The City Circle is an open circle for open minds

 In this episode of "Islam and Life", Prof. Tariq Ramadan asks Dr. Sinan Mir, of the City Circle, about we can maintain a moderate and balanced diet during the holy month of Ramdhan so we we can reap the health benefits as much as we gain spiritual ones.


On 16th July 2010, MADE in Europe and City Circle held a talk at Abrar House, London about the role that British Muslims can play in tackling global poverty.

The talk was chaired by Dr Usama Hassan from City Circle and the panel of speakers included MADE in Europe’s CEO, Saif Ahmad, Deputy Director for Middle East & North Africa from the UK Department for International Development (DfID), Giles Lever and one of MADE in Europe’s volunteers, Omayma El-Ella.

Dr Usama Hassan set the context for the talk with a quotation from the Qur’an, Surah Ma’un, which talks about how the formal ritual aspects of worship such as prayer are not sufficient unless they are accompanied by actively caring for the poor and oppressed.  He said that this is not just about putting money in a box but it should be a constant struggle to challenge structural inequalities.

Giles Lever from DfID talked about how one of the core ideologies of the new Government is that of the “big society” whereby individuals do not just look to the Government to solve every problem but think about what they themselves can contribute.  He mentioned the new Government’s plans to initiate an aid watchdog which will provide more transparency of spending and to give the public more say over what happens with aid money.  Giles noted that while there are many other ways to get involved in tackling global poverty, charitable donations remain extremely important especially in the economic downturn and that this should extend to people’s individual lifestyle choices such as buying Fair Trade Palestinian olive oil even though it is more expensive.

Saif Ahmad, MADE in Europe’s CEO, noted that the alleviation of poverty and injustice is given the highest priority in the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).  The Islamic systems of zakat (duty on Muslims to give 2.5% of annual accumulated wealth) and sadaqah (general charitable giving) provide a mechanism for Muslims to do this.  He talked about how he has had the opportunity to travel and witness poverty first-hand and how he was shocked by how desperate the situation is especially in places like Darfur in Sudan.  Giving money to tackle poverty is very important but we should not stop here.  In the Qur’an, Allah tells us to stand up for justice and MADE in Europe is just one response which aims to build up a Muslim youth movement to tackle global poverty working hand in hand with a worldwide coalition of people of other faiths and none.

Omayma El-Ella who took part in MADE in Europe’s Act Global project in which she travelled to Sri Lanka to work with conflict-displaced communities then talked about why she got involved in the project.  She said that MADE in Europe was the first organisation she had come across which involved Muslims in this way and in particular provided opportunities to Muslim women.  Through her experiences on the Act Global project she came to realise that there are not enough Muslims (and especially women) involved in  volunteering in the field despite the fact that the majority of natural and manmade disasters taking place are in Muslim countries.

The panel’s opening speeches were followed by a Q & A session from the audience.  On the issue of the relationship between the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) and DfID, Giles clarified that there is a good relationship between them but the FCO does not have any say over DfID’s programme budget.  A further question was asked about the impact that public lobbying and campaigning can have on DfID’s policies.  Giles gave Gaza as an example saying that Ministers are aware that this issue is extremely important to the British public and therefore take this as a priority issue to tackle.

One audience member asked the panel for advice on getting a job in international development.  Saif Ahmad responded that volunteering experience is the first step to understanding the area.  He advised that often people are academically prepared for roles but do not show sufficient passion for the work which lets them down.  Giles noted that it is a very competitive sector and you need to think about what skills you will be bringing to the table.

The event closed with the reflections of the panel.  MADE in Europe’s CEO advised that as Muslims we need to remember the life of the Prophet (pbuh) and contextualise his message for today’s world so that Muslims are seen at the forefront of the fight against global poverty and injustice.

Sarah Atkinson
Director of Operations, MADE in Europe

My Mercy overcomes My Anger
Mon 26 May 2008
Source:  Usama Hasan / The Times Online (Credo)
"With the Name of God, All-Merciful, Most Merciful" - all but one of the 114 chapters of the Koran begin with this phrase. Millions of people around the world begin their daily activities - prayers, meals, journeys and meetings - with this statement. All divine revelation to humanity throughout history is summarised in this formula. Mercy is the essential divine quality, superior even to love. We are not only made in God's image, but in the image of the All-Merciful.

Both these names of God denoting mercy, al-Rahman and al-Rahim, are derived from the Arabic root rahm, which means "the womb". The Divine Mercy is thus feminine, all-encompassing, nurturing and nourishing. The world is a place where the names of God, numbering 99 in the Koran and infinity in reality, are manifested or reflected in created forms. Rain, bringing life, crops and food, is an obvious manifestation of mercy: "It is He who sends the winds, spreading the good news, heralding His Mercy," as is repeatedly said in the Koran. Or, as Portia expressed it in The Merchant of Venice: "The quality of mercy is not strain'd; / It droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven / Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless'd; / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."

But anger and wrath are also divine qualities: "for I am an angry God," we are told in the Old Testament, and "truly, your Lord is swift in reckoning . . . severe in punishment," in the Koran. Anger is related to justice, and this is manifested at the human level in the natural anger that we all feel at injustice and oppression, at news stories about war, terrorism, murder, rape and incest. Yet, there is a golden principle relating anger and mercy, woven into the very fabric of creation, as taught by the Prophet, peace be upon him: When God created the creation, He wrote beneath His throne: "My mercy overcomes my anger."

Natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, despite being mediated via physical, scientifically measurable processes, are unmistakably manifestations of God's anger in the violence of nature. Yet there is always the hidden mercy behind human suffering, the silver lining to every cloud. I visited the earthquake-hit regions of Pakistan two years ago and saw the immense outpouring of human compassion from around the world in the shape of relief supplies and workers, and the limitless supply of human courage in the survivors. This effect had been even grander, of course, with the Indian Ocean tsunami a year earlier. More recently, I met a young lady in London who was once brutally assaulted, raped and left to die, and three young men who were imprisoned abroad for years and tortured, in three different countries. The mercy of God gave them the strength and endurance to recover fully from their ordeals.

"Angry young men" - how often do we hear that phrase! (Of course, women and old men get angry, too.) If they're angry about injustice, it's justified. But wouldn't the world be a much better place if, inspired by God, our mercy overcame our anger and we had more "merciful young men"? Or, to quote Portia again: "And earthly power doth then show likest God's / When mercy seasons justice."

The Prophet taught: "Show mercy to others: God will show mercy to you." He also once pointed to a loving mother who was hugging her child upon finding him again after having lost him for a while, and asked his companions, "Do you think that this mother would ever throw her child into fire?" They replied: "Of course not." He remarked: "God is even more merciful to humanity than this mother is to her child." He also taught that God divided His mercy into a hundred portions, and sent one portion down to Earth. This portion is divided among every loving family and tender relationship, every couple and every mother and child, throughout the animal and human kingdoms. The remaining 99 portions are reserved for God to shower upon humanity in the hereafter.

Thus, if all the tenderness and compassion in the world is but 1 per cent, so to speak, of the limitless mercy beyond, we can indeed face life and death with plenty of hope.

Dr Usama Hasan is an imam at Tawhid Mosque, Leyton, East London, and a senior lecturer at Middlesex University. He is also director of the City Circle

How not to deal with al-Muhajiroun

Thu 18 Jun 2009


Yahya Birt argues that we need smarter ways to deal with al-Muhajiroun rather than promoting their provocations or banning them.

Muslim communities around the country have shunned al-Muhajiroun and its various entities for years and refused to give them a platform. Instead, they have to work through front organisations, hire private halls, set up high-street stalls or leaflet people with their poisonous little tracts. They are utterly marginal but are still able to generate huge coverage through provocation. Their recent barracking of British troops returning from Iraq and a counter mini-riot in Luton has poisoned relations in the town. The Muslim community of Luton, which had already chased them out of the mosques, has taken to chasing them off the streets too in a desperate bid to signal their utter disgust and consternation.

Anjem Choudary's latest wheeze to incite the ire of the national press and to irritate the hell out of Britain's Muslims as well as everyone else is to use a legal loophole to relaunch al-Muhajiroun this week, which had been disbanded in 2004. Only its successor groups, al-Ghurabaa and the Saviour Sect, were banned in 2006 under terrorism legislation. It seems fairly clear that Choudary expects, and indeed makes the calculation, that the reformed al-Muhajiroun will be banned pretty quickly to generate the notoriety and street-cred that he wants to sustain. As they play a propagandistic role, they will continue to find ways to dodge past legal restrictions by using coded language or forming new entities. The law is obviously a blunt and ineffectual tool.

Well Choudary got his headlines yet again last night when a debate with Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC) on sharia law verses UK law never got started, ending in acrimony and thuggish behaviour after about half-an-hour. Al-Muhajiroun used their own goons to enforce strict gender segregation at the event, and roughed up at least one person who objected, and so the event was abandoned and the police were called in.

I called the CSC earlier this week as I had concerns that they were just being used to promote Choudary's latest wheeze and that I had my suspicions that the so-called neutral event organiser, the mysterious Global Issues Society (GIS), was just another al-Muhajiroun front organisation, a suspicion that was proved spectacularly correct last night. The Centre had its concerns too but wanted definitive proof that GIS was a front if it was to pull out at such a late stage.

Prior to last night's debate it was clear that GIS had:

1. Booked Conway Hall as a student society at Queen Mary's under false pretences. No-one from the local student Islamic society had heard of them and the college authorities had no record of any student group registered under that name.

2. Had only organised a handful of "debates", all of them involving al-Muhajiroun representatives.

3. The event was heavily promoted by al-Muhajiroun itself through its own website, and they provided a lurid poster and their own contact number for the event.

4. No-one knowledgeable about the Muslim activist scene in London had heard of them.

At the event itself:

5. The security "hired" by GIS turned out to be just more associates of al-Muhajiroun who enforced their gender segregation code.

6. The so-called neutral chair appeared to be associated with al-Muhajiroun.

Now the CSC says it acted in "good faith" in accepting this invitation, an assertion that can't be left unchallenged. At the very least, CSC showed questionable judgement in giving the GIS the benefit of the doubt when there were so many legitimate suspicions about them. It seems probable that the CSC was more focused on highlighting their own campaign for a quick ban and burnishing their reputation as a scourge of radical Islam by playing up to al-Muhajiroun's all-too-familiar tactics.

If instead we want to use debate to expose and de-legitimize al-Muhajiroun further, the only way to do it would be to organise a neutral platform with a proper invite list. Most importantly, a debating opponent is needed who could take on Choudary and win among the disaffected and radicalised segment of young Muslims that al-Muhajiroun hopes to recruit from. Douglas Murray better fits the role of an anti-Islam bogeyman, who memorably described Islam as "an opportunistic infection" at a memorial conference for Pim Fortuyn in February 2006, a statement he is yet to resile from. Murray's mere presence was no doubt designed by Choudary to buttress further the siege mentality of anti-West radicalism and self-righteous victimhood that al-Muhajiroun promotes.

The lesson of this little fiasco is that the stoking of an Islam-West controversy has become predictable, exploitable and even somewhat of an industry. The question is: how to break the cycle and construct better alternatives? Frustration, despair and even ennui at the current standoff is just a cop-out and we need to do better: so, over to you, any suggestions?

Yahya Birt is a Trustee of the City Circle and writes in a personal capacity.