Monthly Archives: November 2007

Brass Crescent Nominations are now up

Nominations for the Fourth Annual Brass Crescent Awards are now up (now that the good folk at the Awards have finished wading through 300 nominations). Voting closes on the 14th December.

It’s the strongest ever British performance this year, although far be for me to suggest that patriotism is the only valid voting criterion! The Brits include Spirit21 for “Best Blog” and “Best Female Blog”, The Cutting Edge, Rolled-Up Trousers and The Islamicist all make it into “Most Deserving of Wider Recognition”, Deenport for “Best Design”, A Muslim Think Tank for “Best Post or Series” on Muslims in the EU, Riazat Butt’s Islamophonic for “Best Multimedia Blog” and The Cutting Edge crops up again for “Best Ijtihad”. Oh, and some bloke managed to sneak in as well and is completely failing to show the requisite faux sangfroid at the moment!

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Free Gillian Gibbons

Gillian Gibbons has been given a “lenient” fifteen-day sentence for allegedly insulting the Prophet by allowing her pupils to name a teddy bear Muhammad after asking them to vote for a name that they liked. The judge ignored any question of (lack of) intent or cultural misunderstanding despite strong support from her pupils, their parents and teaching staff at the primary school where she taught in Khartoum. This whole affair is setting the worst possible example: where is the tolerance, understanding, clemency or mercy? It displays harshness and pettiness in equal measure and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. It seems to be a political case through and through, as Soumaya Gannoushi argues, and has more to do with the Sudanese government looking to pin back what it sees as British interference in Darfur.

Gillian Gibbons should be freed immediately, cleared of all charges and be given an official apology from the Sudanese government.

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Muslims, Anti-Muslims and the theatre of the absurd

Sometimes the best way to deal with a loudmouth (Martin Amis), nothwithstanding Terry Eagleton’s or Ronan Bennett’s valiant efforts, is to send him up. Chris Morris provides a masterclass here, noting striking similarities between Martin Amis and Abu Hamza. It really cheered me up: it will cheer you up too.

It’s sobering to note that the University of Manchester seems to cashing in on the whole thing by hosting Amis and Ed Husain on “Literature and Terrorism” next Monday. (Presumably the novel idea here is to get the protagonists to mostly agree with each other, for Amis’s “horrorism” to find confirmation in a Muslim echo chamber. I hope I am proved wrong.) Holding this event seems to isolate Eagleton (Amis’s departmental colleague) or anyone else at the University who has taken a stand against those who can’t control those little urges to voice thought experiments in “collective punishment”. Even the “good” Muslims, delusional children who contend that their primitive faith might approximate to true, rational, liberal values, can be condescended to as useful-enough idiots against the jihadis, even if one must put up with their “gobbledegook”. If some want to argue that the only really good Muslim is an ex-Muslim (i.e. only Ayaan Hirsi Ali has really got it right), then is it really any surprise that polling keeps showing that large numbers of Muslims think that the “war on terror” is “a war on Islam”?

A sure sign of a hostile and prejudicial climate is the repeated claim that it doesn’t exist or even that being prejudiced is a badge of honour (because it doesn’t really exist).

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More free speech, not less

In October the Racial and Religious Hatred Act came into force in Britain that outlaws anyone from stirring up religious hatred against people on religious grounds. From the late Eighties onwards, it was argued that while certain religious groups such as Sikhs and Jews were seen as ethnic groups under incitement to racial hatred legislation, others like Christians and Muslims were not. The Act is meant to provide fair protection across the board for all the main religious groups in the UK.

Considering how controversial the Act has been, this milestone has received little or no comment. Why? The main reason is that the law is largely symbolic. The threshold for evidence is so high, given the fear that the freedom to criticize religion would be compromised, that the law is unlikely to be used. In fact it will do little to change, and may even exacerbate, the cultural standoff in Europe around Muslims that has been heating up over the past twenty five years or so.

After the Rushdie Affair in 1988-1989, both community politics and public perceptions of British Muslims were defined by free speech controversies until 9/11 when the “terrorist” motif took precedence. Arguably British Muslims have had three responses to direct cultural attacks on their identity, religion and culture, which is backed up by an academically-sound National Opinion Poll conducted in 2006.

The first, supported by about nine per cent, is the Muslim Power approach and is unconcerned with defending free speech. It supports complete free speech for Muslims even if they attack others in hateful terms or incite violence and the use of the law to silence critics of Islam and Muslims. This approach mirrors and plays into an anti-Muslim agenda and aids the authoritarian instincts that persist in even the most democratic of governments.

In autumn 2001, when the government first tried to pass a version of the incitement to religious hatred law, it was tagged with anti-terror legislation and promoted as protecting Muslim communities. In fact the Home Office had other ideas at the time: a friendly official showed the list of proposed prosecutions to a prominent activist and there were more Muslim than non-Muslim names on it — filled with the usual suspects of course. Similarly it’s often black people who have been prosecuted under incitement to racial hatred legislation.

The second and most popular, backed by around 29% of British Muslims, is the Defenders of Islam approach. It looks to defend Islam from external and internal attacks by using the law. This approach is quite happy to see both Abu Hamza and Nick Griffin silenced, a strategy that has proved tempting to successive Home Secretaries as well. However, as the legal expert Eric Heinze argues, European legislation outlawing forms of hate speech has a decidedly unimpressive track record in the courts.

The basic reason is that it is very difficult to establish the intent behind what people say and therefore court decisions are rare, sporadic and often seem biased and driven by the political climate. Given all this, Muslims are very likely to be a key target of this new legislation.

The Terrorism Act 2006 even goes a step further by not requiring the need to establish intent at all in any speech that glorifies or encourages terrorism. As Liberty said at the time, “outlawing passionate speech and criminalizing non-violent political parties will make Britain less safe by silencing dissent”. This has a chilling effect on political dissent within Muslim communities that the Defenders of Islam have inadvertently helped to create.

The third stance is a consistent free speech stand that protects all Britons against encroachments on their legal right to express their viewpoint freely, and to profess even controversial, rude or offensive views. According to the poll, only 3% of British Muslims supported this approach, so this is definitely a minority opinion. However it seems to me to be best option for three reasons.

Firstly, defending the rights of all is more likely to preserve the rights of minorities than legal restrictions that are liable to be applied discriminately. The law should serve to enable not disable free speech across the board. Secondly, the distinction in law between what people say and inciting people to some other criminal act, particularly to violence, that has been eroded should be reestablished. Thirdly, and most importantly, there should be a shift away from legal to cultural approaches. We need to censure but never censor anti-Muslim prejudice. Far better than rebuttals will be the humanizing of all our Muslim stories through the media, culture and the arts and the enabling and not the silencing of our political voices.

Yahya Birt is Director of City Circle and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

Reproduced courtesy of Emel Magazine. This first appeared in Issue 38 in Nov 2007.

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Thought Crime comes to Britain

Boyd Tonkin says it much better than I could, but the case of the Lyrical Terrorist shows that people can now be locked up for what they think, what they write and what they read, download and print out from the Internet. How can we have come to the position whereby the first response of the state is to send an angry young Muslim to jail for what they think, write or read? This is madness. Better that she had received some kind of counseling, advice and guidance, talking her out of her violent fantasies. If she had planned to move from the realm of fantasy to reality and was part of some plot, it would have been entirely different. That the law no longer seems to recognise the distinction is truly chilling.

Boyd Tonkin: The scribblings of dreamers are catharsis, not crime
Let’s hope no anti-terror officer ever browses in that banquet of butchery, ‘The Iliad’

The Independent, 12 November 2007

http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/article3152363.ece

Thought crime has come to Britain. We knew that in principle, as wave after wave of legislation has pushed the scope of anti-terror laws from deeds and plans to words. The case of Samina Malik, the Heathrow airport worker and jihadi fantasist convicted on Thursday under the Terrorism Act, confirms it beyond reasonable doubt.

True, the legal core of the prosecution’s case lay in the Islamist horror handbooks (“How to Make Bombs” and so on) found on her computer – although there is no evidence that she ever lifted a finger to act on them. But the mood music of insinuation played out entirely around the poems, the scribblings, the postings of the self-described “Lyrical Terrorist”. With the whole of Catholic Europe desperate to dethrone her, Elizabeth I famously said that “I would not make windows into men’s souls”. Now the British state, which politely declines to raise the issue of human rights when it entertains the Saudi autocrats who have funded the export of jihadi extremism around the world, makes those windows, kicks them in, and tells young Muslim hotheads that every stupid brainstorm may send them straight to jail.

Besides, if trite bloodthirsty verse of the sort that helped to convict Malik agitates our law-makers so much, perhaps they should start their crackdowns in higher places than a bedroom in Southall. Take George Bush’s new best buddy, Nicolas Sarkozy. Every day, this patron of terrorist lyrics permits – no, commands – the singing of Rouget de Lisle’s “War Song of the Rhine Army”, better known as the “Marseillaise”. And what does every rugby team or village fete bellow each time the chorus comes around?

The final couplet’s invitation to massacre the counter-revolutionary infidel could hardly be clearer: “Let impure blood drench our fields!” Even closer to home is an inflammatory anthem crammed with sanguinary images of “scarlet standards” and the “martyred dead”, sung by a British political conspiracy once dedicated to overturning the entire economic order of society.

After a spine-chilling evocation of “martyrs” who died in ideological battle, the sinister ditty (“The Red Flag”) explains why this movement’s symbol is “deepest red”: “ere their limbs grew stiff and cold/ Their hearts’ blood dyed its every fold”. Truly chilling stuff. Surely, the leader of an organisation who sanctioned the singing of such a grotesque hymn to sacrificial death should at least have his hard drive examined by our Thought Police?

The glamour of bloody strife in a higher cause has appealed to dreamers and drifters since the first tribal bard brought news of shattered limbs and spurting arteries from the first battlefield. And if Malik’s gory imaginings rendered her a “complete enigma” to the Recorder of London, then much of western culture – which has often gloried in sanctified slaughter – must remain a closed book to him. Let’s hope that no anti-terror officer ever bothers to browse in The Iliad, that banquet of butchery served up with a relish that has excited writers for 2,500 years: “Achilles slit open his liver/The liver spurted loose/ he reared and jammed his lance through the man’s ear”.

From Homer to 50 Cent, lonely and frustrated youngsters have sought to compensate for the limitations of their lives via the vicarious thrill of spoken or written violence. Malik’s own non-Islamist inspirations included Tupac Shakur, the rapper who lived the “thug life” as well as singing about it. His posthumous stock as a poet of the gang-ridden ghetto streets rose so high after his death by shooting in 1996 that Harvard University hosted a conference on his work. I find Tupac’s literary charms pretty resistible (“I want to piss on his head/ I want his family dead” and so on, ad nauseam) but the usual defence of gangsta rap deserves a hearing.

This material acts as catharsis, not incitement; as purgation and not provocation. Puerile it may be, but the bellicose doggerel of the “Lyrical Terrorist” herself looks like a feeble attempt to graft hip-hop style onto the Islamic tradition of counter-crusading warrior verse (“Move to the front line/ To chop chop head of kuffar swine”). Of course, the Muslim world came rather late to the poetic pleasures of holy gore. The medieval Chanson de Roland, another pillar of European literature, boasts enough smiting and slicing of the Saracens to keep the “Islamophobia” hunters busy for weeks. As for her beheading riff (“It’s not as messy or as hard as one may think/ It’s all about the flow of the wrist”): this feels rather like a sexual fantasy gone astray. And we know that cults of holy war and martyrdom tend to thrive in cultures where sacred violence leads to honour but sexual expression leads to shame.

Whenever police officers, politicians or our not-so-secret service chiefs decide to scare us again, they summon up the current menace to the “British way of life”. Curiously enough, the “Lyrical Terrorist” case has helped define the features of that way of life that urgently need defence. They include a sense of proportion and a sense of the absurd; an unflustered sympathy with human oddity and eccentricity; and – these days, above all – a common-sense refusal to be stampeded into repressive hysteria by every youthful folly or fantasy just because it wears a headscarf or a beard. How the real predators must rejoice to see our blinked enforcers open up a ring-binder full of unwisely scribbled desires and dreams, and cry “Wolf!”.

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Wahhabi Wrangles

Paul Vallely, one of the more thoughtful commentators on British Muslim life, has written a background piece called “Wahhabism: A deadly scripture” in response to all the botheration over King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s recent state visit to Britain and the release of a recent report on hate literature found in mosques (which I haven’t yet read), probably timed to coincide with his visit, which lays a large part of the blame for this literature on the influence of Wahhabism in the UK. However I would like to clarify a few matters in Vallely’s piece that don’t exactly reflect my current view. This is a matter of interpretation and inference rather than willful misquoting or anything pernicious like that (as Vallely is one of the straight journalists.) Vallely is quoting from an old piece I referred him to, the heart of which was written straight after 9/11, although it was only published four years later. Such is the pace of academic publishing. So for the record:

1. A lot of Saudi funding was pretty benign: it went into infrastructural projects. They rarely looked to control mosques they funded or part-funded. They funded the mosques of preferred sectarian allies. They also funded the mosques of sectarian rivals too, including Sufi mosques in the UK. After 9/11 a lot of this funding has dried up due to internal and external political pressures.

2. More pertinent in my view at the time was, and still is, the impact in the UK of Salafi preachers trained in Saudi Arabia and their mass investment in the dissemination of Salafi teaching through publishing and the internet. This had a negative impact at the time because of the promotion of religious exclusivism and intolerance.

3. Yet British Salafis were among the first to combat the takfiri jihadis and, as I’ve written before, that needs to be recognised.

4. It might be inferred from one quote from me that I think textual literalism opens up the possibility of terrorism. I don’t believe that. But theological intolerance is another matter.

5. As Vallely’s piece rightly argues, mixing up conservative law-abiding Muslims with the few genuinely violent extremists is a big mistake that many are prone to. Of course some ultra-conservative values have implications for cultural integration, but this is an issue that needs to be calmly considered. Preaching hatred and intolerance is no small matter, but neither is the wish of some to forcibly assimilate religious conservatives to secular progressive values. Finding the right balance between preserving diversity and promoting tolerance and solidarity firstly in law and secondly in public culture is essential.

6. As I’ve written before, Wahhabi and Islamist bashing has become a viable career option, and blanket stereotypes can have serious consequences for these people’s basic rights. We need to reach out and work with British Salafis, one reason why I supported the recent Sunni unity pledge. It’s awful to see this kind of material reposted on a website of the execrable BNP for their own pernicious reasons.

7. I used to be comfortable with the use of the term “Wahhabism” but have subsequently changed my mind. There is the self-designation as “Salafi”, but various strands need to be distinguished. Of course that self-designation is contested: most Muslims see the Salaf as comprising the first three generations of the Muhammadan umma, those who come after are the khalaf. But, more in the sociological sense, the term “Salafi” can be used. But there are caveats. The nineteenth century liberal reformers like Afghani and Abduh saw themselves as Salafis. They influenced the Islamist movements. From the sixties onwards this current has merged with “Wahhabism” properly speaking that originated with Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. This merged form was politicised and puritan and was spread globally with the windfall of oil revenues. There have been political differences since the 1990s after the First Gulf War, and global Salafism/Wahhabism has become very divided on political issues since then. Vallely’s article reflects these subtleties.

8. In Britain since 9/11, some Salafis have sought to move towards Hanbalism, explored the spiritual dimension of the faith, the resources for national belonging and identity and a recognition of our pluralist society and democratic context. Others are doing very serious work on civil liberties. All this should be recognised too.

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Muslim Hip Hop UK: An interview with Tony Ishola

The Platform Magazine

Yahya Birt interviews Tony “Bilal” Ishola, the founding editor of The Platform Magazine, “Your Original Muslim Hip-Hop Source”, which has just put out its big launch issue with a CD sampler showcasing some of the best Muslim talent here in the UK and Stateside. Frustrated with the direction that mainstream hip hop was taking, Bilal decided to set up the magazine to support “positive and conscious” artists so that they could get their message out there without having to compromise “their core beliefs to get their records sold”. Since it first came out in November 2006, the magazine has reflected a new wave of consciousness among Muslim hip hop artists after 9/11, who want to get a more positive message out there.

YB: When and how did Islamic influences come into popular music in the West?

TI: It’s always been there ever since black people came to the West. They brought their culture and their music. Hip hop is just poetry spoken over beats really. Rhythm and poetry, that’s basically what rap music is.

YB: Do you think there was a Muslim influence there, even if it wasn’t seen that way?

TI: Yes, there always has been. And even when hip hop music started with people like Afrika Bambaataa in the 1970s, they used samples of Malcolm X. So there’s always been some form of influence in hip hop.

YB: How about Muslim rappers?

TI: In the 90s when I began to get conscious of these sorts of things, I noticed Moss Def for example. He’s one of the best Muslim rappers that I know. Though he sings about lots of things, he doesn’t hide the fact that he’s Muslim.

YB: When did a Muslim hip hop scene kick off in the UK?

TI: I’m not too aware of when it kicked off in the UK as I spent my teenage years in Nigeria. As for those in the UK who didn’t hide their religion in their music I would say that this is something new. It’s something that came in the 2000s. It came as a result of other people telling young Muslims what to think about their religion. They felt they had a different opinion to express and they just decided to use their talents to express it. It’s not just in hip hop, it’s in other forms of culture and art, and in business, film and broadcasting too. Muslims are now expressing themselves more, expressing their religion more, using whatever gifts Allah has given them for da`wah.

YB: The Muslim hip hop scene in the UK seems to be getting bigger.

TI: The internet has helped a lot of Muslim artists from Morocco, from Amsterdam, from America, from the UK, from South Africa, from everywhere. People have set up various websites, and artists have used MySpace to get their music out there. It’s out there, but it’s not been getting the attention that it deserves, but people who are into this type of hip hop know where to find it.

YB: It seems that there are many different messages that Muslim hip hop in the UK is sending out, particularly political ones because of the current situation. It’s quite a political, socially-conscious form of hip hop isn’t it?

TI: Yes, yes. I’m all for freedom of speech. It’s no hidden fact that a lot of kids in the West are angry, and they have opinions and they want to express them. I don’t think these opinions should be suppressed. At one point I think we should all sit down and discuss our differences. That’s my opinion. A lot of these kids have checkered pasts — some of them have been to prison, and some of them discovered Islam while in prison. Islam has given them a different perspective on life, and a lot of them are angry about the angle the war on terror is taking, what’s going on in Palestine and issues like that. Muslims feel this affects them personally and these kids feel they have something to say. Instead of meeting in secret to discuss these issues, why shouldn’t they express themselves openly so long as they are not harming anybody? The Platform Magazine is out to encourage that sort of thing.

YB: What kind of reception has Muslim hip hop had from the Muslim community here in the UK?

TI: From the Muslim community in the UK, it’s been mostly positive, but you do get a few who come up to you and say that Islam and hip hop shouldn’t mix. I think fair enough, no problem, fine, if you think that hip hop is haram, then simply don’t listen to it. Spread the da`wah the way you know best and I’ll do what I can do. I haven’t been pushing the magazine in places where I feel it wouldn’t be welcome.

YB: What are your future plans for The Platform Magazine?

TI: I can’t really say here but we have big plans for the magazine. The magazine aims to support the Muslim hip hop movement and it really needs support.

YB: You’ve also covered social issues in the magazine as well.

TI: We’re trying to give people a voice. Hip hop is a lifestyle as well; it’s not just the music. People rap and sing about whatever they face in their day to day lives. So it’s important to express actual reality in the magazine as well.

YB: Isn’t there a lot of scaremongering around “rude boys” and gang members in Muslim communities?

TI: Definitely. A lot of Muslim kids are into these sorts of things. We have a responsibility to make sure that the Muslim community is an example to other communities. Unfortunately, a lot of the people involved in violent gangs are from Muslim backgrounds and this is something we are trying to change by education, creativity and openness.

YB: What are some the hip hop acts we should be looking out for in the UK?

TI: Blind Alphabetz for one. They’ve got their new album Luvolution out. There’s Poetic Pilgrimage, Blakstone, SIC, Pearls of Islam, Sun Zoo, Masikah, Jnr SAS and many more. And from the US there’s people like Cilvaringz — who also has a new album out, 580, Ishues, Sister Haero, Akir and the Remarkable Current team.

YB: Thanks very much Bilal. I appreciate your time. As-salamu alaykum.

TI: wa alaykumus salam.

The Platform Magazine is available in stores now and you can subscribe online at www.theplatformag.com and it has a MySpace site <myspace.com/theplatformag>. For any enquiries you can email: info@theplatformag.com

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