Monthly Archives: October 2007

Roll up, roll up! Vote for the best of the British Muslim blogosphere

It’s that time of year again. The fourth annual Brass Crescent Awards, sponsored by City of Brass and alt.muslim, are seeking nominations for the best of the Muslim blogosphere up until Friday, 9th November. Voting, in ten categories, runs for two weeks from Friday, 15th November.

So let me do a bit of shameless plugging for British Muslim blogs.

British blogs have done well in the past. Thabet (Muslims under Progress), now reincarnated as pixelisation, got an honourable mention for “Best Writing” in 2004, won “Best Group Blog” in 2004, was a runner-up as “Best Thinker” in 2005. Islamophobia Watch got an honourable mention as “Best Non-Muslim Blog” in 2005. The indefatigable Indigo Jo was a runner-up in “Most Deserving of Wider Recognition” in 2005. In 2006, for “Best Post or Series”, Thabet got shortlisted for “Policy, Profiling, Poverty” and Bradford Muslim for his insightful “The Muslim Condition” (in six parts). Again Thabet got more nominations in “Best Ijtihad” in 2006 for “British Muslims Must Fight Extremism” and “Prattle from the Party” and an honourable mention for “Best Thinker”. Dal Nun Strong’s well-informed A Muslim Think Tank got a nomination for “Most Deserving of Wider Recognition” in 2006.

British-focused collective Muslim blogs are beginning to emerge like the MIAH Project, Umma Pulse, Muslimstan and City Circle’s new blog (yes, that’s two shameless plugs). Many of our bloggers are London-based but there is more regional blogging out there: Rolled-Up Trousers, Noman Tahir and Islam, Muslims and an Anthropologist in Scotland, the eponymous Bradford Muslim, Walls Come Tumbling Down, the hilarious The Islamicist and Muslim Minorities in Birmingham, Alternative Entertainment in Manchester, The Cutting Edge in Brighton, Masudblog in Aylesbury and Abdur Rahman’s Corner in Wales. In London, one should make mention of Cricklewood Blogger, iMuslim, Islam’s Green, Muslims and Musings, Radical Muslim, Spirit21, Suspect Paki and The Thing About This Is… alongside the above-mentioned Indigo Jo Blogs and A Muslim Think Tank. Pixelisation is now out in Dubai but hopefully that’s only a temporary relocation and he’ll be back on home territory soon.

Many of our top activists and commentators have been sucked into the omnivorous Comment is Free website that features Ajmal Masroor, Anas al-Takriti, Asim Siddiqui, Ed Husain, Fareena Alam, Inayat Bungalawala, Salma Yaqoob, Soumaya Ghannoushi and Zia Haider Rahman to name but few, as well as American imports like Ali Eteraz. With the current focus on “the Muslim problem”, if you’re a halfway-decent writer, are a “youngish” British Muslim and know a thing or two about British Islam (and have a penchant for “liberal discipline”), then it is not that difficult to get into mainstream publications and their online platforms. It would be interesting to know whether these are eligible for the Brass Crescent Awards or not.

But for the most perennially underrated British Muslim blog, for its sheer honesty and gutsy writing, its mix of the personal and the political, the academic and activist, the surreal and the real, the political and the spiritual, check out Muslim Recovery. It hits you in your comfort zone as you are meant to be hit. Of those not nominated in previous years, I would also have to single out Rolled-Up Trousers, as one of our most important political blogs, which has gotten wider recognition as well (named as the top Scottish political blog and it came in at no. 92 in a recent top 500 list of the UK’s political blogs, which says more about metropolitan bias than anything else).

I have links to nearly all these blogs (and more) here. I’m sure that there are many great British Muslim blogs out there that I’m totally unaware of, so do contact me here to tell me what I’ve been missing. And don’t forget to nominate a few British Muslim blogs for the Brass Crescent awards too.

Update: Aziz (City of Brass) and Shahed (alt.muslim) think it’s fine to nominate individual bloggers on Comment is Free. Just in case you want to nominate someone. And Muslim Recovery usefully provides the necessary corrective, noting the groupie-ness of bloglists and the vanity of wanting to get that virtual bloggery award but not wanting to be seen to be doing so. The kind of fake nonchalance that some of us are so very skilled at! But notwithstanding all that, the Awards do encourage and highlight the talent that is out there, so get nominating away.

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Britz: A Review

Nasima and the police in BritzPeter Kosminsky, well-known for his topical political dramas, has taken on post-7/7 Britain in his latest offering, the two-parter, Britz. This is the story of a brother, Sohail (Riz Ahmed, the single “Post-9/11 Blues”, Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo), and his sister, Nasima (Manjinder Virk, Neil Biswas’s Bradford Riots), both born and bred in Bradford, and caught up on opposite sides of the “war on terror”. Predictably, the film is attracting controversy even before its broadcast. Community leaders, unnamed government sources and media critics are already accusing the drama of pandering to extremists and reinforcing stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists. As Channel Four were kind enough to send me Blitz in advance, here’s a (p)review (with a few spoilers, so don’t read further if you want to wait!).

The first part tells the story from Sohail’s perspective. Instead of continuing his studies for the bar, he decides on a more exciting, secret career with MI5. Keen to break out of the “community ghetto”, Sohail tells MI5 that he wants to put something back into Britain, a country that has given him everything. He does so without illusions, also telling his interviewer that the so-called war on terror is driven by the need to secure oil and gas supplies. From the start, it is an uncomfortable journey as Sohail alternates between two views: the pragmatic need to get tough with the terrorists themselves, yet seeing the impact of anti-terror legislation on family, friends and community. He accepts the use of rendition and the torture of a former acquaintance to get information that could save lives and stop an impending attack, but strongly criticises the heavy policing of the community under anti-terrorist legislation. The police are shown as uncaring and racist throughout in their treatment of British Muslims. They call them “F**king Pakis” or offer to force-feed them ham sandwiches washed down with a pint of beer. With Sohail on board, a new plot to attack Britain, linked with earlier attacks, is uncovered by MI5.

The second part tells Nasima’s side of the story. A trainee doctor, she is a committed civil liberties activist, protesting against the “war on terror”. She becomes disenchanted with activism when a close friend is placed under a control order and later, out of desperation, commits suicide. A radical recruiter challenges her: has political activism overturned a single piece of anti-terrorism law, or did the anti-war movement prevent a war on Islam? She cannot answer him and starts down a darker road to becoming Britain’s first female suicide bomber in the plot that Sohail is seeking to uncover.

The first part is very quick-paced and sharply edited, conveying Sohail’s energy and lack of introspection. From the start he seems to know what he wants: his frustrations are with his family, the community, the police or the intelligence services who seem to be getting it wrong in his view, not with himself. But the viewer is not led to understand how Sohail came to find this already well-marked out path. Why does he take up the role of a spy? We are never really given an in-depth answer.

The second part, especially in its second half, is more languid, almost meditative. Nasima, even after taking her chosen path as a suicide bomber, as a mother of Usama (“umm Usama”) seems tortured, in anguish at her decision. Her eyes convey dismay, and she becomes mute, untalking, in sharp contrast to her fiery eloquent indignation as a civil rights activist. There is only resignation at the political logic that has taken her to the path of violence, not joyful fanaticism.

Like a lot of political dramas, the situations and characters seem engineered to get a political point across, and the interweaving of the personal and political is not as artfully done as it could have been. So what are the big points that Britz tries to make?

The stripping away of civil liberties is creating a new suspect community, a situation that is directly exploited by extremists who argue that political protest doesn’t work. Far from being mindless, the terrorists can represent some of the brightest, most committed people around, the natural leaders of a generation. Talk of theology is a distraction. This is fundamentally a political struggle, in which the ends justify the means. Nasima is one of those recruits who “isn’t doing this for God” but because political means have failed and there is only “the propaganda of the deed” left as the final course of action.

Despite the dramatic devices used to heighten the tension, like setting brother against sister, Britz attempts an authentic portrayal of post-7/7 Britain to raise these political issues credibly. Most interesting here are the murky worlds of underground extremism and MI5, both of which seem ridiculously easy for Nasima and Sohail to penetrate. Open recruitment to domestic suicide attacks appears to go on university campuses — this seems incredible in 2007 when surely it is much more undercover. If there are any stringent vetting procedures to get into MI5, we aren’t shown them here: Sohail seems to breeze in after a few gentle questions about his personal life. The world of al-Qaeda, from its recruitment to its training regimes, seemed fantastically feminised too. Nasima and other women implausibly train together with grim bearded men to strip an AK-47 blindfolded and make bombs while wearing red lipstick and dupattas. Al-Qaeda’s religious puritanism has been overlooked here.

More chilling and credible are the banks of Urdu-speaking Aunties in MI5, transcribing bugged Urdu and English conversations from Dewsbury and elsewhere. (A running joke in the Muslim community is that every time your mobile phone clicks, you assume that the spooks are listening in.) Also featured is a huge Star-Trek-style computerised map of the Operation Crevice network, in real life the largest anti-terrorist investigation conducted in British history. The real case established the current premise upon which the authorities say they are now working, namely that the British-based terrorist cells have loose connections with each other, ideological, social or otherwise, often with links back to Pakistan.

In this network analysis, Mohamed Sidique Khan’s charred sim card thus becomes the “crown jewels” in Britz, by which the deceased “node” is seen as the key to the rest of the “network”. The tiresome trawling through networks and contacts portrayed here seems closer to the routine world of intelligence work than Spooks is. Sohail derides the discovery of five new “clean skins” from a paintballing session involving three of the 7/7 cell as a fuss over nothing, but they in fact turn out to be behind a new attack that MI5 later manages to avert. The high-tech portrayal aims, perhaps, to allude to a lack of human intelligence, in which the cultural insights and expertise of Sohail are fatally devalued.

Yet despite these flaws, Britz remains a powerful and watchable drama that does not shy away from the crucial point that no amount of cultural and religious stereotyping will make the politics of the war-on-terror go away.

Britz will be broadcast on Channel 4 on Wednesday 31st October at 9pm (part one) and concludes on Thursday 1st November at 9pm (part two).

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Filed under Civil liberties, Culture and the Arts, Ghuluw, Terrorism, UK Politics, war-on-terror

Don't believe the hype about Islamofascism Week…

on American campuses this week (22-26th October). According to Think Progress, one of America’s top political blogs, the claim that 200 campuses are taking part is hype. The American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee did a survey of (the allegedly) participating campuses and found that

after we contacted those institutions, most of those institutions indicated that no such events [are] taking place on those campus. And many contacted the sponsors and told them, “do not use my institution’s name in your campaign,” including some very renowned universities such as Yale and Princeton.

Even the name of Jerry Falwell’s evangelical Liberty University was removed from the list, masha’Allah! Check out the article to read more.

Hat Tip: Ali Eteraz

Update: And Wingnuts, a US comedy programme, shows that this campaign is not above mislabeling dramatic film footage as the real thing. Hat Tip: BBRC

Update: Umar Lee gets roughed up at George Washington University for speaking his mind about IFW.

Update: Jinnzaman provides some financial background on David Horowitz’s Freedom Centre. He gets $350,000 a year to act as its Director. The center has received over $15 million in donations, with the Scaife Foundations providing around 40% of the funding. The Foundations have supported far right Christian groups and organisations some of whose positions seem out of step with IFW. Read more here.

Update: There are now only around 100 campuses apparently signed up to IFW (out of an original 200), but the scheduled speakers for IFW are only addressing 26 campuses.  These include Robert Spencer, Phyllis Chesler, Ibn Warraq, Daniel Pipes and Anne Coulter. So that’s a fall to around an eighth of the originally-claimed support! See the schedule here on the IFW site.

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Dirty Tricks? Hizb ut-Tahrir and its Critics

Since May 2007, Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain has come under increasing public criticism from former members and associates. The three most prominent critics have been Ed Husain, Shiraz Maher and Maajid Nawaz. Of the three, Husain has had the widest public impact with his book, The Islamist, whose main target was the Party, becoming a best seller (with apparently over 50,000 copies sold since its release). Perhaps the most authoritative criticism has come from the most senior figure out of the three, Nawaz, who had been promoted to the national executive committee prior to his departure in 2007.

Although all three have mounted strong criticisms of the Party’s political ideology, Nawaz has disagreed with the call made by Maher and Husain for the Party’s proscription under the Terrorism Acts 2000 and 2006. After two reviews since 2005, the government has decided that there is insufficient evidence to ban the group, although it apparently remains under review. There are some grounds for the suspicion that the unofficial policy is really to threaten the Party with a ban rather than actually impose one in order to moderate its behaviour. Any ban would certainly be tested through the courts and would potentially criminalise a lot of young Muslim Britons, drastically polarising the political climate. And it would be a post-war first — banning a non-violent group for subversion, something neither contemplated for Britain’s Communists during the Cold War nor for Sinn Fein during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Nawaz has decided to undertake a detailed rebuttal through his blog, Towards Political Engagement, of the Party’s ideological stance on the basis of Islamic theology. His approach seeks to persuade rather than to coerce and is largely directed at serving Party members, surely the best way forward in a period when Muslims face the stripping away of their legal rights, a process that, like the one the British Irish collectively experienced in earlier times, creates a “suspect community”. Nawaz has concentrated rather less on shifting the common public narrative on Islam than his fellow critics.

Hizb ut-Tahrir has taken measures to smear and tarnish the personal reputations of its critics that go far beyond the limits of free and fair rebuttal. One tactic has been to set up spoiler blogs designed to discredit its critics. The first is the faked blog of Rashad Zaman Ali, another former member from Sheffield, who in fact has never had a personal blog on the net. The forgers have put up fake blog entries in his name, written in a naive polemical tone, answered themselves through posting comments and put up links to organisations seen as highly dubious or suspect in Party eyes like the Sufi Muslim Council, British Muslims for Secular Democracy and the Center for Islamic Pluralism, whose Executive Director is the journalist Stephen Schwartz. The implication is that there is no internal community criticism of the Party that is not politically aligned with American neoconservatism or with a betrayal of Islamic rule, one of two “roles” assigned to these organisations by the Party. This is unsubtle stuff but it is nonetheless effective among the alienated young Muslims the Party targets. There is similarly a fake blog for Maajid Nawaz, Toppled Pyramid. Both fake blogs were set up in September to counteract Nawaz’s real blog, Towards Political Engagement, launched at the end of August. The perpetrators did not cover their electronic tracks sufficiently and the blogs have been traced back to known members of the Party.

More serious are the coded threats of violence which Ed Husain has received like the rap poem penned by a Milton Keynes [1] member of the Party, Showkat Ali, in June this year, written as a confessional by Ed in the first person:

No ifs no Butts [Hassan Butt]
Some people after me
To stab me in the heart
Like they did Hassan in Manchester

I dread the return of the Caliphate
Who will apply to extradite me
Put me on trial
And then execute me
As a traitor.

This is totally unacceptable behaviour and it should be exposed. It seeks to end all dissent through a culture of implied violence and must be resolutely opposed. Similarly Nawaz has received explicit and abusive emails and death threats over the telephone which he has reported to the police. There is no positive proof to link these abusive acts to Party members, but Nawaz has noted that the emails contain names and references that could only be known to Party insiders.

The wisdom of putting forward a clear Islam/Islamism distinction to the general public that can be politically exploited by anti-Muslim and authoritarian tendencies is unclear. This binary distinction presents a black-and-white version of a complicated picture of change and adaption among Britain’s Muslim groups and movements, and may serve to inhibit rather than open up debate by provoking a defensive reaction motivated by the spirit of exoneration as much as anything else. An overstated case loses its bite: the trick is how to trigger respectful, constructive but sometimes tough-minded engagement. It remains vitally important that detailed discussion of the essential ideological elements of political Islam and their rather tenuous relevance to life in modern-day Britain and the everyday aspirations of most British Muslims takes place. It also has to be a public debate in order to be taken seriously by those who are being criticised; otherwise, in the normal way of such things, experience teaches that it will be swept under the carpet.

Now it is a tall order of business to take these ideas on in public without playing into Islamophobic stereotypes but that is the challenge ahead that faces British Muslims. And, of the three public critics of the Party, it is Maajid Nawaz who seems to have struck the most considered tone. Yet none of them should face deceptive smear tactics, abuse, intimidation or threats of implied violence. Nawaz has said that, in his time on the national executive committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain, the leadership endorsed the use of the internet to smear critics of the Party or to pose as non-Muslims on internet fora looking to discredit former members. So this is not a new tactic. No doubt in this case, a factor of plausible deniability may come into play, but it is up to the leadership to control its members and its youth (shabab) to conduct their rebuttals in the Islamic spirit of etiquette (adab) and good character (akhlaq). If they believe their ideas are worth defending then they would not feel the need to resort to these dirty tricks campaigns.

This blog has been republished courtesy of the new City Circle blog.

Please take note of the new comments policy here. All posters should give their full name, a verifiable email address, their hometown and/or their institutional/organisational affiliation and abide by all the other rules otherwise their post will not be put up.

Note

[1] Showkat Ali hails from Milton Keynes but was undergoing teaching training in Birmingham as reported in the New Statesman, 14 June 2007.

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Liberal Rule, or How to discipline Muslims

The Transatlantic Task Force on Immigration and Integration composed of senior or retired European and American politics has issued a report this month, “Integrating Islam: A New Chapter in ‘Church-State’ Relations”. Reports come and go and often get ignored but what caught my eye about this particular briefing was an unusual clarity of expression and bluntness.

There was only one British representative on the panel, Sir Trevor Phillips, the new Chair of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, but Britain’s approach to this issue is completely disregarded in this report, and is not even deemed worthy of hostile consideration. Perhaps the Londonistan stereotype has rendered the British contribution moot. Instead the report is much more interested in setting up official and legal frameworks for (i) the disciplining of Muslim representation and (ii) the regulation of the community’s chief religious institutions:

Religious discrimination should never be allowed to give succor to extremist recruitment strategies. Dialogue can help tamp down extremism through “trickle-down” effects. Recruiters’ causes rely on an adversarial relationship with the state…. … Religious integration, on the contrary, would lead to the “banalization” of religious practice. In other words, religious practice becomes everyday and routine; instead of forcing Islam out of the public sphere, this approach allows Muslim religious expression to the same degree that other faiths are tolerated and protected. The goal of these consultations, therefore, is not political integration through religion. Rather, the objective is to normalize religious practice in the Member State and European contexts such that everyday matters of faith can no longer be sensationalized as “evidence” of the incompatibility of Islam and Western democracy. [1]

The three approaches promoted here are the French, German and Italian models, all of which are very much works still in progress as the final form of settlement has yet to be achieved. All these three new Mosque-State concordats are post-9/11 initiatives. All this is given an added urgency in the report by invoking the Eurabian motif of the Muslim demographic threat by citing a 2005 report commissioned by the European Parliament: the Muslim population of Europe could grow from 3% in 2005 to 20% in 2050. [2]

The first strand, the regulation of Muslim representational politics, is to be done through the concordatory model, based on the historical settlements between the Churches and the State and modern European nation-states, on the formula of official recognition in exchange for the delimitation of the role of religion to civil society and its confinement to prescribed institutional pastoral roles, e.g. in prisons, hospital and interfaith.

There is an unspoken assumption here that interfaith be made the instrument for the redirection of Muslim politics and that the other Abrahamic faiths, already officially recognised, be the nursemaids. Any true political integration must come through party politics and not through religious lobbies. In this model the state explicitly sets out the nature and parameters of the dialogue in the pursuit of the delimitation of Islamism rather than seeking to mediate between interests (presumably the British mistake). Whom to talk to and why must be strictly regulated. A useful feature of the report is how it so usefully defines “dialogue” as not involving mutual interaction but asymmetric discipline through five features: (i) the state sets the terms of debate; (ii) official Islam platforms must be separated from the political process; (iii) the accommodation of religious practices must seek their banalization, or separation from identity politics; (iv) the selection of Muslim participants must fit in with the state’s agenda, remain “diverse” and, just to double check, be law-abiding; and (v) consider that while local dialogues may focus on institution building and inter-community arbitration, and national dialogues may focus on national regulation and values, the two should be linked together. [3] French Islamists, the report judges, have responded well to “dialogue as discipline”. One note of realism in the report is the admission that the over-represenation of secular or cultural Muslims may vitiate the state’s ability to deal with politicised or overly religious Muslims who are the main targets of this “dialogue as discipline”.

The second strand, the regulation of chief religious institutions, gains additional salience as the means by which to contain Muslim identity politics and redirect Islamism into pastoral provision, mosque management and interfaith dialogue. The provision of local imam training, attached to tertiary education, comes near the top of the agenda, and is linked explicitly with the goals of combating extremism and fostering cultural (note, not political) integration. It plays to the stereotype of the shepherd who directs his flock.

In terms of governmentality theory this is all rather redolent of nineteenth century techniques of disciplinary rule used to create the law-abiding citizen. [4] Throughout there is the assumption that Muslim interlocutors are prone to law-breaking and need to be reminded of the basics of modern society. At the least the British approach contains some strong elements of the regulation of desire (talk of shared national values rather than of rule of law) and the notions of liberal self-discipline (self-regulation of institutions not concordats). If these are the only two choices on the European table, it might be preferable to be charmed into compliance rather than disciplined into it. [5] This just goes to show how far “the Muslim problem” has become removed from the ordinary decencies of normal political processes when there is so little trust, respect or understanding. For the Muslim at least, Europe does feel more nineteenth century than twenty first, more a postcolony than a democratic federation.

Notes

[1] Jonathan Laurence, Integrating Islam: A New Chapter in “Church-State” Relations (Transatlantic Task Force on Immigration and Integration, October 2007), p. available at http://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/LaurenceIslamicDialogue100407.pdf

[2] Cited on p. 2 of the report. The original reference is Karoly Lorant, “The demographic challenge in Europe”, Brussels: Euorpean Parliament, 2005), available at http://www.europarl.europa.eu/inddem/docs/papers/The%20demographic%20challenge%20in%20Europe.pdf.

[3] Jonathan Lawrence, ibid.

[4] Nikolas Rose, Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought (Cambridge: University Press, 1999), 23, 45-46. Foucault suggests a repetoire of governmentality or “the conduct of conduct” (techniques of governance that direct behaviour). These are developed in the nineteenth through to the twentieth centuries but remain in place as possibilities, should the need arise, as it has in this case. There are three possibilities of governmentality: (i) sovereignty: “a discontinuous exercise of power through display and spectacle, law as command, sanctions as negative and deductive”; (ii) discipline: “the continuous exercise of power through surveillance, individualisation and normalisation”; and (iii) governmentality: “maximizing the forces of the population collectively and individually”. These modes could either be applied to the individual body (“discipline”) or to the collectivity (“bio-politics”). In turn these show how the subject of these techniques is characterised: “the ‘thin’ moral subject of habits…, to the individuated normal subject of constitution, character and condition…to the collectively understood social subject of solidarity or of alienation and anomie…, through the citizen subject of rights and obligations in regimes of social welfare and social insurance to the autonomous ‘deep’ subject of choice and self-identity.”

[5] i.e. to be the subject at least of “governmentality” or “biopolitics” (Anglo-American deregulation) rather than of “discipline” (continental concordatory arrangements), which are more classically nineteenth-century. At least the former more associated with the post-1945 world, and might approximate to the treatment of citizens rather than of postcolonial subjects.

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Big Tent Islam in America

The impressions of a British Muslim about the Islamic Society of North America’s 2007 annual convention. Posted here, courtesy of Emel Magazine.

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