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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.

Dreams of romance and redemption lure young women to jihad

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Originally published for The Sunday Times on 22/11/15
As you can imagine, there was a lot I had to say on this subject. There are certain parts of this article that I felt needed elaboration, so I have inserted an asterisk at the end of the relevant sentence and expanded below the main article.

 

IT seems baffling: why would any young woman from a free and liberal society choose the barbaric death cult that is Isis? Yet some women in Britain are actively recruiting for a group that orders women to cover themselves from head to toe and takes non-Muslim women as sexual slaves. To call these women “brainwashed” absolves them of any responsibility for their actions.

Some have suggested these women have vulnerabilities that are being exploited. Forgive them, for they know not what they do. Or do they?

There is no single pathway to becoming an extremist or terrorist, and women are just as susceptible to this toxic Islamist ideology as their male counterparts.

Some Muslim women are marginalised and disenfranchised. But my parents’ and grandparents’ generation were racially abused quite publicly and had fewer opportunities than we do today. Why did they not blow themselves up on buses or trains?

If anything, women face more pressure and oppression within their own families and communities than from the state.

For some there is the chance to be fighters and slay infidels themselves. A study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found evidence that these women “revel in the gore and brutality of the organisation”.

For other young women – and some are very young – there is a jihadist Mills & Boon element to it, as a friend of mine put it.

Kalsoom Bashir, co-director of the anti-extremist group Inspire and a former Prevent officer in Bristol, told me that after Yusra Hussein fled Bristol to join Isis in Syria last year, a teacher claimed some schoolgirls were more excited by Yusra’s marriage to a jihadist fighter than anything else.

“They seemed to think it was exciting and romantic,” Bashir explained. “One teacher told me that she was concerned some girls might think going to Syria was a form of redemption. A few had come out of relationships with boys who had used them badly. They felt dirty and that they had been bad Muslims, as sex outside marriage is considered a sin.”

This is not a surprise. From a young age Muslims are taught that too much interaction with the opposite sex is haram (impermissible). In many of the Islamic societies in British universities, the “brothers” and “sisters” are kept apart. No wonder these young women are tantalised by the prospect of marrying a young, attractive fighter.

Much has been said about Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the “party girl” suicide bomber who blew herself up in Paris last week*. She had a sad childhood, we are told. She never really practised her religion and had boyfriends, her friends and neighbours said.

Yet this is typical behaviour from terrorists. Women such as Aitboulahcen believe they will get their rewards in the hereafter.**

Condemnation alone is not enough when this poisonous ideology is not being tackled and it is ideology that is the root cause.

People from my generation have been taught to divorce Islam from culture; told that our south Asian heritage was oppressing us whereas Islam would liberate us and deliver all our God-given rights.***

This alone does not create terrorists but it certainly contributes to a victim narrative that prevents Muslims from tackling this ideology and instead blames western foreign policy for the creation of Isis.

There is widespread distrust of the government’s Prevent strategy, with university student unions actively pledging to work against it.

Speakers with extremist views are regularly invited to universities to whip up hysteria and spread false information. This must stop or we will continue to see more women, and men, going to Syria.

 

* Of course it has now emerged that she was not a suicide bomber at all.

**By this I mean that many Muslims – and those of other religions – are nominal Muslims. It is rare that you will find a Muslim who will practise everything that is expected of him and him and her, for example praying five times a day, because we’re all hypocrites. Therefore it is no surprise that jihadis have dabbled in drugs and alcohol or committed various “sins” before “repenting” in the hope that they will be forgiven in the afterlife. If anything this demonstrates the powerful role that ideology plays in recruiting would-be jihadis or so-called jihadi brides.

***This may require a separate article/blog but I shall explain as briefly as I can here. What I mean by this is what we are constantly told to avoid mixing culture and religion. Culture, we are told, is what has oppressed us. People ‘confuse’ culture for Islam, therefore we need to follow ‘true’ Islam.  This led to some good things – inter-race marriages being one – but this meant that it is difficult for young people to identify with their parents’ culture, or Britain, and Islam is put before everything – that being a very austere, black and white form of Islam that leaves no space for colour. When you consistently hear that Islam will liberate us, that the Caliphate is what we need, it is no wonder we have ISIS.

 

Written by Iram Ramzan

November 24, 2015 at 9:21 pm

Farewell Glen Carrigan:  Homoscientificus 

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RIP Glen. I wish we could have spent more time together before you died. You will not be forgotten

Homo economicus' Weblog


Just learned that blogger Glen Carrigan of Homo scientificus passed away this week. He wrote about “Psychology, humanism, health, and society” and you may have caught him on The Big Question(photo above from his blog post on) and various podcasts.

Whilst he may not be with us, the humanist ideals he espoused will live on. I just wanted to share something from a blog post he did following the General Election this year.

My heart goes out to all those that knew him.

————————————-

“Remember, we can engage in democracy all year round, and perhaps we should actively do so. Having an idea, meeting people, making new friends and creating a plan is how it all starts. I recently heard a friend when asked “what can we do?” about a particular topic answer: “Get up from your armchair and actually do something.” This was at a conference concerned…

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Written by Iram Ramzan

October 2, 2015 at 8:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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

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.

*

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

Sectarianism in modern Britain

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From Iranian dissidents fearing deportation after seeking asylum from theocracy, to ex-Muslims driven from their homes in Bradford, Iram Ramzan looks at some worrying examples of sectarianism threatening Britain’s reputation for tolerance.

Peyman (not his real name) is to all appearances like any other foreign student in Manchester. He’s 30 years-old, learning English and was drawn to Britain because of its reputation for religious and political pluralism, a sort of default secularism protected by the rule of law. Peyman hopes to become a counsellor after his studies.

But his smiling face hides his desperate situation. In 2010 Peyman fled the Islam Republic of Iran to seek asylum. Unfortunately for him, the authorities did not believe he arrived when he said he did and he had his application rejected. His political and religious views (Peyman is an ex-Muslim and a critic of the theocratic regime) placed him and his family in grave danger. However like many ex-Muslims applying for asylum on the grounds of religious persecution Peyman found this difficult to prove and is still appealing his case.

“[In Iran] 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.”

Peyman 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.

Peyman’s Kurdish-Iranian family have more experience of this than many. After the revolution in 1979, the regime would round up any dissidents. His older brother was imprisoned and subsequently tortured, as were some of his other relatives for their political activities. Peyman was also beaten at a police station. “Most Iranians hate the government but they can’t say it,” he added.

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.

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 or belief. Some Christian groups have done important work highlighting the cases of Christians (including ex-Muslim Christian converts) facing persecution in the Middle East and/or seeking asylum. But groups supporting atheists and other religious minorities are often less resourced or politically connected.

Iranian-born Maryam Namazie helped found the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain in 2007 to break the taboo that comes with renouncing Islam. Eight years on, it seems that little has changed. Today, apostasy is a crime in 23 out 49 Muslim-majority countries. In Saudi Arabia and Iran it is punishable by death. In some countries, like Pakistan, people are accused of “blasphemy” by their fellow citizens.

Maryam said: “Those accused can be religious, including Muslims, or atheists. They may not have even done anything ‘wrong’; it’s an accusation that can be used by states and others in order to silence, threaten and even murder those deemed ‘undesirable’.”

Nissar Hussain, a Muslim convert to Christianity, pictured with his car which was vanadalised.

Nissar Hussain, a Muslim convert to Christianity, pictured with his vandalised car

But persecution of minorities and the enforcement of ‘apostasy’ taboos is also an issue in the UK. Many of those who leave the Islamic faith in this country can often be ostracised from their communities and families. Nissar Hussain (49), a married father-of-six found this out when he admitted he had converted to Christianity following the death of his older brother. His family promptly disowned him, refusing to inform him when his father had died. Even his 45-year-old wife Qubra was horrified at first, but after spending time with his Christian friends from church she also decided to convert to Christianity.

When word of Nissar’s conversion got out “like wildfire”, what initially started out as name calling quickly escalated into acts of vandalism.

After an arson attack on the empty house next door, Nissar decided enough was enough and moved the family to the other side of Bradford, in Manningham. All was fine until he appeared in Channel 4’s Dispatches programme on Christian converts. His Muslim neighbours took offence and he recently had to quit his job as a nurse after he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after 16 years of constant harassment.

“We’re in the frontline, in the trenches,” he said. “The fact that it’s from my own fellow Pakistanis is traumatic. The Pakistani, Muslim community needs to exercise tolerance and goodwill towards converts such as ourselves.

“They took offence, in general, to converts. We’re an offence here. This is a form of terrorism. It’s so very personal. It’s vindictive.”

Nissar worries for the fate of his children, including his Daughter Anniesa – a 21-year-old international relations student at the University of Nottingham, who has blogged about her experiences. Anniesa recalled painful memories of being rushed upstairs after dinner, in anticipation of the next brick through the window. Although the children were not brought up religiously, she says the experience has made her Christian; only her faith, she said, keeps her “sane”.

“We would get called Jew dogs, at school we were told: you’re a kaafir; my mum said I can’t sit next to you,” Anniesa said. “I realised we were different. Mum got asked in the playground, why are you wearing salwar kameez, why aren’t you wearing a mini skirt now you’re not a Muslim? Christianity is equated to whiteness. She said my colour is still the same, I’m still a Pakistani woman.

“I’ve bottled it up. Being the eldest sister you can’t let it show. I see the UK as having become radicalised. Political correctness has allowed this to ferment.”

When Naz Shah MP (Bradford West) was elected it was widely viewed a rejection of sectarian politics and Nissar wrote to his new MP to ask for help. Ms Shah’s office confirmed that they had received the requests for support from Nissar and a multi-agency meeting was held, with ongoing matters being dealt with by the police, though Nissar does not believe enough is being done.

Whether it is young men like Peyman or the Hussain family in Bradford, it is clear religious persecution and sectarianism are issues Britain must grapple with at home and abroad. Our politicians often speak about our tolerant nation and condemn those countries that persecute their minorities. The Government must then uphold the criteria – which includes persecution – for those seeking refugee status. Protecting them is our moral responsibility.

Here in the UK, there are growing numbers of ex-Muslims who can now be helped by various organisations (CEMB and Faith to Faithless to name a few). Such organisations should be given more platforms to talk about the vital work they do to assist not just asylum seekers but British citizens who need their help. Otherwise this sectarianism will threaten Britain’s long-held reputation for tolerance.

Originally published for the National Secular Society on 9/9/2015

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