Holy Quran · Islam

Freedom of Speech & Its Limits – Finding the Middle Path

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Iffat Mirza, London

The development of the notion of freedom of speech in the West has run parallel to the construction of democracy in its states. Looking at British history, we see that the 18th and 19th centuries were ridden with laws that suppressed any organisation, literature, or activity that was seen as a threat to the ruling order. With laws such as the 1795 Treasonable Practices Act and Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act, the government was able to establish its dominance over the country and limit the consciences of those who dared question their rule. Ideals of freedom of speech were reactions to these laws. Freedom of speech was created in order to facilitate a true democracy, and we can see the direct correlation between the increase in freedom of speech and the progress of democracy.

Now we must ask the question why this has once again become a big issue now? Well, the idea of political correctness has taken hold, which many see as an attack on freedom of speech. We have seen recent examples of Boris Johnson’s controversial statements on the burka and Geert Wilders’ proposed Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) ‘drawing contest’ (now thankfully cancelled), and once again the debate over freedom of speech has risen again. However, I would argue that both stunts were nothing more than political charades and had very little to do with protecting freedom of speech. It must be clarified to all that freedom of speech is not synonymous with right to hurt. Freedom of speech is a tool that helps us grow as individuals and societies. We must set ourselves boundaries to distinguish what is acceptable and constructive dialogue, and what is simply an excuse to tyrannise.

In any case of conflict or difference of opinions, dialogue is essential to advance as a society, therefore we must welcome an atmosphere of trust and respect where each and every member can share their opinion and worries over any topic, regardless of how sensitive it may be. Yes, freedom of speech is our right, and indeed, a right that must be exercised to ensure true democratic rule.

However, it is also a responsibility that must be taken seriously. We can vocalise our opinions without dehumanising and hurting people. Freedom of speech is not being threatened by those who take offence at hurtful words. It is being threatened by those who defend their bigotry under the shield of freedom of speech. A shield that is increasingly being worn thin. By stubbornly using the guise of freedom of speech to offend others, we are limiting constructive dialogue as we are focussing more on our right to speak rather than our need to speak.

The Holy Qur’an captures the essence of how freedom of speech should be approached by encouraging an attitude of moderation. In Chapter 2, Verse 144, which can be understood as ‘We have made you into a nation which adheres to the middle path…’, God has taught us to strike a balance in all that we do and this will most definitely ensure a peaceful and harmonious society. If this teaching were to be applied to freedom of speech we would learn that freedom of speech is necessary to challenge us and to help us grow. We would learn to see the world from other perspectives and in doing so learn more about our own perspective. But neither would we take it to such an extreme that we are not facilitating conversation, but are instead screaming over each other, resulting in a lot of words with very little meaning. So, it is in treading the middle path that we can do justice to freedom of speech.

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Politics · Women

Lessons Worth Learning

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Sarah Ward Khan, London

I love studying history. I have always been enthralled by the lives of those who paved a way forward before me and steered society towards its current point. Growing up in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s was also a heady time: we felt history unfolding before us and we were part of it. And the history I saw around me as a young child was an intoxicating, positive movement: it was change for the better. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid, the end of the Cold War – the future at that time looked bright. Social movements were making life better for the oppressed and the downtrodden, righting the wrongs of the past and moving forward with hope.

So, it is with a heavy heart that I ponder over the world today, Society is still changing, technology and communication are changing the way we interact and forging new norms. But is it, I wonder, a better society we are building? Where are the values of freedom, tolerance, equality which were upheld in those heady days? Where is the sense of social justice and liberation?

The burqa debate and the comments of Boris Johnson only seem to highlight the difference between my childhood and now. Instead of moving towards a better life, we seem to be regressing to the dark days of nationalism, popularism and self-interest. As I look to the future I don’t see better things ahead, I see division and separation: them and us mentality and fear of others.

And who will lead the charge against this decline? Who are the leaders in society who will uphold those virtues and values that made the world a better place for all? I would hope that people in public life might feel the weight of their role and understand this facet of their influence. This is especially true of politicians. Politicians are there to serve – the needs of everyone and not just themselves. They are there to stand up for the poor, the weak and the oppressed. Their goal should be to uphold an inclusive and peaceful society and if it isn’t that goal – then what are they aiming for?

Which is why Boris Johnson’s words matter. They weren’t off the cuff, they were planned and printed in a national newspaper. They very deliberately targeted a small minority of women using mocking and ridiculing language. Commentators and Twitter trolls have leapt on the band wagon telling women to get over it, have a laugh and to get a sense of humour. Are these the values we want to build our society upon? That we are free to offend and insult and if your feelings are hurt you should grow up? What kind of a society would that create?

It’s certainly not the society I create in my classroom as a teacher and I would have failed to qualify for the profession if I had taught children in my care this principle. I teach them that words matter, that we laugh with and never at others. We share a joke – we don’t target one person or one group. This is part of the British Values of tolerance and respect which every teacher in the UK is obliged to promote. Why is Mr Johnson exempt from these values his government created and enforces? Why does is he not held to the standards he expects us all to teach? This is hypocrisy of the clearest kind.

In my personal life I go further than these broad notions, I try to uphold a very specific standard. In the 10 Conditions of Bai’at, a pledge of allegiance taken by all members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which set out standards of faith and conduct. The fourth condition is: That under the impulse of any passion, he/she shall cause no harm whatsoever to the creatures of God in general and Muslims in particular, neither by his/her tongue, hands, nor by any other means.

What an inspiring principle and aim this is in my life! I may well fall short of this but the renewed pledge taken at Jalsa Salana UK annually reminds and refocuses our minds on this. What a beautiful, peaceful, equal society this principle could create if we all stuck to it. We would not hurt anyone by any means – including the words we say. What unity there would be. Nobody would fear, like the Muslim women so openly targeted in the national press all week, that they would be coerced and bullied into conforming to the beliefs of others at the cost of their own choice. Mutual respect and care would mean that we would prevent ourselves from offending others and unity would be the result. Not uniformity and force and coercion, as many in the burqa debate wish to impose by removing women’s right to choose their own clothes, but fellowship built on peace and respect.

So, faced with these two versions of society – one in which we can say what we feel and ignore the impact on the sentiments of others, or one in which we try not to hurt any member of the community, I know where I would rather live. I, and so many other women are speaking up now because we know that this is a moment in history where the society in which we live is about to make that choice. Either we agree that insult is acceptable in public servants or we defend the value of respect and unity. History will show which side of the battle succeeds.

Islam

The Red Rag of Caricatures

 

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Sameea Jonnud, Aldershot

Things must have been a little too quiet for Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders lately, after all US President Donald Trump has been more a public anti-Muslim irritant since he ran for President. Not one to be overshadowed where Islam and Muslims are concerned Wilders has once more decided to stir things up by holding a contest to draw the Holy Prophet of Islam, peace and blessings be on him. The fact that Wilders has been allowed to hold the caricature contest in the Parliamentary offices of his PVV party almost gives it a kind of validation when one would hope Parliament would try to diffuse any possible trouble before it can be triggered.

Wilders has shown his fanatical anti-Islam stance in the past by calling for bans on the Holy Qur’an and mosques explaining that away by claiming Islam is not a religion. However, encouraging the drawing of cartoons of the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, doesn’t support any arguments he may have, rather it is merely another way to offend Muslims by insulting their revered Prophet. This has happened in the past when Danish magazine Jyllands-Posten published caricatures and in another contest in Texas, USA which followed the Charlie Hebdo shootings; in all these cases cartoonists depicted the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, in an offensive way and claimed it was to protect their rights to free speech.

Muslims hold the love of God topmost but among humankind the love for the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, comes first. This is illustrated by the fact that any Muslim who writes or speaks his name will add ‘peace and blessings be upon him’ as a mark of respect. In actual fact Muslims believe in and respect all God’s Prophets and will also invoke peace on them when speaking their name. This love and respect will not be undone by offensive cartoon depictions and will not lead to ideological discussions; it will lead to sadness among the majority of Muslims who will find it offensive and yes, in reprisal there will potentially be violence among an extremist minority.

So knowing all this it is evident that Wilders is supporting a caricature contest such as this only to insult and offend Muslims despite also knowing that, as with a red rag in front of a bull, it can trigger extremists to retaliate violently and in an un-Islamic way, as in the Charlie Hebdo killings. But it seems that to someone like Geert Wilders, who seems to want to cause trouble, any resulting offence and even violence must be worthwhile. What instead should be the reaction of peaceful Muslims to this provocation? Invoking ‘Durood’ (salutations) on the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him:

“Bless, O Allah, Muhammad and the people of Muhammad, as You did bless Abraham and the people of Abraham, You are indeed the Praiseworthy, the Glorious.

Prosper, O Allah, Muhammad and the people of Muhammad, as You did prosper Abraham and the people of Abraham, You are indeed the Praiseworthy, the Glorious.”

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British Values

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Sarah Ward Khan, London

Wednesday 29th March 2017 was definitely a landmark day. On that day, our Government enacted Article 50, following the outcome of last year’s referendum and in doing so they turned their back on the past 40 years of close links with Europe. This was a moment where Britain chose to turn away from group membership with its continental neighbours and strike out alone.

So it seems appropriate at this point to pause and consider what makes life in Britain special? What are the values and attributes which define us as a nation and make us unique? Cucumber sandwiches? Cups of tea? Queueing patiently? While these humorous stereotypes raise a giggle they are not core values which underpin our society.

Ofsted, in its passionate quest to instil British values in every young mind, has defined the core British values as: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and none. Schools, colleges, universities and even nurseries have to now demonstrate that they are promoting these values to their charges. These values are held up as the key to integrating society and avoiding radicalisation and extremism. But I feel that they have fallen wide of the mark.

The motivation for the focus on British values is the fear that British born and educated individuals will become radicalised and pose a threat to life in the UK or abroad. But Britain is not a homogenous society. We are, especially in our urban areas, a rich tapestry of international cultures, languages and faiths. In trying to narrow the remit of values to something ‘British’ we are failing to recognise that core values are international and not confined to single nations. As in the wake of Brexit we turn inwards, we should not forget the value and contribution offered by the rest of the world. Every nation, despite any difficulties in current situations, has something good to offer. Indeed, there is nothing especially uniquely ‘British’ about these values.

The Holy Quran teaches;

‘And mankind were but one community, then they differed;…’[1]

So here we have an excellent example of unification and integration principles. We are all members of the same community: humankind. When we recognise that every individual has value and that we should respect each other with compassion and kindness, not just tolerance, then we will eliminate, among much else, extremism.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is a shining example of cohesion and integration both within its membership and wider society. Members belong to many races and nations yet they are united by a common faith and a motto ‘Love for all, Hatred for none’. Within each community where they reside you will find Ahmadis feeding the homeless, visiting the sick and the elderly, donating money to the poor. They truly aspire to be an example of serving humanity.

These are the core values that unite, the recognition that consideration for humanity is paramount and unwavering. You cannot remove extremism by turning inwards and narrowing your outlook. It is only in accepting that all nations and people are equal under God that peace can reign.

[1] 10:20

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Testing Tolerance

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Sarah Waseem, London

By now most people know, The European Court of Justice has ruled that companies can now stipulate that employees may not wear the Islamic headscarf, but only as part of prohibitions including other religious and political symbols.  They argue that “an internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination”.

I have been debating this with a friend. She maintains that there is nothing wrong in companies stipulating a dress code – that it their right to do so. If a Muslim woman or Jewish or Sikh man does not wish to comply, then he or she should look elsewhere for work.

It is true that dress codes have been in force for years from school uniforms to official uniforms. We expect people to dress and conform to certain standards when working at every level in society.

So what is wrong with the Luxemburg decision?

The Luxembourg-based court found that a headscarf ban may also constitute “indirect discrimination” if people adhering to a particular religion or belief, such as Muslims, are put at a particular disadvantage.

But indirect discrimination is permissible if it is “objectively justified by a legitimate aim”, such as a company’s policy of neutrality, provided that the means of achieving it are appropriate and necessary.”

In many hospitals in the UK uniform measure are already in place to reduce infection. So for example, many staff are expected to wear short sleeves.  There is a logical reason for this. At airports, security concerns dictate that women covering their faces must remove their veils. Again, there is a rationale for this, that all must follow regardless of faith.

However, what does ‘a policy of neutrality’ mean?  Psychologists have been telling us for a long time that we make judgements about people within a few minutes of meeting them. From their accents, we make rash conclusions about their political views; from body shapes we may censure or applaud food choices, and (here’s the clanger!) if they are attractive we are more likely to employ them and promote them!

So, given these biases that we as humans make, from seeing someone, the rationale of not making judgments about their religious affiliations seems somewhat nonsensical.

The reality is that religion has become politicised, especially in Europe. The other reality of this ruling is, that on sheer demographics, the main target will be Muslim women, rather than interestingly, Muslim men who do not usually display their faith affiliation so obviously. Such a move will mean some Muslim women will be forced to consider where they work, and for many, this  may mean a withdrawal from sections of the labour market.

In my opinion, secularists are afraid of the power of faith – that believers do not look to solely the state for their needs but to a Higher Power. And the main source of their fear today, is Islam which is the fastest growing religion in many parts of the world.  Given the destruction wrought on the world by terrorist groups such as Daesh, their fears are understandable. However, these groups do not come out of nowhere, and as sociologists will remind us, discontent and resentment within the Muslims world has been brewing for centuries, largely aided by Western politics of interference in their affairs.

So what is the way forward? I have recently returned from the beautiful Spanish city of Cordoba, ruled by Arabs centuries ago. It was a city where faith was respected – Christians, Muslims and Jews lived cordially side by side. It was an era of a great exchange of ideas and cultures, and philosophies. It was an era of great material and scientific advancement as exemplified by the architectural beauty of the Cordoba mosque, or the ruins of the city of Medina Al Zahara.

Banning displays of faith will not lead to peace nor will they create greater integration. That comes from dialogue and discussion, not hiding one’s values, under the guise of ‘neutrality’.   The court ruling, in my opinion sets a dangerous precedent which will undermine cohesion and may lead to further divide in societies.

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Brexit: A Legacy of Intolerance?

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Sameea Jonnud, Aldershot, UK

As the seismic shock of the vote to leave the European Union settles, a picture of uncertainty has emerged as to what our next steps will be. How soon Article 50 will be triggered, how long negotiations with the EU will take and what the position of Britain will be is for the politicians to decide and we the people of Britain must wait and see what happens.

Timeline aside let’s look at what we are left with. After any election there are victors and losers and while those that lost may feel sadness and regret the knowledge of future elections allowing for change is always a consolation. The result of the EU referendum has had a different effect primarily because there is no going back, at least for the foreseeable future; we voted out so we’re out.

The arguments to remain in the EU had appeared to be stronger – the economy, security etc. while those of leave centred on sovereignty and halting immigration along with discredited financial claims. However 52% of the voting public chose to vote to leave for various reasons.

The voting breakdown was interesting as Scotland and the young, metropolitan voters chose overwhelmingly to remain while the older, rural voters of England and Wales chose to leave. This has left feelings of resentment among the Scots and the young who feel they will have to suffer for what they see as the selfish reasons of the leave voters. It is significant that turnout for older voters was significantly higher than that of the youth which has had a great effect on the outcome. Both camps have also been accused of not getting their correct messages across – Leave because they have done U-turns on several campaign promises and Remain for not properly conveying the benefits of the EU to the public.

Within the political system the fallout was immediate as Prime Minister David Cameron announced he would be stepping down triggering a leadership contest. As the blame for defeat is discussed the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is facing revolt from within his own party and calls for his resignation.

While the two major parties are left in turmoil there is one party who have declared themselves victorious and are demanding a role in a new “brexit” government and that is Ukip whose leader Nigel Farage has been gleefully proclaiming 23rd June as Independence Day. Independence from what? Britain has always been independent and has always had borders but the rhetoric of Farage and Boris Johnson is what appealed to voters so now it in their words Britain has gained independence. However despite winning Mr Johnson wishes to keep many of the same links with the EU and seems in no hurry to actually exit which only adds to the uncertainty.

While the political process of the exit is being handled by the politicians the referendum result has left us with the disturbing knowledge of the rise in popularity of the far right who now feel completely legitimised by the result. Ukip already had a base of support in local councils, Parliament and indeed the European Parliament but the scale of the Leave vote coupled with turmoil in the other parties has left Ukip feeling victorious.

This has added to the continued growth in support for the far right parties across Europe. It is telling that reaction from around Europe was of sadness then resignation except from the far right parties who were celebratory and have begun talking about referendums of their own. Donald Trump landed in Scotland the next day and added to the congratulations which, as Scotland had voted to remain, left Scots fuming. The UK referendum was initially called by the Prime Minister as an appeasement to Ukip and the far right in his own party. Did he ever imagine the result would be not only the exit of Britain but could also lead to the dismantling of the United Kingdom as well as unrest in the European Union.

In the days that have followed there have been report after report of intolerance – Poles, Romanians and (of course) Muslims being told to “leave because we voted for you to leave” as well as abuse on social media. In addition many non-white people say when they go out they are suspicious of everyone they encounter wondering if they voted to leave and are therefore intolerant.

After the shock of Jo Cox MP being killed for her tolerant beliefs it was sad that her constituency area voted leave despite all the outpouring of sympathy and grief at her death. After all the condemnation of intolerance at her murder the vote made it feel as though it meant nothing in the end.

So now while the politics and infighting continue in Westminster and our fate is decided politically, ordinary people are left with a quite different reality. Intolerance appears to be winning and the intolerant are now jubilant that they have a mandate to openly display their hatred. Verbal and physical abuse already appears to be on the rise and to fearful minds because the majority voted Leave it now makes it appears as if more people than we ever imagined may harbour feelings of intolerance.

Is this the future we have to look forward to, the future our children have been left with? As someone who has always thought the best of the British people the realisation of what my country may be becoming is devastating.