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I was in danger and my family was in danger: story of a young Iranian asylum seeker

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For weeks, months even, the news has been dominated with reports of refugees and migrants who are fleeing their countries and seeking sanctuary in Europe. It got me thinking: who are these people and what are their stories? What lives did they lead before they were forced to leave their countries, and what are their hopes and aspirations now? Last month I met a young, Iranian asylum seeker in Manchester and found his story so interesting I felt I had to share it.

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To all appearances Peyman seems like any other foreign student in Manchester learning English as a second language. He always has a smile on his face, giving the impression that he lives a fairly straightforward life with little or no complications. He volunteers at the Red Cross twice a week and his dream is to become a counsellor one day, as he is interested in psychology. But his dream may remain just that.

Peyman (not his real name) fled the Islam Republic of Iran and came to the UK to seek asylum in September 2010. He insists that he went into the nearest police station as soon as he arrived in the UK, but unfortunately for him, the authorities did not believe him. Five years on, the 30-year-old is still appealing his deportation and fears being made homeless again if he loses his right to accommodation and the potentially deadly possibility of being deported to Iran. Under the theocratic regime political and religious dissent is often conflated, mirroring the fusion of state and religious power, and blasphemy/apostasy are common charges against dissidents..

On August 26 2015, Amnesty International reported that Behrouz Alkhani, a 30-year-old man from Iran’s Kurdish minority, was executed while awaiting the outcome of a Supreme Court appeal. A Revolutionary Court had charged him with “effective collaboration with PJAK” (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan) and “enmity against God” for his alleged role in the assassination of the Prosecutor of Khoy, West Azerbaijan province.

Zeynab Jalalian, also from Iran’s Kurdish minority, has been convicted an “enemy of God” and sentenced to death by an Islamic Revolutionary Court for allegedly being a member of PJAK, which she denies. These cases are a drop in the ocean.

Peyman’s Kurdish-Iranian family have experienced similar fates. His older brother was imprisoned and tortured for 20 years, as were some of his other relatives for their political activities. One of his childhood memories is visiting his brother in prison. When he was a teenager, Peyman was once detained by the police who were looking for another brother, who had been spotted with his girlfriend. As his brother had run away, the police took Peyman instead to the station, where he was beaten before his family managed to get him released a few hours later.

“That was the time I started hating the Iranian government,” Peyman told me. “Most Iranians hate the government but they can’t say it. I wanted to talk about my ideas. I was scared for my family – I wasn’t happy. I’m not safe there anymore. It could be dangerous for my family.”

Iranians were among the top five nationalities applying for asylum in Britain in the year ending June 2015. However, it is difficult to determine how many asylum applications to the UK are based on fear of persecution on the grounds of religion. Peyman decided to come to the UK as he knew some people who had already come here and because he spoke a little English. Prior to leaving, he worked in a government department.

“When I was in Iran I had a car and motorbike,” he explained. “I lived with parents so I didn’t pay for bills. I spent my income just for myself or for going out with friends. I didn’t come here for financial reasons. I came here because I was unable to live there. I was in danger and my family was in danger. They had proof I was an atheist, that I was against Islam and against the Ayatollah. But here I don’t have proof to get refugee status.”

Like many Muslims, Peyman came from a largely nominal Muslim family – his father, he is certain, did not even know how to pray correctly. He started becoming more religious in his late teens, before his compulsory military service aged 18, due to a fear of going to hell and a desire to go to heaven when he died. When he got involved in political activism, however, a conversation with a communist about Islam turned him into an atheist. Now he does not identify as an atheist but he does not have any religious views.

In the UK, he initially found it difficult to make friends. He could not be part of religious communities and had no desire either to go to nightclubs as he is not a heavy drinker.  Although he was not afraid of Iranians here, he felt he could not trust them so did not want to join any community groups either.

When Peyman first arrived in the UK he was placed in Bury, Greater Manchester, while a decision was pending on whether he could remain here. He found out shortly afterwards that his father, his friend and mentor, had died. This led to a period of depression and suicidal tendencies, worsened by the fact that his application was rejected.

He lost his accommodation in July 2011 and managed to rent a room in Rusholme after working illegally in several jobs and saving money. After he lost his job, he then went to London to stay with an Afghan friend and tried to find another job. When he ran out of savings he came back to Manchester as it was smaller and cheaper. He stayed with a few friends but pride stopped him from staying with them for longer than two weeks. Peyman then ended up on the streets, relying on a night shelter for a few nights a week. If there was one advantage to being homeless, it was that it helped with his speaking skills – throughout the interview, however, he still apologised for his “poor” English despite having a good command of the language.

He then decided to sign a form to voluntarily return to Iran. He did that, not because he wanted to go back but because section four of the asylum support provides failed asylum seekers with temporary financial support and accommodation while they make arrangements to return to their native country.

For a couple of months Peyman was also able to take free English classes. But then he was told to leave his accommodation and return to Iran. Once again he appealed and made his way back to London to stay with his Afghan friend, but wound up on the streets once more, sleeping at night shelters for three days a week or on park benches and the night bus when he got change from begging. Being in this situation led to him being “emotionally fucked up” and trying to commit suicide.

Fortunately he was able to get counselling while in hospital and was then transferred to Liverpool and subsequently Manchester, where he still lives. He made a fresh claim in May 2013 and received accommodation and was able to receive English classes, where he has made many friends. Currently each person receives £36.95 or £35.39 on a payment card for food, clothing and toiletries if asylum has been refused.

Despite an uncertain future, not knowing whether he could be homeless or made to return to Iran, Peyman has a cheery disposition and does not want any sympathy.

“I’m not complaining,” he insists. “My situation is better than it was three or four years ago. For the last few weeks I was thinking, what if I’m here for 20 years and I still don’t get my stay? Maybe I should go back to Iran. Maybe there at least I’ll die for something. Here I’ll die for nothing. But then I remember my voluntary work with the Red Cross and tell myself, no, you’re doing something here. I’m really enjoying it at the Red Cross.

“For the last five years I have been trying to change myself. I’m not saving the world but I’m trying to save myself first. For a few years I felt I was wasting my time. Now I feel better. When I’m at the Red Cross I feel like I’m part of a community.

“I’m happy. It doesn’t matter what will happen tomorrow or if I lost my accommodation. Well. It does matter because I will end up on the streets. But I’m not thinking about that. It’s not easy all the time but I just appreciate life.”

Part of Peyman’s story originally featured in an article for the National Secular Society on 9/9/2015

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Terror across three continents

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If you’re anything like me, you were expecting to have the Friday feeling as soon as you left work. The anticipation of the weekend was unfortunately blighted by the horrific news that terrorists attacked sites in France, Tunisia and Kuwait.

In Tunisia, a gunman opened fire at a beach resort, killing at least 37 people before security forces shot him to death. In France, an attacker stormed the a chemical plant near Lyon, decapitated one person and tried unsuccessfully to blow up the factory. The suspect was identified as Yassine Salhi.

And finally, in Kuwait City, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in one of the largest Shiite mosques, killing nearly 30 people. The suicide bomber was identified as Khalid Thamer Jaber Al-Shamri, a Saudi citizen born in Kuwait.

My heart goes out to all those people who have lost a loved one in these barbaric attacks.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, many commentators predicted that it would not be long before we would see another terrorist attack in Europe.

The Institute for the Study of War predicted earlier this year that IS would launch global offensives a year after declaring a caliphate. Unfortunately, they have all been proven correct.

Progress at last

SCOTUS APRIL 2015 LGBTQ 54663

While some people are determined to keep us in the Middle Ages, others are keen for us to progress. Well done to the US Supreme Court for ruling same-sex legal nationwide.

In a landmark decision, the court ruled, 5-4, that the Constitution requires same-sex couples be allowed to marry in all 50 states.

On a day where there were three separate terrorist attacks, this was the light at the end of the tunnel.

Children should not be fasting

Barclay Primary School in Leyton, east London, issued a letter to parents informing them that it would not allow children to fast in order to ‘safeguard the health and education of the child’. In the letter, the headteacher said children would not be able to fast without meeting with him first.

Some Muslim groups were in an uproar, and said schools should support parents instead of ‘blanket enforce’ their own rules when it comes to religion.

I am with the school on this. They are put in a position where they are responsible for the child’s welfare and all heath and safety matters.

Children should not be fasting. True, only healthy adults are required to fast during Ramadan. And I appreciate that  the school felt it had to consult with Islamic scholars in order to win round some Muslim parents. But at the same time, it is not within the remit of a secular school to decide what is or is not Islamic, and I fear this will be heading into dangerous territories.

On the BBC Asian Network (15 minutes in) the father of one 11-year-old was happy that his son was fasting because it’s “a challenge”. I’m not sure about you, but ‘challenge’ is not quite the word I would use to describe a child being deprived of food and water for 19 hours.

The children being interviewed said fasting is difficult, with one feeling guilty because he was unable to for half the month. This comes down to parenting. One teacher, a Mr Ishmael, said the children feel pressured by the parents to fast. Parents should not be encouraging their children to fast. Even if they do not actively encourage them, they will not discourage them, citing ‘choice’ as a reason.

My mum forbade me from fasting when I was in primary school, after I came home one day insisting I had to fast because one friend of mine was doing so. But when I saw my friend being very sick the next day, I decided perhaps it wasn’t for me! Children, naturally, want to copy what adults do and this is no different in Ramadan. When one of my young cousins insisted he was going to fast, my aunty played along and said that of course he could fast – between breakfast and lunch! He was none the wiser and thought he was sharing in the Ramadan experience.

Tahir ul Qadri – an ideological salesman?

Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, of Minhaj-ul-Quran International, is a respected figure in the West. He gained widespread media attention when he issued a 600-page Fatwa on Terrorism, in which he said that “Terrorism is terrorism, violence is violence and it has no place in Islamic teaching and no justification can be provided for it”.

Earlier this week, MQI  announced the launch of the first Islamic ‘counter-terrorism curriculum’ (aka this has nothing to do with Islam), which was welcomed by both the counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation and Faith Matters.

There’s just one problem. As the ever eloquent Pakistani journalist Kunwar Khuldune Shahid pointed out in Left Foot Forward, Qadri proudly takes ownership of formulating Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which has been abused to intimidate and incite the murder of religious minorities through mob violence.

He goes on to write:

Qadri is renowned for saying whatever sells, whether it’s anti-government fascism through his politics and a bigoted version of Islam back home, or apologism in the garb of Islamic ‘moderation’ in the West.

With Islamist terrorism reverberating all over the world and over 700 British citizens having fled to fight along with ISIS, the need for reform among Muslims around the globe is evident.

However, ideological salesmen who change their ideas to suit the audience’s demands can never be reformists.

If the aim is to counter extremism, why invite the man responsible for one of the most abused laws in the world? Surely that is counter productive?

And if one is to argue that there is a ‘true’ version of Islam, what would stop the extremists from preaching that theirs is the authentic one?

Written by Iram Ramzan

June 26, 2015 at 7:33 pm

A weekly round up: Fatwas, nude photos and sensationalist reporting

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Sensationalism in the British press

I was about to go to sleep when my Twitter timeline erupted with the news  about the brutal murder of 82-year-old Palmira Silva in her home in Edmonton, north London.  Nicholas Salvadore, whose identity was revealed later, has since been arrested on suspicion of murder.

Police were initially called out yesterday to investigate a man dressed in black, who neighbours said had decapitated a cat with a foot-long, machete-like blade, and who was running through rear gardens banging on doors and windows.

The Sun newspaper decided to go with a front page claiming “‘Muslim Convert’ beheads woman in garden”. Someone apparently told The Sun journalist that the alleged murderer had converted to Islam, though this cannot be verified.

This is sensationalist and shoddy reporting for several reasons. Firstly, detectives say they have ruled out terrorism as a motive. By putting ‘Muslim Convert in the headline and on the front page, alongside the letter to ISIS caliphate Baghdadi (see below) in the paper, The Sun is forcing its readers to link the stories together. Yes, beheadings have been in the news thanks to the barbaric actions of the so-called Islamic state, but if the police are not describing this as a terrorist crime then why is The Sun making readers think otherwise?

Secondly, as an arrest has been made, publishers and broadcasters have a duty to report news in a responsible way and in a manner in which will not create a real risk that the course of justice in proceedings may be seriously prejudiced. I work at a local newspaper so I know that I could not get away with writing that and nor would my editor publish it. However, The Sun can afford to be in contempt of court as it is a national paper, therefore they can choose to flout certain rules and guidelines.

Thirdly, the Press Complaints Commission code states that the “details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.” As we do not know what the motive of the suspect murderer was, it is irresponsible of The Sun to mention the man’s religion.

What we seem to have forgotten in all this is that an innocent elderly woman was murdered in such a horrific way. What must her family be going through? The Sun has demonstrated that it does not care about victims, rather it uses such victims to make a wider, political point to push its agenda.

I said as much on BBC Asian Network earlier today, which should be available to listen to on iPlayer soon.

 

Speaking out on abuse

https://i2.wp.com/www.cps.gov.uk/northwest/assets/uploads/images/afzal.jpg

Nazir Afzal

What has happened in Rotherham for over a decade has shocked us all. The Times claimed (£) that details from 200 restricted-access documents showed how police and child protection agencies in the South Yorkshire town had extensive knowledge of the grooming of young girls  for a decade, yet a string of offences went unprosecuted. I hope journalist Andrew Norfolk wins some awards for his brilliant investigative work.

People have come out and said that “victims should speak out” and those who know must tell the police. Ann Cryer, former MP for Keighley, tried to do just that. She claims that West Yorkshire police did not want to do anything when she told them about the abuse of young girls in her town. She then went to “community leaders” who told her that it was nothing to do with them. We also read, in Rotherham, that victims‘ evidence would go “missing” and police would not take their claims seriously. So it’s no good telling people to speak out, because at the end of the day, many in positions of power neither listened nor took any action.

Louise Mensch suggested that with a Muslim – Nazir Afzal – as the chief prosecutor of the Crown Prosecution Service for the North West in England, children would remain unsafe, which is an inflammatory statement that prompted some to reply with anti-Muslim sentiments. Never mind the fact that he was responsible for securing successful prosecutions for Asian men who were part of a grooming gang in Rochdale. Some have suggested that he is in denial over the religions of the men involved, who were all of Muslim heritage. Perhaps Afzal – a devout Muslim – is correct that religion was not a factor, as drinking and prostituting girls is hardly one of the five pillars of Islam. It could be because, as a chief prosecutor for the CPS, he has to be more careful with what he says. Regardless, one can hardly accuse him of remaining silent on abuse.

In an article for the New York Times a year ago, Afzal knows just how hard it is for women to speak out against barbaric cultural practises, stating: “Women have been talking about these issues for a long time,” he said. “I’m not the first person to take up this fight in this country, I’m just the first man, and that makes it a lot easier. I come from these communities. I understand their patriarchal nature. I can challenge them. And because I am a man, the men in the community are more likely to listen to me.”

While Muslim reformers do attract a lot of negative attention from those within their own communities, it is worse for women, who often have to put up with misogynist remarks as well as accusations of blasphemy or heresy.

Afzal revealed a more personal side to himself. When bullied in school, his father told him to “get used to it”. He also stopped posting on Twitter because, he said, the abuse got to be too much. This does not surprise me. Many Muslims, including myself, have been heavily criticised and insulted when choosing to speak out. All I can say is that when you manage to piss off both the far right and the Islamists, you are doing something right. I hope that Afzal returns to Twitter although I understand he probably has better things to do than respond to those on there who simply want to hurl abuse at him.

I have heard some Muslims say that the whole of Catholicism is not to blame for child abuse by priests, so why do we expect Muslim to defend their faith whenever any perpetrators of a Muslim heritage commit crimes? Perhaps we do not blame the whole faith but we do examine whether the requirement of celibacy is a factor in the abuse of young boys by Catholic priests. Earlier this year, Pope Francis met victims of abuse and asked for forgiveness for the crimes, which shows that in order to solve a problem, one must first acknowledge it.

 

What the Fatwa

 

Letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

 

Just over a week ago, a group of British imams and scholars issued a fatwa condemning Islamic extremist group ISIS. The fatwa represents the British Muslim community’s strongest denunciation of ISIS yet, calling the extremist group “heretical” and “an oppressive and tyrannical group.” It came after Britain’s terrorism threat was raised last week from “substantial” to “severe”. Clearly the government wants to be seen to be doing something though personally I think we should not give in to these terrorists by showing that we are afraid of them.

Fatwa

I can see both the upsides and downside of this fatwa. On the one hand, I am not keen on the use of the word ‘heresy’ as extremists themselves use it as a justification to kill those they deem as behaving in an “unIslamic” way. What exactly is ‘Islamic’ behaviour anyway? Furthermore, only those who follow those particular leaders are bound by the fatwa, meaning it is not applicable to everyone and can be ignored by many.

On the other hand, we have had many people in the media complaining about the lack of Muslim leaders coming out to denounce ISIS and the behaviour of its jihadis.  Fatwas serve those people who still seek the advice and ruling of their sheikhs and imams. Chairman of Quilliam Foundation Maajid Nawaz wrote in the Independent:

Understandably frustrated cynics could claim that this is far too little, too late. Such a stance fails to appreciate that this can only be the start, not the end. The Isis brand will only be weakened by a full-on assault from all angles.

If theological “get out clauses” are not provided for vulnerable young minds, if all vulnerable young minds hear is silence from every other Muslim Imam on the subject, this will look precariously like consent.

Similarly the above letter, featured in Friday’s Sun newspaper, speaks to self-styled ‘caliphate’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his language and on his terms. Al-Baghdadi does not believe in secularism or western democracies, so what better response than from a group of practising and devout Muslims. My only criticism of the letter is that there are more than twice the number of men than women though that may have been down to not being able to get enough responses from people in such a short time.

Also in the news was the Muslim Council of Britain, who raised concerns about the prime minister’s anti-terrorism strategy. They claimed that the “crackdown” on British-born extremists will “push marginalised young people further towards radicalisation”. While I think the government’s strategy is only focused on those who have already become extreme – with not enough focus on counter extremism narratives – the MCB have to acknowledge that they cannot keep using this as an excuse. Some Muslims are being brainwashed and we need to address that, rather than using apologetic language. Some Muslims are already marginalised and no longer identify with Britain or British identify, hence why some chose to leave to fight in Syria and Iraq. At the end of the article is a quote from Saleem Kidwai, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Wales, who said:

I would say to the government, you must talk to the Muslim Council of Britain because it is the largest organisation. You can talk to thinktanks but they are not the grassroots groups – the MCB has got the mandate from 500 organisations who represent Muslims from all walks of life. I know they would love to help rather than obstruct.

Gosh. I wonder to which thinktanks he is alluding…

 

The two faces of Asghar Bukhari

Sometimes people forget that what they post online is available for all to see. Recently, author Jeremy Duns decided to debate, or rather attempt to, with Asghar Bukhari, of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, which describes itself as the UK’s “leading movement for empowering Muslims to focus on non-violent Jihad through political activism”.

Bukhari is regularly invited on to Sky News or the BBC. On air he is very calm and composed. But his Twitter account shows a darker side.

bukhari 1 bukhari 2 bukhari 3 bukhari 4 bukhari 5 bukhari 6 bukhari 7

As you can see irony is lost on Bukhari who calls other people “bullies” yet constantly insults and demeans those with whom he debates. Not only does he use rather colourful language, he is misogynist towards women with whom he disagrees and even believes it is a “fact” that European  Jews have no DNA linking them to Palestine. Perhaps media organisations should have a look at his Twitter account and his blog – where he likens Lee Rigby’s murderer Jeremiah Adebolajo to a “revolutionary” – before inviting him on air?

 

Don’t drink?

Retired judge Mary Jane Mowat was criticised by women’s campaigners after she said that the rape conviction rate would not improve until women stopped drinking so heavily.

Mowat, who stood down in August, said it was often difficult to secure a rape conviction as it was “one person’s word against another”.

She was not, she insisted, saying that drunk girls deserve to be raped, but that drunkenness has implications for juries attempting to establish the reliability of witness testimony.
What do you think – was she right?

 

Women’s bodies

Earlier this week,  several intimate photographs of celebrities were published online. Apple confirmed that some  iCloud accounts were hacked into. Copies of the images spread to other services, including Reddit, Imgur and Twitter, from which they were subsequently deleted by administrators.

Fleet Street Fox wrote a brilliant piece on this in the Mirror that sums up exactly how I feel on the issue.  It amazes me that we still live in a world where what a woman does with her breasts or vagina can make the news – note that no nude photos of men were posted.

Jane Moore, writing in The Sun, said that the best prevention is not to take such photos in the first place.  I take it that Ms Moore has absolutely nothing on her phones or computer that would make her feel embarrassed were it to be seen by the public?

Her paper also ran the headline “How bare they”, supposedly sympathising with the female victims. This is the same paper that published semi nude photographs of journalist Tasmin Khan, bought from her ex boyfriend. In a statement to Mail Online, Khan said the incident had left her devastated by someone whom she had trusted. A bigger betrayal is from The Sun who chose to publish photos they knew were not obtained with Khan’s permission and could have ruined her life. As an Asian woman, one can only imagine what her family’s reaction could have been if they had not supported her.

 

The Ahmadi Muslims – a question

In a Twitter debate, I asked a few people why it is that Ahmadis, despite being widely persecuted, seem to be the most progressive of most Muslims in the world. After all, they believe in the same Qur’an as all other Muslims, so what makes them so different?  My theory is, as they believe that the Messiah has already been – in the form of founder of the faith Mirza Ghulam Ahmad – this has marked the beginning of a new chapter and allowed them to progress and move forward. Other Muslim groups, however, are either doing nothing in the hopes of the arrival of a hoping for a messiah to solve their problems, or they are willing to do anything they can to can to prompt the arrival of the messiah. Certainly the latter is the view of the Evangelical Christians who  believe that the return of the Jews to Israel is a prerequisite for the Second Coming of Jesus.

As I said, this is just a theory, but I would be interested in your views.

 

Sayeeda Warsi, Iraq and the conflict in Gaza: A weekly round up

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“Morally Indefensible”

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi at a Hindu temple

 

There she was, the first Pakistani, Muslim woman to become the chairman of the Conservative party and also the first Muslim woman to sit on the front bench of a British party.

An outspoken woman, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi could certainly have been seen as an inspiration to many women who thought that their gender and skin colour were factors that would prevent them from becoming involved in politics or any other industry/sector so heavily dominated by white men.

I think it is so ironic that only now Lady Warsi has resigned that she has gained respect from Muslims in the UK – where were they all before? Too busy calling her a sell-out, I suppose. In 2009, she was pelted with eggs by a group of Muslims during a walkabout in Luton. The protesters accused her of not being a “proper Muslim” (what is one of those?) and of supporting the death of Muslims in Afghanistan. Warsi told the BBC that these men were “idiots who did not represent the majority of British Muslims”. Only now that she has resigned over Gaza has Warsi gained respect from her own people.

However, while I can appreciate the symbolism of it all, just what legacy has she left behind? She spoke out against the Asian grooming gangs, stating: “There is a small minority of Pakistani men who believe that white girls are fair game. And we have to be prepared to say that. You can only start solving a problem if you acknowledge it first.” When other commentators were in complete denial she spoke out and for that she must be applauded.

Douglas Murray said she could have done more for Gaza by remaining in her position, but in her resignation letter Lady Warsi hinted at the change in the government’s direction, which suggests that she felt as though she was not being taken seriously. Her party could have used her ideas and background to their advantage in order to to try to reach out to more voters. A former solicitor with her own law firm, there is no doubt that she is an intelligent woman and she was once named the most powerful Muslim woman in Britain.  I doubt that many in her party were very supportive of her –  an Asian woman will always find it more difficult to fit in a white man’s world.

Let us for one moment take her resignation at face value. Let us believe she resigned solely over the government’s “morally indefensible” stance on Israel. Yes, our government could, and should, be doing more to end the violence in that region and stop the killing on both sides. But do you know what I find “morally indefensible” Lady Warsi? I find it morally indefensible that only Palestinian lives seemed so important to you that you felt you had to resign. What was your position on the Syrians being either slaughtered or fleeing their country to live as refugees, not knowing when the conflict is going to end? What was your position on ISIS slaughtering thousands of people in Iraq? What was your position on the Ahmadis who were murdered in the Punjabi city of Lahore, the country from which your parents came to England?

My own view is rather cynical. She was never really popular with many Muslims, or other ethnic minorities, so resigning over Gaza could prove to be a huge PR boost for her. Nor was she very popular within her own party and instead of progressing in her political career, she seemed to be fading in the background. Her hint at Cameron’s leadership might be a revelation of her providing support to another prospective candidate who will listen to her concerns. She has since criticised her party for not attracting enough ethnic minority voters,  which is a bit rich coming from her seeing as she stood for as a candidate in the 2005 elections and lost. Whatever her reasons for resigning, I do not doubt that she will do well from this and it is certainly not the last we will hear from Lady Warsi.

 

Israel and Gaza

Pro-Palestinian march

If there’s anything that unites Muslims around the world it is the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine.

I vowed not to write about this issue, as it is very divisive and guaranteed to piss off one group of people or another. But I cannot remain silent. My analysis will not be on the conflict itself but rather the reporting of it and the reaction of some communities on this particular issue.

In my area, there was a protest outside a Tesco Express store, at which demonstrators were holding up signs calling for a boycott of Israeli goods and chanting “shame on Tesco”. I believe the protest was largely peaceful although some shoppers did claim to feel “intimidated”.

I believe an arms embargo should be imposed on Israel, as Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell said this week. But what will boycotting Israeli goods achieve – to me, that  is a form of collective punishment and we must not punish people for the actions of their governments or armies? Nick Cohen wrote a brilliant piece on London’s Tricycle Theatre banning the annual Jewish Film Festival this week because they received a small sum of money from the Israeli embassy. Do we boycott goods from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or India? After all, their countries routinely violate the human rights of their citizens, yet we hold Israel to a different standard.

Reports have suggested that anti-Semitism has increased in the UK and in Europe. I don’t think this conflict has made more people anti-Semitic, but rather it brings out the anti-Semites, reaffirming their dislike and hatred of Jews. I rarely agree with Mehdi Hasan but he was spot on when he said that anti-Semitism is still a problem in Muslim communities. That is not to say that being pro-Palestinian equates to being anti-Semitic – to suggest that is untrue and outrageous. But it shames me to admit that it has certainly “passed the dinner table test” (thanks Baroness Warsi) in the conversations in some of the homes at which I have been present and even on a radio discussion earlier this week. And unfortunately, some of those people do use certain Qur’anic verses to justify their dislike or mistrust of the Jews, claiming that Muslims can never trust the Jews. I understand not all Muslims engage in these discussions, I am simply recalling what I have seen and heard – I do appreciate that many Muslims have nothing but respect for Jewish people.

We don’t like it when Muslims are expected to denounce the extremist behaviour of Muslims or distance ourselves from the barbaric Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, so why do we expect Jews to condemn the behaviour of the Israeli army and government, as though being Jewish=Israel.  And people constantly point out that many Jews are against the actions of the state of Israel, as though that should matter, as though the only “good” Jews are those who go on marches alongside pro Palestinian protesters, unlike those “bad Jews” who do support Israeli policies.

 

The ongoing crisis in Iraq

 

Kurdish fighters

US air strikes have successfully carried out four air strikes to defend those of the Yazidi faith from being indiscriminately attacked near Sinjar, in northern Iraq.

On Newsnight, Sindus Abbas of the Iraqi Turkmen High Representative welcomed the US air strikes in northern Iraq and said this should have happened “months ago”.

But who cares what the Iraqi people want when left-wing commentators here in the UK think we should not intervene. In a Twitter exchange with journalist David Aaronovitch, Owen Jones said that ISIS “will only be stopped when it is eradicated”. Not a vague statement at all. How exactly must ISIS be stopped? Simple – by “dealing with Sunni resentment” and, most importantly, NOT intervening militarily. Yes, there needs to be a long-term solution and there I will agree with Jones, but right now we can do something to help.

The Iraq war may have caused resentment within some Muslims around the world –  that is debatable – and I, too, was against the 2003 invasion, but sitting idly by while people are being slaughtered – the same people who are asking for our help – will surely cause more resentment.

It is easy to solely blame the West for the ills in the Middle East today. Yes, colonialism left a terrible legacy but for how long can we all continue to blame others? I think it is easy for people to blame the US or Britain because if they have no one else to blame they will have to accept the reality that the blame lies within themselves. And that is too uncomfortable for them to contemplate.

‘Rouhani smiles better. He talks better. But no changes have taken place’

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Dr Shirin Ebadi speaking at Unviersity of Bradford's PeaceJam event, with interpreter Ali Shahabi

Dr Shirin Ebadi speaking at Unviersity of Bradford’s PeaceJam event, with interpreter Ali Shahabi

 

 

“I remember when I always used to be angry. But anger on its own is not going to do anything.”

Speaking through Farsi interpreter Ali Shahabi at Bradford University’s PeaceJam event on May 3, Dr Shirin Ebadi wanted to talk to the audience about success and following one’s dreams.

“Don’t be frightened of setbacks. You will look back and regret that you didn’t do what you had to do,” she said. “Any setbacks can be a prelude to success – it depends how you view them.”

Born in Hamadan in Iran, Ebadi (66) is a lawyer, a former judge and a human rights activist.

In 2003, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her significant and pioneering efforts for democracy and human rights, especially women’s, children’s, and refugee rights. She was the first ever Iranian to receive the prize.

It is no wonder that she is seen as a threat to the Iranian regime, who continue to harass her and her family.

Ebadi is not allowed to return to Iran so lives in exile in the United States, although she spends nine months of the year travelling extensively because, she explains, “I have to convey the voice of Iran to the rest of the world.”

On the rare occasion that she does relax, she reads. She told me that she is partial to the works of Dan Brown and Emile Zola – translated in Farsi of course.

At the end of the talk and interview that followed, I spoke to two young Asian men who were students at the University. One was unsure about Ebadi because “I still think she might be a puppet”, although when I pointed out that she was always defending Islam he relented.

Regardless of your views on Islam, one cannot accuse her of damaging her religion or being an ‘apostate’ as the Iranian regime has done. She continues to insist that religion is misused. “The Qur’an has been interpreted by men until now,” she said. “It’s time for women to interpret it.”

Women’s rights

In March 1969, Ebadi officially became a judge and continued her studies at the University of Tehran in order to pursue a doctorate’s degree in law in 1971. In 1975 she became the first woman president of the Tehran city court, and also the first ever female judge in Iran.

After the Iranian revolution in 1979, the conservative clerics insisted that Islam prohibited women from becoming judges and Ebadi was demoted to a secretarial position at the branch where she had previously presided.

Despite all this, she insists that her belief in the legal system and the possibility of change in Iran never wavered.

But are we getting anywhere, one audience member asked, when girls in Nigeria are being kidnapped and young girls in Pakistan are being married off?

“There isn’t anywhere where women have their full rights,” she explained. “Every three days in Italy, a woman is assaulted or killed by her partner or husband. In Islamic countries, the violence is manifested in discriminatory legislation. In Iran, a man can marry four wives – is this not violence against women? You marry a man because of your love, you live with him for many years, and then he brings a younger person to the house and says this is my new wife. Is this not violence against women?

“In western countries, wages are still not equal. They use women’s bodies to sell commodities. Is this not abusing women? What about smuggling women – human trafficking from eastern Europe? It is everywhere.

“What is the root for all of this? The root is paternalistic culture. Not gender as such, but the wrong mentality that doesn’t accept equality between human beings. It shows itself in different ways in different places. This is what we should fight against.”

Ebadi went on to say that women need two things to progress in life. The first is self confidence and the second is financial independence.

“A woman that needs to ask her father or husband for money is never going to enjoy independence,” she stated. But what about those women who choose to stay at home and wish to be looked after by their men? She simply replied, “They are making a mistake.”

One woman in the audience, when Shirin discussed female genital mutilation, asked a question that is regularly asked by those on the left and one which infuriates me, as well as others I know: at what point does one decide which aspect of another culture is barbaric and will it be seen as insensitive to criticise it?

Ebadi simply replied: “Wrong traditions should change. The way to do that is awareness and knowledge. Changes in traditions don’t happen overnight. You have got to start from somewhere. If you can’t say anything because of culture then nothing is going to change. It has to happen one way or another.”

It is difficult to speak out when faced with such mentalities. The other student, with whom I had a conversation afterwards, claimed that she was trying to impose western education on those in other countries – ironic for someone who is currently taking advantage of a western education.

At the same time, however, he and the other student told me “we need more Muslim women like her to speak out”. But perhaps they would prefer her to speak on those issues that they want her to.

Rouhani and Iran

For several months, I have noted that the mainstream media coverage of Iran is limited to discussion of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and very little is mentioned about President Hassan Rouhani, who is often described as a “moderate”. Why is that?

Ebadi explained: “He is different to Ahmadinejad. He smiles better. He talks better. But no changes have taken place in the country. Since elections, the number of executions have increased.”

There are numerous examples of brutalities in which the Iranian regime engages. In April, Evin Prison, which is in northwestern Tehran, became the scene of an attack by more than 100 soldier guards – an attacked that has become known as ‘Black Thursday’ by local activists.

Furthermore on May 1 Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had begun excavation in a historically important Baha’i cemetery in Shiraz. Members of the Baha’i faith continue to be persecuted in Iran as they are deemed as apostates.

“They don’t even leave the dead alone,” Ebadi added.

Earlier this year, a low-budget film called ‘I am Rouhani’ , which tells the story of the president’s life, had been circulating around Iran. The Iranian speaker of parliament Ali Larijani denounced it as a “big lie.”

Ebadi has seen the documentary but said it was “nothing new”, explaining that people have known this information beforehand.

Rouhani’s rhetoric is indeed less inflammatory than his predecessor Ahmadinejad, but we cannot be complacent. The true test of the regime’s commitment to reformation and a ‘moderate’ Iran will be its actions rather than its rhetoric which, thus far, seems to suggest that little has changed.

The Ludicrous Irony Of World Hijab Day

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Pretty much every day in the year is dedicated to the commemoration of a particular cause or event. Birthdays, anniversaries, and some rather strange ones, such as ‘Ear Muff Day‘. Then there is World Hijab Day. The official one is on February 1 but there was another one (yes, we need more than one) set up on September 4, which commemorates the fifth anniversary of Germany’s “Muslim hijab martyr” Marwa Ali El Sherbini.

Marwa Ali El Sherbini

Marwa Ali El Sherbini

 

Marwa was an Egyptian woman and German resident who was killed in 2009 during an appeal hearing at a court of law in Dresden, Germany. She was stabbed by Alex Wiens, an ethnic German immigrant from Russia against whom she had testified in a criminal case for verbal abuse.

Her husband, who was present at the hearing, tried to intervene. He too was repeatedly stabbed by Weins and was then mistakenly shot and wounded by a police officer who was called to the court room.

Strangely enough Marwa’s husband has not been turned into a martyr for the faith of Islam. Though Marwa is now called the “hijab martyr” by the women in the above video (who are all wearing full-on face veils, by the way) her attacker never said anything about the hijab. She was attacked for being Muslim. So if anything, if they want to commemorate Marwa, they should be campaigning against racism or even religious persecution.

But I am not surprised: Any excuse to promote the headscarf. A ‘Hijab Walk’ was scheduled by the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan. Note how they are all wearing face veils (which is not compulsory in Islam) and even the young girls are wearing hijabs and abayas (long robes).

A special hash-tag was made on Twitter, #worldhijabday4sep, which attracted hundreds of comments, including this rather bizarre one by @nomanjeet who states: “#WorldHijabDay Hijab covers my head not brain….!” Noman happens to be a man, but hey, let’s not knock his solidarity.

Take this website, which explains what this day is for, albeit for the official February one, but the sentiments and arguments are the same.

“Have you ever asked a Muslim woman why she is so covered in a world that seeks to shed as much clothing as possible? If you asked a Muslim woman, she would inform you that the purpose behind her Hijab is to obey her Creator over the creation. Her Creator, Allah (God), did not legislate Hijab in order to oppress her, but rather to free her from the shackles of this world. He ordered Hijab as an honor and sign of dignity for women.

When a Muslim woman covers her hair, chest and body, she is sending a silent message that she respects her body and like a pearl in the ocean, she covers it with her beautiful shell (Hijab). No one has the right to observe, gawk at and judge a Muslim woman by the highlights in her hair or curves on her body. Instead they judge her for what is in her mind, her character, and her goals and ambitions.”

hijab-lollipop1

Ah yes, the infamous covered-women-are-like-pearls metaphor. Those who don’t are like an uncovered lollipop who has flies buzzing around her (great metaphor and not at all demeaning towards men by the way).

“Today, my sister I have a challenge for you: A challenge in which I ask you to do, not for anyone’s sake but Allah’s. Do not do it for your family or your friends; do not do it for me. Do it for yourself and for your Rabb (Lord). On this day insha`Allah hundreds, we pray thousands of sisters will observe Hijab. Just for one day, we are asking sisters to wear the Hijab and experience it. There will be a worldwide support group. Millions of Muslims behind you and supporting you! At the end of the day, it is upon you and only you to follow through.

“I am not asking you for anything more or anything less than to take one small step which in your heart you know will only bring you closer to my Rabb and your Rabb. One step closer to Jannahinsha’Allah….”

Go on sisters, if you don’t wish to burn in hell for eternity, put on that hijab!

Personally I do not believe that there is a religious mandate for it but I am not going to dwell on that. For a start, I don’t fancy having burning torches brandished at me, and secondly, I believe in personal freedom. You can wear a tutu and sport a green moheekan for all I care.

Several women tweeted: “Your beauty is for your man not mankind.” I thought it was for Allah?There is no consistency with the headscarf argument. On the one hand women are told to wear it per God’s orders and it has nothing whatsoever to do with men but on the other hand, they are then told actually yes, wear it for the sake of it men too, because they can’t control themselves and you don’t want to invite attention on yourself now do you? Why is dressing for one man more empowering? Either way, you’re still factoring a man’s opinion into what you decide to wear.

Men are not seen as visible representatives of Islam (except if they are wearing long robes or have a lengthy beard). That ‘privilege’ is given to women, who literally wear their religious identity on their heads.

Of course, we’re told that men also have to ‘observe hijab’ but for the most part they are not lectured on their clothes or the length of their beards (or lack thereof). Few people will approach a man and inquire about the way in which he is am dressed. He won’t be denounced as a ‘bad Muslim’ nor will his dress code be used as an excuse to prevent him from attending the mosque or other Islamic functions. There aren’t dozens of books dedicated to telling men what they must and must not wear as there are for women and the dozens of guidelines they are given, exclusively by men.

We hear women who wear the hijab constantly saying: “Judge me for what’s in my head and not what’s on it.” Firstly, if it’s not important, why invite women to wear it? Secondly, the only reason non Muslims have focused on hijab is because Muslims themselves have put too much emphasis on the veil in the first place. If you don’t like people focusing on your hijab then don’t make it the centre of attention in the first place.

Two Muslim girls catch up with their mother in...Oldham

Two Muslim girls catch up with their mother in…Oldham

 

They lament that the West has reduced women to their looks and what they wear, yet by creating this day, they have reduced Muslim women to a garment. Such women who use the ‘respect’ factor actually disrespect women who choose not wear a hijab. Where is the respect there? This whole idea, this hijab day, is contradictory and reduces a Muslim woman’s experience to a piece of cloth. Muslim women are more than their hijabs or lack thereof.

To me, feminism is all about choice and respecting women for the choices that they, and they alone, make. Kudos to those women who have made their own choices, because as a woman you are vilified either way. If you choose to wear a headscarf you are oppressed or being forced, or you are the ideal Muslimah. Likewise if you don’t wear a hijab you are an attention seeker, enslaved by the male gaze.

Whether you reduce women to their looks or uphold them as symbols of modesty, comparing them to uncovered lollipops or jewels that need to be protected, you are objectifying women.

It is for this reason why I cannot mark such an absurd day.

Written by Iram Ramzan

September 16, 2013 at 9:12 pm

“You have to be lucky to stay alive in Baghdad” – Dangerous reporting in Iraq

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Originally published for The Backbencher on June 16 2013

As a student in 2003, Mohamad Ali Harissi used to take part in protests against the Iraq war. “I was in love with the story of Iraq, this amazingly beautiful country,” he said. After working as a local reporter in Beirut, he joined Agence France-Presse in 2010. A year later, he was presented with the opportunity to work in Baghdad. “It was like a dream come true.”

But reporting in conflict zones is never easy. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 140 journalists, of whom 117 were Iraqi, were killed in Iraq from 2003 to 2009, making it one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist.

baghdad_600x366

Being caught in crossfire was not the greatest risk – CPJ research shows that more journalists were murdered in targeted killings in Iraq than in combat. It is a country where many families will say goodbye to each other before leaving the house, not knowing if they will all come back alive.

“You have to be lucky to stay alive in Baghdad,” Mohamad said. “The worst thing is the sound of explosions, I can’t get used to it.

“In my first week, I heard an explosion. The hotel started shaking and I got scared. After the fifth time it was OK but I still can’t get used to the surprise.

“Each time I felt my heart was moving and it reminds you of the place you’re working in.”

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, people felt that life would change drastically and liberty would play its role in the new Iraq. And, according to AFP journalist Ammar Karim, although it was ‘great’ in the first few months of the US led forces, the quality of reporting soon declined, due to the restrictions imposed by the US forces on the one hand and the risks that beset journalists on the other.

U.S. Marines pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad April 9, 2003. (Sean Smith/Getty Images)

Mohamad said that it is more difficult moving around the country, as journalists need to obtain more papers, from the municipalities, for example, for permission.

“If we want to go to do a story, let’s say, a feature about fishermen in Kerbala, I have to take permission from the Karbala Province, the approval of Baghdad, take papers to show at the checkpoints and send the car number plates beforehand,” he said.

“Our job is to write something fast, which is not easy to do here.”

A few weeks ago, Mohamad’s colleague was arrested for merely interviewing people and taking photos after an attack near his compound. While Iraq’s 2005 constitution guarantees freedom of the press in theory, courts have continued to rely on the highly restrictive 1969 penal code to prosecute reporters and media outlets on charges including libel and defamation.

Further to this, the Commission of Media and Communications monitors everything. It has forced media organisations to agree to regulations giving it the authority to halt broadcasts, confiscate equipment, and withdraw licenses, among other powers. Although it is slowly getting better, the beginning of the sectarian conflicts in 2006 meant that foreign journalists could not say who they worked for.

Mohamad has seen many good journalists quitting their jobs, the pressure too much for them to handle. A month ago, an independent newspaper said that it had closed down as there were no more funds. Most money comes from adverts and the government can put pressure on papers by denying them adverts.

It is quite a contrast to working in Beirut. Mohamad explained that it was easier to move around and talk to officials without being labelled a Ba’athist, as opposed to Iraq where officials will simply refuse to give a statement. What is disturbingly similar is the rise of sectarianism, growing rapidly given the conflict across the border in Syria. Many Shi’a fighters are making their way to Syria to fight in order to defend their religion’.

“Iraq is like a bigger Lebanon,” Mohamad laments. Many Iraqi journalists are not objective, reporting according to their religious sect or party. Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian militias continue to exist, and in some cases, are on a path to being recognised as part of Iraq’s security apparatus.

Ammar believes that falling into the hands of the government is much more easier than if they were to fall into the hands of any political or militia group. Most threats come from Islamist parties and the price of criticising them is their life.

“I think all the journalists who were killed was a result of expressing their opinions and this opinion, somehow, hurt a political party or militia group,” he said.

Ironically, people there are more suspicious of their own journalists, wondering if they are Sunni or Shi’a, or which party they belong to. But they are more than happy to talk to with foreign journalists, forgetting all things sectarian. It is funny but sad at the same time. Mohamad has learned a lot since reporting in Iraq. The news, he rightly insists, is never about the story itself, but how it will affect the people and the country. All journalists in Iraq are learning the same lesson.

A sectarian attack in Baghdad

 

With Iraq under sanctions for a decade, followed by the war and subsequent sectarian violence, journalism schools have not really improved, as other priorities include security. In spite of all this, Mohamad is happy to stay in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

“I love this country,” he said. “You feel the history here. Each time I leave the compound, I worry thinking, maybe I won’t be lucky today, but once I start talking to people the tension goes.” To heal wounds is very hard and will take time.

“If society won’t change, the journalist won’t change,” Mohamad explains. “It is all related, the sectarianism. This is the case in the whole region. Everyday I see this war going on and the media is one of the main tools of this work.”

But with the current conflicts and tensions rising in Syria and Lebanon, Iraqis could be waiting a very long time for a freer press.

Written by Iram Ramzan

June 16, 2013 at 9:29 pm

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