July 08, 2010

Prince Charles addresses Islam: Can the world hear?

(Published at the National, UAE)

There’s very little that is less controversial than “caring for the environment”. It’s one of those issues that people can (and should) embrace without finding themselves besieged. How can anyone disagree about the need to take better care of the world we live in? After all, it’s just (cue background music) one world, right?

But there’s always a first time for everything. The prince who would be king, Charles of Wales, found himself speaking about this entirely non-confrontational issue and was lambasted for it.

At a recent conference at the University of Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, he spoke of the sacred duty of human beings to maintain this world in a way that befitted its creator, and the need for human beings to remind themselves of that duty. Naturally, he spoke as a believer – Prince Charles is a Christian and will become the leader of a national church, if he ever succeeds to the throne.

That’s perhaps two strikes in one, as it were. While the republican tendency of the British isn’t strong enough to encourage the royal family to depart our shores, it’s often the case that when the royals do speak, they are attacked by certain sections of the press for offering any opinion at all. When they speak as believers in God, our secularist sensitivities often find it quite distasteful – we generally “don’t do God”, whether in private or public. Our type of secularism means that the very mention of God or religion in the public sphere is recognised as rather out of order.

But the prince went one step further than that. He spoke not of Christ and his disciples – he spoke flatteringly and sophisticatedly of the Quran and the spiritual doctrines of Islam pertaining to the environment.

It’s an incredible thing to consider that in the 21st century, when Muslim political leaders worldwide rarely present Islamic doctrines with any public relevance, the possible king of England and leader of the Church of England speaks about Islam in the following way: “The inconvenient truth is that we share this planet with the rest of creation for a very good reason – and that is, we cannot exist on our own without the intricately balanced web of life around us... Islam has always taught this and to ignore that lesson is to default on our contract with creation.”

The audience, arranged by the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, gave the prince a standing ovation, as might have been expected. There were dignitaries from afar – the Islamic affairs minister of Morocco, for example, dispatched by the king. Other attendees included the Lord Mayor of Oxford, John Goddard, Prince Turki al Faisal, Prince Mohammad bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom, and other religious scholars and leading figures.

What also was fairly expected was the backlash to his speech. The prince has previously “gone against the grain” as it were, when speaking about Islam. Years ago, he said something quite similar, also at Oxford, reminding those in attendance that man and nature were in a holistic relationship and that to forget that would invite (as it already had, in his view) catastrophe. In this regard, we westerners would do well to learn certain lessons from all sacred traditions, but particularly from Islam, where they are especially emphasised, he suggested.

Then, as now, it was not quite the popular thing to say. These days, however, such remarks raise more than eyebrows. In response to his observations on Islam and environmentalism, the prince was accused of being a closet Muslim (quite an insult – ask President Barack Obama) and a dhimmi (a conquered non-Muslim). It was also suggested that he was just plain crazy – after all, how else could a western non-Muslim talk positively about the principles of Islam without something deeply being wrong?

This public flailing occurred as other commentators are attacking Muslim communities for failing to integrate into British society and build good relationships with non-Muslims. It seems the subtext is this: integrate into our society but be prepared to leave your religion at the door. We’re not interested in it, we don’t want it, and let’s not muck about that, shall we?

When communities become integral to societies, they must be able to contribute something of themselves. In this regard, the prince has done community cohesion in the UK a great service. He spoke eloquently about a contribution Muslims could make, based not on rejecting themselves or their traditions, but on finding the best parts of those traditions and bringing them to bear on a problem that affects all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. When the future king speaks like this, the effect on a young Muslim boy or girl in the UK cannot be underestimated.

Beyond these domestic considerations, the prince also made a wider point. The world’s financial crisis has shown vividly how greed (which unrestrained capitalism certainly encourages) can indeed harm us collectively. Yet, societies in the West, and in the Muslim world, appear to be competing to satiate their greed – without, it seems, looking beyond the immediate consumerist desire. If people are honest, they can see this also in the Muslim world.

When the prince says that the West has been “de-souled” by consumerism, his point is well-taken, and not just for the West. Whether one’s a believer or not, an agnostic or an atheist, one cannot fail to recognise that the unbridled satisfaction of one’s basest desires cannot be a way to a more humane society. It is, alas, a point that will be lost on most Britons – and certainly most people in the Muslim world.

Dr HA Hellyer is a fellow of the University of Warwick and the director of the Visionary Consultants Group

March 12, 2010

The future of Islam in Europe

The future of Islam in Europe

Dr H.A. Hellyer, Fellow at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick and Founder-Director of the West-Muslim world relations research consultancy, the Visionary Consultants Group (UK, Egypt & Malaysia), visited Switzerland for a series of debates around the future of Islam in Europe organised by the British Council.

Dr Hellyer is a United Nations ‘Global Expert’ on minority-majority relations, political philosophy, and the interplay between religion and modernity. He was Ford Fellow of the Project on US-Islamic World Relations at the Brookings Institution (USA).

During his visit, Caroline Morrissey did an interview with Dr Hellyer on the subject of the recent Swiss referendum on the construction of minarets, called Of Minarets, Switzerland, and Islam. And the news portal swissinfo.ch published an article titled "Muslims are now 'us' not 'them'".

10 March 2010, Swiss Forum for the Study of Migration and Population, University of Neuchâtel, Lunch debate with
  • Bianca Rousselot (University of Berne): “Not against Muslims, but against Islam as a social order” - The Vox-Analysis of the Popular Initiative to Ban the Construction of Minarets in Switzerland, and
  • Matteo Gianni (University de Geneva): Integration after banning minarets? Expert on multicultural societies and immigration policy

11 March 2010, lecture at the University of Fribourg with Professor René Pahud de Mortanges

For further information, please contact Caroline.Morrissey@britishcouncil.ch This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , Director British Council Switzerland.

"Muslims are now 'us' not 'them'

“Muslims are now ‘us’ not ‘them’”

Four months after banning the construction of minarets, the Swiss are using Islam as an excuse to avoid re-defining themselves, says an expert on Muslim integration.

H.A. Hellyer, who this week spoke at a discussion held by the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies at Neuchâtel University, tells swissinfo.ch he is more concerned by the “festering discontent” that led to the ban than the ban itself.

His comments come as Switzerland tries to untangle a 20-month diplomatic stand-off with Libya, whose leader Moammar Gaddafi last month called for a holy war against the Swiss.

Also, on Thursday Switzerland opposed a move by several states at the United Nations Human Rights Council to denounce “Islamophobic” bans on building new minarets on mosques (see box).

swissinfo.ch: In November, 57.5 per cent of Swiss voters backed a ban on the construction of minarets. Were you surprised?

HA Hellyer: I was surprised that it came out of Switzerland. I think everybody was surprised, judging by how most Swiss politicians, the UN Human Rights Commissioner and so many European governments responded, but I’m not entirely surprised that it happened in Europe.

I think there have been a lot of signs for at least five years that something like this was going to happen somewhere in Europe as we look at the rise of the far right – and not just its rise as a particular political movement, but the rise of its influence in dictating mainstream politics.

swissinfo.ch: The minaret vote has generally been interpreted as not being against Muslims but rather as a signal by voters against the spread of Islam. Why is there this desire to “put a brake” on Islam?

H.A.H.: First, I’d question [that interpretation]. You have to ask the victim how he or she feels about being victimised. From reports, the Muslim community in Switzerland definitely felt targeted by this vote and we can see it in how they responded to the inflammatory statements that were taking place beforehand.

Second, I’m sure there were some parts of the [Swiss] community that voted for the measure not wanting it to be directed at Muslims as individuals but as some sort of symbolic gesture against the influence of Islam across the country. I find that quite surprising because there aren’t exactly many minarets in Switzerland – four in the entire country – and none was being suggested as broadcasting the azan [call to prayer]. People can decry what they believe to be the symbolism behind the minaret, but what is the meaning of that symbol for the Muslim community? It’s not Islamicisation or the destruction of Europe, regardless of what the far right was arguing – and we need to remember that.

I think there’s a lot more behind this than simply a fear of what Islam is or is not within a European framework. I think there’s a lot to be said for seeing what this meant on an identity level for the people who voted. In a very real way, this had virtually nothing to do with Muslims of Switzerland but with non-Muslim Swiss and what they perceived.

swissinfo.ch: The Organisation of the Islamic Conference has demanded that the ban be overturned. Should it?

H.A.H.: I’m less concerned about the ban being overturned than changing the conditions that led to the ban in the first place. You could have the ban overturned by legal measures in Switzerland, but that wouldn’t remove the festering discontent that led to it. There are a number of issues here that I think should be addressed, for example the influence of the far right in dictating how the discussion proceeds. There are more things at stake here than simply a ban.

A ban on a minaret is just a ban on a particular type of building. If the feeling that led to the ban is allowed to continue and develop, we could see a lot worse.

" I’m less concerned about the ban being overturned than changing the conditions that led to the ban. "
HA Hellyer

swissinfo.ch: Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi has called for holy war against Switzerland. What effect do events like that abroad have on Muslim integration here?

H.A.H.: Libya is another country on another continent and I don’t think the statements of a Libyan politician should have any impact whatsoever on domestic issues within Switzerland. Just because he happens to be a Muslim and is saying things that carry a certain amount of Islamic vocabulary and symbolic language, I don’t think that’s particularly relevant.

The Swiss Muslim population has nothing to do with the Libyan political regime and quite frankly I don’t think they should even be expected to respond. Even so, they did respond and quite obviously in support of Switzerland, and yet we are still seeing Gaddafi’s statements being reported, with the implicit idea that Muslim Swiss should somehow take up the duty of showing their loyalty. Why is it even a question?

swissinfo.ch: What are the greatest challenges for Switzerland regarding Muslim integration?

H.A.H.: The challenges facing Switzerland are similar in some ways to those facing other European countries – and those challenges are also distinct from the Muslim presence.

The Swiss, like all Europeans, went through a huge change in the latter half of the 20th century. Technological advances meant that people could more easily communicate with each other around the world and also move fairly easily as well. Even if there had been no migration into Switzerland at all, we would probably be seeing some of these challenges anyway, because when change hits a society as quickly as it did, a society needs to be able to redefine itself. Islam and the Muslim presence is a convenient excuse, I think, for us to escape facing that challenge: to define what we are, as opposed to what we are not.

Switzerland and all of Europe has to be able to do that with the understanding that Muslims are now “us” not “them”. Governments are able to facilitate that discussion, and I think they should.

Arguably, the media has a greater role to play, given the incredible influence they have in actually defining the discussion. Ultimately, all sections of civil society, including the Muslim community, need to play their part.

Thomas Stephens, swissinfo.ch

February 09, 2010

Worrying trends behind France’s ban of the niqab

Worrying trends behind France’s ban of the niqab

H A Hellyer

In 2006, Jack Straw, then leader of the House of Commons in the UK parliament, published a now famous piece on the face veil, or niqab, worn by some Muslim women. And so began the political mainstream’s campaign against the niqab across Europe, sparking controversy within the Muslim community, as well as outside it.

Four years later, with the latest ban proposed by the French parliament, the story continues – but what is this really about? Is it really about a stubborn Muslim minority that is so set on its women covering their faces? Is it about a liberal Europe, coming to grips with the limits of liberalism? Is it about both?

Within the Muslim community, the views are more nuanced than one might suppose. For years, there have been debates among Muslims worldwide about the niqab. Take one such debate, which goes back several centuries: within the Shafi’i rite of Sunni Islamic law, the practice is theoretically considered to be compulsory, at least according to a common position among scholars.

That explains its practice across Yemen, a predominantly Shafi’i community – but it does not explain its rarity across South-east Asia, where the overwhelming majority of Shafi’i Muslims reside. Why? Covering of the face simply does not fit with South-east Asian norms – and, as such, Shafi’i scholars in that region rely upon other legitimate positions within the Shafi’i rite, as well as in other Sunni rites, that do not regard the face veil to be compulsory.

Regardless of the Taliban’s opinion in Afghanistan, or the opinions of some government officials in the Arab world, there is not universal agreement that the niqab is an obligation, nor can one honestly say that it has no basis at all in Islamic law. Both stances are simply false. And that is that.

That explains why so many Muslim women in Europe today, even if they regard themselves as very pious, do not wear the niqab, and why so very, very few do. It also explains why those same people who reject wearing it equally uphold the right of others to do so. Very liberal, one could say – and in this regard, they have far more right to consider themselves the inheritors of Voltaire than the European politicians who insist on banning it.

So, if the numbers of Muslim women who don the niqab are so few, why is it such an issue in Europe? Why has France taken such an interest in it, and why is Italy threatening to follow suit, with no less than four draft bills on the subject already circulating in parliamentary committees?

In Europe, the question is linked deeply to the internal struggle on what constitutes “Europeanness”. Even before 2006, populist politicians across the continent had been trying to get the niqab banned, on the grounds that it constituted a “threat” to European values. But when Mr Straw criticised one of his constituents for wearing it, the gates were flung open.

His criticism raises important questions. Didn’t the constituent actually express her commitment to British democracy by visiting his office? What happened to the freedom of choice for any Briton to wear what he or she liked?

For years, particularly after the July 7 bombings in London, Muslim European communities have been in the spotlight – not merely seen as a security threat, but as a cultural one. The fear is that Muslim Europeans are a fifth column, dedicated to the destruction of European civilisation through conversion and high birth rates. It’s an incredibly dangerous line of discussion, but one which Europe is familiar with looking back at reports about Jews in the early 20th century.

The “EurArabia” thesis has only been postulated by an extreme minority. Nevertheless, over the last few years, the idea has been given more respectability by populist measures – an example being the minaret ban in Switzerland last year. As a result, the political mainstream has tacked more to the right to keep their base on board.

Arguably, this is far more problematic for Muslims – when it is the British National Party or UK Independence Party (both far-right parties) pushing for a ban, that’s one thing. When it is the political elite and mainstream in France doing the same, that’s quite another.

A recent report from the University of Exeter reported in this newspaper details how the political mainstream itself is partially to blame for the rise of anti-Muslim violence in London – and there is evidence to back up such a claim.

Immediately after saying that the niqab was “not welcome” in the country, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced that no law should stigmatise any section of French society.

Many Muslim French citizens, nearly all of whom do not wear the niqab, have protested against the law, arguing that it will indeed stigmatise all Muslims in France similar to earlier legislation that partially banned the headscarf, or hijab. Recent history lends credence to such a fear – and surely, does not the French slogan of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” protect a woman’s right to dress as she sees fit?

Already across Europe, populist parties are leading the debate on the Muslim community, narrowing their role in the public sphere down to issues like minarets, hijabs and niqabs. The political mainstream in Europe has the responsibility to confront this discourse rather than make it respectable.

France and Italy – indeed, all European countries – are dignified nations with a lot of proud points in their histories. One of those things is the right that people may live as they choose, as long as they harm no one else by their choice. In so doing, they will not be betraying European liberalism – rather, they will be upholding one of its most basic principles.

H A Hellyer is a Fellow at the University of Warwick’s Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, director of the Visionary Consultants Group and Europe Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (www.hahellyer.com)

January 24, 2010

A ban is what these people want. Let’s ignore them

The National

H A Hellyer

Al Muhajiroun, a radical group in the UK led by Omar Bakri Mohammed, used to be regarded as little more than a nuisance by most British people. The main exceptions were journalists, who relied on Bakri Mohammed when they needed a sensationalist statement from the stereotype “angry imam”; that he was far from expert in the Islamic canon did not seem to matter.

I contacted the group in 1998, in an effort to further my understanding of contemporary Islamism in the UK. Having been out of the country for some years, I was not completely familiar with their platform, and considered writing an article about them. After meeting them, I concluded that they had no constituency in the Muslim community and were concerned mainly with increasing their public profile by being outrageous. So I decided not to serve their interests by writing about them.

A few months later, while I was in Abu Dhabi, bombings in Kenya and Tanzania were universally condemned as terrorism that took the lives of more Muslims than non-Muslims (nearly all of whom were civilians). Al Muhajiroun, however, issued a press release praising the attacks. I was incensed, and decided to have my story published. Al Muhajiroun were none too pleased with the un-flattering tone in which I described the group. For my part, I was unimpressed with how they made personal threats against me, in public.

After 9/11, al Muhajiroun organised a conference at which the hijackers were described as the “Magnificent 19”. In 2007, five young men with links to the group were convicted of plotting bomb attacks in Britain.

Bakri Mohammed disbanded al Muhajiroun in 2004, the British government announced a year later that it would be banned, and Bakri Mohammed himself fled from London to Lebanon in August 2005 when it looked likely that he might be charged with incitement to treason. The group reformed briefly last summer, but this month it was finally banned, along with four other organisations. The most prominent of those is Islam4UK, led by Anjem Choudary – a London-born former lawyer, and co-founder of al Muhajiroun. 

As a general rule, governments should not ban organisations unless there is a genuine and over-riding interest for the public good. Does such an interest exist in this case?

I doubt that many will be sad to see the back of Islam4UK, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. They were certainly not conducive to community cohesion, to say the least, and contributed to the rise of tensions across the UK. They wasted the limited resources of the Muslim community, because the mainstream had to expend time in contradicting their outlandish claims. If they are not directly to blame for violent acts, they certainly do not contribute to an environment that rejects anarchical violence and hatred.

Is that enough? The main problem with such groups is the attention they are given. In this regard, there are several things to keep in mind. The first is that a ban is likely to make Islam4UK more, not less, popular. Young men and women are often more intellectually vulnerable, and attracted to a group that is “taboo”. There is also the consideration that a banned group goes underground, and thus becomes harder to monitor.

Also, do not other groups espouse the most disgusting of views? There are far-right groups all over Europe contributing to a discourse that causes the most distasteful of things, including arson of mosques and physical attacks on minorities. We do not ban those groups – why this one?

There are alternatives to an outright ban, many of which require no legal or political intervention.

First and foremost – ignore them. Completely. This might sound obvious, but it’s not an option generally followed in the UK. Remember, this group spoke for pretty much no one in the British Muslim community, yet the media insisted on giving it a profile on the basis that it issued scandalous statements. That’s how the group earned its fame: purely on the back of a media that loves sensationalism. When Bakri Mohammed fled the UK, many breathed a sigh of relief, as they calculated that the media would have one fewer inflammatory character to cause problems for community cohesion. Those hopes were shot to the wind when the British media continued to contact him, even in Lebanon, to put his opinions on record.

And now that Islam4UK has been banned, you might think that Anjem Choudary would be ignored. Except that the very day after the ban was announced a couple of weeks ago, the BBC gave him a platform. Why?

There is an uncomfortable truth here: the media and melodramatic speakers need each other, co-existing in a distasteful symbiotic relationship. Islam4UK gave some in the media a way to sell newspapers or improve their ratings, and in turn, the media gave Islam4UK the notoriety it craved. More than a decade ago, with virtually no journalistic knowledge or experience, I identified that vicious cycle and refused to be a part of it.

Why, after all this time, do we not realise that these people like to create controversy for the sake of it, and that what they fear most is not being banned – but being ignored?

The most effective measure against Islam4UK and groups like them would be to recognise, finally, that they are irrelevant – and let them fade away into media obscurity.

Dr H A Hellyer is a Fellow of the University of Warwick, and the author of Muslims of Europe: the “Other” Europeans


January 12, 2010

Review of "Muslims of Europe: the 'Other' Europeans

Muslims of Europe

By  Deepa A

Indian Freelance Writer


Book cover

Title: Muslims of Europe: The 'other' Europeans
Author: H. A. Hellyer
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press (1 Oct 2009)
Language: English

Early on in his book Muslims of Europe: The 'Other' Europeans, author H.A. Hellyer introduced us to the typical image of Muslims in Europe. The Muslim is always the non-European — someone from the Indian Subcontinent in the UK, the Turks in Germany, or the North African Arabs in France. This image is contradictory to the robust suggestion made in the title of Hellyer's book, which is that there is no reason to view Muslims and Europeans as distinct entities.

Hellyer's assertion comes at a time when there is much debate about Islam's place in Europe. Unfortunately, the standard of this debate has seldom risen to the level at which the subject is addressed by Hellyer (a fellow of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick and an expert in multiculturalism).

These days, not only tabloid editors but also writers contributing to venerable institutions such as the New York Times Magazine have difficulty discussing the Muslim community without resorting to alarmism. Such is the fear of "Islamization," based on which a majority of a European country's population can vote to ban the construction of minarets (as Switzerland did recently in a referendum) or a president can condemn the wearing of burka (as French president Nicolas Sarkozy did in June 2009). These actions are not seen as violating the freedom of religion but rather as steps necessary to prevent Islam from "conquering" Europe's streets.

"Clash of Civilizations"

As Hellyer writes, any discussion on Islam and the West today inevitably centers on conflict, or on the "clash of civilizations." He also establishes that even historically the European identity was defined as that opposed to Islam. This has become even more pronounced in the post-9/11 world, wherein it has become acceptable in the West to consider the Muslim community as the dangerous "other."

Islam's presence in Europe, however, is not recent. "The existence of Muslim communities in Europe dates back to the seventh century, not long after the emergence of the faith itself," writes Hellyer. While Andalusia is held up as the primary instance of a Muslim component in European history, it is by no means the only one: The southern territories of Spain and Portugal were predominantly Muslim before they were Catholic; in Eastern Europe, whole ethnic groups embraced Islam; the Ottoman administration in Southeastern Europe, Hellyer writes, is the "final pre-modern chapter of European Muslim history." Hellyer quotes scholars who have written about the positive effects Islam had on European civilization, extending to not only philosophy and science but also literature and cuisine, among others.

Such discussions, however, clearly have no place in the agenda of far-right parties such as the British National Party, whose very existence is centered on attacking immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. Hellyer mentions the likes of the Northern League in Italy, which managed to convert the subject of immigration into a "fight against terrorism," a popular, narrow prism through which Islam is seen and understood in the West today.

Hellyer asks if the "obsession with the 'Other' is no more than an excuse for avoiding the real question: who are 'We'?" He writes that the concept of European identity has been challenged over the past 50 years with no easy answer having presented itself as yet. "As history teaches, it is far easier to concentrate on an external 'Other', imagined or not, instead of dealing with internal problems; but the problems remain, nonetheless," he writes.

The Question of Identity

It is no surprise then that any discussion on multiculturalism in Europe today tends to center on Muslim integration into the European Union. Hellyer argues that it is impractical to regard religiously inspired identities as unsuitable for inclusion in a plural society. "Individuals are not made up only of certain types of identities; they have several identities, co-existing on different levels. Any identity that might affect the cohesion of the community must be considered," he writes.

At the same time, Hellyer does not shy away from emphasizing that multiculturalism is not the sole responsibility of the majority communities. "Not only should the majority recognize the rights of the minority, but the minority should also consider the duties it owes the majority," he writes. He explains that social disorder is likely unless diversity and difference are respected.

Hellyer uses Muslims in the UK as a case study to illustrate many of the points he makes in the course of the book. This is particularly instructive, as it helps the reader understand the challenges faced not only by the Muslim community in Europe but also by a Western nation in adapting to a community that insists on a primarily spiritual identity.

Hellyer notes that though Islam has a long lineage in Britain, the Muslim community does not compare favorably with other demographic religious minorities in the UK in political, economic, social, and educational terms. "Islamophobia" has been cited as one of the greatest challenges to the Muslim community in the UK and as also a lack of organized representation. Nevertheless, Hellyer writes that the British Muslim community is keen to be integrated into British society, but as Muslims.

Role of Civil Society

Hellyer's book argues that it is up to European Muslims to define themselves and the way they should deal with societal realities. This will, however, be an ongoing enterprise, for what is or what is not a Briton or German has not yet been defined, Hellyer writes. His suggestion is that Muslim communities might find it far less problematic to engage with civil society than to engage with the "state," with which they might have objections over foreign policy.

Hellyer states that legislation to promote social cohesion is unlikely to be effective. Similarly, progressive laws or policies cannot be viewed as successes. Civil society, he says, is the primary domain through which change can take place. He cites the example of a rally of anti-Muslim activists from around Europe that was to be held in Cologne, Germany, in September 2008. It was effectively called off after more than 5,000 Cologne residents took part in a counterrally. "No amount of legislation is as effective as civil society responding in that manner," Hellyer writes. It is difficult to disagree.

Muslims of Europe: The 'Other' Europeans is one of the few books in recent times that managed to offer a clear-eyed account of European Muslims. The author discusses the subject without pandering to the alarmist viewpoints of some. At the same time, he stresses that minorities cannot abuse citizenship to perpetrate the estrangement of their own groups. In a world where tabloid headlines fume about Muslims almost on a daily basis, Hellyer's book provides a welcome and accurate account of the history and prospects of European Muslims.

Deepa A is a freelance journalist currently based in London. She can be reached via artculture@iolteam.com

January 11, 2010

America’s Arabs want its best face to shine through

The National (UAE)

HA Hellyer

‘Any Muslim or Arab would suffice as their punching bag”: that’s what Moustafa Bayoumi told me when I contacted him about his new book, How Does it Feel to be a Problem? His book follows six young Arab-Americans who came of age around 2001. The point of Mr Bayoumi’s effort was to shed some light on how the “war on terror” has affected the lives of the many Americans who are severely mistrusted by their compatriots.

Readers of The National might be familiar with the work – a part of it was previewed in the paper last year. It was on the road between Alexandria and Cairo at a rest station’s bookstore where I first encountered it. I was intrigued because the subject matter has a lot of a parallels with Muslims in the UK, my own country – although, Arab-Americans had the luxury of not having to defend their own community, whereas Muslim Britons have had to. Arab-Americans are an old and well-established community in the US, and none of them were implicated in the September 11 attacks, while a few Muslim Britons were complicit in the attacks on London in 2005.

Mr Bayoumi’s thesis, however, was that even though Arab-Americans had no role whatsoever in the attacks eight years ago, they were held to account for them. He reminds us that a University of Michigan anthropologist succinctly described the situation as such: “in the aftermath of 9/11, Arab and Muslim Americans have been compelled, time and again, to apologise for acts they did not commit, to condemn acts they never condoned and to openly profess loyalties that, for most US citizens, are merely assumed.”

None of that would be particularly surprising – except for one important detail. This is the United States of America, which purports that its society is a beacon of freedom and opportunity for anyone who chooses to come to its shores. The Arab-Americans whom Mr Bayoumi describes in his book are, in fact, Americans who believed in that dream. But as the book makes clear, many Arab-Americans now feel betrayed by many of their institutions and the public discourse at large. Mr Bayoumi’s underlying premise is that the treatment of Arabs and Muslims in America stands – just as the treatment of African Americans did in years past – as a test of what America stands for.

It was a compelling read, and I wanted to see how it had been received. On the one hand, there are dozens of marvellous reviews of the book. It’s well written, interesting, and it has a powerful set of lessons to teach the reader – it’s not surprising that I found all sorts of people in different media supporting the book. And despite what the image of the American people may be in many parts of the Muslim world, particularly within the Arab region, I was not surprised that so many non-Muslim and non-Arab Americans were outraged by what the book reveals. They understood the infringement on civil liberties that the book painstakingly details. They heard the excuses that were provided to justify the wholesale deportation of so many people, without due process or upholding the noble principles upon which the US was founded. And today, in 2009, a mere eight years later – an instant in terms of human history – one can find huge numbers of people who do not wish to allow the “war on terror” to destroy their values. It just so happened that around the same time, an African American from Chicago decided to run for the US presidency.

But it is not all good news. Yes, many people wrote to Mr Bayoumi thanking him for his work and he’s heartened by the reception from young Arabs and Muslims whom he has never met, but who insist that their stories were also told in his book. He is amused, but I sense in a rather sombre way, by the Christian minister who told him that she enjoyed the book, but confessed that she was so scared to read the book in public because of the Arabic script on its cover that she removed the cover.

Yet there are others who view his book as a threat to the construction of a narrative that perpetuates the viewing of Muslims and Arabs in America and abroad as enemies of the US. Mr Bayoumi told me of the many “Islam bashers” who now consider him the “defence attorney for Osama bin Laden”. He seems sure, however, that they have not even read the book and do not care about his opinions.

Mr Bayoumi has just signed a deal to have his book translated into Arabic and it should soon appear in the Arab world. I wish Arab writers could speak as honestly about the challenges that they feel exist within their own societies as Mr Bayoumi does about America’s. The Arab-Americans in his book may not all be from the dominant sector of the US, but they are still fully American and present a face of America that is just as authentic as any other. In fact, the case could be made that because they are from one of the most marginalised segments of that society, their story tells us things about the US that we might never have realised. For all the faults that it has, most Arabs and Muslims in America are still proud to be Americans. They just want her to get better.

Dr H A Hellyer is a fellow of the University of Warwick and director of the Visionary Consultants Group. His book, Muslims of Europe: the “Other” Europeans, is on general release with Edinburgh University Press

Six Deaths must not end a history of religious harmony

The National

I remember clearly, when I was growing up in Abu Dhabi, the local Anglican bishop being invited to Muslim households for lunch – often on Christmas Day. I recall an Egyptian Muslim lady telling me that as a child she had a Jewish classmate, in a Catholic school, where she was taught Islam by local teachers, and other subjects by nuns. Schools in the Arab world often had a mix of Christian and Muslim children, all having deep loyalty to their countries while maintaining their own religious affiliation.

Indeed, strong Muslim-Christian harmony has long been a feature of the Arab world. So what are we to make of events in Nag Hammadi in southern Egypt last Wednesday night – Christmas Eve in the Orthodox Christian calendar – when six Coptic Christians were shot dead by Muslim gunmen as they left midnight mass?

For centuries, religious co-existence was the norm in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere – even while the region was predominantly Muslim and deeply religious. Islam recognises the Christians as “People of the Book” and the Quran speaks favourably of pious Christians, while the Prophet Mohammed invited Christians to worship in his own mosque.

The phenomenon of Arab nationalism did not threaten this sentiment. On the contrary, it strengthened it; many of the movement’s founders were Christian Arabs, and the Christian and the Muslim religious establishments were united in both their nationalistic tendencies and their opposition to western colonialism. The Arab identity has never been a solely Muslim one, and Christians have historically been (and continue to be) disproportionately represented among the wealthy and influential in Arab societies.

The growth of Islamism, however, has been a worrying development for Christians. Islamism is not a specifically spiritualist revival; it is more a political identity movement, born out of opposition to the West. The West, however, was identified as a Christian civilisation, often as the inheritor of the Crusades, so opposition has often been articulated with anti-Christian overtones.

This is not to say that Islamists in places such as Egypt (birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, the “mother” movement of Islamism) wanted to eradicate Christians from the Arab world. They might have wanted political sovereignty, with all the implications that had for Christian populations, but that is not the same as a Christian-free Middle East. Nevertheless, increasingly anti-western sentiment in mosque sermons had an effect on local Christian-Muslim dynamics.

There are other more mundane reasons to explain why Christians are diminishing in numbers across the Arab world. Palestinian Christians, like Palestinian Muslims, often take whatever opportunity they can to flee the Israeli occupation. In Iraq, Christians were keen to escape Saddam Hussein’s regime (although they were disproportionately represented in it), and the harsh aftermath of the US-led invasion.

Identity politics, whether with religious or nationalist undertones, is often deadly to pluralism. In Europe it has led to proposals for laws against religious clothing, such as in France, in the context of growing public concern about the Muslim presence. Such views are not remotely respectable in Arab Muslim societies, where Christian holidays are often national ones – but this does not mean that there are not significant pressures on the Christian population.

There are reasons to be optimistic, nevertheless. The political elite in most Arab countries is keen to ensure that their Christians not only remain, but feel at home. Jordan’s monarchy, for example, goes to great lengths to identify Christians as an integral part of Jordanian society, with support from King Abdullah, Prince Hassan bin Talal and Prince Ghazi (author of the Common Word, the most significant Muslim-Christian co-existence declaration in modern history).

The religious establishment in Egypt consistently engages in interfaith dialogues, involving figures such as the Grand Mufti and the president of Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s most prominent educational establishment. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan has likewise signed up to interfaith dialogue, and all over the Arab world the Brotherhood has made no secret of its public acceptance of the Christian presence, some going as far as to include Christians in the ranks of their political movement.

In the UAE itself, the Abu Dhabi-based religious scholar al Habib Ali al Jifri, and the Grand Mufti of Dubai, Ahmed al Haddad, and many others in the Emirati cultural and religious elite have been vocal in expressing warm sentiments towards Christians.

Nevertheless, the religious elite of the Muslim world, as well as the Islamist leadership, needs to intensify their public declarations confirming their acceptance of the Christian presence – not so much because it is in doubt, but to counter the radicals and extremists who say otherwise.

I mentioned the troubles in the south of Egypt to an Egyptian Muslim police officer near where I live in Cairo. He knew few more details than I did, but he did take the opportunity to tell me where he had been the previous night: on duty, along with police colleagues, at the local church, to ensure that nothing untoward happened to his Christian compatriots. He saw this as, on the one hand, entirely justified, since Egyptian Christians deserved the complete support of Egypt: but on the other hand, rather sad. Surely, he said, it would be better if there were no need for security at a church.

That probably sums up the situation across the Arab world: a strong mainstream current of support for the Christian population, coupled with an unfortunate reality that means that support has to be articulated with force, to counter the extremists in our midst.

But considering the history of Christians in this region, and that predominant sense of community, one can still realistically hope that harmonious relations can prevail, and Christian Arabs will not become a museum piece.

Dr H A Hellyer is a Fellow of the University of Warwick


January 08, 2010

After the Christmas Day bomb plot: where now for counter–terrorism?

After the Christmas Day bomb plot: where now for counter-terrorism?

The failure of terror suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up an airliner over the US has also highlighted failures in our counter-terrorism strategies and analysis, which must now be addressed.

By Dr H.A. Hellyer for RUSI.org

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

Had a bombing actually taken place, the would-be Christmas Day bomber may have left a great deal of confusion and chaos in his wake. Unlike previous terror plots, this latest attempt could well have far reaching implications for years to come, with President Obama already chastising the US intelligence community for its part in failing to detect the attack, and with Yemen being talked up as the next region of focus for counter-terrorism specialists.

In Britain, the repercussions will also be felt as we once again question the effectiveness of domestic counter-terrorism strategies, raising fresh concerns with regards to civil liberties in higher education.

Campus Radicalisation

Since the attacks, there has already been heated debate about the threat emanating from the university campus after it quickly emerged that the Nigerian suspect was a student at University College London (UCL). UCL has already publicly responded, insisting that it will have an independent review looking into all aspects of Abdulmutallab's life at the college; moreover Universities UK, the umbrella body of university vice-chancellors will set up a working group to look at the wider issue of extremism on campuses.

It is not likely, however, that fresh new insights will be derived from either investigation. Universities are not security establishments - they are centres of learning, and their main purpose is to stimulate free and open debate in order to give their students the opportunity to broaden their horizons. However, freedom can be a double-edged sword,  entailing the toleration of odious views, and we may well run the risk of producing extremists as a result - Cambridge produced a certain Nick Griffin, after all. However, if UCL turns out to have produced a would-be bomber, that's likely to have been in spite of UCL's policies, not because of them.

Abdulmutallab was not just any student, beyond the gaze of the authorities - he was an active member of its Student Union, and president of its Muslim student society (commonly referred to as 'Islamic Societies/I-Socs'). This is where the discussion is likely to get much tenser, with strident calls to apply restrictions to Muslim student societies and thereby avoid problems in the future. Yet, it is still unclear what role, if any, Abdulmutallab's student activities had on his alleged formation as a terrorist. What we do know is that at UCL, according to reports, he openly condemned terrorism, and the national representative organisation for Muslim students (the Federation of Student Islamic Societies - FOSIS), has confirmed that any radicalisation that Abdulmutallab might have undergone was invisible during his tenure at UCL. That probably will not satisfy everyone. But on the facts that have come to light so far, it is not likely that any further controls on Muslim students (who have already been carefully watched since the 7 July bombings) - are likely to be beneficial. It could even cause trust between the authorities and Muslim student populations to deteriorate, in the same way that Prevent (the government's counter-radicalisation programme) has been accused of adversely affected sections of Muslim British society as a whole.

Profiling, Scanning, and Securing Community Co-Operation

Nationally, there is a strong possibility for there to be much tighter security controls at British airports - with prospects for profiling high on the agenda. If the profiling is based on a passenger's race or religion, that would be unfortunate - such provisions have never worked, and it would simply cause Al-Qa'ida-type groups to increase their use of 'clean-skins'; perhaps via converts to the faith or women who cannot be identified through profiling. They have already used such people in the past, adapting to the unofficial profiling that already exists. On the other hand, selective profiling based on proper intelligence-gathering, may be rather different and could have prevented the Christmas Day suspect, whose name had been known to the intelligence services, who had dropped off the map for months, and whom his own father had reported to the US authorities.

The overall effect on civil liberties is unpredictable - already it has been confirmed that we will have body scanners in operation in Heathrow, with a view to rolling them out elsewhere. As the British civil liberties watchdog Liberty, warns: 'Where are the governmental assurances that electronic strip-searching is to be used in a lawful, proportionate and sensitive manner?' Both the Government and the Opposition need to be able to answer that question in a very comprehensive manner. It is important to note that in other European countries, such body scanners have been considered in recent months and years, but were rejected after failing to satisfy concerns about privacy. Would the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? This is not a moot question - there is already much anxiety as newspaper reports suggestthat some members of the community have had pressure placed on them to be unwilling spies. Reports indicate that in spite of that, communities have given valuable tip-offs, stopping terrorist plots from taking place - we do not want to jeopardise that.

Yemen: a new frontier?

Since 7/7, our counter-terrorism discourse has been anchored to Pakistan, with details emerging of links between UK violent extremists and that country, particularly since there is a large British Pakistani population. Now that it is known that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was possibly radicalised in Yemen, the Arabian peninsular country will join Pakistan and Somalia as another space from which terrorists draw their strength. Discussion will naturally focus on the interpretation of Islam in Yemen and whether its theological landscape is conducive to extremists.

This will get rather complicated, however. Historically, Yemen, particularly the Hadramawt valley, has been at the centre of a very sophisticated and anti-anarchical mode of Islamic thought, relying on mainstream Islamic theology, law and spirituality. The results have blossomed into more nuanced and mainstream readings, albeit from a conservative perspective, with a following currently spanning the United States, Europe, East Africa and through to East Asia. Yemen achieved this without state interference or involvement - peaceful preachers have independently and without state patronage encouraged their flock to work within civil society to battle society's ills, marginalise extremes, and encourage indigenous notions of Islamic expression.

Thus, in the UK, authorities have encouraged Yemeni-trained preachers to visit (through the Radical Middle Way initiative), and Muslim communities have been sending their sons and daughters to the Hadhramawt valley for decades now to learn from their example. They come back as vibrant functionaries, often with few if any resources. The effects of their work are yet to be calculated, but it is likely that without their input, the problem of violent extremism we face would be far more pronounced.

To be sure, the positive influence of this Islamic tendency is not always apparent in a Yemen ravaged by conflict. Extremists do certainly operate. But that is more to do with Yemen's fragmented insurgencies and ungoverned spaces, which foreign extremists exploit to find safe haven. Yet, the predominant modes of religious interpretation are not conducive to a large-scale 'Takfiri' type movement, which Al-Qa'ida-style operatives could draw recruits from.

Prospects for counter-terrorism strategy

As the Government admitted on 5 January, in the long run, there may be little or no measure that will 100 per cent protect us from inventive and determined terrorists. However, there are standards to hold on to - it is too early to be certain, but the Christmas Day attempt might very well have been avoided if those standards had been properly implemented. This has been emphasised with President Obama openly criticising the US intelligence community for their failure to identify Abdulmuttallab earlier. But the point about standards will resonate in other ways as well.

At home, we will see a renewed discussion about the place of Muslim communities in counter-terrorism strategies, and how these tie in with higher education in particular. That comes at a time when national counter-radicalisation strategies (Prevent in particular) are under review, after severe criticism with regards to its effectiveness. We need to be careful about inviting similar criticism in higher education - the last thing we would want is for trust to break down between university authorities, or the police, and the student. In this case, students might have had nothing to offer by way of useful intelligence - but that might not be the case in the future. Any initiative, therefore, that improves the relationship on the ground between the authorities and civil society should be encouraged: such initiatives are vital in frustrating an international cohort of extremists with online tools at their disposal. The key point here is to actively involve - in a non-confrontational way - the Muslim student community, together with mainstream Muslim civil society, to help them identify suspicious behaviour while assuring their independence as free and equal British citizens.

Profiling on the basis of race or religion is not only ineffectual - it is counter-productive. The increased use of new technology, like body-scanners, might be beneficial, but the suspicion is that it is mere window dressing, and more of a symbolic (and expensive) reaction than anything else. Smart intelligence goes beyond this - and in this regard, 'behavioural' profiling, based on common sense, is not an option that necessarily conflicts with our country's traditions of civil liberties. Security experts, including former CIA director Michael Hayden, as well as former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, have pointed out the lack of benefits in profiling on the basis of characteristics - but they have reiterated that transport officials need to be further trained in how to analyse the behaviour and the past history of passengers. As Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International, notes: 'effective profiling is based on the analysis of the appearance and behaviour of a passenger and an inspection of the traveller's itinerary and passport; it does not and should not be based on race, religion, nationality or colour of skin.'

On the other hand, increasing haphazard, and what some would regard as nonsensical measures, such as forbidding passengers to stand, cover themselves with blankets or interact with their luggage during the last hour of their flights, all as a result of this current episode, will not increase our security. At best, such rules merely further disrupt our lives, giving the terrorists more reason to feel victorious.

Finally, with regards to Yemen, it is important to understand the country before resorting to hasty reactions. The Yemeni authorities take seriously the threat that faces them, and they have been very clear and open about where they stand. We need to increase co-operation with those authorities, and improve their capacity to the job they know how to do best - not turn them, and the local population, against us.

There are, as always, no 'short-cuts' in counter-terrorism, whether in 2010 or at any other time - but as we engage in the soul-searching that needs to be done, we should also remember that terrorists did, in fact, lose this time. And hopefully, we will learn from what the Nigerian suspect reveals to the FBI, as well as from our own mistakes.

Dr H.A. Hellyer, Fellow of the University of Warwick, is author of 'Muslims of Europe: the "Other" Europeans' (Edinburg University Press), and was appointed Deputy Convenor of the Home Office working group on 'Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism' in the aftermath of the 7 July bombings.

January 06, 2010

Right–wing challenge reveals mainstream’s failures in UK

The National

It has been an awful fortnight for opponents of the far right in the UK. Geert Wilders, the anti-Islam politician from the Netherlands, entered the UK after initially being denied entry by the Home Office. Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party and Britain’s poster boy for the far-right, made history as he was a guest on the BBC’s Question Time.

Both took full advantage of their opportunities. Geert Wilders was a guest of a member of the House of Lords and continued onto an American tour, stopping in a number of cities while promulgating the most brazen hate speech with regards to Islam and Muslims in recent memory, assisted by some of the most well-known bigots of the US. Some welcomed his proposals to tax the wearing of the hijab and ban the Quran – and yet still promote “freedom of speech and expression”.

Mr Griffin is probably revelling in the fact that due to his broadcast on the BBC, the British National Party (BNP) now has thousands of new members, according to the latest polls. Yes, the far right is definitely not going away.

This has been sneaking up on the British public for years – and now it seems to have dawned upon them. But now there is a choice. The British public can regard this rise as something from an extreme, marginal section of British society, which will simply die out without any further work needing to be done. Or they can wake up. The far right may be marginal – but it’s gaining ground because politicians in the mainstream have failed on two counts.

The first reason is simple. The political mainstream is just not trusted, while those who vote for the BNP do trust the BNP. Many of them voted for mainstream political parties before – and those parties have to take responsibility for this change. Secondly, and here things get more difficult, the mainstream has allowed certain political issues to get out of control by not dealing with them properly. These issues, which once belonged to the far right alone, are now becoming mainstreamed, usually for short-term objectives (like getting votes). 

On that second point, the central issue is very clear: Islam, a faith whose values are claimed to be antithetical to the West’s, and whose adherents are in danger of destroying the West through demographics. People will try to get around that as much as possible and will not want to admit it, but the issue is Islam.

But the role of Islam in society has been an issue for more than the far right. Due to the way the mainstream has gone about discussing Islam in the public sphere, the far right has been able to use the issue as a way to propel themselves into stardom. The far right has advanced by using issues that the mainstream parties brought onto the radar in an irresponsible way.

We have now passed the point of no return. If the mainstream had been more responsible earlier, then Mr Griffin and his colleague would never have been elected to the European Parliament, which paved the way for Mr Griffin to appear on Question Time.

It’s obvious he has a constituency – and it will only grow if he manages to paint himself as the underdog. What needs to be done is to take that constituency away from him.

If we are serious about ending that support, certain things have to be sorted out. The first issue is the British public’s disillusionment with their politicians. The British MPs who are moaning about being told to pay back their expenses need to realise that there is far more at stake here than their own personal annoyance. They must recapture the trust of their constituents. In so doing, the elections next year should be an opportunity and not just a challenge. If British politicians in the mainstream close ranks, show that they can have clean politics, and not come across as untrustworthy fiends, then they can take back some of the ground usurped by the BNP.

Secondly, the political mainstream needs to show what they are actually about, as a matter of consensus. The BNP has received a lot of mileage because they are sure what they are fighting for: a white, Christian Britain. Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats have not come across as having a clear-cut vision of the UK’s national identity.

It’s not good enough to attack the BNP’s vision – we must have one of our own. That national identity must have an appreciation of multiculturalism at its core and use this as a way to be proud about what it means to be British.

There must not be any confusion about whether or not we are afraid of Muslims or not. It should be very clear: we abhor any criminal, whether he cloaks himself in religion or not. And we will take the fight to any type of extremist with the means available to us under the rule of law.

Islam is another religion of Europe, just as Judaism and Christianity are, with an embedded history. In the 21st century our secular institutions can cope with this religion just as it deals with faith in general. In this regard, Muslim Britons and Muslim Europeans in general are deadly for the BNP and their cohorts. The worst nightmare for the BNP is a Muslim population that cares more for Britain than the BNP does, unlike some of the hotheads who protested Mr Wilder’s visit in a way that detracts from any worthwhile grievance they might have.

The political mainstream has a deep responsibility here – because there is a sympathy within the highest levels of the political establishment with the views that the BNP is propagating. The BNP may popularise those bigoted views, but they are not the only ones to have them.

Finally, the political mainstream has to take the fight to the far right. Political parties should go through all legal means to expose the quandaries of the BNP – and should encourage all of their own members to sign up for the BNP in order to force changes from the inside. Banning it is not an option – but taking it to pieces through the law should be.

Some mainstream politicians may be more amenable to far-right views in order to assure their short term political future – they have already shown they are happy to do so. If we are concerned about the future of the UK in the long term, politicians and civil society alike have to be realistic and creative about how they are going to renew British politics – and there will be hard choices to make.

Dr HA Hellyer is fellow of the University of Warwick and author of Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans


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