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Book review: Western Fringes

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When I read the blurb of Western Fringes – a Muslim man trying to find a Sikh woman who has run away from home to escape an arranged marriage – I admit that I was sceptical  at first. I thought, not another cliche that is often played out in Bollywood movies; they’ll probably end up marrying one another and showing love triumphs all.

Not quite.

A woman I follow on Twitter had recently received a copy of the book by the author, Amer Anwar, and when I expressed interest he also sent kindly sent me a copy, along with a masala chai teabag. I wanted to read it on holiday but unfortunately it arrived in the post just after I had left, so I had wait until I returned to read it.

Western Fringes is set in the bustling, diverse district of Southall – often described as ‘little India’ due to its large Sikh population.  It tells the story of Zaqir (Zak) Khan, an ex-con who works in a dead-end job at a builder’s yard.  One day his boss, the formidable Mr Brar, calls him into the office and orders him to find his runaway daughter Rita, or he’ll send him back to prison.  Mr Brar’s meathead sons Rajinder and Parminder are ordered to keep an eye on him but they have their own agenda in Zaq’s search for Rita and don’t make it easy for him.

This is Amer Anwar’s debut novel, which won the Crime Writer Association’s Debut Dagger award. I was entertained and engaged throughout the novel and found it very hard to put down. Although most of the characters are South Asian, they were  unique and far removed from the stereotypes.  Frankly, it is not the genre of book that I usually go for so I was unsure how I would respond do it. Nonetheless, I gave it a chance and I am glad I did.

The story also goes into the historic tensions that have existed between Muslims and Sikhs and how they have an impact even here in the UK. Being of Pakistani heritage I am aware of these issues but non Asian readers might find this aspect of the novel interesting.

What I loved most about the book was the hilarious banter between Zak and his best friend and partner in crime Jags; it is probably the best thing about the book. In fact, I think a sitcom could be made, centered around these two protagonists. Something for TV producers to consider – if it happens, you heard it here first.

The book is littered with some Punjabi phrases which I understood perfectly well, though I am sure non Punjabi speakers will get the gist. Punjabi curse words are so rough that they have the potential to raise the dead so don’t worry if you don’t understand – that may not be such a bad thing!

One of my criticisms is that I would have liked to have known more about Zak’s family and how his prison sentence affected their relationship with him. Furthermore,the other characters are described in detail, while no description is given of Zak – perhaps that was deliberate?

Nonetheless, I was surprised that this was a debut novel as it is written very well and does not read amateurish in any way. I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to read a crime fiction novel with a bit of a twist.

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Written by Iram Ramzan

August 16, 2017 at 3:55 pm

The Morality of Faith Schools

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On Wednesday July 19 I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze to discuss the Al-Hijrah school controversy.

A long-running legal battle between Ofsted and the Islamic state school in Birmingham has reached the Court of Appeal. The principle at stake is whether segregating boys and girls – for all classes,breaks and trips – amounts to unlawful sex discrimination in a mixed-sex setting. Ofsted’s lawyers argue that it is “a kind of apartheid”, leaving girls “unprepared for life in modern Britain”.

The school maintains that gender segregation is one of its defining characteristics and that the policy is clear – parents can make an informed choice. The case is based on the Equality Act, which means the implications of the ruling will be far-reaching and will apply to all schools, not just state schools. 

The case attracted the attention of activists, including the Southhall Black Sisters and One Law for All. The various equality and feminist groups organised a protest outside the court at the start of the hearing, arguing that the case has become a “key battle between feminists and fundamentalists” and that “separate is not equal”.

Along with other activists I signed this letter in the Guardian  to express concerns about the dilution of gender rights and equality regarding minority and in this case Muslim girls’ and women’s rights.

You can listen back to the show here.

Written by Iram Ramzan

July 21, 2017 at 10:30 am

Walking the streets of Manchester, I find tolerance rather than hatred

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Originally published in The Sunday Times

At about 7am on Tuesday, I awake to several messages on my phone from friends asking me to text them as soon as I could. I wonder what I have done until I go online. Not Manchester, I think. Terrorist attacks happen everywhere else, but not here, not in my home city.

I spend the day on social media and watching the news. I feel sad and angry. How could anyone target children? But a part of me feels hope. Mancunians are coming together in their grief and solidarity while the world watches and gives support.

The usual suspects are wheeled out for television and radio interviews, hailed as “moderate community leaders”. Among them are commentators who have supported blasphemy laws in Pakistan and whose organisations have played host to extremist preachers.

If these are the moderates, I think, then we are well and truly up the creek without a paddle. Sometimes the media really are to blame. In an age of 24-hour news, there’s a need to fill airtime with commentary, even if it is from undesirable people.

Wednesday
I have a conversation with a Muslim friend; we start exchanging stories of our childhood going to the mosque to learn about the Koran and Islam. “Let’s face it, we all learnt that going to concerts is haram [forbidden] and listening to music is wrong,” he says.

He is right. I remember one of the mosque teachers told me and the other young girls that the famous Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was once exhumed and his tongue was found wrapped around his body.

This was a punishment from Allah, the teacher explained, because of the way he would sing about Allah; it was wrong. I felt scared, as any child would. And I felt confused because my family and everyone I knew listened to Khan.

But Sunni Muslims are taught that music is generally forbidden, only vocal music is permissible (halal) and instruments are haram. And these views are considered mainstream, not necessarily extreme.*

This is why I get frustrated when people simply blame British foreign policy for creating terrorists. What do teens at a concert have to do with British foreign policy? These people simply hate this “heathen” lifestyle.

They have bought into an ideology that hates anyone opposed to them. So why are we surprised when extremists act on their hate and contempt?

Think about it; if they were really angry about Muslims dying then why aren’t they “radicalised” by the slaughter caused by Isis, al-Qaeda and other jihadists? If they cared about Muslim lives, they would have taken up arms against the Taliban in Afghanistan for starving their own people, or against Isis for killing fellow Muslims in Syria and Iraq, or Saudi Arabia for bombing Yemen.

Sometimes we are told that jihadists and extremists are disenfranchised. Give me a break. Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, was not disenfranchised at all.

He was born and brought up here, given all the rights and privileges of every other British citizen. His family was given shelter in the UK after fleeing Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s regime in Libya. And this is how he repaid Britain?

Thursday
This afternoon I go out into Manchester city centre. Other than a few police officers in Market Street, which is where all the shops are, it seemed like any other day. Hundreds of people were in St Ann’s Square laying flowers in tribute to the victims.

Where’s the hate, I wondered? The vast majority of people in times such as these come together and offer support. Do not believe the loud voices shouting about “Islamophobia” and the backlash against Muslims.

British people, on the whole, are marvellous and tolerant. If a few dirty looks and the odd incident of someone being spat at (for which there is no excuse, by the way) constitutes a “backlash”, then British Muslims are overwhelmingly fortunate to live here.

I meet a friend, a student originally from Iraq. We sit in a cafe discussing the terrorist attack. He says blasts are pretty much normal in Iraq, but he’s surprised when it happens here.

He tells me about some of the foreign fighters who have gone over to join Isis in Iraq; the converts are the most vicious ones, he explains.

The local fighters often join Isis for money. But the foreign recruits, he says, will kill mercilessly and have bought into the vicious ideology of Isis completely.

Friday
Jeremy Corbyn makes a speech that links UK foreign policy to extremism. It seems we can’t win either way: both our action and inaction in
the Middle East are direct causes of terrorist attacks here in the West.

I wonder what foreign policy led to the Taliban massacring children in Pakistan Or the murder of Copts in Egypt. With Corbyn as leader, I am never voting Labour again.

My friend tells me she cried several times when she heard about the attack. On Tuesday she went into a cafe where the people there were slightly cold towards her. She wears a hijab; perhaps they blame all Muslims for all terrorism, and that hurts, she says. I suggest that perhaps they were subdued after the recent incident and were like that in general, rather than just because she is Muslim. I hope so, anyway.

All week we have heard journalists and presenters asking: why did this happen and how can we prevent it? After all this time we are still not having an honest conversation about the role ideology plays in recruiting potential terrorists.

The next attack will see this same debate and the same commentators recycle this debate again. Sometimes I wonder: why do we bother?

 

*NB: Just to elaborate on this point. I do not mean to imply that anyone taught music is haram will go on to kill someone for going to a concert. But I was trying to demonstrate the clash of values there are sometimes with British Muslims. The friend I had a conversation with also said he was taught that in the afterlife anyone who listened to music would have boiling lead poured down their ears. Sometimes people will feel guilty for doing things which are considered trivial but, Islamically, they are told is wrong.

Written by Iram Ramzan

May 31, 2017 at 7:21 am

Terror in Manchester

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Pic Credit: PA

This is a cross-post from Sedaa

 

A terrorist attack in my own city is the last thing I expected to wake up to on Tuesday morning. There were several messages on my phone from concerned friends and acquaintances urging me to contact them as soon as I could. I wondered what had happened, until I went online to read the news.

At least 22 people were killed and 59 injured after a terrorist attack at the Manchester Arena on the evening of Monday, May 22. Thousands of gig-goers were packed into the city centre venue to see American singer Ariana Grande when the explosion shook the arena.

Photos and videos were uploaded showing innocent young people fleeing the scene — scared, worried and confused. Some had been separated from their friends and parents. Some, unfortunately, did not make it out alive.

The youngest victim is thought to be eight-year-old Saffie-Rose Roussos. The others confirmed dead are Georgina Bethany Callander and John Atksinson. One can’t imagine what their friends and families must be feeling at this difficult time.

Salman Ramadan Abedi, a 22-year-old Mancunian of Libyan descent, was confirmed as the man responsible for this atrocity, which has claimed the lives of many children. He died at the scene. I doubt there will be many people shedding tears over him. A 23-year-old has also been arrested in Manchester in connection with the attack.

“Evil losers” is how Donald Trump described the attackers behind the attack. And, surprisingly, I agree with the US President. Describing Abedi as a monster would be glamourising him; an evil loser seems much more suitable. I expect more information will come out about him soon; it is highly unlikely it was a ‘lone wolf’ attack, for these people are usually part of a wider network.

 

Victims and missing people from Manchester Arena attack

 

It was heartwarming to see Mancunians rallying round and offering their rooms to stranded people, bars/restaurants doling out hot drinks for the emergency services and taxi drivers taking children home for free. This is why I am proud to call Manchester my home; this is why I love this city so much. No matter what atrocity strikes, we often forget that people are, by and large, compassionate and will help others in their times of need. Thank you to everyone who messaged me to ask if I was safe.

While calls for unity and calm are appreciated, we should stop saying that this is the “new normal”.  If normal means regular terrorist attacks against innocent people, then we must not “go back to normal”.  As nice as they are, candlelight vigils and “Pray for….” messages are not going to solve the problem of extremism.

In due course, I expect the usual suspects will condemn the attack while simultaneously blaming western foreign policy and victim blaming. The attack was driven by a brutal ideology that abhors any enjoyment of life. For that is what these young people were doing — they were enjoying a music concert, living life to the full. Their pleasure had nothing to with global wars.

As Pakistani journalist Kunwar Khuldune Shahid said previously:

“Modern-day jihadism breeds on two ideas, neither of whom is vocally refuted by us Muslims. First, that West is to blame for Muslim world’s volatility. Second, that Islam is a superlative doctrine, and ideologically self-sufficient to govern the world.”

Some people are more interested in scoring points or being so politically correct that we hear the same debate and the same outdated views being espoused by the usual suspects on both sides. Some on the right will not differentiate between ordinary Muslims and terrorists, choosing to attack mosques or women in hijabs as retaliation, while those on the left and even within Muslim communities will deny any role that ideology or religion has in such attacks.

There will be another terrorist attack, perhaps in a different city, prompting the same debate. Have we not had enough? It is one thing to read about attacks in far-away places but when it is in your own city it is different. It is much closer to home. I, for one, have had enough.

 

 

* In the meantime, police have urged those who are concerned about loved ones who were in the area to call the National Casualty Bureau on 0800 096 0095.  Anyone who was in the city centre between 8pm and 11pm on Monday night and has dashcam footage is being urged to submit it to the National Police Chiefs’ Council image appeal site.

What do British Muslims really think?

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Trevor Phillips

Originally published for Sedaa on April 16, 2016

 

This was the week when British Muslims became experts in research methodology.

Trevor Phillips, who led the Equality and Human Rights Commission, presented the Channel 4 show What British Muslims Really Think on Wednesday night, which was based on an ICM survey — and it has created quite a debate.

The ICM surveyed 1,000 Muslims face-to-face and found that:

  • One in 25 Muslims (four per cent) said they felt at least some sympathy with people who took part in suicide bombings, while a similar proportion said they had some sympathy with “people who commit terrorist actions as a form of political protest”.
  • A quarter – 25 per cent – said they could understand why British school girls could be attracted to become “jihadi brides” overseas.
  • Less than half (47 per cent) agreed that Muslims should do more to tackle the causes of extremism in the Muslim community.
  • 52 per cent believed homosexuality should not be legal in Britain, 39 per cent agreed “wives should always obey their husbands”, and 31 per cent said it was acceptable for a man to have more than one wife.
  • 78% said the media had no right publish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

 

Rather than addressing the important issues raised from this poll, the usual suspects — including left-wing commentators — are either downplaying the worrying responses or dismissing this entirely as ‘Islamophobic’. We don’t like it when our dirty laundry is aired in public. There are either absolutely no problems, or if there are, it’s everyone else’s fault but ours.

This poll didn’t really tell us anything new. It is a fact that British Muslims, on the whole, do tend to be more conservative. As writer and lecturer Kenan Malik points out:

“This is not the first poll to have shown the social conservatism of British Muslims. Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University, for instance, conducted a series of surveys with YouGov on religion, politics and social and personal morality, the results of which were published in 2013. I wrote briefly about the findings at the time. The poll showed that religious believers were more liberal on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and assisted dying than usually recognized in public debates. The key exception, however, were Muslims, whom the poll found to be more socially conservative than most other religious groups.”

London Central Mosque

 

When asked ‘How strongly do you feel you belong to Britain?’, 86% of Muslims did compared to 83% of the general population. A higher proportion of the general population (17%) felt little attachment to Britain as compared to Muslims (11%).

A large proportion of Muslims believe in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Thirty-eight per cent thought ‘Jewish people have too much power in Britain’, 39% that they have too much power over the media, and 44% that they have too much power in the business world. But when asked about what they thought of Jews personally, the responses were more positive. Again, this was not a surprise. I have come across far too many Muslims who believe that Jews control the media and are running the world — oh, and the Holocaust did not happen by the way.

Questions have been raised about the methodology of this research (we’re all experts now). It was suggested that, as the survey was done in deprived areas where the population was at least 20% Muslim, it was skewed towards more conservative Muslims. However, the fact is that half of British Muslims do live in areas where there is a large Muslim population. The Muslim Council of Britain’s own research shows that Muslims are more likely to live in deprived areas. So this shows that the research is keeping in line with reality. Anthony Wells, from YouGov, believes this poll on British Muslims is the “best I’ve seen for several years”.

ICM did NOT poll only local authorities with 20%+ Muslims, but LSOAs with 20%+ Muslims (those are geographical units of abt 1500 people)

51% of Muslims live in LSOAs that are 20%+ Muslim, so there will be a skew towards more muslim areas.

But polling British Muslims is very difficult, compromise is unavoidable, and I think this is the best I’ve seen for several years

Admittedly, some of the questions were phrased oddly. And Trevor Phillips describing Muslims as a “nation within a nation” will probably alienate those who would be more inclined to agree with him.

Those who have said that this survey is ‘skewed’ have shot themselves in the foot.  They have basically just admitted that there are problems when there are large numbers of Muslims living in one area, leading to problems with integration. And if these Muslims surveyed were “more conservative” than Muslims living in areas with fewer Muslims, then why are those people still happy to quote the high percentage of Muslims who identify with Britain? You can’t have it both ways.

When the stats tell us something we don’t like then it’s the usual case of: the sample size isn’t representative, it’s skewed, they’re demonising Muslims again, etc. If this poll is ‘skewed’ then why don’t we dismiss the high figure of Muslims who identify with Britain? Besides, where is the evidence to show that those who live in areas where there are fewer Muslims will naturally have more progressive views?

Roshan Salih, editor of 5 Pillars, attacked the ‘Islamophobic’ survey. His video message is confusing. On the one hand, stating that more than 50% of Muslims want homosexuality banned is “Islamophobic” (of course) but then says this is not surprising because Muslims are conservative and these are “normative Islamic views” anyway. In 2013, over 500 British imams signed a joint letter to The Sunday Telegraph opposing gay marriage, accusing the Government of attacking “the cornerstone of family life”. We are told constantly that certain views are “normative Islamic values”, such as opposing homosexuality and gay marriage, or wanting an Islamic state and a caliphate. But don’t point this out or you are a bigot.

Maya Goodfellow, from Media Diversified, insists that British Muslims are not a homogenous group entirely separate from wider society. But that’s just it. People like Goodfellow do treat Muslims as homogenous. Liberal and ex Muslims are often attacked as ‘native informants’ or ‘not representative’ of mainstream Muslims, as though we should all conform to a certain set of values because we are of Muslim heritage.

Speaking of liberal Muslims, what has frustrated me more than anything is some of the liberal Muslims who have also attacked Trevor Phillips and the survey: we weren’t represented, it’s stereotyping Muslims, they cry. But they were represented. They were the ones who answered in favour of abortion, or homosexuality in the poll.

These are the same people who are constantly mocked, insulted and threatened by the more conservative and extreme elements within Muslims communities. They of all people should know better; they know how bad the situation is for more liberal or reform-minded Muslims. Yet even they have joined the bandwagon and either downplayed or dismissed the survey.  If you are on the liberal end of the scale, why get so defensive when someone talks about those who are not so liberal? Yes, yes, so 50% of Muslims have intolerant views towards gay people, but at least they feel British!

There are certainly progressive voices from Muslim communities now speaking out. But, as Trevor Phillips has pointed out, they are not as influential as one would hope. There are far more conservative and reactionary people who are doing their best to silence the progressive voices.

The views of Muslims today are more polarised than the previous generation — but I do believe that the next generation will be even more progressive and enlightened. Another survey conducted in ten years’ time may look very different.

Allegations of CSE cover up and misogyny within the Labour Party

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Shaista Gohir Source: Facebook

Shaista Gohir
Source: Facebook

 

Shaista Gohir is pulling no punches. The chair of the charity Muslim Women’s Network (MWN) UK is continuing to deal blows to the Labour party, accusing it of covering up misogyny and intimidation of Muslim women from the men in their own communnities.

Gohir has been gathering evidence from Muslim women across the country in order to get the party to address the allegations and make some serious changes.

But more revealing is the allegation made by a former Labour councillor, who  claims that abuse is being covered up within the Labour party. The Muslim woman told Newsnight that Pakistani councillors on the council where she served are regularly protecting men who may be exploiting white girls, simply because they are important business allies.

Zahara – not her real name – claims that the police presented councillors with a sexually explicit video as they ruled on whether to shut down a club where these alleged offences were taking place.

She said: “The decision ultimately should have been to close the establishment down because of inappropriate behaviours going on of a sexual nature between young white girls and Asian males that was being shown on the video.

“I was clearly told to stop questioning by a hand gesture and nudge by senior male councillors that were Asian who were sitting next to me… I was told: ‘Do you know who it is? It’s a very prominent Asian businessman that supports us’.”

This woman claims that, on this occasion and many others, she was deselected because she refused to do as these powerful councillors of Pakistani heritage demanded. When she arrived at the selection meeting, it was full of Asian people she had never seen before. “They’re in the pocket of influential male councillors,” she added.

This, in my opinion, is the angle on which Newsnight should have led. Instead, it was almost buried within the report. It is almost as though allegations of covering up CSE were an afterthought of this report.

It seems evident to me that Labour is doing anything to keep  the ‘minority’ vote, at the expense of leaving those groups effectively to be ruled by ‘their’ men.

 

“Systematic Misogyny”

Councillor Arooj Shah Source: Oldham Council

Councillor Arooj Shah
Source: Oldham Council

 

From about 2:50 in the Newsnight video, Oldham councillor Arooj Shah is seen leafleting in her neighbourhood, along with fellow councillor Shadab Qumer. Councillor Shah is doing the talking yet the Muslim man they visit only shakes hands, and speaks directly, only with the male councillor, instead of Councillor Shah.

She told the BBC: “There’s Labour Party members who will accept my two colleagues, Asian men, but support anyone but me. They’re members of the local Labour party. They are shameless about it… It’s because I’m a woman and anyone who sugar-coats it is lying.”

Councillor Shah also said that she has received disgusting letters where her head has been attached to images of Page 3 models, in an effort to silence and intimidate her.

MWN has been heard from many Muslim women across the country on the “blocking” of vocal, independent Muslim women by male members of the Labour Party who are of Pakistani heritage – or ‘biraderi’ (clan) politics. The charity has called for an inquiry by party leader Jeremy Corbyn into the “systematic misogyny” within Labour. If this is happening in the Labour party then I wonder – is this also happening in other parties?

Unfortunately this is no surprise to many women of Muslim heritage. We are all aware of the fact that most of the hostility faced is by those from within our own communities. We receive support when we toe a certain line, but as soon as we go beyond that we are quickly silenced.

Well done to the brave women who are continuing to speak out against the misogyny and campaigns of harassment they have faced. It takes a lot of courage to speak out.

When is a mosque not a mosque? When it’s an Ahmadi mosque

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A large fire broke out at a prominent mosque in South London on Saturday. The blaze, at the Baitul Futuh Mosque in Morden, was tackled by 70 firefighters, and a man was taken to hospital suffering the effects of smoke inhalation.

About 50% of the building’s ground floor was reported to be damaged as well as part of the first floor and a section of the roof. Thankfully, only a handful of worshippers were inside the mosque when the blaze started and they were evacuated safely from the site.

Usually, such incidents unite most Muslims (and non) who will find a common humanity to express commiseration. Instead, what we have seen is certain Muslims more preoccupied with semantics. The reason – this was an Ahmadi mosque.

The Pakistani channel Geo News describes Baitul Futuh as an “ibadatgah“, or place of worship. Not a mosque. This is, unfortunately, expected from a country where Ahmadis are officially declared as being non Muslims.

Sadly, such views are not confined to the Indian subcontinent. The 5 Pillars website, which runs the tagline “What are Muslim thinking?”, repeatedly refers to the mosque as a “temple” and its name is inserted in very snide quote marks.

Considering that its deputy editor Dilly Hussain once alluded to Ahmadi Muslims as being worse than monkeys, one should not expect any less.

On their Facebook page, there are comments lauding 5 Pillars’ “correct” use of the word temple to describe the mosque.

The Muslim Council of Britain states on its website that it is a “non-sectarian body working for the common good without interfering in, displacing or isolating any existing Muslim work in the UK”.

How ironic then that not only did the MCB not refer to the Baitul Futuh as a mosque, but it once put a statement on its website declaring it as “not a mosque”, adding “It is clearly misleading to describe [Ahmadis] as Muslims”. So much for non-sectarianism. The statement disappeared from the website quite recently.

These are the same people who often cry Islamophobia, when in fact a lot of the bigotry towards Muslims comes from fellow Muslims themselves.

Perhaps they should take note of the Ahmadi motto: Love for All, Hatred for None.

UPDATE: Two teenage boys have now been arrested on suspicion of arson

Written by Iram Ramzan

September 27, 2015 at 12:44 pm

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