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Once upon a time, there was this thing called 'Multiculturalism'. 
I write about those turkeys who've voted for Christmas.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Sofa Traumas - distress in a cushioned world

After having his morning coffee cum Twitter catch-up ruined by a photo of executed Syrian soldiers, +Jay Ulfelder was prompted to ask – ‘What are all these violent images doing to us?’

Facetiousness aside, the question raised is entirely valid. The author is a political scientist and thus, like a journalist, will be particularly exposed to such imagery. But the Internet has proved a great leveller – from beheadings to bestiality, it’s all just a click away. Furthermore, social media has transformed people from passive consumers of news, into active participants in the Information Wars; shaping opinion and setting the agenda via what is posted and shared online. And as the stakes get higher, any due courtesy for ‘taste’ or decency is sacrificed, to drive home a point. Thus the concern applies beyond those with a professional interest – to the rest of us too, observing our warring world via a comfy chair, a broadband connection and a steaming cuppa.

Never has this been more evident than during Israel’s July 2014 assault on Gaza, during which armchair warriors from across the globe flooded every channel with their version of truth.

Since then, the impetus has been stolen by those fighting in Syria and Iraq, with, ironically, ISIS Jihadis and their opponents posting identical photos – in both cases, to show the world what medieval warfare and remorselessness really look like. And thus the author’s concerns hold weight - the 360-degree, 24/7 bombardment with images from, what we until recently believed was another age, may well leave some psychic detritus.

But before we turn to liquor or Deepak Chopra to soothe our furrowed brows, we should ponder on the trauma levels of those enmeshed in such chaos. A good place to start is September 11th, 2001, and the intimate examination of human suffering that followed the attack on the Twin Towers.

Every life so suddenly taken, every mother, widow and orphaned child; all those anguished embraces, bitter tears and acts of heroism – it was zoomed in on, played forward in slow-mo, put on a loop and preserved for eternity. America will, in a quite literal sense, never forget.

Clearly, the same trauma amongst viewers was evident back then – in fact, far more so. For these weren’t just gory pictures from afar, these were ‘our’ own people, our kith and kin, with the immediate and subsequent footage making New Yorkers of us all. But, as traumatic as it was to take in, the psychic harm done to watchers-on was nothing as compared to those caught in the eye of the storm – and thus we just continued soaking it all in, in reverential silence. Indeed, to give more than fleeting thought to personal distress, would instinctively have felt wrong – no, *obscene*.

Now let’s fast forward to the present, and Jihadis bringing beheadings gate-crashing into the 21st Century... The shockwaves from that macabre ‘theatre’ have rippled across the globe, and, arguably, forced the Obama administration into military action. However, that begs the question, why haven’t the deaths of thousands of Iraqis, Syrians and Kurds at the hands of the same butchers, evoked similar distress? Sure, pictures of dead Arabs can put one off one’s coffee, but do they trigger the same dissonance as, say, an American in an orange jumpsuit, kneeling helpless in the desert..? As the ISIS commander well knows, a thousand dead Wogs ain’t worth one dead American.

An unknown Kurd
A tsunami of highly charged coverage has followed the executions of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines: stunned relatives of the slain appearing before TV cameras, handsome-young-man photos being shared online, to remind the world of the fine and beautiful people we have lost, and help forget their final moments. The brother of David Haines, haunting the Muslim conscience by reading passages from the Qur’an. But for the countless Arab victims of ISIS, there is no such corollary, no tribute in death. And that difference matters, which is why individuals have started doing it themselves.

To a degree, the difference in reaction is entirely natural – we all have a sense of ‘our own’, and no-one need apologise for feeling a heightened empathy with a defined subset of humanity. However, where the disparity is such that one no longer sees others through the same, human lens, those on the receiving end will react.

In Jay Ulfelder's sober, intelligent and cogently argued piece, there is actually no hole to pick. Except to say that if you are feeling bruised by what you see on the news or online, by all means, light a scented candle and re-align your Chakras - but understand the context for the assault on your Timelines. For until the BBC/Fox/CNN audience get that Wogs are flesh-and-blood human beings, whose deaths leave the same, terrible wounds on loved-ones left behind, people will feel compelled to keep ramming that point home.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Muslim Problem

In his siren call to the nation over the 'Muslim Problem', Dan Hodges joins up the recent dots of British Muslim dishonour - "...Isil. Trojan Horse schools. Sex gangs. Tower Hamlets..." - to draw a picture of a community in crisis.

As a British Muslim, I desperately want to decry it as an ugly caricature, but I can't - the depiction captures a very real malaise. It is impossible to disagree that there is "...a gaping – and widening – fissure between [the nation at large] and Britain’s Muslims", or that "...in front of our eyes, an entire section of British society is..being left to break off and simply drift away."

But in failing to spear the elephant-sized target - "...I don’t know why we have a specific problem of Muslim integration. I’m not sure anyone does." - he raised the ire of +Raheem Kassam, who in his response, concluded that Mr Hodges is actually blaming "...you. And your family. And everyone else except Britain's ghettoised Muslim communities." Leaving aside Mr Kassam's issues with basic logic, Dan Hodges' failure to just state the obvious was indeed anti-climactic. So let's do just that - the 'Muslim Problem' is, primarily, one of a strand of Muslim thinking that, simply put, has no place in Britain, Europe, the West or the East. From London to Lahore, there can be no accommodation for a philosophy that revels in confrontation, ignorance and war. But if this epoch-defining Jihad is to be won, then the battle must be lead by Muslims themselves. And therein lies the rub - for whilst this cancer within the Muslim corpus has perhaps always existed, its growth is, without doubt, a function of hate; a response to hate.

I'll take a punt... the British kids who've joined ISIS are not, in the main, fired with religious zeal. What inspires them is the chance to coalesce under an Islamic flag, hold their heads up high, and fight - to finally respond to the hatred that they've quietly been absorbing, for years. For these youths are the product of a venomous public discourse vis-a-vis Islam and Muslims, that has been skewering their psyche, pretty much daily, for as long as they can remember.

Having grown up under a cloud of suspicion, and been tagged as fanatics, they've called the nation's bluff and descended into fanaticism. It's the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy.

Following each new 'dot' in the picture, the 'Professional Islamophobe Vs Professional Muslim' merry-go-round comes to town. And as Dan Hodges correctly points out, it's a circus of which many of us are now tired. If a change is to come it has to be lead by the Ummah, who must acknowledge their own problem, and *theologically* defeat the enemy within. Convincing the 'Muslim Streeet' though, is perhaps more about emotion, than theology - and for that, the casual, even gleeful pinning of Muslims at large to the lunatic fringe, has to stop. For if people are forever told they are on the outside, they'll eventually stop knocking, and simply go elsewhere.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Islamic States

 “No one town or city is more suitable for you than another. The best of places is the one that bears you and provides for you.”

Ali Ibn Abi Talib SA

In his article, itself a response to another by Mehdi Hasan, Dilly Hussain writes that “…it is preposterous to reject an Islamic State as having no ‘theological’, ‘historical’ or ‘empirical’ evidence.” Later, he adds, “…to suggest that the state of Medina under the Prophet Mohammed SA and its political infrastructure cannot be used as an analogy for a modern Islamic State, is as absurd as saying that a horse and carriage cannot be considered a mode of transport since it lacks the modern features of a car.”

It’s a valid and well put point – Islam is not only a personal, or 'private' faith. It covers all aspects of life, from the micro to the macro: from brushing one’s teeth and loving your wife, to the rules of warfare and governance. The idea of an Islamic State, is, unarguably, an eternal hope for a Muslim.

However, that begs the question, how should a Muslim determine the legitimacy of such a state – and, in particular, of the person who drives a stake into the earth, hoists a flag, and declares himself King? Can there be more than one 'King'? Can anyone do it? Is it based on courage, brazenness, might, right, money, something else..? Just how is a Muslim to separate wheat from chaff; a true leader from a clown? And beyond that, whose Muslim state is it anyway? That of the Whirling Dervish, or of mainstream Sunni Muslims, or of ISIS..?

But for all the talk of Islamic States, what of where Muslims live today: in Britain, the United States, Pakistan, Tanzania, China, Russia..? What is a Muslim’s role, his or her responsibility to the country in which one resides? Whilst there is no conflict between aspiring to an Islamic State, and hand-in-hand living as an active, contributing member of a secular state, not every aspirant meets such a benchmark. Indeed, the fault-line betweens Muslims and non-Muslims in the West, centres on this very point - that some represent, overtly, a 'fifth column'. And there is a blatant contradiction in living somewhere, **anywhere**, under the protection of a flag and benefiting from shared resources, whilst being antagonistic. What bitter harvest, in having no care to contribute to a society's betterment, but instead being openly hostile?

"Mingle with people in such a way that as long as you live they are drawn towards you, and when you are no longer amidst them they weep for you." Ali Ibn Abi Talib SA

However one approaches all the above, one thing should be clear – that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s vision for an Islamic State, needs no academic, intellectual or even theological debate – it offends basic, common sense.

Beheading an Iraqi soldier

For those that disagree, and who view the ISIS brand as the zenith of Islamic expression, well… It is time for them to go and leave the rest of us, non-Muslims and the majority of Muslims alike, in peace.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Do Muslims need to condemn ISIS?

In his article examining the siren-call for ‘Muslims to condemn ISIS’, Sunny Hundal makes some excellent points:

  1. Most of those fighting ISIS, are Muslim.
  2. Most victims of ISIS, are Muslim.
  3. Moreover, the same demand is not made of other minorities: notably, Jews were not – are not - being asked to condemn Israel, over its bombardment of Gaza.

However, some troubling aspects need illuminating:

Most importantly, ISIS claim to be acting in line with the Holy Qur’an and Hadith. This is so crucial a point, it is worth repeating - the 'Muslim violence merely reflects Islam' position, is not one simply being taken by antagonists, but by those calling themselves Muslim. The Islamic State's justification - and inspiration - for taking slaves, expelling Christians, public beheadings etc etc, is their interpretation of the ultimate source for Muslims: God's book, and the example laid down by His Prophet (SA):

Here's a more sober explanation of the same ideology:

Finally, the British historian, Tom Holland, covers similar ground here, but with particular reference to the happy-snaps being posted online by ISIS Jihadis, alongside those they behead:

It is therefore undeniable that, for some Muslims, ISIS represent the purest form of Islam, with all other interpretations being some degree of corruption. 

In this context, Muslim condemnation of ISIS is not enough – the ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ defence, is, surely, dead. Moreover, given the tsunami of Muslim rage over Israel's collective punishment of Gazans, the Ummah's more muted, even ambivalent, response towards the destruction of churches and the expulsion of Iraqi Christians, and the treatment ISIS have meted out to Yazidis and other minorities, has, rightly, attracted attention.

The Ummah's energy is wasted by crying foul over Anglo-American hypocrisy, however true. It needs urgent focus to defeat ISIS **theologically** – not for purposes of PR, but to reclaim the religion for future generations. 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Boko Haram, and the sin of Western Education

It befits our brethren, may Allah Ta’ala give them strength, to not:
·         Hate a single field of knowledge among all knowledge,
·         Shun a particular book among books,
·         Bear prejudice towards a certain faith from among the faiths [of the world].

Indeed, our philosophy and our faith engulf all faiths and encompass all knowledge.

Imam Abdullah al-Mahdi (SA) d. 322/934 Mahdiyya, Tunisia

Boko Haram are the latest militant group coalescing under an Islamic banner, to puncture the consciousness of the Western world. Whilst their insurgency has cost 10,000 lives since 2002, it is their night time raid on a boarding school to kidnap 230 schoolgirls in April 2014 - and thus ‘save them from the sin of Western education’ - that has led to global infamy. 

In a world already well-drilled on Jihadi violence, this was a new low. The story captured – confirmed - just about every suspicion re. the true face of Islam: violent, misogynistic, anti-Western, anti-education.

Whilst the reaction from the usual roll call of protagonists/antagonists/apologists was but a set-piece affair, some valid points persist, and demand addressing:

  • For many a Western liberal, approaching a mixed environ somewhere between cultural relativism, to a full-on embracing of multiculturalism, Boko Haram shatter the ‘live-and-let-live’ maxim. Historically, they’d have derided the Far-Right’s frothing re. Islam, and now here are Muslims themselves, hand-delivering the same message on a plate.
  • For others, Boko Haram come at the end of a long roll-call of infamy: Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Al-Shabab, ISIS, FGM, forced marriage, child marriage, ‘honour’ killings,… It is, surely, reasonable to ask, “At what point do the dots join up, to paint the whole picture”? 

This post is an attempt to answer some of the above…

So, is Western education (of girls) a sin? Firstly, at a personal level, it bears no reflection to my own experience. My Father, who paid handsomely to have my sister privately educated, left me to fend for myself in the state education system. Thanks, Dad… But the question remains – is caring for a daughter’s education, unusual in Muslim families?

Undoubtedly, certain strands of Islam consider it anathema. The TTP have threatened girls’ schools in parts of Pakistan, and it is they who shot Malala Yousufzai, after stopping her bus on its way to school. Perhaps the frothing of the Far-Right may not have been so hallucinatory, after all…

But let’s refocus on Boko Haram. Is their conclusion re. Western education and the education of girls – when approached from an Islamic framework – correct? What would they think of my Father, and his obsession with his daughter’s education? They would surely see him as someone who, as a son of Empire, had been beguiled by ‘foreign ideas’. And to some extent, that is true. He admired – coveted – much about the British: their business prowess, as well as various norms and codes of conduct. And, of course, their education. Indeed, for a long time his axis revolved around that of his British masters.

But is that a bad thing? It’s impossible to answer objectively, but from the days of Empire there have been undercurrents shaping the wider world, convincing North and South to fall in line, to move in one direction; to paraphrase the film Avatar, to want ‘light beer and blue jeans’:

(After embarking on his mission with purpose, the hero of the piece, Jake Sully, eventually 'goes native', and in a Video Log he explains his change of heart with the following words...):

"...They're not going to give up their home. They're not going to make a deal. For what? A light beer and blue jeans? There's nothing that we have that they want. Everything they sent me out here to do is a waste of time. They're never going to leave Hometree..."

...And so as 'light beer and blue jeans' steadily colonise the world, it could be argued that indigenous cultures have concomitantly been reduced; stripped down to but a theatrical veneer, a façade atop a Pax Americana base. And that with the demise of Communism and Socialism, Islam stands alone as the sole detractor. And moreover, that the global Islamic resurgence in all its forms – good, bad and vomit-inducing – is but an expression of that resistance...  

But back to Boko Haram, and their violent rejection of all things Western. Is everything ‘non-Islamic’, by definition a threat? Is Boko Haram’s concern that Western education is but a Trojan horse, leading inevitably to their own culture/values/religion being swept away, valid? Side-stepping the issue of whether Boko Haram’s religion is worth preserving at all, their general concern has some resonance. The French, for example, loathe that the Lingua Franca is actually now English, and that the nuances that make the French ‘French’, are slowly being flattened by an Anglo-American juggernaut. But the French haven’t bombed Tesco HQ. Is Islam’s only way to vent its instinct for self-preservation, violence? Must the whole world be reduced to a binary: either submit to light beer and blue jeans, or wage war?

According to Imam al-Mahdi (SA), there is another way. Firstly, on that which defines him, a true believer will preserve his inner beliefs, and the external manifestations of the same. Regardless of where he lives, or in what age, whether everyone around him believes or no-one does; whether he is left alone to practise in peace or mocked and hunted down, it matters not – he won’t compromise on that which expresses who he is. But from his/her firm base, (s)he will actively reach out, looking for opportunities to learn, to take something good from his fellow man.

From this perspective, the seeking out of education in all its forms, and from any source - Muslim or non-Muslim - is both legitimate and worthy. All knowledge - maths, English, French, Yoga,... - is to be sought out and absorbed. It is all simply learning, from which one can benefit. And thus my Father was right - Islamically justified - in seeking to learn from the British...  

Indeed, as per this POV on Islam, there is no such thing as ‘Western education’. Rather it is all just education; and thus maths, French and Yoga simply become different ways to delve into God’s glory. (Hence ‘…our philosophy and our faith engulf all faiths and encompass all knowledge’).

Well… I hope that addresses some of the questions that Boko Haram’s existence legitimately raise.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Suffocating Embraces: Palestine and the Muslims; America and the Jews

We all have a sense of our own. If our mother or child is hurt in some way, it affects us more than the same happening elsewhere. This extends into shaping communities: be they based on nationality, language, race, politics, religion or culture more broadly, identifying with a subset of humanity needs no explanation. We all get it.

But across the fault line between Jews and Arabs over the state of Israel, two alliances are looking increasingly ridiculous from the outside – that of Muslim solidarity with the Palestinians, and Anglo-American solidarity with the Jews.

As per the stream of news flowing from the major networks, the current round of violence began when three settler teenagers were abducted and killed whilst hitch hiking in the occupied West Bank. 

Leaving aside the telling ‘Why?’, (i.e. of ‘Day One’ being marked with an Israeli death), the focus on the essential human-ness of the deceased Jews, and the visceral loss and pain of their family and friends, is most instructive. Here’s Channel 4 news, sharing with us that ‘…Gilad, 16, was a movie buff and amateur pastry chef, whilst Eyal was a good cook, who loved his sport, too…

The idea that a slain Arab would be considered in terms broader than ‘+1’ on some dead Wog count is, frankly, laughable – and therein lies the rub. Indeed, Western media has consistently driven home two, inter-related themes: the Jew as an eternal and uncomplicated victim, and the Palestinian as an eternal and uncomplicated villain. Here’s the New York Times from 2nd July 2014, distilling these essential ingredients on one page:

The BBC, too, have fallen over themselves to downplay the massive disparity in military might and scale of loss, between the two sides. On the 10th July, after a night of bombing which led to 50+ Palestinian deaths and 0 Israeli deaths, the BBC chose a collage of four pictures to capture the state of play: one of the four was of Jihadis and zero were of bombed Gazans:

Later in the week, BBC radio ran the headline '...Palestinian officials say at least 192 people have been killed by Israeli air strikes over the past week, whilst Israel says more than 1,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza.' 

192...1000... One presumes a headline stating 192 Palestinian deaths and 0 Israeli deaths, would simply have been unacceptable. Who could blame the casual listener for concluding that Israel was under existential threat? And yet, to give some perspective, 28 Israelis have been killed by Gazan rocket fire since 2001, whereas in 2013 alone, there were 303 traffic fatalities in Israel. So much for the existential threat… 

Furthermore, what has *not* been reported by the mainstream media, is just as telling. Whilst we are all familiar with pictures portraying the indoctrination of Palestinian kids, images showing the degree of hatred of Israelis for Palestinians, have, poignantly, not been widely picked up:

To be sure, the 2nd photo is of an Israeli girl signing a missile destined for Gaza, and the 3rd is of Israelis eating popcorn as they watch the 'show' of bombs falling. 

All this begs the glaringly obvious question – ‘Why?’ Why is Israel’s account credited with a blank cheque of Anglo-American support, no matter what?

A similar question can be asked of the Muslim Ummah – Why the tsunami of rage over Palestine, when barely a ripple registers on violent death being meted out in far greater numbers, by Jihadis? Muslims the world over have taken to the streets and marched in protest over Gaza, but where is the same outpouring over, say, Boko Haram’s insurgency which, in the first half of 2014 alone, led to over 2000 civilian deaths across 95 separate attacks? 

ISIS are, at the time of writing, busy expunging Iraq of its millennia-old Christian community. Yes, there has been some response, but nothing like the same global outcry, as over Gaza. Thus whilst Muslims are rallying under the banner of Human Rights, it is largely the Jewish context that is heating up emotion.

This anti-Imperial (rather than pro-Human Rights) stance becomes more obvious, when considering the case of Pakistan. Since 2004, the war between the Pakistan army and various Jihadi factions has cost nearly 50,000 civilian lives and displaced up to 3.5m people. According to the Pakistan Ministry of Finance-issued Economic Survey 2010–11, "Pakistan has never witnessed such a devastating social and economic upheaval in its industry, even after dismemberment of the country by a direct war with India in 1971." And yet, Pakistanis get more inflamed over an American drone strike inflicting ‘collateral damage’.

And in probably the best example ever of small-penis complex, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif saw fit to side-step the myriad problems at home and assume the delusional role of Global Muslim Champion, (one which presumably excludes the Muslims he is killing at home, in Balochistan and FATA). 

In Pakistan today, there are madrassa ‘graduates’ who await their reward of 72 virgins to fuck till eternity, and all for blowing up a police station, hotel or disco. One hopes that whilst basic education is, admittedly, not as macho as saving Palestine, perhaps some of Mr Sharif’s concern – and the Ummah’s energy and rage - could be invested in that..? 

Since the July 2014 Israeli land incursion into Gaza, much international sympathy has flowed towards the Palestinians. They would do well to use this goodwill, and not wed their future to the black flag of the Jihadis. For whilst the Ummah remains unmoved unless blood is spilt by Americans or Jews, their rage becomes easy to dismiss; and they can offer no traction. Similarly, unless Anglo-Americans stop prostrating themselves before Israel, their claim to hold the moral high ground, to be on the side of ‘right and not might’, is beyond risible. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Minority Rights

Some cultural markers are immutable – think of the Haj pilgrimage, the Yah Boo nature of a democratic election, or the ranks of bare-chested men on the streets of Britain, come the first day of Spring.

Others, however, are as vulnerable as reeds in the wind. Take St Patrick’s Day – originally, a day to commemorate the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, and now, in large part, an excuse to wear something green, and get drunk. But the wheels of change just keep on turning, which for dear old St Patrick means that his big day has morphed into the latest front in the battle over Gay Rights.

This year’s New York parade, the largest in the world, became mired in controversy when Gay Rights groups demanded to participate in a way that not only publicly exhibited their Irish-ness, but also their gay-ness. And the organisers refused. They had no issue with gay people joining in, but not in a way that allowed a Gay agenda to ride pillion alongside a celebration of Irishness. Push followed shove and before you could click your heels three times, major sponsors - including the iconic Guinness - had pulled out

So was the demand reasonable? Arguably, campaigners were simply asking that people be allowed to celebrate who they are, in totality – i.e. Irish and gay. Indeed, many (most?) people have multiple facets to their identity – one could be part Irish and part Puerto Rican, or Irish and wheelchair-bound. These composite identities are potentially political, and thus for the ‘wearer’, indivisible. Indeed, a composite or hyphenated identity is not only increasingly common, but in some quarters, positively endorsed – think African-American, British Muslim, or the LGBT division of the English Defence League.

So when is the composite model appropriate? Why does it work in the highlighted cases? For those nations built upon waves of immigration, pragmatism necessitates inclusion – in other words, an exclusive identity becomes less politically (and commercially) viable, with each wave of new arrivals. Even for groups like the EDL, once your focal point is clear, it is to the group’s advantage to cast the net wide. (The greater success enjoyed by the EDL as compared to its more exclusive, racially-focussed progenitors – the BNP, Combat 18 et al – illustrates this point).

So can the same model be applied to St Patrick’s Day? Arguably, yes – but arguably, no. St Patrick’s Day is just that – one day. One day, to celebrate one thing – Irishness. Whether one is Catholic, Protestant or atheist, living in the Motherland or a 5th generation émigré with some Italian and Cuban thrown in the mix, straight or gay – on St Patrick’s Day, the differences don’t matter – it’s the common denominator that counts. The occasion is - at least in today’s New York context - one for the Irish diaspora to hold hands and revel in what they share. And no secondary identity gets to hop along for the ride. 

Convinced..? No? It’s ok – let’s not argue the toss… What is really interesting, though, is that the public space, the sphere of debate in which the organisers were able to make their case, collapsed down to almost nothing. Just the mere whiff of being perceived as anti-gay, led to politicians, personalities and sponsors, running for the hills. What we witnessed was the ‘protection’ around a minority – gay people - resembling the privileged standing that other minorities have enjoyed in recent American history – notably African Americans and Jews.

So far, so…conformist. The whole drama fits the exact pattern that other minorities have experienced, as they journey away from persecution – even to the extent of reaching near ‘untouchability’, wherein, from the perspective of detractors, any point gets deflected by a charge of racism/sexism/anti-Semitism/Islamophobia/homophobia…  

In his outstanding work of difference, Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon – himself a gay man – documents his personal story. On the subject of the long road journeyed from being part of a loathed minority, he writes – 

“When I was born in 1963, homosexual activity was a crime; during my childhood, it was a symptom of illness. When I was two, Time magazine wrote, ‘Even in purely non-religious terms, homosexuality represents a misuse of the sexual faculty. It is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste – and, above all, no pretence that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.’ "

And fifty years later, Guinness withdrew their support from what should have been a flagship event, over fear of being tarnished ‘anti-gay’, or at the very least, not ‘gay-friendly’.

What this demonstrates is that ‘minority rights’ aren't really about minorities; rather, it’s all about the majority – and their preferences/tastes at any given point. And without a fixed axis, tastes change; hated minorities can morph into unimpeachable martyrs. And today’s ‘most-favoured’ victim could, tomorrow, find themselves usurped by the new kid in town. So who will next find succour and understanding? Transgender, transsexual and intersex people? Criminals, paedophiles, eco warriors? Zionists were once officially condemned by the British Government as terrorists - could Islamists one day find a sympathetic shoulder to cry on? Sound crazy? Maybe… But in the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, we don’t know what we don’t know. The only constant, is change. Good luck, everyone.

Monday, 3 March 2014

On Public Relations

In the Daily Telegraph of 26/02/2014, there was a special pull-out to publicise something called the ‘UK-Russia Year of Culture’. Akin to health warnings now familiar on cigarette packets, the reader was informed that the section, Russia Beyond The Headlines, was ‘…[Sic] published by Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Russia), who take sole responsibility for the contents.’ Quite.

The cover story - about ‘…the lasting legacy of Russian Ballet in Britain’ - was but a detail, with all messages broadcast loud and clear by the cover photo:

The dancers – the very personification of youth, freshness and delicacy – were silently declaring: ‘We, too, are Russia’. The sought-after validation was painfully obvious.

After several months of being battered in Western media (and social media) over gay rights, and then, by proxy, over the Ukraine situation, this was nothing short of a rear guard action; the alluring dancers reminding us that there was more to Russia than 6’6” thugs, called Boris.

So what exactly is the ‘UK-Russia Year of Culture’? Why does it exist and, just as importantly, is it unique? Is there a Kenya-Russia Year of Culture, or a Nepal-Russia Year of Culture? Was ‘Russia Beyond The Headlines’ being distributed with the Mombasa Times or the Kathmandu Chronicle..? Ermm… Clearly, the need to impress, to present the right image, is a one-way street.

But Russia is not alone, in worrying about how the British see them. The same concern is evident as one walks around the lush exhibition on Islamic art, at London’s Victoria & Albert museum. One can almost hear the sponsors screaming, ‘…we are more than mere Ragheads!’ (Iranians referring to themselves as Persian, are, consciously or otherwise, traumatised over the same issue). 

And when Bollywood producers cream themselves over finally reaching an ‘international audience’, their excitement is really over two white folks in Kansas sitting through a whole three-hour extravaganza; which implicitly dismisses the long-standing popularity of Hindi song & dance, in the South: in Filipino cafés, at Nigerian weddings and Iraqi dance halls. The elation of those producers betrays the colonial mindset, wherein, as per the unwritten rate of exchange, two white folks is worth more than the whole of Lagos. The right perception in Western eyes, for non-Westerners, remains the holy grail.

These examples illustrate where the power lies. Europe and America do not expend the same energy, protecting their impression in the eyes of the wider world. (One could argue that they don’t have to – that the global penetration of American TV and film does that for them). On the rare occasions that they do - such as over the Big Brother/Shilpa Shetty row - the concern boils down to money (and in this case, India’s increasing importance to the British export industry). 

Money – and PR – are the root of all evil

A proud German once protested to an American, post WWII, that his was the country of Bach, Weber (the social scientist and political theorist) and Johannes Kepler (mathematician), to which a blunt American replied, ‘Not anymore, it isn’t.’ The German was likely not aggravated by a poor economic forecast; rather, psychic harm was being done by others viewing him, and his country, through a Hitler-lens. But the confident answer declared two truths: that the German was impotent to shape his own image, and that the American’s perspective was what mattered.

But should it be so – then or now? Why do those outside of the First World care so much about what Anglo-Americans think of them? And if they feel they are being portrayed unfairly, should they just turn the other cheek? And where they do respond, which option is better: defence (i.e. ‘look at our pretty ballerinas!’), or a more ‘jihadi’ approach?

I don’t really know. But we live in interesting times. 

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The 'Jesus and Mo' strip-tease

The Jesus and Mo cartoon strip, which satirises religion in general, and Christianity and Islam in particular, launched in the wake of the Jyllands-Posten Danish cartoons of 2005.

In Europe, as well the wider non-Muslim world, the Danish cartoons - wherein the Prophet Mohammed SA was caricatured in ways which Muslims across the globe found hurtful - became totemic: a single point upon which the clusterfuck that was ‘Islam vs The West’, could reduce down to. 

Forget Israel/Palestine, colonialism, Bush, Blair, WMD and the War on Terror, the right to veil and even that siren call echoing around the post-Christian world - ‘does God exist?’ This was now the acid test. In a world in which nothing was sacred – in which church, state, politicians and royalty had been stripped bare by a proletariat free to choose their own idols; wherein only the right to say anything – and the right to offend – was sacrosanct, could Muslims accept the same treatment?

Due to the lack of overt offensiveness in the Jesus and Mo strip, the very same points have been distilled – which serves to not only reinforce the challenge laid down, but makes the work of art, per se, pure genius:

So this is now the line in the sand, beyond which no compromise can be reached. If this, too, is an affront, well… at least the endless circus of debate can end. We’d all know where we stand.

Ever since some students were ordered to remove Jesus and Mo t-shirts at a Freshers’ Fair, the media has fizzed and crackled, straining at the leash to light the blue touch paper. How..? By discussing Jesus and Mo at every turn, but crucially, not showing – it is the ultimate strip-tease, to ratchet up the tension. In studio after studio, the same players are wheeled out – the outraged intellectual, the puppet-on-a-string politician and the cartoon Muslim, to repeat ad nauseum that ‘…to draw or otherwise represent the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him, is not permissible in Islam.’ Which is true. 

What all the stakeholders miss, however, is that the cartoon strip, as emblematic of the fissure between Islam and The West, does not resonate for most (British) Muslims, (or, indeed, for most Westerners) - hence the lack of Pavlovian response. But this still jars, as the strip does indeed capture a fundamental difference in what is considered sacred, across religious and post-religious societies. (Indeed, one can almost sense the frustration in some quarters at the lack of response…) So why no repeat of the Danish shitstorm? The main reason is also prosaic – most Muslims (and non-Muslims) will simply not have given the subject enough attention. For others, the exchange of ideas as they rub alongside non-Muslims – whether online or in their real lives – will have shaped what ‘being Muslim’ means to them. (In other words, from the POV of the unreconstructed, theirs is a watered down, Islam-lite). Many other ‘fundamentalist’ Muslims however, get that the value-system of the non-Muslim is different – and that it’s not for them to impose or force their values, onto others. In other words, ‘to me my values, and to you, yours’. Indeed, the position is theologically sound because to live in a country – any country - under the protection of its flag and benefiting from its resources, and then to be disloyal, is, Islamically, an act of treason.

What this demonstrates is that talking casually about ‘the Muslims’, or even ‘British Muslims’, is a mistake – there is no such body. It does not exist. Rather, it is composed of multiple strands, thoughts, beliefs and political philosophies - just as in wider society. And yet, despite the ever burgeoning corpus that is ‘the media’, only the discordant notes of the lunatic fringe get amplified. One can only conclude that it pays to keep the story simple.   

None of this discounts the validity of questions being asked, re. the compatibility of some Muslim communities outside of their indigenous setting. But therein lies the rub – because none of those concerns apply universally, to everyone on earth who calls themselves ‘Muslim’. Many (most?) understand the hard laws and softer nuances of wherever they live, and that your right to analyse, parody, insult and offend, is not up for barter. In other words, they have organically learnt how to be both Muslim and British, in a way that trivialises neither. And yet the broad-brush approach persists –which foments confusion, then hurt, then anger, then resentment. Which is entirely understandable.

It’s high time that the media reflected the diversity that exists of the ground. Otherwise this in itself will add a new dimension to the ‘Islam Vs The West’ clusterfuck.