Reflections and Remarks from Iran

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Iran. Firstly, to attend the International Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran which included attending Ayatollah Khamenei’s residence once again to hear him speak. He talked about the importance of standing up against injustice and unjust policies and said that for 40 years Iran’s example has been to stand up and resist without compromising on its principles.

Apart from the conference, I met senior clerics, including Ayatollahs, in Tehran and Qom, to discuss the challenges facing the Muslim Community in the West and the policies being enacted against them.

This included an invitation to the Office of Ayatollah Khamenei for a lengthy discussion. Whilst there I also met with senior management that oversees the international affairs and representatives of that Office.

I also had the time to speak to senior media management, political experts and academics, many of whom have know me through my journalism work for over a decade.

Not all of these people have the same opinion on everything. It would be selling Iran short to think that it is not like any other diverse and vibrant country, with its own political spectrum and its own internal politics that can sometimes get very complicated. Having said that, in the discussions I had with this varied group, the position was very clear across the board;

I was told that whilst there is something they call “extremism”, such as ISIS, which is a cancer inflicted on Muslims; this “extremism” is completely different to what the West defines as “extremism” and completely different to the Islamophobic policies that stem from these incorrect definitions that deem Muslims “radicalised” or “extremist”. I was told by all, including directly by seniors at the Office of Ayatollah Khamenei, that this latter definition and policy of “radicalisation” and “extremism” is rejected.

I was told that these two different definitions are completely separate and have no interaction. In fact, I was told by one senior cleric at the Office of Ayatollah Khamenei, that it is clear that the definition being enacted by Western governments actually means “all Muslims are extremists” which is a falsehood and is rejected.

I was told, that is why we have to be very careful to provide proper context when using these terms. I was told that we should not be calling each other “radicalised”, “extremist” or using government terminology or language via a framework that we reject. We should not be cooperating with these types of policies, we should not be promoting them implicitly or explicitly, privately or publicly, we should not be compromising in a way that facilitates or emboldens these strategies or the language they try to normalise and we certainly should not be receiving money from them.

Almost all the people I was invited to meet had read my recent articles, which gave us a good framework for discussion.

Whilst in Iran, I did not receive any negative comments about my articles. In fact, overwhelmingly the opposite happened and the professional, referenced and factual reporting was commended. It is not my style to divulge these details and I mention this for no other reason than to reiterate once again, that my personal experience as a British-Iranian journalist for over a decade, is that when it comes to Iran I have been free to do my journalistic work independently, seriously, critically and professionally and that I have been treated respectfully as a professional journalist doing her work in return.

This is a fact that has been proven once again with the publishing of my recent articles. Articles that were for and about the British Muslim community, and that happened to include some critique and feedback related to how Iran’s Islamic infrastructure in the UK is currently being managed. I am an independent political journalist therefore I do not need to seek permission to publish my work. As I explained in my articles, given the nature of the discussion, what I did seek was Islamic guidance pertaining to that aspect of the publishing. I would like to make it clear again that I was never once asked not to publish or told that publishing my articles are wrong – Islamically or otherwise.

Iran is not a totalitarian dictatorship that is intolerant of any form of debate, question or critique, or that tries to assert that mistakes can never happen. So as far as the issues pertaining to how their own infrastructure is being managed in the UK, this is being discussed and investigated, there is real concern and matters are being taken seriously. I have been given more information, but I think for now it is best to let due process take its course and hope that it is done in a timely manner, despite the administrative obstacles currently in its way.

In general, Muslim communities in the West face multi-faceted difficult journeys. A growing and toxic Institutional Islamophobia is one part of the story, the generational story of immigration; of multiple immigrant communities who are Muslim slowly becoming one indigenous “British Muslim” community is another. Then there is the counter push for a secular “British Islam” to sway this identity. This takes many forms, from debate around the hijab to Prevent.

To navigate this, we need strong leadership that can foster positive identifies in our diverse community. But that doesn’t exist. There is a lack of Muslim spaces and leaders who understand our realities and a lack of English speaking Islamic experts and clerics. Speaking English has therefore become a priority to demonstrate “expertise” over other factors. This has led to multiple problems; Islamic speakers who have not studied Islamic scholarship, Islamic scholarship students who must fill a vacuum before they are fully ready, or immigrant scholars with the years backing them up, but without the native knowledge to make the modern indigenous decisions we so desperately need.

Another hard truth is that there is a continued colonial mind-set of many of our teachers and students, especially teachers who come from middle-class, intellectual backgrounds in the Middle-East where they have often fostered intellectual and cultural exchange with the West – something that translates badly when faced with the political oppressions and lived realities of indigenous minority groups looking to their Islam for their local civil rights solutions.

On top of this, our Islamic hierarchy is outside of the country which presents its own complications; for example, our religious authorities often defer back to those with “on the ground” knowledge, but that ultimately has all the complexities and flaws that have just been described.

So, increasingly we have ended up with vacuums and stalemates that ultimately require everyone to become familiarised with the material to be able to make informed decisions; whether that be the layman who has never studied Islam and exists in this vacuum or the Ayatollah who has to familiarise himself with the increasing intricacies of a foreign socio-political reality.

That is not something that happens overnight. It’s a complicated myriad that most of us born and brought up here struggle to grapple with at times. Let alone try and explain to others! Because we are still relatively new and finding our feet, Western Muslim communities are often not given the correct agency; sometimes they’re just seen as extensions of foreign countries or communities. Sometimes they are misunderstood. Often their issues are not prioritised. Trying to bridge that gap in meaningful ways can be frustrating. That is not unique to Iran or to Shia Muslims. Our British Muslim community is a collective of Sunni, Shia, Iranian and not, black and white, immigrant and indigenous. This is our collective journey that we share together. We are trying to grow when so much is against us.

It is also important to recognise that the British Muslim community is a racialised/racial community, not necessarily to do with religiosity – this is something that even the practising and religious elements within the British community itself needs to recognise. Islamophobia is our biggest collective challenge and Islamophobia is a racism. When we advocate for the “British Muslim community” it reaches beyond those who attend our mosques or give credence to scholarship. The context is the society that we live in - an institutionally racist society in which marginalised racial groups, in this case “Muslims” have to fight for their civil rights.

If you are a Muslim of colour who has grappled with racism, this may seem obvious to you. But perhaps if you are a middle-class immigrant Muslim this concept may be alien, however much Islamic education you have had.

This is difficult introspection, but the Shia community; one with a small Afro-Caribbean membership and that is mostly middle-class has utilised a privilege that allows it to broadly assimilate in to British society and bypass any meaningful engagement in real civil rights activism. It has learned to hide behind its rituals to forgo its civil rights responsibilities almost entirely. The banner of Imam Hussain has become a cloth in our mosque. It is the cloth and the mosque that we are protecting. Not the banner and principles of Imam Hussain.

That is not to discredit the wonderful work of many in the community, or to say individuals are not sincere servants of Imam Hussain, but it is to take a step back and reflect on what we collectively represent.

The blunt truth is that our mosque infrastructure has over the last few decades proactively chosen interaction with the State and neutralisation and silence on issues deemed controversial by the State to “grow and protect” the community.

Last week, in a closed-door meeting I attended, mosque leaders and Imams from both Sunni and Shia schools were honest about why this silence takes place. Mosques have decided to build relationships with those in the corridors of power, to enter those corridors, and for what? Here are some of the reasons they give; to get planning permission approved at a local council, or to get easy registration at the Charity Commission, or to avoid problems with the Charity Commission, so they can have an economic model that will allow for them to expand the mosque building, which of course requires local council planning permission. You got the drift.

Every step of the way they have told themselves this is a worthy compromise to grow the community. But the truth is that somewhere along the road of compromise we have shallowed out our principles. There is no point of growing the brick and mortar of our mosque building if our mosques are at risk of losing the very essence of their meaning. This is the success of the counter-project against the growth of our Islam in Britain. And the proof is in the pudding. The proof is in the photo of London’s most openly aggressive Zionist in our biggest Hussayniya. Who have we – the collective we – the community – actually become?

My articles have been an attempt to highlight this point. To remind us that whether Islamically or on the principles of Civil Rights movements in this country, there are red lines that guide us and that we have crossed the lines in both regard. To maintain our sanctioned spaces we have accepted to throw ourselves under the bus. I have talked about this at length in the articles, so I will not repeat again here, but if the response to ringing this urgent alarm bell is the deductive remark “you can't disrespect a scholar” or “you can't talk about the mosque” or the position that “this government-funded person has done a lot for our community” – just know that given the reality of where we are and the clear facts, you have lost the argument; politically and morally.

Time is against you and is with those who are resisting, even if for a time it looks like your way is bearing fruit. I once asked a prominent Black decolonial academic in the United States how to deal with those in your own community who fight against you whilst you fight for them. He said, don’t forget that because you are fighting for justice for all victims of State oppression, your political activism is still for them. Fight for them every day that they fight you, because the day that their compromises bare no fruit, they will need you more than anyone else. Because on that day they will be perplexed but you will be prepared. That has always stayed with me and perhaps it is an anecdote that will resonate with others.

A positive that came out of my conversations in Iran, was to see that, for the most part, there is real interest in understanding the particular circumstances - the “complicated myriad” of Western Muslim communities. There is also an increasing recognition of the independent agency of these communities – that we have our own culture, our own circumstances and our method of resisting. The difficulties of bridging the gap of expert scholarship are also acknowledged; as is the fact that, in this regard, everyone needs to bring the correct tools to build a strong bridge together.

But it would be dishonest to say that, quite apart from the positive, engaged, constructive and respectful atmosphere of my conversations at senior levels, I have not also grappled with frustration.

For example, the frustration, when the head of one youth organisation bans my article from being shared and comes to the defence of a government-funded individual when the evidence of this funding is put forward. Of course, in this and other cases, this defence is because these individuals and organisations have very integral business dealings with these government-funded companies and individuals or they too receive similar government money, all of which can also be proven.

But at least we are now being a bit more honest and open about our positions on these matters. Transparency is important, because only when people are clear on their positions can we have meaningful dialogue. I’m against Prevent. I don’t believe it can be reformed. My position is clear. Once others are honest about their positions then we can all get round a table with the public and talk about why we hold the positions we do.

To be frank, it is a testament to how badly we are doing as a community, that we are still debating whether receiving money from Prevent is good or not. This shouldn’t even be a question, but unfortunately, that seems to be where we are at.

In fact, we are in a far worse position; we are at the point where this narrative has taken such a strong hold of our community infrastructure that it is openly calling innocent, ordinary Muslims “radicalised”, knowing what risk it puts them in. It was an unfair, unfounded and urgent risk to some individuals and groups in our community that ultimately led me to write these articles.

It would be disingenuous to say that it is not frustrating to see this be allowed to happen and to see that some in our community are more interested in smearing or endangering those calling this out, rather than fighting it happen in the first place.
Other times this frustration has been because, outside of the UK, our community hasn’t been given the worth and importance that it requires and things that are less important have been prioritised over our primary needs. This has at time caused unnecessary delays. These delays are primarily for political reasons that are costing our community dearly and need to be overcome or resolved.

I wanted to write to those who have been good enough to go on the journey of these articles with me! To acknowledge that sense of frustration that I know we have all at times felt, but to also give feedback from my trip and to express the positives of this experience.

Ultimately writing these articles and discussing these issues publicly has been overwhelmingly positive. In a way, that was the point; to show that standing up for what is right and resisting what is wrong, always feels positive regardless of the struggles it entails and to show, by example, that the scaremongering against doing so is mostly just that; scaremongering. There is a proper way of having respectful, educated and constructive debate and that this has been encouraged by our seniors throughout this process.

In our circumstances, Islam is not asking for our silence. It is okay to discuss these things in a proper manner. It is okay to resist. If you are a British student at a British university, you have the right to decide to resist Zionists on your campus. If you are a British organisation operating in Britain, you have the right to resist media smears against you. If you are a British teacher, or a parent, grappling with Prevent in your school or workplace, you have the right to resist this government policy. If you are a British Muslim being called “radicalised” by your mosque you have the right to call this out.

With the parents of Razzan Al Najjar, the Palestinian nurse shot dead whilst coming to the aid of injured protesters

With the parents of Razzan Al Najjar, the Palestinian nurse shot dead whilst coming to the aid of injured protesters

Finally, I also want to talk about the most memorable conversation I had whilst in Iran and how it stuck with me throughout my trip. At the closing ceremony of the Unity Conference, I was lucky enough to spend a short time talking to the parents of Razzan Al Najjar, the Palestinian nurse shot dead whilst coming to the aid of injured protesters. I kissed her mother many times. She cried as I told her that in the U.K. her daughter captured all our hearts and inspired every single one of us. That she had made more people pro-Palestinian with her sacrifice than any of us could in a long life of safe activism. That we had all cried tears with her mother and felt ashamed at our own uselessness in comparison to her brave daughter.

On the coach back to the hotel I thought about Razzan. She was 11 years younger than me. She was fearless. She walked through bullets to help her people and when she paid the ultimate price she left a legacy a long life never could.

I also thought about Ahed Tamini, 16 years younger than me. And how bravely and fearlessly she slapped that Israeli soldier.

I also thought of what was said at the closing conference, by Ali Larijani, that in the years to come many Muslim Governments and Muslim institutions will normalise with Israel but their people will loathe them for it. In the end this will weaken these governments and institutions. The people will rise up. The people will win.

As I thought of all that. I felt rather ashamed. After 11 years of political journalism, I have a much thicker skin than most realise, but I am only human! And the truth is the last few weeks have been a bit tough for me as there’s been an attempt by a small handful of people in the U.K. to personally smear me as being a liar, being against Iran, against the Ulema, against Islam, to try and create problems for me and damage my credibility - all because I wrote about important topics and facts that our UK community needs to be aware of.

Of course, I understood why it had to be made personal, because when there’s nothing left to counter with, you have to make it personal. You have to go low. And of course, I have always believed the only credibility that counts is the credibility I have in the eyes of Allah. If my worth was to be decided by public opinion, I would have made very different decisions in my life. These smears are nothing out of the ordinary for me. It’s just that they usually come from the far-right, Zionists, anti-Iran or anti-Muslim stooges!

But still, on that coach to the hotel I felt embarrassed in front of God that it had been difficult for me.

I don’t have to walk through bullets, I don’t have to be brave enough to slap an armed soldier. I don’t have to tolerate 40 years of sanctions like the Iranian people have had to do.

That feeling stuck with me throughout my trip, especially when I visited Qom and Mashhad.

My father, grandparents and great-grandparents are all buried in Qom. In the holy shrine, I walked from where my great-grandmother is buried in the courtyard, to where my father’s cousin, Ayatollah Bahjat is buried inside. As I sat there my Aunt recounted familiar stories of growing up around such a figure. From there I walked the few steps to my dear family-friend and mentor, philosopher and academic Dr. Ahmadi, who is now buried by Ayatollah Bahjat’s grave. The last time I was in Iran, he was alive, and I was able to use his knowledge and ask him questions.

Even though I knew the answer, I wondered what these important people to me would advise me today? I longed for the comfort of their physical presence just to hear them say the words. And I thought about that word brave. It can be a noun, a verb or an adjective. It can’t just be a word. It has to be who we are and our actions too.

All we have to do here in Britain is arm ourselves with knowledge and insight, stick together and just get a little bit uncomfortable to resist what is happening to our community. In the grand scheme of things it’s not asking a lot. Yet, unlike Razzan, Ahed and the Iranian people – we are not brave, we are not active and we are not resisting. And unlike our true intellectual teachers, we are too often teaching a colonised faux-intellectualism.

In Mashhad, I remembered each and every one of you, because I prayed for our entire community. Our fledgling, unique, diverse British Muslim community, trying to find its feet and its voice despite being either demonised or dismissed. It’s not easy to be heard or counted at home or abroad. It’s not easy when for some home is here and for others home is there, and neither “here” nor “there” fully understands the community we are growing up to be.

We have a long way to go and a long way to grow. So, I did the best thing I know how to do; I prayed.

I prayed that we become more knowledgeable, have more insight and that God eases our burdens by make us brave. And that God helps us to help each other become brave.

Because, imagine what we could achieve if we were!

To every single person who has been brave and resisted in any way, I salute you. You are not alone. Do not let yourself feel that you are. We are here. There are many of us.