Chapter Four

Obstacles To Our Dreams

Our dreams—the yearnings of our heart—are the antidote to the wild world in which we live today. The discomfort with the age we are living in is real, but it is unavoidable all the same. The Prophet reportedly informed his followers that a time would come when holding on to religion would be like holding on to hot coals—a metaphor that increasingly strikes true with every passing day.Hadith recorded in the collections of Ahmad and Tirmidhi.

There often appears to be no beauty—no mercy, no goodness, no light—in the behaviour of people of religion, while irreligious folk claim the high moral ground, sometimes justifiably. The apparent confounds those sincere men and women attracted to faith who must forever negotiate accusation and association, navigating arduous hurdles towards their goal. Extremism has become the order of the day—from the religious and irreligious in equal measure—setting in place great obstacles to our dreams. ‘When elephants fight,’ went a Swahili proverb I encountered during my travels in Tanzania a decade ago, ‘it is the grass that gets crushed’.

One day the Prophet informed his followers, ‘Extremists shall most certainly perish,’ repeating these words three times.Hadith recorded in the sahih collection of Muslim.

These are the days when decent and honourable people must express respect for one another as we witness nations gathering to devour the weak just as people share a plate of food.As in a hadith recorded in the collection of Ahmed, ‘…the strong will devour the weak, until the Hour comes’ and of Abu Dawud, ‘The nations will summon each other upon you as you call guests to eat from a plate of food…’ In the name of human rights, human rights are abused. In the name of freedom, innocent men and women are incarcerated. In the name of religion, believers are cut down with Kalashnikov rifles and explosive belts. In the name of civilisation, vacuum bombs, cluster bombs and cruise missiles are rained down on far-off lands. Insignificant though they may seem, our dreams and our actions are the antidote—the quiet counter-revolution—to the anarchy unfolding around us.


In August 1998, three months after I became Muslim, hundreds of civilians were killed when simultaneous bombs exploded in the capitals of Tanzania and Kenya. Three years later we would witness two commercial jets slamming into the World Trade Centre in New York on our television screens. In each case the perpetrators are thought to have been Muslim and the spectre of a violent religion has been with us ever since. With every passing year, the picture only becomes gloomier as even the gentlest believer is charged with explaining the brutality of the world in which we live.

A stranger once sent me a message in which he complained that a tenet of my religion is working to conquer every land on earth. A tenet is a central principle or belief and so his accusation threw me for this is not one of either the six articles of belief or the five pillars of faith. The Six Articles are belief in God; in all the Prophets and Messengers sent by God; in the Books sent by God; in the Angels; in the Day of Judgement and our Resurrection; and in divine decree. The five pillars of Islam are the profession of faith in God; establishing the five daily prayers; the paying of alms to be distributed amongst the poor; fasting in the month of Ramadan; and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Naturally our practices number many more than this, but they cannot be said to be tenets.

I have never been one to view the Muslim world through rose-tinted spectacles, nor have I shied away from condemning the violence and depravity emerging from Muslim lands. I dislike the refrain that the West is to blame for the state of Muslim countries, for although those who study history and politics may see a shadow of truth in this, the full picture is infinitely complex. The reason for my reservations lies in my faith, for blaming others is not a Muslim tradition: the Qur’an recounts the lessons of the Children of Israel—the Muslims of that age—precisely so that we may not repeat the mistakes of those who passed before us. Still, I have met Muslims who consider themselves the Chosen People, who look upon others with contempt, considering their lives worthless like Gentiles deserving of whatever they get, although they would never think to share their faith—thus English Muslims are not greeted with joy, but with suspicion and disbelief instead.

‘I agree that the Muslim world is awash with violence and depravity, but…’ I once experimented with an internet search engine, first typing in the word ‘Muslim’ and then the word ‘Islam’. I cannot report that anything positive came back amidst the first ten pages. All across the internet, people are writing about the barbarity of Islam—out there, Islam and Muslims are viewed with greater contempt than I could ever have imagined. While undertaking this exercise I came across an article by a military man stationed at Pearl Harbor in the United States, which argued that the problem is not with the extremists, but with Islam itself. He cited a horrific case in which the so-called religious police had prevented fifteen schoolgirls from escaping a burning school dormitory in Mecca because they were not ‘properly dressed’. It was the author’s contention that because Islam mandates a certain dress-code, these people were correct according to their religion in preventing the children from escaping, which thus proved that Islam is a barbaric religion. Yet if this were true, would Islam not prohibit a person facing starvation from eating haram meat in the absence of a substitute?In Islamic Law, various dispensations exist to cover unusual circumstances, such as the permission to consume foods that are ordinarily considered haram when one is faced with starvation.

While I cannot deny that the house of Islam is far from tidy today, I had to object. The author called Islam a barbaric, blood-thirsty and violent religion. Although this description would sadly suit too many Muslims in the world today, I detected hypocrisy. Are those that passionately worship their nation, believing that they stand at the pinnacle of civilisation, free of the same charge? Do those who describe my religion as barbaric, blood-thirsty and violent not see barbarism everywhere as I do?

The nation whose scientists invented the nuclear bomb was not a Muslim nation. The nation that used the nuclear bomb, the combined death toll of which is estimated to have ranged from 100,000 up to 220,000 of whom most were civilians, was not a Muslim nation. The nation that created and deployed jellied gasoline as a weapon of war—a substance formulated to burn at a specific rate and adhere to material and personnel—was not a Muslim nation: it was Germany for those who will incessantly point their fingers at the United States of America. The nation whose engineers invented the vacuum bomb which causes its victims to implode was not a Muslim nation. The nation that used experimental weapons in Iraq such as the high-energy chemical laser was not a Muslim nation. The nation that undertook the extermination of up to six million Jews over a period of five years was not a Muslim nation. The nation that developed Botulinum and Anthrax as weapons of mass destruction was not a Muslim nation. I could go on.

I see barbarism everywhere in this depraved age of ours. Muslim terrorists have hijacked and blown up civilian airliners, but so have nationalists, socialists and indeed states. In 1988 a US Navy vessel shot down an Iranian passenger jet killing all 290 people on board, while in 1983 the US accused the Soviet Union of shooting down a Korean airliner, killing 269 people. What can we say? Perhaps it is our mindset which is at fault, conditioned by the bloodiest century ever.It is estimated that close to 50 million people died during the course of World War Two alone. What can be said of a race—the human race—which has turned killing into a form of entertainment? Today’s film industry built upon brutality pales beside the Roman spectacle of gladiators slaying one another, but its existence is no less shocking. We have got death and destruction down to a fine art: the subtle thriller about the lone murderer, the action-packed adventure of one man verses the terrorists, complete with buildings exploding and planes crashing, and the grim horror about the obsessed mass murderer: all in the name of entertainment.

The truth makes us weep, for we live in a barbaric and depraved age. We see the kidnappings in Iraq today, but we recall the kidnappings of African-Americans in 1960s America. We see the beheadings of innocents today, but we recall the hangings and lynching of innocents yesterday. We think of the bombs on the London transport system, but we remember the Omagh bombing as well. We lament the bombing of a mosque in Pakistan, but we remember the Oklahoma bombing a decade ago. We see churches destroyed in Indonesia, but we recall the mosques demolished in Bosnia. If we are honest, we see the depravity everywhere: if we remember and think deeply.

Yet we remember too that we are not all killing each other, we are not all involved and we do not all have blood on our hands. There is light and love in the world. Consider the Muslim doctor who will see us when we end up in casualty, the Christian nurse who will tend our scars, the aid workers tending to those in need or the man who sees to it that his neighbour is in good health. Despite the depravity, there is still hope. As one of the parables of the Christian gospels tells us, if we remove the plank from our own eyes, we might just find that our appreciation of reality will improve.

We live in a world of cliché in which we lazily recycle the words of others. When it is said that Islam was spread by the sword, it is known to be a trite expression, but nobody cares: it is a slogan. An Afrocentric collector of pottery who knew I was Muslim once seized on a book I was reading about the earliest followers of Jesus. ‘Nike-ear, nice-eya,’ he began, struggling to pronounce probably the most famous council in the history of the Christian Church as he eyed my notes before me: ‘Nice-what? I’ve never heard of it.’ He went on to tell me that the followers of Jesus did not accept Islam when it came to their lands: ‘It was spread by the sword,’ he told me, ‘Spread by the sword, my friend.’

It was not clear at the time why he had to make this point, given that my reading material concerned Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah whilst maintaining their Jewish identity, but often it is interruptions such as these which inspire greater contemplation on topics we might otherwise pass over. If Islam has preserved the character of Jewish Christianity in its teachings, was it perhaps possible that the followers of those sects that came to be seen as heretical as the Church adapted to the influx of Gentile converts actually found their home in Islam? My assailant’s words prompted me to ponder on what became of the now heretical sects and to reflect on the survival of the Coptic, Maronite, Melkite, Jacobite and Eastern Orthodox churches, whose followers still worship in Muslim lands today.

My Afrocentric companion was not alone in addressing me with words about violence, however. A Jewish friend upon discovering that I was Muslim during my postgraduate studies exclaimed: ‘But you have the whole jihad thing.’ I considered it strange that a person who had carried a machine gun during her own service in a foreign army could address me in this way, but over the years I have grown used to these odd interrogations. Indeed, a dear relative never tires of condemning Muslim violence in my presence, hoping that I will reflect and see the error of my ways.

My detractors argue that Islam should be considered untrue because of the intolerance and violence exhibited in many parts of the Muslim world today. For my well-meant Christian relative, history must prove rather problematic in this regard. While it may be possible to claim that contemporary English Christians are model citizens—living under the protection of a secular state that controls the eighth most powerful army in the world—many examples of Christian power are hardly flattering. If my faith should be lambasted on the basis of intolerance in some societies today, should Christianity then be held as untrue because of its intolerance in centuries past? Although it is legitimate to argue that aberrations such as Adolf Hitler were not Christians, it is rather difficult to take this line in relation to bishops and popes. In 1454CE, for example, Pope Nicholas V gave Alfonso V of Portugal the right to ‘invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wherever they live’.J Muldoon, Popes, Lawyers and Infidels: The Church and the Non-Christian World 1250-1550 (Liverpool University Press, 1979), p.134.

In truth, we need not delve back into the distant past or far from home to witness stark examples of Christian violence or appeasement of violence. Prominent ministers of the Serbian Orthodox Church were complicit in the former during the Bosnian war of the 1990s, while members of the Church of England are tainted with the latter. Although the war was portrayed at the time as an ethnic conflict—but for the spectre of Islamic extremism famously invoked by the Conservative government as its reason for non-intervention—historians now recognise the role that religion played in this shameful episode of recent European history. The massacre of an estimated 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica in July 1995 is only the most famous case amidst a horrific catalogue of abuse. Michael Sells wrote:

The violence in Bosnia was a religious genocide in several senses: the people destroyed were chosen on the basis of their religious identity; those carrying out the killings acted with the blessing and support of Christian church leaders; the violence was grounded in a religious mythology that characterized the targeted people as race traitors and the extermination of them as a sacred act.M Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and genocide in Bosnia (University of California Press, 1996), p.144.

When the Greek Orthodox synod awarded Radovan Karadzic the Order of St Denys of Xante—its highest honour—in the midst of the ethnic cleansing, the evangelical Anglican Bishop of Barking, Roger Sainsbury, was a lone voice in the Church of England in offering condemnation, even as the Greek bishops described Karadzic as ‘one of the most prominent sons of our Lord Jesus Christ’.Ibid. p.85. For the Church of England, the spirit of ecumenism appeared to carry greater importance than human life, as it sought to maintain positive relations with Orthodox members of the World Council of Churches. The Catholic theologian, Professor Adrian Hastings, wrote in The Guardian at the time:

Reflecting on the response of the churches in Britain and within the Ecumenical Movement to Bosnia once more, I remain appalled by how little they have done at the level of their leadership to recognise without ambiguity what has been happening, to condemn what is evil and above all to offer any significant support to a European nation oppressed in a way unprecedented since 1945.A Hastings, The Shaping of Prophecy: Passion, Perception and Practicality (Geoffrey Chapman, 1995), p.151.

What can be said of the former spiritual head of 77 million worshippers—who only a few years later would demand that Pakistani Muslims exhibit the tolerance of the Christians—given his failure to meet his Muslim counterpart in Bosnia during the war? What can be said of one who has made much of his role in inter-faith dialogue since his retirement—stating that the events of 11 September, 2001, and their aftermath gave new impetus to dialogue between Muslims and ChristiansM Ipgrave, The Road Ahead: A Christian-Muslim Dialogue (Church House Publishing, 2002), p.ix.— when many can only recall how he stumbled at an hour of great need less than a decade earlier? Much is made of the Muslim predicament in light of the terrorist atrocities in 2001, but most prefer to forget the great crime of Srebrenica in 1995 and the appeasement of the Church along the road that led there. In truth, Christian involvement in violence is just as shameful as the Muslim’s.

Should we expect Christians to abandon their faith because of the violence and intolerance exhibited in the past and in other parts of the world today? Should proud atheists abandon their position based on the behaviour of communist regimes? Should ardent secularists search their souls concerning the role of the military in enforcing secular values on religious populations in many parts of the world today? Are they useful criteria for determining truth? I did not adopt Islam on a whim of fashion or for social convenience; thus questions about the terrible way Muslims behave prove irrelevant.

What a religion itself teaches in relation to these matters is important, however. In this regard, Muslims are perhaps fortunate to discover degrees of clarity in the orthodox tradition. According to centuries-old rulings, for example, Muslim soldiers are expected to observe strict codes of conduct and sophisticated rules of engagement in war, defined from within the faith not without. While Islam acknowledges that warfare is an unfortunate characteristic of human societies, it does not recognise the concept of total war—in which innocent civilians may be killed and their property destroyed—but only allows warfare if it is a means of limiting greater harm.

‘And fight for the sake of God those who fight you,’ says the Qur’an, addressing those in authority, ‘but do not commit excesses, for God does not love those who exceed the Law.’Qur’an 2:190. Peace is preferred to war, however: ‘Now if they incline toward peace, then incline to it, and place your trust in God.’Qur’an 8:61. Most scholars of Islam held that a Qur’anic verse that ordered the Muslims to fight the idolaters referred to a specific historical episode in which the Meccan Confederates had breached the Treaty of Hudaybiyya and that no legal rulings could be derived from the verse on its own.Qur’an 9:5. Classical exegeses of the verse by Muslim Scholars include qualifiers such as ‘specifically, those who have breached the Treaty’, ‘those who have declared war against you’ and ‘specifically, the Jahili Arabs and not anyone else’. Quoted in MA Al-Akiti, Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless Against the Killing of Civilians—Fatwa Against the Targeting of Civilians (2005), p.31. Even if this were not the case, they state that its interpretation would still be dependent on other indicators, in which case it could only refer to a situation during a valid war where no ceasefire has been declared.

A famous hadith records that ‘The best jihad is a true word in the face of a tyrannical ruler.’From a hadith recorded in the collections of Ahmad, Ibn Majah, Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi and others. Islamic law states that a Muslim soldier may not kill any women or child-soldiers unless they are in direct combat and then only in self-defence, and all other non-combatants are included in this prohibition. There is no legal justification for circumventing this convention in Islamic law and any such action is defined both as haram and a major sin. Furthermore, the decision and right to declare war does not lie with an individual—even if he is a scholar or a soldier— but only with the executive authority of the state. Under Islamic law the ends can never justify the means unless the means are in themselves permissible.MA Al-Akiti, Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless Against the Killing of Civilians—Fatwa Against the Targeting of Civilians (2005), pp.30-44.

A thought occurred to me one morning whilst listening to the radio in my car: do suicide bombers pray istikarah—the prayer in which we ask that God guides us towards that which is best for us. We had just heard a report from Baghdad which detailed yet more civilian deaths. When we pray istikarah, truly consigning the matter to God and suspending our own inclinations, Muslims believe that God will make events unfold in the direction that is the best for our worldly and religious affairs. Given that orthodoxy considers suicide bombing haram, I imagined the individual intent on this course of action being arrested shortly after praying istikarah, or falling down a hole, oversleeping or dying before ever getting as far as carrying out the act. My blurted-out question pales into insignificance of course, once we read what the orthodox scholars of Islam say about suicide bombing. Prior to the most recent war in Iraq, the Marxist-Leninist Tamil Tigers were responsible for more such bombings than any other organisation. Amongst those that carried out suicide bombings during the campaign against French, American and Israeli targets in Lebanon in the 1980s were Christians and members of secular leftist groups such as the Communist party. When the Palestinian group Hamas adopted this practice in 1994, many jurists of Islamic law immediately sought to make clear that such actions were indefensible.Ibid. p.45.

Nevertheless, I am frequently reminded of violence apparently conducted in the name of Islam. A work colleague approached me early one morning and asked me to explain how young people could be persuaded to take their own lives by older people who clearly had no intention of giving up their own. Naturally I could not help him with his enquiry, but still he continued to probe me on the spectre of a group of newly religious men disembarking from a train at London’s King’s Cross station with rucksacks packed with explosives strapped to their backs. It was not enough for me to disown terrorism and its perpetrators: because I share a faith with a group of men who did not return home on 7 July, 2005, I must face an inquisition which demands answers to questions I do not understand.

Everybody has their own story to accompany the events of that sunny day in July and I remember my experience well. After the commotion of the morning, I was asked to attend a meeting with my manager during which we intended to discuss the implementation of a national computer system in our GP practices. I was with my colleagues at first, but soon my mind began to wander. I was sitting at the back of that now mangled bus. I was on my way to work, minding my own business, lost in my own world. There was a bag left underneath my seat. I looked to my left and right: I assumed it belonged to one of my fellow passengers, but I did not ask them. Perhaps they were wondering the same thing, but we all kept our minds on our own business, the way we always do.

I was not in my meeting now: my colleagues were speaking but I did not hear them. Instead I was in that bus and it suddenly exploded and what was the end for me? I felt sick. I could see those poor souls as their bodies were torn to shreds by a bomb beneath the seat: their last moment gone before they could even see it coming. The shock jolted me back to my meeting. I was supposed to be taking notes, but I had missed the conversation. Did the people who did this never visualise that moment as I did in my meeting, I wondered? Did they never imagine this scene when they planted their bombs? Could they have done this if they had? I felt as though I was going to vomit, but I blocked it from my mind: back to our ill-fated computer system. When we left the room at the end of the meeting, we were told that our organisation was no longer on standby to receive the mass evacuation of casualties. The crisis was over for us, but my inner nausea remained.

That evening my wife was stranded in London as public transport ground to a halt and had gone to wait with a friend. I left home at half past eight, finding clear roads all the way, from this hilly valley to those towers of concrete. Indoors, eyes were glued to television screens and few cars passed me all the way. I arrived at 9.20pm just in time for the evening prayer, gliding through the ghost town. I told my friend that I was disgusted by all this—I said that I knew our thoughts should be with the victims, but I could not help praying that the perpetrators were anarchists or something. My friend said they were—but he was using it as an adjective, while I wanted it to be the noun. In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, Most Merciful: if only we dwelled on this. Would there then be any of this chaos? In the Name of God, not in my name or yours. If we truly reflected, would men of religion cut down innocents with explosives, thinking their deeds are good?

A week later our organisation chose to observe two minutes’ silence collectively, standing in the blazing sunshine in the car park outside our office. I felt sad and distant from my colleagues at the time, for I would listen as they spoke of this event momentarily, only to find that the happy, jolly mood prevailed as if nothing of significance had happened. That day I hated some of my friends as they stood out in the car park, laughing and joking merrily right up until the clock struck twelve. There were two minutes without words—although all the cars but one continued their journeys onwards—but as soon as the two minutes were up, a bunch of fools burst into laughter at the hilarity of their self-centred discussions.

I returned inside in silence, lamenting the hideous hypocrisy. For the past week I had been wandering around in a daze, fearing that the Muslim’s time in this country was up, that we had reached the end of the road: the Reichstag had been torched, thus the pogroms would begin. Looking around me, however, I doubted this now, for these people were indifferent in extremis. Life in the Big Brother household was the greater concern in my office. Two days after the bombings, I had journeyed to a meeting in East London where I found myself remarking to my wife that the residents did not look sad at all. Quite the contrary: it was business as usual with smiles on a thousand faces. Journalists were defining the mood as a nation getting on with life as normal in defiance, but indifference seemed a more appropriate summation to me.

As we stood in the car park at midday on 14 July, 2005, we all witnessed the real display of dignity. A Muslim taxi driver had stopped his car just on the roundabout and now stood with his head bowed next to his door in the middle of the road. There he remained for the next two minutes as the traffic worked around him: an island amidst the chaos.

Whilst staying in Turkey barely a month after those hideous events, it became apparent that the loss of British life was only considered a tragedy if it was a means of scoring points against Islam. If ever we were unfortunate enough to mention our faith or to walk to the mosque for prayer, our socialist companions would remind us of what had happened that fateful day and who was behind it. I would respond by pointing out that the leftist Kurdistan Workers’ Party blew up British citizens only a few days later, but apparently this would not be condemned with the same ferocity—instead they were silent. Much was being made of the bombings in the Turkish press for it suited their agendas like it did our companions’—they suffered from selective sympathy and the inability to harbour equal sorrow for all victims of violence.

In making their cheap political jibes they forgot that Britons had experienced 30 years of terrorism at the hands of the IRA and that Londoners were the target of a white supremacist who planted nail bombs in the hope of sparking a race war much more recently. Were the lives of the victims of these attacks worth less because the perpetrators happened not to be Muslim? They also ignored the fact that July marked the 60th anniversary of nuclear bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the tenth anniversary of the slaughter of thousands of Muslims in Srebrenica.

Are Muslims peculiar amongst humanity as perpetrators of extreme violence? The answer is no, of course; the last century and the beginning of the present one have been marked by extreme violence—wars on massive scales, the development of the most terrifying weapons ever conceived, the extermination of whole peoples, torture and terrorism. If the lives of all innocents killed in this chaotic madness are not considered to be of equal worth regardless of who they are or who killed them, we ourselves begin to slide into complicity. Our horror, sorrow and anger no longer stem from our reaction to the inhumanity of others, but from on whose side we find ourselves. I wished that the Turkish chauvinists would reflect on this.

I have never been a good believer, neither as a Christian before those six years of agnosticism nor as a Muslim ever since. My faith has never been zealous; when I said I did not believe in God from the age of 15, even my atheism was agnostic. Nevertheless, however simple my faith may be, I do tend to take words seriously. I waver and slip often, sometimes steaming off as if towards oblivion, but those short Semitic sayings always call me back before long.

My literal interpretation of gospel advice to turn the other cheek meant that I would rarely stand up for myself if I was picked on at school—it was a revelation for me when a family member asked me why not in my final year of junior school. We were brought up on the good book, attending church and Sunday school throughout childhood, and the earliest of those snippet teachings remain with me. I suppose it is this simple, literal faith of mine which leaves me so disappointed with the world we live in: we—believers of all faiths—are taught one thing, but then told to do something else according to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

I am not under any illusions about the conflicts defining modern-day Britain—the most vocal voices define us as a secular nation, while traditionalists maintain this is a Christian land—but one can still dream that something of our religious heritage might shine through and colour the way we treat one another. Just imagine what public life would be like if it were defined by the citizen’s faith rather than a bizarre Machiavellian worldview. How would all this public calling-Muslims-to-account look in the light of words their saviour is said to have uttered?

How can you say to your friend, ‘Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the plank that is in yours? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in his.Gospel of Luke 6:42.

There is no denying that we Muslims are falling far short of our ideals in our personal and political relationships, but it is gross hypocrisy for British politicians and the press to demand that we get our house in order whilst they themselves are falling short. The Muslim community in Britain is a tiny minority making up 2.7 per cent of the population and a disparate group made up of many ethnicities and following numerous interpretations of Islam. Finding myself reading about Camp Xray, Abu Ghraib prison and the cost of the war in Iraq, various truths dawned on me. It is in no way reassuring, but it remains the case that conflict and brutality are not the preserve of any particular group. Wherever the heart of man is diseased, his actions respond accordingly. ‘A good tree,’ we remind ourselves, ‘cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.’Gospel of Matthew 7:18 and Gospel of Luke 6:43.


Repeatedly over recent years, newspapers and broadcasters have labelled as extremists people whom many Muslims consider to be voices of moderation. Week after week, just before the radio phone-in host denounces the alleged actions of another extremist amongst us, we hear that tired refrain: ‘The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people…’ But who are the vast majority of Muslims and what do they believe? How are they defined and who defined them? In many senses I find my belief in Islam a continuation of my upbringing, not a rejection of it, and I have hardly suffered an identity crisis because of my beliefs. Yet with the use of undefined phrases such as ‘the vast majority’ and ‘moderate Muslims’, and the claims that are made on their behalf, our place in society does seem to be in question. But perhaps we are not the first group of people to have experienced this, as a wiser Muslim noted.H Yusuf, Islam has a progressive tradition too (The Guardian, 19 June 2002).

Not even a century ago, Jews were forced by the frenzy of state and media to debate their place in society; would it be integration or isolation, tradition or reform? Were they moderates, or fanatics obsessed with a law which should have no place in a modern secular society? Today, for all the lessons that were supposed to have been learned from history, little has changed. Like the good moderate Jews before us, we too must become secular. If not, then once more the talk will be of parasites on society, of an ungrateful community burdened by their religious law and plotting the nation’s downfall from ghettoes in its midst. Too often, discussion about Islam starts, and sometimes finishes, with the topic of fundamentalism, writing off any dimension of spirituality amongst the community’s faithful in the process. Generous authors often concede that fundamentalism is common to all faiths, but it must be acknowledged that what is meant in each case is actually very different. In the Christian context it is generally used to signify conservative Protestantism characterised by a literal interpretation of the Bible as God’s unadulterated word. In the case of Islam, by contrast, all orthodox Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the word of God, but the term fundamentalist is rarely used in this sense. Instead it is more often aligned with ideas of extreme militancy, dependent upon the intention of the one wielding the label.

As in any scientific tradition, what is meant by a term must be specified from the outset. If Muslim fundamentalism is viewed in the same light as conservative Protestantism it becomes not a radical reaction against other forces, but merely a manifestation of accepted dogma. However this is clearly not what is meant; the idea of Muslim fundamentalism has entirely different connotations. We are not witnessing different expressions of the same concept, but rather different concepts given a single name. One author has a definition of fundamentalism as ‘the conviction that the authentic version of their faith is to be found in the earliest period’.M Percy and I Jones (eds.), Fundamentalism, Church and Society (SPCK, 2002), p.148. We might say that this best describes the common ground for the term when used for both Christianity and Islam.

In the community in which I live there is a significant problem of extremism amongst sections of the Muslim youth, but it is the extreme of not knowing Islam or not following its teachings, rather than the mode depicted most commonly. In this community, our concerns are with drug use, alcohol addiction and anti-social behaviour. A friend tells me that some young British-Pakistanis are bringing drugs into the area to foster a previously non-existent trade in the town. Our local press has reported on young people being given Anti-Social Behaviour Orders on a number of occasions; troublingly in each case the recipients have had Muslim names. Late on Friday and Saturday nights, young British-Pakistanis gather in the centre of town, smoking perpetually and ranting aggressively with sentences littered with expletives. This is probably not what the middle-class commentators have in mind when they call on Muslims to integrate with society; still here the Muslims certainly are adopting the culture of those they find themselves amongst.

Undoubtedly, British Muslims have a duty to tackle the commonly defined form of extremism where it exists, but there is also an urgent need to tackle the vast array of social problems which have emerged in areas of deprivation. A friend of mine was until recently the head of department in an inner city London secondary school and he was often appalled by the behaviour of many of his students—more so, he lamented, because the majority of them had Muslim backgrounds. Apart from having no knowledge of their religion whatsoever, many of these young people lacked manners, appeared to have no respect for the people around them and were frequently members of gangs.

The Muslim community makes up barely two per cent of the British population and yet seven per cent of the prison population. According to the Muslim Youth Helpline mental illness occurs more frequently amongst Muslim youth than any other group, particularly in the case of those that enter Britain as refugees. Almost half of Muslim Youth Helpline clients complain of mental anxiety, depression or suicidal feelings.

For several years I worked with a national helpline charity which aimed to help Muslim women in crisis. As in wider society, domestic violence is rife, divorce rates are high and the issue of forced marriage persists. It is sad to report that a high number of unwanted babies are being abandoned by Muslims in the care of social services, most often by those who become pregnant outside marriage. Meanwhile educational achievement amongst a large segment of the Muslim population remains poor. All in all, as a community we have huge problems and the question of militant extremism is only one of them.

When our former prime minister addressed the Muslim community on the topic of doing more to tackle extremism, the first response was naturally one of defence. We asked what power we have, given that the extremist groups quite deliberately do not frequent established mosques. If wider British society is understandably not asked to root out the extremism of the British National Party, we asked, why should Muslims be charged with taking on the role of the police and local government? Once these initial objections passed, we were faced with a very uncomfortable truth: despite pockets of light—and there are many examples of the Muslim community making a positive and successful contribution to society—there are issues which we as a community seriously need to address.

Merely resorting to a very un-Islamic sense of victimhood is not going to help any of us. Merely condemning terrorism is not going to benefit us either, nor is my writing about social ills. As for my friends who went into teaching and youth support work, or those running the various community helplines, there is a realisation that we need to get out into the community to engage in social works. It is time that we awoke to the realities facing us. As we move on after the massacre on the London transport system in 2005, the focus on the Muslim community will no doubt intensify. Some of it will be unfair, some of it deeply insulting, some of it untrue, but Muslims must not pity themselves, for we have a lot of work to do. If one of you sees something bad, our religion teaches us, you should change it with your hands, and if you cannot do that you should change it with your tongues, and if you cannot do that you should hate it in your heart, and that is the weakest of faith.

What of the phenomenon of political extremism? Alas, if we are honest, it is not difficult to appreciate how radicalisation might occur in individuals of any community. One day I had the misfortune to watch the previous evening’s edition of Newsnight and was thus bombarded with the disgusting images that were just emerging from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In my case, I found that the sense of frustration and powerlessness in the face of such inhumanity heightened my emotions so that I began to mull over how we should respond. Some of those ideas surprised me. When my wife asked me to supplicate to our Lord after our evening prayer on behalf of the victims, I was lost for words: I did not know what to pray. My wife told me that prayer is the weapon of believers, but a sense of despair blanked my mind. Against a backdrop of that sense of futility and despair, an action normally considered extreme might start to settle in the mind as the only viable alternative to doing nothing.

I believe I live a fairly sheltered existence given my deliberate abstention from watching television daily. I know the power of the moving image well—it grips us and etches itself on the mind. Having seen those images and checked my own reaction, it was not difficult to imagine the likely affect on a young man constantly exposed to the drip-drip of brutality represented on his television channels, be it the violence of occupation or the cruelty of terrorism. As for those who experience such things first hand, I wonder how they could not react in the manner we all condemn; only those with the greatest faith could surely withstand the abuse perpetuated against them and their people, whoever they are and wherever they are from. I found that incredibly sad at the time, for a voice said to exude sanity in a world of depravity had turned a corner: we really should fear where the extremes of this age are leading us. Fortunately for believers, sanity usually returns after prayer.

At the end of summer 2005, my wife and I spent our days in the district of Jihangir in Istanbul. While its views over the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn beyond were magnificent, I was not too keen on those streets. In this secular quarter and haunt of expats, wine shops outnumbered grocery stores. These streets had a continental European feel to them and indeed conversations in French, German and English were often within earshot. Perhaps Jihangir’s most famous resident is the writer, Orhan Pamuk, whose apartment I  passed daily on my way to the mosque. My heart in Istanbul lies in a place inland called Güneşli—it is not beautiful, it does not have grand views and its residents are far from rich—but in its huge mosque in its centre into which pour local shopkeepers for every prayer, there is a sense of piety. Jihangir is a place without spirit, a pale imitation of a Parisian street, losing itself in Efes Pilsen.

But on Fridays, a beacon lights on that hillside overlooking the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea. The adhan calling me from Jihangir’s eroding minarets, I would wander down the road to join my congregation. Nobody ever looked at me and stared, for in this land of different hues, nothing indicated that I was an Englishman passing through. Sitting on the carpet, the sun streaming through the open windows, the voices of foghorns down on the water below would greet us. Seeing young men entering in droves through the antique doors was a true delight, having recently returned from Artvin Province where the toothless, grey-haired ones dominated the mosques. These youthful faces were not locals, but came here for employment: my visits for prayer in the evening met with an elderly congregation numbering only five.

With every period of darkness, when my life seems so distant from the Prophetic ideal, I recall that beacon on the hillside. In the midst of despair there can still be light. And where did that beacon lead me? Warmed by dhikr after the Friday prayer, refreshed and renewed, we packed up and moved on to Güneşli, where salams are exchanged on its streets. Were it not for prayer, I would be lost.


I am not only a Muslim, but an Englishman as well. Ever since three underground trains and a bus were blown up in London in 2005, various commentators within the British media have begun to repeat the notion that multiculturalism has had its day. Political correctness is so year-before-last and racism is back in fashion. It seems that when a criminal act is perpetrated by people who happen to come from a certain ethnic background, we must always reignite old debates and engage in more philosophical acrobatics. Fortunately, when David Copeland initiated his nail-bombing campaign in London, killing three people and injuring 139 others, I was not forced to evaluate what it means to be a young white man in England these days.

‘A year on from the London bombings,’ reported BBC Online one day, ‘the debate is firmly fixed on whether or not mutual tolerance has been pursued at the expense of something more practically designed to create unity—and the government is under pressure to answer tough questions.’

Newspaper columns and radio packages had placed a lot of emphasis on the government Department for Communities and Local Government’s Commission on Integration and Cohesion that week. Rather, they had placed a lot of emphasis on problems within ‘the Muslim community’ as a result of this government piece of work. The terms of reference of this Commission seemed to be of little interest to journalists, who preferred to focus their attention on the country’s only minority community. What must it be like to be a Sikh or Hindu in Britain today?

It is the Muslim community’s fault of course: while many try to conflate religious identity with ethnicity—including a few too many Muslims—our diversity is turning us into a convenient catch-all category. To my list of minority communities I had intended to add West Indians, Jews, Poles, the Chinese and the Irish until I realised that I know a large number of Muslims from each of these groups.In fact I know Muslims of Sikh and Hindu descent as well, but that is another story. Whenever I go to visit friends in Hounslow, I realise that many Muslims and Sikhs are actually well integrated into their host community. It is just that adopting the mores and manners of working class English youth is not what the commentators have in mind. The United Kingdom— as its name suggests—has long been home to many nations and tribes. Yorkshiremen are famous for their regional pride. My eight-month stay in Stirling a few years ago gave me a taste of Scottish nationalism. London almost exists as a state within the state, the nation’s media often condemned for being narrowly Londoncentric.

Had no one guessed by now, I am tired of these false debates. I am a multiculturalist myself, by which I mean I am multi-cultural. I am a Yorkshireman living in Buckinghamshire and what a potent mix that is. One of my grandparents is ethnically Irish, while I have an Armenian wife. My paternal grandfather was a strict Methodist, while both of my parents are Anglicans and I am a Muslim. My grandfather was of working class stock, working hard and making good, while my parents and siblings would be considered middle class. Define me as you will, but I could summarise thus: an English Muslim, quarter Irish, full-blood Yorkshire soft-southerner and Hamshen by marriage, and I am well integrated into multiple cultures.

Most definitions of Britishness are flawed from the outset. I was brought up in a middle class, church-going family and my culture was completely different from that of my best friend at school. Our country is naturally tribal—whether the tribe is being working class or coming from Yorkshire, or working in the fishing industry, or being a member of the armed forces, or speaking with an accent, or belonging to a particular Christian denomination, or being Jewish, or Hindu, or Irish.

Multiculturalism is not a policy: it is how and what we are. Did a massacre on our public transport system make multiculturalism a thing of the past? No. Nor was that the case when a small band of Irish republicans blew up a pub in Ealing Broadway a couple of days before my marriage in 2001—so that our Registry Office was decorated in blue and white Police ribbons on the day. Thankfully, many years ago the sane in our society recognised that there was something wrong with putting signs in shop windows that read, ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No dogs.’ I hope the commentators remember this before they push their maddening agenda still further.

I am a native of these isles: my lineage on my father’s side is English through and through. Growing up, long before I embraced Islam, it was patently clear that we have difficulties defining British culture. Just like any other, our society has always been split along multicultural lines—cultures of class, creed, political affiliation, dialect, region, social mobility, industry and so on. Because my paternal grandfather was a Methodist, he never drank alcohol, smoked or gambled. When he entered the army in the 1940s, according to my grandmother, the Anglican chaplaincy looked down upon him as the follower of what they considered an inferior and erroneous creed. He often said he regretted not staying in the army, but my grandmother thought he might not have been happy in the long term. In the war years the other soldiers tolerated his abstention from mess culture—he would wander off on walks or go away to read as the card games, smoking and drinking commenced—but they may not have been as accommodating as the years passed by.

These diverse cultures of creed have long existed within British society. My good neighbours belong to a local church and their culture too has its own particular mores—they are lovely people, extremely kind, very generous, living a good life, attending church twice every Sunday and once every Wednesday night. This little country town of mine has three Baptist churches, three Anglican churches, a Roman Catholic church, a Methodist chapel, a United Reformed Church, a Free Church, a Spiritualist church, a Brethren Gospel hall, a Salvation Army Citadel and a Quaker Meeting House, all of which are members of a local Churches Together group. The faithful of each of those churches are marked out by the nuances of their particular culture. I was brought up as an Anglican in the Church of England. Unlike my late grandfather, my parents and siblings all drink alcohol, but our culture was still distinct from that of many of my peers. Beyond our disinterest in football or regularly going to the pub to drink—those musts of the monoculturalists—there were the social links maintained predominantly on the basis of affiliation to a common denomination, the home group study circles held in each others’ homes, the regular attendance of church, Sunday school and the Christian youth group.

I was brought up in Hull in the north of England, which was traditionally a fishing economy and the culture of the town had its own flavour, dissimilar to that of the mill towns inland around Leeds and Bradford, and so people from Leeds used to look down on people from Hull, and vice versa. I think, too, of the strong cultural identities of members of the Conservative party, The Salvation Army and the Socialist Workers. The idea that there is such a thing as a unitary British identity is a myth at best and an outright lie at worst. It is being used today as a weapon against the Muslim community—which itself is not clearly defined—by social commentators with other agendas.

Those who are obsessed with viewing Muslims as the other should perhaps visit Old Amersham in Buckinghamshire. At the top of a wooded hill there is a memorial to the Protestant martyrs, the inscription of which honours six men and a woman who were burned to death at the stake nearby:

They died for the principles of religious liberty, for the right to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures and to worship God according to their consciences as revealed through God’s Holy Word.

I would remind them of The Toleration Act of 1689 and that that we are not living in those days when men and women were burned at the stake because they were different. My own town has a long history of religious non-conformity, ranging from followers of John Wycliffe’s Lollards in the 16th century to the growth of the Baptist ministry in the 18th and 19th centuries. We are where we are today because the British gradually learnt to accept that ours is a diverse society. We are Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Adventists, Witnesses, Muslims, Jews, Humanists, agnostics… and this list goes on and on. Muslims play an active role in British society—we are teachers, doctors, administrators, software developers, lawyers, factory workers, shop owners, street cleaners, social workers and students—but like the Methodists and the Protestants before us we consider our faith a precious gem.

That diversity, of course, cuts both ways. I am opposed to blanket generalisations about Muslim people, but I recognise that the insularity of worldview exists just as much in parts of this community as elsewhere. The Muslim community is, after all,  hugely diverse and the way of life in one town may differ dramatically from the experience in another.

The Friday prayer is meant to be a joyous event in the Muslim week, a gathering which we are all obliged to attend as one of our religious duties, but far too often I leave my local mosque feeling irritated and perturbed. While the majority of Muslims in our town hail from Pakistan, we have a population deriving from several continents. There are West African, Malay, North African, English, Bengali, Turkish and Arab Muslim families living here. We are a diverse community, but all of us who do not understand classical Urdu, including a significant proportion of young people from the dominant group, are cut off from our faith week after week.

I believe that the imam is a good man—I have listened to the sound of his oration and it is clearly lyrical, inspiring those who understand him—and I know that the situation in our mosque is much better than in so many other places, but the language barrier troubles me nevertheless. One day I watched him as he smiled with amazement at the story he was telling about the Prophet, his congregation repeating subhanullah over and over again. Those who could understand him were clearly inspired, smiling too and nodding their heads—but there were many of us looking bewildered because we seemed to be unworthy of benefiting from his sermon. It was just at that moment that my irritation peaked. Why did we have to put up with this week after week, I asked?

It is not that we have a large immigrant community that has only just arrived, for which excuses could easily be made. The first generation has been living in the town for more than 40 years—as one old man proudly told me when he mistook me for an East European upstart who had to be told his place. Personally I am quite a patient individual and one who believes that change will come: it is only a matter of time. I have moved to this community having experienced the ethnically-diverse, cosmopolitan mosques of London and have had the opportunity to witness the behaviour of Muslims from a wide variety of backgrounds: thus I am hardly going to be attracted by strange ideologies. But what of younger folk who have not seen the world? Could we not say they are easy prey for eloquent speakers—no, not even eloquent speakers: just people who simply speak their language? I think we could.

It is right that we acknowledge our indebtedness to the immigrant Muslim communities that went to the trouble of establishing mosques at their own expense, despite the economic deprivation that many of them faced. I do not call on people to abandon their rich lyrical heritage—a dear friend of mine often opined how English poetry paled beside Urdu verse, and I believe him having listened to our imam on numerous occasions now—only to recognise that the common language of the land in which we live is English. I understand that the first generation was keen for its children to learn their native tongue, for this was the language in which they had learnt their religion and in which they envisaged passing it on, in order that the meaning would not be lost in translation. Yet we live in a multicultural society and this works both ways.

The town council and local health service provide translations of publications and interpreting services, recognising that our population is linguistically diverse, just as foreign states often translate road signs and official notices into English to aid their international visitors. It is time that all the leaders within the Muslim community recognised this too. Following several decades of racial tensions between communities, many within the British establishment realised that something had to change, that accommodations had to be made. The result has largely been good, whatever the current detractors may claim, and it would be nice if the leaders in our community learned something from this experience.

Pride is not the word I would use to describe my relationship with my homeland—primarily because religion teaches us to be humble—but hatred is not the alternative. The British can be happy to know that we have a national health service which is free at the point of access, providing healthcare to all. We can commend the British for being generous to those in need: whenever there is a disaster anywhere in the world, we will dig deep and give to charitable causes. We can be enthusiastic about British tolerance which—although it has been eroded over recent years—has granted us freedoms unparalleled in many other parts of Europe. I agree that Britain is a contradictory place in which to live—just as the Muslim community is a contradictory space in which to move about—but I disagree with those who claim it is depraved.

I once read an article in which the English Muslim author did not seem to like the idea that Muslims should serve this nation of ours: our minds should always be on the lives of others elsewhere, while we ghettoise ourselves. I felt like inviting her to engage with the charities I was familiar with, to see the affect of our over-there mentality. Social depravation, ill-health, abuse and mental health problems in our own communities are left neglected, the response underfunded precisely because of this attitude which sees only overseas recipients as worthy causes. The author was scathing of a suggestion that Muslims should join the police force, noting the raid on 3,000 Muslim homes since 2001. In light of the growing culture of criminality amongst segments of our youth—the four drunk Pakistanis who kicked another to death in London’s Leicester Square and the Somali gang that beat up a Pakistani imam in Hayes are sadly not queer aberrations—the idea that Muslims should join the police should have been considered commendable. Our role is one of being witnesses and contributors to society, not of being mere spectators. Thus Muslims, just as others, teach in our schools, nurse in our hospitals, care in fractured homes and police our communities. In his last sermon, the Prophet reportedly taught his followers:

Oh Mankind! Your Lord is One. Your father is one. All of you belong to Adam. Adam is created of soil. Truly, the most honourable person in the sight of your Lord is the most pious amongst you. There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab, or for a non-Arab over an Arab, or for a red person over a white person. Likewise, there is no superiority of a white over a red person, except in piety.Hadith recorded in the collection of Ahmad.

In the teachings of Islam, the nation, tribe or ethnic group to which one belongs has no bearing on our eventual success in the eyes of God. All that He asks of us is that we return to Him with a good heart, having treated others as we would like to be treated ourselves.


Considering the world as it is represented today, we would not know that a key teaching of Islam is to speak the truth even against ourselves and of Christianity to love your enemy as yourself. Instead we witness a culture in which individuals take sides, not on the basis of justice, but of a perceived sense of belonging. That the starting point of any dialogue should be a commitment to honesty is a statement of the obvious and yet it is a point that seems to have escaped many. An article which appeared in the Church Times during the Lambeth Conference in 1998, in which the author purported to summarise a speech given by Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon of Kaduna diocese in northern Nigeria on dialogue between Muslims and Christians is illustrative. Reading the article at the time, I objected to the final paragraph, which provided the only link to the provocative headline:

Lying in the interests of the faith is allowed by the Qur’an, Dr. Idowu-Fearon said. ‘We are dealing with a religion that is adaptable.’ Even with apparently moderate and friendly Muslims, ‘we know underneath that, if anything happens, they can kill.’M Duggan, When the chips are down (Church Times, 31 July 1998), p.4.

I find the first statement peculiar, for in a decade treading this path the sermons and study circles I have attended have consistently taught that Muslims must be truthful at all times. ‘Speak the truth even if it be against yourself,’ is a famous saying of the Prophet.From a hadith reported in the collection of Ahmad: ‘Forgive him who wrongs you; join him who cuts you off; do good to him who does bad to you; and speak the truth even if it be against yourself.’ Indeed he is reported to have said, ‘It is great treachery that you tell your brother something which he accepts as truth from you, but you are lying.’Hadith reported in the collection of Abu Dawud.

Exceptions—such as in the case of a Muslim being tortured in an effort to make him renounce his faith—are hardly the norm. What could be said of the final sentence, which would frighten any reader? It certainly does not encourage dialogue on the part of Christians for fear that they might accidentally cause offence. What was the context of the bishop’s remarks, was he talking about something in particular or was this a general statement? If the bishop was an expert on Islam, he would certainly have known that murder is considered one of the major sins. There is no licence for an individual Muslim to kill if ‘anything happens’—where there is a war, only the state can authorise military engagement under Islamic law and in this case soldiers are bound by strict rules of conduct.It is prohibited for enemy soldiers to be killed cruelly or by burning, to be subjected to torture or to be put to death after being bound. Muslim soldiers are forbidden to loot or touch any civilian or non-combatant property, to slaughter their livestock for food or take the milk from their cattle, to fell fruit bearing trees or to burn or destroy the enemy’s crops. It is also prohibited for Muslims to fight without warning or ultimatum, or to launch a nightly attack when people may be asleep. Vigilantism will always have its own rules regardless of the creed of its participants.

Unfortunately dialogue is often stifled by our own perceptions of ourselves and the other. Long before Cabinet member, Jack Straw, courted controversy with his remarks on the niqab—the face veil worn by some Muslim women—a national newspaper published an article in which a columnist wrote of her perception and dislike of it. Over the week that followed, the newspaper printed several letters of reply. One of them was a response to a Muslim’s letter earlier in the week which claimed that women in hijab are judged merely on the basis of their intellect and personality, not according to their appearance: the purpose of the response was to allege that this is not borne out in the real world.

Both points of view may be seen as exaggerations of reality in fact, for there are many Muslim women with PhDs in Muslim countries, many who are doctors, writers, teachers and politicians, including the famous Turkish MP who was stripped of her citizenship because she dared wear her headscarf in parliament—but there are also many other women who face very real discrimination. What was clear from both the article and many of the letters was that most of us are unwilling to put ourselves in the shoes of the other to appreciate an alternative point of view. It is sometimes as if our ego is king.

Before I became Muslim I did not have an issue or a problem with Muslim women wearing a headscarf, but I must be honest: it took me a long time to accommodate the concept of niqab, even after I became Muslim. No doubt this was a cultural concern based on assumptions more than any particular reasoning. I would never have denied a woman the right to wear it if she so chose to—in the same way that I would not demand that those men in flowing robes in Sub-Saharan Africa who also cover their faces abandon their dress—but I would be dishonest if I said that my view of it was magnanimous.

My ambiguous stance on the niqab was the view of one who became Muslim—someone who was sympathetic to Islam and who took up this path. Dialogue is often worthless because participants start from entrenched opinions, believing that to understand is to compromise one’s beliefs. It is my view that we need to give more thought to how we communicate with one another and deal with the assumptions that arise. This applies to Muslims as well as others. Although my early encounters with some veiled women were far from positive, today—through professional relationships, charity work and friends—I know of many women who choose to wear niqab. Nowadays I am not opposed to the practice for those who choose to wear it, but it took me a long time to get to this point. I would not say dishonestly that this was always the case and so I cannot start pointing fingers at non-Muslims who continue to find it difficult. Indeed, I would apply the same principle in numerous areas given our failure to adequately explain our beliefs to others.

We have been given brains which enable us to think deeply about whatever we encounter in life and one of the great gifts that we have at our disposal is empathy. It is clearly not impossible for me as a Muslim to appreciate where others are coming from. Consider the feminist commentator who wrote the article about niqab in a national newspaper: typically Western feminists write not on the basis of their informed knowledge of the Muslim tradition, but in light of the heritage of their own culture. The veil or the headscarf may remind them of the words of the Apostle Paul, who is often identified as a misogynist by European feminists, and thus it is associated directly with his words instead of the teachings of Islam. In his first letter to the Corinthians, for example, Paul instructs his followers that ‘every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head’. These words are in turn related to other sayings of Paul concerning women.Quoted from 1 Corinthians 11:5. See also 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 and 14:34-35 for example.

I have no doubt that this backdrop plays a major role in the perception of the hijab amongst educated feminists. While Islam has a strong tradition of female scholarship historically, feminists view church history as largely patriarchal, particularly in light of later theological debates concerning the woman’s soul. Thus this very potent distrust of religion persists in the minds of many concerning the role of women: it is not prejudice against Islam per se, but more generally prejudice against religion. Rather than working ourselves into a dichotomy of us-versus-them, we need to be more intelligent in confronting such perceptions.

It is not good enough for Muslims to constantly repeat the refrain that criticism is Islamophobia or anti-Semitism—we need to get to the root of the matter, to find out what is really behind such concerns. Is there anything we can do to help? Do we need to explain matters better? Do we know enough about the societies and communities we find ourselves amongst, about their histories and traditions? Do we know why people may react in a certain way or are we just making assumptions of our own? It is a task for all of us—Muslims and others alike.

Years ago a friend sent me an article by a young Muslim woman about her decision to wear hijab. It was like others I had read before: a defensive response to the perceptions of others. ‘So next time you see me,’ the author concluded, ‘don’t look at me sympathetically. I am not under duress or a male-worshipping female captive from those barbarous Arabic deserts. I’ve been liberated.’

I had often reflected on Muslim responses to others’ perceptions of us; indeed, on our perception of their perception. I had no doubt that we often do encounter hostility, but I wished that we would not expect it. I recalled the day I became Muslim and the weeks after it. Although my testimony of faith came after a very personal journey over a long period of time, my decision was immediately broadcasted far and wide. At the time we were in the midst of our second year exams and so I put the strange behaviour of many of my friends down to exam stress. When the exams came to an end, the same people would still only smile, as if embarrassed when I said hello, if they did not just turn their back on me and walk away. Relating to other people became very difficult: it was a time of paranoia. Looking back, I came to understand the reactions of two unconnected women to my behaviour when I was not a Muslim after they had taken to wearing hijab.

When I first went to university, there were really only two things that I knew about Islam: Muslims do not eat pork ‘because pigs eat dirt’ and Muslims only eat halal food. I did not have an opinion of Muslims—I did not think they were all terrorists or that they oppressed their women. When I went to university I found that there were Muslim women there who wore the headscarf. I cannot explain exactly why I reacted as I did, but whenever I saw such a person my eyes would hit the floor, averting from her face, presupposing that because she wore the scarf she wanted privacy. I encountered a paranoid tendency twice because of the way I behaved, the women in each case new to wearing the headscarf. On each occasion my refusal to look at the person was taken as meaning that I hated Muslims or that, at the very least, I had a great problem with them wearing hijab. I really thought neither; I just acted in the way that I assumed was expected of me.

Since then, I have been there, almost in their shoes and I know just what it is like. Visually little had changed about me, but words were enough: without me even telling anyone, the grapevine revealed that I had become a Muslim. Most of those acquaintances that had never been very close, but I had considered friends, dropped me in an instant. They would blank me when I said hello or looked at them, and I came to realise that they hated Muslims or that, at the very least, they had a problem with something that I believed. Later, others—even my closest friends—would drift away: they did not have a problem with me, they said, but then they cut off all our ties. Experiencing this, it is easy to start thinking that everyone thinks this way, but this is not the case.

I recall finding people on my course periodically ignoring me. I would think that this was because I was a Muslim now, but often there was a perfectly reasonable alternative explanation: people get stressed, consumed in their own worries and study gets on top of them. There are also individuals who do not know exactly how to react around the Muslim and just want to show respect. There was a time when I felt that I should show respect to others only for my intentions to be misinterpreted, and yet I found myself misinterpreting the behaviour of others when they responded to me in exactly the same manner. In the years since then I have encountered all sorts of reactions to me and my beliefs. I have encountered fascination as well as disinterest, respect as well as hatred, curiosity as well as well as the boycott, sincerity as well as mockery. I have met people who have asked me question after question about Islam, searching on their own for truth. I have known people who do not even have an opinion on Islam; who are not even confident that they can pronounce the word Muslim. There comes a time when we realise that every person we meet should be treated as an individual: we should not make assumptions about anyone.


Who speaks for the Muslims? Well certainly not many of our journalists, but the Muslim Council of Britain, the Muslim Association of Britain or our imams? I do not have a clue. Who speaks for me? This is the question on the tongues of the chattering classes, but I do not think any of us ordinary folk—the represented—have the foggiest idea. I just find it strange that having lambasted Muslims for our alleged non-integration, we are now expected to have our own devolved polity, which must represent us to the government and tackle extremism. This is crazy and it is making me schizophrenic: this journey of the soul thrust aside by the modern anthropologists’ desire to reduce our faith to a mere social ideology.

Those eleven consecutive oaths in the Qur’an concerning the soulQur’an 91:1-10. provide the foundation of everything I have learnt over several years treading this path and yet the perpetual public examination rips this away, replacing it with debates that are irrelevant to me. For, at the end of the day, it does not matter who represents me in the world. All Muslims know that what is important is how we represent ourselves before our Lord. On that awesome Day, when neither our forefathers nor our children will be able to help us, each of us will be personally accountable for our own actions.

Take us to your leader: I appreciate the sentiment, but this demand seems to ignore the nature of the community in this country, indeed of society as a whole. British society is entirely fragmentary and the Muslim community in this country no less so. Who speaks for the Muslims? It looks like we have been turned into the miners or car manufacturers, and the search is on for a union to spar with. Set aside any spiritual dimension to our lives, for we must now have our membership cards at the ready; welcome to the National Union of Muslim Believers.

An old friend once sent me a message in which he wrote that he now viewed all Muslims as terrorists with one goal, which is to kill non-Muslims. ‘I know my view is being warped by the news media, critics,’ he wrote, ‘so am trying to understand why.’ Although I cannot claim to be fanatical in following the news, I believe I get a fair exposure to it and so it was difficult for me to comprehend how anyone could come to such an extreme conclusion. When Pakistan was hit by a massive earthquake at the start of Ramadan in 2004, I recalled that a number of Muslim charities received very good publicity on the television news. On the other hand, much has been said about Muslims as victims of conflict and crisis worldwide.

Some years ago I would hear a chaplain speaking of a lovely Muslim doctor who would come to pray in the hospital chapel every day; barely two years later, I would hear the same minister mourn the terrible way Muslims behave instead. What is it that skews a person’s viewpoint despite their own experience? My grandmother once touched on this, telling me that as a child she was told never to trust Jews and Catholics, but when she finally met people of these two faiths she considered them some of the most wonderful people she had ever met. She told me this after meeting some of my friends at my wedding: they were lovely, she told me, despite what people say about Muslims.

I am mindful that there are Jews that consider the BBC anti-Semitic on the basis of its reporting from Palestine, black people who claim that it is racist, working-class Englishmen that describe it as anti-white and Muslims who label it Islamophobic. Although some people believe that the media is uniformly biased, we would be hard-pressed to show that this was clearly true and yet we have individuals who consider themselves profoundly affected by the reportage they encounter. I never found myself thinking that all Irish people or all Catholics were terrorists at the height of the IRA bombing campaigns, however.

The nature of the news media is that, in general, it reports only bad news; the exceptions may include sports, visits by statesmen, financial news and the like. We would not expect to see a report on the news detailing the wonderful weather that hit Albania today or the absence of war in Utah. As a result, our view of those subjects with which we are unfamiliar can easily appear skewed. In general, we are unlikely to come across the very good work of humanitarian charities in the daily reports of the news media, except in times of crisis. Every day they provide emergency relief to the most desperate people on earth, regardless of creed or ethnicity; they contribute to social welfare programmes, undertake community development projects, assist in literacy programmes and work with orphans, but such information is not the stuff of news reports.

Perhaps it is understandable that over time, some people develop a warped understanding of the world around them. It is true that sometimes reporting verges on the ridiculous when covering stories concerning those perceived to be the other. Indeed, one morning I turned the radio on to discover not only that several of the stories had a Muslim theme, but also that they made no sense at all. As I made my way to work that day there was a debate on the subject of Islamic extremism. The author of a book on immigration and multiculturalism was determined to debate what was meant by moderate Muslims—40 per cent of British Muslims believe in the sharia, he argued, without defining the term, and so the issue of extremism was a much bigger problem than generally acknowledged.

Sharia—meaning a ‘way’—is a comprehensive body of law which is divided into two sections: acts of worship and human interactions. The former includes ritual purification, prayers, fasting, charity and pilgrimage, while the latter covers financial transactions, laws of inheritance, endowments, marriage, child care, food and judicial matters. When asked if they believe in sharia, I am sure that most practising Muslims will have in mind this broad corpus of guidance. The author did not want to discuss the question of how we tackle those who think it is a good idea to blow up innocents on the public transport system, however; he wanted to broaden the discussion out to cover anyone who believes that we should pray five times a day and thinks drinking alcohol is problematic. But how was that going to help anyone to prevent people from engaging in acts of mass murder, I wondered; how does insisting that I am an extremist help the nation?

Another news item that morning concerned the United States’ terrorist suspect Zacarias Moussaoui’s past attendance of Brixton mosque in south London. Anyone who knew anything about Muslims of course would realise that—as people required to pray five times a day—we will attend the mosque wherever we find ourselves. Thus I have prayed in Brixton mosque (once) and in the famous Finsbury Park mosque too (twice). I have also attended the Muslim Welfare House mosque in Finsbury Park many times, and Central mosque, and East London mosque, and a tiny Bengali mosque behind Euston Station. I have prayed in the Muslim Heritage mosque in Westbourne Park, the Shia mosque in Maida Vale, the Sufi mosque in Cricklewood and the prayer room in the back of the Salafi bookshop there. I have attended the main mosque in West Ealing and the Pakistani mosque five minutes away. I have prayed in a Bengali mosque near King’s Cross that used to be a pub and I have been to the Murabitun mosque in Norwich. I have attended an assortment of mosques in Peterborough and the former Methodist chapel mosque in Hull. I have been to Hounslow mosque, and two in Southall, and I once tried to find Acton mosque. I have attended York mosque and Stirling mosque, and Aylesbury mosque, and Chesham mosque, and one of Wycombe’s mosques, and one in Leicester, and the Turkish mosque there too. Then there was the Turkish mosque in Shoreditch and another one up near Dalston. I have also walked past the main mosque in Dodoma, Tanzania, while I have attended many different mosques in Istanbul and Artvin province, Turkey, not to mention my flying visits to Izmir, Izmit, Rize and Ankara, and Mecca and Medina in Arabia. I have even utilised the prayer room at London Heathrow Airport and Wycombe General Hospital. I am sure nobody would consider this newsworthy.

A third piece of news focused on how a Muslim prisoner awaiting extradition to the United States of America had led prayers while in detention for a short period in 2003. Again, I had to ask, what was so incredible about this? In the absence of an imam, any of us can lead a group of Muslims in prayer. When friends visit my house, I lead the prayer. If I visit someone else’s house, my host will lead. In university prayer rooms up and down the land, students are leading others in their daily acts of worship. What were these journalists thinking? Funny frock? Clerical collar? Evening song and matins? No, dear journalist, it really was not extraordinary at all.

I would be the first to admit that my knowledge of what goes on inside a synagogue or a gurdwara is limited to what I have read in books, but I have not set out to represent or recount tales about Jews or Sikhs. If I had, I would be duty bound to educate myself about their beliefs, histories, cultures and practices before proceeding any further. The code of practice enforced by the Press Complaints Commission makes clear that similar standards are required of journalists.

In 2005, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme entitled A War Against Prejudice, which focused on a Jewish organisation known as the Community Security Trust and its alleged role in exaggerating claims of anti-Semitism in British society. I must confess that I know very little about the subject, but it seemed apparent to me as an outsider—an English Muslim of Anglican stock—that the programme had been made with preconceived ideas in mind. Listening to this documentary it was impossible to ignore the feeling inside that the programme maker had begun with a conclusion and had proceeded to build his case around it.

When the journalist interviewed members of the Jewish community—and Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain—who would lend support to his thesis, he used ostensibly leading questions. By contrast, when he interviewed Melanie Philips—whose frequent anti-Muslim views turned me away from listening to The Moral Maze—he probed her fear of anti-Semitism without the impartiality one would expect of a journalist. When Philips recounted her experience of a woman telling her that she ‘hated the Jews, because of the way they treated the Palestinians’, the journalist embarrassingly offered his own explanations for this—that her foe, whom he had never met, did not mean the Jews, but rather the Israelis.

As a casual observer, my complaint centred upon a form of journalism that appeared off balance. Sadly, those of us unaffected by reporting such as this were most likely to turn a blind eye. Instead of standing up as witnesses to truth, each community has invested in its own interests, often to the exclusion of others. Whether we like it or not, it is an undeniable fact that Christians and Christianity are often derided in the popular press, in comedy and in literature. More often than not these occurrences go unchallenged and unquestioned. When the attack is on Islam by contrast, argue some, the response is one of public outrage: ‘They would never have got away with saying that about Muslims.’

This is not entirely true. Whenever there has been an outcry in recent times it has always come from segments of the Muslim community itself and not from society at large. Voices of agreement or support from outside this community are hardly overwhelming. Meanwhile there have been numerous occasions when Muslim organisations have united in protest at the portrayal of Jesus in theatre and film. It is unfair to criticise Muslims for speaking up in their own perceived interests or in defence of what they consider sacred, while at the same time complaining that Christianity is being maligned. There is no reason why Christians should not stand up in their own defence; it would be naïve to expect others to take action on their behalf.

In any case, one has to question whether it is in fact true that people would be censured for uttering negative words about my faith. As an English Muslim I occupy a somewhat unique position as witness to the feelings of those around me. In the workplace my religious beliefs are generally unknown and so colleagues sometimes feel uninhibited in expressing views they might not articulate around a person who was perhaps more visibly Muslim. I thus know that people can indeed get away with deriding and criticising Islam and its followers in public, for most often others will turn a blind eye to it.

I once listened as a colleague lamented that Muslims would never change after the media reported the arrest of a group of young men on suspicion of involvement in a terrorist plot—although they were later released without charge, the running commentary amongst my colleagues continued: Islam was to blame for all the ills in the world. More recently a contractor peered over the shoulder of a colleague as she read of the killing of eight Israeli students at a Jewish religious college in Jerusalem on the internet and, after reading the headline out loud, sighed, ‘Ah, the religion of peace strikes again.’ I had grown used to comments of this nature emerging from his lips over the preceding days, but his sarcasm still prompted laughter from others in the room.

In public forums too, we witness slurs against Muslims and their religion for which we hear no words of condemnation. Nobody would deny that the world today is awash with bloodshed, presenting us with the twin heartbreaking challenge of terrorism and industrialised warfare. Terrorists claiming allegiance to Protestantism and Catholicism in the Northern Ireland conflict over the course of the past century, however, were not labelled Christian Terrorists. It is, however, considered legitimate to use the formulation, ‘Islamic terrorism’. When the now defunct Today newspaper carried the headline, In the name of Islam, against a picture of the charred remains of a dead baby the day after the Oklahoma bombing, there was no public outcry, nor was there an apology when it emerged that the bomber was in fact a Christian—according to his own definition of himself.

Representation is always complex. January 2006 ended with the news that a tanker loaded with 10,000 tonnes of phosphoric acid had sunk off the French coast, threatening to leak 80 tonnes of fuel oil into the English Channel. It had all the makings of a major news story. As the British press focused on the House of Commons’ vote over the controversial religious hatred bill, news that Danish firms were seeking an end to a boycott of their goods was receiving scant attention. By the end of the week everything had changed; the tanker was long forgotten and one story was dominating the headlines.

Collecting my wife from the train station on 2 February, having just turned off the Six O’Clock News, I was foaming all the way home about the way Muslims had to react so stupidly every time a red flag was waved in front of us. Just after I became Muslim another convert told me that the action we had taken was a bit like jumping on board a sinking ship. That day reminded me of his analogy. Disconnecting from the BBC and plugging into the internet provided some relief however; I suddenly noticed that amidst the commentary from the Muslims of cyberspace it was actually very hard to find people saying anything stupid after all. All I could see were the silent images in the online press.

A set of cartoons had been published four months earlier in Denmark, apparently to test the boundaries of freedom of expression, although perhaps the nation had already established these boundaries when its supreme court ruled that a supermarket chain had the right to sack a young Muslim woman for wearing a headscarf to work. On 20 October, 2005, the BBC reported that ambassadors of 10 Muslim countries had complained to the Danish prime minister about the newspaper’s cartoons. The story then disappeared for three months only to reappear when Arla Foods announced it would have to make 100 redundancies after its sales in the Middle East fell to zero. In this bizarre twist to the usual sanctions regime, we almost saw Danish companies pleading for a food-for-oil programme after Peter Mandelson, the European Union trade commissioner, criticised the papers that re-ran the cartoons.While chastising the behaviour of flag-made-of-tissue-burning, sanction-wielding Muslims overseas, we appeared to have forgotten the 500,000 Iraqi children that the United Nations Children’s Fund estimated died as a result of the sanctions imposed on the country after the Gulf War of 1990.

Throughout the day on 2 February, 2006, I looked on at a media set on making this the main story of the day. When I returned to my car in the evening, the presenters on the evening news seemed to be continuing from where I had left them that morning. The package was introduced in sombre mood on the midday television news; we listened as the reporter told us that another clash of cultures was ‘developing fast’. Then, turning to the other camera with a smile, the presenter told us how to contribute to the debate online. While sales of Lurpak continued to plummet, a self-righteous media began to fight back, as if chanting death to those who have no respect for pointless provocation; only calls to boycott Middle Eastern goods would have quickly faded when it was realised that the only Middle Eastern goods available were oil and stale baklava.

Apparently there had been a massive wave of protest across the Middle East, although at that stage nobody had managed to capture the thronging crowds on camera. There could have been a world shortage of wide-angle lenses, for every photographer went for the up-close-and-personal look. Still, that would soon change once word got about. One of the protests involved a group of men pouring lighter fluid over a Danish flag that appeared to be made of tissue paper before setting it alight. I should think, were it not for its obligatory incineration, Danes would have been touched by the affection with which the protesters had recreated their national flag; one protester had clearly spent hours on his neatly crayoned standard.

Elsewhere, men whose convictions were so strong that they had to hide their faces beneath scarves briefly surrounded the European Union offices in Gaza and fired bullets into the air, gaining prime time airing on the television news. But rolling into a town just outside London, a camera crew filmed men walking out of a mosque looking scarily unperturbed. Even the non-Muslim asked for his opinion on the street seemed to be oblivious to the media frenzy all around him. Unprepared, he stuttered something about nothing and shrugged his shoulders.

Personally, I believe there are better ways to honour our blessed Prophet than to violently demand that a non-Muslim newspaper observes Islamic principles of not depicting the messengers of God. Islam has always prohibited this because it sought to prevent its followers from taking them as objects of worship in later years. A better way of honouring our Prophet would have been by behaving as he would have: curbing our anger and observing patience for a start. He endured much worse abuse, insults and assaults at the hands of his enemies during his lifetime than anything printed in those newspapers, yet he always behaved munificently, forgiving those who had caused him harm. Yet by and large this was the attitude taken by those Muslims who had taken to representing themselves. Indeed there were no ritual bonfires of tubs of Lurpak in the car park at my mosque after Friday prayer that week, although I gather that a convicted drug dealer thought it would be a good idea to turn up in London dressed as a suicide bomber.

On the other hand, the media was making much of its democratic right to cause offence in the civilised countries of Western Europe—albeit a right they refused to afford the Archbishop of Canterbury when he presented a fairly obscure lecture to a group of lawyers two years later. Unlike those ignorant, backward Muslims over there with their quaint ways and failure to appreciate satire, those that work in the media are enlightened souls interested only in exploring their boundaries. They seemed to have forgotten that a radio station in Copenhagen had to have its broadcasting licence taken away in August of the previous year after calling for the extermination of  Muslims.

They seemed oblivious to the wider context of the story, upholding the sanctity of freedom of expression without acknowledging what had already been expressed, even if by an extreme minority. Whilst exploring the boundaries of freedom of expression, Kaj Wilhelmsen told listeners to Radio Holger: ‘There are only two possible reactions if you want to stop this bomb terrorism—either you expel all Muslims from Western Europe so they cannot plant bombs, or you exterminate the fanatical Muslims which would mean killing a substantial part of Muslim immigrants.’ In 2005, almost 100 Muslim graves in Venstre Kirkegaard cemetery in Copenhagen were desecrated, while more than 20 Muslim graves were desecrated in a cemetery in Esbjerg in February 2006.US Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2007 released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor on 11 March 2008 In November that year markers indicating where Muslim graves were to be situated were removed and replaced with pig heads on poles. In 2005 Radio Holger was closed by authorities for three months, but continued broadcasting via the internet. Nowhere was this hostile environment factored in to discussions about the freedom to offend.

As that year wore on, I began to notice a pattern in reporting that disappointed me as one who had always defended the objectivity of the BBC. One afternoon I glanced at their online news website as I often used to do when the digital clock in the corner of my screen reached midday, the rustle of packets of crisps awaking me from my spreadsheet slumber. The main item spanning two columns and in prominent text told the whole nation that Muslims were angry once again. This was news to me, but Pope Benedict XVI had apparently said something which had offended Muslims everywhere. Before my blood started to boil about whatever it was that he had said, however, something else was driving me around the bend. The manner in which stories of Muslim anger were reported always irritated me far more than the original words. When Roman Catholics took to the streets of India to protest against the screening of The Da Vinci Code in cinemas across the country, news editors did not think it so important to highlight this story, leaving it buried as a brief in the world news pages instead.

To my mind, the complaints were hardly newsworthy. Pope Benedict XVI is the head of the Roman Catholic Church and a man who considers Roman Catholicism the only true religion; previously he had said that the Church of England is not a real church. Must I really bother myself with his words, or his quotation of another’s? Why is it, I asked myself, that every time we are allegedly offended by something, journalists believe that everyone should know; they never give this much attention to the Church of England’s General Synod, except when they have spent the preceding week maligning its chair, of course. Still, our public service broadcaster insisted on putting it as the main headline on their website, along with the obligatory link to ‘Your views’. The 200,000 person death toll in Darfur, the 50 corpses found on Baghdad’s streets the previous day and National Health Service hospital closures were all an aside.

I decided that I would watch this one. By the time I left work that evening, I predicted, it would be a major item on the evening news and, before we knew it, the anger would be getting widespread coverage, lasting for the next few days. Yet I also told myself that I would not be drawn into this affair, for I refused to have my agenda driven by people that I did not know. I did not expect things to change: soon enough we would see the rage on the streets, the burning flags and the trampled effigies, unless we had the good fortune to witness a military coup in China or a hurricane in Washington DC. For the believer, there are the words of the Messenger of God who said, ‘Forbearance is the best of traits’ and ‘Do not act on your anger’.Hadith reported in the sahih collection of Bukhari. Commenting on this hadith the famous scholar, Suyuti, wrote that it means, ‘do not act in accordance with what your anger makes you incline towards, and restrain yourself. As for anger itself, a human cannot prevent it; rather, what they can prevent is acting in according to what anger calls one to do.’

Frenzied, irrational anger, of course, is not the sole preserve of Muslims. Jo Moore, former advisor to Stephen Byers, the transport, local government and regions secretary, was once made famous for suggesting that the terrorist attacks in the United States of America on 11 September, 2001, provided the department with a very good opportunity to ‘get out anything we want to bury’. You do not have to be a conspiracy theorist to ask whether there is any correlation between domestic political turmoil and populist scaremongering. When it is a choice between getting angry about a piece of clothing worn by some women and the fate of the National Health Service, I know where my priorities lie, but by the end of 2006 I was clearly in the minority. Although one of the many consequences of the latest shake up of the service was the loss of huge numbers of staff and the drift of some of the most talented of them to private health providers, hundreds of thousands of words were spent arguing about the face veil worn by a few Muslim women in Britain.

Answering questions about health service redundancies, the prime minister said that it would be a matter of a few hundred. That may have been the literalist answer, but in the trust for which I worked we were losing staff every day as they moved on, tired of the uncertainty and worried about paying their mortgages, affording their children’s university fees and earning their pension: campaigners estimated a figure closer to 20,000. Across the country we were seeing hospital closures and yet the nation was in a spin about Jack Straw’s comments on the veil. There was something telling about the anger of the nation that week.

More non-Muslim anger was on the cards when an individual—made famous by his intervention during a speech by John Reid, the home secretary, to an invited Muslim audience in east London—was interviewed by John Humphrys in the prominent 8.10am slot on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. As the interview went into overtime, I could not help wondering who he was. He clearly had good media connections for, on my return home that evening, I learned that he had also appeared on BBC Radio London and BBC Radio 2 during the course of the day. Here was a man very few of us had ever heard of before getting his views across to a huge audience via three primetime interviews on a single day, prompting a flurry of complaints from listeners.

Our community has a rich tradition of verification which was established to preserve the teachings of our religion from adulteration. Early on we had rules on the transmission of knowledge, textual criticism, chronological authenticity, papyri evidence—and we have detailed biographies of narrators going back a millennium. To this day, traditional scholars continue to grant their students a licence to read, teach, copy and quote from books of knowledge only once it has been deemed that their understanding is sound and complete. In light of this heritage, I am sure that many were wondering who this spokesman was and how he made himself heard for several minutes on three separate radio stations in just one day. All we knew about him was that he was apparently a leading light in a group the media named the ‘Saviour Sect’. The thought that occurred to me just then was where we would be if those known to us—and who have the authority to speak for a religion and a community of believers—could get airtime like that.

Perhaps that old friend of mine was onto something, after all, believing his perceptions to have been warped by the news media. Long before I knew anything about Islam I heard a relative exclaim, ‘I can’t believe how many black men are becoming Muslim in London, given the way they treat their women.’ By ‘they’ I assumed he meant Muslims, the suggestion being that if a man became a Muslim he must accordingly treat women in a way that is presumably poor. Yet we could ask whether Christians treat women better—if they do and we can really generalise—because of their Christianity or despite of it, given the origin of the modern women’s liberation movement. The fact that British women now have basically the same rights as men, in theory at least, would never be attributed to Christianity. Is it fair to apply this kind of reasoning to Muslims and Islam? Muslims, as individuals and societies, have a history just like any other person or community.

Do Muslims treat women badly—if they do and we can really generalise—because of their Islam or despite it? In general, people are influenced by the behaviour of the society in which they live. Religion may teach a certain way of life, but individuals will not necessarily comply; indeed religion may prohibit certain behaviour, but people have the freewill to do as they please.

In 1870, British married women were granted the right to own property for the first time. This right was obtained not because of Christian teachings, but because of a social movement within the society of the time. That British Christian women have benefited as a result does not mean that it should be attributed to their religion. Similarly, Islam categorically prohibits forced marriage and yet it exists within some Muslim communities. Likewise, a large number of working-class men have a dysfunctional family life not because they are Muslim, but because their employment in service industries requires them to work long unsociable hours. In truth, the teachings of any religion are usually something quite different from the practice of its adherents. Paul of Tarsus—from whom much of the Christian church’s teachings derive—insisted that women must not ask questions in church, but we would be hard pressed to find people considering this acceptable today.

Islam is a religion which has something to say about the rights and roles of women in society. It would be wrong to engage in apologetics, arguing that what has been achieved for women in Britain over recent years is what Islam teaches. A true Muslim society is centred on seeking the pleasure of God and Islam sets out a way of life for its adherents, male and female. Nevertheless it is true that Muslim women were granted the right to own property more than 14 centuries ago, just as they were granted inheritance rights and recognised as independent intellectual beings:

Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, the men who remember God often and the women who do so—for them God has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.Qur’an 33:35.

Representation is always complex. Sometimes it reflects reality, exposing the truth and relaying exactly what is happening. Sometimes it reflects a partial truth or an almost truth. Many of the representations that we encounter each day are borne of convenience, ignorance or simply market forces, but there remains a place for deliberate misinformation. Not every news report is benign, designed to shift a few more copies of a newspaper from the newsstand. Following a bout of hysteria in the press one week concerning the loyalty of British Muslims towards their nation, one individual posted the following message on the website of a popular newspaper:

I am rather getting tired of the deafening silence of an immense majority of British Muslims when it comes to condemning terrorism.

He was not alone in expressing such sentiments, but I had to question his logic. British Muslims do not print newspapers that have a daily circulation close to eight million like The Sun, nor do we have access to the 9.8 million listeners that tune in to BBC Radio 1 each day, the 13 million that listen to Radio 2 or the 9.6 million that listen to Radio 4. Like every other normal citizen of this nation, we have no way of reaching the United Kingdom’s 60 million residents. That is why I have never tired of the deafening silence of the immense majority of the British public on any number of issues, for I recognise that the immense majority only ever talk to members of their own family, friends and work colleagues.

I have always considered understatement a very English characteristic. If something seems bloody obvious we would not then go to the trouble of articulating it, but apparently this is not the case. Back in 2001, I thought that it went without saying that the terrorist attacks in the United States were unquestionably horrific, so I did not articulate this when I expressed my opposition to a new war. I should have said, ‘These barbaric acts made me physically vomit, but I oppose the invasion of Afghanistan.’ Instead I had to put up with my colleague sending me an email detailing the harrowing account of someone who had survived the collapse of the World Trade Centre, telling me, ‘Perhaps this will help you understand.’

It sometimes seems that we have to be constantly on guard as to how our words may be interpreted by others. Sometimes we cannot make a point without qualifying it with a statement so obvious that it makes us weep. Except, that is, when such a qualifier proves that we are uncaring and insincere oafs who say we care, but clearly do not: in the wrong-way-round sentence, this will be our downfall. We are often expected to view complex issues as if they were straight-forward questions of yes and no or black and white.

Years ago I listened as a friend was asked to account for the conflict in Israel and Palestine by a non-Muslim visitor to the mosque. ‘It’s difficult for us to pass comment,’ he replied, ‘for we do not know what is really happening, we are not living there and do not know what it is like to live under such conditions.’ I am not sure that his response satisfied her, but it reassured me: we have grown used to easy answers from a media which has merged news and entertainment. I was happy to hear somebody say that he did not know, that he did not have an answer to what was, in truth, an extremely complex question. More often than not, however, we are not given the luxury of erring or being indecisive: in the present age, we are forced to take sides as others group us into convenient categories.

In a debate broadcast on the Al Jazeera television channel, a sociologist celebrated in right-wing circles in the United States because of her critique of the Muslim world once spoke of a clash ‘between civilisation and backwardness, between the civilised and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality.’Dr Wafa Sultan quoted by M Charen, Stand up: Wafa Sultan (, 17 March 2006).

Picking up on an article about this debate, a friend once asked me to share my thoughts on this former Muslim’s views. I did not find them particularly extraordinary, I replied, for clearly we are living in a world in which there are clashes of opposites. Although I am not a pacifist, I am opposed to many of the methods of modern warfare; thus I would describe the use of vacuum bombs, cluster bombs, cruise missiles, high-altitude bomber planes, chemical weapons and suicide bombs as acts of barbarity. The clash that I perceive is therefore not between civilisations—if they even exist—but between ways of thinking. The sociologist, however, viewed what is happening today as a clash between the culture of the West and the backwardness and ignorance of the Muslims. Of the Jews and the Christians she said: ‘they are not the “People of the Book,” they are people of many books. All the useful scientific books that you have today are theirs, the fruit of their tree and creative thinking.’

Her framing of the world as us and them is not a reflection of reality though. According to this thesis Muslims have not produced anything since the great age of science several hundred years ago, but while the concept of the West is a convenient category it is not a reality really. Is there such thing as the contribution of the West? What we actually have are the contributions of individuals and groups of individuals. Christians, Jews and atheists have all produced useful scientific works, but so have Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.

One of Britain’s leading neuroscientists is a Muslim. In my own circle of friends there is a Muslim who is designing algorithms to detect cancer tumours automatically through medical imaging, having completed his second PhD on artificial intelligence; there is another—the son of a well-known scholar of the Qur’an and hadith—working on the cutting edge of genetics. The contribution of Muslims to contemporary science is in fact vast, but it is not recognised by those who foster the artificial construct of the West and Muslim world.

After providing feedback on my friend’s article at the time, I asked why I was being asked to comment, for I noted that the transcript of the debate was already making its rounds on the internet by chainmail. Was it the latest attempt to provoke Muslims, I asked, to encourage us to react as some did to the Jyllands Posten cartoons? Were we meant to call for the woman’s head, to scream and shout, march and burn down embassies? Were we supposed to act like animals so that the conservatives could say, ‘Look at those irrational Moslems—they do not deserve freedom and respect. Let us wage war in their lands.’ Perhaps I overreacted towards that friend of mine, but this is the nature of a large part of what we call representation today: it drives individuals to anger, sometimes without reason, and then all we have is regret. We have returned once more to that most beloved epistle of mine: ‘What a vast amount of timber can be set ablaze by the tiniest spark!’

Ethnic Religion

Despite having adherents across every continent, in popular discourse Islam is often considered an ethnic religion alongside Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism and others. In Britain it is often thought of as the religion of Pakistanis even as its roots in the Arabian Peninsula are acknowledged, with some Muslims contributing to this image themselves in the present age of nationalism. Islam, however, has always seen itself as a religion for the whole of humanity.

The first people to adopt Islam included an African, a Farsi and a number of Jews. Within decades of the death of the Prophet, Islam had spread across North Africa up to Spain in the west and into China in the east. Muslims have existed in small numbers in the British Isles for centuries, although in time many of them emigrated and settled in North Africa, Turkey and other Muslim regions; in England they were typically known as Renegades. In 1641, for example, the Puritans published a pamphlet about a sect of Mahometans—as Muslims were then known in Christian circles—warning: ‘this sect is led along with a certaine foolish beliefe of Mahomet, which professed himselfe to be a Prophet.’N Matar, Islam in Britain: 1558-1685 (Cambridge University Press, 1998). Muslims have existed in other parts of Europe for centuries and it is known that Islam entered some parts of what are now Russia and its satellites long before Christianity. Amongst my own friends I count numerous English, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Kenyan, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, West Indian and Native American Muslims, amongst many others.

As a result of my behaviour as a teenager, however, some of my relatives initially concluded that I had adopted Islam as an ethnic religion. While I had a healthy interest in the agricultural politics of Sub-Saharan Africa and in ideas of social justice, I also had some rather dubious habits such as playing reggae music unnaturally loudly in Caribbean company and dropping ‘ethnic’ names into conversations for no apparent reason: ‘The ist in me,’ as I wrote in a piece entitled Seeking asylum from the past in 1997, ‘not with hate, but in stereotyping empathy.’From Seeking asylum from the past (The Neurocentric, 30 December 1997). Thus although it would be reasonable to suggest—in the light of past behaviour—that I was attracted to Islam for a reason other than considering it truth, the reality was that I had moved away from those ill-considered ways long before I chanced upon this path. My sole criterion for taking Islam as my religion was considering it the proper way to worship my Creator.

Even so, it is impossible to escape the spectre of the ethnic religion as one encounters the perceptions of colleagues and neighbours. My adherence to Islam is often viewed as a peculiar lifestyle choice: I could be a hippy or a Buddhist instead and it would be the same thing. Religion in general is commonly derided in the workplace such that religious-minded folk are considered fools. Practising Christians are often ridiculed: the symbol of a fish on the back of a colleague’s car is considered a sufficient reason to knock their contribution to the organisation. A Muslim’s adherence to Islam, meanwhile, is usually tolerated in the spirit of cultural difference as long as it can be aligned with race or culture for, although Islam arises from the same region as Christianity, it is considered alien. The native that embraces the alien is considered a fellow of somewhat questionable nature: a follower of fashion at best. In an environment that frowns upon religion in general, the exotic is easily dismissed. Yet the issue of ethnicity drives deeper.

In 1996 when I went to study at the School of Oriental and African Studies—a college of the University of London—I watched as a fellow student went through what he thought was a radical transition in his beliefs. Given the nature of the college, many white students arrived with quite similar views: they were generally anti-racist, empathetic for the under-dog, left-wing or liberal in their views and greatly interested in the affairs of particular African or Asian nations. Although this kind of leaning does exist to quite a degree within wider British society, including sections of the media, it would be fair to say that a Eurocentric and white ethnocentric viewpoint still predominates on the street. Thus the views found amongst white students at the college could still have been considered quite radical.

Young people, however, often have a tendency to rebel against the dominant environment in which they find themselves, as I witnessed in the case of this particular student. Like me he was studying International Development and had spent the previous year doing field research in southern Africa. When I first met him he had hugely Afrocentric views and was very keen on deliberately making friends with African students. As time went by, I noticed that these views were starting to shift quite significantly. It started with him playing devil’s advocate with his ‘ethnic’ friends, moved on to a passionate defence of British colonial engagement in Africa and later derision of the alleged anti-white ethos in the college. He had become a true radical—except that these views were not radical at all. They were only radical within his context.

I sometimes recall this fellow when I am in gatherings made up mainly of white converts to Islam. Many of us were able to make a reasonably easy journey towards this faith precisely because we had a more internationalist perspective on life. Like those students at my college, we too had a generally anti-racist mindset, empathy for the under-dog and left-wing or liberal views. But as with that radical student, there seems to be an increasing trend for some gatherings of white Muslims to descend to the level of racist exchanges about other Muslims. There is contempt for their culture, derision of their ways and a level of general stereotyping about these groups of people.

There is probably a good reason why I have experienced more of this since moving out of London. The capital is a very diverse city and the character of its mosques reflects this. In every part of the city we find mosques that are not the preserve of one particular ethnic group, but are cosmopolitan instead. They also tend to have good or decent provision for women. In many places outside the capital, however, this is not always the case. Mosques are often split along community lines and Islamic identity may be indistinguishable from ethnic identity. In my own town, although there exist a fairly large number of European, Arab and African Muslim families, the Pakistani community clearly dominates. The result can be a sense of exclusion at the mosque for anyone who does not speak Urdu or Punjabi, although change is slowly under way. No doubt it is this sense of exclusion which fuels the somewhat racist talk of some white Muslims.

I have another theory about this attitude though. A prominent characteristic of the call to faith over the past decade has been the separation of Islam from ‘culture’. This has led to a sense of superiority developing amongst some converts—of whatever ethnic background—and amongst young people born into Muslim families: that we follow true Islam, not the cultural interpretations of those before us. This sense of self-importance is a real disease, which has seen old Bengali men who have prayed in the mosque five times a day without fail for 40 years castigated by young men as foolish ignorant folk. Given that many of these unsettling convert discussions revolve around the question of the other’s culture—as if we do not come to Islam with our own—I would say that an argument of Islam versus culture has a great impact.

It is fair to acknowledge that the experience of many converts, particularly those residing outside cosmopolitan settings, has been the racism of existing Muslim communities. I once felt that this was more likely to affect black converts, but more and more I have witnessed white Muslims complaining of discrimination too, whether real or imagined. The children of some English Muslim friends of ours have been put off Islam because when they were at school their Pakistani schoolmates told them that they could not be Muslims because they were white—one was even told that she could not be Muslim because she had Christian hair! My general response to this kind of racism— be it the refusal to return the salams of the convert or simply the reluctance to make friends—is to hypothesise that this community probably experienced white racism in its early years and has therefore become quite insular in its outlook. The views of an English Muslim in my town suggests that there may be something in this, for he reports that when he became Muslim in the 1960s race relations were extremely poor. Whatever the cause, the result is the same: the sense of exclusion felt by those outside that group.

This is all very unfortunate, for it sometimes appears that our community is at risk of splitting along quite rigid lines. When there is talk of radicalisation in relation to the Muslim community it revolves around a polarisation towards militancy. Yet the form of radicalisation that I sometimes witness is the acceptance of racism, and it is a disease which needs tackling with equal urgency. If many are now resigned to the fact that we will experience racism at some point from within the Muslim community, others of us need to act to counteract this. For my part that means continuing to attend the mosque and not giving in to prejudice or indifference. It means saying that the experience of some of my convert friends is far from the totality of my experience.

In truth, the majority of Muslims that I have encountered over the past decade—whether young or old—have been very warm and welcoming to this stranger passing through; my positive experiences far outnumber those disappointing moments. I think of my 96-year-old friend who always grins when he sees me: his smile drives away any sorrow. Here I recall why I am a Muslim: our aim is to move beyond our obsession with ourselves, recognising our real goal. Although identity politics is becoming the order of the day in many parts of society, believers should be God-centred people. The aim of the Muslim is to achieve the pleasure of God. He has made us into nations and tribes that we may get to know one another: enough said.Qur’an 49:13. After this we remember that this brotherhood of ours is one brotherhood.Qur’an 3:103.

Although I know that the atmosphere in my local mosque is not what I was used to in the cosmopolitan big city, that it took much longer for me to be accepted than in the mosques of the capital, I recall that—revolving around tawhid—my prayer, worship, life and death are for God, the Lord of all the worlds, who has no partner. In this we find our resting place, our home. When we recognise this, it becomes less important whether we are accepted by others: what matters is whether God accepts us and whether He accepts our deeds.