Freethinking Stokie

A blog by a British, Pakistani, North Staffs woman providing analysis and discussion on the issues that our local media struggle with.

Fighting to marry outside your faith? Whether you’re a man or a woman, perhaps your family need to see this.

Imam Khaleel Mohammed’s defence of inter-faith marriage. Read it below in the language of your choosing.

English

Urdu

Arabic

Click here for access to this document in more languages.

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Anjem Choudary recruits Stoke’s youth while in Pakistan…

…Pakistanis come together to make beautiful, beautiful music.

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When fundamentalists strike, women’s rights are always the first to go.

When we politely remain silent in front of fundamentalist inspired thinking, we are facilitating people to reach the final step – terrorism. As outlined in my post on Dr. Fouzia Saeed, Saeed (a Pakistani academic) sees suicide bomb attacks and bomb blasts as step 10, the final step of terrorism. She comments that steps 1 to 9 are what facilitate that terrorism and these are the steps that Stoke’s Muslim communities need to pay heed to.

 

Muslim communities in Stoke-on-Trent seem to be all too happy to give away the rights of Muslim women in a plight to seek approval from their peers. A man’s honour is judged by how effectively he manages to control the women of his household. Whether it’s the right to move freely, to go swimming in a mixed area, to hang out with friends, to educate oneself, Stoke’s patriarchal Muslims will restrict their females from doing it. All that matters is what the neighbours think. Not what is right, what is wrong, or what is truly in the best interests of the family member that they seek to subjugate in exchange for status in the community. They will agree with the fundamentalists that for a woman to be considered “virtuous” and a “good Muslim” she should neither have nor express  sexuality in any way and she mustn’t ever answer back to her father or her elders in general, no matter how unjust or cruel their words or actions might be. A Muslim woman in Stoke these days must tolerate the possibility of her husband wanting to engage in polygamy and must abide by what the men in her family tell her. End of story.

 

What people don’t realise is, this is precisely how it all starts. In countries like Iran and Afghanistan, the fundamentalists first attacked the rights of women and the men were like “it’s ok, it’s only women”. When men became the target of these fundamentalist human rights encroachments, only then did the patriarchs realise what they’d done. Only when men were beaten up in the street by fundamentalists for wearing a t-shirt or for not LOOKING Islamic enough, did those men realise what a Pandora’s box they had opened. The same will be the case in Stoke’s Muslim communities. The fathers, brothers, husbands and uncles who are today giving in to the ideologies of people who seek to tell them how the women in their lives should be behaving, will one day be the victims of their own moral cowardice.

 

The fact that we live in a relatively stable society with (mostly) well constructed laws does not mean that fundamentalists are not a credible threat to our freedoms. THEY ARE. The UK Government is IGNORING the fact that when one goes to a Sharia Council affiliated mosque to get an Islamic divorce that men are being charged £200 and women are being charged £400 AND told to give up their dowry! It’s not legally binding, but the leaders of Muslim communities have so much influence and power over people that they dictate what is the Muslim way to live. British Muslims know that if they don’t submit, they will become outcasts. The laws of the UK are failing to act against this kind of discrimination whilst hiding behind the veneer of “religious accommodation”. In a few decades time, there will be more Muslims in the political sphere since the Muslim population of Britain has already gone from 1.9 million in 2004 to 2.6 million in 2010. That’s a 36.7% increase. Muslims being in politics is not a problem, however the views that these Muslims have is most definitely a problem. Most of Stoke’s Muslims I meet are anti woman, anti-gay, anti-education, pro-conspiracy theories, anti-freedom, anti-democracy, anti-free speech, anti-music, anti-British, anti-anything that embodies a genuine willingness to see humanity in others, yet people like me are the ones who are told to “watch what we say”. What kind of a nightmare are we living in? And what kind of nightmare are we creating for future generations by allowing fundamentalists to hijack our lives without even challenging them?

Women’s rights are ALWAYS the first to go, because fundamentalists know that nobody cares about women enough to speak up about their rights. They know that most societies are led by patriarchy and misogyny and that couldn’t be truer of Stoke’s Muslim communities.  Republicans in the US who know that Evangelicals don’t give a rat’s ass about women’s rights, use this apathy and lack of ethics to keep attacking women’s healthcare, cancer care and reproductive healthcare services. Stoke’s fundamentalists act similarly. They know that many of Stoke’s Muslims hold patriarchal and misogynistic views, that verbal, emotional and physical abuse of women is tolerated and concealed within these communities. As long as these views which perceive women to be inferior beings go unchallenged, the fundamentalists’ rhetoric will continue to penetrate Stoke’s Muslim communities at deeper and deeper levels.

 

Mark my words people, if Stoke’s Muslims (religious or just cultural) do not physically organise and mobilise against fundamentalists in Stoke, if people do not speak out against those who accept fundamentalist encroachment on basic human rights, we will have more and more terror cells being found in Stoke-on-Trent.
Bomb blasts are the final step, and we all have a responsibility to prevent people from reaching that final step. When we fail to challenge the yobs that distribute hateful content outside mosques or when we fail to challenge those who call a handshake haraam and tell us how to discipline our daughters, we are no better than the mafia wife that watches silently and thus facilitates the bloody end. If the ideology isn’t challenged, how can we condemn a person when they reach step 10?

 

It’s much easier to stop a steam train when it’s just started moving, not when it’s gained momentum.  There needs to be a comprehensive and organised effort against fundamentalists in Stoke. Fouzia Saeed is 200% correct.
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Terrorism: Pakistani academic Dr. Fouzia Saeed tells it like it is.

Dr. Fouzia Saeed is a Pakistani social scientist with a PhD from the University of Minnesota, USA. She is the author of “Taboo! The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area,” based on 8 years of field research among prostitutes in Pakistan. Here she is, telling it straight on Kamran Shahid’s (usually less than average quality) show. This particular episode is worth a watch since it offers quite an insight into the anti-fundamentalist v fundamentalist voices in Pakistan. The video is embedded below. 

Urdu transliteration:

“Hum bomb phatney ko aur khudkash hamlaun ko terrorism ka naam dete hain lekin mein samajti hoon ke wo duswa (10th) step hai. Step 1 se step 9 thak ideology, jo ek khas tarha ki soch hai, jo uss inteha ko paunchti hai, main uss tamam soch ko bhi terrorism mein shaamil karti hun. Hamare yahan hota he ye ke ek (1) se nau (9) thak laug sab khushi khushi saath chalte hain. Jab bomb phat-tha hai to phir ushi ko sab condemn kardetey hain.”

English translation:

“We call bomb blasts and suicide bombing terrorism, but I believe that these acts are just the 10th step. From Step 1 to Step 9 it is ideology, a particular  [accepted] way of thinking, that takes people to that extreme, I include all of that thought process into this “terrorism” too. What happens [in our society] is that from step 1 to 9 everyone happily gets along [with the person who is thinking in an extreme manner].  Then, when a bomb explodes, suddenly everyone turns around and condemns it [the 10th step].”

Forward to 23 mins 30

Dr. Saeed is well known in the activist circles of Pakistan’s social movement, having worked for decades on women’s issues, in particular those linked to violence against women, prostitution, women in the entertainment business, women’s mobility and sexual harassment. Her work on violence against women spans over 20 years and includes founding the first women’s crisis center in Pakistan in 1991. Her earlier work with the Folk and Traditional Heritage Institute (Lok Virsa) led to the book, “Women in Folk Theater”.

Find out more about Fouzia Saeed at http://www.fouziasaeed.com/



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Some Urdu slogans that British Pakistanis need to know about

It’s difficult to challenge misogyny, patriarchy, fundamentalism and the subjugation of women when you don’t possess the language to challenge it. Without words for particular terms, Pakistani communities who speak predominantly Urdu/Punjabi and other dialects, cannot adequately discuss and challenge damaging phenomena within their communities. A Pakistani feminist friend of mine from Lahore has come up with the following slogans. They are provided with their Urdu transliteration and English translation. Feel free to download/print these and put them on noticeboards, blogs, websites, Facebook, distribute them and where appropriate to do so, put them in community centres, mosques and share them with your family and friends. If you do print and display these slogans, it would be great to hear what peoples’ reactions were. This is not compulsory of course, but if you’d like to email me about your endeavour, I would love to hear about it! Email: freethinkingstokie@gmail.com

Transliteration: Hum nizaam-e-pidri aur auraton ki mehkoomi ke khilaaf hain. Hum aurat aur mard ki mukammal siyaasi aur samaaji musawaat ki himayat karte hain. *** Translation: We are opposed to patriarchy and the subjection of women. We support the full political and cultural equality of men and women.

Transliteration: Hum nizaam-e-pidri aur auraton ki mehkoomi ke khilaaf hain.
Hum aurat aur mard ki mukammal siyaasi aur samaaji musawaat ki himayat karte hain.
***
Translation: We are opposed to patriarchy and the subjection of women.
We support the full political and cultural equality of men and women.

Transliteration: Humein mazhabi bunyaad parasti ke haathon auraton peh dabao na manzoor hai!

Transliteration: Humein mazhabi bunyaad parasti ke haathon auraton peh dabao na manzoor hai!
Hum un tamaam bunyaad parast aur inteha pasand mazhabi garohon ki mukhalifat karte hain jo mazhab ke naam par auraton ki azaadi, un ki izzat-e-nafs aur un ke huqooq peh hamla karna chahte hain. Hum auraton ko insaaf dilaane ki muhim mein apni jiddo jehad zuroor jaari rakhein ge.
***
Translation: We will not accept the suppression of women at the hands of religious fundamentalism!
We oppose all those fundamentalist and extremist religious groups that seek to attack women's freedoms, dignity and rights in the name of religion. We will certainly keep up our efforts in this mission to deliver justice to women.

Transliteration: Hum auraton ke khilaaf tashaddud ki sakht mulaamat karte hain!

Transliteration: Hum auraton ke khilaaf tashaddud ki sakht mulaamat karte hain!
Woh mu'ashra jo auraton ko aziyyat pauhanchane wale mardon ko na sirf bardaasht kare, balke un ki ziyadtiyon ki baqa'ida ijaazat de, kis mun se khud ko qabil-e-izzat samajh sakta hai? Hum aise zaalim, beghairat aur zann bezaar samaaji nizaam ko qat'ai qubool nahin karein ge.
***
Translation: We harshly condemn violence against women!
How can a society that not only tolerates men who abuse women, but regularly enables their misdeeds, possibly consider itself worthy of respect? We will absolutely not accept this cruel, dishonourable and misogynistic social order.

Transliteration: Nizaam-e-pidri ke tehat muqarrarah jinsi kirdaaron ko khatam kiya jaye!

Transliteration: Nizaam-e-pidri ke tehat muqarrarah jinsi kirdaaron ko khatam kiya jaye!
Jinsi kirdar mehaz aik samaaji banaawat hain, jo keh donon mard aur aurat ko mukammal insaan banne se rokte hain. Aur jiss daur mein aurat har shau'be mein khud ko qaabil saabit kar chuki hai, yeh jinsi kirdar insaani taraqqi ke raaste main awwal tareen rukaawat ban chuke hain.
***
Translation: Abolish patriarchal gender roles!
Gender roles are simply a social construction that prevent both men and women from becoming full human beings. And in an era in which women have proved themselves capable in every field, these gender roles have become the foremost obstacle in the way of human progress.

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We’re not all Mosqueteers Mr. Sassi!

***UPDATE: Mr. Sassi contacted me stating that one of his team would contact me. Indeed someone did contact me, but would not allow me to contribute to The Sentinel without being photographed and thus disclosing my identity.***

It’s quite telling that The Sentinel is so eager to publish the views of self appointed male, Muslim “community leaders” as though they speak on behalf of every British Asian and/or Muslim in Stoke-on-Trent. Furthermore, The Sentinel will publish such immense contributions as this  (I am of course being ironic), but will completely ignore requests to publicise a blog (this blog) by a non-religious British Asian woman, from Stoke-on-Trent, who has lived within the Muslim community, who wants to encourage mobilisation of her community against fundamentalism and its encroachment of human rights.

I’ve tweeted and I’ve emailed The Sentinel on more than one occasion now. No response. It seems that a real attempt at inspiring moral courage  isn’t interesting enough for The Sentinel. Publishing articles which imply that all that Stoke’s Asians and Muslims care about is religion or mosques, is more important for the circulation of the paper than publishing the stories of the weaker, unheard voices that are being crushed by patriarchy within their communities. Bizarre. I guess Mike Sassi (Editor in Chief) thinks that anything that deviates from the devout, segregrated, insular, thoroughly male caricature of Asian Muslims in Stoke-on-Trent would give his readership brain-ache. Somehow, I doubt this. We all want honest and complete news. We’re tired of hearing what we hear all time. Yes, the BNP hates brown people and the Muslim fundamentalists hate everyone – particularly women – but we need to hear the untold stories, particularly in a city that is so rife with racial and religious tensions.

How many ethnic minority staff and women does The Sentinel currently employ at senior positions? When I look at the list of Staff Writers, all I see are Caucasian men. Where are the women Mr. Sassi? Where are the ethnic minorities? Perhaps this goes some way in explaining why the view of ethnic minority women is so trivial to The Sentinel in its reporting.

Would it hurt The Sentinel so much to interview women from Stoke’s Asian and Muslim communities before publishing an article about their “community” as if it were a monolith? Would it hurt so much to seek out the voices that are not orthodox or conservative in their approach? Is every Asian defined by his/her religion alone? It may surprise you, but there is diversity among Stoke’s Muslim Asians. That diversity needs to be discovered and communicated to wider Stoke-on-Trent in order to empower those who feel isolated, to allow them to organise and challenge the rise of fundamentalist inspired values within their communities. What’s happening in Stoke at the moment is not multiculturalism. It’s moral relativism. It’s the idea that there is no universal moral standard by which to judge others, that we ought to tolerate the behaviour of others – even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards. We should not “tolerate”. We must challenge those practices which encroach upon the rights of an individual, which harm an individual (usually the most vulnerable individuals within a given “group”). Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf said it best when he wrote “Traditions deserve respect only insofar as they are respectable.”

All of Stoke’s Asian “Muslim” men are not conservative minded, mosque going heterosexuals. It’s a statistical impossibility. And all of Stoke’s Asian “Muslim” women are not headscarf donning housewives that enjoy their status in their communities, even if on the face of it, they say they do.  There are exceptions. There are individuals who are being silenced by louder voices within their community, that are fighting not to be pulled out of education to be married off to their cousin, that are gay or lesbian but cannot express it and that are being subjected to psychological and physical violence for trying to challenge the status quo. The Sentinel, as a public educator, has a responsibility to find these individuals and report on their stories. Their stories matter.

This doesn’t mean launching a right wing inspired attack on Stoke’s Asian Muslims by claiming that these problems only exist within their communities and that therefore they are exotic monsters. It does mean reporting with honesty and facts. It means showing that although these problems exist everywhere, that the level to which patriarchal values, homophobia and misogyny are being upheld and concealed within Stoke’s Asian and Muslim communities is destroying lives and holding back the potential of individuals and future generations.

Last time I checked, I’m pretty sure that newspapers had to abide by a code of practice. When will The Sentinel take responsibility for reporting stories comprehensively? When will The Sentinel engage with people who deviate from the stereotype, but are being silenced – often violently – by the majority?

The Three Mosqueteers

SOURCE: Cartoonstock

***

Note for readers wishing to republish any of my posts: Thank you for reading. Please respect my intellectual property and my copyright and leave all of the identifying information intact. You are free to “re-blog” and share my work, but please do not re-print or re-publish my work in any other format without my permission. Thank you in advance for your cooperation.

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Our Tradition : Struggle Not Submission

Our Tradition : Struggle Not Submission. A brilliant piece by Gita Sahgal (former head of Amnesty International’s Gender Unit, co-founder of Women Against Fundamentalism, Southall Black Sisters and co- founder of the first anti-racist, women’s rights movement in the UK. A woman to be deeply admired for her work within the human rights domain, particularly against fundamentalist encroachment of rights within the UK.

“Women’s voices are largely silent in the debate where battle lines have been drawn between liberalism and fundamentalism. Often it’s been assumed that the view of vocal community leaders are our views, and their demands are our demands. We reject this absolutely. We have struggled for many years in this country and across the world to express ourselves as we choose within and outside our communities. We will not be dictated to by fundamentalists. Our lives will not be defined by community leaders. We will take  up our rights to determine our own destinies not limited by religion, culture or nationality. We believe that religious worship is an individual matter and that the state should not foster one religion above any other. We call on the government to abolish the outdated blasphemy law and to defend without reservation, freedom of speech.”

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Why Pakistan is where it is today.

An interview with  Tarek Fatah  (in Urdu/Punjabi). I don’t see eye to eye with Tarek on some of his positions as they inadvertently pander to the whims of right wing extremists and hurt his cause, however, he has some interesting and valid observations on why Pakistan and Pakistanis are where we/they are today. Both within the country and abroad.

Another interview on a similar subject, this time in English. Both are worth a watch.

 

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Fundamentalism in Stoke-on-Trent: “Strongly condemning” is not enough

I was rather amazed at the Sentinel piece that read “Muslim community leaders have strongly condemned four terrorists involved in plotting the bombing of Stoke-on-Trent pubs – and say they will not be welcome in mosques after their release from prison.” 

I mean, one would think that it was patently obvious that such individuals are not welcome in mosques. Possibly not. Despite it being rumoured that the alleged terror plotters were connected to groups who were distributing leaflets (on making the UK a “Sharia state”) outside Stoke’s mosques, it turns out that mosque managers in Stoke-on-Trent took a softly softly approach to such individuals prior to recent arrests. Why is that? Some have commented that it’s because “they’re better off in the Mosque than mixing with unsavoury crowds outside”. This view is ignorant at best, toxic at worst. Community leaders need to be pragmatic. Allowing such individuals to attend mosques out of a desire to “change their ways for the better” has consequences beyond that individual. Inside a mosque, fundamentalists can proselytise their hateful political ideologies to others who might normally be in a position to avoid them in the street. Stoke’s Muslim leaders and communities must take responsibility for failing to challenge such individuals adequately.

Fundamentalist thuggery

This “shirk”-tastic fascination (shirk meaning “sin”) – where an otherwise functioning human being goes out of his/her way to declare something as benign as shaking hands with the opposite sex or wishing someone Merry  Christmas – as “shirk” is something I find common amongst Stoke-on-Trent Muslims including unfortunately, recent converts. While this is annoying at a personal level, the general acceptance of such ideas by Stoke’s Muslim communities is what is most disturbing. There seems to be literally no attempt to collectively stand up to such fundamentalist thuggery which was allegedly one of the reasons for a low turnout at an Asian Cultural Mela (Festival) in September 2011 .

Although Muslim leaders may be well intentioned in declaring their “strong condemnation” for problems which exist within their communities, condemnation alone does not practically address problems of radicalisation, homophobia, forced marriage, honour crimes or anything else for that matter.

Mr. Ghulam Ghaus Mirza’s analogy of “one fish making the pool dirty” is all very well, but that doesn’t explain why according to a PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life study carried out in 2007, 35% of young British Muslims (aged 18-29) believe that suicide bombings are justified. Across all British Muslims this was 24%. Almost one quarter of British Muslims cannot be analogised with “one fish” I’m afraid Mr. Mirza. Furthermore, I am not too sure why self-appointed, male religious leaders are the only ones being approached by the media to comment on this matter. Where are the voices of Stoke’s women? Not just religious women within the community but those who may be culturally Muslim and areligious?

Making a stand

 Criminals don't respond to signs. They respond to being challenged.

Mr. Asif Mahmood’s announcement – once again, probably well intentioned – that “notices” are going to be placed in mosques to say that “these sort of people are not welcome” again pays lip service to the problem. Putting a sign up is passive, not active. It’s like putting a sign up outside your home saying “Burglars not welcome”. It’s ludicrous and just isn’t going to work. Just like our homes need protection, spiritual places and places of worship need protection from radical elements that routinely organise against basic human rights and in particular, women’s rights.

Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives) is a French feminist movement made up of mostly Muslim heritage women, founded in 2002, which has secured the recognition of the French press and the National Assembly of France. The movement fights against violence targeting women and it targets gang-rapes as well as social pressures. Studies have shown that Muslim French girls face pressures to wear the hijab, drop out of school, and marry early without being offered other choices of their own. It has also become routine for girls in the banlieues of France to be gang-raped if they refuse to conform to modesty requirements of the wider Muslim community. (See Karima Bennoune's article linked at the end of the blog).

For fundamentalists, it seems that the right for women to “choose” what they wear only matters when the woman is choosing to wear more, not less. Such groups are all too keen to insist on modesty requirements for their Muslim “sisters” and will criticise the French ban on the grounds that “it is a woman’s right to choose to wear the hijab or the burqa” (I agree, it is a woman’s right to choose), yet these same individuals will remain silent on the rights of women in Saudi Arabia, Iran and many other Muslim majority states, who have no right to choose whether they wear these items of clothing. Women in many Muslim majority states face severe forms of corporal punishment if they do not conform to legally defined standards of modesty. Double standard much?

There needs to be a widespread consensus amongst Stoke-on-Trent’s Muslims (religious or cultural Muslims), of moral courage and speaking out when one sees fundamentalism in ones midst, or Stoke’s communities must face having their individual rights eroded by fundamentalists holding them hostage with so called “religious” teachings.

Just as fundamentalists are organising in Stoke-on-Trent, Muslim communities need to organise on a large scale against such groups and challenge the ideologies that are hurting every British Muslim at an individual level. Islam is being turned into a public morality policing issue as opposed to a personal and individual spiritual journey. There needs to be more encouragement to report fundamentalism to the authorities and to avoid buying into “anti-West” conspiracy theories. I’m not suggesting for one moment that everything about Western societies is beyond criticism, however I am suggesting that a society which reserves its best parking spaces for the disabled has aspects of its culture that are worth holding in high esteem. The fact that the UK government (for all its faults) took the initiative to set up a forced marriage unit for its citizens abroad, is something that the government should be commended for.

Terrorism is not Islamically sanctioned

Stoke’s Muslim community leaders cannot just sit on their hands and “condemn” away fundamentalism whilst doing little or nothing to confront the matter head on.

There is no doubt that terrorism and fundamentalism are not problems that are peculiar just to the Islamic faith, however, saying that a fundamentalist isn’t a true Muslim is somewhat redundant. If it were one or two fundamentalists claiming to be Muslims, then that would be a different story, but the number of fundamentalists that are involved in potential and actual terrorist activity whilst claiming to be Muslim is in the thousands globally. If an individual attaches himself to the religion of Islam, we have to acknowledge how he or she identifies herself and accept that unchallenged, literalist interpretations of Islam and lack of tolerance towards wider society are responsible for this.

A religion is what its followers do

Stating that terrorism isn’t in the Qur’an or the Hadith and that Islam is a religion of peace is all well and good, but this doesn’t change the fact that a religion is what its followers do. Islam has been connected with hateful, mass murderers like Osama Bin Laden, homophobic holocaust deniers like Yusuf-al-Qaradawi and intolerant murderers like Mohammed Bouyeri who murdered Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh. Islam has also been connected with pure gems of human beings such as Ibn ArabiRumiJavad NurbakhshAbdul Sattar Edhi and lesser known (in the UK), Wassyla TamzaliFadela Amara and Karima Bennoune. (Here is a link to a brilliant scholarly article by Karima Bennoune on the need for human rights discourse to refocus itself on gender equality as opposed to buckling under fundamentalist claims).

So, clearly, a religion is what its followers make of it. However, if Stoke-on-Trent’s Muslim communities are adopting and preserving conservative, literalist varieties of Islam and leaving fundamentalist ideologies unchallenged, then, yes, Stoke-on-Trent’s Muslim communities do share a responsibility in the rise of fundamentalism in Stoke-on-Trent. Condemning isn’t enough. It’s superficial. Collective strategy and action is necessary and counter extremism organisations like Quilliam provide this training and consultancy, yet to my knowledge, Stoke’s Muslim communities have never gathered to undertake such training. We need to ask, why is that? Why this reluctance to take action?

Idle minds are the devil’s workshop: The need for quality education, local libraries and job creation in Stoke-on-Trent.

To tackle radicalisation, Muslim communities in Stoke-on-Trent need to empower themselves as Muslims have done in North America. When there are few jobs, inappropriate education provision and substandard housing, perhaps Muslim communities need to pool money into building their communities instead of just building yet another Mosque? Don’t get me wrong. Spiritual spaces are important and necessary to many people, but so is a collective attempt to regenerate the areas which Muslim communities in Britain call home. Contributing to the locale within which they live only works to benefit everyone, including people of other faiths or of no faith at all whilst actively demonstrating that Muslims are capable of positive contributions to wider society.

Everything that Muslims do does not need to be deployed from a religious perspective. If Muslim ventures are to be inclusive of all members of society, they need to remain secular and non judgemental. Religious supremacists and proselytisers need to be weeded out since this is completely antithetical to promoting genuine tolerance and understanding between different minority and majority groups.

Paraphrasing Dana Gioia’s statistics on literacy in the US:

“It has been shown that those who read, exercise more and play sports more. They belong to civic organisations more. They do volunteering and charity work at nearly four times the level of non-readers. Even if you take the poorest people in the United States who read, they volunteer and do charity work at twice the level of people who don’t read.”

Gioia further argues that:

“Reading creates a heightened sense of yourself as an individual, but also especially if you’re reading novels in which you follow the lives, the stories of people and the dailyness of their existence socially, economically, a man understanding how a woman thinks, a woman understanding how a man thinks, understanding how someone from a different country, a different race thinks and feels…this imaginative exercise makes you understand that other people have an inner life as complicated as your own.”

If Stoke-on-Trent’s Muslim youth have access to local (general, not purely Islamic) libraries in their neighbourhood, full of literature from Ibn Rushd (aka: Averroes) to  Aristotle, Khaled Hosseini to JK Rowling, Abdullah An-Naim to Catherine MacKinnon, perhaps Muslim youth would be more engaged with wider society and have access to more opportunities outside of just their locale. Perhaps if Muslim youth were encouraged to read across many disciplines, cultures, religions and languages, take part in foreign exchange programmes, learn languages other than their mother tongue or English and think for themselves, they would have access to wider literature and thus more ideas. Perhaps they would feel less isolated from wider society. Empowerment is the key to countering feelings of real or imagined marginalisation.

Perhaps if Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim communities put more trust in their children, were not so forceful in their desire for their daughter to study locally for fear of being “corrupted” and for their son to run the family business, we would have more success stories coming out of Stoke-on-Trent as opposed to stories of disillusionment, wasted talent and terrorist plots.

There is a dire shortage of good quality, affordable housing in Stoke-on-Trent. All of us want to live in dignity, we want safety, security and peace where we live. Yet, instead of working on pressing community needs such as local libraries, non-religious education, family planning awareness to reduce poverty and better housing, Stoke’s Muslim communities seem to be pandering to fundamentalists. Muslim communities in Stoke keep dividing themselves further by adhering to conservative interpretations of Islamic texts being peddled by fundamentalists among them and building yet more Mosques of another sect or branch within Islam. Denton Works, Normacot is just one example.

Discouragement of family planning: A cause of poverty

Religious affiliation (Britain)

Contrary to what fundamentalists would have us believe, Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in Britain, not Islam, and this is despite the high fertility rate in Muslim households.

People often mention the fact that Islam is the fastest growing religion in Britain but never mention the fact that the average number of children in Muslim households in Britain is 3 whereas across the rest of the general population the average figure stands at 1.8. (Source: PEW – The Future of the Global Muslim Population). So essentially, conversion to Islam isn’t occurring at a rate that fundamentalists would like to have us believe. A increase in the number of Muslims in the UK is more to do with fertility rates than anything else. Additionally, it is in fact Buddhism which is the fastest growing religion in Britain according to a recent labour force survey (see table above).

It should come as no surprise that when those who live in poverty are encouraged by fundamentalists and conservative minded Muslim leaders to submit to “God’s will” and not to engage in any form of family planning (once again, commentary related to a woman’s body being made my men), that the arrival of a new child only exacerbates the poverty of that family, not to mention the impact that pregnancy and childbirth has on the health of a woman. Women are being deprived of control over their reproductive system and their health in the name of fundamentalist Islam. The povertisation effect of high fertility rates makes the job of fundamentalists easier since they often have funding to target and recruit poor, disillusioned young men…and now women too. What is happening in Stoke-on-Trent is simply a diluted version of what is shown in the video below:

Muslim youth need quality education on every subject imaginable, not just Islam and their own culture. They shouldn’t be forced to remain in Stoke-on-Trent or even the UK to access quality education, particularly now that university fees are three times what they once were. The Telegraph’s piece “Top 10 European university alternatives for UK students” provides some excellent information on where UK students can complete their degree for free (e.g. Copenhagen, Uppsala, Oslo, in English) or for a fraction of the cost of completing it in the UK . Courses are offered in English in most institutions in Europe.

If Stoke on Trent’s Muslim communities keep imposing harsh cultural restrictions upon their youth that prevent them from accessing learning opportunities, then this is wasted talent and a recipe for fundamentalism to increase. Being exposed to people of different cultures, values and languages builds character. It does not destroy it.

I agree with Mr. Mahmood that Stoke’s Muslim communities must not be persecuted for the actions of the arrested terrorists, however, at the same time those who do not actively challenge fundamentalist ideologies do indeed share a responsibility in what has happened. Furthermore, whether Muslim religious leaders like it or not, they are social workers. If they do not make any real attempt to objectively research the problems within their communities and find solutions through academic research and cooperation with experts, then yes, Muslim leaders share a central responsibility in the radicalisation of these individuals.

Muslim communities in Stoke need to work collectively and oppose Sunni/Shia/Sufi/Memon (the list goes on) apartheid. Muslims need to stop finding as many reasons as possible to hate one another. The talents and skills of Muslims and non-Muslims alike need to be utilised to carry out education and awareness campaigns for Muslims that are free from literalist Islamic ideologies. These could include teach ins, citizenship classes and career information workshops.

Half of humanity

Finally, the majority of the discourse of Stoke-on-Trent’s Muslims whether on fundamentalism, forced marriage, modest dress, family planning, you name it…it revolves solely around the input of Muslim men. If Muslim community leaders are going to persist in repeatedly ignoring the views and input of 50% of their communities – women – then they are just providing fodder to the extreme right (e.g. BNP, EDL) to justify their ideological politics.

If Muslim leaders and communities in Stoke-on-Trent are serious about tackling fundamentalism, then they need to include women in the dialogue too. Women don’t just need to be encouraged, but they need to be facilitated to have more civic engagement by male members of the family and community offering to babysit, or help out with all the countless hours of housework that Stoke’s Muslim do without often even receiving any appreciation for it. We all (men and women) consist of the genetic make-up of a man and woman, which makes it quite clear, that we are all by our very biological nature, equal. Women cannot move forward if the men in their lives are unwilling to practically help them move forward.

Condemnation is not enough. Muslim men, women and leaders need to work collectively and without judging the piousness of their peers or the ability of their peers based on gender. They need to work proactively to find real solutions for their communities  whilst simultaneously rejecting fundamentalist values that only seek to reduce the rights and agency of Muslims in Stoke-on-Trent .

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Further reading:

Gita Sahgal “The Question Asked by Satan”

Karima Bennoune “Secularism and Human Rights: A Contextual Analysis of Headscarves, Religious Expression, and Women’s Equality Under International Law” 

Kenan Malik’s blog

“Women Living Under Muslim Laws” Dossier on Shrinking Secular Spaces and Fundamentalism

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