Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Corner Comment…

Peace, one and all…

I was recently surfing the blogosphere when I came across an article written by the well known journalist and convert to Islam, Yvonne Ridley, in which she describes her reactions to the recent Islamic Relief concert at the Royal Albert Hall. As her remarks were thought-provoking, I wanted to post some of these thoughts here (I was also at the concert myself)…

In her piece, Ridley raised a number of concerns which seemed (to me) to centre on four main areas:

Music
Conduct at the Concert
British Muslim Identity
The Sufferings of the Global Ummah


On the whole, I have to say that, as an impassioned reaction to our global issues, I liked the article. That is, Ridley is right: the horrors our brothers and sisters face in certain parts of the world (notably Uzbekistan it seems) makes ‘having a good time’ seem trivial and false. Indeed, much of what constitutes everyday life in Muslim Britain seems so: sectarian arguments over where one should place the hands in prayer, or under what conditions it is allowable to wipe over the feet in wudu’ pale into utter insignificance when measured against such suffering. The frequent (indeed almost perennial) ‘debates’ (if I can glorify such arguments with this title) regarding the sighting of the moon and the timing of Ramadan/Eid al-Fitr appear depressingly trivial (if not wickedly so) in the light of such knowledge. After all, do the persecutors of our brothers and sisters abroad care whether we are Sunni or Shia, Salafi or Madhhabi, Tablighi or Barelwi? Surely, they just want to torture and murder anyone who wants our faith have a say in society: that is, anyone who wants their Islam to be more than mere tokenism. Or, on an even more basic level, such oppressors just want rid of all Muslims. Period (as an American would say).

In this sense, Ridley’s points are ‘on the money’, so to speak. As a community, we have far more important things to be worrying about than mere trivia. But, upon reflection, I am not convinced that the key theme of the recent Islamic Relief concert was trivial. Is the development of a British Muslim identity trivial? I don’t think so. Is it trivial to be able to express and celebrate that identity openly? Again, I don’t think so. Although, of course, break-dancing hijabis may not be the best (and is certainly not the only) means of achieving this, I do contend that, even in the face of such horror, we (as British Muslims) have the right to celebrate our identity publicly. Indeed, given the recent history of Muslims in the UK, I think we have an obligation to show ourselves to be the warm, positive, generally decent people we are.

I saw the sisters who squealed ‘shouted, swayed and danced’ during brother Sami’s performance and yes, it was unusual and unexpected. I even suppose that, strictly speaking, such ‘pop-mania’ was questionable in Islamic terms. Having been to many concerts in the days before Islam, the reactions I saw here were really not earth-shatteringly obscene – they were rather tame in fact (though it’s not necessarily a fair comparison). What I, and those I went with, took from the event was an encouraging sense of belonging. That is, belonging to an international, trans-ethnic global family – the Ummah in other words.

I also had a feeling that it isn’t impossible to be both Muslim and British, which is not a feeling I’ve had very often I must confess. This brings me to another area of Ridley’s article: namely, British Muslim identity. I will say that I was a little puzzled by Ridley’s criticism of Sami Yusuf. Indeed, I had that same sinking feeling as I get when listening to people arguing about obscure points of fiqh in an argumentative and judgemental tone. Ridley described Sami as being ‘so proud of his claret-colored passport that he wants us all to wave the Union Jacks’. Now I have met many passport hunters in my time as a Muslim, but Sami doesn’t strike your typical ‘immigrant type’. I have met Sami personally on a couple of occasions (he’s a friend of a friend) and I must say that I found him to be a quiet, reflective and extremely polite man (ma sha Allah). He came across as a quietly pious sort of person – that is, as the sort of person who doesn’t make a big song and dance (no pun intended) about his Islam, he just gets on with it. In other words, Ridley’s comments don’t really ring true (to me at least).

Moreover, I must confess that I’m not really happy with Ridley’s anti-British tirade:

‘How can anyone be proud to be British? Britain is the third most hated country in the world. The Union Jack is drenched in the blood of our brothers and sisters across Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. Our history is steeped in the blood of colonialism, rooted in slavery, brutality, torture, and oppression. And we haven't had a decent game of soccer since we lifted the World Cup in 1966’.
Now, as those who know me will testify, I am no slavering xenophobe, but I find myself tired of such material. In response to the passage quoted above, I’d like to offer a number of points. Firstly, yes, there is violence in British history – quite a lot of it in fact. Yes, in the past, Britain has been responsible for oppression and wickedness: the destruction of the Indian cloth trade in the 1700s and the Atlantic slave trade are but two examples. However, you have to separate the actions of the ruling elite from the common people. That is, the actions of kings and rulers in the past do not invalidate pride in British heritage. Again, it is the government of Britain that has taken us into this false and hated war in Iraq: as Ridley herself will know, some 2 million people demonstrated against the war in Iraq in 2003. As for soccer, she may have a point there (though I’m not sure that it’s fair to tack such a remark onto the end of this paragraph: the two things are not really part of the same thing).

As a student of history, one of the most important lessons I have learnt is that every nation has blood on its hands. There isn’t one nation on earth that is entirely innocent of such things – either now or in the past. Even our very own ummah has done such things through the course of its history: perhaps that’s one factor in our current position.

On a more personal note, in years gone by, I’ve been faced with this kind of anti-British rhetoric on many occasions. Indeed, one of the reasons why I made my very own hijra was to leave such things behind. I worked in a college where there were many overseas students, from different parts of the Muslim world. I was often surprised by the casual manner in which anti-British sentiments were expressed (by overseas students), just as I was shocked by the petty avoidance of everyday things such as car insurance. What got to me most was that those who did such things were quite open: ‘Yes, I hate Britain and I am here to take as much from it as I can’ was one classic response!

Since leaving, I’ve come to realise that there is nothing wrong with being British and Muslim. Indeed, it is worth celebrating. This is why I felt that the Islamic Relief concert was a positive contribution (leaving break-dancing aunties to one side)! As far as I am concerned, there is much to be proud of in British culture generally: tolerance, fairness and a sense of justice are a few of the positive aspects. Without these, there would be no Muslim community in 21st century Britain (Muslim immigrants would, presumably, have been sent home once they’d cleaned up the country). Also, Britain could really benefit from Islamic values, particularly with regards to alcohol.

As I was reading Ridley’s article, I was reminded of a quote I read recently:
‘The radically “other” is merely “other”; the proximate “other” is problematic, and hence of supreme interest’
(Jonathan Z. Smith, What a Difference Difference Makes)
Which, I feel sums up the issues underlying Ridley’s article…

As the time’s getting on (and I have to get ready for work) I need to go. Insha Allah, I’ll offer a few more thoughts later on this evening.

Ma’as salama,

Abdur Rahman

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