Sunday, 27 November 2011

Muslim Writers Awards & The Guardian Student Media Awards

This past week has been a rather big one for me, personally. On Tuesday, I attended the Muslim Writers Awards as I was shortlisted for the Young Journalist of the Year award. I was delighted to have just been shortlisted and it is safe to say that I was shocked when I was named the winner! All in all, it was a really great night; I met some very interesting people, in a fantastic venue (Shakespeare's Globe Theatre) and received some very nice (and kind) feedback from the BBC presenter, Asad Ahmad, who presented me with my award. Some people have asked if they can read the pieces that I submitted for the award (you have to submit 3 articles) so here's a list of the articles and brief descriptions.

  1. Ethnic Profiling as a Policy of Counter-Terrorism is Not Working - This article was written shortly after the attack by Anders Behring Breivik and I wrote about how racial profiling should not be the main focus of our counter-terrorism policies, giving Norway as a primary example. I also write about how Muslims were asked to spy on their communities and mosques (resonant to the times of Vichy) when returning to the UK after a holiday.
  2. Unveiling the 'burqa ban' - This article focusses on Sarkozy's wrongly-named burqa ban (the main object being banned is the niqab) and how he is simply continued the trend of Islamophobia in France in order to try and get the right-wing vote.
  3. Kettled in Parliament Square - This is a very long, detailed report of what I saw, heard, felt and the views of other students on the day that tuition fees were raised to up to £9000. I was in Parliament Square and was reporting live on the day and so experienced the kettling by police and was on of thousands to be without access to basic sanitation as we were not allowed to leave.

On Wednesday night, the next night, I attended the Guardian Student Media Awards as The Student Journals was shortlisted for the Website of the Year category, which was very enthusing mainly because the judging took place before TSJ had even been publishing for a year. We didn't win on the night unfortunately but we did end up being runners up, which I feel is a fantastic achievement for what we have done so far. Hopefully, our continued growth and development will help us do even better next year.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

What I'm reading (France's burqa ban: women are 'effectively under house arrest')

From time to time, I may update this blog with articles that I find are particularly good.
While writing a piece for The Muslim News about the fact that Muslims have been banned from praying in the streets (I'll post the article on this site once it is published), I did a fair bit of research and read a number of articles. However, a fantastic feature article by Angelique Chrisafis in the Guardian caught my eye and I feel that it is definitely worth sharing. I found it particularly interesting because I've written about the niqab ban in the past and I have not yet read a piece with such a detailed update.

In her article, entitled 'France's burqa ban: women are 'effectively under house arrest'', Chrisafis answers some burning questions that I had, such as why the European Court of human rights had not yet overturned the law:
Gilles Devers, a lawyer acting for Ahmas and several other women in niqab, argued punishments were not being handed out because the niqab law contravenes European human rights legislation on personal liberties and freedom of religion.
Chrisafis explains the real implications of the ban for Muslim women:
In April, France introduced a law against covering your face in public. Muslim women in full-face veils, or niqab, are now banned from any public activity including walking down the street, taking a bus, going to the shops or collecting their children from school. French politicians in favour of the ban said they were acting to protect the "gender equality" and "dignity" of women. But five months after the law was introduced, the result is a mixture of confusion and apathy. Muslim groups report a worrying increase in discrimination and verbal and physical violence against women in veils. There have been instances of people in the street taking the law into their hands and trying to rip off full-face veils, of bus drivers refusing to carry women in niqab or of shop-owners trying to bar entry. A few women have taken to wearing bird-flu-style medical masks to keep their face covered; some describe a climate of divisiveness, mistrust and fear. One politician who backed the law said that women still going out in niqab were simply being "provocative". 
Ahmas, 32, French, a divorced single mother of a three-year-old daughter, puts her handbag on the table and takes out a pepper spray and attack alarm. She doesn't live on the high-rise estates but on a quiet street of semi-detached houses. The last time she was attacked in the street a man and woman punched her in front of her daughter, called her a whore and told her to go back to Afghanistan. "My quality of life has seriously deteriorated since the ban. In my head, I have to prepare for war every time I step outside, prepare to come up against people who want to put a bullet in my head. The politicians claimed they were liberating us; what they've done is to exclude us from the social sphere. Before this law, I never asked myself whether I'd be able to make it to a cafe or collect documents from a town hall. One politician in favour of the ban said niqabs were 'walking prisons'. Well, that's exactly where we've been stuck by this law."...
Before the law, Stephanie would often be called names like "Batman, Zorro, or Ninja" in the street – often by pensioners. Now people favour swear words or sexual insults. She wants to work with children, but despite having a degree in theology, she can't find a job.
She also enlightens us as to some very interesting news:
Rachid Nekkaz, a French property developer, explains why his association, Don't Touch my Constitution, was the only group to stage high-profile protests when the law came into force – he backed Ahmas's birthday-cake stunt and has set up a ¤1m fund to pay any fines over the niqab. His next, and most radical, protest action will be this Thursday, when his association announces its plans to field a woman in niqab for president in 2012.
This really is simply a brief glimpse into the article and I would urge you to read the full piece when you get the time:

Monday, 12 September 2011

Universities should refuse to spy on their Muslim students (Guardian)

I've written against the government's counter-terrorism 'Prevent' strategy in the past but their latest development on British campuses is too far. Here's my piece for the Guardian:

Students go to university with various ideas in mind: enjoy the student life, meet new people and perhaps even get a good degree. Yet the government have decided to give their own input and bring fear into the equation. One of the government's counter-terrorism strategies,Prevent, has started to once again home in on British universities with a particular emphasis on Muslims. Officials from Prevent have asked university professors to give them details of any Muslim who might be a "threat", especially those who are isolated or depressed.
Apparently, if a Muslim is depressed, he or she is vulnerable to radicalisation. University staff are also asked to report students that have poor relationships with their families, are disgrunted by the government, and access extremist websites. Fortunately, most of us reserve better judgment than the masterminds of the Prevent strategy, and some student unions, such as the one at the University of Warwick, should be praised for their reaction; they have rejected any communication with officials from Prevent.
But what are the problems with this strategy? There are two major issues: the first is that it applies upon all Muslim students at university a slogan of "innocent-but-actually-probably-guilty", and second, that it ignores the fact that university should be a safe haven for students. Universities that accept Prevent officials in their campus have forgotten their purpose: to allow free thought and debate in an open environment. Debates about terrorism, security and human rights – and discussions about government failures – should all be encouraged at university.
Under Prevent rulings, it appears that if there were 100 students at a debate and one of them – a Muslim – spoke of how the incumbent party was adopting miscalculated policies, such as declaring the rise in tuition fees an abomination, university officials should report him as a danger to our country. The rest of the attendees at the debate, however, who may be equally or even more displeased would face no such difficulty since, well, only Muslims can be terrorists right?
There is one other extremely important point to note: university is also somewhere to obtain a higher education – even if that comes as a bit of a shock to some students – and professors exist not only to teach but also to ensure that each student is maximising the opportunity. Therefore, they and the counsellors have a responsibilty to any student seen to be struggling. They should help these students to get back on track, whether they are in a state of depression or are simply finding it hard getting through all the reading.
We should hear more universities condemning the horrendous Prevent strategy. Rather than making Muslim students fear for their privacy and forcing them to shy away and even hide their depression, all students should be given support to deal with these issues.
The Prevent strategy affects every university community, and instead of counter-terrorism strategies hampering the efforts of students who want to learn, universities need to group together and firmly reject the strategy – they should protect their students who need to be able to have faith in their leadership.
I have reason to believe that because of my opposition to the Prevent strategy, and the fact that I've written about the Israel-Palestine conflict, I am being monitored. And if you're Muslim and sitting in your university while reading this, you may have just joined the list.

Originally published in the Guardian; visit

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Saturnine faces as astronomers query moon sighting over Saudi Arabia

It is a pivotal point in the Islamic calendar, the moment when a month of fasting and contemplation finally comes to an end. But the celebration of Eid this year has been marred by controversy after claims that Saudi religious officials announced the festival on the wrong day.
Traditionally Ramadan comes to an end when the new moon is visible with the naked eye.
This year, officials in Saudi Arabia announced a sighting on Monday 29 August. Since then, however, astronomers have presented evidence to show that the moon was not visible at the time, and suggested that the Saudi officials may have actually been looking at Saturn.
Maged Abou Zahra, president of the Jeddah Astronomical Society, told the Egyptian paper al-Shorouk: "The sighting of a new moon would have simply been impossible."
If true, the mistake would mean that millions of Muslims around the world stopped fasting a day too early. The new moon occurs when it is between the earth and the sun. At this time, it is not visible to the earth because the entire illuminated side is facing the sun.
But in Saudi Arabia barely five hours passed before authorities announced the first "moonsighting" had been made by the requisite credible and pious person.
Middle Eastern analyst Issandr El Amrani, author of the Arabist blog, said the confusion suggested that Muslims should start using more scientific methods to determine the start of the Islamic month.
"The need for a naked eye sighting is a literal interpretation of Islamic tradition that should be adapted to technological realities," he said.
Many claim that the Saudis, in fact, already use astronomical calculations to pinpoint the start of the next Islamic month, but present the information as a traditional moonsighting to please conservative Muslims. There has been no official comment from Saudi religious authorities.
The confusion has prompted some commentators to question whether the world's estimated 1.6 billion Muslims should follow rulings from Saudi clerics simply because the site of the holy pilgrimage, the Ka'aba, is located in the country.
Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, a religious scholar in Mecca said in a recent speech that "there are no grounds for Muslims in the UK to follow Saudi Arabia".
Iqbal Sacranie, former general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, said that he wanted to unite the Muslim community to celebrate the occasion at the same time: "It is extremely sad that the Muslim community in the UK are divided on this very important issue of celebrating Eid. I believe it is now time for key scholars from different schools of thought to come together with Muslim organisations like the MCB and address this issue once and for all."
Ahmed Versi, editor of the Muslim News said that it was not uncommon for Muslim communities to celebrate Eid on different dates – mosques in the UK marked the festival on at least three different days.
Websites such as have existed for a number of years, giving the precise details of where it is possible for the moon to be seen.
But the majority of Muslims still use more traditional methods, only celebrating Eid when the moon is seen with the naked eye. This year's embarrassing error may lead more people to use astronomical calculations to decide about the new Islamic month instead of relying on the Saudi methodology.
This article was originally published in The Guardian

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Stories from the Concrete Jungle

View from the Empire State Building. Photograph: Mike Lee

'These streets will make you feel brand new'..sings Alicia Keys in the over-played Empire State of Mind. This is the first time revisiting my birth state as an adult, fully aware of my surroundings. I took everything in.

Coming from Britain, one thing is evident from the off, although it related to the entire country. Everything is bigger. Cans of soda (350ml instead of 333ml), bottles (591ml instead of 500ml), although these I believe are probably due to Americans measuring in ounces rather than litres. But it expands to food portions and so on. To give an example, it took me 40 minutes to eat one pretzel.

What must also be mentioned is that it is New York City being sung about, rather than the entire state (for the most part at least). Taking a train from Long Island to the City makes this clear, moving from an area of low-level construction, you start to see large buildings in the background, and as you start moving closer, you need to look up. No, seriously up.

The New York (City) skyline is famous; the Empire State building, the Chrysler building, the Rockefeller Center [sic!] are just the start. Banks and other offices compete for the largest office blocks also. This was made clear to me when I embarrassed by cousin by going into a building that looked architecturally brilliant to ask what it was to simply find out it was a bunch of offices.

In the few days I was there, however, I managed to see a lot. I visited the United Nations Headquarters and listened to a school orchestra (a nice touch I thought) perform in what appeared to be a beautiful interior in need of a clean and a new splash of paint. A short-ish walk brought me to the Rockefeller Center, where they place the famous Christmas Tree (if you watched Home Alone, you'll know the place) and it also holds an ice-skating rink in the Winter seasons.

Inside the building, my cousin (Sarah if you were wondering) and I went on a tour of the NBC Studio, which allowed us to see three of the studios that they use for filming. With the snow, rain and hail we felt on the Wednesday, we called it a day.

The next day I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art (a wonderful building) and saw the Picasso's, Monet's and Van Gogh's and a lot of other beautiful art. There was also a Dyson (yes, the vacuum cleaner) in the contemporary art.

Downtown was my next stop and my first stop was Wall Street. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the Kairos Global Summit 2011 last month (was held in the New York Stock Exchange) so it was nice to be able to see everything, at least from the outside.

Not too far from Wall Street was Ground Zero. I wasn't in the United States when the Twin Towers fell crashing to the earth, making a symbolic dent to our daily lives. In fact I was in a Geography lesson. I remember some scrambling and we managed to get the television in turned on in time to be utterly shocked. I still remember being the only one to stay inside and watch the coverage during the break period; perhaps my American roots did not allow me to stop watching the flickering images.

Gazing at the construction was an emotional moment. It shouldn't have been. After all, I barely remember living in New York. Leaning against a wall, I simply watched the workers carry out their daily work and memories flooded back. Closing my eyes lead to my seeing people jumping from the immense buildings and people rushing around and I could hear the screams. On the same spot nine and a half years ago, this is what happened. I could not imagine exactly what happened but everything felt distinctly vivid. The memorial had some stories from the day itself and is worth a quick visit also if you around the area. The reconstruction looks like it will end up looking pretty amazing but it seems like it will take a while.

Since I was there, I felt compelled to visit something I had written about but not yet seen: the 'Ground Zero mosque'. I strolled off towards 51 Park Place, timing myself (4 minutes by the way). Park51 was quite tatty (compared to the rest of the place) and it would definitely be helped by some renovation. I went inside to see the building and was greeted by a kind man who lead me inside to the mosque area.

Since nothing has yet been changed, there is no real community centre right now, simply a mosque. Yet it was clear that an effort was being made. At the front was information about the place and in the praying-area were boards giving information about the pillars of Islam and also sheets containing the translations of the Islamic daily prayers. I wanted more information and found out that 500 people turned up for Friday papers. It definitely needs expansion.

On my final day I visited Times Square, the most luminescent part of New York. What I liked most about it was the space. In the rest of New York City you feel as if you are constrained between large buildings  on either side of you whereas in Times Square, the aura given off is not the same. You feel that you have space to breathe, buildings are further apart and don't feel so tall. One of the large screens showed passers-by in the street and occasionally it would zoom in on a few people who, in turn, were taking pictures of themselves.

Times Square at night was another picture entirely. The huge number of lights, advertisements and news bulletins lit up the Square and the people underneath. The lights in Piccadilly Circus are quite cool, this is worth visiting. What did shock me however is that the US Armed Forced Recruiting Agency is in the middle of Times Square. It was an interesting selection for this small box-shaped hut.

Finally, my trip came to an end with a trip to Broadway, where I saw Avenue Q, .a.k.a. 'the adult version of muppets'. If you haven't yet, you should definitely watch it. To give a little bit more information, here are the names of some of the songs: 'Everyone's a little big racist', 'Schadenfreude' (about happiness from the misfortune of others), 'I wish I Could go Back to College' and 'If you were Gay'.

New York City was definitely an experience. It seemed that I compared everything there to London. The problem here is that I find London beautiful and sometimes NYC paled in comparison. I love London's buildings, architecturally wonderful without a necessary emphasis on being tall. Iconic structures such as the Empire State Building lack a certain flair that the Gherkin or even the Big Ben provide. The large buildings seemed to impose upon me whereas perhaps I'm simply used to smaller buildings around London. Don't get me wrong, I had a great time in New York and it's a marvellous city. But whether I would pick it over London, well that's a decision I would have to make over a whole new blog post…

[P.s. I realise I didn't mention the Statue of Liberty and that's because I've seen it so many times before that I remember it pretty well and so didn't visit it on this trip.]

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Re-capping the Fabian Conference

Essentially, the Fabian Society's New Year Conference is the first political conference I have attended. Unsure what to expect, I only knew that Ed Miliband would be the keynote speaker and that I would meet other familiar faces in the world of the centre-left, including journalists Laurie Penny and Mehdi Hasan.

The website of the Fabians say that "It is affiliated to the Labour Party but is editorially and organisationally independent" and thus, having seen members of the Conservative party on the agenda, was expecting to see and hear a wide range of opinions. Yet the difference rested on the speakers alone.

Ed Miliband started the day, responding with an almost childlike grin and regal wave to the enormous applause that greeted him on arrival. Giving the keynote speech at just after 10AM, he re-iterated that Labour winning the Oldham by-election showed there was a sense of frustration at the Coalition but that was not enough. Labour must learn "the mistakes of our past", he said.  He argued that Labour needed to extend their arm out to Liberal Democrats. "I want them to find a welcome home in our party – not just making up the numbers, but contributing actively to the strengthening of our values and the renewal of our policies."

The important message for 2011 was that "there is a progressive majority in this country...The prize is not simply a Labour government, it is about changing the common sense of the age. Labour has to shape a country and a world based on our ideals"

The most impressive of all, however, was Miliband's (over)enthusiastic hand gestures, some even being liked to casting a spell with a magic wand. However, that was not necessarily a bad thing as his speech received massive approval with some even giving him a standing ovation.

Other sessions I attended through the day were about what the left could "learn about movement politics from the right" and one about the Alternate Vote. In the former, Laurie Penny, a journalist from the New Statesman, and Tim Montgomerie, Editor of Conservative Home, exchanged the most heated words in the debate when Penny started to "counter the rather patronising idea [from Montgomerie] that I haven't read anything that the Conservative have published. I've read everything about social policy". Penny was then quick to combat Montgomerie as he interrupted her: "If you'll let me finish".

Penny also said that the left had to learn from the student movement and UK Uncut, who are "light years ahead of the Labour Party". Labour must show a "willingness to engage with people's needs". Montgomerie's main point was that Labour had to make effective use of the web.

Chuka Umanna MP picked up on Miliband's speech and talked about a theorist who claimed that there is a tendency in all of us to have difference political opinions and it is up to those who have a vision of the world to "activate the progressive parts of people". The most shocking part of the talk was when Jon Cruddas, Labour MP spoke of David Cameron's 'big society' as a "good way of colonising values on a local level", touching on Miliband's earlier point of Labour building an alternative to it.

During the lunchtime talk, specifically designed for 'Young Fabians' i.e. those under-31, was a session called 'Squeezed Youth: how does Labour reconnect?' The only problem was that the talk showed a video and then had a panel talking. The point made by recently ennobled Lord Maurice Glasman echoed through the hall. "This is not the right way to engage with youth."

In the plenary about the Alternate Vote, Jessica Asato (Director of the Labour Yes to AV campaign) made the fundamentally important point and John Denham MP backed it; with a change in the voting system, politicians would be forced to campaign across the country and tactical voting would come to an end. Citizens would finally be able to vote for the party that they support. Asato also claimed "AV can spell the end of fascist parties [such as the BNP]."

Towards the end of the day, there was a Dragon's Den competition where members of the Fabian Society had voted for the top 5 "radical ideas for a progressive majority", which was actually the most interesting part of the conference and showed who the Fabian Society was catered for. This last session was for all conference-attendees and it was clear to all that while the society is 'organisationally independent', it is catered towards Labour members and not others.

Indeed, Laurie Penny had earlier started her talk by saying, "Let me start by saying that I'm not a member of the Labour party and when I say we, I mean the broad left". Speakers had been varied and had different political affiliations yet attendees were pre-dominantly all avid supporters of Labour and if your thoughts were - what seemed, shockingly - not aligned with that of Labour, you were greeted with looks of amazement. If the Fabian Society wants to claim that it is a 'centre-left' think tank, it must act that way.

What is perhaps worse is that many conference attendees seemed to have pre-judgements about exactly what they were going to hear and for the most part, there was nothing different said. I feel at this point that I need to add that in no way do I mean to discredit the society. Rather, I would argue that there were some very interesting issues raised but it was in the minority. It may be the case that there are a larger variety of opinions at other events the society holds but not at this one.

Miliband's speech was important, especially after the by-election win, and the conference was fascinating to go to. I did hear some interesting views from panellists. Now the Fabians need to take further steps in improving. Students were in attendance but not in large numbers and it was obvious that students did not have much of a say in the running of the plenary for youth. Lecturing students is not the way to reach students - that's why lecture halls at university are so empty. Engage the crowd; get them involved.

Next, the conference should try to attract wider audiences, those on the left who do not support Labour. Even during the Dragon's Den-competition, the 'Dragons' said, "Would this win voters for Labour?" Yes, stay affiliated to Labour but allow Labour to learn from the events rather than catering it only towards their supporters. Or maybe I've got the Society all wrong…