2887In 2014, a series of allegations surfaced about schools in Birmingham. The central claim was that a group of Muslim men had conspired to take over governing bodies in order to “Islamise” schools. The story quickly became a national – even international – scandal. The media descended on a small corner of Birmingham, and the ripple effect went up to the highest levels of government.

Yet three years later, there is still no evidence that there was a conspiracy. So what happened? I spent over a year working on a piece for the Guardian’s long-reads section, investigating events at Park View – the school at the centre of the scandal – and schools affiliated to it. I spoke to former teachers, students, politicians and council workers to try and build up a picture of what happened and what went wrong in the handling of it.

Three years on, the Trojan horse affair remains perhaps the best known and most polarising story about Britain’s relationship with its Muslim citizens. For many, the story has come to symbolise the failures of multiculturalism and the threat that hardline Islamic ideology poses to the future of the country. It was mentioned in the 2017 Ukip manifesto, and it is rare for a month to go by without some reference to the scandal in the rightwing press. (Several reports this year in the Telegraph and the Times have warned of a “new Trojan horse plot” in different parts of Britain.) For others, it is a confected scandal promoted by rightwing newspapers, the product of a climate in which all British Muslims are viewed with suspicion, and complex questions about faith and integration are reduced by politicians and the media to hysterical debates about terrorism.

You can read the full story over at the Guardian, and the clipping is below. (I also wrote about the Trojan Horse affair at the time, in this 2014 article for the New Humanist)

Trojan Horse Long Read

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india_pakistan-620x413On the 14th and 15th August, Pakistan and India celebrated their respective Independence Days. This year, which marks 70 years since the Partition of India, the celebrations were accompanied by reflection. There has been a cultural reticence around discussion of the deep trauma inflicted by Partition – the ripple effects of which are still felt today.

In a piece for Prospect, I wrote about historians who are trying to gather oral histories of Partition – a project which is fast becoming a race against time as the last generation with vivid memories of this seismic event die out.

Oral history is particularly important given that there has been no major public reckoning with the seismic event of Partition. There are no memorials for the dead, no national reflection as there is today in Germany after the horrors of the Holocaust, no reconciliation committees as in Rwanda after the genocide. There are several possible reasons for this: not least the circumstances of Partition, which involved not only independence from years of subjugation but the birth of two new countries.

For The Pool, I wrote about the gender-specific traumas faced by women. In addition to a broader cultural reluctance to talk about Partition, these stories are hampered by stigma around sexual violence.

Urvashi Butalia, Indian feminist historian and author of The Other Side of Silence, has written about the gendered impact of Partition, and the need for a true engagement with this history: “Women were raped, kidnapped, abducted, forcibly impregnated by men of the ‘other’ religion, thousands of families were split apart, homes burnt down and destroyed, villages abandoned. Refugee camps became part of the landscape of most major cities in the north, but, a half century later, there is still no memorial, no memory, no recall, except what is guarded, and now rapidly dying, in families and collective memory.”

On a (slightly) more cheerful note, my 93 year old grandmother spoke to BBC Woman’s Hour about her own memories of Partition, when she was one of many privileged young women who joined the relief effort by working in refugee camps. You can listen online – she’s about 25 minutes in and is followed by a historian talking about the impact Partition had on women.

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Syrian women protest in Aleppo Photograph: Women Now for Development

During my recent trip to Lebanon, I spent time with various refugee-focused organisations, and had the privilege of meeting some inspiring Syrian grassroots activists. Here are the stories I wrote.

Syria’s ‘disappeared’: families demand to know fate of their loved ones (Guardian)

In Syria, over 60,000 people are missing – detained by the state or rebel groups. I spoke to a group of Syrian women – spread around the world – who are campaigning to find out what happened to their missing relatives.

Syrian feminists: ‘This is the chance the war gave us – to empower women’ (Guardian)

During my time in Lebanon, I spent time at the offices of Women Now for Development, a remarkable grassroots organisation. They and other feminist activists in Syria and neighbouring countries are challenging patriarchal norms, to ensure they have a place not just at the negotiating table, but in rebuilding the country after the war.

Our home became very far, very far”: how singing about Syria is bringing refugee children together (Prospect)

While I was in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley – where many Syrian refugees live – I saw a children’s choir, where songs drawing on traditional themes of longing, migration and land are giving refugee children a voice.

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Dama school, Bekaa Valley (photo: my own)

I recently travelled to Lebanon, one of the countries where the Syrian refugee crisis is felt most acutely. There are well over 1 million Syrians currently residing in Lebanon, a country of only 4 million people. Around half of these Syrians are children, meaning a huge scale educational crisis as Lebanon’s already struggling public school sector.

In response to this crisis, Lebanon introduced a “second shift” for refugee students. This offered a lifeline to many families, but it also entrenches segregation. In a piece for IRIN, the humanitarian news service, I wrote about some of the complex challenges posed by the education crisis, and the importance of integration within the classroom.

Although the second shift system has obvious benefits, it comes with its own set of problems. By the afternoon shift, teachers are exhausted and learning time is compressed. “Human resources are stretched very thinly,” explained Oscar Wood, co-director of Seenaryo. “There are not always new teachers in the second shift, and core staff like heads and senior leadership have to stay all day.”

You can read the rest of the piece over at IRIN.

ensafFive years ago, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes. His crime was starting a website that discussed liberal ideas. In June, I interviewed his wife, Ensaf Haidar, who now lives in Canada with their three children. She has been campaigning tirelessly for his release.

The think tank Freedom House has characterised the media environment in Saudi Arabia as one of the “most repressive in the world”; Badawi is one among dozens of prisoners of conscience. But, despite the risks associated with talking freely about politics and religion in her home country, Haidar is defiant. “I always thought Raif had the right to express his opinions and engage in whatever public debate he wanted to. My opinion hasn’t changed. I would do nothing differently if I could go back. This is the 21st century. It was his right.”

You can read the full interview over at The Pool.

As well as being a freelance writer, I am deputy editor of the New Humanist magazine and often cover issues related to free speech and secularism. (I’ve also written before about Raif Badawi’s case.)

I wrote a column in the latest issue of the New Humanist about the tragic death of another free-thinker, self-described humanist Mashal Khan who was murdered at his university halls in Mardan, Pakistan.

For all the public outpouring of grief and anger, there has been little attention paid to the law itself. Introduced by the British during colonial rule, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are among the world’s most repressive. Attempts at reform were halted entirely after the assassination of two politicians advocating the cause in 2011 – Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti.

The rest of the piece is here. I’ve been writing about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for many years now – starting with this 2011 piece for the New Statesman. I’ve also written about violent attacks on atheists in Bangladesh. You can find more examples of my coverage on these issues elsewhere on the website.

website ukEver since the Brexit referendum result last year, Britain has been in a prolonged period of political crisis and upheaval – which, with the shock election result, shows no signs of abating.

I’ve been reporting on British politics for various outlets. I still cover the UK for Deutsche Welle online, and reported throughout the election cycle, including this on Theresa May’s motivation for calling an election, this on the local level campaigning in marginal seats, this on May’s attempt to conjure a cult of personality (before her popularity ratings plunged dramatically), and this on how it all backfired.

I also wrote a long feature for Al Jazeera looking at the history of the Labour party, its equally long history of internal division, and comparisons between the 2017 and 1983 manifestos:

For its first 100 years, Labour’s spells in national government were sporadic. But its dominance of the British left was near total. Since the 1920s, there hasn’t been any serious threat to Labour as the dominant progressive political organisation. From the outset, it incorporated many views. “Labour has to be a broad church if people on the far left want to have any chance of electoral success and if people in the centre want to be able to vote for an alternative to the Conservatives,” says Charlotte Riley, a history lecturer at the University of Southampton.

Just a couple of weeks after the election marked a year anniversary since the referendum. I wrote this for Deutsche Welle on how British people feel a year on, and this for Al Jazeera gathering expert comment on what has already changed.

The last month has also been marked by tragedy. I wrote this for Deutsche Welle about the Grenfell Tower disaster, and this about Britain’s poor infrastructure. In the aftermath of the Finsbury Park attack, I also wrote a piece for The Pool about Islamophobia in the UK.

Finsbury Park is a multicultural area, bustling and busy. Ethiopian cafes sit next to tapas bars and Arsenal-supporters’ pubs. Narges Ali, a 31-year-old doctor, grew up in the area. “I was so shocked to see the news about the attack. It was so close to home – literally and metaphorically, because Finsbury Park signifies what I love about London,” she says.

 

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Illustration by Winnie T. Frick for Guernica

During a long trip to Pakistan last year, I visited Gwadar, a remote coastal town in the far reaches of Balochistan. This province is huge, underdeveloped and home to a long-running separatist insurgency. Gwadar, a remote outpost of a remote region, is the unlikely centre of geopolitical machinations. As part of a huge programme of economic cooperation, China and Pakistan are seeking to develop Gwadar’s deepwater port into a major shipping destination. This forms one part of the ambitious “China Pakistan Economic Corridor”, which will see a new trade route – stretching thousands of miles – go through the length of Pakistan, connecting China to lucrative Middle Eastern markets.

The area is tightly controlled by the military; I was on a press trip organised by the army. While the trip was designed to show that Gwadar is open for business, it was difficult to escape the disjunction between the language used by officials, and the anxieties of local people, who have a deep-seated – and well-justified – concern about displacement and about the resources of their province being stripped away. I wrote about the trip, and the troubled history of Balochistan, in a long essay for Guernica magazine.

He clicked onto the next slide, a circular chart detailing the military strategy in Balochistan. It was a crudely drawn dial under the title “People Centric Approach,” with a caption below reading, “Love Begets Love.” There were seven points on the dial. The first six all read, “Love,” in green lettering. The final point was in red. It read, “Selective Use Of Force.”

You can read the rest over at Guernica’s website.