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Casey pulls no punches but will anything change?

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Pic Credit: Neil Moralee/Flickr
Pic Credit: Neil Moralee/Flickr

This is a cross-post from Sedaa

 

A much-awaited report which contains no big surprises received reactions that were entirely predictable.

From segregation and misogyny, to the child grooming gangs and Sharia councils, Dame Louise Casey’s lengthy, evidence-based report pulls no punches.

Towns and cities with high Muslim populations, such as Oldham, Rochdale, Blackburn and Bradford are mentioned as places of concern.

Some of them are areas with large numbers of people who came from Pakistani-administered Kashmir, particularly the rural region of Mirpur. They came to the former mill-towns which now suffer from industrial decline and high levels of deprivation.

Parents still ship their children ‘back home’ to get married, creating ghettos and a “first generation in every generation problem”.

Immigration itself is not a bad thing. The problem is when large numbers of immigrants arrive into areas where there are already large numbers of people from the same background. There is less of an incentive to integrate and learn English if most people in your neighbourhood are going to be from the same village in Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Last week’s Policy Exchange survey “Unsettled Belonging” showed Muslims overwhelmingly identify with Britain. And there is a hope that Muslims will become more liberal and secular. But if Muslims choose to live in areas with a high Muslim population, those who are more liberal or non religious will find it difficult to express their views openly, for fear of being attacked. Islamists benefit from this type of environment, as they can say they are trying to cater for the growing Muslim population – remember the Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham.

Of course, some have suggested that “white people need to integrate too”. The report says:

“In recent decades, it appears that in some respects, rather than becoming more of a classless society, sections of white working class Britain have become more isolated from the rest of the country and the rest of the white British population.”

White British boys are falling behind students from other ethnic backgrounds, which will no doubt only help foster the narrative that no one cares about the white population. It partly explain why we have seen Britain voting to leave the European Union and the rise of parties such as UKIP.

In Oldham, two schools with one dominant ethnic group were merged to form one large school. The majority white Counthill School and majority Pakistani Breezehill School became the Waterhead Academy. Though the school is not doing so well academically it is helping bridge the divide among two communities.

If this model can be replicated then this can help community cohesion, as secondary schools tend to be places where young people from different backgrounds will mix. But there is no point in the Government talking about the need to end segregation if it is continuing to approve the creation of faith schools.

The report also finds – again, to no one’s surprise – that Muslims tend to marry spouses from abroad, particularly Pakistan.

But even if those people marry their fellow Brits, it is more likely to be someone from their “own community” – that is to say, someone who is either related to them or has links to the same village/town in their parents’ country of origin. So communities are hardly becoming more diverse.

Dame Louise also mentions Sharia ‘courts’ and the fact that many Muslim women are in unregistered marriages, which leaves them vulnerable. Critics of the report claim Muslim women are unfairly targeted in the review. Let’s admit it. Muslim women do face more barriers – mostly from their own communities.

When Muslim women themselves are saying that they are restricted by their own spouses or families, then why is it all being dismissed as being ‘Islamophobic’? When Muslim – and south Asian women in general – used to speak out against forced marriages, or African women were speaking out against female genital mutilation, were they also being racist and ‘Islamophobic’?

An important part of the review, which has been missed by most, is the reference to Prevent, which was introduced following the July 7, 2005 attacks on London as part of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST.

Dame Louise talks about the anti-Prevent lobby who “appear to have an agenda to turn British Muslims against Britain”.  The report states:

“These individuals and organisations claim to be advocating on behalf of Muslims and protecting them from discrimination. We repeatedly invited people we met who belonged to these groups, or who held similarly critical views, to suggest alternative approaches.  We got nothing in return.”

Well that’s a surprise…

The report tackles the myths behind some of the stories which were very critical of Prevent.

Dame Louise writes about the infamous “terrorist house” case, in which Lancashire Police were reported to have interviewed a pupil referred to Prevent, after he had simply misspelled “terraced house” as “terrorist house” in a class exercise.

In fact, the pupil had also written that “I hate it when my uncle hits me”.  The teacher quite appropriately and acting in the best interests of the child, raised a concern.  A social worker and neighbourhood police officer then visited the family and concluded that no further action was required.  No referral to Prevent was ever made.  No Prevent officers were involved and Lancashire Police rightly maintain that they and the school acted responsibly and proportionately.

In an earlier case in May 2015, the parents of a 14 year-old boy started legal action after their son was questioned following a French lesson in which he had been talking about “eco-terrorists”.  After the lesson, he was reported to have been taken out of class and asked whether he was affiliated with ISIS.  His parents sought a Judicial Review, saying he had been discriminated against because of his Muslim background.

The truth is that the pupil was never referred to Prevent or Child Safeguarding (nor removed from the class), and there was no police involvement.  A concern about the boy was correctly raised by a teacher to the school’s Designated Child Protection Officer, who spoke to the pupil in an interview two days later which included asking whether he had “heard of Isis”. The Judicial Review was thrown out of court as totally without merit.

Yet the latter is still used as an excuse to bash Prevent and the boy’s mother, Ifhat Smith, still tells this story to anyone who will listen, despite her dubious links.

It is important that we discuss the issues mentioned in the report and the problems with segregation and mass immigration, rather than denouncing it all as ‘racist’. Indeed, some Muslim commentators have come out with the usual accusations of racism and Islamophobia; they are only interested in being defensive rather than actually coming up with any solutions.

No wonder we are having the same debate today as we were ten years ago. We’ve had similar reports in the past and I have no doubt we will have more in the future, saying the same things. There is little point in recommending what should happen now because it will only fall on deaf ears. Until there is a real political will to actually do something then nothing will change. In the meantime, I await the next report.

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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

A women-only mosque is dangerous for men because it could take away control from them

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On Sunday, the Muslim Women’s Council had a public consultation on proposals for a women-only mosque in Bradford. It follows the opening of a women’s mosque in the US earlier this year. There are also plans for something similar in India.

You would think that in a city where there are many people of South Asian and Muslim origin, this would go down a treat. The proposal has been met with a mixed response. Bradford West’s newly-elected MP Naz Shah has already come out against it, writing in the Guardian that she does not want to see “greater gender segregation, or women’s involvement pushed to the margins”.

When this idea was first proposed a few months ago, the topic was discussed on the BBC Asian Network’s phone-in show.  On their Facebook page, one comment read: “Islam has given rights to women but within limits not to abuse and go on the feminist band wagon. I know of plenty of mosques in Bradford that cater for women so I don’t understand why the need for women only run mosques?”

Another read: “Hmmmmm a mosque for woman [sic]! Aren’t woman [sic] better praying at home? They have a lot of family commitments hence it’s never been made [obligatory] for her to pray in a congregation. Women are not obligated to pray in congregation, they cannot be Imams. In fact, the best place for them to pray is in their homes, not that this means a ban from our mosques! Therefore, not sure how this can be called a mosque.”

You know what the disheartening thing is? These were women commenting, not men.

Although the prophet Muhammad is reported to have said, “If the wife of anyone of you asks permission to go to the mosque, he should not forbid her,” another hadith quotes him as saying, “It is more excellent for a woman to pray in her house than in her courtyard, and more excellent for her to pray in her private chamber than in her house.”

Men receive more blessings and rewards from God if they pray in a congregation whereas women are told that staying in the home is best for them. With this entrenched in the psyche of many Muslims, it is no wonder that women are often excluded from the mosques, where even if they are (begrudgingly) permitted to enter, the facilities for them will be poor.

For this reason, Hind Makki, an American Muslim interfaith activist based in Chicago, created the Side Entrance Tumblr blog, which showcases women’s spaces in mosques around the world. The photos of women’s facilities range from fantastic to pathetic.

I have often gone to my local mosque to hear a (male) scholar give a talk on various topics; the women would be seated upstairs, watching the scholar on a live television feed. Sometimes it would be a struggle to hear him speak as the babies and children would be running around making too much noise.

Female leadership

Some men -and women – object to women leading prayer and giving sermons; others worry if women’s-only worship catches on elsewhere, it could divide communities along gender lines. As opposed to what? Men and women are already segregated in the mosque! Considering that the genders are segregated in many aspects of life, surely then the men will not object to having their own, private space. Right?

What we must bear in mind is that a separate space means that the women have more autonomy. Even though the women are shunted to the back of the room in the mosque, or seated upstairs hidden out of sight, the men know that, at the end of the day, the women are there, under the same room, where the men can control exactly what sermons are being read out, and what women are learning. A women-only mosque is dangerous for men because it could take away the control they have yielded over women.

A more progressive idea, in my view, is the London-based Inclusive Mosque Initiative, where everyone, even gay Muslims, are welcomed with open arms, and women lead men in prayers. Perhaps this (controversial) model only works in London, which has always felt like a separate country. To those of us north of the Watford Gap, such a model is lightyears ahead.

Moreover, not all women would be comfortable praying alongside men. The idea should be to have a space where women can feel comfortable and included in an environment where they have traditionally been excluded. This is why the mosque in the US seems to work; in this BBC interview, we can see and hear a woman doing the call to worship – something women never do – and some of the women do not even have their hair covered.

In a statement on its website, the MWC write: “Muslim women have been marginalised for many decades by Mosques in the UK which are male dominated, patriarchal spaces. This has led to a frustration amongst women who would like to be included in religious spaces.”

Sounds great. But the statement goes on to say, “We disagree with the view of women leading mixed congregational prayers and this will not take place under the MWC umbrella… Our intention is not to be divisive, nor to go against the values and principles of Islam, but to provide a space for the community which shows how women can lead and be included in places of worship and also impact positively on their families and communities.”

This is sending mixed messages. Either you believe women can, and should, be in positions of leadership or you don’t. Just because an initiative is led by women doesn’t necessarily mean that it is going to be radical or progressive. Women, as we are aware, can often be the vanguards of patriarchy.

I am not against the idea of a women-only mosque as such; rather, I am more interested in what types of views they will promote and whether they really will challenge the status quo. It remains to be seen as to whether this initiative is going to be a force for the good.

Perhaps this is not something that should be a long-term solution – it is a reaction to an age-old problem. When you marginalise and disenfranchise a section of society (in this case half the population) it is not a surprise when they decide to create their own space.

Segregation should not be the answer but this is a small step in what could possibly be a radical shift for the next generation of British Muslims. It depends on which scholars and imams they decide they get on board.

Written by Iram Ramzan

August 3, 2015 at 6:09 pm

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