Between Integration and Segregation: Interview with Lord Ahmed

ImageLord Nazir Ahmed, member of the House of Lords, the first Muslim life peer of the United Kingdom is known for his political activities related to the Islamic community both in the UK and abroad as well as being a member of the Labour Party until 2009. Born in 1958 in Mirpur, Lord Ahmed's family migrated to the UK soon after his birth. He attended Spurley Hey Comprehensive School, then Thomas Rotherdam Sixth Form College and studied Public Administration at Sheffield Hallam University. Lord Ahmed answered the questions of as he makes important remarks about Islamophobia and the future of Muslims in the Western world.

First I would like to start by asking you about the situation of Islamophobia in England, because Muslims have been there much longer than in any other European countries. And how are people reacting to these current problems that they are facing in the media?

Ok, let me first say that the website that you have created is a very important work. I know that Saudi Arabia has a project which is about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and I hosted an event in the House of Lords for that, so anything right now that can not only explain something about Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad, as well as giving information and also challenging some of the myths that have been deliberately created, whether it is in terms of the Prophet's teachings, or his personal life and in particular the derogative  remarks which are taken out of context, and about his personal life with his wives, Aisha and the others. So it is very important for anyone to create either a website or a journal, or some kind of academic study which gives all the answers to these questions. The most important question you have asked in relation to Islamophobia in Britain; well in Britain, there has always been racism which is within the society, whether it was anti Jewish or anti-Semitism during the 1930s and 1940s, whether it is the racism against the traveler communities, the gypsies and so on. Fortunately, all that has become illegal but in the modern form of racism is Islamophobia, the anti-Muslim feelings which in many ways is allowed. I read a text and it's very interesting, so I'll read it to you; it says that if you talk against any old person it is ageism, if you talk against women it is sexism, if you talk about gays it is homophobia, and if you talk about the Jews or all other communities, it is anti-semitism, but if you talk against the Prophet Muhammad, then it is freedom of speech. Muslims have become the underdog if you like, in Western society. Some of it is probably our own fault, we have very small ‘extreme' groups who do not do justice to Muslims and Islam, because everything they do which is stupid, they will use it and say my religion allows me to do that. Now that is not Islam obviously, because they say ‘this is Darul-Harb' so in Darul-Harb you can do anything and get away with it. In my opinion, that is not true, that is criminal. For example, in the Muslim community in Britain, there are those who have reached the Houses of Parliament, and the Houses of Commons, but on the other hand we are three percent of the British public Muslims, and yet we represent eleven percent in prisons. That is because of drugs, theft, robbery, armed robbery and prostitution, and sadly, because of the non-direction of the from the Muslim leadership. Whilst we have two million Muslims, and we have 1400 mosques, most of the Indian sub-continent imams have concentrated more on the spiritual side, but left the ethical and moral side of the teachings of Islam, and also the general teachings of the way of life of the Prophet Muhammad, that he participated fully in the society. Even at the age of seventeen-eighteen in Hilful Fudhul, he brought the people of the Arabian Peninsula to bring peace for the sake of justice, humanity and fairness, and these were not Muslims, because at that time Islam had not been declared. But today, because of those unfortunate things, it gives an excuse to the racists, the fascists and right wing media to attack Islam and that particular community. For instance we had a member of parliament who happened to be from the Muslim faith, he did something wrong, he over claimed his expenses in parliament, and when the authorities asked him for rental receipts, he said, "my landlord does not give receipts because he is a Muslim." Now what has Islam got to do with receipts? Sometimes people will do things like, if the beat up their wife, or force somebody into marriage which is a fine example, this is nothing to do with Islam, it is an Indian sub-continents tradition, some Turks do it but mainly it is Indian, whether it's Hindus, Sikhs or Muslims, and it's Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. And whilst they have this old tradition that they follow, they misinterpret it and say "my Islam says you have to marry your cousin, you have to marry your cousin on your mother's side, or my nephew because I am your head, and as the head of the family I can tell you anything." So because sometimes they misinterpret, it gives other people the excuse to attack Islam, and the traditions. Like for instance, the tribal system of Afghanistan, or Hadhramaut in the mountains of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Those traditions are very much confused with religion. When I describe Islam, and I want my friends to describe Islam, somebody said to me, Islam is like a beautiful river, that when it flows through different countries, it picks up the colour of the stone, and it looks like that. So in Turkey, Islam is very much like you, but when you go to Saudi Arabia, you will have a different form of dress, if you go to Malaysia, you have a different form of dress. So people have to explain that some of the traditions are their own cultural traditions rather than Islamic traditions. And once we can do that, I think we can take on those who are simply attacking Islam for the sake of it.

That if you talk against any old person it is ageism, if you talk against women it is sexism, if you talk about gays it is homophobia, and if you talk about the Jews or all other communities, it is anti-semitism, but if you talk against the Prophet Muhammad, then it is freedom of speech.

What about Muslims in Britain?

Generally speaking, I would say that Muslims in Britain are well place, much better than any other European country that I know, because eleven or twelve years ago, when I was appointed in the House of Lords, I had the honour of leading the first Muslim delegation for Hajj on behalf of the government. And we still remain the only country that takes people ‘officially' paid by the government. A group of doctors and people go to Mina, Muzalifah, and Arafat with our officials, and we look after our Hujjaj. I don't recommend that you go to prison, but if you go to any prison in Britain, you will have Halal food, and you will have a masjid inside the prison. So you have a masjid in the London Heathrow airport, as well as the local police station, or the local hospital. So we have those things, and what we really need to do is also reach out intellectually, and your website does help.

You said that there are extremists in England, it seems that whenever I go to England, women wearing the burka or the face veil has increased, is that a sign of extremism or is it a reaction to 9/11? And how does it affect the ordinary English person?

There are three things, one is that it is because of an identity crisis and asserting your own identity as British, as Muslim and different. Of course 9/11 increased this, of course Islamophobia increased this because where there is action, there's a reaction so people react. How does it affect the British society? Generally speaking people don't mind, and sixty percent of the people think, well if they want to cover themselves that's fine. I think the real issue is, do we need women with niqab as immigration officers or police officers? Because these girls are saying we want to be in the mainstream jobs, but we want to wear the niqab. That I think is wrong, because if you want to wear the niqab, you stay at home. I don't think the British society has any problem with the hijab, because I think every job demands certain rights and responsibilities. If you want to be a police officer, you will have to arrest someone, you may have to resuscitate someone because that is part of the job. Also if I am talking to someone, I want to be able to see them, to have an eye contact so I can speak.

But aren't there some risks at this point: burka also has cultural background depending on the region where people live. Doesn't this recall a cultural right as well as a religious right?

Even if it is a cultural thing, then go back to your mountains, I am sorry but Britain is not your place. If you want to live in Britain, you cannot choose a place and choose your own rules. I am British, I am a Muslim, I am very happy and proud to be a Muslim. On the other hand, it is also because it is fashionable to attack Muslims; it becomes popular to attack Islam. When Sarkozy talked about the burka, he did it because his own position in public opinion is so low. You don't have more than two thousand Afghan women living in the whole of France, and it is only asylum seekers who are there. So the idea of attacking the burka was attacking Islam, what is the most populist thing to do. So sometimes you have media, and mischievous politicians in the West, who jump on the bandwagon to gain popularity by attacking Islam.

In Turkey now for years there has been a huge debate going on about public space, and so  what is a public space? Some people say that buses are a public space, or hospitals are a public space, and now it seems that in France, Belgium and Italy with the burka ban, the nikaab ban that this discussion is more observed.

Islam is like a beautiful river, that when it flows through different countries, it picks up the colour of the stone, and it looks like that.

The Turkish debate is outrageous in my opinion, because hijab does not prevent people from having this communication. Hijab is not a security threat, if a woman wants to wear the hijab for religious, traditional, for whatever reason, she has the right to, and there should be no way of preventing anyone from wearing the hijab. Nobody has a problem as far as I am aware with the hijab in Britain, but in Europe they have, and we believe that they are wrong because they think it is a sign of political Islam. I don't think it is political Islam at all, I think it is a part of Islam, It's Islamic belief, it's a right that people have because it is not only Islamic, I know Christians in Pakistan that cover their heads when they go to church, I know Jews who cover their heads when they go to the synagogue in Israel and even in London. I know nuns who cover their heads, and I know our queen used to cover her head until twenty five- thirty years ago on a regular basis.

In Italy and Belgium, they actually fined people, a woman was fined 500 euro's for wearing the niqab on the street, and another woman was sentenced to jail for twelve days, and I think it is outrageous because they are saying that they are giving the freedom to women, but at the same time, rather than fining the husbands they are fining the women. And the French parliament took the new decision about the ban of burka and niqab on the streets...

Yes I think that they are going to fine the husbands of the women who say they wear the nikaab because of their husbands, then their husband goes to prison, but even that is outrageous. As I said to you, Sarkozy's remarks was based on anti-Muslim feelings because it is the populist thing to do. So it is a popular thing to prosecute a Muslim woman wearing the niqab. So that looks like being tough on Muslims, and tough on terrorism, that looks like being tough on other cultures. And it is a political symbolism from the right wing Europe basically, because they are trying to please the right wing Europe. So it is outrageous, I totally agree with you. These are all populist, anti-Muslims feelings which the right wing Europe always does when it comes into difficult economic situations.  Just go back to the Second World War and before, when there was this depression it was the Jews that got blamed. And that's why there were these types of feelings against the Jews that were rising and rising, until the Nazis decided to start burning them, and sending them to the gas chambers . Similarly, now the Muslims have become the Jews of the forties if you like.

So in the long term, do you think that all this process will end up with a new Europe, with a very different diversity, or will it end up with a very harsh prosecution of Muslims, with new ghettos all around?

I think we are going to see a situation where Muslims in Europe will participate in society fully. But I fear that there will be a section of Muslims in Europe who will be in ghettos.

I think we are going to see a situation where Muslims in Europe will participate in society fully. But I fear that there will be a section of Muslims in Europe who will be in ghettos. And the seeds have already been sewn. Outside Paris, you have hundreds of thousands of North Africans who are not integrated in the mainstream society, and there are no jobs, because of the areas in which they live, there has not been any economic activity, and economic degeneration. So what this results in, is that the education level goes down. When you have lower education attainments, and education achievements, then it is difficult to get equal jobs. Europe is already racist in general terms, against the Jews, against the gypsies and against the other races whether it is the Irish in Britain, or others in France and the rise of right wing groups in particularly what we saw in the European Parliamentary elections, is a sign of economic problems and decline. When there are economic problems in Europe, the finger is always pointed at the immigrants and the minorities, so therefore the demonization starts. Tolerating and embracing another religion, another colour, another culture is a very difficult thing. So it will take a very long time before we actually come across, and embrace that.

How was Geert Wilder's speech received at the parliament?

Geert Wilders' speech was not received by parliamentarians, it was a group of UKIP supporters, the right wing anti-Muslim Islamaphobes. There may have been two or three parliamentarians, but the image and impression that were given that he would be addressing the parliament as such, no. It was the anti-Nazi kind of movement, an anti-fascist movement that organized it, they were white Christians and an anti-fascist movement who held the demonstration outside parliament when he came, and there were more people demonstrating against him, and Muslims had nothing to do with it. My idea of stopping him from coming there was because one; the man is charged in his own country for stirring-up hatred against Muslims, and secondly that he does not enhance parliamentary work, it actually damages our British parliament and its stature because people around the world are concerned that this kind of thing is happening in British parliament, that you can have a fascist, or a right wing person coming into parliament and saying these kind of things, you are giving the impression that this is British parliament officially inviting somebody like him. And the third is that it creates hatred within the communities, and anything that is not conducive to our public good, should not be allowed to come into the country.

Tolerating and embracing another religion, another colour, another culture is a very difficult thing. So it will take a very long time before we actually come across, and embrace that.

So what should the reaction of the Muslims be towards people like Wilders? Should Muslims react, and maybe defend themselves or stay more cool?

Cool, yes I like that. I actually protested legally to the House authorities. When the House authorities told me that they would not stop him from coming, and that they would allow this meeting to go ahead, a lot of people came to me and said should we protest, and I said no, ignore it. Now if it is legal, ignore them, because in our society there are nutters, there are fascists, there extremes from all groups. One thing for sure in the whole of Europe, in Belgium, in Switzerland, in France, the masses in Europe are not anti-Muslim, or anti-Islam, they are just good citizens who really want to live in peace, and live with everyone else. It is the minority, what you saw in Switzerland, the debate about the minarets was not a debate about Islam or minarets, it was a debate about Libya, and the Libyan leader challenging the Swiss authorities, and disallowing their citizens from going there. It is very unfortunate that it took a u-turn, we don't get to know this until you go to Switzerland and say well what is your problem? And they say we have a problem with Gadaffi, and I say well, since when has he been my hero? Since when has he been the grand Mufti of the Muslim Ummah? The problem was that he has a case, I think what started it was that they arrested his son or something, and there was something to do with his family, they stopped his visa, he rejected all the Swiss from Switzerland, and he tried to withdraw all his money, so it just blew up an argument between the two countries. In the meantime, there is this anti- Arab, anti- Muslim feeling growing and brewing up against Gadaffi and Libya, so they turned on all the Muslims in the country, and sometimes this does happen.

As for Dr. Aafia, you wrote a letter to Obama, have you had a response yet?

No, we haven't had a response yet, but Dr. Aafia Siddiqui's case is very important, it is important for Obama, and it is important for us. Firstly, I believe that Dr, Aafia is innocent, I do not believe that there is any evidence against her for being involved in terrorism, I do not believe that she tried to shoot a soldier, I think that this is all fabricated because she was arrested, and for five years she disappeared. She was kept in custody by the Americans; she was kept under a rule that was actually illegal, the way they did it because the abuse deepens. For whatever reason, whether she married someone who was in Al-qaeda, or whether they thought that she married someone who was in Al-qaeda, or because she was fundraising for the Bosnians in the United States, in Boston. There was a reason why they arrested her, and then once they had arrested her, they could not release her because they are not supposed to take women to Kandahar, because they told lies all the time and denied it, she was sexually, mentally and physically abused. So there was even a bigger issue that she gets released, the media will get to know, the American, the British people, and the Europeans who are, in the masses nice people, if they got to know they would be horrified at what their governments are doing. So there was this issue, until I raised this question in the House of Lords, and with the American authorities. So they brought her to the United States, and suddenly in panic they brought up this idea that she tried to shoot five soldiers. A five foot woman, who looks so sad and mentally unwell could not possibly attack six feet soldiers, and pick up a gun that is so heavy. Now they brought her and charged her, Obama doesn't know this; all Obama knows is that there is a woman who has been brought to a civilian court. He has a dilemma that he promised to bring everybody out of Guantanamo Bay and into a civilian court. The first case, because of Nazir Ahmed and the others, Yvonne Ridley who had brought this case to New York in the civilian court is Aafia Siddiqui's. Now if they don't get a conviction in this case, then Obama is seen as soft on terrorism, and soft on crime. So he, and his administration has to make sure that somehow she has to be convicted, and be sentenced to prison. If they don't, the whole philosophy of this war on terror, tough on terrorism will fail. 

If they don’t get a conviction in this case, then Obama is seen as soft on terrorism, and soft on crime

So the idea of war on terrorism will go on under Obama's administration?

It is going on, it's a cover, a softer cover. Because when he first signed the first order of closing down, he backed down on it. Then he said that he would do civilian courts, he backed down on it. His speech on the 4th of July in Cairo, it was beautiful, but most of what he said has been reversed now. Because the right wing republicans put so much pressure on him. And American democracy is very fragile when it comes to elections, they do everything for public opinion and who runs public opinion? Mr. Murdoch, and who is Mr. Murdoch, if you Google him you will find his links, write to the Zionist lobbies and Israel. Who runs Fox TV, who runs Sky TV, who runs the Times, who runs The Sun, who runs the News of the World? Who runs the massive media stuff in the United States? Then there is a lobby, an agenda that actually pursues some of the policies.

So why can Muslims get lobbied in the West, like the Zionists.

Because unfortunately the Muslims are Muslims by name, the Saudi's make a billion Dollars a day from the sale of crude oil, and that goes into American banks on Sud or Riba. Every Muslim country does it, and the individuals, very few reject it. They fear losing power, they are weak, don't look at their Sheikdoms and Kingdoms, don't look at their glorious gowns. I can criticize the American policies, but they would never dare do that. Most of their rulers will not allow this, because they cannot afford to upset the West. I go to the GCC countries, and once when I was talking about Gaza, a woman of the ruling classes said ‘I worry so much about the Israelis; they are under fear all the time from the Gazans.' What! In Cairo, when I asked why he was building a thirty five foot wall underground, the speaker of the Egyptian parliament said to me that there were drugs and arms coming into Egypt from Gaza. I said they cannot even buy dried milk for their children, they cannot feed themselves, how can they grow drugs? I have been to Gaza, and I didn't see any drugs. If they had guns they would fire them at the Israelis.


Is that why Mr. Erdoğan's opposition to Peres had such an influence?

Erdoğan is a great leader, and what he did was a natural move by any Muslim leader, or any Muslim person or any just person, don't even say Muslim, any just human being who knows the suffering of the Palestinians, I know because I go to Gaza. When Erdoğan walked out, you will get the right wing lobby in Turkey who will criticize him for what he did, but I think overall in the world, great masses of European people admired what he did, not the Muslims, and not the Christians, the Europeans whoever they are. They admired what he did because he stood for justice. What Israel is doing to the Palestinians, is what the whites did in South Africa, and if people in the world were disgusted with what was going on in South Africa, then they should be disgusted with Israel and with what is going on with the Palestinian people today.

Were you with Free Gaza?

Yes, free Gaza, but it was parliamentary. Our boat was intercepted by the Israeli gunship, it came right across, intimidated us and shot across, this was at sunrise.



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