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: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/19/battle-for-the-burqa?

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 http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/mortarboard/2011/sep/12/university-spy-on-students

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 Moonsighting.com 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