London, July 13: Open any newspaper in the UK today and the two topics which govern any discussion on Muslims are women and extremism. Unsurprisingly, Muslim women feel these topics are inadequately addressed by Muslims themselves.
Time and again, extremists — claiming to speak in the name of God — successfully dominate the discourse on British Muslims without any effective opposition. Whether after the London bombings or surrounding the recent royal wedding when an extremist group threatened to disrupt the event, the opportunistic tactics of a small minority of extremists are continuously working to sow the seeds of discord in our society.
Meanwhile, little is being done to redress the wrongs facing many British Muslim women. With the worst health and as the most economically inactive group compared to men and women of other faiths, according to the Office of National Statistics, British Muslim women experience serious challenges. Add to this that some British Muslim women have been victims of forced marriages, female genital mutilation, so-called “honor crimes”, domestic violence or trafficking, and that a small but vocal group of religious leaders have responded to these crimes by denying the offences take place or even condoning such behavior. It may come as no surprise then to learn that YouGov, a British polling firm, conducted a poll last year in which 69 percent of Britons replied that they believe Islam encourages the repression of women.
With many Muslim women and girls from across the UK facing some significant challenges, a UK-based consultancy group called Inspire launched the Jihad Against Violence (JAV) campaign at City Hall in London this summer in partnership with the Global Muslim Women’s Shura Council. Inspire believes that women are key to the development and prosperity of any society. Through campaigns, community education and training, Inspire empowers women to help create cohesive societies and to fight extremism.
The JAV campaign acknowledges that Muslim women’s leadership has been under-represented within mainstream society and British Muslim organizations. It is based on the belief that Muslim women should reclaim the mantle of cultural, intellectual and moral legitimacy as equal citizens and contributors to society.
Jihad Against Violence is also about encouraging women and men to stand up to all forms of violence, to educate and raise awareness, and to challenge those who perversely use Islam to incite or carry out aggression. With the recent activism of Muslim women during the Arab Spring, it is heartening to see within two weeks of launching JAV, 150 men and women — both Muslim and non-Muslim — from over 24 countries have signed the JAV Declaration, a testimony that universal values cut across race, religion and gender. Inspire will soon be launching other projects in addition to this declaration under the banner of JAV, including a website with detailed resources, training within mosques and awareness raising campaigns.
The JAV declaration lays out the campaign’s main beliefs, calls the signatories to action and condemns extremist groups that have distorted the concept of jihad. Jihad, a word which we feel urgently needs to be reclaimed from extremists, is a core principle in Islamic teaching that encourages Muslims to strive and struggle for a just cause — requiring spiritual diligence, first and foremost, as opposed to solely ascribing the term to an armed struggle. Struggling for truth and justice is not possible without jihad — that is, without sustained and diligent hard work.
What can be a greater jihad in our day than working to eradicate extremism and terrorism, and promoting a cohesive and integrated society in which women and men work side by side?
JAV takes up the cause of Muslim women in Britain and inspires them to reclaim what they are and what they believe in, with no space for misinterpretation by others. It sums up its cause in the declaration with the following words:
“We believe, as Muslim women, we can no longer sit in silence while we watch the name of our faith being used to justify crimes. We believe it is our duty to make our voices heard and to reclaim our faith so that it is no longer hijacked by individuals and organizations who in the name of Islam incite and carry out violent acts of hatred and extremism and whose sole aim is to create a broken world.”
Sara Khan is Director of Inspire, an award-winning British Muslim consultancy focusing on tackling gender inequality, strengthening community cohesion and preventing all forms of extremism. You can sign the Jihad against Violence Declaration at www.wewillinspire.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service