Tuesday, September 27, 2005

More money than sense

An important difference between the American Muslim community and the British Muslim community is its class profile: the American Muslim community has a much larger middle class sector. Another important difference is that the American Muslim community has allowed for the emergence of an indigenous leadership, something which has yet to happen in Britain and something which I will return to at a later date. I wish to focus here on the current economic conditions of the British Muslim community and specifically here in Bradford. Though there are areas in Bradford which suffer under some of the worst poverty conditions in the country, it is nevertheless also true that there is developing a middle class sector within the Bradford Muslim community and more generally that there is a lot more wealth around than there used to be. There are several reasons for this. First of all, the money flow to ‘back home’ has slowed down. Whereas before many were building huge mansions in Pakistan, now people have decided to invest their wealth here. Secondly, many of the sons and daughters of the first generation have entered the professions and this has also led to increased wealth within sectors of the community. Thirdly, the house prices have risen markedly, so whereas somebody who may have owned three houses before for 25K each, now they may be looking at houses worth much more. Fourthly, the regeneration money that has been sent into deprived areas has begun to find its way to those in need and this has helped increase wealth. Combining these factors, one begins to see a picture emerge in which some sections of the community have witnessed increased wealth.

I should state that I have a conflict of interest here, I help manage an arts and crafts shop in Bradford. The Germans make a distinction between Kulturwissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften. The latter are the natural sciences and the former are the cultural sciences. I am somebody who has spent most of my adult life interested in the cultural sciences. Immigrants, by the sheer fact of their being migrants, tend to be interested in those subjects that further the intention of migration: worldly gain – or put it more simply, how to make more money. That is why the immigrant mentality finds the Kulturwissenschaften irrelevant, unless of course, there is money in it. But the study of history, or the history of ideas, or literature, or languages, or urban sociology, or the philosophy of science; or the study of calligraphy and illumination; or even studying to become a religious scholar – all of these are regarded as largely irrelevant as career options. This is not the case amongst the second generation though and we are slowly witnessing the emergence of a cultural sector within the Muslim community. This returns me to my main point, that though there has been a marked increase in wealth in sections of the Muslim community, this has not been accompanied by an increase in sense. As such, the Muslim economy focuses around perishing matters as opposed to those areas that could support the development of our nascent community. We are a new community facing new challenges and we have many needs, some urgent. We need Imams on decent salaries so that we can attract the best candidates and keep them. We need researchers and intellectuals who are able to deal with the issues that we presently face. We need to get a grip on the changing nature and dynamics of the community. We need to develop an arts sector that though not necessary nevertheless adds hugely to quality of life. Some of these could be funded by public bodies but many of them can not, and the Muslim community needs to take a hold of its own future by channelling the vast amounts of wealth that are within its reach towards the kind of areas in life that require some kind of support. Normally, this is called philanthropy and we need a lot more of it. Economies are based upon values.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Spiritual Tree

Muslims have formed a significant presence in Britain since the ninety-sixties onwards and their cultural development and assertion has lead to the emergence of a number of religious and political organisations. The aesthetic sense of the British Muslim community however remains underdeveloped. The Guardian’s art correspondent Jonathon Glancey commented as such in his article ‘The ideal dome show’ (17 June 2002) which appeared as part of the newspaper’s week-long coverage of Muslim Britain. Casting his eye over the variety of mosques that have appeared on the British landscape since the sixties, he lamented the lack of artistic achievement that has characterized Muslim presences in many other parts of the world. This is partly because the language that is dominant at present reflects a political mobilization that has formed the core of the British Muslim experience. This has impeded a holistic and open development of a culture that remains apprehensive in its relations with others. Part of this is due to a lack of self-confidence and part of it is also due to a sheer bewilderment as to the manner of engagement.

The process, however, is dialogic and I wish to disentangle the contentious issue of the public celebration of religion. The local community, either within the public sector or on the ground on the streets of Bradford, has found the assertion of religion difficult to understand. This is partially because religion itself is generally a private matter in British social life. The negative evaluation of Islam and Muslim identity has however resulted in the public assertion of Muslim identity as is common in most identity politics movements. This defiance has the additional effect of compounding an antagonistic relationship and simultaneously eliciting an immediate recognition of negative Muslim associations such as Muslim terrorists and Muslim thuggery. All of this means that the languages of engagement and interaction become increasingly unavailable towards community cohesion.

This is where the language of art can help. Art itself is an expression of what is within and it can, within our local context, become a source of self-confidence and out-reach. Burckhardt’s ‘Fez, City of Islam’ exceptional account of the city of Fez in Morocco and the relationship between its urbanism and art reveals the intrinsic part of art in Islamic life. It is this potential for beauty that we wish to acquire and spread. The prohibition of depictions of life has meant that the visual Islamic arts have concentrated on calligraphy and illumination, and the result has been, as exemplified by the interior of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, that less is more. We have set up an organization called ‘Spiritual Tree’ that seeks to encourage the teaching and practice of traditional Islamic arts. Towards this end, we organized an eight week course over summer in calligraphy and illumination. The pictures below are from an exhibition of the teachers’ and the students’ work. If you are interested, and would like further information, then please send an e-mail to info@spiritualtree.org.uk.

Efdaluddin Kilic, a master calligrapher from Istanbul, is providing an introduction to the science of calligraphy. Mahmud Manning, a master illuminator, is seated on the right.

An exhibition of the teachers' work completed during their stay in Bradford. This exhibition will remain open to viewing for one more week at Cartwright Hall in Lister Park in Bradford.

An exhibition of the students' work in calligraphy and illumination.

Close-ups of examples of calligraphy and illumination by various students.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Labour and Muslims

The Labour party conference is approaching and it is as good a time as any for Labour to assess its relationship with the Muslim community. The Labour party was the natural political home for the Muslim community for most of the last three decades and for good reasons. The Muslim community was generally in agreement with Labour on social justice and the anti-racism agenda. But this relationship is now unravelling, and though the Iraq war was a major historical turning point, there are much deeper reasons for this development.

Historically, it was Labour that pioneered the incorporation of ethnic minorities into the political process. The other parties followed suit but their rate of incorporation was and remains slower. However, there was a slant to this incorporation and this involved the securing of the ‘Muslim vote’ through biraderi (kinship) networks. This has been examined by Muslim journalists such as Faisal Bodi and Navid Akhtar but the relationship remains as strong as ever. This manner of involvement with the Muslim community meant that the party took on candidates and a process that required it to turn a blind eye to the quality of the candidates and the consequences on the community itself. Ann Cryer’s regular outbursts are perhaps an example of one such MP attempting to deal with the hypocrisy of the process through which she herself is elected. But others are less vocal, though no less problematic. Marsha Singh MP, our local MP, sat on the Home Affairs Committee during the last parliament. One of the subjects under study was ‘Terrorism and Community Relations’ (ref. Home Affairs Select Committee Report on Terrorism and Community Relations). He attended three out of seven hearings of oral evidence. He asked no questions. Other problems with this manner of involvement have included the language that is employed by the councillors that are elected. At public events which I have attended, councillors have approached me while speaking in Punjabi, while they remain part of a party whose ex-Home Secretary called for the speaking of English at home. Or examine the Daily Jang on any day and see how councillors and MP court the community through a culturally-other paradigm. It is a shame that the Tories and the Liberals have followed a similar kind of strategy. There is much focus on religious institutions and their relation to English language engagement, perhaps it is also time to examine local political institutions and their relation to English language engagement especially if their reach can at times match the power of religious institutions.

This kind of engagement/management/containment had serious consequences for the younger generation. Political activity became a part of public life for the second generation as they reached maturity (for various well-documented reasons), however, their examination of the then political set-up encouraged them to find manners of political expression outside of the already existing structures. Many of the youth organisations became prominent during this period. So, in every city, there were two areas of political activity – one within the local and national system (the councillors, the gatekeepers, the bureaucrats) and one without. Crucially, there was a qualitative (moral and intellectual) difference between the kinds of people in each segment. This important difference was and remains disastrous for the community. This point was brought home to me at a recent event in which there were both groups present. Generally speaking, the Islamic activists, when they were talking to each other, were sharp, articulate and conversing in English. The Labour activists, when they were talking to each other, were speaking in Punjabi. The problem is that the Labour activists were the ones who had access to power, locally and nationally. The interesting development post Iraq is that many of the Islamic activists have entered the political arena – for Respect and the Liberals – but Labour has not been able to capture them. Instead, inside Labour, many of the old-style Labour people are at present trying to regain some ground through government (locally and nationally) but they have little relevance on the terrorism issue – it is precisely their kind of politics that has sent people away from active models of citizenship – that is, Labour Muslims and the party’s patronage of them is a major part of the problem. It is time for the party to re-consider its approach.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Politics is not the only fruit

The recent elections may have proved to be an important point in recent British Muslim history. The amount of discussion that occurred within the community is unparalleled and reveals a heightened sense of concern for political representation and accountability. These are all positives. The results showed how the party political structure dominates the electoral system that we have. There were two new Muslim MPs elected at this election and both because they won the candidacy in safe seats for their particular party. This shows that it is not so much the electorate that decides as the party machinery. Proportional representation would help to weaken this power and it must be because of this that the two main political parties are against introducing proportional representation.

But, I would wish to suggest that politics is not the only fruit. It was interesting to hear how much emphasis is placed upon the political during the campaign. Some spoke as if this was the only method of public representation. This is obviously not the case. We have in British society a wide variety of levers that we can pull, to affect the kind of changes that we wish to see happen. For example, certain changes can be more easily pursued through career choices or engagement in voluntary activity within the mainstream voluntary sector or through new forms of voluntary organisation. Within this context, I would wish to suggest that the major challenges facing Muslims today are not within the field of law and politics, but more so within culture and society. Our recent level of success is a testimony to this. It may just be the case that rights talk simply doesn’t work.

If everything is measured relatively, then can four Muslim MPs after three Labour majorities be regarded as a victory? Can the success of voluntary aided status for five schools be regarded as a success? Could these perhaps be regarded more appropriately as symbolic pyrrhic victories? Discrimination against Muslims persists, and Muslims remain substantially under-represented in British society across most of the public sphere though there have been many opportunities for overturning this effect. What I wish to say is that in this liberal democratic society of ours, claiming one’s meritocratic right simply doesn’t work. The cause behind this strikes at the main fallacy behind Rawlsian individualism. The cause is culture. It is a culture of prejudice that prevents people from choosing one candidate over another. This culture involves nods and winks, understandings, pub conversations, media stereotyping, academic constructing and political maneovering. It is the same kind of culture that allows for the opposite of prejudice, but hardly ever are the arguments of fairness played out in open, except within the courts. My suggestion is that rights talk – or claiming for one’s rights – does not help us achieve what we wish for, a fairer distribution of resources. Instead it galvanises those against us.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Coconuts and extremists

I should state at the outset that this post is going to offend some people, and I apologise. However, I have constantly returned to this theme in my thoughts and have only desisted writing on it as a matter of politeness. Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that the matter should be stated in clear terms.

First of all, a word or two on coconuts and extremists. Most people are presumably familiar with the identity characterisation of extremists. It is a lay conception which if disputed remains well-understood. ‘Coconuts’ is a pejorative term describing those that have opted for social mobility while simultaneously abandoning their cultural and religious heritage. They are brown on the outside, white on the inside.

There seems to be a process at play which has repeated itself across a wide variety of situations, most specifically in the media but this also applies to cultural matters in general. I don’t wish to mention names, but if readers remain alert to these issues then they will undoubtedly come across another example in the near future. The process is as follows. A coconut for a wide variety of reasons decides to leave their community and adopts a position of criticism and rejection to their background. He enters the world of journalism on the back of this critique, makes it clear that this is his stance and attempts to make himself accepted as somebody without such a background i.e. on his own terms. The pathways to achievement are open to him and success is relatively more attainable. However, the coconuts then face an obstacle in that their employers persist in viewing them as ethnic representatives. This takes a rather comical turn when these same coconuts are asked to return to their communities to provide some analysis on these same communities for the wider public. They are then seen returning to their old families and friends while asking for some kind of access to the people and issues that matter. It also introduces a conflict of interest into the equation as their personal life trajectories (and presumably emotions) are tied deeply to the object of study. Rushdie, as a literary example, is the prototype as he constantly comments on the people that he hoped to have turned his back on about four decades previously. This whole process also confounds the whole nature of cross-cultural understanding. It is in the interests of the coconuts that the extremists are forever presented as unreasonable. The day that the extremist alternative is legitimated is the same day that the coconut option loses its credibility, that is, once the extremists are accepted – the coconuts will look silly standing alone on Mount White Elephant. I am not interested in denigrating people who have chosen alternative ways of living, but I do find it difficult that my path towards inclusion – metaphorically speaking – is perpetually problematised by those who have an irredeemable conflict of interest. This process needs to be examined, and extremists or should we say ‘practising Muslims’ should be given a chance to present themselves on their own terms.

On the point of inclusion, I should also mention a couple of incidents that made me laugh (post hoc) but which nevertheless describe the politicised nature of this whole process. Goffman speaks of the point at which the actor moves from backstage to frontstage as an important point to pick up on the subtleties of the whole process. I have attempted moves towards inclusion (i.e. from backstage to frontstage) on numerous occasions. On one such occasion, I had been attending an academic seminar for quite a while but had never spoke. One day I decided to muster up some courage to make my point which was on social constructionism (i.e. that people live within their own worlds of understanding). I was immediately responded to by a colleague who suggested that I believed in the worldwide Jewish conspiracy. I was completely shocked by his intervention and unfortunately did not have sufficient wit about me to respond. Another time, I managed to gain access to a policywonk meeting. As I was doing the rounds at the end, one Asian non-Muslim organiser came up to me and made an anti-Semitic joke (again about Jewish supremacy) and then laughed. I kept a straight face and politely explained why her opinion was wrong. No doubt, if out of politeness, I had nervously laughed along, I would have been termed an anti-Semite thereafter. Both incidences reveal the terse nature of incorporation and the prejudices involved. Muslims are at present under-represented in all areas of public life. A transition towards a more equitable outcome will require an understanding of why the situation is as it is today.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

“It’s Good to Talk…” (2)

Should Hizb-ut-Tahrir be banned? What advice can the panel give to Muslims who are feeling utterly disenfranchised and completely alienated from British society and without a voice? These were just two of the many questions that were answered and discussed on the first ‘Have Your Say’ session on Saturday 20th August 2005. Alhamdillah, despite the relatively modest turn out of around 75, the audience members engaged the panel in a thought provoking and communicative discussion; dispelling any previous misgivings regarding the possible lack of success of such an activity.

Dr. Rafaqut Rashid ended up, most of his time, withstanding questions and criticisms of madrasahs and their methods. Sher Azam similarly seldom faced a critical question that was not directed at his organisation or even at his generation.

For how long will we engage in the blame-game? Or are we just venting our frustrations?

Dr. Rafaqut Rashid opined that madrasahs have a desire to teach Politics, Philosophy, History, etc., and all the other sciences that ‘scholars’ in the West ought to have knowledge of, but only lacked the facility and funds to do so. Sara Ali (teacher and mother of five) revealed her experiences of how her children spent most of their time crying in madrasah, and not learning. Nur al Ramadani said that disenfranchised Muslim youth had to get positive and get involved as there is a way through the problems.

The diverse crowd offered promising feedback and seemed to show interest in future sessions. The organisers have promised the following subjects:

The breakdown of marriage in the Muslim community. Why is the divorce rate spiralling?

The identity of British Muslims.

Education in the Muslim community.

Morality and the youth.

“[C]onversations such as these, that engage people, in the pursuit of objective truth may not [always] end with a ‘meeting of minds’ but may still be profitable for all concerned…[a] good conversation may help the individuals engaged in it to make some advance toward their goal.”

(Mortimer J. Adler, How to Speak)

Abrar ul Haq