Post Paris thoughts

We couldn’t meet together so soon after the Paris attacks without reflecting on their impact on local communities in London.  I asked Steve Miller and Malik Gul, trustees of LBFN, to offer their thoughts at the start of our meeting last week.  These are reproduced below.

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Steve Miller

Like everyone I’ve scanned a lot of comments, blogs and some much longer pieces in the press and online. I’m not sure that I have anything near a definitive response or reached conclusions that are much more than ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’. 

What is clear is that these events have been painful and distressing to large numbers of people, and at the same time appear – as often happens with traumatic events – to have opened doors for positive engagement, activism and conversations that might not have happened otherwise.

Some of these conversations have been around ideas of freedom and the nature of a free society. Obviously there are associated ideas. Some people have linked ideas of freedom to ideas of obligations and responsibilities. Some have explored the nature of freedom itself. In the Jewish cycle of readings from the Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) we are just beginning to read the story of the Exodus fro Egypt and a number of recent sermons have explored the distinction between freedom from oppression, and freedom to create a fair society.

When exploring ideas of freedom – especially if you are linking it to liberation and freedom from oppression – then notions of power inevitably come into the conversation. Who is powerful and who is not. In some contexts this equation is very clear but in many others the balance and perceptions of power are more ambiguous or confusing or constantly changing. In this context perceptions of Muslims and perceptions by Muslims are certainly mixed. Who is powerful, how do they use that power, and over who?

There has also been something in the air about victimhood. I think we are all repelled by the idea that there is some kind of mental ladder of victimhood with some victims being ‘more’ than others. But I have been struck at how quickly sections of the public and media responded to the notion of a rise of antisemitism. This is a more easily understood notion than understanding the meaning of the victims in the Charlie Hebdo building, let alone the Muslim victims of hatred around the world. With so many acres of space on the mass media front pages covering the rise of antisemitism, people may not be aware that this is being hotly contested within the Jewish community. The majority view seems to be that not only in the UK but also in France, experiences and perceptions of antisemitism are not quite as dramatic as some would suggest.

And there has been an aspect of these conversations that have, predictably, been subject to political and populist opportunism. At one level the obvious soundbites are important. It is important that Prime Ministers and Presidents stand up against violence and terror, prejudice and discrimination. But we also expect more from our political leaders. We expect a level of understanding that goes beyond simplistic polarisations. We are right to expect governments to think and act in ways that reflect the complex nature of the society we live in. Cohesion, participation, integration, inclusion and empowerment are interesting and useful policy slogans but they also act as proxy shorthand for a range of patterns of behaviour which need to be unpacked and understood. Understanding the detail is essential; looking at the big picture is useful, but getting to grips with people’s lived experience is what makes the difference.

And for ourselves around the table, where does this leave us? We can also be guilty of generalisations, platitudes and truisms. We need to take our eternal values and principles and look to how we can apply them at a local, regional and national level. By sitting around the table we are already taking the first step. We need work together in solidarity – not to compare my suffering to your suffering – but to see an attack on anyone as an attack on us all. A society based on solidarity is a society in which all of our diverse identities can exist together, flourishing and without fear.    Steve Miller, Faith-based Regeneration Network

malik at peace conference

Malik Gul

Catriona asked me to share some thoughts from a personal perspective, and I am happy to do so, as I feel that in all the noise and commentary following the events in Paris, the voices, hopes and fears of everyday and ordinary Muslim members of our community have been ignored and marginalised.

I am a Muslim. I was born in Birmingham. I was there a few days ago with my Mum and members of my family, and Birmingham has, as many of you will know, a large and settled multicultural community with a significant Muslim population. A recent Fox News commentator even went so far as to say that Birmingham has now become a No Go Area for Non Muslims, which is an example of some of the hysteria that is now circulating and the fear that this has produced.

My Mum, as with many of our Muslim communities came to the UK over 50 years ago, and others from much longer before then. The 1950s and 1960s saw the greatest influx of people from the former British colonies of Pakistan and India, with very many of them of the Muslim faith. Growing up, I can recall us sharing neighbours and friendships with people of all faith and none… Christians, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs, many of whom were also immigrants and newcomers, so there was a common bond between us. Of exchanging gifts at each others festivals, putting up trees and streamers and bulbs at Christmas, being welcoming towards each other, colours, and laughter and fellowship. Of course there was also an ugly side. Racism, ‘Paki bashing’, discrimination of all sorts, but nevertheless there was solidarity, across all faiths, across trade unions, across neighbourhoods, a determination to continue to work hard, to contribute, to be a part of our shared community.

Then only very recently, things started to become very dark and confusing, with events outside the control and influence of these communities casting a large shadow over them. The rise of a theocracy in Iran with a narrative that named ‘The West’ as perpetrators of past injustices, particularly around its imperial past and present, the accommodation between the Afghanistan government and the former Soviet Union, which the USA didn’t take too kindly to, and started to build and arm networks of fighters in Pakistan to fight a proxy war on its behalf, the fallout from this which led in part to the attack on the twin towers in New York. We were all spectators to this. No one in our communities had heard of the Mujahedeen, Al Qaida, Taliban, and then within a relative short space of time, we were becoming labelled as being in league with them and asked to become apologists for their behaviours.

This turn of events has left many of us in the Muslim community, confused, isolated, dazed and fearful. Old certainties of trust and neighbourliness are becoming fractured. As the US and the UK started to gear itself up for war in Iraq and Afghanistan, with again all of us on the outside of this, only being allowed to spectate, with many hundreds and thousands of us walking side by side against these actions, and all of us being ignored by our political leaders. Then as the fall out of these conflicts started to spill out all over the world, again, our communities have become labelled and picked out as somehow having a responsibility for these crimes.

Younger members of the community, much more able to access knowledge and information, much more aware of globally connected events, bear witness to the hypocrisies of the political classes. And it angers and upsets them. Just a few days ago in Paris, the Charlie Hebdo march had a representative of the Saudi Royal Family standing arm in arm with these who seek to defend free speech, yet the Saudi regime crushes free speech at every opportunity. When they point out these hypocrisies, they are told that they are being radicalised; and their parents encouraged to close down debate and inform on them. Muslims, far from being the perpetrators of violence and hate, have been the biggest victims of it, and have been and are on the forefront of the war on terror. A few weeks ago, 165 school children were murdered in their classroom in Peshawar, a few days ago over 2000 people were slaughtered by terrorists in Nigeria. Pakistan is also caring for the greatest displaced population in the world running into several millions. To be the biggest victims of terrorism and then, at the same time, being signalled out as sympathisers and apologists for it, is a growing and felt injustice.

What has kept the community resilient is our faith. The Prophet has said, that “he who serves his neighbour is the best of men”. There is a famous Hadith (sayings of The Prophet) that tells the story of a local woman who didn’t much like the Prophet, and would always curse and swear at him. It was a daily occurrence and she lived above the route that he would pass every day. On one day, as the Prophet approached the woman’s house, expecting his daily haranguing, he noticed that the woman was not there. When he got back to his home, he asked his companions to check on her. When notified that she had fallen ill, he sent physicians to her house, and himself visited to make sure that she was OK. This example of the Prophet has been uppermost in the minds of my community. That in spite of the attacks against us, the best example we can set is our love for all. This faith, along with the outpouring of support and solidarity from people right across the board, demonstrates that we are not alone, and that through unity and solidarity we can all endure and survive the terrible events that now engulf us all.   Malik Gul, Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network.

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