Five years ago Ruhul Bhashani and his friends posted a ‘flash mob iftar’ on Facebook. It invited homeless people located around Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London to share a meal with Muslims during Ramadan (the iftar is the sunset meal which breaks the fast). Since then such flash mobs have been replicated in sixteen cities across the United Kingdom.

More recently, the flash mob iftars have become a Fasting not feasting campaign, encouraging introspection over gluttony during Ramadan, and challenging consumerism among young Muslims.

Drawing on Islamic traditions but applying them in new ways to social justice struggles, initiatives like these are part of a new generation of Muslim activism that connects the worlds of thought, spirit and action.

In a recent interview, Bhashani, an activist and researcher from the capital, told me that the goal of his work is to “start a conversation” about the direction of social change in Britain’s Muslim community.

The flash mobs and the campaign are two of the many ideas to emerge from a dynamic young Muslim scene in London which has developed rapidly since the late 1990s. In 1999 for example, a group of professional Muslims formed a networking group at Toynbee Hall in East London. “We wanted to fund social action projects ourselves”, said one early member, Monir Eid-Arimoku (an entrepreneur), after teacher Fatima Amir had expressed concerns that Muslim students were failing at school.

The group founded a new organization called City Circle which set up schools on Saturdays to teach English and Mathematics in an effort to raise educational standards. Fourteen years later, the Saturday schools have been set up across London and their first graduates are now teaching a new generation of the city’s children.

More recently, 26 year-old Bilal Hassam co-founded the The Leaf Network to act “as an incubator for community network and enterprise.” Recent activities have included an art exhibition about the negative power of technology in society, and a collaboration around environmental and consumer activism with MADE in Europe, a “Muslim-led movement of young people that wants to see our community leading the fight against poverty and injustice.” “Allah does not change the condition of the people until they change what is in themselves,” as MADE in Europe’s website puts it, citing the Qur’an (13:11).

The Leaf Network also runs a series of events that critically examine Islamic thought and practice, including one that put Islam ‘on trial’ in relation to gender, politics and the arts. “A group of us had gone through the mainstream Islamic organizations and we realized there were gaps in our community. We needed to provide a space for innovative and radical ideas”, Bilal told me.

“Muslims ought to question the status quo” and ask “difficult questions” he said, in order to “create a refined Islamic context.” The network provides a critical link between thought and action by creating a space for scholars to interact with activists. “Scholars need to learn about the realities on the ground.”

I asked Bilal whether there was anything unique about the London Muslim scene: “I think it’s ultimately about your worldview, your entire existence, and taking it to a transformational level” he replied, “This approach is connected to our legacy”.

Ruhul Bhashani also describes his work in terms of reform and transformation. The British Muslim community has traditionally focused on its own communities of origin, he told me, and it gives a large amount of charity to humanitarian crises abroad. But groups like the Leaf Network and City Circle are helping to create a shift towards working with vulnerable communities at home, inspired by Islamic traditions of renewal that encourage the re-interpretation of Islamic scriptures to meet the needs of modern society.

Islam has always had a strong tradition of serving the most marginalized people, along with an obligation to give to charity. Zakat (Islamic philanthropy) is one of the five pillars of Islam that make up the foundation of Muslim life. In fact The Times recently reported that Muslims are some of Britain’s ‘top givers’, with an average donation of almost £371 in 2012. But Islamic tradition is about much more than philanthropy. It also includes the obligation for self-examination: Islamic teachings – including key practices such as Ramadan – act as sobering reminders that keep active Muslims anchored in their ‘higher selves,’ or a state of mindfulness about, and sensitivity towards, the needs of other people.

Take the case of the ‘Ramadan Tent,’ which was the brainchild of Omar Salha, a postgraduate student at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). In 2011, he organized iftar meals for international students in London who were isolated socially. Two years later, he decided to pitch a tent in an open green space opposite the main SOAS campus, and invited people from all faiths and no faith at all to share a meal together.

Homeless people attended the Ramadan Tent after seeing adverts at St Mungo’s. So did participants in a Marxist studies conference that was being held at SOAS during the first week of Ramadan, after Salha invited the “comrades to please come and join us.” Importantly, the tent also hosted a series of talks by prominent Muslims and speakers from other religions, since Salha wanted to create an opportunity for people to learn about Islam at a time of overwhelmingly negative media coverage.

The Ramadan Tent reached more than 4,000 people and was transformational on many levels. It brought disparate groups together through sharing food – faith and non-faith groups, students and the homeless. And – like the flash mob iftars – it reshaped an urban space in London by issuing an open invitation to occupy a new part of the city. Those passing by on the street could join the group to share a meal or listen to a lecture, or just to talk with each other, free-of-charge and without having to be a member of any group.

The Tent also offered a new way of relating to homeless people beyond traditional modes of charity, since to share a meal is a reciprocal activity. It honors the other person and requires the sacrifice of time – a precious commodity in the metropolis that is London.

Across the city, young Muslims like Salha are using Islamic traditions of philanthropy and renewal to inspire a new generation of struggles for social justice. Being part of a network like this is essential to bring about effective change, since networks provide powerful skills, contacts and resources. These networks connect people from different parts of the capital, and provide them with precious opportunities to nurture ideas, raise money and launch new projects. As they spread, they have the potential to change the ways in which Muslims in Britain are viewed in the public eye – as a positive and dynamic force that is helping to re-shape the fabric of public life.

Islam’s rich traditions of thought, action and spirit – of renewal, philanthropy and personal introspection – provide an integrative force for social change that is striving to meet the needs of modern Britain, grounded in continuous ‘soul nourishment’. This year, flash mob iftars took place in Nottingham, Leicester and, of course, Lincoln’s Inn Fields where they began. Along with City Circle, the Leaf Network, MADE in Europe and many others, these initiatives aim to re-orient the consciousness of British Muslims towards social action on their doorstep.

Originally published on OpenDemocracy

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On my recent holiday visit to Pakistan I was shocked by the state of the country. 150 Christian homes were burnt in the Badami Bagh district of Lahore, by an angry mob of over 2000, triggered by a man who had allegedly blasphemed against the Prophet (pbuh).

The sheer horror of this act speaks for itself, but when you know many Christians in Lahore are sanitation workers on low income, then the act seems all the more cruel.

The government said it would repair the homes of the inflicted, and hundreds were arrested – which is a saving grace – but what about getting to the root of the violence? This is a crucial time for the government and nation to soul-search about stopping these abominations.

The incident is by no means isolated, with recent attacks on Hazara Shias, culminating in nearly 300 deaths this year alone. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a group of radical Sunni Muslims, who consider Shias as heretics, has claimed responsibility for the many attacks.

The deep irony here is only too palpable as Pakistan was set up to ‘protect’ Muslims from majority Hindus in pre-partition India. Moreover, schools down the country declare allegiance to their beloved watan, and saccharine pop Music warbles ardently of Pakistan. This nationalistic fervour does not match the reality of the country.

Ordinary Pakistanis, particularly those in a privileged position, must wake up from their complacency, and put pressure on their government. Government officials must spend less time on developing their mansions and actually help their people, for which they have been elected.

Religious fervour is flawed. Today it is the Christians, Ahmedis and Shia who are cast-offs, but tomorrow it will be those who do not wear beards or follow a particular or school of thought. These developments are a damning indictment of the meaning of Pakistan – the land of the pure.

Appreciation of the other

The Pakistani government and people must start with an appreciation of the other. In March this year, a group of activists tried to commemorate the death of Baghat Singh in Lahore, a Sikh freedom fighter in colonial India, but were driven out by a group of religious zealots. This example is indicative of a country that does not appreciate its minorities.

Though there are no easy answers in a country of complexities that is still finding its feet after 66 years of independence, education and its respective policies must be reformed. Schools can teach about other religions and ethnic groups and cultivate an appreciation for minorities. Only then, perhaps mobs like those in Badami Bagh can be instilled with a sense of humanity

Turning 30 was not particularly momentous. My cheeks did not cave in, crows feet did not land around my eyes and my hair did not thin into a silvery wisp.

At least my appearance had not altered dramatically but inwardly there was a little revolution – to buckle up and finally anchor myself – to a place and purpose. My twenties were a time of dabbling in everything of interest, exploring horizons of the inner and outer worlds, and indulging myself that there was plentiful time to ask what is the point of it all?

My twenties were also marked by an attitude that we are not obliged to live other’s scripts – of society, our parents, peers, friends or elder siblings. When we stagger back in sheer awe of this world – and the endless possibilities – why clip our wings into the trappings of conformity? Paradoxically, only Islam – thankfully – was my constant and compass.

The day I turned 30, a quiet inner voice whispered to me that it was time to bring it all together, and settle down to a main focus. A path needs to be chosen from the dearth of possibilities.

My Pakistani identity is spurring my on, and I’m finally succumbing to the opinions of my peers. It did not seem to matter what other people thought, but now with the number three and zero it somehow does. And with age, exploration feels a little like chaos sometimes. I have finally had enough of letting myself being tossed-and-turned in the squall of life. The squall may have been exhilarating, but now I’d like the boat to pull up onto tranquil shores.

Insh’Allah in my new, anchored life, I will find ways to find pockets of adventure.

A city moulds the shape, textures and colours of daily living. Last year, I wrote about London life which ceased to have any novelty. A new job has brought me up to Birmingham.

A city shapes the inner life. In London, I was often in a slightly stressed mode but I have a more meditative frame of mind now. I am no longer on the Underground and am spared the feeling of being caved in.

People in Birmingham are friendlier and there is a different attitude to life. Shop-keepers sometimes take their time to serve you, not due to impertinence, but because they’re busy having an interesting conversation. If I ask somebody for directions, their body turns towards me, and there seems a genuine interest in helping.

While I am content with this slower pace and change, this transition revealed to me the prejudices of friends, two of whom said that ‘people up north’ were content with their lot, and had no overarching ambitions. This attitude reveals precisely the difference between life in metropolis’ and smaller cities and towns. What these friends were describing should really be applauded as living life in the present. Not anxious. Not restless. Not stressed, that you have to be something, be somewhere, be someone, but are just content to be.

(This review contains spoilers)

My review: 9/10

The Wedding Wallah is the third installment of the Marriage Bureau for Rich People Series. This series is an excellent insight into the age old customs of India which sit alongside modern India.

The novel takes a more serious turn than the first two. It unclosets gay people in India, and explores the issue of their ‘forced’ marriage. Dilawar is a young gay man from an aristocratic background who is being persuaded to marry the widowed Pari. At the end of the novel, Diliawar finally asserts his autonomy and breaks of the engagement, thereby giving Pari and him a dignified outcome.

The Many Conditions of Love, the second novel, depicted the suicide of Mr Naidu who had became indebted to a fertiliser company. In The Wedding Wallah, the demands of the Naxalites, a communist guerrilla operating in South India, is also compelling, and continues with the social conscience of the series by highlighting the abject poverty of rural India. This is poignant at a time when we are surrounded by media regarding India’s burgeoning status as a world economy.

Though Zama highlights the violence of the Naxalites, there is a strong sense that the greedy landowner receives his come-uppance when he is forced to absolve the “debt” of his servant who was bonded into labour. Zama suggests that despite the use of violent tactics, the Naxalites’ cause is a noble one.

There are moments in the novel which play like an over-blown Bollywood romance. The scene of Pari and Rehman on the roof top was particularly quite cinematic. Likewise, the scenes of Aruna and Ramanujam escaping in the forest were quite thrilling. These scenes add texture and drama to the novel.

There is something for everyone in this novel. Zama has once again shown he can weave light-heartedness and humour alongside more serious issues such as gay rights, poverty and violence in modern India.

Lust has overcome them for

The Product

 

Eyes glazed over

Mouths moist with saliva

Towards it they move closer

Their bodies trembling

 

They cannot look you in the eye

As fingers caress cool metal

For no human can replace

The gazing into its virtual, empty world

 

 

I want to make more time for my writing but unfortunately writing has been on the back-burner. So, here are somebody else’s musings for a change. The following poem struck a nerve in me:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry

These are some of my reflections from the last week. The recent London riots indicate a deep and complex problem in society which will not go away by throwing away a few “criminals” in jail.

Vigilantism

As the events unfolded, I was asking why we were not doing more than watching, as though we were spectators watching an American film or “live coverage” of sport.

However, stories came in of people who protected their properties, particularly the faith communities. But I didn’t like the way in which the BBC phrased the act of protecting properties as “vigilantism”, asking the public whether it was right to take the law into one’s own hands. These riots were unprecedented, and as the police proved themselves incompetent, communities bandying together was inevitable and a natural, raw, human response.

As long as there was intention on the part of the Turkish shop owners, Sikh and Muslim communities to use reasonable force, and not to attack the rioters, why use such a robust word as “vigilantism”? Sikhs and Muslims weren’t going to stand back and have their places of worship desecrated.

Social malaise

While these young people are brandished as criminals, let us make no mistake that they are a part of our society, and so from the whole of society a solution must come. To explain their conduct is not to justify.

The looters were both criminals and victims. Paradox this may be, but rigid dichotomies and analyses simply will not do. What they did was wrong and shameful, but these acts manifest a deep social malaise and anger of a young generation who perceive no future ahead of them. Why did they burn and loot their very own communities? Their acts are akin to self-harm, where an individual intentionally wounds him or herself in order to gain attention from others, and to feel something real and palpable.

There will countless debates and soul-searching for months and years. We must make sure that real people from the community: young people, youth workers, teachers, parents and others – even the rioters themselves, are genuinely involved in responding to this crisis and coming up with answers. Our elite, career-politicians are deeply out of touch and can only come up with empty sound bites which cater for an emotional, grossly ineffectual response.

Police inadequacy

I am amazed that the police were so ineffectual. How many times have we heard of people being kettled in at demonstrations? Yet the police waited for the politicians to make decisions who lazily meandered their way back to the UK.

Every catastrophe has a sliver of hope. For me, these riots particularly manifest the deep rage of young black men who are stopped and searched every day. I think there is a prevalent agenda which says race is not an issue, but those who spout that agenda were in a for a rude awakening.

The police thought they could ignore the family of Mark Duggan, and their foolishness bit them in the bum. Five years ago, I saw the highly compelling film Injustice, which is about the death of black people in police custody, none of which has resulted in a police conviction. Nothing’s changed. The rioting is a further example that our police system is due for a major, urgent overhaul.

**********

Lately, I’ve been feeling quite apathetic …These riots have woken me up from my ennui that we have no choice but to care about and be involved in the lives of young people.

There is pressure on the modern Muslim woman to look attractive and fashionable. On one end of the spectrum, there is the glamorous hijabi. She wears snazzy colours, hairbands, dripping jewels, brooches, flowers and sparkling beads. These are a legitimate expression of her femininity. Just because she wears the veil doesn’t mean she needs to wear a bin liner over her head.

On the other end, there are some women who choose to dress plainly and this is acceptable too. Their interpretation of modesty is to wear neutral colours, and very loose material lest they draw attention to themselves. These women may well be attractive underneath this dullness, but their sense of modesty is to dress with demureness.

Unfortunately, there are some men who cannot see past this, at a time when figure-hugging dress is so easily handed on a plate, such as the ubiquitous skinny jeans, which leave little to the imagination.

These men (and women) should realise that “frumpy” Muslim women choose to dress this way, and could quite easily transform themselves into attractive, pouty divas if they wished. They hide their charms for a reason, and their sensuality and overt expression of femininity is reserved for just one special person.

 

 

I benefit from a good self-help book and can pick up interesting tips for self improvement. There is a however a fallacy that everything is fixable, or even that some things ought to be fixed. It is titles like Paul McKenna’s “I can make you thin” which make me cringe in particular and sound a little lucrative, and furthermore add to the weight-loss industry.

The main problem is the claim to a universal set of rules in these books. In “The Secret” it says that the application of the “Laws of Attraction” will allow a person to attract whatever she wants just by thinking about it, and other books ensure “getting rich, quick”. The latter type of book cannot ignore the fact that there are deep inequalities within our society which are not easily fixed through some simple rules.

One aspect of the genre talks about the power of positive thinking. As a general point, positive thinking is to be applauded. Pain however is a brute fact of life, and at times ought to be acknowledged, and could otherwise lead to repression. There are specific words in other languages conveying certain types of pain; in German the word “Weltshmertz” means the pain felt for all the suffering in the world.

Iyanla Vanzant’s talks about the low points in our life as ‘valleys’ and acknowledges it is acceptable to sometimes feel at a low. The constant theme of life is the repeated cycle of life and death, which also applies to the emotional state of our health.

Indeed the ‘zeitgeist’ of our times is that things are easily fixable with the click of a button. Take this pill and you will be slim. Go on a holiday and you will no longer be depressed. Have a makeover and you will feel better about yourself. Life is far more unpredictable and certain things are not easily fixed. Sometimes you need to live in a valley in order to see and appreciate the mountain.