x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

All we are saying is: Give peace a chance

British Muslim women launch campaign to reclaim Islam and against extremism. Interviews with hijab-wearing female rappers Pearls of Islam, Inspire founder Sara Khan and high-powered lawyer Ifath Nawaz, who sits on government think tank to fight Muslim extremism.

Sakinah, left, and Rabiah Abdullah make up the hijab-wearing rappers Pearls of Islam.
Sakinah, left, and Rabiah Abdullah make up the hijab-wearing rappers Pearls of Islam.

More British Muslims are tackling Islamic extremism and reclaiming their faith from the fanatics. Mary Murtagh meets four remarkable women who are spreading the word about their religion and its non-violent message

A common bond unites two rappers, a lawyer and a community activist, despite the fact that these women have never met. Each is taking a stand against the hatred, extreme views and violence carried out in the name of the religion they hold dear. And they are making waves worldwide with their Islamic message of peace and reconciliation.

The Abdullah sisters, Ifath Nawaz and Sara Khan are undeterred by their critics who use the internet to undermine their efforts. Instead, these women use intellect, creativity and passion to fight back against the negativity surrounding their religion.

The rappers Rabiah and Sakinah Abdullah use their music to evangelise about the Islam rooted in love and justice that they follow.

The lawyer Nawaz has the ear of the British government and uses her influence to make sure that the moderate Muslim voice is heard.

The activist Khan's "jihad against violence" campaign, launched in June, quickly put her and her cause on the international stage. It continues to gain momentum and attract supporters.

Here, these four inspirational Muslim women share their motivation for standing up and being counted in the name of Islam.


Rabiah and Sakinah Abdullah, rappers

The hijab-wearing rappers Pearls of Islam are used to raising eyebrows.

Their unique brand of music turns its back on the usual rap lyrics about violence and greed and celebrates Islam instead.

The Pearls of Islam band members and sisters Rabiah and Sakinah Abdullah are part of a growing Islamic music scene that seeks to spread religious and pacifist messages, rather than angry or money-obsessed ones.

"We're not everyone's cup of tea," says Rabiah. "Sometimes we get a mixed reaction - there are people who love us and then others who don't know how to act when we perform. As soon as we stand on stage wearing a hijab, that says something. It says that we are not who you think we are. It's sending a message out and people just have to deal with it.

"I hope that we are inspirational for young Muslim sisters. Some people do not agree with ladies going on stage and that's fine, we respect their views. But we do not have to justify ourselves."

The Pearls are passionate and enthusiastic performers. On stage they wear brightly coloured hijabs and get their audience singing along with songs such as Spiritual Refuge and The Guide.

They rap; sing Islamic songs of praise, nasheeds, in both English and Arabic; recite poetry; and do spoken-word performances playing traditional doumbek and djembe drums as accompaniment.

Sakinah, 22, has just graduated from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies with a degree in Arabic and Islamic studies. Rabiah, 24, runs her own business as a herbalist. The sisters live at home with their parents and three siblings in east London. The whole family is musical and supportive of their musical careers.

"My mum is from Guyana and my dad is Jamaican and, because of our African heritage, rhythm is in our blood; my mother loves to sing," says Sakinah.

The Pearls play local council events and sacred music and interfaith music festivals where there's a market hungry for female singers.

"There's a huge Islamic entertainment scene and it's growing. We are our own niche because of the fact that we are women and there are so few women on the scene," says Rabiah.

Unlike other acts on the Islamic entertainment scene, the Pearls are not political or controversial in their songs. They prefer to sing about their love of their religion, and spread the message about peaceful Islam.

"All our songs are about love," says Sakinah. "We could sing about forced marriages and injustices that go on around us inside and outside of Islam, but really we are a bit hippy and just sing about love and peace. Those issues are important and other people do sing about them but Islam has another side away from the controversy and politics. No one was representing the spiritual side of Islam so we sing about that.

"Islam is beautiful and our experience of Islam is about a peaceful and spiritual journey."

The Pearls have sparked debate on the internet, with some insisting that what they are doing is forbidden, or haram.

"We have had people arguing online and saying what we are doing is haram and that we'll go to hell," says Rabiah. "To hear that is quite hard when I see what we do as a form of worship. It's upsetting when someone tells you that you'll go to hell. We are not scholars and we are not going to pretend that we are. But we really feel we are spreading an important message about our religion.

"When the media talks about Islamic extremism, it brings tears to my eyes and I get very emotional because that's the total opposite of Islam. If we went back to traditional Islam we wouldn't have suicide bombers."


Ifath Nawaz, solicitor

Ifath Nawaz uses the law to champion her religion.

The solicitor educates those running Muslim organisations on how to keep out extremists as part of her leadership role at the Association of Muslim Lawyers (AML).

The AML's ground-breaking legal roadshows take place across the UK and help mosques and others to ensure they operate within the law. A major focus is understanding the anti-terror laws and promoting transparency so that radical speakers and extremists do not gain a foothold.

This pioneering work has earned the 46-year-old Nawaz a Top 20 ranking on the Muslim Women Power List issued by the UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission, and an invitation to give a talk entitled: "British Muslim lawyer making a difference" at Dar Al-Hekma women's college in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in recognition of her inspirational work at the AML.

Nawaz was picked by the British government to join the influential task force of the "Preventing Extremism Together" Working Group on Security, Policing and Islamophobia, set up after the July 7 London bombings. That work gave her an insight into the justifications given for terror attacks, what British Muslims feel about the UK and what needs to be done to fight Islamophobia.

"Islam is a religion of peace and we didn't want the Muslim community to be held responsible for the actions of a minority," says Nawaz. "It was wrong to persecute the whole community. I was able to contribute a lot and I was listened to. I was able to get across what a lot of Muslims were thinking."

The task force identified issues such as Islamophobia, deprivation and opposition to the war in Iraq as contributory factors to extremism.

"There were 63 recommendations made by the task force but one of the things that we found was that some Muslims felt they had no legitimate means for expressing themselves and their frustration," says Nawaz. "That is one of the reasons why extreme views were being picked up from radical speakers or the internet."

Her organisation Muslimah runs workshops for community groups, women's groups , local authorities and mosques in which Muslim women are encouraged to become more active in politics, the workplace, mosques and their community.

"I've seen lots of women come out of their shells, such as grandmothers inspired to learn English so they can talk to their grandchildren, as a result of the training," says Nawaz.

Alongside her roles at the AML and Muslimah, Nawaz, who is married with three children, works part time as a solicitor for a local authority near her home in Hertfordshire.

Explaining her motivation as community campaigner, teacher and legal expert, she simply says: "I don't toe anybody's line and I try to pursue justice in everything I do."


Sara Khan, community activist

When Sara Khan launched the "jihad against violence" in London on June 5th it sent shock waves around the world.

The attention-grabbing campaign by Inspire, a community organisation set up by Khan, aims to reclaim the word jihad from Islamic extremists and terrorists.

It clearly hit a nerve, because within days the campaign had backers from Spain to Saudi Arabia and subsequently earned coverage in The New York Times and on Radio Australia.

"Islam is a faith for peace but it's become synonymous with violence and all things negative," Khan says. "We could not sit in silence when our faith was being used to justify terrorism. We decided to do something about it. We want to reclaim the word jihad - which has become a bit of a bogeyman word. What jihad really means is to struggle and apply oneself for a just cause. The extremists have ignored 1,400 years of Islamic history and taken that word to justify their violence. We couldn't allow  extremists to justify violent acts in the name of Islam, that's abhorrent."

The campaign's aim is two-fold: to challenge violence against women, from domestic abuse to female genital mutilation, and to fight violent extremism.

"We have had a very good reaction to the 'jihad against violence' campaign," says Khan. "There's been a lot of interest from around the world. So far, people from 25 different countries have signed up to the campaign and the media has been really interested because it's something led by Muslim women. We were expecting some negativity and there have been some blogs which have been negative but, on the whole, the campaign has been broadly welcomed."

Inspire campaigns, lobbies, hosts conferences and produces literature. But it is in the grass-roots, face-to-face work it does with British Muslim women that it's really making a difference. Khan and her team run workshops that aim to empower Muslim women and tackle the ugly face of extremism head on.

"We deal with some heavy topics and sometimes it's the first time these women have ever been asked: 'What's your opinion?'" Khan says. "We hear some very shocking stories but the next minute we'll all be laughing. There are arguments and discussions across a wide range of issues. Sometimes we have women who are in complete denial about the fact that we have extremist British Muslims.

"Other times we have mothers whose sons and daughters have come back from university radicalised and who are talking about the infidels and watching jihad videos. Those mothers have no idea what to do in that situation and who to go to. We tell those mothers that if your child comes home from university spouting extremism that they can challenge it."

The workshops teach participants how to use religious texts that are moderate and rooted in the Quran to rebut the arguments used by radicals to justify extremism. Because of their success, the workshop programme is due to be rolled out to reach men, Muslim community groups, mosques and imams.

"There's a very worrying minority of young British Muslims who believe that attacks against the West are justified, because they have been swayed by Al Qaeda," says Khan. "There are people who close down a debate by issuing a violent threat. The consequences of that small minority can be huge. This is a worrying trend and we are standing up against it."

Khan, who is British-born with Pakistani parents, set up Inspire in 2009 with a "catalyst for change" mission statement because she felt the major challenges that Muslim women faced in 21st-century Britain were not being tackled. She turned her back on a promising career as a hospital pharmacist, and went back to university to study for a master's degree in human rights, in order to follow her real vocation - working in the community with Muslim women. Inspire was borne out of that passion.

Khan, 31, who is married with two daughters aged 2 and 5, has taken her cause to the highest echelons of power by advising the government on tackling radicalisation.

"Islam is about justice, and perpetuating injustice in the name of Islam is unacceptable," she says. "To do nothing is not an option."



Four noted female Muslim campaigners

SHIRIN EBADI Honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, Ebadi is the first woman to have become a judge in Iran, a position she achieved in 1975. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 meant that she was fired from her post and given clerical duties. She and the other women who were dismissed protested, and she eventually resigned. During her subsequent time as a housewife, she wrote several books and had her articles published in journals. She gained a lawyer's licence in 1992, and set up her own practice through which she represented several victims in high-profile cases. She has co-founded several associations, lectures at universities, was involved in research with Unicef, and had a law ratified that prohibits any form of violence against women.

AYESHA IMAM Imam, the recipient of the 2002 John Humphrey Freedom Award from the Canadian human rights group Rights & Democracy, is a widely published Nigerian activist on women's rights, human rights, democracy and sustainable development. She is a board member of BAOBAB for Women's Human Rights - a non-governmental organisation that focuses on Nigerian women's legal rights - and, with her colleagues, has risked her life to ensure women are treated fairly and not subject to unjust punishment under harsh and discriminatory interpretations of Sharia.

NAWAL EL SAADAWI El Saadawi, 80, is Egypt's leading women's rights activist, and a sociologist, a medical doctor and a militant writer. She graduated from the University of Cairo in 1955 when most women did not go to university; wrote about subjects such as Arab women's sexuality and genital mutilation when such subjects were considered taboo; and became Egypt's director of public health when women did not hold high positions in government. She was dismissed from her job because of her constant campaigning for women's rights, and imprisoned in 1980. She founded the Arab Women's Solidarity Association from prison in 1981, an organisation that was banned 10 years later. After her release, she kept up her campaign for what she believes in, and continues to do so.

NAHED TAHER After Taher completed a PhD in Economics from the UK's Lancaster University in 2001, she became the first woman to be hired by the National Commercial Bank in her native Saudi Arabia - a distinction achieved in a country where women are not even allowed to drive. In 2005, she became the first woman to head a bank in the Gulf region, as co-founder and CEO of Gulf One Investments Bank, which is headquartered in Bahrain.

McKenzie Mandich