Monthly Archives: July 2013

Ramadan In a British Setting

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First published here for The Platform earlier this Ramadan.

Being a British Muslim in Ramadan can be an accommodating and amusing experience – and even more so with this year’s programming on Channel 4

I used to work at a prominent architectural practice in central London. Being the only Muslim, let alone the only non-white employee, I stood out for some of my ways and mannerisms, stemming of course from my faith. During office social outings I used to diligently stick to my loyal glass of orange juice, or Redbull if I was feeling adventurous, while my erstwhile colleagues indulged in their socially-acceptable libations – some extolling its many virtues when the intake was slightly above the norm.

Many of my colleagues at work found the concept of Ramadan to be novel and rather unusual. They struggled to reconcile the idea of abstaining from food and drink while working in the office and having to stay on top of one’s professional game. My closest work friend was a Scouser lad from the Wirral, with whom I once walked into a local Asda and saw not a single Asian employee, in stark contrast to the picture of all the brown-skinned employees I would see if I were to walk into any supermarket in London. Upon being asked if the chicken was halal, an English worker consulted his superiors and kindly replied saying “I am sorry sir, the chicken isn’t ‘halal-friendly’”. Naturally I was amused at the thought of chicken being halal-friendly, when it is either halal or it isn’t.

My colleagues were extremely considerate of my Ramadan routines, sometimes somewhat mortifyingly, as they would inconvenience themselves by trying to avoid eating and drinking when I was around. My boss then, a well-respected senior partner of the firm would facetiously ask if I was on “Ramadan Poppadom”, and then go to the extent of asking me to write about the experience of working during Ramadan for the office magazine. Such was the obliging nature of an office in the city where I was the sole fasting employee. I am sure mine is not the only such experience.

Most Brits are curious to know what Ramadan is and exhibit a genuine desire to learn more about it, particularly when it is from someone they already know. However, many prominent British media organs have made these ambassadors of Ramadan come across as extreme and unapproachable, so much so that the concept of Ramadan is lost to many people.

It is in this atmosphere that Channel 4 rather provocatively chose to state that they will be broadcasting the morning adhaan (call to prayer) which, upon hearing, Muslims must stop eating and drinking for the rest of the day till dusk.

This news has been received with a plethora of mixed reviews. Muslims in the UK, if they do not go to the local mosque to break their fast, typically rely on the internet for the times of the adhaan or have an adhaan clock which will have been localised to UK settings, or use the latest iPad or android app. Channel 4’s decision to broadcast the adhaan is a truly refreshing intervention by a British mainstream broadcaster that will help bring the concept and significance of Ramadan, and what it entails, to the broader British public.

There has also been widespread criticism and sensationalised headlines following Channel 4′s decision to broadcast the adhaan by the usual suspects. But then the question begs to be asked, who watches Channel 4 at 3am for the duration of the adhaan for 2-3 minutes if not British Muslims during Ramadan? Surely it is a rather insignificant societal matter if it will not be seen by mainstream Britain. Yet, at the time of writing, an online poll shows that over 66 per cent replied ‘No’ to the question ‘Is Channel 4 right to broadcast the call to prayer?’

This Ramadan, as with every Ramadan, Muslims will be especially conscious of their actions and will endeavour to act with particular respect and good conscience in manners relating to physical, intellectual and spiritual wellbeing. During the 30-day period of Ramadan, it is common practice for Muslims to attempt and complete reciting the entire Qur’an.

On the matter of diversity, the Qur’an states: “Oh mankind, We have created you from a male and female, and made you into races and tribes, so that you may identify one another. Surely the noblest of you in God’s sight is the one who is most pious” (Chapter 49, Verse 13). This is further reinforced by Prophet Muhammad’s last sermon where he said, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black, nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action”.

Integration among communities is of the utmost importance, and one can confidently say that British Muslims do make conscious efforts to integrate into mainstream British society and contribute to the UK socially and economically. It is tragic that this still needs to be mentioned.

As David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband will no doubt emphasise in their Ramadan messages, charity is a core value of Ramadan and Muslims should contribute charity towards the wider community – for indeed justice and equality are not just Islamic values, but are values at the heart of British society too.

Image from here.

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Lankan Muslims and Their Image Problem

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This article was first published in the print version of the Ceylon today on 24 July 2013 (view online soon) and  is in response to an interview of Dr.Ameer Ali published on the Ceylon Today on 19 July 2013 titled ‘Muslims are self-alienating’.

The state of Muslims in Sri Lanka has been closely observed over the last few years. Indeed the plight of Sri Lankan Muslims has become somewhat dire; new radical Sinhalese groups like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and the Sihala Ravaya (SR) have hijacked Buddhism and are both committing and advocating crimes against the Muslim community. It is in such a context, that Dr. Ameer Ali’s interview was published a few days ago.

When asked if he concurs with the widely asserted notion that a peaceful Muslim minority are under threat by elements representing a hegemonic Buddhist nationalism, Dr Ali opines that after more than a hundred years of ‘rationalism’, religion is once again in the ascendency. As such, Buddhism in Sri Lanka is seeing a revival.

There are multiple loopholes in this argument and if anything it is rather febrile in the face of the main structural issues at hand. While a global revival of religion has been noted, it is important to highlight that this has manifested in an increasing of religiosity amongst people who already profess a faith rather than a marked resurgence in the numerical ratio of people claiming to subscribe to a religion. Secularism too is on the rise, with atheism becoming more numerically prominent. Therefore, what is seen is not the reversal of a status quo where the numbers of atheists is diminishing to make way for the religious; rather it is the concentration of the strengths of already set religious and or other value systems.

Attributing the rise of the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sihala Ravaya to the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is insulting to good decent Buddhist Sri Lankans if it isn’t farcical. For example, the BBS has been acting in contravention of law and order, embracing violent means and initiating vile, organised hate campaigns against ethnic minorities and those who have stood up against their methods. If the good Doctor sees this as the birth pangs of a revivalist Buddhism in Sri Lanka, there will be many who would spring out of a kicked bush to question his sense of reason.

Further, Dr. Ali states that since the 1970’s, there has been a spread of ‘orthodox Islam’ in Sri Lanka, supposedly brought to our shores by Sri Lankan workers returning from the middle East. This argument which has been liberally thrown about by many commentators, is fast gaining traction.

Unlike the Russian Orthodox Church which is the institution of an independent Christian denomination of its own, ‘orthodox Islam’ is a Western linguistic construct which has no definition except where the West would like to use it as it sees fit. From a Western lexicon, the rigid conservatism of the Afghan Mujahideen in the 70’s for instance was a non-issue when the Soviets had to be fought; Margaret Thatcher even reportedly celebrated with some of them in Downing Street.  The applicability of the phrase ‘orthodox Islam’ to the case of Sri Lankan Muslims therefore is in serious dispute.

Moreover, Dr Ali exhibits a rather futile sense of nostalgia for the state of the Muslims in the 1970’s which he uses to denigrate Lankan Muslims of today. Those who were born after the seventies were born to a different Sri Lanka and share a different identity and seek no avenue to revert to a time unheard of to them.

If the inference is that Muslims today will do well to revert to customs of the 70’s, it igoes against the epithets of any form of liberal or social democracy to want to impose the culture of a bygone era to a current generation who are a product of an entirely different time with different needs and issues. Incidentally, there is an interesting correlation where the allegation that the Muslims of the 70’s were different stem from those who left Sri Lanka domicile elsewhere in the 70’s, and therefore scrutinise Sri Lankan Muslims after a gap of a generation. The culture of Muslims today is a response to what is and what happens around them and it would be a synthetic intervention to modify that. If it is sentimentalism or nostalgia that is needed, then of course the interviewee would be forgiven if he limited himself to his harmless persuasions.

But if these nostalgic affirmations have serious political undertones, they are rather analogous in theory with the right wing loons in the US Tea Party who struggle to accept the US for the racial diversity it boasts of today, but yearn for times of yore when an all-white US bureaucratic hegemony trampled down the black communities and native Americans with impunity.

Therefore, that the Muslims seen in Sri Lanka in the 70’s were different remains only to be an innocent fact.

It is a basic anthropological ideal that societies, communities, faiths and belief systems evolve in response to the inevitable changes occurring around them. All religious and ethnic communities in Sri Lanka have responded to the changes around them, culturally or ideologically. The Tamils of Sri Lanka who were subjected to ostracism by sections of the Sinhalese majority for the last thirty years, are naturally different today than they were decades ago. The simplistic argument augmented by this commentator that the Muslims of the 70’s were somehow better, needs to be laid to rest. Things change and communities change around them, The once white America now has a Black President, it was a Conservative (not liberal) Prime Minister that pushed through legislation legalising gay marriage in Britain

Further, the majority of the Muslims of the 1970’s were either mono-lingual Tamil speakers, with a limited elite who were both Tamil and English speaking. Contrast this with today where the average Muslim is bi-lingual with the class of Muslims who are tri-lingual  increasingly on the rise, thus making the Sri Lankan Muslims the least polarised and most diverse Sri Lankan community when it comes to languages. This is notwithstanding the fact that there are recognisable sections of the Sri Lankan Muslim populace who speak Malay, Arabic or Urdu in addition to the three main languages. The Muslim community therefore is linguistically the least insular of all communities

Since communal conflict in Sri Lanka has more precedent to be based on ethnicity (perhaps language related) than religion, that Dr. Ali doesn’t see the receptive position of current day Lankan Muslims vis-a-vis integration is deplorable if it isn’t laughable. Therefore, to cite ideological changes in a community over a period of thirty years, a natural development that is hard to measure or quantify and to simultaneously ignore and overlook other quantifiable socio-political development indices of the Lankan Muslim community is both biased and inaccurate.

The interviewee then goes on to making some facetious claims of how Muslims should be part of the Dalada Perahera. That they don’t take part isn’t a crime and Muslims give due credence to the event as being of national significance and its purity doesn’t have to be adulterated by Muslims taking part, unless if requested to do so, I am reluctant to believe that this was the puritarian orthodoxy that he mentioned of earlier.

Other aspects raised by Dr.Ali, include the supposed banes of Muslim schools being closed during Ramadan, thereby exercising a liberty he has to express himself at the cost of opening academically irrelevant cans of worms. I myself was educated at a Christian Missionary school in Colombo and therefore never had holidays during Ramadan, but Muslim schools being closed during Ramadan has never been an impediment to social integration.

Moreover, he highlights the fact that there are funds coming into the Muslim community from Saudi Arabia which in turn helps institutionalise a Saudi brand of ‘Intolerant Islam’. The record of the Saudi’s is nothing to be proud of, reports increasingly suggest that that oppressive regime of the Saudis with a host of other Arab states connived with the US to depose the first democratically elected President of Egypt. Therefore, the Saudi’s have little virtue to extol.

However, Sri Lanka is a democratic country underpinned by a legal system; it is not anyone’s concern what comes from where, as long as it doesn’t impinge local laws and regulations. His concerns of Saudi money coming in is akin to some Sinhala extremists crying foul that the Norwegians are funding Christian groups in Sri Lanka and importing a foreign brand of Christianity that seeks to proselytise the majority Buddhists. Of course he callously neglects to calibrate his argument by failing to recognise the dangerous development in relationships between the radical monks in Myanmar who are responsible for many violent deaths of the Rohingya and local radical monks.

The dominant image Dr. Ali seems to conjure of the Lankan Muslim community is of a conclave of black burka wearing women & bearded men donning flowing white robes, He blatantly fails to recognise the image of a non-violent resilient community, brutally uprooted from their domicile in the north by the LTTE exacerbated by the indifference of successive governments to its plight, a community hounded by a fringe of Tamil terrorists in the past and hounded by a fringe Buddhist extremists in the present, a community that has overcome discriminatory bureaucratic patterns to become highly entrepreneurial.

Very regrettably, When atrocities of the LTTE stole the image of an educated and upwardly mobile Tamil community, and when violent escapades of Buddhist extremism is distorting the pristine image of the Sinhalese, it is both whimsical and flippant of the Doctor to think that Sri Lankan Muslims are plagued by an image problem.

Image from here.

NOTE: Dr Ameer Ali’s callous remarks somewhat fall in line with an older post of mine titled ‘For Muslim Critics of the Lankan Muslim Community’

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On Being a Conspiracy Theorist

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More often than not, when one has a view point that is diametrically opposed to what is considered the norm, one is quite easily referred to as a conspiracy theorist, and this is quite sincerely a case of playing the man instead of the ball, to throw a football metaphor. Facts are hardly refuted but the purveyor of the facts is attacked.

Egypt is descending from frying pan to the fire, and the role of the US in the military coup is increasingly evident, as shown by these New York Times op-ed’s here and here and a piece on Al Jazeera here.

Of course many are just terming these theories to be conspiracy theories in the hope that such a blanket term would absolve them of the responsibility or the bother of having to refute them. Indeed, the term is a very convenient way of shutting one down. Much to my displeasure many people close to me, and those close to them quite generously dish out the phrase ‘conspiracy theory’ when they hear a viewpoint that is rather different to theirs.

So called ‘conspiracy theorists’ usually are vindicated much later when facts come to the surface. There were many who cried foul in 2006/7 when Gmail was gaining popularity, and many wondered how much of a threat Gmail and Google can be to one’s personal security, they were shunned as conspiracy theorists then, only to be later vindicated that the NSA was monitoring social media sites, Google included. There were many who opined that Yasser Arafat, the former leader of the PLO was actually killed in hospital, and that he didn’t die a natural death, this theory is now held in high esteem and investigations are currently ongoing.

Tariq Ramadan, an Oxford academic and grandson of Hasan AlBanna, the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood says the following on what entails being called a conspiracy theorist –

In our day, it is not unusual for writer who does not accept the official consensus to be dismissed as a “conspiracy theorist,” for his analysis to be rejected before studying the facts upon which it is based. Are we to conclude that in our globalizing age, with its networks of national security policies and structures and its new means of communication, political scheming, malicious stratagems, manipulation of information and of peoples are a thing of the past? “Conspiracy theorist” is a new insult devised for those who think the wrong thoughts, who don’t fit in; paranoids, people who ascribe occult powers to certain states (the United States, the European countries, Israel, the Arab and African dictatorships, etc.) that they really do not possess. We must forget what we learned about the conspiracies that have left their mark on the history of Latin America and Africa (from the assassination of Salvador Allende to the elimination of Thomas Sankara); we must overlook the lies that led to the invasion of Iraq and to the massacres in Gaza (both presented as legitimate defense); we must say nothing about the West’s alliance with and support for the literalist salafis of the Gulf sheikhdoms; close our eyes to the benefit for Israel of regional instability and of the most recent coup d’État in Egypt. We must remain naïve and credulous if we are not to notice that the United States and Europe on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, have agreed to disagree on Syria, and that the 170 Syrians who die each day count for nothing against the strategic and economic interests of the Great Powers.

Our obligation is to stick to the facts, to avoid oversimplification. The polar opposite of an over-simplified reading of events is not “conspiracy theorizing” but that of intelligence informed by history, by hard facts and by a detailed analysis of conflicting interests. The interpretation presented here may well be wrong or inexact, but substantial and verifiable evidence has repeatedly confirmed it. From those who have criticized or challenged our analysis, we look forward to a fact-based counter-analysis far from denigrations and facile slogans. When people refuse to call a military coup d’État by its real name, and when most media avert their eyes, the hour for critical conscience has struck.

Of course some theories are absolutely hard to fathom, and may well be conspiracy theories, but when facts substantiate a theory, they most certainly should be given a hearing.

Image from here.

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