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

brothers

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

su-shi-arjen-anne

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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How can I prove myself to be more “British” to live up to Mr Cameron’s standards?

David Cameron arrives at Qatar University 2011

David Cameron arrives at Qatar University 2011

My Reactions to Cameron’s new counter Terrorism Speech

by Robina Saeed

@ROBtotheINA

Ah Mr Cameron, where do I begin? I must admit I’ve never been his biggest fan. Under his leadership we saw austerity levels reach the highest they’ve ever been, support cut off to the disabled and homeless shelters and food banks pushed to breaking point. Now he’s done terrorising the most vulnerable in society, his new thing these days seems to be telling British Muslims to be more British and less…well, Muslim. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his Public speech outlining is new plans for countering terrorism.

As a young British Muslim woman belonging and identity have always been fairly wobbly concepts to me. Especially when I was growing up, the small town I’m from couldn’t get any less diverse.

My town has no mosque, no sparkly Asian clothes shop, or fruit and veg, cash and carry, in sight. Perhaps the only sign of “muslimness” is the odd halal takeaway in the town centre. My town was  also one seat away from voting in a UKIP majority in the local elections and even made it into the Guinness world book of records for the most pubs on a single stretch of road!  Growing up until I went to College I’d always been the only non-white person in class. The hostility however reaches beyond the towns demographics and planning.  From my grandma having rocks thrown at her for the way she dressed, or to having the words “PAKI TURF” spray painted in red on our front door my family and I have had more than our fair share of racism over the years. So although technically I was British, born and bred in a small town in Manchester, growing up I never felt British enough. I always felt slightly out of place.  In my eyes and experiences you will never be whole heartedly considered a true Brit, without any questions asked like “where are you from?” unless you are White.

Now after overcoming the difficult teenage years I feel British to my bones. It’s part of my Identity. An integral part.

Now after overcoming the difficult teenage years I feel British to my bones. It’s part of my Identity. An integral part. It’s not something I contemplate when I wake up in the morning when I put on my headscarf or drink my tea. I don’t think to myself “hmm am I feeling more British today or shall I act more Muslim”. It doesn’t work like that.  So how can I prove myself to be more “British” in order to live up to Mr Cameron’s standards? It’s an impossible task. Yet time and time again Mr Cameron has pointed the finger at British Muslims demanding we need to assimilate into British society more and show our British values. It’s confusing.

I also fear for the generation younger than me. Teenage years are a universal nightmare but I think, we all also agree that teenage years are fundamental in shaping a young person’s identity and worldview.  Differences in our appearances and beliefs are what makes life interesting, and these differences in identity should be celebrated and encouraged during childhood, not questioned. Imagine the struggles of a young Muslim child, now growing up in school. It’s a toxic environment out there. Whether we admit it or not, children have been born into a society where the word ‘terrorist’ automatically triggers the word ‘Muslim’. Growing up becomes even harder when the Media and your very own Prime Minister and his cabinet put your identity under the spot light. How can a child love and grow into his or her Islamic identity when it is portrayed as something unstable and easily warped by Mr Cameron?

In his speech Mr Cameron said the root cause of terrorism is extremist ideology itself. I would like to know from where he made such a bold claim?  Myself and the other 99% of Muslims worldwide are yet to come across anywhere in our teachings that encourage extremism. All the research I have come across also suggests Mr Cameron is wrong.  Counter-terrorism specialist Prof Andrew Silke says research shows that people are drawn to terrorism more because of “identity issues” than ideology. Interviews with Ex Al Qaeda members from the UK also all show that the draw towards extremism was identity based and a feeling of not belonging here or there.  In my eyes if anything, under this new strategy, more young Muslims are likely to feel out of touch with their identity and question it. They will either turn their backs completely on Islam, because of the constant demonization it faces, or do a 180, and actually be drawn to extremism.

Those are my reactions to the new counter-terrorism plans. Poorly researched, confusing and damaging to the youth.

Robina is an energetic 20 year old Human Geography student from Manchester. She enjoys writing in a matter of fact and casual tone, sharing insights in politics, social life, religion, peace and war.  She has a Youtube channel raising awareness of conflicts worldwide, as well as an easy-to-read personal blog ‘Robina Writes’. You can also follow her on Twitter @ROBtotheINA

Image courtesy of Number 10, David Cameron arrives at Qatar University 

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

by Sabbiyah Pervez

@sabbiyah

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 http://sabbiyah.co.uk 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


4 Comments

The Feminine as the Balancing Force; Poetry & Literalism

by Roszeen Afsar

@Roszeen

The literalist way of thinking among certain Muslims is sad to say the least. I’ve been exposed to it many times, but the most memorable was in my university prayer room. I remember being hauled into a discussion about Sufism amongst a group of girls who carried a negative opinion of it. I mentioned Rumi to them and was surprised when they laughed, in amazement that I should bring up a poet in a discussion about theology (unaware of Rumi’s status as both poet and theologian). It was then that I realized how little is known nowadays of the history and fruitfulness of Islamic thought or more specifically, spirituality.

These girls were not new in their thinking. Their dismissiveness came from a specific disposition known as ‘Salafism’. Salafism is a literalist movement which, within its folds, narrows Islam to a dogmatic set rules, rejecting therein a great deal of tradition. From this conversation I came to believe that literalists were against poetry entirely. However, I have seen that rhyming is something used even by the Salafi’s, and amongst extremist groups there is something known as ‘jihadi poetry’. The rejection those girls had was specifically of Sufism or spirituality, Rumi being one of the key figures associated with this. But by rejecting Sufism, they also rejected the feminine, which as I have stated in an earlier piece is synonymous to spirituality. Further to that, in this piece I intend to compare the poetry of the Sufis to that of extremist groups as a tool to see their wider ways of thinking about life. By doing so we find an example in the literalist, in its most extreme form, of the result of removing the feminine (spirituality) from Islam.

The Feminine

Painting by Rozseen Afsar

Painting by Rozseen Afsar

You could easily believe while keeping up with current affairs and the goings-on of society that many of us have lost an understanding of the feminine characteristics God has given us from within Himself. God is both masculine (al-Jalal i.e. of Majesty and Power) and feminine (al-Jamal i.e. of Beauty and Compassion). His masculine characteristics are in names such as; The All-Compelling, The All-Mighty, The Afflicter of Retribution and The Supremely Strong. Examples of His feminine characteristics are in names such as; The most Merciful, The most Forgiving, The most Patient, The most Gentle. These latter names are those we regularly call Allah by, seeking His mercy, forgiveness, patience, gentleness. But within our Ummah we can see the result of being less inclined to embody these traits ourselves.

It was when I read a poem by Rumi that I found a beautiful and significant connection being made between Allah’s feminine characteristics and the creation of woman;

Love and kindness are human attributes; anger and
sensuality belong to the animals.

She is the radiance of God, she is not your beloved. She
is a creator

– you could say that she is not created.

I thought of ‘She is a creator’ as referring to a woman’s role as a mother, or as the female being a creator of love and mercy as we know it on earth. Being uncreated could mean the wholesome possession of Allah’s feminine characteristics. These of course were prevalent more than in any of us in the character of the Prophet (pbuh), who had the balance of both feminine and masculine e.g. in his mercy and his justice. The general examples however – used by the Prophet (pbuh) himself – are those of the female. He (pbuh) said that God’s mercy is greater than that of a mother’s love for her child, thereby using the example of the highest love we know on earth to demonstrate the incomprehensibility of Allah’s mercy. When I read Rumi’s poem I immediately thought of the feminine as the civilizing force of the world, beyond the simple gender-based understanding of a woman, more as part of the balance of the human being.

To be balanced with both the masculine and feminine is an interesting notion and I have thought of it in connection with the concept of the genderless worshipper, as Rabia al Basri was seen to be. But this genderless-ness was not just in the balance of characteristics, it was in fact mainly in the annihilation of one’s physical form in the love of God. It’s been said that; “When a woman walks on the path of God she cannot be called a ‘woman’” (Women of Sufism*), the notion of gender/sexuality isn’t relevant anymore. This is seen in Rabia al Basri’s poetry which expresses her experience of dedication to Allah; an annihilation of self. An incomprehensible experience to us since we have not reached such a station.

Literalism and Poetry

In comparison to the essence of Rabia al Basri’s poetry, I recently came across an article called; Battle Lines; Want to understand the jihadis? Read their poetry’  in which there is a secular analysis of how and why poetry is significant to extremists. The article talks specifically about a woman named Ahlam al-Nasr, a member of ISIS who has written poems, as the writers state, ‘in praise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi…and a thirty-page essay defending the leadership’s decision to burn the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh alive’. Her work uses war and violence to play upon emotions by romanticizing martyrdom, emphasizing cruelty to Muslim lands and the bravery of those fighting against it. She puts forth an idyllic dream for how things could be under the ISIS imagined Islamic state, a place which in reality does not exist.

This romanticizing of ‘jihad’ is, needless to say, a dramatic break away from the poetry which has always been celebrated in the Islamic world. The insecurity brought about by the victim status of such followers overcompensates into a call for violence. The focus on sacrificing for God in classical Islamic poetry is instead in ISIS expressed as a focus on battle and a struggle seen through a political lens, for a call to take vengeance through their vigilantism and declaration of legitimacy. In the midst of such huge issues the focus on purifying the soul and seeking the Creator is seen as insignificant, even alien.

The secular world does not help with this in its incomprehension of spirituality. Secular means to not be connected to religion, but in this case I am using the term ‘secular world’ specifically in relation to contemporary thought which looks at religion from its subjective position of non-belief. In this world the voice of the extremist is religion because the concrete notions of violence and martyrdom through suicidal fantasies are part of a language secularism understands more than that of rectifying the heart and soul.

It also looks at the Muslim woman as a victim of the male gaze, having to wear a veil, thereby seeing her only as a physical entity. Similarly, ISIS has a ‘brigade’ named Al-Khansa which is the ‘female morality police’ of the cult who no doubt ensure that women are dressed appropriately and behave as they’re supposed to. And so, just as secular opinion makes a Muslim woman only her veil, Al-Khansa does no different. Just because a poetess is hailed as a voice for their movement does not mean that the feminine has found its presence amongst them.

In such groups the idea of the gender-less worshipper is nonexistent, it isn’t something that I imagine would ever make sense to those of literalist thinking. The poetry of Rumi, Rabia al Basri, Hafiz etc. which speaks about devotion to the Divine is about a love which is so fierce that were an individual to walk upon that path they would have nothing of themselves left. I think if we understood sacrifice such as this we would not ridicule such individuals or dismiss the way of the Sufi. Similarly, the feminine is not something to be hushed or underestimated, it is key to the meaning of life. Or else we have the other end of the spectrum in the form of groups like ISIS who might be able to deceive some with their romanticised jihad, but were anyone to study the works of classical Muslim poets they would see the utter emptiness in such dystopian fantasies.

*‘Women of Sufism; A Hidden Treasure’ by Camille Adams Helminski

You can view more art work by Roszeen Afsar [Inky-Art by Roszeen] on her Instagram @InkyArtbyRoszeen

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