Britz – Part I (Sohail’s Story)

Never before has there been so much press coverage about a TV docu-drama. Britz, the work of the renowned Director Peter Kosminsky, was aired for the first time on Channel 4 last night. The highly controversial and much debated telly-film is a fictitious drama about two young Muslim British siblings in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings and the impact that anti-terror legislation has on their lives. In today’s blog, the FreeWriters Team discuss views on the first part of the programme.

Zareen

Last night I decided to suspend all judgement; I took the view that no matter what was shown, you can’t make fiction without generalising to a certain extent, so I had already prepared myself for the inevitable Muslim-stereotypes and backward minded Bradford-stanis. I was glad I did, because for the most part I think that “Sohail’s story” was a fairly accurate one.

Thinking back, university life really was like that (for me at least), you had the hijab-wearing, beard-clad, “lecture attending” Muslims, and then you had my crowd – the one’s who were somewhat oblivious to why religion (pre-9/11) meant anything at university. During my student years, religion was a personal belief that meant praying five times a day and fasting as much as you could during the month of Ramadan. It meant having one identity at home, with the family, and another with your mates (both Muslim and non-Muslim) – and that wasn’t because you didn’t know who you were, but it was because somehow you were brought up to be fluid enough to recognise your culture / belief and have the flexibility to live life as a normal British person. Whether or not Imams actually do go on campus (and that too post 9/11 or 7/7) and advocate the case for / against jihad and people actually get sucked into that is a totally different matter, but it wouldn’t surprise me as I have often taken the view that many radicals do target the young and impressionable; the “keen learner” – and where else to find these susceptible, questioning student minds than at colleges and universities.

The not so startling scenes were those of the relationship between (questionable, are they dating, aren’t they?) Sohail and Shazia – one that I must say is not uncommon amongst many young men and women from my generation. Shazia was a girl who seemed to balance both tradition and modernity but at the same time wanted to learn more about the complexities of what she believed was her religion. Sohail on the other hand seemed intent on giving her liberties she felt she already had, to quote Sohail “I’m, surprised you’re not wearing the f*ing headscarf” – what’s wrong with the headscarf? These small differences amongst men and women in the Muslim community often grow into larger issues of belief and liberty and in my opinion create more disharmony amongst an already divided community than anything else. But the fact that they drew attention to it was a commendable move.

Sohail’s disillusioned state brought about by the deprived community he lived in was not an uncommon story I have heard and seen many times before. Originally from Bradford, Sohail is shown as an enthusiastic British Muslim who is struggling to come to terms with the radicalisation of many of his compatriots and friends “back home” (in this context, Bradford) and decides to get into the system to fight terrorism – he is proud of being a British Muslim and sees his role as “paying back a debt” owed to his parents when they first came to this country. To some extent this may be true and Sohail’s mentality is resonant of many Asian British Muslims living in England who still genuinely believe in a notion of indebtedness – that somehow immigrants should feel indebted. Without delving too much into the history of colonisation, I do not feel that I owe my country, Great Britain anything – For me, if that indebtedness did exist, the buck stopped with my parents. I do not feel that I owe this country anything more than my white middle-class, wage-earning English neighbour. I was born here, there is nowhere else I call home – and in my book, if you call this your home, you shouldn’t feel the need to repay any debts. I am however a loyal citizen – but loyalty and indebtedness are two very separate things.

Sohail’s experience at MI5 however really took me back, the gruelling cross-examination and slightly sardonic work environment was a convincing portrayal of UK intelligence, which not surprisingly led to Sohail’s own internal battle about whether he was recruited to be an informer. In my opinion Sohail’s character dealt with the complexities with nerve and didn’t just accept it; he questioned MI5’s motives. I would too. At times, I also found myself proud of Sohail for fighting the Muslim corner – for admitting that the war against terror seemed more like one against Islam and that in fact, the UK’s foreign policy was one of the main factor provoking many British Muslims towards radicalisation – an argument which has been fervently denied by our former PM at Breakfast with Muslim Leaders ay Downing Street in the aftermath of 7/7.

But the part that I found a little disturbing was when Sohail and his blonde sidekick (whose name leaves me) went to visit an old friend of Sohail’s who’d been captured by British authorities; lying bruised and battered on an operating table, Sohail, unaffected, did not even flinch. When questioned about “who” he saw, Sohail replied “I just saw an informer” – It seems shocking that any person who sees someone they are in someway affliated with could feel nothing. Without targetting any one group in my example, if a white non-Muslim got abducted in Palestine, would people in the west not be emotionally affected? It was total nonsense if you ask me – if anything he would have been shocked for the sake of humanity.

Although I strongly believe that it is worthwhile broadcasting programmes such as these, to increase awareness about British Muslims and the motives behind their allegiance with one of their many identities, I am conscious that it does generalise (and not propogate) far beyond reason. Showing that Muslims can work for the government and be good citizens who love their country is indeed a positive message, but the stereotype given, that to fit that bill you somehow have to abandon your own traditions and cultures, and surrender to drinking alcohol and having one-night-stands (another stereotype which, I didn’t think showed Western women in the most positive light either) is a dangerous move.

I look forward to part two with gritted teeth…

Zahir

I echo Zareen’s need to grit her teeth – I found the drama on the whole to be tense, informative, and challenged various stereotypes. It was also the first glimpses we had inside a world which affects us yet most of us aren’t privy to know much about – the world of secret intelligence. The closest thing I have watched to this is the ever popular 24 on US TV, working in the counter terrorist unit in the US, and my comparison will be with that. 

My main issue with the show was the idea that just because one is proud to be British, that they should be ok with giving up civil liberties. Especially that torture is ok. Sohails his character seems to take this in his stride, whereas just about every non-Muslim I know would’ve been sick at the sight of the brutal beating the Muslim had taken. That’s despite their having no loyalties to Islam at all. But for some reason he was unaffected.  

Sohails character did make me fume, as it will have done most moderate Muslims who have ever been troubled by common perceptions of Islam. Yes he believes violence is wrong, and yes he is proud to be British. But that doesn’t mean that one must abandon their culture or religion or any notion of human rights. I agree with everything he felt. Yes I have been around people who say violence in the name of Islam is ok, and yes it does make me sick. But I challenge these people, and look to scholars like Tariq Ramadan, also proud to be European, for inspiration. The program fed a common misunderstanding, that Islam is just no compatible with the west. When he went to the lecture and heard an extremist speaker, why didn’t he challenge him? And is this the true face of Islam? To the common viewer that’s precisely what they’ll think, and its wrong. Sohail’s character fails to understand that there are 2 ways to challenge those who undertake violence in the name of Islam; Join MI5 as he did, or recognise that these people are deviants, and help Islam find its true voice. 

For this, I disagree in that I didn’t find the central characters to be realistic at all. I found the sister to be the more realistic of the 2, but even then, I can’t reconcile how her extreme views towards Islam reconcile with her having a black boyfriend. To start with, she wouldn’t even be accepted into radical sisters or Islamic circles for that alone. It also questions her motives, and then says her radicalisation wasn’t really to do with Islam, but something about justice, and having her friend commit suicide. That is a believable story. Moderate Muslim, has a black boyfriend, starts hating anti-terror legislation and the loss of human rights. But then this person wouldn’t blow up civilians. I personally just don’t find it credible where she makes that next step to becoming a bomber – Whets clear is she doesn’t do it in the name of Islam. 

On the whole, I found it entertaining. But that’s all. Was it an accurate depiction of anything that happens in the world? I didn’t think so (notice how it was the UK that undertook torture – again there’s no evidence of the UK being complicit in the US policy on secret rendition). I don’t think the sister accurately reflects what radicalises a Muslim, and I don’t think there are many people like Sohail. I should know. I share many of his views. More seriously, the program has profited from and fed a certain stereotype of Islam, which is inaccurate, that its fundamentally incompatible with the west. When will Muslims be consulted, or able to share what really happens, rather than having people who know little about these issues writing / filming in their name?

Brown plan to extend terror limit

The article below is from the BBC news site. It identifies the main arguments very well on a highly controversial topic .

The last time the government tried to introduce extended detention without trial, MPs overwhelmingly rejected it. Not to show their solidarity to Muslims. But to protect hard fought for civil liberties. 

Whats most concerning is that there is no evidence that it would be useful. I have to admit, I didn’t realise policy making was a speculative affair. Appears I was wrong.

The question I would ask is how do Muslims protest this?…

Article…………………… 

Gordon Brown will push for an extension to the time terror suspects can be held without charge in a bill to be included in next month’s Queen’s Speech.

 But Downing Street is playing down reports he wants to double the current time limit to 56 days. The prime minister wants to head off a potential backbench rebellion by stressing new safeguards to protect civil liberties.

He has promised greater judicial and Parliamentary oversight of detention.

 The 28-day limit came into effect in July 2006 after rebel MPs defeated plans for 90-day detention.

The government has said that there have been no cases since then where a suspect has been released when a higher time limit would have led to a charge.

‘Not enough’

 But it argues that there may be cases in the future where more than 28 days will be needed for charges to be brought.

And it is hoping that by stressing new safeguards it will be able to quell any backbench rebellion on increasing the upper time limit.

 The government wants each seven-day period of detention beyond 28 days to be approved by the Director of Public Prosecution before being decided by a High Court judge.

The home secretary would also be required to make a statement to Parliament and there would be greater oversight by the government’s independent reviewer of terror laws.

In a speech on Thursday, Gordon Brown said: “In future 28 days may not be enough and we are also considering other proposals including post-charge questioning”.

He added: “There will be – and must be – greater protection for the individual, both greater legal or judicial safeguards on executive decisions and more intensive scrutiny of them by Parliament”.

‘No evidence’

Mr Brown did not mention 56 days in his speech but he has suggested in the past that the current 28-day limit could be doubled.

 Downing Street earlier distanced itself from newspaper reports Mr Brown would push for 56 days.

An aide told BBC News no decision had been made on an upper time limit.

The government has said it wants cross-party agreement on anti-terror laws.

But the Conservatives and Lib Dems both insist they will not back any extension of detention until the government can provide evidence it is needed.

Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, said: “We have always said that if there was evidence to support this we would look at it carefully.

 “So far, not only have we not had a shred of evidence to support this, but we have had an admission from the home secretary that there is not one new iota of evidence to support it and that any proposal to extend the term is because ‘they can imagine circumstances under which it would be necessary’.

“Gordon Brown has promised to ‘write the next chapter in British liberty’.

 “It would be a tragedy if this chapter proved to be an ill-thought through, politically motivated, curbing of the liberties that thousands, if not millions, of British citizens have died to defend

Return of the Muslim other

An interesting articles in this mornings Guardian – opinions section. I have to admit, I wasn’t aware these rallies were about to take place. The debate is interesting enough though, and definitely affects us and worth getting involved in…

Return of the Muslim other

The far right is reviving the prejudices that used to dominate mainstream European politics

Soumaya Ghannoushi

Wednesday October 24, 2007

The Guardian 

In a few days time a cluster of far-right groups under the name the Stop the Islamisation of Europe alliance will hold rallies in London, Copenhagen and Marseilles to demand an end to what they call “the overt and covert expansion of Islam in Europe“. Although the events are likely to attract no more than a handful of protesters, their message resonates widely. On Saturday the rightwing People’s party, notorious for its virulent hostility to ethnic minorities and Muslims, emerged as the victor in the Swiss elections, taking 29% of the vote, the best electoral performance by a party in the country’s elections since 1919.

The far right is on the ascendancy in many parts of Europe. Beyond its explicit party political expressions, this assumes a more worrying form. What had been traditionally confined to the margins of dominant political discourse is progressively penetrating its mainstream, with parties of the centre absorbing much of the far right’s populist rhetoric. This underlies the complaint by Jean-Marie le Pen, leader of the racist National Front, that Nicolas Sarkozy had “stolen his clothes”. Across the Channel, the Tory candidate for the London mayoralty, Boris Johnson, believes that “to any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia – fear of Islam – seems a natural reaction”.

We are witnessing a reversion to the type of cultural essentialism that dominated political and academic discourse until the mid-1900s. Its central theme, the purity and superiority of European culture, was dealt a powerful blow by the tradition of post-colonial studies and radical critique of Orientalism. The trend brought together progressive, leftist voices from Europe and the US with others from the south amid the dismantling of modern-day empires and the rise of developing world liberation movements.

The same discourse is reconstructing its terms today by substituting the classical east-west bipolarity at its core with one of “Islam” and “west”. The west’s rationality, tolerance, individualism and freedom are now contrasted with Islam’s superstition, fanaticism, fatalism and repressiveness. In the history books, this trend has manifested itself in the resurrection of the myth of the benevolent empire, championed by figures such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts.

September 11, the emergence of violent radical Islamic groups, and the war on terror have created fertile ground for the revival of this tradition. Its spirit permeates much of the language current in the political sphere and many sectors of the media. What had once been cause for disrepute now goes unquestioned and barely remarked upon. The vocabulary is various, from immigration, integration and citizenship to terrorism, radicalism, Islamism and an endless chain of -isms. But the referent is consistent: Islam and Muslims. It is a game of insinuations, of codes, in which meaning is readily conveyable without need for explicitness or directness.

Beyond all the noise about Europe‘s “Muslim problem” lurks a growing unease about the changing texture of European society. Gone are the days of pure white, Christian Europe. Now Europe is multi-ethnic, multireligious and multicultural, a fact which many find hard to swallow. Muslims are part of this evolving reality, but the idea that the continent is being Islamised is a figment of the right’s imagination.

In a European population of some 540 million, Muslims number between 20 million and 25 million, or about 4%. The majority are underprivileged, and socially, economically and politically marginalised. Whatever the scaremongers say, Muslim armies are not at Europe‘s gate preparing to conquer.

Obsession with the question of Britishness in the UK and with les valeurs de la République in France reflects a state of anxiety about identity. The collapse of empire, globalisation and flow of immigrants from the old colonies brought new peoples into Europe‘s bosom. The Muslim other – the Saracen or Turk, in opposition to whom Europe defined its imaginary geographic and cultural borders – is now located within its frontiers, a sort of internal outsider. From the periphery of the empire in distant overseas colonies in Lahore or Algiers, it has moved to the periphery of capitals and industrial cities in London or Paris. The borders of identity and culture are overlapping, making it impossible to draw rigid boundaries between east and west, Europe and Islam, white and black.

At the heart of Europe‘s “Muslim problem” is an impotence and perhaps unwillingness to extend the norm of tolerance to newcomers from the Muslim world. Tolerance is not an abstract concept but the child of a specific historical context. In Europe it was the product of the religious wars, which ended in France, for instance, with the Edict of Nantes in 1598. Following the horrors of the Holocaust, the norm was widened to include Jews. And with the civil rights movement in the US, this was further extended to black people and other ethnic minorities – legally and theoretically, though not in practice. There is still resistance to the norm’s broadening to encompass Muslims, something evident in the controversy over the building of mosques in northern Europe, as well as in the “veil problem” in France, Germany and other countries.

Some quasi-liberals continuously ask how we can be tolerant with people who preach intolerance – by whom they mean, of course, Muslims. A better question could be: to what extent are those who profess tolerance really tolerant?

· Soumaya Ghannoushi is director of research at IslamExpo
soumaya@islamexpo.com

Live8 – Mullah style!

Last night I found myself at Wembley arena again. The last time I was here was to listen to a Shakira concert. Back then, I found myself surrounded by a plethora of people out to enjoy what promised, and indeed turned out to be, a mesmerising performance. All around, people were jumping, screaming and shouting like only Latins can, which the gifted minority successfully able to emulate the movement of Shakira’s “un-lying hips”.

8 months later, and there I am again, almost in the same seat, with the same person next to me. Only this time, provocatively dressed Latin ladies are replaced by modestly dressed Muslim sisters, and the macho latino’s are replaced by Molvi’s and other bearded brothers. The screams from last time persist, only this time it’s the youngsters they have brought with them. All around me, children, as young as 5, are screaming at the top of their voices. “Sami! Sami! Sami!”.

What everyone was hear for was the much awaited, and equally well publicised Muslim Live8 – a concert for peace in Darfur. And there I was, offering my small hands and the little change I had in my pockets as support towards a cause I have felt particularly strongly about for several years now.  

So whats happening in Darfur? Put simply, its not too dissimilar to Iraq. Only the Muslim on Muslim fighting can’t even be blamed on divides within Islam like the Sunni/Shia divide. The conflict in Darfur is very much political, not religious, and is between the janjaweed, supposedly supported by the Sudanese government, and coming from the Arab Baggara tribes, and a variety of non-Baggara rebel groups. The conflict has been ongoing since 2003, and has left the Darfur region in Sudan as one of, if not the most acute humanitarian crises today.  

So there you had it. All in one place. A fantastic line up, including, as supporting acts, no less than the Danish outfit, Outlandish, the even more impressive Muslim country and folk singer from the US (yes, he is the only one!), Kareem Salama. Add to this an energised crowd, contributions from 2 Muslim ministers from the current government, and messages from mssrs Brown and Cameron themselves, as well as the headline act, Sami Yusuf (who I admit I hadn’t actually heard of until this point) and you had a great evening in the making. And true to its word, the evening did not disappoint. 

Several things struck me through the course of the evening though. The first is the obvious, which still deserves to be said. A sell out crowd of 12,000 mostly bearded men, and veiled women, making a statement; “WE ARE NOT EXTREMISTS…… WE DON’T SANCTION VIOLENCE…… WE DON’T CARRY BOMBS……… WE ARE BRITISH AND PROUD OF IT”. Interpret it as you will, but for me the statement was clear. We are Muslim, but we are not so different to everyone else in Britain.  

Even more encouraging was learning of the backgrounds of some of the headlining acts. Outlandish are one Pakistani, a Moroccan and a Cuban. Kaleem Salama grew up in Oklahoma listening to country music artists at the county fair and watching his favorite cowboys at the rodeo every year. And Sami Yusuf, the headlining act, himself studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London.  

The statements coming from all of these clear. Being Muslim does not stop one integrating from western society. Even more, that each one of these 12,000 Muslims were standing up to say the same thing, and that they had something huge in common with the rest of western society – support for peace in Darfur. What a shame there weren’t more non-Muslims in the crowd to see a truer face of Islam that is generally portrayed in the media!  

What else struck me? Again, contrasting back to the last time I was in the same seats, I was surrounded by hoards of happy people, more than a few who had been drinking, and a minority who had been drinking heavily. Now for someone who stands at the (not so) impressive height of 5’7’’, and has an ability to fight or defend himself equivalent to one of the teletubbies, not being surrounded by the few yobs, who having drunk too much, end up looking for fights, was great just in itself.  

Earlier this year, the London School of Economics Students Union became the first university in the UK to organise a freshers week event that was truly inclusive to Muslims i.e., Alcohol free. I say bring on more music concerts where Muslim needs are catered for! Why don’t we have alcohol free sections during mainstream pop concerts? Its as much good commercial sense as it is having an inclusive society.  

The final thing to strike me. The whole concept of this concert was initiated by a group of students! For people like me, who claim to be Young British Muslims, the gauntlet was thrown down – If you get out there and try to do something constructive in the community, it can be done! 

The first Muslim Live8 concert turned out to be huge success for me, and combined with the money raised for Sudan, it was a huge success all round! My only wish is that the next time such an event takes place, it is attended by more non-Muslims. Now that would be real cultural integration!