, the ongoing European debate about Islam and those who practice it has centred in on one tiny piece of the puzzle: a piece of fabric called the niqab, the burka or the full-face veil. It has managed to inflame public opinion each year and has now entered into the legal arsenal of certain member states of the EU. Proof of this has been the unending debate about the “burkini” in France this summer. More recently, a YouGov poll in the UK showed that 57% of Brits interviewed were in favour of the burqa ban. That said, in other European countries, wearing the veil has never been an issue. So, which countries are hotly debating the burqa and which goverments have gone so far as to pass legislation against the burka?

Source: Café Babel – see original article for full interactive map annotations

In a study of Europeans aged 18-34, Generation What? interviewed half a million young people from 30 different countries. Respondents from 17 different countries said that it “did not shock them” to see “women wearing veils in the street or at work.” As only a small majority of respondents, this leaves us with the possibility that Europe may not necessarily become more tolerant of the burqa in the future.

Credits:

Article written by Matthieu Amaré and translated by Charlotte Walmsley (FR > ENG)

Image credits: Hani Amir (Flickr) (feature image), John Alcorn

This article was first published on  Café Babel (26/09/2016)