Category Archives: Culture and the Arts

Telling the Story of How British Muslims Are Part of the Nation’s History

Currently British Muslims are marginal to the story of the nation. Yahya Birt argues that this can only change for the better if Muslim communities support initiatives to recover and present their own history.

Idries_Shah

Idries Shah (1924–1996), Sufi teacher and author, not yet in the ODNB.

There are many ways in which we reflect upon and produce new versions of the story of Britain. This is both to make sense of the present and to project our hopes and fears on to the future. It is unsurprising that British Muslims, around half of whom were born in the UK, are interested in exploring their own historical roots in Britain. As part of this exploration, the question naturally arises as to how well this strand of British history is reflected in our national cultural life. A partial answer lies in looking at how British Muslims are represented in one of the key cultural institutions concerned with British history – The Dictionary of National Biography.

With its first edition dating from the late nineteenth century, the Dictionary is the equal of institutions like the BBC and the National Trust in terms of telling our national story. Taken over by the University of Oxford in the late 1990s, a second edition of sixty volumes was published in 2004. Since 2005, it has been made available online through subscription and has nearly 60,000 biographies described in 70 million words, and counting. It is currently updated three times a year.

The broad criteria for inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), as it is now known, are threefold. First of all you have to be dead. Secondly you have to have left a mark on an aspect of national life for good or for ill. And finally, you don’t have to have been resident in the UK as such but rather to have met the second criterion.

But leaving this final criterion aside for a moment, a search reveals that twenty-seven British Muslims are featured in the ODNB. For argument’s sake, I’ve excluded non-resident Muslims who had an impact on British life, as well as those who, like Iqbal and Jinnah, only stayed in Britain for a relatively short period to complete their studies.

So – according to what I hope are defensible criteria for singling out British Muslims – the ODNB list in order of their death dates includes twenty-three men and three women in total: John Ward [called Issouf Reis, Captain Wardiyya] (c.1553–1623?), Mehemet von Königstreu (c.1660–1726), Joseph Pitts (1663–c.1735), Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (c.1701–1773), Thomas Pellow (b. 1703/4), Edward Wortley Montagu (1713–1776), Efendi Osman [formerly William Thomson] (b. before 1800, d. 1835), Deen Mahomed (1759–1851), Lord Stanley (1827–1903), “Munshi” Abdul Karim (1862/3–1909), Saiyid Ameer Ali (1849–1928), William Henry Quilliam [known as Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam; Haroon Mustapha Leon] (1856–1932), Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din (1870–1932), Lord Headley (1855–1935), Marmaduke Pickthall (1875–1936), Noor Inayat Khan (1914–1944), Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1872–1953), Harry St John Bridger Philby (1885–1960), Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1867–1963), Kalim Siddiqui (1933–1996), Attia Shahid Hosain (1913–1998), Martin Lings (1909–2005), Zaki Badawi (1922–2006), Aleksandr Valterovich Litvinenko (1962–2006), Gai Eaton (1921–2010) and Michael Barry (1941–2011). To my mind the list is a decent start but it is far from exhaustive and it is too unrepresentative – with fifteen out of the twenty-seven being converts, three of whom experienced forced conversions (Pitts, Pellow and Osman).

A Facebook discussion I initiated recently about who else might be included in the ODNB showed me that the story we British Muslims tell about our history in Britain is still in many separate strands. These strands have yet to be woven into a single rope that we could lay claim to as a grand narrative we might comfortably identify with. However, the appetite to work together to shape such a unifying narrative is unmistakable.

Out of this preliminary conversation, a tentative long list of new candidates for the ODNB was formed. It was clear from this online exchange that a significant contribution to community life as opposed to national life could be separate matters. So would it be better for an Encyclopaedia of British Islam project to be initiated to help map what is currently terra incognita before a real impact could be made in reshaping the national story? And does a lasting contribution to Muslim community life constitute an aspect of national life that would meet the ODNB’s selection parameters or not? The experience of other communities in Britain certainly seems to indicate that a concerted effort in recovering their own histories with the assistance of academics is necessary before any serious headway can be made to identify their place within the national story. In other words, if we cannot identify its significance for ourselves then we cannot explain its significance to others.

In the long list, the additional proposed entries range from the sixteenth century up to 2016 and include yet more converts, but also pirates, poets, artists, aristocrats, businessmen, soldiers, actors, terrorists, orators, scholars, activists and Sufis. Sadly, at the time, no one suggested any additional women.

Some of the notables mentioned were John Nelson (fl. 16 cent.), one of the earliest recorded English converts to Islam, John [Yahya-en-Nasr] Parkinson (1874–1918), Scottish poet and essayist, Hedley Churchward (d. 1929), artist and one of the earliest British Muslim converts to have performed the Hajj, Sir Abdullah Archibald Hamilton (1876–1939), 5th Baronet of Trebishun, Breconshire and 3rd Baronet of Marlborough House, Hampshire, Taherally Rehmanji Suterwalla (1914–1970), founder of the TRS food wholesaler and cash-and-carry chain, Khudadad Khan (1881–1971), the first Indian Army winner of the Victoria Cross, during the First World War (representative of several other winners of VCs and the St George’s Cross), William Burchell Bashyr Pickard (1889–1973), novelist and poet, Dino Shafeek (1930–1984), TV actor and star of Mind Your Language and It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, Mohammad Sidique Khan (1974–2005), ringleader of the 7/7 bombers, Mohammed John Webster (1913–2008), orator and public speaker, the actor Saeed Jaffrey (1929–2015), and the British-Iraqi architect Dame Zaha Hadid (1950–2016).

Some of the scholars and activists included Mohammad Amir Ahmad Khan (1914-1973), Raja of Mahmudabad, founder of the All-India Muslim League and the First Director of the Regent’s Park Mosque, Mahmood Ahmed Mirpuri (1945–1988), imam and pioneering figure in the Jamiat Ahl-e-­Hadith UK, Khurram Murad (1932–1996), the second Director-General of the Islamic Foundation, Sayed Mutawalli ad-Darsh (1930–1997), Azhari sheikh, imam of the Regent’s Park Mosque, President of the Shariah Council, and Q-News columnist, Bashir Ahmad (1940–2009), first Muslim Member of the Scottish Parliament, businessman and community activist in Glasgow, Syed Aziz Pasha (1930–2011), founder of the Union of Muslim Organisations, Said Hassan Ismail (1930-2011), the prominent Welsh-Yemeni imam and scholar, Cardiff, Mohammad Naseem (1924–2014), GP and Chair of the Birmingham Central Mosque, and Hafiz Muhammad Ishaq Patel (1926–2016), the Amir of the Tablighi Jama‘at in the UK and Europe and founder of the Institution of Islamic Education in Dewsbury.

Some of the suggested Sufis, many of whom did much to spread Islam in Britain, were Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882–1927), founder of the Sufi Order of the West, Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi (c.1900–1954), Shadhili sheikh and founder of several mosque-zawiyas in interwar Britain, Shah Shahidullah Faridi [born John Gilbert Lennard] (1915–1978), Sabri Chishti sheikh, author and convert, Muhammad Abdul Wahab Siddiqi (1942–1994), Naqshbandi sheikh, Deputy Leader of the Muslim Parliament and founder of the Hijaz College in Nuneaton, Idries Shah (1922–1996), the Sufi author and teacher, Mehmet Nazim Adil (1922–2014), Grand Sheikh of the Naqshbandi Haqqani Sufi Order, and Muhammad Abdullah Khan (1923-2015), a prominent Naqshbandi sheikh of Birmingham.

Update

Prof. Ron Geaves and Dr Jamie Gilham have discovered that the entry in Islam: Our Choice, identified as belonging to  Sir Thomas Lauder Brunton (1844–1916), is incorrect. Although the name is similar, the birth and death dates are not, and his great-grandson has confirmed that the Baronet, medic and pharmacologist was not a Muslim. So its true provenance has yet to be ascertained. Therefore he has been removed from above list of British Muslim entries to be found in the ONDB.

We can all play a role, so please do comment below as to who else might be included and why, providing links to further resources about their lives.

This is a cross-post from Everyday Muslim.

Yahya Birt is undertaking a doctorate at the University of Leeds. If you have any materials or records relating to political activism in the British Muslim community between the 1960s and 1990s and wish to get involved then please contact him via prjjb AT leeds.ac.uk

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This Dance between “Extremists” and “Formers” is Past Its Sell-By Date: A Review of ITV’s “Jihad” Documentary

A lot of British Muslims who watched the Exposure documentary “Jihad: A British Story” on ITV last night probably did so with a powerful sense of déjà vu. But not for the emotional reasons one might think, not with feelings of collective guilt or shame. Rather I would hazard a guess that feelings of jadedness and ennui predominated instead. That sounds shockingly cynical, uncaring, even delusional, given that we have a very frightening and real problem of some British teens and even families going over the Turkish borders to join ISIS.

So why is there such a reaction? Well, we have been here before. Former extremists dramatize their personal stories to overshadow all of our community’s multifarious and untold human stories to feed a dominant meme of the post-9/11 world: namely, that this complex geopolitical crisis is really all about maladjusted Muslim men. The stories about the marginal Hizb ut-Tahrir and the minority Salafi movement have cast such a large shadow that almost nothing else about British Muslims in the eighties and nineties gets through into popular culture or the public debate nowadays, except perhaps the Satanic Verses Affair, which is problematic for different reasons.

Imagine for a moment that the retelling of Britain’s recent past is dominated by tales of splits on the hard left during the Cold War or the Militant Tendency and entryism, these being the only stories that get attention in popular culture and public life. Imagine even that parts of it were ghost-written by the Kremlin and sold as gospel truth to the British. It would be ridiculed and called out immediately. Let us at least pause therefore to consider why it is so much more difficult for a beleaguered minority community to call out a similar level of misrepresentation in any sort of impactful way. Its impotence at challenging this myth effectively explains why many British Muslims are jaded and bored by a documentary like this. Pretty much everyone I speak to in the community feels irritated and exasperated: these stories are not our stories and the resentment at being misrepresented by them is palpable.

The everyday Muslim is hidden in these narratives: she who never ran to answer the call for the caliphate or  jihad, or took up the condemnations of traditional Muslim piety as false innovation, polytheistic and the like, who never had to grow up and later regret a misspent youth. She is an invisible cipher, present yet absent, a cardboard cut-out, an intangible rhetorical device used to gloss over the serious ramifications of putting marginal stories on the centre stage rather than in their proper context. She who has to put up with endless reiterations of the stale dance between the “extremists” and the “formers”. No wonder she is less than impressed.

These stories get marketed heavily through the publishing giants or the media companies. Such high-level exposure of one’s personal story remarketed as everyone else’s story too is the golden ticket for a now well-trodden and lucrative path towards a future career as a wealthy and feted “former”. The pitch to government is the same: we have a unique psychological insight into extremism and we know best how to counteract it. That proposition might even be tolerable if such work were done quietly and sensibly, but these “formers” (with no scholarly credentials) often then take on the mantle of great “reformers”, tasked with dragging Islam kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. The message may have changed but the modus operandi often has not: it is often hectoring criticism from the margins of community, oddly distant from the very people it seeks to transform and save from their benighted condition. Such a transition from “extremist” to “former” does not appear to be informed by repentance. For the most part, the “formers” are still angry with themselves and contemptuous and detached from their community. They do not forgive their community its many failings and weaknesses or love it despite its human frailties: they want to break it and transform it in their image, an image that is itself prey to their own nomadic, confused and tortuous journeying in search of belonging and a home.

However, the striking thing about Abu Muntasir in the documentary was that he has not forgiven himself. I know that there will be cynics out there but for me his tears were unquestionably real, and not staged. His sorrow about his role in the jihad is not new: it has been well-known for the last ten years in the community and was reported in the national press. And, publicly at least, this is rare among “formers”. They are for the most part still self-righteous, vocal and angry, and not repentant, humbled and happy to work quietly to make a better world.

My biggest objection to the narrative of the programme is that it provided no context for Abu Muntasir and his erstwhile camp followers. In the story of the British jihad, it is true that he was a pioneering figure and that he was not a minor character. He did have influence but only precariously so in the setting of a complex and disaggregated scene of small jihadi peer groups and networks in ferocious competition with each other. But it is a gross exaggeration to describe him as the “godfather of the British jihad”, as the filmmaker Deeyah Khan did. The British jihad was never centralised. It did not have a pyramidal mafia-style power structure. Yet this is the moniker for Abu Muntasir that the British and the international press has now run with. The mobster overtones were reinforced by filming these middle-aged British Muslim men with lighting and backdrops strongly redolent of how former gangsters lamenting their misspent youth are shot on camera. The ex-criminal visual tropes were all there. One has to ask why Abu Muntasir should acquiesce to this rebranding. This is a critical point, just as it was when the ex-Hizb ut-Tahrir members who formed the Quilliam Foundation sold themselves as central to the story of radicalization when their group was in reality quite distant and distinct from the various strands of Salafi jihadism.

In the documentary, another student of Abu Muntasir’s Alyas Karmani (disclaimer: an old school-friend of mine) did a lot to frame these stories as ones primarily about psychological maladjustment, for instance, sexual frustration (again, a theme that has cropped up over many decades to belittle all kinds of Muslim political agency, violent or non-violent, and discounted by terrorism experts such as Marc Sageman). I would not want to deny there are psychological issues but that these should not be assessed in such a way as to preclude politics, whether that is micro-, organisational, community, national or global. And it seems to me that to preclude (or even disparage) a political sensibility is one of the tacit preconditions for becoming a “former”. Yet such an apolitical stance fails to recognise let alone negotiate a complex multipolar world of clashing interests and conflict, a world after American hegemony. It not only infantilises “extremists” and “formers” but is also a roundabout way of occluding Muslim political agency in general. It absolves “the West” by removing it from the story entirely. Indeed, the psychodrama played out in the documentary between “extremists” and “formers” perpetuates a fiction that this story is only about a clash within the House of Islam.

The documentary went one step further in decontextualizing and depoliticising the story of the British jihad. It used the eighties and the nineties, the years before the al-Qaeda network became politically significant, to talk to our contemporary situation where a younger generation of jihadi millennials is being drawn to ISIS, which itself is in deadly competition with an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. However, Da‘esh, unlike al-Qaeda, is a highly centralised organisation that runs a proto-state the size of Britain. ISIS is offering an alternate society not just endless armed struggle like al-Qaeda did. It is neither smart nor wise to preclude politics and historical context to such an extent that we miss what is new and important about this generation or the appeal of ISIS.

So if we Britons care about our shared future we cannot therefore allow the stale waltz between “formers” and “extremists” to predominate, especially if it precludes any sort of intelligible political analysis or historical context. We need to be less tribal about narrow causes and narrow solutions, but that is easier said than done when big forces have become entrenched and self-interested in perpetuating and propagandizing one narrow solution or another. We all really need to step back and have a more honest and searching debate if we are to have any chance of getting purchase on the perplexing and frightening problem of ISIS’s current success and appeal.

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Sheikh Google vs Wiki Islam

The digital age is crucial to reshaping religious authority among Muslims today. The mass media and the internet have changed the way in which religious teachings are disseminated and indeed how religious disputes are projected and replicated to a vast audience. This is not new but arose two hundred years ago when the ulema began to write treatises addressed to the literate constituency of the Muslim masses through the medium of print. Since then the ulema, and the reformers who now contest their authority, have cultivated constituencies of opinion through the mass media.

Yet while the disagreements of opinion formers help define the scope of public debate, Muslim publics exert considerable influence too. By asking questions they have the power to set the agenda, while, in preferring one religious authority over another, they naturally reflect the existence of a competitive market for religious ideas. Religious debate is now primarily conducted through the mass media as everyone understands its power to reach millions rather than through the more traditional face-to-face method. This drive for mass access has created a global religious public sphere into which all scholarly and non-scholarly disagreements get projected.

The nature of the mass media has changed for good. Whereas it used to be hierarchical, elitist, linear and declarative, it is becoming individualised, demotic, non-linear, and interactive. In the age of print, television and to a lesser extent radio, there used to be an editorial process and a relatively high economic cost to media exposure, but, in the digital age, samizdat multimedia has become the norm and not the exception. Anyone can now publish and project their views globally. They can claim to speak for Islam, issue a “fatwa”, proffer advice, and provide counselling or spiritual guidance. Religious leaders struggle too to project any measure of decorum or scholarly expertise in religious debate in the new media, for it is difficult to be both player and referee in the same game.

Rancorous dispute has gone from street corner discussions in the early nineties to all being preserved in glorious binary digital code, archived and available for retrieval and redeployment. Electronic fatwas and sermons struggle to define a precise audience; they must ignore any original context of time and place to speak for “Islam” globally, for Muslims everywhere, in soundbite format. This loss of context, allied, to bricoloage culture, is injurious to intellectual expertise, proper deliberation and intra-religious pluralism.

The nightmare scenario is that Sheikh Google will lead the unified madhhab of the virtual umma in which a billion-plus, atomized Muslims project their subjective musings, screaming inanities into the ether in a dialogue of the deaf. Sheikh Google’s umma would be protean, individualised, samizdat, postmodern, unregulated and without any agreed standards in interpretive technique. All differences would become mere subjectivity, reducing everything to the will for recognition manifested as the narcissism of small differences.

Yet is this not a rather dismal prognosis, the bias of the conservative to the peril rather than the promise of the new digital age, predicting chaotic mediocrity rather than creative renewal? Charles Leadbeater in his new book We-Think argues that the better future of the internet lies with its emerging ability to harness mass creativity and innovation if it can garner responsible self-governance.

One success story Leadbeater cites is Wikipedia, a prime example of open-source creative collaboration. In 2007, Wikipedia had six million articles in hundreds of languages; its total cost was 1.5 million and it only had five paid employees. It has a small committed core of volunteers alongside hundreds and thousands of other members of the public. In March 2007, Wikipedia was the eleventh most popular website, the Encyclopedia Britannica, 4,449th. Wikipedia has 250 million words, Britannica, 44 million.

But what of accuracy? Is not Wikipedia the repository of conspiracy theorists, gossips and amateurs as well as experts? A study by Nature magazine surveyed forty two corresponding articles in both and found 162 factual errors in Wikipedia and 123 in Britannica, so the difference is less than we might think. Yet Wikipedia, with greater resources of peer review, has been shown to correct itself more quickly. And it is – unlike Britannica – making the inheritance of human learning available to the world for free.

So rather than Sheikh Google, Wiki-Islam provides a better possible future for Islam online, amenable to its unchurched nature. Creative collaboration between scholars, experts, intellectuals and Muslim publics would allow for the social and intellectual process of ijma and ijtihad to become dynamic, relevant and infinitely refinable. The internet is no panacea: real-world conditions of authoritarianism in the Muslim world, the war on terror and intellectual conservatism may stymie unlocking the true potential of Wiki-Islam. But a crucial first step nonetheless to unlocking that potential is to recognize the collaborative creativity the digital age offers to the Muslim.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 43, April 2008.

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Leicester brings you instant chai

It’s usually a hopeful sign if an Indian restaurant has a small menu. It’s less likely that a standard masala base has been used to cook all the (fast food) dishes and instead a fresh and distinctive masala has been cooked for each dish — as it should be. But I save my real test to end. Does the restaurant serve proper masala chai or not? All too often the answer is no: we do tea with a teabag, sir. However there are exceptions: I am happy to report that Mumtaz up in Bradford does a wonderful chai, no problem. No wonder the Queen has visited the place.

Instant ChaiHelp may soon be on the way to solving the general paucity of chai in Indian restaurants. A company in my town of Leicester has started to produce instant chai. (No, I’m not on commission.) What heresy is this, I hear you ask? Out of curiosity we tried some at home just before Eid, and much to our surprise it was really rather good. They are producing it in cardamom, ginger and masala varieties, all with a nice zing to them and all you have to do is to add water (and a bit of milk to get a properly creamy effect). It might not beat the homemade variety but it gets pretty close — and only takes a minute to make. Surely that’s efficient enough to tempt any restaurateur?

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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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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