Monday, October 30, 2006

Unveiling Blackburn

Arab News
by Ismaeel Nakhuda

JEDDAH - "It was done out of respect for Islam - out of affection for the Muslim community...but of concern too, especially about their future in our society," said Blackburn MP and former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently while speaking to his local newspaper the Lancashire Evening Telegraph.

As some one born and bred in Preston (a 15-minute drive from Straw's constituency), I've always considered Blackburn to be like a second home; after all my in-laws live there. In my opinion, Blackburn isn't exactly an absolutely attractive place to live, but I have to say the Whalley Range area of the old textile town has some fantastic mouth-watering kebab houses and my in-laws have a tendency to give me a warm welcoming whenever I go down. Not to mention the fine food they cook at their home.

My wife - a Blackburn lass - wears the niqab and loves Blackburn. It was after all she who inculcated in me a deep love for the town. A total Blackburn-maniac, my wife and I have regular amusing and animated discussions of whether living in Blackburn is better or Preston. In fact, over the years I've ended up making a lot of friends in the town, many of them Muslims who, being diehard Blackburn Rovers supporters, love the town and consider it home.

So when Blackburn MP Jack Straw constructs a simple and also heavily loaded "us" versus "them" sentence in which he refers to Blackburn Muslims as them (their future) and the white majority as us (our) while describing Blackburn as "our society," in other words exclusively non-Muslim, then I begin to wonder whether Straw is Enoch Powell reincarnate. In fact, at times I feel New Blairite Labour has done a total shift from left of the political spectrum to the right. Come on Straw, you know as well as I do that the Muslims living in your constituency have considered hilly Blackburn home long before you arrived there in the late 1970s on the invitation of former Blackburn MP Barbara Castle.

As the veil issue kicked off a couple of weeks ago, it was interesting and also alarming to read and hear people describing the veil as a "cultural" piece of clothing. Such people should avoid speculating and rather allow the doctors of religion to have their say based on sound Islamic proofs. At this moment in time, I have yet to come across an authentically trained scholar - from the broad spectrum of understanding of Islamic jurisprudence - who says the veil is cultural and un-Islamic. Yes, there are differences on whether it is necessary but none has considered it alien or contrary to Islam. Fundamentally, is this not a matter of choice and freedom - the hallmark of living in the West? Or are Muslim women incapable of asserting their choice? The fact that veiled Muslim women with broad Lancashire accents take the time out to meet their elected MP is in itself a sign of integration, not separation.

So has this so-called "honest debate" instigated droves of Blackburn Muslim beauties to free themselves from the veil in the way Afghan women were supposed to do so in 2001? Not really. Speaking to my friends in Preston and Blackburn, veiled women are even more resilient in the face of this new hardship.

Has life changed? Yes, the British government's fixation with the attire of Muslim women and British Muslims in general has done nothing except to embolden racist and Islamaphobic elements within society. Racists are cowards who target the weak and sadly, according to friends back home and some media reports coming from the UK, it is women who are being subjected to racist taunts, intimidation, threatening behavior and even physical abuse - most of this never even gets reported. Mosques are being attacked and it would be more than safe to conclude that politicians in my country have only served to worsen race relations. We have a situation now where, in a worrying trend, Islamaphobia is becoming the norm across Europe. It is no wonder then that Trevor Phillips from the Commission for Racial Equality last week expressed concern that the current "debate" could even trigger race riots, heaven forbid.

There are around 1.6 million Muslims in Britain, out of which a small minority are women and out of whom a fringe and teeny number wear the veil. All of a sudden Jack Straw and countless others get their knickers in a twist and blurt out ridiculous and outlandish claims. Drive down Whalley Range in Blackburn and you'll definitely find white British people driving through this predominantly Asian area. You'll also see them enjoying the Indian food there unhindered and allowed to go on their own business. However, drive into the working-class Shadsworth Council estate on the other side of Blackburn and if you're not white then expect to have a brick thrown at your car.

It was a rainy winter's night a couple of years ago. I'd only recently got married and hardly knew Blackburn. I had driven from Preston to meet my wife who had spent the day at her mother's home. Instead of taking a left I took a right and somehow ended up in a working class council estate only to quickly make a sharp exit after seeing some scruffy white kids throw bottles and bricks at my car shouting "Paki go home." Come on Jack, there's an enormous problem with alienated working class white youths across Blackburn and Britain. Isn't it a fact that many are prone to joining extremist right-wing organizations?

Would it be correct to say your selective criticism of Muslims was merely done (for want of a better word) to curry favor with right-wing elements in your constituency? In fact, a report published by Lancaster University and which was sent to the Home Office in September showed that "white youths are more likely to believe they are superior to those from other races, and their attitudes are more of a barrier to integration than those of Muslims," as reported in the British Guardian.

Sadly, it seems to be Paki-bashing season in Britain with you and others exclusively pointing fingers at European Muslims - the new vulnerable Jews of Europe. On the backdrop of Bush and Blair's war on terror, which you supported and continue to do so, your motives are nothing but suspect.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Cash for Fatwas: Investigative Journalism at Its Worst

Ismaeel Nakhuda, Arab News

JEDDAH, 30 September 2006 — Following a sting-operation that bites at the very foundation of an already marginalized and at times persecuted Indian Muslim community, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Star TV’s Benaqaab program recently featured a documentary showing secret footage of 10 Indian muftis “allegedly” taking bribes to issue religious edicts.

News agencies on the Internet were buzzing with news about the sensational “revelations,” which were dubbed by the Time Magazine website in partnership with CNN as the “Cash-for-Fatwas” scandal, an epithet perhaps coined from the “Cash-for-Questions” scandal that tarnished the image of the British Conservative party over a decade ago.

The Time Magazine wrote how “bribes, some of which were as low as $60, were offered by undercover reporters wearing hidden cameras over a period of six weeks. In return for the cash, the muftis appear to hand out fatwas written in Urdu...on subjects requested by the reporters.”

With an aim to unmask “the ugly face of corruption, whatever the stakes,” an investigative team led by Jamshed Khan, a little known and seemingly opportunist journalist, investigated muftis across north India. The group made the ridiculous discovery that muftis — who incidentally represent Islam, a religion Muslims the world over believe to be a ‘complete way of life’ — provide their flock with religious rulings on just about all of the topics that affect people in their daily lives.

In a nutshell the program made two allegations. Firstly, it claimed that it had made a “startling discovery that fatwas... cannot only be easily bought but made-to-order,” and secondly that muftis accept bribes for this.

After the program was shown on television, Indian Muslims came out in force accusing the makers of the program of twisting fatwas and misleading viewers by distorting footage to make it appear that decrees had been issued in exchange of money.

Dealing with the issue of whether the fatwas were “made-to-order” and contrary to classic Islamic scholarship, a leading Shariah-expert from the UK explained how all of the rulings listed in the report could easily “be positioned somewhere on the wide spectrum of differing opinion among scholars on peripheral issues,” and hence casting doubt on the claim that rulings were made-to-order and influenced by unscrupulous motives.

In fact many Muslims are wondering why the journalists bothered spending so much money. “The thing that baffles me is the fact that these rulings have been mentioned by so many other muftis before, they aren’t new. They can easily be found in fatwa compilations published 25 years ago and are available on the Internet,” said Muhammad Akram from Great Britain.

Among “corrupt” muftis identified was a certain Mufti Habibur Rahman from Darul Uloom Deoband — one of India’s leading Islamic universities. Rahman is alleged to have taken a bribe to issue a fatwa saying that the usage of credit cards was impermissible. Subsequently the mufti was suspended from his post and an investigative committee was set up by the seminary to look into the allegations.

Following investigations, Maulana Marghubur Rahman, the rector of Darul Uloom Deoband, issued a statement in which he reinstated the mufti and described the allegations as part of an “organized conspiracy.” He also said that the “fatwa issued by the mufti was in accordance to Shariah,” adding that original text of the fatwa “as presented by Star News had been tampered with.”

Muslim know that according to Islamic jurisprudence, the usage of credit cards is permissible but can ultimately become impermissible if the user was to fall behind in his payments and incur interest, which is inherently forbidden in Islam. This is a legal understanding of Islamic law that the Benaqaab team seems to have grossly misrepresented.

Speaking about the tampering Maulana Khalil Qasmi, a graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband, said, “The fatwa was not only misinterpreted and shown out of context, but was also literally changed. Mufti sahib wrote, as the archive register in the seminary’s fatwa department shows, ‘in itself the usage of credit cards is permissible,’ this was changed by the journalists to ‘impermissible.’” Subsequently, the fatwa was misread on television.

On the issue of whether bribes were taken by the muftis, Maulana Marghubur Rahman said, “The investigative committee’s report said that nowhere in the footage does it show Mufti Habibur Rahman taking money from the person asking the fatwa. The money that featured in the footage was money that had arrived at the same time in lieu of some books of his that he had left at a bookshop to sell. This was the money that Mufti Habibur Rahman was shown placing in his bag.”

Interestingly, the rector of the Darul Uloom highlights some more discrepancies in the report, “This incident took place at 10.30 a.m., a time when there is no call to prayer. However, in the footage shown on television, the sound of the Muslim call to prayer had been added and the mufti’s refusal to accept money was made inaudible.”

He continued, “The investigative committee’s report also added that the person who was with the Star News reporter asking for a fatwa — a man by the name of Muhammad Imran — has himself said that the Mufti had not accepted any money.” Darul Uloom Deoband is presently consulting lawyers to prepare a judicial case against Star TV.

As news of the “scandal” broke, Yoginder Sikand — an Indian academic who specializes in comparative religions — translated rebuttals of the allegations issued by senior Indian scholars in the Delhi-based Urdu Rashtriya Sahara, the most widely read Urdu newspaper in north India.

A statement issued by the Islamic Fiqh Academy in New Delhi denied the allegations of “muftis receiving bribes to issue fatwas.” It further contends that the journalists who had asked for the fatwas “had insisted that the muftis take the money as a gift or as a donation for their madrasas after the fatwas were delivered.”

“This part of their conversation between the muftis and the individuals who had requested for fatwas...was removed from the television program,” the statement continued.

Similarly, scholars from the Jamia Arabia Khadimul Islam said that reports that muftis from that institute had taken money was “false.” The rebuttal added that “the muftis delivered their opinions... in writing. After this...the two men tried to offer them money as a gift. The muftis declined to accept this money as a payment for the fatwas.”

However, after repeatedly insisting the two muftis took the money and deposited it with the institute they represented and issued receipts.

Likewise, Riyaz Nadvi, secretary of the Uttar Pradesh Dini Talimi Council and leader of the Milli Council, issued a similar statement in the same newspaper.

Sikand wrote, “Nadvi argues that, generally, muftis do not accept money for delivering fatwas because they consider it their religious duty to answer queries related to Islam and Islamic jurisprudence. Yet...if a mufti does accept some payment for a fatwa that he gives there is nothing wrong with that, provided his opinion is based on the Qur’an, Hadith and the rules of Islamic jurisprudence.”

Discussing the issue, Ghulam Muhammad from the Bombay-based think-tank Idraak, said, “Rewarding the mufti with a gift of cash as a gesture of appreciation and capturing the whole sequence on secret web-camera and presenting it to millions of viewers as a bribe to the the grossest misrepresentation of fact.”

Muhammad added that the camera “blurs the conversation” and so the muftis cannot be accused of taking a bribe to give a wrong fatwa.

Finishing his statement Marghubur Rahman interestingly mentions an ongoing court case filed against the concept of Ifta (the issuance of fatwa) at India’s Supreme Court.

“Darul Uloom Deoband has been made the defendant and a demand has been made to close the Fatwa Department and the teaching of Ifta. The case is soon to be heard, the above mentioned plan (referring to the sting-operation) is merely an attempt to influence the case,” he said.

What Maulana Marghubur Rahman alludes to could possibly be true. British Muslims have had their fair share of exclusives as Murdoch newspapers in the UK — notably the Sun, the News of the World and the Times — write about sting operations showing Muslims in a negative light.

For countless years, in spite of protests from level-minded Muslims, the Murdoch propaganda machine has actively vilified British Muslims by presenting the views of obscure and previously little-known “so-called” imams such as Abu Hamza Al-Masri and Omar Bakri Muhammad, the head of the now defunct Al-Muhajiroun group.

By giving these monsters the chance to air their views the media has been instrumental in raising their profiles and thus breathing into their lifeless views a breath of life. They and countless others have served the Blairite government well and have been instrumental in the Labor government justifying its draconian anti-terrorist laws in the UK, laws that have only served to victimize an already disenchanted British Muslim community.

It may be the case that the pro-Israeli Murdoch-owned Star TV is attempting to influence politics in India — a growing economic world superpower. The unethical investigative journalism practiced by Jamshed Khan echoes that of the British News of the World’s investigative reporter Mazhar Mahmood.

Rupert Murdoch once said, “My ventures in media are not as important to me as spreading my personal political beliefs,” a quote that truly epitomizes his personal beliefs. It is only in the best interests of Muslims and Islam if we were to understand the challenges of the media.