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Ten questions with Zohra Khaku from the BBC’s Muslims Like Us

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What is it really like be a modern-day British Muslim? The BBC’s Muslims Like Us, broadcast at the end of 2016, sought to find an answer to this question, by making ten Muslims of different backgrounds share a house with each other. There was conflict, there was controversy, but there was also connection.

We caught up with Zohra Khaku, one of the housemates to find out more about the programme and her experience of sharing a house with ten complete strangers.

1. What made you want to appear on a programme like Muslims Like Us?

When talking to the producers of the show, I had been emphasising how strongly I feel about standing up and taking responsibility for our narrative as Muslims in the UK. When she asked if I’d come on the show, I couldn’t really say no!

2. What was it like staying in a house with ten random people?

At times it was brilliant – meeting new people, getting to know them better and experiencing the beginning of new relationships. We had some really fun moments including playing charades and staying up late talking through the night. Some bits were difficult – sharing a room with someone I didn’t know was hard, and the mess in the kitchen really bothered me!

3. Was there anyone you particularly got along with?

Mehreen! We got on really well, and are still in touch almost every day.

4. Was there anyone in particular you clashed with?

I found Abdul Haq’s views really hard to deal with. As you saw on episode two, it was particularly difficult for me when talking about coming from a Shia background. His views on it being okay to harm people who he deems to be ‘outside the fold of Islam’ really disturbed me, and I decided to challenge him. For the rest of my time in the house, every time Abdul talked about prejudice, I pointed out his cognitive dissonance and just couldn’t bear to listen to him any more.

5. Did you find there were a lot of differing views?

So many differing views! People came from such different backgrounds and life experiences, so as expected there were lots of opinions. Eventually we found a way to be functional, although many discussions were difficult and make for difficult viewing.

6. What would you say were the main points of discussion that you all agreed upon?

Nabil’s ‘Feed the Homeless’ activity was such a uniting time for the housemates. We all loved the values that the afternoon represented, and worked together as a team without any issues at all.

7. What were your main concerns going into the house, and how did the reality of the experience match with your initial expectations?

I decided to go in with a really open mind, so I didn’t really have many concerns. I told myself I’d be myself and go with the flow, and that’s what I did. The experience was intense, with some fantastic and some horrible moments.

8. What were your main takeaways from this experience, or what did you learn?

I learned a few things about myself. It seems that I cry when I’m angry and upset! And I learned that there are circumstances under which I would call the anti-terrorism police.

9. Do you feel the programme will help to change the image of British Muslims (either in a positive or negative way)?

I hope so! From some of the posts I’ve seen online and messages I’ve received already, a lots of people seem to have learned some things about Muslims, even if it’s just realising that Muslims are not a monolithic community.
Within the Muslim community I hope it causes some debate, but most of all, I hope that the idea that we need to stop judging each other spreads a bit more widely. I’ve seen comments already calling the group horrible names. At the end of the day, we’re taught to have good akhlaq (manners) and I think some of the comments online could do with a bit of that.

10. Did the experience change your perceptions of what it means to be a British Muslim?

I think I learned some things from the other housemates. Hearing their experiences around issues they deal with in their daily lives was as fascinating as ever. Peoples lives are interesting, and the housemates were no different. My own perception of what it’s like to be a British Muslim hasn’t changed.


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A tribute to my uncles who were gunned down in the Nazimabad attacks

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You never think it’s going to happen to you… until it does.

Just over a week ago, I was in a queue with my four-year-old son. We were waiting for a train ride around the park near my parents’ house, when I received a phone call from my mum. It was the phone call that nobody ever wants to receive; the phone call that informs you of tragedy at home.

Five of my maternal uncles had been shot in Nazimabad, Pakistan. We weren’t sure who was alive at that point, but as we took to Twitter, the true reality of the horror was emerging. A ladies majlis, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (the grandson of the Holy Prophet (SAW)) was taking place in a private residence; gunmen on motorbikes had opened fire, and three of my uncles, Naiyer Mehdi Zaidi, Nasir Abbas, and Baqar Abbas Zaidi had been gunned down in targeted killings.

My remaining two uncles, Tahir Abbas and Nadir Abbas, and my 15-year cousin, Murtaza Ali Zaidi were in critical condition in the hospital. By the mercy of Allah, they have now recovered well.

Let’s be clear here; the attacks were sectarian, specifically targeting the Shia community. Later, the militant organisation, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi took responsibility for the attacks. A spokesman for the group said: “There is no room for the enemies of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in Pakistan”, a reference to Pakistan’s Shia minority.

It is important to note that whoever is behind these attacks, they are following a deviant interpretation of religion aligned to ISIS and al-Qaeda. This intolerant ideology comes from Saudi’s Salafi-Takfiris; they are a violent offshoot of mainstream Islam, and this tiny minority group is giving Muslims around the world a bad name.

In Pakistan, Shias are a persecuted minority who are still not free to practice their religion without fear of being killed for their beliefs. These attacks used to take place in public places, such as mosques, schools and hospitals. Now the attacks are taking place in private residences, which means people are not even free to practice religion in their own homes.

You think that these kinds of attacks happen to other people, but there are so many Shias being targeted, the chances are that you will know someone in Pakistan affected by these acts of violence. At the beginning of October, these same hardline groups killed my friend’s cousin, Mansoor Sadiq Zaidi, in a targeted attack, as he stood with his son outside his house. 

This is genocide, and it is specifically targeting the Shia community.

But this blog post is not an account of what happened that fateful day. You can read that yourself in the newspapers that have covered the event, including The Independent, The Guardian and The Seattle Times. The news made the front page of The Evening Standard last Friday.

This blog post is intended to tell you what you might not know about my mum’s brothers. I want you to know about their magnanimous personalities, about their humanity, and their values.

My mum’s brothers were very open-minded, tolerant, loving people who touched the lives of every single person they met. As I write this post, I know that there are not enough words to express the depth of the grief I am feeling, nor are words enough to explain how incredible my uncles were.

The Nazimabad firing took place during the Holy month of Muharram, when Shias commemorate Imam Hussain’s martyrdom. Ultimately, Hussain’s struggle was about freedom from oppression; about sacrifice to protect universal human values. My uncles lived with the love of the family of the Prophet (SAW) in their hearts, and they implemented these values in their everyday lives.

During the attacks, the gunmen attempted to gain access to the ladies majlis in the house. When they could not enter, they fired gunshots on the people who were sitting outside. As the gunmen came forward, Baqar Abbas Zaidi, my mum’s youngest brother, opened up his arms to protect  the door and to stop the killers from going inside the house. He was killed instantly as the gunmen opened fire on his chest.

I think about how many lives Baqar Mamu has saved through this fearless act of self-sacrifice. By standing between the door and the gunmen, he prevented them from entering the house, thus stopping further bloodshed and carnage.

My Mum’s eldest brother was Naiyer Zaidi, a British citizen who had resided in London for more than 30 years. He loved this country as he had spent most of his adult life here.

Every year, Naiyer Mamu would go to Pakistan to commemorate the events of the tragedy of Karbala with his family. He loved to read poetry, books and literature. After retirement, he spent more and more of his time reading about Islam, and he loved to spend his time in the company of learned Islamic scholars.

It is my view that religious conviction manifests itself in the values of humanity, and Naiyer Mamu’s personality is testament to this. He was kind, he was generous and he was incredibly humble. Moreover, he would view everything in his life as an example of God’s infinite mercy. His positive outlook on life and his ability to always see the best in people is incredibly inspiring.

The true essence of religion is about akhlaaq; it’s about how you treat your fellow human beings. When my paternal grandfather, Qaiser Hussain Zaidi passed away, Naiyer Mamu truly was a rock for our family, giving us so much support and kindness in a period of great difficulty.

Another uncle who was killed on that horrible day was Nasir Abbas, a US citizen. Nasir Mamu brought joy, happiness and laughter to every single person he met. In 2008, my sister and I visited him in the US. In only a few days, Nasir Mamu had such an incredible effect on me. He had what can only be described as a magnetic personality. He was so full of life; not only was he absolutely hilarious, but we would spend hours conversing with him about many topics, including philosophy, poetry, politics. He was incredibly open-minded; he didn’t care about who you were or where you came from. He treated everyone with the same love, respect and dignity.

I have been reflecting on the personalities of my mamus and thinking about what I can learn from them. They were all so positive in their outlook, always seeing the best in every situation.

I know that they would have seen even the way they left this world as an example of God’s blessings. They lived their life through the love of the values of the Prophet (SAW) and his Holy household, and they left this world in the same way. As I watch their funeral, I know the cries of “Labaik Ya Hussain!” would have comforted their souls. They have become shaheed.

I feel so honoured and privileged to have known them, and I feel so sad that they are no longer with us. But to have left this world in the way they did is no doubt a great blessing. They have given me a lifetime of beautiful memories, and to know that so many people around the world are remembering them so fondly, is a source of great comfort.

Please pray for the departed souls of Naiyer Mehdi Zaidi, Nasir Abbas and Baqar Abbas Zaidi.

Please pray for Muhammad Zaki Khan and Nadeem Lodhi, who were also martyred in this brutal attack and for the families of the injured and the deceased.

Please also pray for the soul of Mansoor Sadiq Zaidi.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.
All images are copyright of Aliya Zaidi. All rights reserved. Please do not use without permission.
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Religious Concepts Reexamined: Why Do We Continue Using Religious Teachings To Justify Domestic Violence?

“You just have to be patient – things will improve over time.”

“Some men are a little hot-headed.  Don’t provoke him, and just do whatever you can to be a good wife and please him.”

“Let’s all sit down together and work out the problems in your marriage – we’ll find a solution that will make you both happy.  You know, Islam encourages mediation in times of disagreement.  It’s just a question of compromise.”

“Surely you’re not thinking of leaving him?  Don’t you know that divorce is hated by Allah?  What about the children – they need their father.”

These are a few of the platitudes often directed at Muslim women who are experiencing domestic violence (DV). While well-intentioned and borne of a genuine desire to help a DV survivor, such approaches can, at best, be impractical and unhelpful and, at worst, pose a threat to the safety of the woman and her children. More fundamentally, the use of religious concepts to justify abuse, or to coerce women into accepting it, is a gross misapplication of Islamic teachings.

Advising a woman to be “patient” in the face of abuse minimizes her experience, and may prevent her from seeking further assistance. In reality, the concept of patience in Islam refers not to a state of stagnation, but rather towards progression, albeit under difficult circumstances. Rather than shutting down a survivor’s attempt at seeking help, a more useful approach would be to hear her story, support her in her choices, and be a resource (rather than a roadblock) for her. Furthermore, the reassurance that her situation will improve over time is factually incorrect. Research suggests that the severity of DV escalates over time, and that what may start as emotional abuse may well develop into sexual or verbal abuse, or serious physical assault. Therefore, those who encourage a woman to “put up with it” may unwittingly place her in a situation of increasing danger.

Another common response is to excuse the behavior of the abuser, often based on the idea that the husband is the head of the household and can behave as he wishes without being called to account. In addition, women are often told that, after Allah, their obedience is due to their husband. These claims have little basis in Islamic theology or the teachings of the Holy Prophet Muhammed (pbuh). There are numerous hadith which elevate the status of women and emphasise the importance of kindness towards one’s wife and family. There are no recorded narratives of the prophet using violence or misconduct towards his female family members, so why do we think that it’s acceptable for the men in our communities to do so? While Islam promotes co-operation with and loyalty towards one’s husband, it does not sanction relationships in which one partner exerts coercive control over the other. Indeed, Islam states that partners are equals and that loyalty and kindness should be mutually expressed, and that both parties are accountable for their actions.

In many communities, DV survivors are encouraged to participate in family mediation, in the hope that the matter can be resolved. Whilst the Quran does provide a detailed process for mediation between family members in times of dispute, such a model is designed to serve those in non-abusive situations. In cases of DV, suggesting any type of therapy, mediation or counseling where both spouses are present, can be very unhelpful for survivors, and can serve to traumatise them further. This type of scenario provides ample opportunity for the abuser to manipulate facts in his own favour, to discredit his wife, and to use charisma to appear likeable – a far cry from the traditional image of an abuser. In turn, the wife will, almost certainly, fear revealing the truth about the extent of the DV in the presence of her husband. In effect, the partner who has experienced the abuse is likely to benefit least from the mediation process. A more helpful approach would be for well-meaning community members to stand up for the oppressed party against the transgressor – a concept upheld numerous times within the Quran.

In cases where a survivor of DV may be considering terminating her marriage (a decision which, by no means, would she have arrived at lightly), she is likely to be met with disapproval from her community, together with the rather tired adage that divorce is the most frowned-upon permissible act in Islam. Whilst the sanctity of family life cannot be debated per se, it is important to realise that Islam promotes healthy families which are modeled upon Quranic values. Where there is an imbalance of power between the parties, attempts by one spouse to control the other (both classic features of a DV situation), and the presence of abuse in any of its ugly forms, such a relationship cannot be considered within the range of normal or healthy. It is for situations of this type that divorce is permitted in Islam.

As for the impact on children, research indicates that merely witnessing violence against their mother by their father can have a lasting and harmful effect on them. So whilst children may need their father, what they do not need is to see him abusing their mother, at whose feet lies paradise. Thus, to bully a survivor into staying within a harmful marriage, and questioning her piety at the same time, will do absolutely nothing to help her – on the contrary, such advice may further alienate her (once again, playing into the hands of the abuser – isolating a survivor from family, friends and community members is a well-used strategy amongst perpetrators of DV) from what may already be a limited resource bank. Studies show that a DV survivor is at her most vulnerable when attempting to escape her situation, and communities should be aware that at such times, women need support, understanding and, in certain cases, protection.

This year, DV Awareness Month coincides with the beginning of the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. For hundreds of years, Muslims and non-Muslims alike have commemorated the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (as), grandson of the Hoy Prophet Muhammed (pbuh). In a beautiful irony, the tears shed by the lovers of Hussain in memory of his struggle against tyranny, are paralleled by those of DV survivors as they navigate their lives within the confines of an oppressive marriage. Let’s be clear – domestic violence is not a normal part of marriage (no matter how comfortable that narrative may appear to be). In reality, DV is evidence of an abusive man who is transgressing the bounds of respect, compassion and the autonomy of his spouse. It is an abhorrent form of oppression, and one that communities should work to eliminate at all levels. In the words of Imam Hussain, “Those who are silent when others are oppressed are guilty of oppression themselves.”

By Neelam Khaki

Neelam Khaki is the Peaceful Families Taskforce Coordinator at API Chaya, an organization serving South Asian, Middle Eastern, and API women, who are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.  Her work within the PFT involves working with local Muslim communities to create peaceful families, by using the Qur’anic model of family, through training, education, and community engagement.

Neelam is a graduate in LLB Laws from the London School of Economics.  Prior to moving to the U.S, she was employed at a London City law firm.  Her interest in social justice began in a voluntary capacity, whilst working for The Samaritans, a UK based organization supporting suicidal clients.  She subsequently worked with Lifewire as a helpline volunteer, supporting survivors in domestic violence situations, and later as a Court Appointed Special Advocate.  Neelam also has a strong interest in community work.  She is involved in the PTA at both elementary and middle school level, and also volunteers as the administrator for a local Sunday School.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

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‘Su-Shi’ and interfaith dialogue with Anne Dijk and Arjen Buitelaar

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Deviating slightly from our usual posts, we wanted to share with our readers an interview between Anne Dijk, a female Sunni scholar based in the Netherlands and Arjen Buitelaar, a male Shia scholar also from the Netherlands. They were interviewed by Arek Miernik who is from Poland, and the interview has been translated to English. You can read more about their backgrounds at the end of this post.

  1. What is the idea behind Su-Shi and how did it come about as your project?

Arjen Since the outbreak of the ‘Arab Spring’ we notice heightened and more open tensions between the different Islamic creeds, mainly Sunnites and Shiites, and the voices of the extremes on both sides become louder. Of course this is a development that has been going on for several decades by now, and the extremes on both sides kind of hijack the voice of the common and good willing majority of Muslims. We see both sides recruit people to war zones in countries they have never been to, and tensions, incomprehension and impotency grow. This kind of reached a peak when Mosul was conquered by ISIL forces. It was that moment that Anne Dijk participated in a radio talk on the differences and similarities between Sunnites and Shiites, and she emphasized that the differences weren’t that big (more on jurisprudential level), but in practice it often seemed impossible to get the groups together even for something simple like an iftar. I then decided to approach her, because it was the bitter truth and despite the talks (and efforts) from authoritative scholars that we share so many commonalities, that we are brothers and sisters or even each other’s souls, and that we should work together, we see that communities simply don’t do that and we wanted to change that.

Anne The idea behind su-shi is that we want to bring together Sunni, Shia and all possible creeds within Islam, together, on an equal basis, to meet on a personal level. We don’t want to ‘create’ one single creed, or try to undermine the differences, which exist. We want to strengthen the ummah by informing about the differences and also speak out against stereotypes and prejudices that cause harm to both groups.

Often, the stereotypes of arguments against the opposite groups are based on prejudices, which often only hold for the extremes, and not for the mass-mainstream. Getting to really know each other, in a safe place, where genuine interest and curiosity for the other, is hardly happening. Talks on internet fora very often result in harsh language and conversations that get hijacked by extremes. That’s why we focus on small get-togethers, to really give a platform for personal meetings, based on proper (academic) information.

  1. How do you create a “safe” and neutral space during your meetings and events? Considering the deep level of division and animosity that these differences can cause, exacerbated by current political events in the Middle East, how do you make sure that these divisive attitudes don’t make their way into your meetings?

Anne During the 1,5 year of preparation, before we went online, formal and open, we discussed this issue elaborately. How can we create a safe and neutral space? Of course we can never guarantee anything, but we made clear ‘houserules’. A few elements therein are, are that dialogue is the goal, not debate. Trying to convince the other of your own truth is not allowed either, sincere and open questions are. Tafkir is not allowed; anyone who considers him/herself Muslim deserves within sushi that we treat him/her as such. Per activity we try to make a ‘risk management’ – for example: we held a iftar last ramadan – what to do with the adhan? (su of shi time?) and what to do with the prayer? We try to prevent any kind if discussion of such issues: how? We talk about them openly and elaborate on potential differences. For example, we elaborated en public on the different times of braking the fast, and that the dates were presented for everyone who wanted to brake the fast at that moment (Sunnis) and that we would do one adhan at the shi time. Later, the prayer was open for everyone – everyone must feel free to be able to pray together, but if someone wanted to pray later, that was also fine.

Arjen I agree with Anne’s answer; these are good examples in practice. Within the core group we have a dozen different ethnic and sectarian backgrounds, so you can imagine we have lively talks on possible difficulties when organizing an event. I’d also like to emphasize that one of our core rules is to support respectful dialogue and denounce debate, which, in effect, could be focused on individual monologues only while dialogue forces to open up and listen to the other. It are these house rules that ensure the safe space individuals find themselves in. Added to that, it is important to note that we work with what we call an ‘oil spill formula’, by which we mean that every visitor is personally invited by someone he/she already knows within the ‘Su-Shi Community’. This way we ensure that people feel more secure to open up and say what is on their hearts. Another way we make sure people find themselves in a safe environment is that we do not use traditional set ups with podia for the speakers and people sitting on chairs for a few hours. Depending on the size of the group we either meet up at someone’s home and start with chit chat and dinner. Or like our last Iftar we met up in a ‘youth club’/lounge setting, having some armchairs, couches and tables to sit on, providing a more relaxed atmosphere and automatically ‘compelling’ people to mix up.

  1. The idea of meeting ‘the other sect’ in this environment presupposes that participants already have a certain degree of openness to it. Did you have any reactions so far from those sectors among both communities which prefer to maintain division and hostility?

Arjen Yes we did, though this was outnumbered by massive support messages. A certain degree of openness is definitely needed, simply because within the extremes of religions and ideologies people and or communities build virtual walls around them that make it impossible to reach out to. When people consider the other to be the devil, or inspired by the devil, or a hypocrite of some sort, and subsequently consider his words to be deceiving, how could one ever be willing to listen to it?

And this is kind of the scope of the hostile messages we received. Some extreme Salafists and Quranists who did not and will not acknowledge the existence of other creeds to be Islamic, and who attempted to defame some of our members on a personal level simply because there’s not much to argument about the content of our stance.

Because it is our policy to engage in dialogue and approach everything positively, instead of bogging down in endless debates, we do not react on that. Instead, these two negative approaches have given us plenty of points to further elaborate and communicate through the positive platform we’ve created.

  1. In your experience what are the main or most common reasons that the extreme sectors of each sect give as justification for their enmity towards the other sect? How much of it is theological, how much historical/political and how often is it perhaps rooted, or strengthened, by people’s personal experiences?

Arjen This is a fairly difficult question that needs some elaboration. It is most interesting that the extreme sectors from all creeds base themselves on core sources, just as much as mainstream creeds do. Sometimes even the exact same texts, yet interpreted differently. The narrower the boundaries of a sect become, the more stress they will put on their absolute authority to explain the meaning of texts and not to stray from the ‘right path’ by looking at explanations by authorities from outside their group’s ‘enclave’. The ‘other’ is literally demonized, and by defining ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’, and ‘divine’ and ‘satanic’ the justification easily becomes ‘theological’. It remains the question, however, whether the origins of the justification were theological by nature, or rather inspired by political motives. The same goes for stances on ‘historical truths’. These are based on the same kind of source texts that have alternatives that are consciously neglected, and have shortcomings. Subsequently these become indisputable dogma’s due to their absolute character, and are proposed as ‘real Islam’, yet are nothing more than fallacies. Used to manipulate and monopolize the conversation and hijack individual thought.

The main tradition that is used to justify sectarianism is that the prophet Muhammad ص would have said that Islam will be divided in 73 sects of which just one will enter paradise. This (weak tradition) is used to intensify the fear of individuals and groups to be amongst the dwellers of hell, causing people to know more about the ‘wrongs’ of the other than the ‘goods’ of themselves. With regards to other religions, Islam actually has the same opinion about truth as it has about herself. Christianity will be divided in 72 sects and Judaism in 71, both also have one rightly guided group. For Muslims it doesn’t seem to be their business to define which groups from other religions is the rightly guided one, as long as they do not interfere in Muslim matters. But as one reaction by a self-proclaimed institute wonderfully articulated their view on Islamic sectarianism: “the battle for influence over the Muslims continues…”

  1. Yours is clearly grassroots, bottom-up project. Do you think that the established Muslim leadership like traditional ulama etc. are falling short in building intra-religious bridges among Muslims at the top-down level?

Arjen The answer to this question has multiple layers; it would be too easy to say that they do or do not. In my opinion there are many efforts being made by the established Muslim leadership to build bridges, but their (and this is not reserved to Muslims or religious communities) focus is mainly on people from the top segments, not on community level. In the past decade alone we have seen the Amman Message, which is a great document that Su-Shi uses as well in our argumentation, and the Marrakesh Declaration, which apparently has been improved over a longer period since the 1990s and in its recent update specifically gained attention for its focus on minority groups such as the Yazidis and Christians who suffer much in the Middle East as we speak. Other attempts are being made as well, such as the annual Ghadeer Khumm Festival in Najaf, which I personally attended in 2013, and where leaders from different religious communities spoke. Including more subordinated sects such as the Druze community. All these attempts are very valuable and should be cherished.

At the same time, we see that these innumerably valuable official declarations are not lived after in practice. In real life they remain theoretical documents, that are sometimes not even lived after by important leader figures who endorsed them at first. Or that important religious leaders make statements that, unintended, lead to deeper sectarian rifts.

In parts of the Middle East region tensions are so high since the beginning of this millennium, that it is, of course, very hard to maintain these statements. Leaders can communicate with each other and make agreements at top level, but when blood is shed at ground level people will rather follow a leader that speaks their mind.

The main reason why these declarations hardly have an effect on ground level, however, is that most Islamic – and in fact Abrahamic – faiths are exclusivistic is in nature. When ground level believers hear from their leaders that they should respect and embrace believers from other faiths and sects, and at the same time read in their jurisprudences that those people from other faiths and sects are intrinsically ‘impure’ (najis) because of their ‘infidelity’ or being born to ‘infidel’ parents, than that is at least confusing. In practice, among migrant communities in the West, this means we see, for example, how certain Shiite groups try to find escapes from the statement by the highest authorities that ‘Sunnis are not our brothers and sisters, but our souls’, and try to explain how this still means Sunnis are not on the guided path. And vice versa we see the tremendous influence of Wahhabism which too, albeit being an extreme side faction, affects mainstream Sunnism as well by planting its poisonous seeds of hatred towards others. There is no other way to break this way of thinking, that is imported along with or even strengthened through immigration, down but by starting to work on this from a grassroots, bottom-up project. A project in which the participants themselves can add to the thinking process, and can themselves speak out for peace and cooperation instead of having to depend for that on top level leadership.

Anne It’s indeed a bottom up approach that we have, and that’s for many reasons. 1. We want to grow slowly in order to build real trust based on personal connection in stead of theoretical words only. And 2. To put into practise what those ‘top down’ approaches have tried to formulate but failed to implement.

  1. On a practical note, how do you fund your activities? The reason I’m asking is that as we know, with funding from established Muslim organisations often come agendas and expectations that might potentially jeopardise independence of a project or try to influence a project in a particular direction.

Anne We are up till now completely independent; meaning we don’t get any subsidies from any organisation from any denomination. We are very happy with our team; we all have a broad network so up till now we found free locations; the speakers were all unpaid and the food was covered by our volunteers alhamdulillah. But since we are a Foundation since this year, we are open for donations from individuals. Being independent and self-sustained makes you stronger. Maybe you grow slower, but inshaAllah the project can run longer. Being truly honest to your own values is the most important thing.

Arjen Before Su-Shi had become an organization and was still an idea, I have once organized an event in the Su-Shi spirit that we did receive donations for. From that I can confirm what you mentioned: there are donators that demand their agendas and expectations and try to influence what you do. This is very simple for me though; I reject such donators. Whenever the autonomy of a project or of our organization as a whole is in jeopardy, it isn’t worth what you gain. So when we think out a project, donators can support that of course, but not lay any conditions on us.

  1. Arjen, you are Shia and Anne, you are Sunni. What are the rough percentages in terms of sects among all people involved your project and those attending your events?

Arjen It’s difficult to speak in percentages. Few of our participants have a very homogenous background themselves, however some do. And the same then goes for who they invite through our ‘oil spill’ method. Overall, however, I think that people from a Sunni and Shiite background make up the majority -both close to the half- of participants of our events.

Anne We must also admit that we try to work towards a fair share as well. Meaning: we very consciously have 50% of the board Sunni, 50% of the board shi’i and one ‘neutral’ board member. In this way we direct towards an almost equal percentage of participants as well. Over all, most of our participants would consider themselves Sunni of Shia, we had a few Quranist participants and people with an Allevi background that are enthusiastic as well.

  1. What would be your personal message to people absolutely refusing to engage with the “other sect”, based in their conviction of the other sect’s “heresy” and their conviction that there is no “right” Islam outside their own school of thought?

Anne Allahu Alem. I would ask them so sincerely contemplate on this statement of “Allahu ‘Alem” and with this, try to focus on tazkiyya an-nafs, the cleansing of the soul. How can you, as an individual, be so sure? For me, in essence, ‘Allahu ‘Alem’ means absolute humbleness towards The Truth. Only God knows, that means, that we as human beings, per definition don’t.

Arjen I would like to emphasize that no layperson nor scholar is infallible, and that no matter what you personally believe, we do not all share the same beliefs and convictions. Nonetheless, we do live together, in a space that is becoming smaller and smaller. That brings tensions, but we are not animals. As humans we can use our reason to ‘defend’ our intellectual territories, we shouldn’t be so afraid of the other, and rather listen to each other. Dialogue is not about convincing one another, it is more about becoming stronger in your own convictions, but with respect for the other’s convictions in his or her own space.

***

Anne Dijk has a background in Religious Studies and a Master in Islamic Studies, specialised in Islamic Jurisprudence (Sunni). Fascinated by the transformations of the schools of law (madhahab) and the internal discussions, she found out that there is a deep ethical essence within the jurisprudence that differences of opinions (ikhtilaf) were deeply respected in history. In the hardened debate within Muslim communities nowadays, about ‘what is really Islamic’, she missed this ethical attitude. As Director of Fahm Institute she works on diverse ways to more understanding (fahm) of Islam. She is de co-founder of Su-Shi Intrafaith Dialogue, because she believes that world peace should start within yourself.

Arjen Buitelaar has a background in History and a Master in Religious Studies. From his Master’s thesis till now, he is conducting research of the Shi’ite communities in the Netherlands, at the moment primarily focusing on the role of rituals and symbolism in the shaping of (group) identity. Due to the increasing tensions between Sunnis and Shi’is since the start of the so called Arab Spring, he found it necessary to start with the Su-Shi Intrafaith Dialogue initiative to create better understanding between different Islamic creeds.

Arek Miernik has a background in English literature, is an Al-Mahdi Institute graduate, and leading figure of the wider Muslim community in Poland. Though primarily involved with the Polish Shi’i community, he doesn’t confine himself to it and is a heard voice in opinionated media on the wider Muslim community and its status in society. He is the heart behind the Strefa Islam blog, where this interview was originally published in Polish.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website. The above interview was conducted by another organisation and not SSWH but has been reproduced with the permission.


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Qandeel Baloch: an outspoken feminist in a man’s world

“As a woman we must stand up for ourselves.. As a woman we must stand up for each other… As a women we must stand…“

— Qandeel Baloch

feminism cross-stitch

The tragic murder of the social media celebrity, Qandeel Baloch, is an eye-opener to societal attitudes towards women in Pakistan. This is a case which has divided the nation and exposed the contradictory and hypocritical attitudes towards women.

It is Baloch’s social media profile which divides people and emboldens the haters. While some commenters go far as saying her murder was justified, others act as nothing less than apologists. Many argue that “Oh yes, she should not have been murdered, of course…”, but then go on to shame her by commenting on her lifestyle and public profile.

There is no but. Qandeel Baloch was brutally murdered and yet still, all the focus is on what the victim did. The focus should be on the patriarchal structure of Pakistan’s society, where women are seen as the property of fathers, brothers and husbands.

The truth is, Qandeel Baloch wasn’t murdered for being provocative. She was murdered because she challenged Pakistan’s religious establishment, making a mockery of the mullahs and exposing their double standards.

Sections of the media have called Baloch “Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian” but she was so much more than that. It is disingenuous to compare her to Kardashian, who grew up in relatively affluent circumstances. Unlike social media celebrities in the West, Fouzia Azeem was born into poverty with few options in life.

“I want to give those girls a positive message who have been forcefully married, who continue to sacrifice.”

Raised in one of the poorest areas of Pakistan, she was forced to marry a much older man, who then beat her. It’s the same old story across Pakistan where girls are forced into marriage and then expected to live a life of hell where they are abused daily.

But Qandeel Baloch chose to take a stand and escaped. With little education and no support from her family, she took matters into her own hands and took to social media to make a name for herself. Her father called her “my son” because she alone supported the family.

In short, she learnt that in life, you have to depend on yourself.

“No matter how many times I will be pushed down under but I am a fighter I will bounce back. Qandeel Baloch is ‘One Women Army’.”

The videos are grainy and she wears the same outfits over and over again. There’s no sign of the privilege given to wealthy middle-class women like Kardashian. To compare her to similar social media darlings in the West totally ignores her back story and trivialises Baloch’s personal circumstances. It is not difficult to see why she went down the path she did.

People are free to ignore the content if they are offended. But both men and women comment on social media, calling Baloch a shameless slut, immoral, cheap, while at the same time, watching her videos and checking out her pictures for titillation.

You could question how a girl like Baloch could make a name for herself in an Islamic country. Pakistan calls itself an Islamic country, but I for one sometimes find it difficult to see Islam in Pakistan. This is a country where a qawwali singer is brutally murdered for simply singing about his passion for family of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). A country where minorities are slaughtered on a daily basis. A country where one of the world’s greatest humanitarians, Abdul Sattar Edhi, is condemned as an infidel by Pakistan’s mullahs. Where Malala is dismissed as a Western stooge, and where a Nobel prize winner cannot even rest in peace long after his death.

“At least international media can see how I am trying to change the typical orthodox mindset of people who don’t want to come out of their shells of false beliefs and old practices.”

But people tolerated Qandeel Baloch up to the point when all she did was post racy pictures of herself. It was when she started to speak out about women’s rights in Pakistan and when she sought to expose the double standards of Pakistan’s religious clergy that society decided enough was enough.

Qandeel Baloch’s murder is more than a so-called honour killing by an enraged brother. It is a direct reflection of Pakistani society, where women are still expected to silently submit. Qandeel Baloch, fearless, outspoken and brave, took life into her own hands and challenged the patriarchy. For that, she paid the ultimate price.

Image credit: Cross-stitch ninja via Flickr
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


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Jamilla’s tips on dealing with anxiety around exam time (Part 2)

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Read Part 1 here.

In addition to depression, I was diagnosed with anxiety, which tends to worsen during exams. Even though I take medication for depression and anxiety, I still experience panic attacks before, during and after exams. I wanted to share with you a few things that help me get through exams without letting my depression and anxiety overwhelm me.
1. If, like me, you don’t really get nervous until right before the exam, then consider waking up as late as you possibly can (whilst still making it in time to the exam of course). This is because waking up hours beforehand will give you more time to stress yourself out. If you’re unoccupied, it gives your mind a chance to wander, to think bad thoughts or just play up your anxieties.
2. Make dua, lots of dua. When I don’t know what to do or if I’m scared and just need my mind to stop from wandering, I recite any dua or Surah that I can think of. The idea is to try something that helps you feel calm.
3. Don’t sit still. Go for a walk, pace up and down or even just move your legs up and down. I always find that movements distract me from my anxiety.

 

About the author: Jamilla recently graduated with a degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies and is VP of the Islamic Society at the University of Exeter. Follow her on Twitter@JamillaTweets.

Image credit: Photo by PracticalCures.com.
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


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From The Mother of The Child Who Broke Your Concentration During Tarawih Tonight

Muslim women beginning prayer

Muslim women beginning prayer

Thank you! To all those people in the mosque who bore with us tonight as my son tried – and failed miserably – to learn the art of serenity in prayer; as he lost his balance multiple times and bumped into you trying to stand on one foot while you were trying so hard to focus on the recitation; as he loudly whispered ‘Shhh!’ to his friend – who until then was perfectly quiet; as he half-whispered, half-sang out loud the chorus of Harris J’s Salam Alaikum; as he pretended he was a dinosaur and roared at his friend before both of them broke out in muffled laughter, thank you!

Thank you, for understanding that your kindness and consideration for his young age will be a building block that will lay the foundation of the relationship he will have with this place that is, unfortunately, being increasingly perceived as alien and unwelcoming by young people. Thank you, for your empathy towards me as a mother who is struggling to balance between teaching her child to respect this as a place of worship and helping him form a positive bond with this space. Thank you for smiling kindly at us after you offer your Salaam at the end of every pair of Rak’ahs instead of facing us with a frown on your face. Thank you.

Because of you, my son will likely not resist the idea of joining me to the ‘long prayers that go on for-EVER!!!’ – as he tends to call the Tarawih. I will not second-guess my decision to bring him along to the mosque every step of the way as he scurries along ahead of me singing about how ‘The bare necessities of life will come to you.’ Because of you, every mistake he makes will feel less like a failure on my part as a mother, but as an opportunity for me to teach him about the etiquette of being in the mosque.

We promise we will try our best to behave better tomorrow night. We will bring along some more interesting quiet things we can do to keep us busy when the prayers get too long for us to stay put. But we will still probably make some noise. By the end of Ramadan, we would have likely stretched you to your limits and forced you to move your spot in the prayer room a couple of times. We apologise of that in advance.

And thank you, once again, so very much!

By Aisha Hussain Rasheed
www.facebook.com/i.sha.hr

Aisha Hussain Rasheed is a Maldivian Muslim woman, who believes our Islamic heritage is the key to the future, if only we know how to use it. She is a student of Islamic jurisprudence and a political and social activist.
Image credit: Muslim women in prayer by Glenn Halog
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.