What’s happened since the Charlie Hebdo attacks?

Journalist & comedienne Shaista Aziz presents “A Nation Divided? The Charlie Hebdo Aftermath” on BBC3 tonight at 9pm

When 11 journalists from the controversial French magazine Charlie Hebdo were shot dead in January this year, for cartoons that blasphemed the Prophet Muhammed, it rocked the world. At the time, I commented that it was watershed moment, much like the 9/11 attacks. The rise in Islamaphobia that we’ve seen since 9/11 has intensified, with different groups feeling a ripple effect.

In a documentary to air tonight on BBC 3 “A Nation Divided? The Charlie Hebdo Aftermath”, journalist and comedian Shaista Aziz travels to France to explore what life has been like there for Muslims since the attacks earlier this year.

Shaista spoke exclusively to me about her experience.

“I wanted to explore what was really behind the Je Suis Charlie hashtag. At first when people aligned themselves to this, it was very much in favour of free speech. But it became a tag that really divided people. In making this film, I wanted to deconstruct what that was about, and what life has been like since the attacks”

What she found, in some cases, was startling.

“Some French Muslims have felt like they have been rejected by mainstream France. They say they have been forced, in some cases, to disown the French part of their identity. They are Muslims- but not French Muslims. The concept of “country of origin” has become a real issue. Second generation immigrants are not considered French so instead they identify with the faith or the heritage of their parents- because some sections of France won’t accept them.”

“In a country where secularism is the cornerstone, and is there to protect minorities, we’re actually seeing the rise of religious discrimination; with many being pushed away from mainstream society. One young man said he ‘felt locked out’ of France ‘with the key thrown away’.”

“One woman I spoke to, (who doesn’t wear the hijab), says she is unable to find a job because of her Arab name despite being highly educated and well qualified. She changed her name on her CV to a French one and the job interviews started pouring in.”

“Sadly, women face the brunt of discrimination. Because France believes religion should not be visible in public life, the hijab is banned from government offices, public buildings and schools. Therefore women who do wear the hijab elsewhere– particularly in the poorer, more racially diverse suburbs suffer discrimination because they wear a visible religious symbol in a secular state. For example, one girl I spoke to has been excluded from school for four years now because she refuses to give up her headscarf- she is missing out on an education.”

“Ultimately, there are two key issues at work in this debate: identity and race. Identity has become a hotly contested issue in French society, with issues around race- and secularism underpinning it.”

I asked Shaista how the events in Paris back in January might have impacted British Asians.

“There are different factors at work in the UK which that mean life is different for us here. British Muslims in the UK are better integrated into society, compared to those I met in France. Secularism has caused deep issues in France that we are not seeing here- France certainly has some fault lines that need mending. However the general narrative around Islamaphobia and the negativity around Muslims is seeping into the consciousness here. People are sick of hearing about Muslims in the news constantly- I know I am!

As a result, we are starting to see more visible inter-racism amongst Asians. Of course this will have an impact on the British Asian community, going forward.”

“A Nation Divided: The Charlie Hebdo Aftermath” will be shown tonight, at 9pm on BBC3

Muslims must respond to extremists in their midst

Since 9/11, the Muslim community have been distancing themselves from the actions of militant Islamist groups and terrorists. They are dismissed as isolated groups who are acting on their own agenda or own interpretation of Islam, and it is always claimed they are not representative of Islam.

It’s clear that today, there are several different interpretations of Islam amongst its own followers. There are moderate Muslims, Muslims who say Islam is a religion of peace, militant Muslims, Jihadists… amongst others. All pray to Allah but all choose to focus on a different emphasis.

And likewise, there are any number of terrorist organisations and networks each acting in the name of Islam but addressing their own issue. Whether that’s Western education, British or US foreign policy or the war in Gaza…and probably more. We don’t know how many more there are. But it’s becoming obvious that this minority are creeping forward to become more than just a few.

Whilst the West needs to continue its response, it’s so vital that the Muslim community addresses where these radicalised individuals continue to come from- without saying they are nothing to do with Muslims or Islam. They are coming from within their ranks. The next generation of Muslims are watching wide-eyed as their religion and identity is being dragged through the mud by the likes of offensive cartoons. And the daily diet of news stories like the ongoing killing of Muslims in Gaza.  What’s causing young Muslim men and women to become radicalised? Are they simply disillusioned, disaffected individuals as the press like to say; or is it Israel’s treatment of Palestinians? Is it Britain and the US aligning themselves with Israel? How about the current backlash against extremism?

Are you really Charlie?

And let’s just talk for a moment about the current backlash- Western Europe’s response to last week’s attacks. There is a lot of blatant hypocrisy going on. Yes it is right and imperative to condemn the attacks. It was a brutal, positively barbaric and unnecessary act.

But declaring “Je Suis Charlie” was one step further. Really? You are a racist, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, homophobic, (plus other labels- there are too many minority groups that they’ve offended) publication?

It started as support for freedom of speech. But in the eyes of many, consciously or not, this has been an aligning with Islamaphobia. Indeed today Medhi Hasan political director of the Huffington Post UK, himself a Muslim, said he didn’t want to ‘be’ Charlie- given what it stands for.

Sadly though, the terms have been set. Alliances have been drawn and it’s been like an open statement to the Muslim world: we are with Charlie.

How will Muslims respond?

We can only watch and see what the true cost of all this will be. Will this response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and France in its declaration that they are Charlie Hebdo, become another Israel- another perceived enemy of Islam and Muslims?

It’s important that the Muslim community don’t make it into one. The Muslim response at this time needs to be measured and carefully worded. They must deal carefully with vulnerable ears that are listening to an older generation, potentially speaking hatred towards Western Europe. The anti-Israel sentiment is already there. I don’t believe they can afford to further stoke those fires by adding another “enemy” of Islam.

Is it right for Charlie Hebdo to cause such offence?

What happened in Paris last week has changed us all. It’s felt like another 9/11- thankfully not in levels of destruction, but in that it’s been a real watershed moment. It’s made us all stop and think about our rights and actually how free we are in today’s world. Are we free to express ourselves? Are we free to write what we really think? How free are we to ‘live’ in today’s multicultural, multi-faith society?

The staff at Charlie Hebdo felt that it was their right, and that they had the freedom to produce satirical cartoons about the Prophet (and for that matter, black people, gay people, women, Catholics and many other minority groups). Ultimately they paid for it with their lives.

Last week, I read article after article talking about freedom of speech. “It’s our democratic right.” “Uphold it at all costs.” “They will never silence us” were some of the sentiments.

As a blogger and a writer I get that. We all want to be heard, and some of us shout louder than others. But have we ever really been free to speak? Hasn’t there always been a cost? Online trolling has become a vicious part of 21st century life, with any number of people and groups receiving abuse on a daily basis, and even death threats for speaking up on their given cause.

My Muslim friends have been not only shocked and saddened by the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo journalists, but they’ve also been outraged by the cartoons of their Prophet. But they’re not allowed to publicly say that, because they’ll be labelled as extremists and terrorists- they are themselves not free to speak. (And however you feel about that kind of response to the cartoons themselves is not the point. By saying someone should have freedom of speech doesn’t mean that you have to agree with what they’re saying.)

So it seems that freedom of speech comes with this caveat: if you have something that you feel is worth saying, that absolutely must be heard, then there just might be a price to pay.

Will that thought curb what we say in the future? Will the Paris attacks make us a little less bold? I hope not because it’s important that we continue to add different voices and opinions to the melting pot, because otherwise we tread dangerously into some kind of communist state media.

But in the wake of last week’s terrible attacks, how about we try to be a little more respectful of each other’s views? One editor I worked with- a black man, said today on his Facebook page: yes freedom of speech, but what about being sensitive and respectful of others? And I totally agree with him. Yes I know, that sounds idealistic, even naiive and childish. But don’t we all have the right, not to see something we hold sacred, denigrated and publically trashed? If nothing else, can we learn to be more tolerant of each other? Muslims believe that to depict their Prophet, let alone mock him is a serious offense. It’s an offense to them, as well as to their God, they believe. So why do we have to tear down what’s precious to them, just for the sake of free speech? So once again, yes freedom of speech, but can we be a little bit wiser in what we say?

One commentator in today’s Guardian put it like this:

“All societies draw lines, that are…constantly shifting and continually debated, about what constitutes acceptable standards of public discourse when it comes to cultural, racial and religious sensitivities.”

As we now dust ourselves off from the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders and try to make sense of it all, perhaps it’s time that our society think about where the lines of acceptable public speech lies. It can be the only useful thing that comes from this awful atrocity.

Tomorrow: Charlie Hebdo response part 2: Muslims must respond

Should Asians celebrate Christmas?


christmas garland2

I’ve yet to see an English or Western family get really caught up celebrating Eid or Diwali, not even ex-pats who live in India, Pakistan etc. I mean really going all out with the big family meal, presents, decorations and all of the anticipation that comes with it. And yet I know many Asian families who get really carried away with Christmas. And these are devout people who celebrate their own religious festivals at the appropriate times and attend places of worship regularly. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with them celebrating Christmas if they choose to. But as someone I know recently asked, why are Asians celebrating Christmas if they are not Christian?

Ok well the obvious answer is how commercial Christmas has become. With that, it’s become much more accessible too. To the non-Christian world, Christmas is no longer a Christian festival. Most people have bought into the Coca-Cola version of Christmas and any real Christian meaning is put aside. It’s kind of a pick and mix thing: it’s choosing to celebrate the aspects of Christmas that have mass or secular appeal like family, gift-giving, decorations and parties without any of the spiritual meaning.

And it’s fair to say that people everywhere- not just Asians- now celebrate this kind of self-styled Christmas, rather than the Christian holy day that is Christmas.

But it’s when one considers how important religion, religious festivals and religious identity is to most Asians, that it seems contradictory that we would engage in any way with this Christian occasion. Writer and political commentator Sunny Hundal recently described himself as a ‘cultural Sikh’. So for those who see religion as a matter of culture and tradition rather than one of spiritual conviction, I can see that there is no conflict in celebrating Christmas in any form. What’s more, for those of the Eastern religions that believe all paths lead to God, there won’t be an issue.

Indeed, a Hindu friend I was talking to recently was telling me that in their household, Christmas is bigger than Diwali. They have a big family do, complete with turkey, presents and decorations. They whole-heartedly embrace the occasion and don’t have a problem either way that the day marks the birth of Jesus.

Certainly my Muslim friends are not as relaxed on the subject. Many of them won’t have a Christmas tree in the house or even give cards that say “Merry Christmas” on them, opting instead for those that say “Seasons Greetings”; or in keeping with the increasing Americanisation of our society, Happy Holidays. For them, taking Christ out of Christmas really works, because they can still be a part of the festivities, without feeling they have betrayed their religious beliefs in any way. They still have a meal together but argue that this is simply because everyone’s off work and school. I’m not sure I buy that reasoning but there you go.

In the end, it all comes down to personal choice and what works for you and your family. You won’t find any judgement from me! I get that Christmas means different things to different people, whether you choose to embrace it or not. I think if it’s a chance for families to get together, enjoy some good food and hopefully spend some quality time together then Christmas can’t be a bad thing. And if it’s not for you I respect your conviction in taking a stance for what you do believe in.

Either way, I hope the festive season brings some joy your way.

So, Merry Christmas, Seasons Greetings, Shub Naya Baras, Happy Holidays, Feliz Navidad, to you all!


Love British Asian Woman x

Is this the end of interfaith marriage?

Closeup of holding hands of stylish wedding couple. Mixed race.

It would be easy to think that the British Asian community is becoming more open to the idea of interfaith and mixed race marriages. We’ve all seen the photos on Facebook of a couple doing the ‘dual ceremony thing’: the Indian wedding where one white face is wearing the traditional Indian wedding- getup amongst a sea of Asian family; and conversely, the civil or Church ceremony performed for the English side of the family.

The sad truth though is that young British Asians choosing to marry outside of the community are facing a renewed backlash- and it would seem that the subject is still as taboo as ever amongst Asians. In particular, religious hardliners and religious leaders are taking a stand against interfaith couples who want to have a religious wedding ceremony.

The most notable occurrence of this has been within the British Sikh community. Hardline Sikh groups are vehemently opposing Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) performing the traditional marriage ceremony known as the anand karaj unless the couple are both Sikhs. Protestors have even gone to the lengths of barricading themselves inside Gurdwaras to stop ceremonies taking place, and the homes of inter-faith couples have been attacked. Victims of these attacks have been too afraid to speak to the media for fear of further reprisals.  In response, the Sikh Council UK has just published guidelines for Gurdwaras, reiterating that the anand karaj is strictly reserved for two practising Sikhs.

This new wave of violent persecution amongst British Sikhs is a relatively new phenomenon. But elsewhere in the community British Asians are familiar with the barriers that an inter-faith couple faces: Islam has strict religious laws on marrying outside of the faith, as have some sections of Christianity. Couples who do go down this road face excommunication and often live in isolation of their Asian family.

Certainly in the case of the Sikh community, extremists are arguing that a religious wedding ceremony is null and void unless the faith is shared by the couple. If that’s true, does that mean that the union itself is not legitimate in the eyes of the faith? Would the couple be welcome in the place of worship- or would the ‘believing’ partner be expected to worship there alone? What about when children are born- how would the couple raise them within the faith if religious leaders apparently don’t recognise the marriage in the first place?

Traditionally within our culture, marriage has been a union which preserves wealth, status, where relevant caste, and of course religious identity. With many British Asians now choosing to marry outside of these bounds, extremists are arguing that these elements of our culture are being eroded, even destroyed.  How long will an inter-faith couple persevere with religion if all they get is judgement from the community?

One of two things could happen here: either young British Asians will choose love over faith and move away from religion altogether- which clearly religious leaders don’t want; or they will reject mixed marriages for the sake of their religion and to maintain links within the community and family.

The latter scenario isn’t as unlikely as you might think. Dating sites exclusive to individual religions are swiftly gaining in popularity. Many young Asian daters are becoming more specific in wanting to meet someone from within their own religion.

Sharn Khaira founded the online dating site Indian Connect for this very reason. The site is targeted exclusively at Sikhs and Hindus with an empathy for traditional marriage and culture. It is also carefully monitored to ensure only people living in UK can join. The site clocked up more 30,000 paid subscribers in less than a year. Sharn says: “I’m starting to see young British Asians move away from interfaith marriage because of the heartache and potential damage it can cause to families, not to mention the wider Asian community in their local area. So many now want to keep their culture and heritage in-tact”

I think it will take a generation before we really see the working-out of the issues involved in interfaith marriage. But I do believe where many before used the new found freedom in society at large to marry outside of traditional bounds, others are now holding back as they look at the repercussions.

Or will it be a case of love triumphing over religion and culture? It’s an aspect of our community that is worth watching to find out.


You might also like “Are interfaith marriages a mission impossible?”

It’s time to stop being suspicious of all British Muslims


This weekend, Muslim families around the world will be celebrating Eid Al Adha. There’ll be prayers, celebratory meals, presents, visiting of friends and family. Sounds pretty normal doesn’t it?

Newsflash: the Muslim community is pretty normal. Despite the talk of extremism, ISIS and air strikes, amidst the climate of suspicion and fear around them, Muslim life goes on. People go to work, raise children, go to the gym, send texts messages, check Facebook- all the things that everyone else does. Isn’t time we start remembering that? Every discussion, every headline around the Muslim community has the word “extremism” in it. Every US cop show from 24 to Blue Bloods has at one time included a story line on Al Queda and Islamic extremists. There are many who would say “there’s a reason for that”, the whole no fire without smoke thing. But all the while, Muslims all over the place are screaming at the top of their lungs “we are not all terrorists”.

The backlash to this from the Muslim community has of course been seen on Twitter and elsewhere. The #notinmyname hashtag sought to disassociate the Muslim community from terrorism and extremism, while #makingastand saw British Muslim mums doing just that against “bedroom radicalisation” of sons and daughters and “jihadi wives”. Many British Muslim teenage girls are upset over their ‘Muslim sisters’ being sucked into extremism saying they’re “sick to death of it”. Moreover, according to an article in the Telegraph, there are those who even question the mindset behind their actions: why give up the freedoms and opportunities of the West to live as an appendage to a Jihadist, they ask.

And it’s that mindset that is exactly the point. Many in the Muslim community don’t even identify with the desire to become radicalised, let alone wanting to follow in their footsteps.

Isn’t it time we start seeing British Muslims without all the suspicion? Clearly no one denies the existence of radical and militant Islamist groups like ISIS, Al Quaeda and Boko Haram. We can’t be naiive about them and simply say they are just a select minority, because they do seem to be having an impact on the wider community, with girls as young as 15 and 16 being drawn into become jihadi brides, and countless young Muslim men and boys signing up.

But for all those who are travelling to Syria and Pakistan and elsewhere to join the extremist movement, there are tens of thousands of other Muslims who live everyday normal lives like you and I.

And truth be told, it’s not just the West who view Muslims with suspicion and even contempt. There’s inter-racism within the South Asian community too. I’m not talking just about historic conflicts. Post 9/11 has been a difficult time for all Asians, with various sections of our community at one time or another being targets for ignorant racists- those idiots who think any brown skinned person carrying a backpack or wearing a long coat must be concealing a bomb. But we have to get over our prejudice and stand united as a community, as far as we can, because otherwise are simply isolating the Muslim community even further.

So this weekend, greet your Muslim neighbour, colleague, friend and say Eid Mubarak to them. Shake their hands, accept their gifts and remember that we live in a volatile world, in difficult times. It would be refreshing for just one day to forget our differences and remember that we are all human.

Sikh chic and hijab style: when fashion meets faith

Vogue called him “all brooding good looks” while the Guardian noted that he “aims to put Sikh chic on the map”. Photographer, blogger, now model Pardeep Singh Bahra has been causing a bit of a stir.

Bahra’s photography blog “Singh Street Style” started life simply capturing Sikh men who combine a unique fashion sense- tailored jackets, skinny jeans, printed t-shirts, coloured socks with that iconic Sikh symbol ,the turban. Since the blog’s launch last year, Bahra’s photography and keen eye for men’s fashion has got him noticed by mainstream fashion and national press. Impressive indeed. But not as impressive as his latest feat: becoming the face of Samsung’s Galaxy Alpha ad campaign. This latest achievement has earned him billboards including the front of the IMAX cinema in London and the front cover of the Metro.

Image Source: Samsung

Image Source: Samsung

We’re used to seeing Asian women fronting high profile global ad campaigns- such as Aishwarya Rai Bachchan for Omega watches (amongst other brands) and Frieda Pinto and Katrina Kaif as the faces of L’Oreal. We applaud seeing a non-white face in glossy magazines and outdoor billboards because we feel like we Asians are finally being represented. But with Bahra, it’s not the brown face that is of note, but the turban.

Is it just a clever marketing move on the part of Samsung? After all, it’s no secret that most Asians like their gadgets, so making a Singh the face of their latest campaign seems to make good sense. But by targeting their new product at such a niche audience, do Samsung run the risk of alienating other potential customers?

And what’s more, and perhaps more crucial, does Bahra risk offending those who see the turban as more than just a statement of fashion, or at best of Sikh pride, but as something sacred and deeply personal?  When Jean Paul Gaultier put brightly coloured turbans on his male models for his Spring/Summer 2013 collection, many Sikhs criticised him saying he was exploiting the turban for the sake of providing a bit of ‘exotic flair’ to his latest collection.

Can religious symbols therefore ever be used as a fashion statement without ticking off the deeply religious? Pardeep and his models all wear their turbans with tightly fitting clothes such as tailored jackets and skinny jeans- contrary to the loose clothing you’d see on religious Sikhs. The same goes for hijab fashion. Devout Muslims are dismissive of women who combine a stylishly wrapped hijab with figure hugging clothing which is contrary to the Muslim dress code. And yet you only have to type in “hijab style” on Pinterest to see models wearing outfits that are nipped in at the waist and show a clearly defined bust- covering up while still revealing a lot, albeit through the silhouette the outfit creates.

Religious symbols are supposed to be worn with pride to identify oneself with your faith. In an age where wearing them at all has become such a source of contention, even legal dispute, these young British Asians are displaying their faith as part of their dress sense to make a statement. “I am Singh, hear me roar” is photo exhibition of Sikh men taking place later this year in London. The exhibition will showcase both the wearing of their turbans and the beard, another symbol of male Sikhism. And you certainly can hear them roar. Far from shying away from religious identity by leaving turbans, hijabs, karas at home and not upset the tolerance police or secularists, this new generation of faith-filled yet fashion savvy British Asians are reclaiming their symbols with pride. They’re wearing them to positively identify themselves with their faith. And by making them a part of their ensemble- more than just an accessory but a crucial part of the overall look, they are making a statement of identity.

Yes they are likely to offend a section of their community, usually the older generation who hold onto tradition and conventional ways of doing things particularly when it comes to religion. But for now, it’ll be interesting to watch the rise and rise of those like Pardeep Singh Bahra and see where they take this new wave of fashion meets faith.