Thursday, 15 May 2008

Queen Elizabeth, Turkey, Hijabs and Islamophobia

The Queen has arrived for a state visit to Turkey which some may say is not unusual. I’ve always been a bit of a royalist and am not embarrassed to come out as such. I think that the Royal Family do a lot of hard work to promote the UK’s interest at home and abroad. I accept that they may have a privileged lifestyle just because who they are but I don’t for a second believe that they get easy money. I’m sure there are many who would vehemently disagree with me.

I’ve been a little disturbed by the media reporting of this visit as it seems to be one which is less about building bridges and more about the ‘veil’. Why is the issue of President Gul’s beautiful wife Hayrunnisa wearing a headscarf such a big deal? Why is the way we dress the biggest divide between ‘east’ and ‘west’? I personally believe that the headscarf is not an essential tool for Muslim piety but I would never deny Muslim women from wearing it. Maybe because I know that my own mother and sisters would beat the living daylights out of me because they wear it! However, on a serious note, I believe that at times it becomes a symbol of all sorts of things. In some parts of the Middle East it is a political symbol, especially amongst the Muslim Brotherhood. In some parts of the world it is a symbol of a ‘good’ Muslim women who becomes more ‘eligible’ as a marriage partner. In some parts of the world women are forced to wear the head/face covering because of man-made laws which aim to repress Muslim women. The abuse of the headscarf for these purposes is a mockery of the Islamic tenets of piety and belief; this is something I do not support. I would hope that in amongst all these political agendas there is a desire to wear it in order for it to better the relationship between Muslim women and God, if it does that then what a wonderful thing it is!

May I also highlight the fact that Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, was not against the wearing of the head scarf! Ataturk wanted to empower women and not see them being led by power hungry men! This is evident in the fact that his own wife, Latiffe Ussaki, wore the headscarf (see picture below). On the State of Turkey, the Queen said, "For us, Turkey is as important now as it has ever been. Turkey is uniquely positioned as a bridge between East and West at a crucial time for the European Union and the world in general." In my view Turkey should enter the European Union as it will help break down the stereotypes and prejudices that some have towards Islam. Turkey embodies a wonderful mix of spirituality and secularism.

On the issue of breaking down stereotypes and prejudices I have to say that it works both ways. I took part in a BBC Radio Scotland discussion the other day with Liz Fekete from the Institute of Race Relations ( who has produced a report that basically says ‘Islamophobia warps integration efforts’. Here are some of the main points of the report and my comments:

The report shows that across Europe:
* The debate on integration is shot through with Islamophobia;
* An assimilatory agenda is being advanced under the guise of integration;
* The positive contribution of young Muslims' greater engagement in civil society is not being regarded as part of the integration process;
(I think this statement is far too sweeping and I would really like to know how the researchers got to this conclusion. Is this not being regarded by the government? I can speak personally by saying that the work that I have done at the University of Glasgow has been acknowledged. I think there are many Muslims in Scotland who are taking part in civil society and making their voices heard but we must also accept that there are ‘integrated Muslims’ who are not always a part of ‘Muslim organisations’ so their voices are most often not heard.)
* Muslims working to change institutions and traditions within their communities are hampered by the climate of Islamophobia;
(It is only in Scottish society that I can raise the important questions. I don’t think I would be welcomed with open arms in any Muslim country at the moment with my critical enquiry into Islam and Muslims.)
* The framework for the reporting of news is often based on 'scare scenarios', promoting fear of Muslims;
(I accept that at times media reports are difficult to stomach but that is the nature of media reporting. My work with the BBC has always been to spread the message of a more beautiful Islam and they have been very welcoming in promoting this)
* Biased reporting teaches majority populations to think in terms of stereotypes and alienates young Muslims, some of whom are losing faith in society as a positive sense of identity is eroded.
(Muslims and non-Muslims need to educate themselves on Islam and be open to discussion and questioning. We need to move towards each other rather than stay with those who agree with everything we say only then will our identities be strengthened.)

I believe that the term ‘Islamophobia’ is not helpful as it identifies a problem and further ferments the alienation of Muslims from non-Muslims. I accept that there are folk out there who bear prejudices and stereotypes of Islam but there are just as many who don’t. This reminds me of the book ‘Orientalism’ written by Edward Said in which he said that after the fall of colonialism the ‘white man’ educated himself on the ‘orient’ and this played a tool in an alternative form of neocolonialsm. OK, Said identified a problem but what is the solution? I have seen how a lot of new generation Muslim academics in Islamic Studies distance themselves from the ‘orientalist’ academics of Islam. I find this ludicrous! I cannot disregard the important and integral work of non-Muslims in the field of Islamic Studies because of Said’s argument. I cannot disregard the fact that some of my most beloved teachers are not Muslim.

It seems that too many nice, white westerners (I’m sorry if that is too crude) are going out of their way to find faults within themselves and society without placing any burden of fault upon the Muslims. Sweet but this leaves a lot of Muslims feeling cosy in their siege mentality and does nothing to help progress. Just because we Muslims are a minority does not mean that we are never to blame. Are Muslims truly at ease with their faith in western society? If we say we are British/Scottish Muslims are we willing to establish a British/Scottish Islam? What shape or form will that take? When Muslims and non-Muslims are able to have frank and open discussions with each other about any issue without being politically correct will we see that progress has been made. The amount of non-Muslim academic and journalists who tell me that if they raised the same types of questions that I raise they would be lamblasted as Islamophobes is worrying and proves the point that it is the insecurities of the Muslim mind that does not allow open critique from the other.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Thought for the Day: Learning from the Past

Amanullah De Sondy
Good Morning – BBC Radio Scotland – Wednesday 14th May 2008

An online archive of the original Scottish Parliament was launched this week. The records cover almost 500 years, until the Parliament ended in 1707. They show how politicians were arguing over fuel shortages, binge drinking and the credit crunch as far back as the 13th Century.

We might think our current politicians have heated debates, but thank your lucky stars you're not in the chamber back in the days where members were known to bring swords. Then debate often descended into duels, punch-ups and arrests.

We have much to be proud about in the re-establishment of our parliament in Edinburgh. Just last week I had the honour of giving the Parliament's own 'time for reflection'? And as I entered the chamber I could feel the immense pressure that I'm sure politicians must feel. They are expected to fulfil the dreams and ambitions of the nation, not a simple task.

Watching the current politicians, and this news about the online archives, made me think about where we are, where we came from and where we are going. The fact that issues of the past seem to be repeating themselves in Scottish society and therefore politics is one that should concern us all. I guess this is the very nature of history it’s there to constantly remind us of sorting ourselves out.

The Qur'an is full of historical stories, especially of prophets who all seem to go through some worldly hardship, which is overcome through submission to God. Had it been in the nature of human beings to learn from one example then quite possibly God would have sent just one prophet or even one religious text? Is the crux of the matter that our memories are flawed, at times short term? The past places a burden on us, pushing us to remember the good and bad. So let us all start a new day, which moves forward in view of the past. We must all consider that age-old saying, if we don’t learn from the past we’ll end up repeating it.