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How can the British Army engage with UK Muslims?

Photo credit: Hifsa Haroon Iqbal

This week, Akeela Ahmed, (Founder of SheSpeaksWeHear and chair of the UK government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group) arranged for a group of 20 Muslim women to visit Pirbright Army Training Centre. This incredible opportunity proved to be a real eye-opener in terms of forming a better understanding of the Armed Forces’ values, moral principles and ethos. The visit gave me plenty of food for thought, especially regarding what it means to be a British Muslim and our place in wider society.

Read on to understand more about this trip and some of my reflections from this important visit.

Driving up to the gates of Pirbright Army Training Centre initially felt intimidating, but this all changed when we were greeted with a warm welcome by senior members of the armed forces, and offered tea and biscuits. If there’s one thing that brings British people of all persuasions together, it’s the universal love of a good cuppa and a biccie.

Photo credit: Akeela Ahmed

Diversity and representation is crucial.

It is evident that the job of the British Army is to protect all the citizens of the UK. And, as the UK becomes increasingly diverse, so must the makeup of traditional institutions including the armed forces.

The British Armed Forces currently has around 10% women, which is still below the government’s target of 15%. There are currently around 450 Muslims serving in the regular armed forces.

Photo credit: Akeela Ahmed

Throughout the day, it became apparent that the army is extremely accommodating when it comes to faith. Padres are Christian ministers whose job it is to guide soldiers of all faiths and those without faith, with humanistic principles. In addition, there are also Armed Forces Chaplains available for soldiers of other specific faiths, including Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh.

Additionally, prayer rooms are available, as well as halal food on-site. The dress code can also be aligned with Islamic principles; Muslim men can wear a full beard, and for women, hijab can be incorporated within the uniform.

Universal human values and moral standards.

My personal highlight of the day was a presentation by Padre Nigel Kinsella, talking about the values and moral principles of the British Army. In particular, the military uses the mnemonic CDRILS, which stands for: Courage, Discipline, Respect for Others, Integrity, Loyalty, and Selfless Commitment. It’s pretty clear to me that these values are universal human values, that align to principles at the heart of Islam.

The British Army has a duty to protect all UK citizens.

As Muslims, one of the biggest threats comes from radicalisation, especially given that the majority of the victims of terrorist attacks have been other Muslims. Radicalisation is one of the biggest problems in the world today, and it affects all of us. It seems to me that the British Army is there to provide protection against all threats that are affecting UK citizens, and that of course, includes the Muslim community.

It’s clear that the job of the army is to do the things that other people are not willing to do. This does not simply mean reacting to real-world events. It also means providing humanitarian aid, disaster recovery and providing assistance in the event of a large-scale emergency.

We will not be divided.

Islam is by no means a pacifist faith. As Muslims, we have a loyalty to the country we were born into and live in. In addition, the rhetoric of the far-right, including that of Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson, seeks to divide us. Major General Duncan Capps, Muslim Champion for the Armed Forces was unequivocal in disassociating this dangerous rhetoric from the values of the UK armed forces. Any form of racism or discrimination is taken extremely seriously.

Robinson, in particular has used the army to push forward his anti-Muslim ideology. The army has absolutely denounced Robinson’s attempts to hijack their cause and have signalled a zero-tolerance approach against all forms of extremism.

The Army needs to do more to champion diversity to connect with young British Muslims.

My perceptions of the British Army are very different after this visit. I now have a better understanding of what the British Army does and how it affects me as a British citizen. As someone with a background in digital marketing, I feel the army needs to be doing a lot more to get their message across. There’s definitely an information gap and more needs to be done to engage with people of different backgrounds.

A couple of years ago, the British Army released a new campaign video entitled “Keeping My Faith – This is Belonging”. The ad featured a Muslim soldier praying, overlooked by other troops. In my mind, this is little to do with so-called PC-culture, and actually pretty reflective of the army’s ethos of inclusion. The military is one of the few institutions that doesn’t care about your background, your upbringing, your lack of an education or what you have been through. For many recruits, it offers a second chance at success or redemption.

Although the focus on on recruitment, the objective should be to change the perception of the armed forces. It may take a generation for there to be more Muslims serving, but that journey begins with changing hearts and minds. Certainly, it’s not something that will change overnight, but undertaking initiatives for different communities to get to know each other better is a great first step.

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

Author Bio: Aliya Zaidi is a self-confessed geek, a blogger, an avid foodie, and a mother of two. Aliya is a freelance digital marketing writer and research professional, writing mostly about online marketing and advertising. Check out her page: or read her tweets at

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


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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After 7/7 I was dubbed a “British Muslim” for the first time

by Sabbiyah Pervez


Tavistock Square, London, on 7th July 2005.

Tavistock Square, London, on 7th July 2005.

10 years. A decade has passed since four men travelled to London and blew themselves up killing 52 people and injuring many more. I remember it well, I was 16 and in the middle of my GCSE’s. I remember the confusion, the anger and the shock. Those feelings intensified when we learnt that the bombers were from Leeds, next door to Bradford, where I was born and brought up. I remember thinking why? Why would you do this to your fellow citizens? What would drive you to end not only your own life but the lives of others in cold blood? Those questions remain unanswered ten years on.

Since then Terror has raged across our world, from  Al Qaeeda to Taliban, to Boko Haram, to IS. All in a sick battle to outdo each other in massacre and bloodshed. All apparently in the name of Islam. And because of this latter point, “normal” Muslims have come out time and time again denouncing their actions. Hashtags such as #NotInMyName  have dominated social media. I have lost count of the number of times I and others have said “these terrorists do not represent Islam, these are not the actions of Muslims.” I have lost count of the number of times I have buried my face in my hands in despair upon hearing news of another terror attack hopelessly praying it was not orchestrated by another ”Muslim.”

In the past ten years much has changed including the language used to define terrorists , who  have gone from being called home grown terror cells to Islamists, Radicals, Jihadi fighters, Jihadi brides and many more. Their actions are still as horrific and barbaric as they were a decade ago.

“…following the attacks on 7/7 my religious identity took centre stage. The term “British Muslim” was coined, questions were asked if the two were a juxtaposition. Could I be British and Muslim?”

That is not the only thing that has changed, when the attacks occurred in July 2005, I was conscious of my Pakistani heritage, I was attending an all girls private school of which the student population was predominately white. But before 7/7 my identity was just that. I was a British Asian, a term which sounds outdated now, but following the attacks on 7/7 my religious identity took centre stage. The term “British Muslim” was coined, questions were asked if the two were a juxtaposition. Could I be British and Muslim? I was constantly asked.  If only you knew the identity crisis that was raging through my mind.  During my early teens I had to juggle my Pakistani identity and that in itself was difficult, I was leading a double life as were many in my generation, at home we conformed to the social and cultural norms that were expected of us and with my friends I was free to be the individual I wanted to be. Don’t get me wrong, I cherish many of the Pakistani values I was raised with but I felt suffocated by others. Then I was asked what it meant to be a Muslim living in Britain, like I didn’t have enough on my plate already!

London Bombings memorial, Hyde Park.

London Bombings memorial, Hyde Park.

If I am going to be honest, it was these questions that encouraged me to learn about myself, to look at Islam and to see what the religion was actually about. Ashamedly I hadn’t done any of that before then, I hadn’t needed to. Nobody had asked me about the headscarf I wore on my head, or “why does Allah tell you lot to go around killing us”.  I remember entering sixth form a year later feeling empowered. I knew where I stood, I was comfortable with my identity and I knew that Terror had no place in Islam, a religion of mercy, compassion and peace.  At the time in my mind the men who carried out the attacks on 7/7 were severely misled, as a friend put it to me “some people do crazy things, these guys just used religion out of context as their motivation”.

We were young and naïve. How were we to know that 10 years on, many from our generation would be groomed and encouraged to leave the sanctuary of their homes to join a terrorist group determined to establish a so called Islamic State.

Over the past month I have spent a lot of time in Dewsbury and Bradford, speaking to people on the ground, the grassroot activists, those who knew the families and the boys who have since left for Syria and those who didn’t.

A part of me thinks that a significant push factor is identity; you see many of my generation recognise that their heritage is Pakistani/Somali/Arab/Bangladeshi. Many of us are second/third generation children of immigrants with strong ties to our parents birth countries. When we visit the “motherland” we do not belong because we speak the language funny, or we look and act differently to the natives. And here in the country in which we are born and raised many are seen as a threat. A friend recently told me he was sick of being viewed with suspicion; he was tired of having people ask him his views on IS. He told me “I effing hate IS more than they do for hijacking our religion and affecting my life and relationships”.

Is it plausible to suggest that if your identity is constantly under scrutiny, it makes it easy for you to become a victim to those who seek to prey on you for their own evil ends? Is it worth asking that if you are unemployed, living in a deprived area with little aspirations, constantly under attack for who you are with no one to guide you, that you could fall victim to the IS machine? It is worth asking what we should do when some parents do not speak English as a first language thus fail to even communicate with their children let alone detect signs of radicalisation?

It has to be said a lot of work is being done, community workers up and down the country are doing brilliant work mentoring young people and trying to prevent radicalisation. And we have to acknowledge and appreciate their work.  A lot of the time their hard work goes by unnoticed. But there is so much more to be done by all of us.

I write this because two days ago a relative came to my house to break his fast with me and my husband. It turned out he is a very good friend of a family member of one of the victims who died in the Tunisia attack. He mentioned it casually in his conversation that at first he was worried to go over to the house and offer his condolences. He asked us if it was too soon.  When I asked him to elaborate he replied “well they know me for me, but I worry if they will now see me as a Muslim”.

I couldn’t get what he had said out of my head. He had said it so matter of factly. Even though the family hadn’t said anything to him, in his mind he was aware of his identity. That night I looked at my children blissfully asleep worrying what their future holds for them. In that bleak moment it felt like the world had come round in a circle. I remembered the stories my parents used to tell me of enduring racism on the streets of Bradford when they first arrived in the UK, I used to think my generation would never have those problems, and over the past couple of weeks I have heard of the backlash Muslims and those that look like Muslims have faced. it appears the focus on racial prejudice has shifted to religious prejudice.

“it’s all about unity, if we stand together as humans, we can defeat terror”

Plaque in Tavistock Square, in memory of those who died on 7th July 2005.

Plaque in Tavistock Square, in memory of those who died on 7th July 2005.

Then a couple of days ago I travelled with a group of young people from different faiths on a peace journey to London from Leeds. They took the same journey the bombers from Leeds had ten years ago but they were replacing it with peace. It was a mixed group of different races and faiths and we travelled together. They paid respects at the 7/7 memorial and they heard from survivors of the attack. Before I left for my journey home after what was an emotionally and physically exhausting day, one young person turned to me and said “it’s all about unity, if we stand together as humans, we can defeat terror”.  I walked away feeling hopeful and inspired.

An abridged version of this piece was published in The Independent: After the London bombings on July 7 I was dubbed a ‘British Muslim’ for the first time – suddenly my religious identity took centre stage’.

Sabbiyah Pervez, is a journalist and an advocate for social change, you can read more about her work at and follow her on Twitter @sabbiyah 

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

Images credit: Tavistock Square by Jez; London bombings memorial by Cormac70; Tavistock plaque by Art Crimes