I am always interested in coming across an alternative perspective, a point of view different from the one I currently hold, an opinion that causes me to think differently. And with the world wide web at our fingertips it is very easy to come by a multitude of opinions. These range from factual, well researched articles written in established publications, to weird and wonderful conspiracy theories in various forums and chat rooms. Nowadays, the blurred line between these two worlds is fast dissipating, making it very difficult to know the truth, if it is indeed out there.

All this makes analysing the news that much harder. Take the biggest news story around the world at the moment, the mid-term elections in The Greatest Nation On Earth. Just how important are they? Are these the most important elections ever, or are they the most important until the next elections in 2020? Are they part of the slow moving coup that satirist Bill Maher has been opining about for several months now? Are they a binary fight for the soul of America? Is America, or indeed the idea of America, dead or slowly dying? Am I getting carried away with all these overthought questions? Historical hindsight will allow for a better answer but in the meantime there are many who are touting these elections to be of the utmost significance, people like New York Times journalist Paul Krugman, who a few days prior to the elections wrote that:

Whatever happens in the midterms, the aftermath will be ugly. But the elections are nonetheless a fork in the road. If we take one path, it will offer at least a chance for political redemption, for recovering America’s democratic values. If we take the other, we’ll be on the road to autocracy, with no obvious way to get off…But with the crucial moment here, everyone should bear in mind what’s at stake. It’s not just tax cuts or health coverage, and anyone who votes based simply on those issues is missing the bigger story. For the survival of American democracy is on the ballot. – Paul Krugman

Dramatic stuff indeed. However the mid-terms are not the only big news story currently out there. The death of the self-exiled Saudi reporter, US resident, and contributing columnist to The Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi, is still making headlines over a month since his tragic demise at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Turkish authorities are drip-feeding gruesome details week-by-week, as though this was some sort of syndicated TV crime drama. We started with Khashoggi being alive but missing, then he was dismembered whilst still alive with a bonesaw, then he was strangled to death and then dismembered with a bonesaw, and the latest Turkish drip-feed delight mentions the use of acid to try and rid the world of the horrifying evidence. I guess we should all tune in same time next week for more gory details.

Saudi Flag Blood

One of the many interesting things about this murder, other than why there is so much focus on the death of one man and not on the death of thousands in Yemen who are also being killed by the Saudis, is why this particular news story is still in the public eye. This gruesome attention grabbing feat is even more remarkable given the chaotic news cycle that digitally swirls all around us. In a recent interview the great American novelist Don Delillo commented on this very phenomenon. The 81 year old Delillo, who has spent more than half a century at the cutting edge of US culture dissecting America’s dreams and nightmares, spoke of his discombobulation when it comes to the news, specifically news about Trump:

I’m very reluctant to talk about Trump, simply because everybody else is. We’re deluged with information about Trump on every level – as a man, as a politician. But what’s significant to me is that all of his enormous mistakes and misstatements disappear within 24 hours. The national memory lasts 48 hours, at best. And there’s always something else coming at us down the pipeline. You can’t separate it all out. You get lost in the deluge…Right now, I’m not sure the situation is recoverable. – Don Delillo

The Guardian journalist Nesrine Malik has also offered her fresh perspective on the Khashoggi case, specifically around why we are still so interested in it and why this one death generates more empathy than the death of thousands in Yemen:

I failed to call it. The day after Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, I told editors that the story, unfortunately, would not hold attention for more than two or three days, so jaded was I with how Saudi’s brutality had become normalised. It is now more than a month since Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, never to be seen again, but his killing has scarcely been out of the headlines since. It has focused attention on Saudi Arabia in ways that activists, journalists, human rights organisers and politicians have desperately tried but failed to do for years.

There was something about this event, something that landed in a way that no one could have anticipated. There was an element of shocking betrayal; to be murdered in one’s own consulate, a place of refuge in a foreign land, was akin to being murdered in a church. To be lured, then stung. It was a violation of amnesty that made it more sickening than if he had been liquidated randomly on the streets of Istanbul. It was reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s amnesty to his two sons-in-law who had fled the country, only to be assassinated the moment they returned.

On the back of his murder, other atrocities committed by the Saudi regime have come into clearer focus. Arms deals with the kingdom are under greater scrutiny, with Germany halting future sales. The war in Yemen, which Saudi critics have been trying to call attention to for years, is suddenly higher up the agenda. Reporting from the ground has amplified the voices of doctors tending to starving children, incensed at how Khashoggi’s murder received so much of the airtime that they would be grateful for scraps of. “We’re surprised the Khashoggi case is getting so much attention while millions of Yemeni children are suffering,” a doctor told the New York Times. “Nobody gives a damn about them.”

Jamal Khashoggi was the equivalent of the little girl in the red coat in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The film was shot entirely in black and white, but a single girl was in colour, taken away from home with her family, playing in the mud in a concentration camp, and then piled up lifeless with other bodies on a cart. The technique identified the single story among millions, sharpening and humanising it to highlight what psychologists call “collapse of compassion”, our natural tendency to turn away from mass suffering.

 – Nesrine Malik, 05 Nov 2018, theguardian.com, from the article Why We Still Can’t Stop Talking About Jamal Khashoggi

Aside from the above article from Malik, there have been many other noteworthy pieces written about Jamal Khashoggi. One that really grabbed my attention, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, was an article by Robert Fisk, a non-Muslim who wrote about the murder from a very specific Islamic perspective:

This disgusting, dangerous, frightening, dirty murder – and don’t tell me a man of 60 who dies in a “fistfight” with 15 men isn’t murder – shows not just the Saudi government up for what it is, but it shows us up for what we are, too.

Naturally, we all hope Jamal was not dismembered…we can all hope that Jamal was given a solemn and dignified Muslim burial with all the correct prayers said for his soul and his body buried – secretly, of course – shrouded and on its right side and in the direction of Mecca, the Holy city of which Mohammed bin Salman’s father, the King, is officially the Protector.

This will not have been easy to accomplish if Jamal was indeed chopped up by our favourite forensic scientist and taken to the consul’s home or a forest – the Turkish version – for a secret burial. But then again, maybe, on the way to the forest – if it was a forest – the burial party thought that, given the piety of their country, let alone their faith, he really should be given a Muslim funeral. By that stage, however, they would have realised that they might have committed a “grave and terrible mistake”. Under Islamic law, a mutilated body must be sewn up before being placed in a shroud. Did they sew Jamal up? And put him in a shroud?

 – Robert Fisk, 25 Oct 2018, independent.co.uk, from the article Jamal Khashoggi: Did They Bury Him With His Body Facing Mecca?

I positively winced when I read this blistering verbal tirade against the Saudi perpetrators. How can anyone, especially a Muslim, read these dark words from Robert Fisk and not at the very least be filled with anger and shame?


The other big news story making the rounds involves another horrific act. Avid Trump supporter Robert Bowers shot and killed 11 Jewish worshippers at prayer in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The incident, which took place on October 27th, is considered to be the worst anti-Semitic attack in recent US history. A week after the event, the Muslim mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, wrote an article in which he pledged to combat the growing tide of anti-Semitism that seems to be sweeping around the world:

The wicked terrorist attack targeted innocent Jewish Americans, but it felt like an attack on us all – on our way of life and on the freedoms we hold dear. The fight against antisemitism is not only about protecting the Jewish community; it’s a fight on behalf of everyone. For antisemitism is a threat to our values, to the cohesiveness of our communities and to our whole society.

Sadly, the rise in antisemitism and the far right can’t be treated simply as a passing trend. The Community Security Trust has reported that anti-Semitic incidents across the UK are at a record high, with the number of cases recorded in London alone rising by nearly 200% since 2011.

We know from our history that we ignore these incidents at our peril, and where antisemitism, left to fester, can lead. And we know from our history that an increase in antisemitism and right-wing extremism usually comes with a rise in other forms of hate crime and division – coinciding with a backdrop of economic hardship, nationalist populism and political uncertainty.

Worryingly, all the warning signs are here again, so it is vital that we take action now.

There’s not going to be a quick fix to this problem: it’s one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. But I’m still optimistic that if we treat it with the seriousness it deserves, we can clamp down on antisemitism, stop the march of far right and nationalist populism and make a real difference in forging stronger communities – showing that hope, unity and love can always trump fear, division and hatred.

 – Sadiq Khan, 05 Nov 2018, theguardian.com, from the article Antisemitism Endangers Us All. We Can’t Afford To Be Complacent

Perhaps the best analysis of this incident comes from the New York Times journalist Bari Weiss, a proud Jewish native of Pittsburgh who has some very strong and personal ties to the synagogue (she had her Bat Mitzvah there). Because of these close ties the incident really did bring home the terror, something Weiss wrote about brilliantly a few days ago. Part of her article focused on how such a horrifying incident can bring out the best in many of us, even those not directly affected:

If you are lucky, when a terrorist comes to your town, you will bear witness to some of this country’s better angels. Better angels like the father who walked down the block outside of Tree of Life as he calmly explained to his young son: “They’re trying to tell people that they are coming to invade our country. And it’s just not true.”

Better angels like Wasi Mohamed, the young executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, who stood up and said if what you need is “people outside your next service protecting you, let us know. We’ll be there.” He said that in making this offer he was only repaying a favor: “That was the same offer made to me by this community after this election happened that was so negative and the spike in hate crimes against Muslims.”

But you will also wonder quietly to yourself if these better angels will be enough to stop the threats against communities like yours from multiplying. What happened in my neighborhood might seem like a nightmare or an illness — something to be endured until, in time, it passes. That’s how it has seemed to me. But to those who have spent their lives in places like Karachi or Aleppo, the things Pittsburgh Jews take for granted — our freedom from violence and fear — are nothing more than pipe dreams. When your hometown in Western Pennsylvania becomes the scene of mass murder, you know that the distance separating their reality from ours can be made tissue thin.

 – Bari Weiss, 02 Nov 2018, nytimes.com, from the article When A Terrorist Comes To Your Hometown

Despite the tragedy Weiss still managed to praise others which to me is a true act of genuine and sincere kindness on her part. Weiss also appeared on the late night talk show Real Time With Bill Maher. A clearly emotional yet hopeful Weiss pointed out that antisemitism is rooted in the language of conspiracy theories, a language that President Trump has been fluent in for quite some time. His words clearly matter. The entire nine minute interview is worth watching in full and selected quotes presented below. Antisemitism is discussed in nuanced terms that really shed light on what a heinous act it truly is. The subject of Israel is also discussed in terms I have never really considered before:

What’s important to remember is that antisemitism is not just a prejudice, it’s a conspiracy theory. It says that there is a secret hand controlling the world and that secret hand is called the “Jew.” So even if Trump himself is not an anti-Semite, and I don’t believe that he is an anti-Semite, he is inculcating an atmosphere of conspiracy minded thinking. So when he says things like “enemies of the people”, “globalists”, and we can go on and on, it’s been happening every day for two years, in the mind of people like Richard Spencer and David Duke they hear “Jew, Jew, Jew.” And it’s not a surprise that people like that were drawn to Trump’s banner. Now you have it on the left too, where “Israel” comes to replace “Jew” as the sort of diabolical controller of all the world’s ills, but in this case obviously this person [Robert Bowers] was coming from the political right.

The thing that is interesting about it is that typical bigotry, it’s that the subject of your bigotry is subhuman. With Jews they are both inhuman and anti-human at once. They’re both physically weak and aggressive. They are both the socialists and the arch capitalists. That is what is so hard about antisemitism.

People don’t realize that Jews are 2% of the population in this country but they make up half of all hate crimes, according to the FBI.

The problematic thing happening in this moment is that people like Steve Bannon like Israel for the wrong reasons…Evangelical Christians do too, because when the world ends the Jews convert to Christianity or they die, your choice…One thing that I think was made stark this week is that there are many Jews, including Jews that I know, who have liked many of Trumps policies regarding Israel and the Middle East. They love the fact that the American embassy was moved to Jerusalem, a move that I supported. They like the scuttling of the Iran deal. But I hope this week that American Jews have woken up to the price of that bargain. They have traded policies that they like for the values that have sustained the Jewish people, and frankly this country for forever: welcoming the stranger, dignity for all human beings, equality under the law, respect for dissent, love of truth. These are the things that we are losing under this president, and no policy is worth that price.

 – Bari Weiss, 02 Oct 2018, from an interview on the TV show Real Time With Bill Maher


Super Muslim Hijabi Avenger Heroes

Hijab Heroes.jpg

As I continue to cast my Islamic eye upon the cultural landscape, the annual New York Comic Con caught my attention. The Comic Con is an annual fan convention held in the Big Apple and is dedicated to all the latest that the entire world of geek has to offer: comics, graphic novels, anime, mange, movies, toys, cosplay, and the rest. According to some estimates, the event that just took place in early October this year drew over 250,000 people and brought in over $100 million dollars to the city economy over a 3 day period.

One of the big differences this year compared to previous years is the growing presence of Muslims. There are many myths and misconceptions about Muslims. For one, there are many Muslims who are active in fan culture such as cosplaying. Case is point are the hijabi heroes who caused quite a stir this year. It is indeed refreshing to see these Muslim Avengers not only become a part of the culture they are in, but to also shape it by setting new trends and directions.

Another case in point is a Muslim family all of whom seem to be well into their cosplay. I guess a Muslim family that cosplays together insha-Allah stays together. May the halal force be with them.

Star Wars Family

And for the first time in the convention’s history there was an all-Muslim panel discussing anime, comics, fandom, and Muslim culture. The “Salaam Nerds & Geeks: Islam, Fandom, Comics & Popular Culture” panel hosted a range of artists and cultural critics sharing their perspectives on US Muslim creative culture.


Muslim comic book artist Omar Mirza, creator of the comic book series Zindan: The Last Ansaars, explained that: “There’s so much misrepresentation about Islam and Muslims in the media. I think a very good vehicle to address or combat that is through fandom pop culture and try to normalize and maybe even humanize the Islamic experience so that people don’t see us as foreign and scary.”

Another area of culture that Muslims seem to be using to combat Islamic misrepresentation is the world of comedy. Right now the comedy world is in a tumultuous period. While some performers feel uneasy about what they can or cannot say onstage, several prominent stars have been disgraced by scandals of their own making. Bill Cosby was convicted of sexual assault in April and sentenced to prison in September. Roseanne Barr had her resuscitated ABC sitcom cancelled in May after she posted a racist tweet. Louis CK, who last year admitted to several acts of sexual misconduct, has resumed performing in clubs again, prompting an outcry from some audience members and rebukes from fellow comics. Sarah Silverman, a long-time friend of CK, recently got herself in trouble by admitting to some rather unsavoury acts that she got up to with CK (she has profusely apologised since).

In a recent interview comedy legend Jerry Seinfeld tried to address some of these complicated and uncomfortable issues, issues that he knows someone of his stature cannot avoid talking about. Like many others Seinfeld himself is still thinking through and processing in real time all that is going on. Speaking about the whole of the comedy industry, he said: “We’re figuring it out as we go along. And there’s something very stimulating and empowering about that. We don’t really know what the rules are. We’re trying to make them up, other people make up rules and want everybody else to go by their rules.”

Having said all that, comedy still has power to change and influence a wide audience. The Venn diagram overlap between Islam and comedy is growing day-by-day, punchline-by-punchline. Genuine comedy delights in the wonder and absurdity of being human, and who better than a professional comedian to use their imagination as a springboard to an exploration of the human mind. And by exaggerating reality, Muslim comedians can highlight what they think is important to them. Echoing a similar thought, Academy Award winning author and documentary film maker Michael Moore recently said that: “Humour is one of the best vehicles by which to deliver the things you want to say.”

Another Oscar winner, Mahershala Ali, the first Muslim to win an Academy Award for acting, also understands the power of humour. From the trailer and many humorous moments in his new movie Green Book, you could easily mistake it for a classic buddy road movie, but beneath the comedy is a stark message for our increasingly divided times. Speaking about the underlying tone of the movie, Ali said in a recent interview:

“I think it is an extraordinarily effective way to deal with issues that are traditionally very serious. If you think about Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle, people go to see them because they know they’re going to have a great time and laugh, but they also know underneath that they’re going to hear a message that has real substance in it. You set the audience up for being able to have a good time but also slip a message in there that they need to hear.”

Robin Ince, arguably one of the best British comedians currently touring, made an even more important point about the power that humour can have, a point that I believe relates to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan: “If jokes are so unimportant, why do people get so exercised by them, and why do certain dictatorships ban them and imprison the tellers?”

Super Tour

Also touring in Britain at the moment is a comedy show called the Super Muslim Comedy Tour. The tour features American comedians Salma Hindy and Yasmin Elhady, the UK’s very own Guz Khan from the BBC 3 series Man Like Mobeen, the recognisable face of Citizen Khan’s Abdullah Afzal, Azeem M, British stand-up comedian Jeff Mirza (a finalist in the BBC Open Mic Award for The Stand-Up Show), and the American film and comedy star Omar Regan. Muslims are rarely given mainstream spaces to speak about their experiences, much less make a joke out of it. But hopefully a comedy show like this can provide such a necessary and much needed space.

Now in its third year and following the success of 2017’s tour, this year the tour is visiting 11 venues across the UK. All proceeds from the tour go towards Penny Appeal’s Education First programme, which helps to open new schools in countries around the world, giving children access to education and allowing them to build brighter futures.

Yasmin Elhady, a federal attorney by day and comedian by night who is smashing stereotypes for both the legal and Muslim community, said: “Finally, an Egyptian-born Muslim woman who was raised in Kentucky gets to crack her jokes in Europe about Kenexit! This tour comes at a great time for the UK. With Islamophobia on the rise, it’s nice to be part of a positive message. Penny Appeal does some incredible work, and it’s amazing to think that we can have fun together while being there for children who so desperately need our help.”

For Peace

Over in the States another comedy tour is currently doing the rounds, and this one is multi-faith. For the past 15 years comedians Scott Blakeman and Dean Obeidallah have been finding humour in building bridges. Specifically, they’ve put a humorous and heartfelt spin on closing the gap in relationships between Jews and Muslims both in America and abroad. Considering ongoing news stories of the continual unrest between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, the idea of finding levity in what can seem like a hopeless situation has turned Jewish-American Blakeman and Muslim-American Obeidallah into de facto ambassadors of both humour and hope.

Blakeman said: “Initially Dean and I knew each other from the comedy world and did some shows together. We both lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and we’d both take the crosstown bus, and literally one day by the end of the ride we came up with the idea of having Jewish and Arab comedians and calling it StandUp For Peace.”

Putting their idea into action, the pair soon organized and performed at a comedy fund raiser for Seeds Of Peace, a summer camp in the state of Maine that brings together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to foster awareness and unity. “After that performance we started getting inquiries from similar organizations and community groups and it really took off from there.” Since then, StandUp For Peace has been presented at several colleges, Jewish community centres, mosques, and theatres all over America. The tour will hopefully challenge anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic sentiment that is currently on the rise in America, especially in the lead up to the November mid-term elections.

Even as I write this blog news is coming through of a horrific mass shooting on a synagogue in the US city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eleven people have been killed and the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish non-governmental organisation that fights anti-Semitism, said: “We believe this is the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.”

And how can a comedy show even begin to hopefully challenge such hatred? According to Blakeman: “Dean and I always say if you can get people together in a room, we can laugh together. And if we can laugh together, we can live together.”

And just in case I have not hammered home just how important humour is in changing cultural perceptions, I shall end with the a quote from British comedian Cariad Lloyd. Lloyd was nominated for an Edinburgh comedy award in 2011 for her solo show Lady Cariad’s Characters. She has also appeared in countless TV comedies and panel shows but she has found her biggest and most unexpected success with Griefcast, a series of conversations with fellow comedians about their experiences of bereavement. What launched as a low-key personal project, Lloyd lost her father to cancer when she was 15, has amassed a huge following and won podcast of the year at this year’s British Podcast Awards.

Lloyd struggled to process grief for 20 years after her father’s death, hiding it behind a funny-girl persona. That has all changed now, partly because of Griefcast, which helped “everyone understand why I am like I am.” Her grief used to be corrosive because it was unspoken. “But when people meet me now, they know my story, and that’s a comfortable place to be. I feel like I’m the most ‘me’ I’ve ever been.” Her podcast radiates faith in the redeeming power of gallows humour, a redemption she describes as follows:

Laughter is about survival. It’s about living. When you’re surrounded by death and someone’s dying in front of you, it’s quite hard to breathe. Laughter is a way of getting more oxygen into you – and reminding you you’re not dying. You’re not dying. You’re alive. Comedians don’t have a monopoly on that laughter. But whereas a normal person might say ‘Are we wrong to laugh?’ a comedian doesn’t panic about it. – Cariad Lloyd


Trump Christians

As always religion is making headlines in all sorts of ways. Just a quick glance at the news and you will find a myriad of stories and scandals, all involving faith at their very heart. Here are just a few recent examples of faith in action across the globe.

In America evangelical Christians are feeling victorious now that they finally have their conservative majority on the Supreme Court, thanks to the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh. And with Trump in power Christians are smiling even more because finally, after eight long torturous years under Obama, they can say “Merry Christmas” again. Praise Jesus indeed. And if you want to know how serious this situation can get then look back to December 2016 when in Perth, Australia, a Muslim woman was subjected to a brutal verbal and physical attack after a man said “Merry Christmas” to her but she replied with “Happy holidays.” Local police investigated reports that the man stole the woman’s headscarf after the incident, which saw him smash a broken beer bottle over the back of her neck and throw rocks at her. And a happy new year to you too.

Something Trump may not be happy about is the fact that modern-day witches are planning a ritual to hex his recently appointed Supreme Court justice. Dozens of these witches say they plan to gather in New York later this month to hex Kavanaugh, who was sworn in to the nation’s highest court recently despite facing several allegations of sexual misconduct. Dakota Bracciale, a Brooklyn-based witch who is organizing the October 20th event, said the witches see the hex as a radical act of resistance that continues witchcraft’s long history as a refuge and weapon for the “oppressed, downtrodden and marginalized.” She has also said that “Witchcraft has been used throughout history as a tool and ally for people on the fringes of society who will not ever really get justice through the powers that be. So they have to exact their own justice.”

Moving from witches to fear mongers and everyone’s favourite extremist Muslim preacher Anjem Choudary is to be freed on parole this month. Choudary, leader of the banned extremist group Al-Muhajiroun, is to be given automatic release after serving half of his five-and-a-half-year sentence. His group has inspired a number of Britons to join ISIS. Choudary was jailed in 2016 for “inviting support of a terror group” but is now somehow entitled to automatic parole. The system works, I guess?

Over in Turkey another Muslim preacher, Murat Bayaral, is getting his beard in a major twist. Bayaral recently said men without beards cause “indecent thoughts” in other men because they look like women, which is why all men need to grow beards to show they are clearly male. Speaking on a Turkish TV show he said if a man was mistaken for a woman “you could be possessed by indecent thoughts.” He added that “Men should grow beards. One of the two body parts that separate men from women is the beard…For example, if you see a man with long hair from afar you may think he is a woman if he does not have a beard. Because nowadays women and men dress similarly. God forbid! You could be possessed by indecent thoughts.”

Here in the UK a British man arrested this summer on suspicion of sending racist letters across England urging a “Punish a Muslim Day” and offering points for acts of violence, has pleaded guilty to soliciting murder and 13 other offenses. David Parnham entered his guilty plea at the Central Criminal Court in London. The police said Parnham had waged a two-year campaign of terror since 2016, sending “malicious” letters and “highly offensive” packages to scores of people and organizations. The letters and packages, some with suspicious white substances, were sent to mosques, Muslim members of Parliament, and Queen Elizabeth, among others. The letters urged people to commit violence against Muslims to earn an escalating number of points. Parnham was caught because his DNA and fingerprints were recovered from some of the letters, including one sent to Dylann Roof, the white supremacist on death row for massacring nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

Over in India certain tech companies are asking devotees how much would they pay for a prayer? In the world’s largest democracy many people are embracing apps that allow them to pay for a ritual to be performed on their behalf. In recent years, tens of thousands of Indians have turned to ePuja and other prayer-by-proxy companies, whose smartphone apps and websites make summoning a godly intercession as easy as ordering a pizza. Another such company, Shubhpuja, has marketed itself as a way to “connect to God in one click.” The offer appeals to Hindus in India and abroad who do not have the time, money, or physical ability to travel to the temple with the best reputation for resolving their particular problem. Just select a puja and a temple, pay a fee, and the company gets a priest to perform the ritual. Shubhpuja even allows customers to Skype into rituals as they’re being performed. ePuja has since facilitated about 50,000 pujas for customers in over 60 countries, with one of the most common requests being asking for help to secure a marriage. And who says romance is dead?

Staying in India, the Hindu nationalist-led state of Uttar Pradesh is changing the Muslim name of the Indian city of Allahabad to Prayagraj. The new name harks back to the city’s ancient appellation, Prayag, before it was changed by Mughal-era rulers in the late 16th century. Prayag in Sanskrit means a place for sacrifice, in reference to the Hindu belief that the creator of the universe, Brahma, made his first offering at the area in the city where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet. The Uttar Pradesh health minister, Siddharth Nath Singh, told local media “The city used to be known as Prayagraj since the beginning. To those who are opposing the decision, how would you feel if the name your parents gave you was to be changed?” Changing Allahabad’s name has been a longstanding demand of Hindu nationalist groups in India which regard the three centuries in which huge areas of the subcontinent were ruled by Mughal dynasties as a period of foreign occupation.

Meanwhile, over in China the authorities are still locking up and detaining hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims in internment camps, in a systematic attempt to erase them and their culture. Muslims in Palestine are also suffering in similar ways, as they have been for several decades now. Six Palestinians were recently shot dead by Israeli forces, not that you would know anything about this as the news lately has been focusing heavily on the horrific murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to the Turkish government. As a quick side note, since when have the powers that be in the west so readily believed the words of the Turkish authorities? Anyway, if Khashoggi was indeed tortured, murdered, and dismembered by the Saudis, as suggested by the Turks, then the Saudis can add his name to the list of at least 17 Yemenis who were killed in a recent Saudi-led airstrike. And that is just the murder tally we know of for this week. It does seem like Western patience with the oil-rich desert kingdom is starting to wear thin.

Because Khashoggi was allegedly murdered in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, the incident has only increased tensions between the Turkish leader President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the defacto leader of Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This recent dispute pits the two staunch, headstrong nationalists against each other, both of whom have ambitions to reshape their regions. Whilst both leaders sit in opposite ideological camps, one thing they share in common is a history of refusing to back down from a fight. Steven A Cook, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies both countries said “These are two people who each think he is the most important person in the Muslim world…Ego is a factor on both sides.”

Trump Pastor

Back in America Trump welcomed the recently freed US pastor Andrew Brunson to the White House, hours after he arrived in Washington back home from Turkey following two years in detention. The 50-year-old evangelical pastor was convicted of terror-related charges and sentenced to over three years in jail. But he was immediately freed, taking into account the time already served and good conduct during the trial. Brunson thanked Trump, saying “you really fought for us.” In the White House the pastor asked Trump if he could pray for him, Trump replied “Well, I need it probably more than anyone else in this room, so that would be very nice, thank you.” The pastor then kneeled and placed a hand on Trump’s shoulder. As Trump bowed his head the pastor asked God to “give him supernatural wisdom to accomplish all the plans you have for this country and for Him. I ask that You give him wisdom in how to lead this country into righteousness. I ask that You give him perseverance, and endurance and courage to stand for truth.” The best of luck with that. The American pastor was unwittingly caught up in a geopolitical fight between the US and Turkey, and his release was seen as a good sign of easing tensions between the two countries.

In other faith related news, the Catholic sex abuse scandal finally kind of takes its first major scalp, that of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the head of the Archdiocese of Washington, whose resignation was accepted by Pope Francis. Wuerl submitted his letter of resignation three years ago, when he turned 75, as is customary for bishops. But in September Wuerl travelled to Rome to urge the Pope to finally accept it because of growing accusations over his role in handling sex abuse allegations in the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Francis has also given an explanation as to why these sex scandals are occurring throughout the Church. He said recently the devil is alive and well and working overtime to undermine the Church. In fact, the Pope is so convinced that Satan is to blame for the sex abuse crisis and deep divisions racking the Church, that he has asked Catholics around the world to recite a special prayer every day in October to try to beat him back. Since he was elected in 2013 Francis has made it clear that he believes the devil to be real. In a document in April on holiness in the modern world, Francis mentioned the devil more than a dozen times, calling him “the malign one, the great accuser.” He went on to say that “We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable.”

As you would expect these words caused quite a stir, even among Catholics such as Paul Horan, an assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin, who reacted as follows:

The suggestion that Satan is responsible and that exorcisms need to occur to rid the church of the wickedness of child abuse is an outrageous act of desperation by church leaders running scared and out of ideas in the 21st century where people are better educated and can think for themselves without fear of rancour from the church! The Devil isn’t responsible for clerical child abuse. Wicked evil clerics are. Satan didn’t do any of this and neither did he request that it happen…I wouldn’t be surprised if I get excommunicated for expressing such blasphemies. – Paul Horan

Speaking of Satan, in America in August Satanists turned out to cheer the unveiling of a bronze statue dedicated to a goat-headed winged creature called Baphomet in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Satanic Temple organisation arranged the rally outside the Arkansas State Capitol building to protest a Ten Commandments monument already on the grounds. Although the eight-and-a-half foot tall icon was only allowed to be on display temporarily, Satanists argued they should be allowed to erect the winged goat effigy on a permanent basis under freedom of religion rights outlined in the US constitution.

There are so many other stories that could be mentioned, such as Israelis getting a little too excited because the Biblical prophecy of a pure red heifer being born has suddenly happened, signalling the end of days. And there has been much debate about religious freedom versus personal freedom, all in regards to a gay couple asking a Christian bakery to make them a pro-gay cake featuring Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, both of whom are not gay themselves. The bakery refused to bake the cake and much legal chaos has since ensued.

What these and many other ongoing stories illustrate is that belief, the way it influences people and the countries they inhabit, is fundamental in explaining who we are and where we came from. After all, it is in deciding how we live with the gods that we also decide how we live with each other.

However, despite all the religious goings on all over the world, there are still plenty of voices out there that see it as something antiquated and on the way out. Case in point is Bill Maher who recently on his TV show Real Time With Bill Maher preached the following eulogy:

You can add to this recent figures that show the Church of England being in steep decline. According to the latest data from the British Social Attitudes survey, released last month, the proportion of the population identifying as C of E has fallen to a record low of just 14%. Among adults under the age of 24 it is an alarmingly low 2%. In contrast a majority of the British population say they have no religion. According to David Voas, professor of social science at University College London and co-director of British Religion in Numbers, there are many ways of defining religious affiliation. “But, very clearly, we’re at a point where, under any definition, a minority of the population – in practice, single figures – is Anglican. There can no longer be a majoritarian argument for an established church.” We shall see if this is the beginning of the end for the happy union between Protestant church and English state.

Whilst I get where people like Maher are coming from on the decline of religion, the numbers worldwide just do not support such views. In a recent newspaper article Neil MacGregor, author of the brilliant new book Living With The Gods: On Beliefs And Peoples, made the following observation:

Fifty years ago, religion was on the retreat as science advanced. Now it is centre stage of global politics…Belief is back. Around the world, religion is once again politically centre stage. It is a development that seems to surprise and bewilder, indeed often to anger, the agnostic, prosperous west. – Neil MacGregor

Journalist Caroline Moorehead, in reviewing MacGregor’s book, made a similar point about how religion and religious practice seems to be increasing across the globe:

Far from shrinking away, organised religion appears to be spreading. In Japan, one of the most secular countries in the world, young pregnant women are once again choosing to wear specially propitious sashes and taking offerings to the temples, in the name of children they have lost or aborted. In India, the numbers of Hindu pilgrims attending the Kumbh Mela festival to celebrate the virtues of detachment and compassion have now reached 100 million, making it the largest religious event in the world. Faith is providing cohesion and reassurance. – Caroline Moorehead

As though further proof were needed, please find below selected quotes from a very interesting article that has various facts and figures to counteract the views of naysayers like Maher, and instead back up the views of yaysayers like MacGregor and Moorehead. Enjoy!

Religion Guardian

Religion: Why Faith Is Becoming More And More Popular

Harriet Sherwood, 27 Aug 2018, theguardian.com

If you think religion belongs to the past and we live in a new age of reason, you need to check out the facts: 84% of the world’s population identifies with a religious group. Members of this demographic are generally younger and produce more children than those who have no religious affiliation, so the world is getting more religious, not less – although there are significant geographical variations. According to 2015 figures, Christians form the biggest religious group by some margin, with 2.3 billion adherents or 31.2% of the total world population of 7.3 billion. Next come Muslims (1.8 billion, or 24.1%), Hindus (1.1 billion, or 15.1%) and Buddhists (500 million, or 6.9%).

Which religions are growing, and where?

The short answer is religion is on the wane in western Europe and North America, and it’s growing everywhere else…Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world – more than twice as fast as the overall global population. Between 2015 and 2060, the world’s inhabitants are expected to increase by 32%, but the Muslim population is forecast to grow by 70%. And even though Christians will also outgrow the general population over that period, with an increase of 34% forecast mainly thanks to population growth in sub-Saharan Africa, Christianity is likely to lose its top spot in the world religion league table to Islam by the middle of this century.

It’s mainly down to births and deaths, rather than religious conversion. Muslim women have an average of 2.9 children, significantly above the average of all non-Muslims at 2.2. And while Christian women have an overall birth rate of 2.6, it’s lower in Europe where Christian deaths outnumbered births by nearly 6 million between 2010 and 2015. In recent years, Christians have had a disproportionately large share of the world’s deaths (37%).

But 23% of American Muslims say they are converts to the faith, and in recent years there has been growing anecdotal evidence of Muslim refugees converting to Christianity in Europe.

What religions are oldest and are there any new ones?

The oldest religion in the world is considered to be Hinduism, which dates back to about 7,000 BCE. Judaism is the next oldest, dating from about 2,000 BCE, followed by Zoroastrianism, officially founded in Persia in the 6th century BCE but its roots are thought to date back to 1,500 BCE. Shinto, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism and Taoism bunch together around 500-700 BCE. Then along came Christianity, followed about 600 years later by Islam.

Some might argue that the newest religion is no religion, although non-believers have been around as long as humans. But periodically new religious movements spring up, such as Kopimism, an internet religion, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Pastafarianism (officially recognised by the New Zealand government but not the Dutch), and Terasem, a transreligion that believes death is optional and God is technological.

In 2016, the Temple of the Jedi Order, members of which follow the tenets of the faith central to the Star Wars films, failed in its effort to be recognised as a religious organisation under UK charity law. In the last two censuses, Jedi has been the most popular alternative religion with more than 390,000 people (0.7% of the population) describing themselves as Jedi Knights on the 2001 census. By 2011, numbers had dropped sharply, but there were still 176,632 people who told the government they were Jedi Knights.



Once again I have been casting my subjective eye over the cultural landscape, a landscape that is always changing in ways one can never imagine. For some 2 years now the main news story worldwide was Donald Trump. However, for the past few weeks the biggest news story in America has been focused not on Trump but instead on Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh is Trump’s second pick to be a justice to reside on the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States of America. Neil Gorsuch was his first.

Close to the time of writing, the Senate confirmed 53 year old Kavanaugh as the 114th Supreme Court justice by a vote of 50 to 48, one of the narrowest margins in Senate history. 50 is actually the lowest number of votes for a Supreme Court justice ever, but it is also the most yeses Kavanaugh has probably ever heard in his life (thanks to Saturday Night Live for that joke). And this all came after arguably the most bitterly partisan political and cultural battle in modern American history. So divisive has this confirmation battle been that it seems to have touched all aspects of American society, as well as generating headlines all over the rest of the globe.

But why all this fuss? It is due to the controversy surrounding Kavanaugh who has multiple allegations of sexual misconduct placed against him, notably from Dr Christine Blasey Ford. I will spare you the details of these allegations as much has already been written on this subject. I am more interested in the broader impact of this whole saga, and just how wide-ranging various reactions have been.

To the delight of the Republican party Kavanaugh did not back down in the face of all of these accusations. On the contrary, in a snarling refrain in front of a Congress committee that must seem all-too-familiar to victims of sexual assault, Kavanaugh angrily insisted “you’ll never get me to quit.” So strange was his performance that the satirical TV show Saturday Night Live got Hollywood star Matt Damon to play the role of Kavanaugh in the opening sketch of the first episode of their new season.

Dr Ford also gave her testimony to the same Senate judiciary committee, testifying against Kavanaugh. Whilst the entire day of testimony made for compelling TV viewing, Republicans could not hide the dire spectacle of 11 white men sitting in judgment over one clearly sincere white woman. The chairman was Chuck Grassley, an 85 year old from Iowa. Orrin Hatch, an 84 year old from Utah, described Ford as an “attractive” and “pleasing” witness (not creepy at all). Despite this, so momentous was her credible and emotional performance that Time magazine decide to put Dr Ford and her powerful words on their prestigious front cover:

Time Ford Cover

By now the fault lines in America were all too clear for all to see. Divisions were there not just in political terms, but also in terms of gender, and they were getting wider and deeper. The divided rhetoric on all sides had curdled to such a nasty and pungent degree that one could easily think things could not possibly get any worse. And then along comes Trump and decides to mock Dr Ford and her testimony in front of thousands of his supporters. And much laughter ensued. My own reaction to seeing the so called most powerful person on the planet do such a thing was stomach churning. This is not the first time Trump has cruelly mocked someone, but this time it felt a little colder and crueller than previous occasions. The comedian Sarah Silverman responded to the mocking by Trump by saying:

He’s not even worth it. He is a void. He’s unwell, he’s building an incredible case for an insanity plea. – Sarah Silverman

Fellow comedian Jim Jefferies also joined the debate by making a rather relevant point about the legal hypocrisy surrounding how the Republicans are reacting to all this:

Conservatives need to make their minds up. If a Mexican gets busted for an ounce of weed, Republicans think “a threat to the community.” But when a prep school kid is accused of sexual assault, suddenly they’re all about “due process.” Which is it? – Jim Jefferies

As seems to be the occurrence now in such matters, weird and wonderful conspiracy theories have made their way on to social media. My favourite occurred on Friday when Trump, making a shameful moment in American history that bit more shameful, tweeted that the anti-Kavanaugh protesters on Capitol Hill were all “paid for by Soros,” repeating a common conspiracy-theory surrounding George Soros, the billionaire Holocaust-survivor and financier, a claim that is obviously false.

Say what you like about the Republican party machine but they are ruthless in their endeavours, in this case getting their man on to the Supreme Court. This ruthless streak is captured so poetically by the cartoonist Mr Fish:

The Partys Over

Whilst this particular cartoon was rather brutal in making its point, it was another cartoon that caused a much larger stir. There is a line that political cartoons rarely cross, and that is you do not parody or lampoon the children of political figures if they are minors, much in the same way that White House correspondents generally do not write about the personal lives of underage members of the first family. However, veteran cartoonist Chris Britt decided to cross that line with the following image:

Daughter Cartoon

The cartoon depicts 10-year-old Liza Kavanaugh praying to God about her father. She is kneeling by her bedside and saying “Dear God, forgive my angry, lying, alcoholic father for sexually assaulting Dr Ford.” The cartoon parodies the opening statement by Kavanaugh during his committee appearance last week, where he emotionally recounted that his daughter had said to her mother that “we should pray for the woman,” referring to Dr Ford.

Some have argued that Kavanaugh should not be the most important news story in the States. In a newspaper interview satirist Bill Maher suggested that perhaps it should be the environment, but then offered reasons as to why it is not:

When was the last time anyone discussed the environment? It gets lost, because Trump sets off 100 bombs a week and we chase every one of them. Meanwhile, slowly we become inhabitants of a less and less inhabitable planet. That problem didn’t go away just because we are interested in what happened to Brett Kavanaugh in high school. There are so many issues like that. – Bill Maher

And recently on his TV show Real Time With Bill Maher, there was a brief discussion about another rather important news story, one involving the fact that Trump and his father managed to con their way out of paying half a billion dollars in inheritance tax to the American government. Maher asked his panel of guests why this particular story wasn’t as big of an issue as perhaps it should be. No real answer was given by anyone. However, one of the guests did make the following point regarding the New York Times report on the Trump family fortune:

We’ve always known this president is a conman, right, and so he engaged in tax planning but he also engaged in tax fraud. That was in the New York Times article, deliberate tax fraud. I think the big takeaway from the New York Times story is what a terrible businessperson Donald Trump actually is. And here’s what I mean by that. This is a guy that we know was born on third base and the idiot, instead of stealing home, stole second, right. This is a guy who figured out how to lose everything his father gave him, and then asked for a bail out. – David Jolly, former congressman for Florida

The Kavanaugh saga has already done many things in American society, one of the main things being is causing further divisions. With the recent confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh, and followed soon by the midterm elections, there is no doubt this polarization will only increase in the days and weeks ahead. Guardian journalist David Smith described just some of the ways these divisions manifest themselves:

The only thing everyone agrees on is that the division runs deep – and no one is quite sure where it is heading…At almost every turn, the battle lines are drawn. Black against white, college-educated against not, “expert” against “deplorable”, hipster against hunter, Hollywood against heartland, liberal against conservative, pro-choice against pro-life, secular against Christian, urban against rural, woman against man, young against old, citizens of nowhere against citizens of somewhere…Duck Dynasty vs Modern Family. – David Smith

Another line of division seems to be around who is the actual victim and who is the assailant. President Trump, whilst standing on the White House lawn, told reporters that the reaction to the allegations of sexual assault and other misconduct against Kavanaugh now makes it a dangerous time for men:

It is a very scary time for young men in America, when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of. This is a very, very difficult time. What’s happening here has much more to do than even the appointment of a Supreme Court justice. It really does. You could be somebody that was perfect your entire life and somebody could accuse you of something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a woman, as everybody says. But somebody could accuse you of something and you’re automatically guilty. But in this realm you are truly guilty until proven innocent. That’s one of the very, very bad things that’s taking place right now. – President Trump

Whilst this comment was strange enough (straight white male privilege still rules the world), something even stranger followed: Democratic supporter Bill Maher kind of agreed with Trump, his arch-nemesis, again on his show Real Time. Maher asked guests the following conundrum:

I do think that when Trump said “It’s a very scary time for young men…” Yes, let’s get out the world’s smallest violin but, wait, let me just ask a question first, okay. It does seem like things have morphed from ‘listen to any woman who says she’s been wronged,’ which is the right thing to do, to ‘automatically believe.’ That’s what’s scary. – Bill Maher

So even bleeding heart liberals are getting confused as to where the battle lines are. And such is the wide social impact of this news story that it has even crossed over religious boundaries and is now directly affecting Muslims, more specifically one in particular. Imam Zaid Shakir is the Muslim-American co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California (Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is the other co-founder). Shakir had to delete a 1,300 word Facebook post after receiving a backlash for suggesting sharia law should be applied in judging if Dr Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh are credible. He began by saying “I do not support the appointment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States. My position, however, is based neither on the accusations nor the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.” The Imam went on to say he did not support Kavanaugh because he believes “he lied under oath” and is “too politically partisan to sit on the Supreme Court.”

But then Shakir went on to say that he believes Ford’s allegations “cannot be used as evidence against Judge Kavanaugh.” He based his reasoning on “Muslim teachings” from the Qur’an, citing verse 24:4 which says “Those who bring charges of sexual improprieties against chaste women, then fail to come forth with four corroborating witnesses, lash them eighty times and never again accept their testimony. Such are truly corrupt.”

He also cited following verses which warn against alleging accusations without witnesses and claim those who do so “are liars in the sight of God.”

“The honor these verses are designed to protect is real, as are the condemnations they issue, as well as the punishments they threaten,” Shakir wrote. Echoing the aforementioned views of Trump and Maher, Shakir added “If anyone can randomly produce vile accusations against anyone they please, and the only standard assessing the veracity of those accusations is our subjective feeling concerning the credibility of the accuser or the accused, none of us would be safe against the impugnment of his or her honor.”

The post was later deleted after backlash but Shakir followed-up in an additional post where he claimed he deleted the original because he “misused verses from the Qur’an to support an argument that would have been more correctly supported by another verse” and because “some people, especially sisters, have been harmed and I am not in the business of harming people.”

In another follow-up post he walked back his claim that Dr Ford needed four witnesses and said “anyone accusing someone of sexual violence, such as attempted rape, need not bring forth four witnesses to corroborate their claim. Furthermore, they are clear of any crime or sin unless after a proper investigation the accuser is proven to have lied.”

“While I apologize for that lack of clarity and any hurt it may have caused, I do warn against diminishing the power of patience and prayer,” he added. “There is always more that can be said about any issue, but I will take my own advice and shut up, pray, and be patient with Allah’s decree.”

The battle over Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court is over and the Republicans have won, they now have their long desired conservative majority on the Court. But, mark my words, this whole affair involving Kavanaugh and Dr Ford is far from over. The political, legal, and cultural ramifications will continue to echo throughout American society for years to come. I leave you with selected quotes from an article written by the British comedian Shappi Khorsandi, an article where she speaks not just about Trump and Kavanaugh but also about the winners of the recent Nobel Peace Prize.

Donald Trump Has Turned America Into A Place Where Victims Are Mocked And Being Merciless Is A Virtue

Shappi Khorsandi, 06 Oct 2018, independent.co.uk

Trump could not have mocked someone’s account of sexual abuse in the first week of his candidacy. He and the culture he represents have built up to this and they are still building.

I was delighted to hear that the Nobel Peace Prize has gone to two people fighting to end sexual violence rather than to a golf enthusiast with bog roll on his shoes who likes to publicly mock those who say they are victims of sexual violence. Restores faith, y’know?

Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were selected over Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un to win this year’s prize “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict”. Mukwege is a gynaecologist who, despite threats to his own life, has looked after thousands of people who have been sexually assaulted in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Murad is a 25-year-old Yazidi woman who was kidnapped by Islamic State militants and held as a sex slave.

Hold on, I need to repeat what happened because I don’t think it’s sunk in even with myself fully yet. The president of the United States of America stood on a podium, at a rally, and mocked a woman for telling her story of being sexually assaulted and everybody laughed and applauded. There isn’t a Nobel Prize for Utterly Sordid Bastardry so how he got a nomination in the first place is puzzling. Trump could not have mocked someone’s account of sexual abuse in the first week of his candidacy. He and the culture he represents have built up to this and they are still building.

In the Trump culture, being merciless has become a virtue. Those who are brave enough to tell their stories of abuse are “hysterical”. Speaking up against abuse and atrocities is seen as a weakness and those who do this must be mocked and humiliated.


Trump Red Nose.jpg

There is a compulsion that burns inside of me to share everything I read, especially if what I read is exceptionally well-written. Lately this compulsion has been burning very brightly indeed, mainly because I have been reading a plethora of brilliantly well-written articles on all sorts of subject matters. In that note please find below quotes from an assortment of said articles.

We have the comedian Dara Ó Briain on why right wing comics should make more jokes about Muslims, journalist Nesrine Malik on the increasing fabrication of media stories about Muslims, journalist Thomas Friedman on those crazy poor Middle Easterners, journalist Kenan Malik on the three-decades-long legacy of Salman Rushdie and his Satanic verses, and finally we have author David Macaray on why Trump (yes, him again) is exactly and everything we deserve. So good is this last article that it is presented in full.

Yes, I know, this seems like a lot but trust me, each article is worth reading, especially in full. As always links to the original articles are presented below. Enjoy!

Dara Ó Briain On Why Comedians Are Reluctant To Do Mock The Week

Steven McIntosh, 28 Sep 2018, bbc.co.uk

While there’s no shortage of aspiring stand-ups, one thing which is regularly commented on in the industry is how the overwhelming majority of comedians are left-wing. Lee Hurst and Geoff Norcott are among the few notable exceptions in a landscape where most comedians poke fun at Brexit or the Conservative government. “It’s a weird one,” Ó Briain says. “Right-wing comedy tends not to work so well just because there’s an element of what’s punching up and what’s punching down…it’s easier to make jokes when you’re attacking something that’s in power rather than attacking down. Any time somebody [on the right] complains about this, the answer is, go and write some jokes. For a start, you’re the one who believes in a free market, there’s a market there, so go and write some. People go, ‘Oh you don’t make jokes about the Muslims,’ – go for it. Listen, no-one is stopping you from doing all the Muslim jokes you want. You just can’t order me to do the jokes on the topics you want.”

The Thirst For Stories That Vilify Muslims Has Eroded Basic Principles Of Journalism

Nesrine Malik, 11 Sep 2018, newstatesman.com

There are times when the Overton Window shifts right before your very eyes. It is bewildering, with the texture of a particular kind of nightmare, where a horrific thing is happening but banality continues around it. You find yourself pointing to it in horror as it creeps away, and simultaneously falling in shock that everyone else is still going about their business. This is what it has been like to live through how Muslims are talked about in the UK. Over the past decade or so, reporting on Muslims has gone from dog-whistling to fearmongering, to complete fabrication without consequences. To observe it doing so has been to watch a race to the bottom of standards violation.

Crazy Poor Middle Easterners

Thomas L Friedman, 04 Sep 2018, nytimes.com

The Middle East could prosper if it would put its past behind it…

I greatly enjoyed the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” because, beyond the many laugh lines, it reminded me of an important point: Rich Asia has gotten really rich — not because it doesn’t have political, tribal, ethnic and religious differences like other regions, but because in more places on more days it learned to set those differences aside and focus on building the real foundations of sustainable wealth: education, trade, infrastructure, human capital and, in the most successful places, the rule of law. Most of Asia became prosperous not by discovering natural resources but by tapping its human resources — men and women — and giving them the tools to realize their potential.

It got me thinking that if someone were to do a similar movie about the Middle East it could be called “Crazy Poor Middle Easterners.” Because, with a few exceptions, this region has never been a bigger mess, had more people fighting over who owns which olive tree, had more cities turned to rubble by rival sects and missed its potential so vastly. The region of the world that should be naturally rich has made itself poor by repeatedly letting the past bury the future and the region that is naturally poor has made itself rich by letting the future bury the past.

The Satanic Verses Sowed The Seeds Of Rifts That Have Grown Ever Wider

Kenan Malik, 29 Sep 2018, theguardian.com

Three decades after Salman Rushdie’s novel ignited Muslim fury and shook the world, we’ve yet to learn the right lessons…Thirty years ago last week, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was published. Rushdie was then perhaps the most celebrated British novelist of his generation. His new novel, five years in the making, had been expected to set the world alight, though not quite in the way that it did…The controversy over The Satanic Verses brought into focus issues that have since become defining problems of the age – the nature of Islam, the meaning of multiculturalism, the boundaries of tolerance in a liberal society and the limits of free speech in a plural world. That, 30 years on, we still blindly wrestle with these issues reveals how little we have learned from the Rushdie affair. And how the lessons we have learned have often been the wrong ones.

Donald Trump Is Everything We Deserve

David Macaray, 28 Sep 2018, counterpunch.org

Besides the grinding, debilitating repetition, the reason I can’t bear to watch professional comedians do their Donald Trump shtick is that the material is so obviously based on the premise that this guy is somehow unworthy of being our president. That his being elected was a monumental goof, a mistake, that we don’t deserve him.

In addition to being insufferably smug and self-congratulatory, that assumption is demonstrably false. If we step back and take an unsentimental, warts-and-all look at ourselves, we realize that Trump is not only worthy of being president, he seems the obvious choice for it, the loathsome destination of an inevitable journey.

Consider: The U.S. is, first and foremost, a nation of consumers. Manufacturers know it, advertisers know it, the Ukrainians know it, and Trump knows it. Indeed, there’s nothing we Americans won’t buy if it’s properly advertised and promoted. And say what you will about Trump, but the man is, first and foremost, a fanatical salesman and promoter.

Consider: We Americans are practical people, which is why we don’t form queues at poetry readings. There’s no shame in that. We simply aren’t a nation of poetry lovers. But we do form queues (often unbelievably long, serpentine queues), beginning at midnight, waiting for the store to open so we can purchase the newest technology. That’s because we’re a nation addicted to buying stuff. And Trump knows how to sell stuff.

Consider: We gush over rich people. We idolize them. But because that realization seems vaguely “un-Christian,” we pretend we don’t. We tell our children that “money isn’t everything,” but we don’t even believe that ourselves. We are in awe of Wall Street because Wall Street is Taj Mahal rich. And Trump is rich.

Consider: We love celebrities, and Trump was a TV celebrity. We love glamour, and the Trumps are glamorous. Wife Melania and daughter Ivanka are exotic creatures. Granted, that is more a testament to cosmetic surgery than the generosity of Mother Nature, but exotic creatures nonetheless. And as much as we pretend to respect “authenticity,” we don’t. Plastic is good.

Consider: Unlike much of the world, we Americans have always despised intellectuals. We pretend we don’t, but we do. We resent cultural snobs, know-it-alls, smarty-pants media types, and “deep thinkers,” and we admire salt-of-the-earth businessmen, self-made moguls, and (counter-intuitively) military officers.

That’s partly because of our native egalitarianism, and partly because we don’t wish to be reminded of our ignorance. We prefer brevity and plain talk to complexity. We embrace slogans (“Make America Great Again”), and avoid nuance, ambiguity, and self-doubt. Arguably, if we don’t count Ronald Reagan, Trump is the most anti-intellectual president since Andrew Jackson.

Consider: We admire conspicuous muscle and power. Accordingly, as long as the combat doesn’t occur on our own soil, we prefer war to peace. We pretend we don’t, but we do. If that weren’t the case, our defense budget wouldn’t be so absurdly bloated, and we wouldn’t have been engaged in all the military adventurism that has defined us since the end of World War II.

Consider: We Americans are a narcissistic people. We pretend we aren’t, but we are. We don’t have to be tied down and water-boarded to confess that we think we’re the greatest country in the world. Not only the greatest country in the world, but very likely the greatest country in the history of the world. If that ain’t narcissism, what is it?

And yet, for all this, we still pretend we don’t deserve Trump? We still pretend to be surprised that we elected a shallow, dishonest, narcissistic bully as our president? As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be. So we must be very careful about what we pretend.”


Humour Tribunal

As always, this topsy-turvy world just keeps on getting topsier and turvier. There are so many contradictory things confusing me right now that I don’t know where to begin. As good a place to start as any is the mainly Hindu nation of India which has recently legalised gay sex. Meanwhile, the mainly Muslim nation of Malaysia sentenced two Muslim hijabi lesbians to be lashed for their crimes of passion, only to have the 93 year old Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad say this was too harsh a sentence. In a video posted on his Twitter account Mahathir said the caning “did not reflect the justice or compassion of Islam.” He said since it was the women’s first offence it warranted a lighter sentence such as counselling. “This gives a bad impression of Islam. It is important that we show Islam is not a cruel religion that likes to impose harsh sentences to humiliate others.”

Another example of the world teetering on the collective edge of darkness involves America whose military have now stopped giving some $300 million dollars in aid to Pakistan due to Islamabad’s lack of “decisive actions” in support of American strategy in the region. The US has also stopped all funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the body responsible for Palestinian refugees, and to USAID development and infrastructure projects in the Palestinian Territories. This is Trump’s way of continuing his diplomatic war on the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, in the historical heart and home of Islam, Saudi Arabia, arguably the richest country in the Middle East, continues to use American made weapons against the Muslim population of Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East (for more details on the use of American weapons in Yemen please see the excellent comic What America’s Weapons Are Doing to Yemen).

America might be divesting money from Pakistan, but the Chinese are pouring billions into the Islamic Republic, all in the hope of building a super highway that will reduce shipping times and costs for their mass produced global items. But at the same time the atheist Communist Party of China are detaining more than 1 million ethnic Uighur Muslims, along with other Muslim minorities, within its own borders. And how does China defend such actions? In a move that would have made George Orwell give a wry smile, China claims that the Muslim detainment camps are in fact “educational centres.” It almost seems like Muslims at home bad, Muslims abroad good.

In a similar vein, we have the Syrian town of Idlib, the last anti-government stronghold, bracing itself for a potential genocide by the Assad regime. And then we have our old friends the Saudis who, instead of trying to use their powerful influence to end the conflict, are doing more important things such as arresting a man for having breakfast with a woman. Confusing times indeed.

A final example of this encroaching madness is the political hysteria in Britain currently affecting both major parties. Labour, and their leader Jeremy Corbyn in particular, are being hounded for the alleged anti-Semitism that exists within its ranks. Yet there is nary a media flutter regarding the blatant Islamophobia that exits within the Conservatives. Case in point are recent comments made by the Conservative MP Boris Johnson, Britain’s former foreign secretary.

In a recent column in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, Johnson wrote that while he doesn’t support a burqa ban he does think they are “ridiculous” because they make women look like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers.” Johnson went on to write “If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree. I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.” He also said that if “a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber,” he would ask her to remove her face covering in order to speak to him. He added that humans “must be able to see each other’s faces.”

In case you missed it, there you have a sitting British MP making an intolerant and Islamophobic comment, which goes against his own party’s definition of British values taught in secondary schools up and down the land, values that demand mutual respect for, and tolerance of, those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. And he openly made these comments in a newspaper article. The comedian Zahra Barri responded by saying:

I can’t believe what Boris Johnson said about the burka. If anyone needs to cover their hair and cover their face, it’s Boris Johnson. – Zahra Barri

And I shall for the time being ignore Johnson’s more recent comment where he compared prime minister Theresa May’s Chequers plan (related to Brexit negotiations) to having “wrapped a suicide vest” around Britain and handed the detonator to Brussels.

Boris Burka

Boris Johnson may have said such Islamophobic things but Rowan Atkinson then tried to defend them. The British actor, best known for his portrayals of Mr Bean and Blackadder, said Boris’ comments were a ‘joke.’ Atkinson wrote to The Times newspaper, saying:

As a lifelong beneficiary of the freedom to make jokes about religion, I do think that Boris Johnson’s joke about wearers of the burka resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one. All jokes about religion cause offence, so it’s pointless apologising for them. You should really only apologise for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required. – Rowan Atkinson

However, according to journalist Nikesh Shukla, this form of defence leads us all down a dangerous path:

Whether Boris Johnson considers his comment a joke or not, the fact that it is being defended as such sets a dangerous precedent. It makes the comment itself beyond criticism and beyond reproach, because the context around humour is still that if you don’t get the joke, it’s your fault, it’s my free speech to say whatever I want. And that is not what good humour should do. Good humour should punch upwards, never downwards, nor sideways, further pushing people into the margins. If comedy is universal, and funny is funny, a joke should bang every time to everyone. But funny is not always funny. And rather than looking at who’s laughing, look at who isn’t, and why. You might learn something. – Nikesh Shukla, 10 Aug 2018, metro.co.uk

The words of Johnson are just another example of how throughout 2018 the boundaries of satire have been pulled, pushed, extended, contracted, and contorted. Comedy and the limitations we place upon it are being tested like never before. These are confusing times indeed, especially for people who are on a stage, standing in front of a microphone, staring at an audience, trying to tell a joke.

Kathy Trump

So far this year we have seen the quiet return of Kathy Griffin, a comedian who thought her career was over because in 2017 she posted both a video and a photo of herself holding the bloody head of Trump. Both pieces went viral almost immediately and created an uproar as planned. Griffin emotionally apologised for the distress the photo caused, and she was subsequently fired by CNN as a result. But then 2018 saw Griffin slowly return to the limelight, beginning with an appearance on the weekly talk show Real Time With Bill Maher in March, where she seemed to almost take back her initial apology. Her comeback continues when in November she is to be named Comedian of the Year at the first Palm Springs International Comedy Festival.

The #MeToo movement quite rightly slayed the comedian Louis CK, and perhaps more controversially fellow comedian Aziz Ansari, and now former senator Al Franken, who had to resign and did so rather controversially. Whilst the hoopla around Franken and Ansari has died down somewhat, the controversy around Louis CK continues to rage due to his attempt at returning to stand up. Louis received a standing ovation at New York’s illustrious Comedy Cellar when he performed an impromptu gig last month, a gig that has divided fans and critics alike.

And then you have the controversy surrounding comedian Mark Meechan, aka Count Dankula, who made a video of himself training his girlfriend’s pug dog to do a Nazi salute. Meechan was then convicted in a Scottish court of “inciting racial hatred.” The terrifying thing about this conviction is the judge sided with the prosecution who said “context and intent are irrelevant” in a joke. If ever context and intent are relevant then surely it is within something as subjective as a joke. The conviction caused fellow comedian Shappi Khorsandi to make the following rather discerning point:

This sets a frightening precedence for all of us. Anyone who takes offence at something which is meant in jest could eventually have a case to take to court…But it’s not just Count Dankula we are defending, the picture is far bigger than that. We are fighting not for this individual, but for the principle of free speech which right now is being fought for more robustly by the far right than it is by the left. This is a nonpartisan issue. You don’t have to agree with someone to fight for their right to say what they’re saying. Either you believe in free speech or you don’t. – Shappi Khorsandi

The American comedian Michelle Wolf was this year’s comedy speaker at the White House Correspondents Dinner in April. During her 19 minute set the comedian was scathing about Trump’s daughter Ivanka and his press secretary Sarah Sanders, who sat stoned faced throughout. Wolf stunned guests at the prestigious media dinner in Washington with a risqué speech that eviscerated members of Trump’s administration, some of whom were in the room. As expected Fox News hated every second of it, whilst liberals loved every word.

2018 was also the year that Roseanne Barr, 1980s TV show trailblazer, was going to make her big TV comeback. However, Barr, a vocal Trump supporter, ended up being fired after a rather distasteful racist tweet. Whilst Trump supporters were angry about such events, they were even more furious when Samantha Bee, a vocal Trump hater, was not fired for calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt.” For a while there, it looked like Bee might not survive the intense backlash that followed her use of the term to describe the first daughter and White House adviser during a segment about her failure to prevent the president from separating immigrant families at the border. In an interview Bee said “It wasn’t a great experience. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience, and I was very regretful that that moment really took away from what I was trying to say with the segment.”

We also have the aforementioned Saudis who are officially threatening jail time for online satirists. 2018 saw the Kingdom pass strict new social media laws targeting dissent, which means anyone caught using online satire to “disrupt public order” faces up to five years in prison and a massive fine. In an announcement published on Twitter earlier this month, the public prosecutor’s office said “Producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes and disrupts public order, religious values and public morals through social media…will be considered a cybercrime.” I guess some people really can’t take a joke.

Someone who most definitely has been disrupting the public order for many years is Sacha Baron Cohen. The actor and comedian, famous for creating comedy characters such as Borat and Ali G, returned to our TV screens this year with the 7-part political satire program Who Is America? Perhaps Showtime, the network who created the show, were being a little facetious when, in the run-up to the July premiere, promoted the series as “perhaps the most dangerous show in the history of television.” The show ended up receiving mainly mixed reviews across the board.

In one of the episodes there is a sketch where Cohen interviews Roy Moore, the former US Senate candidate from Alabama. In the sketch Cohen, disguised as Israeli anti-terrorism expert Erran Morad, demonstrated what he said was a new device invented by the Israeli army for detecting paedophiles. The device beeped whenever it was held close to Moore. After it beeped several times Moore walked out of the interview. And just when you thought this could not get any stranger, Moore is now suing Cohen. A $95 million lawsuit has been filed in the federal court of Washington DC by Moore, accusing Cohen of defamation for duping Moore into appearing on the show. Moore has also brought defamation claims against Showtime and its parent, CBS Corp, over the sketch that clearly portrayed him as a sex offender. The lawsuit said the show mocked him with a “false and fraudulent portrayal” that harmed Moore’s reputation and caused “severe emotional distress” to his family. I guess some people really can’t take a joke.

However, the biggest pusher of comedic boundaries this year has to be everyone’s favourite politician Donald Trump, a man who continues to thwart national and international security in order to ease his own personal insecurities. On numerous occasions White House officials have explained away many a Trump comment by simply saying that he was “just joking.” It is ironic that a man who once claimed to have the “best words” has so many of his presidential remarks chalked up to being just jokes. In a brilliant article columnist Neil J Simon explains in detail the dangers of using the “just joking” justification:

Perhaps it’s all just shrewd politics. Trump gets to say outrageous things that please (and stoke) his base while White House staffers clean up the mess with the press by brushing it all off as simply the president ribbing his audience. That probably works for surviving a news cycle. But ultimately it’s a strategy that diminishes the presidency and imperils America’s standing with the world. Or maybe this is just another one of the privileges of white male heterosexuality – that nothing you say can be held against you, that there is no accountability for your words. Either way, a White House staff routinely engaged in dismissing the president’s words as only jokes isn’t helping Trump get out of uncomfortable scrapes. They are telling the American people over and over again not to take this president seriously. It’s one thing for Americans – not to mention leaders of other nations – to view Trump as a buffoon on their own assessment. But it’s an entirely different matter for an administration to so frequently present its own president as a jokester whose words don’t matter, a shocking development in the history of the American presidency. If, as it has been said, there is truth in all humor, the truth of Trump’s humor is all too clear. He is a racist. He is a demagogue. He is no respecter of persons, of principles or of democratic institutions. – Neil J Simon, 05 May 2018, huffingtonpost.com

Serena Cartoon

Despite all these incidents (and many more that I simply do not have time to mention in any detail, such as the racist Serena Williams cartoon in the Australian newspaper the Herald Sun, or the conviction of comedy legend Bill Cosby of sexual assault and his upcoming sentencing, or the free speech discussions related to the Trump and Sadiq Khan blimps that flew over London, or the savage satire of Spike Lee’s movie BlacKkKlansman) comedy and satire still have power to influence and change, something that satirist Bill Maher recognised in his show Real Time With Bill Maher recently. In his closing monologue Maher called for the return of former senator Al Franken, himself a comedian and satirist, back to the political limelight to take on Trump using the power of satire:

We need Democrats to keep a laser focus on the one issue that really matters: finding out what is Trump’s kryptonite. I think it’s ridicule. The one thing that gets under his skin, besides red dye number two, is being made fun of. Remember how he seethed when Obama made fun of him at the Correspondents Dinner? The hair on the back of his neck stood up, which was fascinating to watch since it’s been transplanted to the front of his head. We need someone who can shred Trump like a stand up takes down a heckler, because Trump is a heckler, and to fight him we need a comedian. – Bill Maher, 07 Sep 2018

He ends the monologue by adding that:

It’s time to get Al off the bench so he can come back to doing what he does better than any other Democrat: taking down right-wing blowhards. I want to see Al Franken debate Donald Trump. And, by the way, so do you. – Bill Maher, 07 Sep 2018

Alongside the TV show Real Time With Bill Maher, let us not forget all the other shows out there all trying their best to keep Trump and his cohorts in check, shows such as (big deep breath): Jimmy Kimmel Live! With Jimmy Kimmel, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Late Night With Seth Meyers, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Late Late Show With James Corden, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, Conan With Conan O’Brien, I Love You America With Sarah Silverman, The Break With Michelle Wolf, The Opposition With Jordan Klepper, The Jim Jefferies Show With Jim Jefferies, Saturday Night Live, Unspun With Matt Forde, The Rundown With Robin Thede, and the upcoming show Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj. And that is just a list of TV shows, I am not even going to begin listing the dozens of successful online podcasts that regularly go after Trump.

The reason why I find myself looking so closely at the limitations of comedy is because of a documentary called The Last Laugh by Ferne Pearlstein. I saw this brilliant documentary only a few weeks ago and found it very thought provoking. The notion of what is acceptable for ridicule (which, let’s face it, will always be based on our own subjective moral values) is the subject matter of The Last Laugh. Can we make jokes about the Nazis and the Holocaust? Should we? Despite being made in 2016 it still fits in perfectly with all the ongoing discussions we have around the limits of satire. It opens with a quote from German novelist Heinrich Mann:

Whoever has cried enough, laughs. – Heinrich Mann

This statement on the strange pairing of tears and laughter is the focus of the documentary, which cuts between scenes with Los Angeles Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone and interviews with well-known comedians such as Mel Brooks, Jeff Ross, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Reiner, Judy Gold, and others. It is well worth watching if you get a chance. Here are some of my favourite quotes from this brilliant documentary. Enjoy!

The Last Laugh

Comedy puts light on to darkness, and darkness can’t live where there’s light. So that’s why it’s important to talk about things that are taboo, because otherwise they just stay in this dark place and become dangerous. – Sarah Silverman

I speak about the Holocaust all the time, but I enjoy life. I am so happy that I have three great grandchildren. Could Hitler imagine that I will survive and have three great grandchildren? I mean, that’s my revenge. – Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor

Humour is the weapon of the weak. Think about the things that we make jokes about. We make jokes about our bosses, we make jokes about death. When I was in the army we made jokes about our commanders. Our commanders didn’t need to make jokes about us. They just order us to do whatever they wanted us to do. – Etgar Keret

A great joke really does trump all rules. But it’s got to be a great joke. And the higher the stakes, the higher the standard for how good the joke has to be. A joke about a mother in law can be only slightly good and pass muster. But a joke about this stuff, such as the Nazis and the Holocaust, has to be like, you know, you are ashamed that you laughed at it but you are laughing because you can’t help yourself. – Harry Shearer

You can’t control how your joke will be inferred. I had a friend, Tom Janice, who would call it mouth-full-of-blood-laughs, where they’re laughing at the wrong thing. And that’s hard but it’s just no longer yours. I talked about the Holocaust and I said “the alleged Holocaust” and that’s a joke about Holocaust deniers. And a sophisticated audience would understand that and maybe a less sophisticated audience may not. I’m not saying that I’m sophisticated. But what are the dangers of that? That maybe a group of people will think that the Holocaust didn’t happen? I think that’s worth the risk? I think it’s worth the risk. – Sarah Silverman

We have greed and guilt and wars and genocides, and there is nothing we can do about it. I’ve read God’s answers, I’ve read Spinoza’s answers. There’s no answer. They’re both dead! And so the only way I can deal with the reality of it, the reality of existence, is to laugh at it. – Shalom Auslander

When I was about 18 years old my father came home from a business trip. And out of this box comes this most beautiful bathing suit. It had a satin shiny finish, the most beautiful floral print. And I remember parading around in this bathing suit around the swimming pool. And the boys whistled at me! And when they [the Nazis] came and escorted us out of the home, I put this bathing suit under my dress. I put it on, I thought nobody will know. And that’s how I left, and that’s how I arrived to Auschwitz. And we were supposed to get undressed to take a shower, and all of a sudden I felt heat on my face. One of the Nazi soldiers slapped me. I started to cry and I peeled this bathing suit off my body, I folded it very neatly, and I left it on the pile of my clothing. And with that bathing suit I didn’t only leave those memories, I also left my family, my friends, my neighbours, and six million Jews behind. So this bathing suit is always on my mind. – Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor

It was very much the notion that we made it, everyone who made it was part of this survivor community, and the obligation was to live well, love, eat well, have fun, get loaded at Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, and enjoy life. Because the true sin was if you didn’t, after that experience, then it was a waste and then Hitler would have had the last laugh. – Roz Weinman

Comics have a conscience of the people and they are allowed a wide berth of activity in every direction. Comics have to tell us who we are, where we are, even if it’s in bad taste. – Mel Brooks


Hajj Hands

We are nearing the end of the Islamic holy month of Dhul-Hijjah, the month of Hajj, in the Muslim year of 1439. In about nine days time, depending upon the sighting of the new moon, we will move into another Islamic holy month, Muharram, which will be the first month of year 1440 of the Islamic calendar.

The annual pilgrimage of Hajj is now over and most of the two-million-plus visitors to the holy land in Saudi Arabia will have gone back home, hoping they are spiritually reborn. With Hajj and the following Eid-Al-Adha celebrations still fresh in my mind, I thought it would be good to share a few of the better related articles I have recently come across. The three short articles chosen are written from a positive, honest, and personal experience, and they are presented below in full. I hope they provide a new and fresh insight into what Hajj and Eid mean to us Muslims.

I also came across a few interesting photo blogs from the Sunday Express, the Birmingham Mail, the Associated Press, and the UAE National. Some of the pictures are just simply breath-taking. If you get a chance please have a look. As always, enjoy!

Hajj Aqsa

A Palestinian man throws his child in the air following morning prayers marking the first day of Eid-Al-Adha celebrations, on the compound known to Muslims as Al-Haram-Al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City.

What All Americans Can Learn From Hajj

The Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca offers a model of unity in a culture divided by tribalism.

Tasmiha Khan, 15 Aug 2018, salon.com

Identity is what makes up the fabric of our communities, and connects us to our neighbors. It gives us a sense of belonging and security. But there’s a flip side: in the process of interacting with only those who are like us, we can alienate ourselves from greater society, sticking with our so-called “tribe.” In the past, tribalism has taken many forms: we’ve looked down upon caste systems. We’ve deepened the divide between the rich and the poor. As much progress as we like to think we’ve made, if you look around us there are also many degrees of separation. Are you Democratic or Republican? Suburban or rural? College graduate or drop-out? Tribalism is real and it is taking place in our own metaphorical backyards, under the guise of labels we don’t even feel comfortable discussing. Fortunately, we have moments such as the Hajj season to teach us how to come together despite our differences.

On a personal level, Hajj helps me situate myself in this world. As a Muslim American woman who chooses to observe the rules and regulations of hijab — literally, the veil — people often mistake me for foreign, although I was born here in the United States. With Ramadan passing and now Dhul-Hijjah, I look to my faith, Islam, to reflect and find meaning of my footing in this world for both myself and those around me.

Dhul-Hijjah marks the last month of the Islamic lunar year where one of the major pillars of Islam take place known as the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, that occurs between the eighth and 13th days of the month commemorating both Prophet Muhammad and Abraham.

During Hajj, Muslim pilgrims perform a series of rituals that dissolve the barriers between them. These rituals trace back 1,400 years, and their symbolism embodies unity among all believers: there is no distinction among people. More than two million Muslims show up to Mecca to complete these rites, as is obligatory on anyone who is financially and physically able to do so. All of us camp out in and around the Grand Mosque, The Kabah, and the surrounding vicinities such as Mount Arafat, Mina and Muzdalifa. There is a common thread among all: unity.

Hajj is considered to be one of the largest gatherings on earth, and with the high density of people in such close quarters, reality is stripped of all luxury. This experience allows one to be thankful for the blessings one has. It doesn’t matter if I’m American or born to immigrants. It doesn’t matter if I am a citizen or naturalized. It doesn’t matter how much I can earn or donate. What matters is my relationship to God and how I treat others around me out of love and fear for Him. Thus, I try my best to make it a point to engage in conversations with those who are dissimilar to me to debunk myths and promote cooperation.

As I take a moment to reflect on what this Hajj will mean for my community, I hope that mainstream society can also learn from Muslims. While Hajj is indeed a religious occurrence, it does not exclude individuals of other faiths — or no faith — from learning lessons of unity and sacrifice. Perhaps showing more compassion and kindness would allow us to flourish as a nation. Perhaps empathizing and lending a hand to the less fortunate would allow us to prosper as a society. Perhaps the problems within us can be lightened by lending a hand to those who may need it. The sky is truly the limit.

Hajj Quezon

Eid-Al-Adha at a public park in Quezon City, Philippines.

Eid Is A Chance To Celebrate The Wonderful Muslim Community That Shaped Who I Am Today

The best way to honour that is to be that backbone for others and pay it forward.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied, 21 Aug 2018, independent.co.uk

The meaning of Eid changes as you age, but like many religious festivals, it serves as a moment in time to come back to community. Whether it’s the “small” Eid after Ramadan (Eid-ul-Fitr) or the “big” one a few months later (Eid-ul-Adha), there is something about interrupting daily life for celebration and worship that never gets old.

Growing up, Eid wasn’t just the one day of prayer. It involved weeks of excitement in the lead up, such as shopping with my mother and choosing a new special outfit for the day. The house would be scoured until it gleamed (the Muslim version of a spring clean), and the requisite sweets were baked (or bought) before being duly laid out on heavily garnished trays for the visitors who would flood the house during the festivities. On the morning of, my father would wake us all up just as the sun rose, and we would go to pray.

These are my foundational memories of “community” as a child. Walking towards the large field behind the local Muslim school towards the lines of shiny blue tarpaulin that had been laid out before dawn and hearing the sonorous, soothing chant of worship wash over me: “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. La ilaha illa Allah, Allah Akbar, Allahu Akbar wa lilahi alhamd.” Smiling at each other as we passed, wishing friends and strangers alike an “Eid Mubarak”, blessings on blessings, good tidings for the year ahead.

Aunties – blood relatives or not – who I hadn’t seen in for a year would coo over “how much I’d grown”, uncles would loudly clasp each other’s forearms in greeting, friends would compare outfits. There would be food, laughter, and the soft drink and tea was always flowing. And although I didn’t realise it at the time, these people were the people who were moulding me into the person I am today.

As I grew older, I moved away. I started working on oil and gas rigs, and would spend Eid calling family and smiling nostalgically at photos on my social media feeds. Settling into adult life, Eid was now spent with friends in different cities around the world. We learnt to create our own rituals and traditions, but as it turned out, they always had something in common with our childhood experiences. No matter where we were from, we found ourselves striving to replicate that feeling: yearning for a sense of belonging, meaning, and ultimately, community.

The Muslim “community” is often referred to as a single monolithic entity, but rest assured that not all Muslims share the same conception of it, or even believe themselves to be a part of it. Are we all part of a “community” by default? How important are they? And how much of ourselves do we owe to them?

Spending time and energy thinking about and investing in the communal rather than the individual may seem quaint, old-school even, in a world inundated with messages of individual success. But it is worth tempering the hubris and remembering how much of who we are is a matter of chance. Our parents, our early education and even our place of birth have significant impacts on our lives and chances of “success”. Behind every winner is an army of people who have made it possible: a coach, a dedicated teacher, a mother working double shifts.

My achievements would have been impossible if it weren’t for my parents and the people who surrounded me growing up. The best way to honour that is to be that backbone for others. Pay it forward, if you will. After all, isn’t that what community is all about?

Eid Mubarak!

Hajj Girl

A girl joins a prayer to mark the first day of Eid-Al-Adha in Gaza City on Tuesday 21st August 2018.

What I Learnt On Hajj: It’s No Picnic, But Then It Was Never Meant To Be

The annual pilgrimage provided me insights and lessons that I use daily.

Saeed Saeed, 23 Aug 2018, thenational.ae

Whenever people are about to embark on the religious Hajj pilgrimage in Makkah, they seem to feel the need to ask advice from those who have already done it.

Because every Hajj is unique to each worshipper, the questions mostly revolve around practical tips on how to navigate a two-million-strong sea of white-robed pilgrims.

But my advice to my Mauritanian friend Yassine, who performed the Hajj this year, was all about what happens after the fact, and how he will feel when he returns to Abu Dhabi next week. “That’s when your real challenges begin,” I said.

I understood his miffed expression, because I had the same reaction when, eight years ago, before travelling to the Hajj from Melbourne, an Australian teacher called Sara told me just that.

“What is she talking about?” I thought. “The challenge is to actually survive the Hajj.”

As someone who isn’t comfortable in large crowds, I thought the pilgrimage would be the most challenging experience of my life. And in a way, it was.

To describe the Hajj as gruelling is an understatement. For nearly a week, you are following a regimen that is both spiritual and physical. Daily prayers are mixed with walks to worship stations alongside millions of people from different languages and cultures.

While that sea of humanity is a beautiful thing to witness, it can be quite frustrating, too. There were plenty of moments when I came close to losing my temper with other pilgrims in my Hajj group – one was constantly complaining about the facilities and the heat, while the other was always late to the bus, causing us to get stuck in endless traffic jams.

I resolved to keep my mouth shut, and hoped my muttered prayers would assuage my grievances. But even that was a worry. I was mentally running myself ragged in my quest to seek a spiritual high. I was concerned that, despite my efforts and the hefty sum of money I paid to make the Hajj, I wasn’t “feeling it”, so to speak.

But like the physical world, the spiritual realm can also be subject to the rule of hindsight. For me, the Hajj was indeed no picnic but, on reflection, isn’t that the point?

The lack of sleep, the gruelling tawaf (circumambulation) of the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Makkah and standing in the heat on top of Mount Arafat allowed me to discover hidden reserves of stamina and resilience I never thought I possessed.

The daily prayers offered in congregation gave me an understanding that a spiritual life is not about chasing one feeling, but is instead an evolving process that needs to be constantly nourished and refined.

Instead of an entirely new beginning, I learnt that the Hajj gave me the tools to begin to make the internal changes I seek. And that’s where the challenges that Sara spoke of lay. Gleaning those insights is one thing, but to use them in life to be the best version of myself remains a tiring and daunting process.

It is the equivalent of climbing Mount Arafat daily, and constantly stumbling on the way. But, with the map and the tool kit that the Hajj provided me, at least I knew which direction to head in.