Exotic England

 Exotic England Cover England may be a small country on a small island, but its inhabitants have always had a boundless curiosity about the world beyond their shoreline. From the nation’s modern origins in the Renaissance, travellers have eagerly roamed the globe and been enticed by the diversity and richness of other civilizations. And while this appetite for adventure has often been tainted by aggression or exploitation, the English have also carried within them a capacity to soak up new experiences and ideas and to weave them into every aspect of life back home, from language and literature to customs and culture. Here we trace this golden thread of otherness through five centuries of English history to reveal how it has shaped the buildings, flavoured the food, powered the economy, and created a truly diverse society.Today, when England is no longer synonymous with Britain and the English ask themselves who they are, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown paints a sumptuous and illuminating portrait of who they have been and brings a fresh, invigorating perspective on what ‘Englishness’ really means.

Refusing the Veil

  This topic divides people – and it will divide readers of this book too. Many Muslims worldwide either support or adopt religious veiling, and those who argue against it are often criticised, or worse. But, according to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, the veil throws up a number of concerns, from questions of health and freedom of choice to issues of gender and personal identity. She argues that veiling conceals abuse, propagates eating disorders and restricts access to sunlight and exercise. It is imposed on babies and young girls, allows women to be shamed for not covering up, and has become associated with extremist factions. It demonises men, oppresses feminism and presents obstacles to performance and success. It even encourages racism, distorts Muslim values and strips women of autonomy and individuality. Written from a unique perspective and packed with personal experiences as well as public examples, Yasmin addresses the ultimate question of why Muslim women everywhere should refuse the veil.

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Shame the Rich

In the eighties I wrote articles on ghastly yuppies, effervescing with expensive champagne and inflated egos. One of them poured his bubbly over my blouse when I tried to interview him. How they all laughed. In the nineties I met incredibly young dotcom millionaires, bright but vacuous. That was also the time when, encouraged by Margaret Thatcher, the middle classes suddenly wanted to be shareholders. Those were early signs of a major cultural and economic shift. But not even the great prophetess of the free market could have predicted that GB would become the epicentre of global greed and vicious inequality, a modern Herod’s Temple, where profiteers gather and lucre is worshipped. Christ drove out the money makers from the old temple in Jerusalem. Here, they are welcomed, given free rein and warm hugs by HMRC and our governments. Now the London Eye has been taken over by Coca Cola, the final insult.

These indulgences are, we are told, essential, because without profit makers economies would collapse. Their extreme wealth leads to better living standards for all. That, it turns out, is a myth or illusion or downright lie. Bankers, investors, the upper classes and big businesses rake it in while the rest of humanity is damned.

Last December the BBC brought us 3 programmes on The Tatler, the rag read by those who spend ten thousand pounds on a pair of cuff links. This week the broadcaster gave us The Super-Rich and Us, written and presented by the astute Jacques Peretti, who previously made The Men Who Made us Fat and The Men Who Made us Spend. The documentary exposed the wolves and their pampered families, their sense of entitlement, self pity and disdain. The Countess of Bathurst, a landowner who organises polo matches felt severely misunderstood by the hoi polloi: ‘They don’t know what it means to be people like us. We do work incredibly hard’. Then there was Tony Fernandes, who owns the QPR football team and Air Asia. No, with 650million pounds, he was not as rich as some. I know what he means. A millionaires school mate of mine who has a beautiful house in South London weeps because she can’t afford to buy a house in Holland Park. A distant relative who owns seventy five posh properties is furious because he can’t buy his son a job on the media: ‘ What good is this money if I can’t get him his dreams? We people suffer too you know’. He offered me £50,000 to see if I could pull strings. And then accused me of hating the rich. True, I do hate the rich who think they are the chosen ones, who think they can live by their own rules, pay no taxes, who feel no obligation to those who have less.

Back in Uganda, several of my uncles, now dead, were millionaire businessmen. But their employees were paid a pittance and their own families were torn apart by feuds. That was in the sixties. Today employers have the same mean spirits. Workers are denied a living wage because the shareholders and directors must have more-  their next big car, yacht or mansion. We now have companies– Vault Couture is one such- which manage the possessions of men and women who buy too much and then feel lost in their forests of plenty. Here, take the sick bag…

Half the world’s wealth – 110 trillion dollars- belongs to the top 1%. Eighty five of the richest men and women own as much as the poorest 50% of the world’s population. In the next decade, those who have too much will get even more, that is according to Oxfam. John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York and Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, are both men of the establishment and of the wealthy Church of England. They warn that economic growth pursued maniacally has increased  inequality, an ‘evil’ which must now be tackled. The warning appears in a new collection of essays, On Rock or Sand, published this week. Cameron rejected these calls and then ‘urged’ employers to pay their workers more than the bare minimum wage.

Don’t tell me governments are powerless. Japan and the Scandinavian nations have maintained relative equality through these hard years and since rabid free marketers took over the globe. Japan was once a feudal society and still retains deference, but its leaders understand how fairness makes for a better society for all.

Some powerful voices in the most cutthroat economies are now speaking up. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts  senator, for example, told Rana Foroohar, a Times magazine columnist: ‘ I’d lay [wage stagnation] right at the feet of trickle-down economics…We’ve tried that experiment for 35 years and it hasn’t worked’.

Democracy will collapse and aspiration will die unless we turn back from this disastrous ideology. Our leaders won’t do that. But when the masses have nothing left to lose, they may rise and light a bonfire of vanities. As they have done through history. This may be a seditious thing to say, but it is what billions of people worldwide are thinking.

The Independent, 19/1/2015

Freedom and Muslims

I do not understand what has happened. Millions of Muslims- particularly in the west- have become inward looking and closed off as the world becomes more open and connected than ever before in history. Our Prophet said: ‘God has not created anything better than reason, anything more perfect that reason’. Yet what do we see? Reason overtaken by killing rage and the crushing of the most fundamental human desires- freedom.

My book Refusing the Veil was published just before Christmas. It criticises the practice and its revival and confronts the spread of Saudi backed Islam across the world. Some female Muslim acquaintances invited me to a small gathering to discuss the book. These were reasonable, educated women. Here are some of the comments made:

‘Why did you have to write this, who gave you permission?’

‘Even to think these thoughts is wrong, you go and publish them? If you were in a Muslim country you would be in jail.’

‘If your mother was alive she would have slapped you for writing this’ When I replied that she refused the veil when she was 22, the woman came back: ‘ Then I feel sorry for you. She was the sinner and she made you one too’.

‘OK I have not read the book because it will dirty my pure thoughts, but if you are a Muslim, you follow Islamic rules without question. Are you even a Muslim?’ The fact that I am married to an Englishman only makes me more suspect and sinful.

Only two out of fourteen women defended my right to write the book. But then said they could never challenge Islamic practices so openly. To many such believers my mind is too free. ( How can a mind be too free?) Not all Muslims think like this- I have had warm responses too, but not publicly. They are too scared to speak up in the present climate.

This retreat from light to darkness is a modern development and a very disturbing one. I love my faith and fear for its future and the minds of millions of followers. I ceaselessly fight against racial and religious discrimination and western foreign policies which cause so much damage in the Middle East. But I am also grateful that I live in a place where I can speak freely, vote in fair elections and make the most of my life. The mayor of Rotterdam, of Moroccan background reflected the frustration of integrated Muslims when he said on Tuesday ‘ Pack your bags and f*** off home’.

Unelected Muslim leaders condemn terrorism well enough, but I do not hear them saying out loud and clear, that we have inherited freedoms that must not be taken away by men of violence.

Countless Muslims living in Islamic states would die for the life we western Muslims have. In Pakistan, Afghanistan, most central Asian states, Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Libya, even ‘liberated’ Iraq, people know they must not say what they think about their rulers or their Imams, not even to neighbours or friends. The only choice is to conform and live, keep your boiling thoughts locked in your own head. When in 2010, the Arab Spring unexpectedly arrived, Muslims rejoiced as they tasted freedom for the first time ever. I was in the Middle East in the most optimistic months. Spring turned to winter and even harsher restrictions were imposed everywhere. Now disappointed and frightened Muslims try to flee every day, to get to places where they can earn a living, be safe, most of all be themselves. Those people on boats who turn up on Europe’s shores want what the brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, had before they blasted it all away. And what do these terrorists or followers of terrorists do? Go off to join Isis, to live under its ruthless rules, as Coulibaly’s wife, Hayat Boumedienne has just done. Last week in Saudi Arabia Raif Badawi, a young Muslim who set up a free speech website was flogged fifty times. He awaits 950 more lashes and nine years in jail.

The past has a lot to teach us Muslims. Between the 8th and 16th Centuries, science and philosophy flourished across the Muslim world. Our first English scientists paid homage to the Arab thinkers, their evidence based work and questioning minds. That was when we were civilized.

During colonialism Muslim nations struggled against European rule, but were smart enough not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Though denied freedom of expression and democratic votes by the rulers, they wanted and valued those rights. Liberationists did not think those were ‘corrupt’ western values. Some of them were inspired by great European thinkers. For example, in 1899, Qasim Amin, an Egyptian, wrote The Liberation of Women. His arguments are similar to those of John Stuart Mill – that for society to progress, females had to have freedom and equality.

At the moment their countries became independent, elected leaders proclaimed freedom and democracy. ( Though soon afterwards, most of the nations turned into repressive autocracies)

Even in the home, humble people were passionate about freedom, political and personal. My mother’s generation, for example, would not let daughters into the kitchen before they had finished school: ‘ You must free your mind. We were told to cook, clean, marry and have children. Same life for all of us. But we mothers want something different for our daughters- to become independent, educated.’ Loving liberalism went hand in hand with deep faith and a moral life.

Freedom is a heavy responsibility. It cannot be limitless as many westerners have claimed this week. Public discourse is expected to be within bounds of decency and respect; language matters and the wrong word can incite high emotion. With internet mobs, this can get ugly fast. State power in Europe and north America overrides the citizen’s right to know or speak. Then there are all those ways in which free speech is monitored and regulated- laws in particular. Even in the 21st Century anti-Semites cannot sound off in our media and threats of libel action can stop the most assiduous investigations. Over the last two decades our free society has fallen into a damaging licentiousness. These things are never simply black and white or about them and us.

But without freedom and autonomy, humans become mental slaves. On Muslim websites adult Muslims today ask bearded old men if they can travel on busses or clap their hands or have birthday cakes for their children. Imams order mums to over the hair of young girls. White women converts tell me they are happier living within with rules, when decisions are made for them. And every day, free will is denounced as a sin. Conservative Muslims have no choices and don’t want them.

Last year I met and talked to a Somali man who had started to get in with al Qaeda types. He is wiser now but told me he was brought up in an unhappy home where the father was cruel and children had to do as told. They got him a wife he couldn’t relate to. He knew nothing about sex. He had never developed his own personality: ‘ I just had to do as they say, my father, the uncles, the Imam. In school they ask me what I think. I don’t know how to think. I was angry all the time, burning like a fire. I was born in a free country but they kept me a prisoner. My son will be more free. But I hope he has a better life’. I hope he does too. And that his father can keep him from radical Islam.

A version of this appeared in the Daily Mail, 14/1/2015

The Monarchy

As you know by now, Prince Andrew is accused by a woman known as Jane Doe 3 of being ‘forced’ to have sex with him when she was a teenager. He was named in court documents in the US and the tabloids have been full of further salacious claims. Buckingham palace forcefully denies these allegations. The story will not end there, but for now that is all we can say on this particular scandal. It should, however, raise questions about our monarchy, its role and position, the devious, secret way it operates.

The Magna Carta was signed eight hundred years ago. In June 1215, rebellious Barons got King John of England to sign a charter that guaranteed them status and entitlements and protected the Church from royal interference. The document did not give every subject fundamental equality and rights. It was a charter by and for the upper classes. Still, there will be events marking this much mythologized moment throughout 2015. Ok, so, let join in with this latest national commemoration, part truth, part fantasy. It may encourage us all to contemplate and renew our faith in liberty, freedoms, fundamental human rights and democracy, which came much later.

But how can we renew our faith when the family at the top of the social structure undermines every one of the ideals and principles that our nation proclaims at home and abroad? The incantations sound hollow and meaningless. Lets us go back to Prince Andrew, the prodigal son. The Palace has never denied that he has, for years, been cavorting with insalubrious billionaires and vicious autocrats. Human rights? Why should an ageing, playboy Prince care about those? Prince Charles is matey with Arab despots too. The next time you feel the urge to denounce Robert Mugabe, remember these Royal appeasers. Yes Blair, Clinton and Bush also had these unsavoury friendships. But they lost power, eventually. Our Royals can carry on sleazing indefinitely.

Freedom of speech and expression is held up as a shining British value. But the Queen and her brood can and do stop the media and authors from pursuing legitimate investigations, from asking tough questions. They come down so heavy, seasoned journalists shake with terror and give up. The BBC has been stopped from broadcasting two programmes fronted by Steve Hewlett, a seasoned and much respected multi-media man. If we, the people, had been allowed to watch the programmes, we might have seen how the palace used scheming spin doctors to erase Diana from national memory and to replace her with Camilla and how Charles goes way beyond his constitutional role and so on. I don’t blame the BBC. Lawyers employed by the royals are like Alsatians, fiercely protective and very sharp. Imagine what the reaction would be if, say, Tony Blair stopped the BBC from broadcasting a critical programme on his activities. Britons would be outraged. But with the Royal family, there is only quiet acquiescence. We are subjects after all, the great brainwashed.

The Queen, Duke, her children, and grandchildren are not covered by the freedom of Information Act. We may not know how much money they have and earn, certainly not how much they pay in tax. Those barons who got the Magna Carta signed knew more about royal finances than we are allowed to know today, this age of glorious transparency. Once in a while, we get to hear of private jets and costly jaunts, but the conversation is quickly shut down by a largely loyalist fourth estate. What about power? As Owen Jones writes in his book, The Establishment, ‘ In practice…members of the Royal family have a powerful platform from which to intervene in democratic decisions. Prince Charles, the designated successor to the throne has met with ministers at least three dozen times since the election…’His correspondence with ministers is still kept from the public eye. Transparency is for only for plebs and politicians, it seems. The royals sit among the clouds, at the summit of the secret state and look down on us.

If we accept this accept this settlement we cannot be a proper democracy. When some – whether wicked, stupid, or even wonderful- inherit limitless privileges and untold wealth, and are handed the highest positions in society, we, the rest, are lesser beings. Humans in Britain are not born equal, cannot be equal. ( Incidentally, the Queen has not yet visited a food bank or breakfast club for hungry kids. Too grubby that sort of thing.) We will not have a credible meritocracy until this unholy edifice is dismantled. I know monarchists will say privileged families are found in strong republics too and that this system gives us stability and unity. All bosh. Wealth is indeed passed on by the rich everywhere, but they are not subsided by their nations, and they are not revered as immortal beings.

Britons don’t believe in God much anymore. They hate politicians too. Instead most of them worship the Royal family. William married Kate, had a baby, became the stuff of fairy stories and celestial dreams. But the nation cannot stay in this reverie forever. Reality will call. I hope I live to see that day.

The Independent, 5/1/2015