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Land, Loss and Love at the Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019

The Platform - Sun, 14/07/2019 - 03:02

This year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest brought us experimental new masterpieces in storytelling and cinematography, with narratives highlighting the struggle to navigate a rapidly changing world.

New films Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese and The Black Tree (El Árbol Negro) by Máximo Ciambella and Damián Coluccio are astonishing works of art, neither feeling at any point like a documentary.

Both films were screened at Sheffield Doc/Fest, the UK’s best opportunity to delve into the minds of filmmakers around the world. Unlike most documentaries on offer, neither film includes interviews or exposition, or a linear ‘beginning, middle and end’ structure. Rather, by weaving together art, abstract narrative and anger, both films capture stories that feel real, human and haunting.

They are, however, very different films. Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You uses grotesque imagery and jarring audio to condemn a nation, and The Black Tree combines mythology and lush cinematography to chart an indigenous community as they struggle for their rights. 


Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You

This film is not just a final goodbye to Mosese’s mother, the woman who gave birth to him. It is a declaration of emancipation from his motherland. Mosese currently resides in Berlin, exiled from the Kingdom of Lesotho in southern Africa. A visual goodbye to a home nation, his first feature-length film seethes with resentment, anger and deep sorrow.

Memory ripples through the film, which comprises chaotic shots of discarded shoes, abandoned buildings and rubbish dumps interspersed with abstract narrative threads – a silent, resolute and sweating woman dragging a heavy cross through dusty Lesotho streets full of astounded, jeering crowds. A lamb that loses its way from its flock, which we later see skinned, on a butcher’s back, before a crowd of men tear its carcass apart. A mother in a cage-like hut, knitting a thick mask completely over a small boy’s face under a burning sun. Despite there being no common thread linking these moments, there is an overwhelming feeling of being lost, anxious and suppressed.

The scenes are punctuated by a series of goodbye letters, voiced by a female narrator. The letters unspool a narrative that begins with a farewell to a mother, gradually increasing in scope to include a furious defection from a mother nation.

The changes in his perspective begin with his personal relationship to his mother. The narrator recalls adoring her, “You were wearing your blue dress. You were beautiful.” His mother embraced a new religion, leaving behind the adored mother of his memory. Her dresses grew longer, her hair became “too sacred to show”. She once loved Michael Jackson, but all the tapes and books in the house were replaced with sermons and scripture. The change parallels Mosese’s relationship with another cherished mother – his nation – which, when outside of it, he sees differently.

“I saw you through the white man’s eyes. I was ashamed,” the narrator confesses. It is an unexpected, perhaps taboo, message, and one we never truly understand in full. We never uncover what it is about his mother and homeland that forced him away, but his pain and anger are tangible through the blunt, venomous statements.

Mosese has spoken frankly about feeling torn between wanting to criticise his home nation, while not wanting to feed colonial perspectives, describing himself as “a prisoner of political correctness, in a way”.

Suffocating on his own silence, this film is Mosese’s liberation, freeing a voice he felt was silenced from all angles. By bidding his mother and the land, goodbye, he is giving up the need to defend either.

It is a difficult film to watch – a dozen or so people left the theatre at various points throughout the screening. It occupies an unusual, sometimes unfathomable, space between documentary, performance piece and epistle, tackling sentiments that take a while to fully absorb and appreciate. Abstract and palpably painful, it demonstrates the trauma that erupts not only in loss, but in realising there is little space in which to express the breadth of that loss. 


The Black Tree

“There was a time when the sky was below, and the earth was above. They say a Great Tree connected them both. Its roots reached the region of the dead, its canopy was mistaken with the sky.”

The Black Tree is a beautiful hybrid of mythology and documentary. Following the struggles of Argentina’s indigenous Qom community, parallels are drawn between the approaching erasure of their community and the reversal of sky and earth in their ancient mythology. This conflation of the supernatural, ancient world to the real and shifting one is a storytelling technique we also see in La Vida En Común, another film about an indigenous community in Argentina screened at Sheffield Doc/Fest this year.

According to the legend of the Great Tree, a great fire disrupted the world, reversing the sky and earth and burning the Tree black. It is said that hardly anyone can remember the Great Tree anymore, but he who finds his way to it will be able to talk to birds, break curses and cure diseases. Farmer Martín Barrios is presented as the man in search of this Great Tree. Facing a fight with the authorities for his community’s rights, and attempting fruitlessly to understand why his goats are dying, finding the Great Tree mirrors his quest to put the balance of the world back in place.

Martín seems to live in an isolated paradise within forests near Formosa, a province in northern Argentina. The cinematography is gorgeous, capturing the lushness of the forests at their most wild, untainted and beautiful. This wilderness is in danger, as corporate agriculture becomes increasingly prominent. Scenes of forests being decimated contrast with the Eden-like panoramas of untouched landscapes, and with the ethereal scenes of Martín’s mystical quest to find the Great Tree.

Yet the slow destruction begins to encroach on the land of the Qom people, presenting further challenges for Martín’s community, who are already marginalised. In the wake of the roadblock of Route 86, a large-scale protest led by the Qom fighting for their lands against agri-business, their political meetings are heavily guarded. We see Martín attend a meeting led by Valentín Suarez, passing a squadron of armoured police watching over the small group of middle-aged Qom people. The community voice an increasing frustration at the erosion of their rights and way of life. Their settlements are often ignored by the government, leading to a lack of adequate schools, electricity supply and even drinking water.

The Black Tree is a masterpiece in storytelling and cinematography. It doesn’t push the boundaries of factual storytelling to the extremes we see in Mother, I Am Suffocating, the abstractness of which may isolate many audiences. Both are beautiful, thoughtful and unique works that tell stories about the struggle to navigate a rapidly changing world, and you should seek both of them out and watch them with an open mind.

Featured: The Black Tree / Body: Mother, I Am Suffocating

Categories: Muslim blogs

Frank Crichlow and the Mangrove

The Platform - Sat, 13/07/2019 - 14:03

Frank Crichlow created safe spaces for black people in London including the biggest performers of his day, but he was compelled to stand up to state targeting and police harassment.

The trial of the “Mangrove Nine” was one of the first successful court cases for the black community in British legal history. This landmark case represented a victory against a police force that had repeatedly targeted them.

The nine were Frank Crichlow, Darcus Howe, Barbara Beese, Rupert Boyce, Rhodan Gordon, Anthony Innis, Althea Lecointe Jones, Rothwell Kentish and Godfrey Millett. They were arrested during peaceful demonstration that had got out of control due to the heavy-handed behaviour of the police.

One member of the Mangrove Nine, Frank Crichlow (13 July 1932 – 27 September 2010), was a Trinidadian-born activist who arrived in London in his early-20s on the SS Colombie. This was 1953, just five years after Empire Windrush carried the first Caribbean passengers to the UK.

“It was the early days, and West Indians were still coming over,” Crichlow told writer Hassan Mahamdallie in a 1995 interview. “When they came over they had no means of contacting other West Indians – which was very important at the time. Some people who came used to stay with friends, but after they were here for a few days, they wanted to go where they could meet people and socialise.”

Crichlow could see the importance of safe spaces for the black community. He continued: “There was a lot of socialising among West Indians in basement clubs. One of the most beautiful things about that was there were people from the different Caribbean islands. It was a sort of ‘getting to know you’ time.”

After forming a band called the Starlight Four, Crichlow enjoyed some music success and media attention, using the money he saved to buy the El Rio Cafe in Notting Hill. In 1968, he opened The Mangrove at 8 All Saints Road, also in Notting Hill.

Both venues were popular among black scholars, creatives and political activists of the day, who met to discuss various social issues from racism to slum housing. It was frequented by some of the top black performing artists at the time, including stars Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Diana Ross and the Supremes.

These cafes were also popular destinations for the police, who persistently raided them accusing the staunchly anti-drugs Crichlow of selling heroin. On 27th June 1969, after another unsuccessful raid by the police, Crichlow lost his licence to run the all-night cafe. He was also charged with assault following another raid by the police, in which they found nothing.

Crichlow made several complaints about his treatment by the police. In a complaint of unlawful discrimination made on 23 November 1969, he said, “I know it is because I am a black citizen of Britain that I am discriminated against.”

Between 1948 and 1971, Commonwealth immigration to Britain had risen due to economic downturn, mostly as a result of World War II. Britain was in need of cheap labour and these immigrants were seen as an ideal solution to the economic problem. As immigration from the Commonwealth increased, so did unease and anger among the white working class. It was clear that Britain was struggling to come to terms with immigration of this scale.

Such tension was escalated by Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in April 1968 which criticised the influx of immigrants, claiming they would “take Britain over” in 20 years. As such, black people were seen in a suspicious light, and places where black people congregated were subjected to constant police raids. Crichlow recalled incidents of people coming into his cafe and telling him stories of police harassment. He said: “One chap said he was in a nearby road and two police rushed up to him and said, ‘We just saw you trying car doors.’”

“You must be joking,” he replied. But the police insisted that they saw him doing this and arrested him, and he went to court and was found guilty.

In response to this harassment, Crichlow organised a demonstration on 9 August 1970. The demonstrators planned to visit three local police stations: Notting Hill, Sirdar Road and Harrow Road. In an open letter sent to the prime minister, barrister Anthony Mohipp and others stated:

We, the black people of London have called this demonstration in protest against constant police harassment which is being carried out against us, and which is condoned by the legal system.

[In response to persistent police raids in black community spaces] we feel this protest is necessary, as all other methods have failed to bring about any change in the manner the police have chosen to deal with Black People.

We shall continue to protest until Black People are treated with justice by the police and the law courts.

The peaceful march was met by an unjustified police presence, as they tried to divert people from Harrow Road Police Station. A riot ensued, which led to violence and multiple arrests. As they did with the constant raids of the Mangrove and El Rio, the police reacted without provocation when faced with a large contingent of black people.

The Home Office later put their hands up to this, claiming that the constant raids and arrests were an attempt to cut the head off the emerging black power movement. It was revealed that several civil servants had discussed legal options with the then Home Secretary before deciding on this course of action.

As warned by Powell in his scare-mongering speech, white British society was worried that black people would mobilise and take over, when in fact the black power movement was simply an expression of a desire to live without fear and violence. Those in power, including the government and the police, were increasingly seen as the main players in black oppression. It was not hard to see why this was – and still is – the case.

The trial of the Mangrove Nine took place nearly a year later in 1971. Ian McDonald, defence lawyer in the trial, stated that: “[the case] seems clearly to be an attempt by the state to prevent the growth of organised resistance within the black community, which had an independent leadership. And that seems, to me to be the real point of the case, and it follows a whole series of other attempts whenever black people have tried to organise independently, to smash that organisation before it got really solid firm roots within the community.”

After 55 days, the judge acquitted all nine of the most serious charge of exciting a riot and stated that this case had shown evidence of “racial hatred on both sides”. This was the first time that a British court judge blamed the London Met Police of racial bigotry.

Crichlow said: “It was a turning point for black people. It put on trial the attitudes of the police, the Home Office, of everyone towards the black community. We took a stand and I am proud of what we achieved – we forced them to sit down and re-think harassment. It was decided there must be more law centres and more places to help people with their problems.”

Crichlow and the Nine’s success did not stop police raids on the Mangrove. The antagonism between the police and the black community continued. The Mangrove, however, became a symbol for the black community representing the sentiment that it was possible to fight state oppression.

In the 1970s, just after the trial, Crichlow set up the Mangrove Community Association where he would organise demonstrations against institutional racism in Britain. This association was set up in solidarity with movements across the globe where minorities were being subjected to oppression, including the campaign to protest apartheid in South Africa. Crichlow was also instrumental in the establishing of the Notting Hill Carnival, something he was still involved with in his later life.

Frank Crichlow died on 15 September 2010. He said of his legacy, in a 1995 interview: “I don’t see myself as a leader. I never saw myself that way. As I see it I stood up for my rights, and a lot of people identified with that. We fought and we shouted. We weren’t going to put our tails between our legs.”

Featured image here / Body here

Categories: Muslim blogs

The Hunt: A Cold Harvest Festival Brought to Stage

The Platform - Tue, 09/07/2019 - 03:41

A child abuse allegation in a small town leaves loyalties unclear in this new production by the Almeida.

Almeida Theatre’s latest offering, The Hunt, is an adaptation of the highly successful Danish-indie film thriller by Thomas Vinterberg. Adapted for the stage by David Farr, whose TV credits include glitzy titles such as Spooks and Night Manager, it is directed by Rupert Goold and stars Tobias Menzies, who will soon be seen as Prince Philip in season three of Netflix’s The Crown. The Almeida has had a stellar run in the last few years and many of its productions have wowed me. So why did this Scandi-Noir inspired stage production leave me feeling colder than a snow-covered fjord?

The play opens with head teacher of the local kindergarten Hilde (played by Michele Austin), speaking directly to the audience to introduce the protagonist Lucas (Tobias Menzies) and establishing the timing as just after the harvest. The seasons frame the plot: we begin in autumn, the height of the drama takes place in the darkest of winter, and the story concludes in spring. As the set is highly minimalist – evoking the Scandi-aesthetic we have come to admire in Britain – much of the setting is expressed through the dialogue, so the script rapidly tumbles into exposition. Adapting a film into a play must have its limitations, not least because a film uses various visual tricks to inform an audience of the complexities of characters and time, whereas The Hunt on stage evidently did not have this luxury.

Following the opening, we meet Lucas, who is a ‘good guy’. We know this because many characters say it: Hilde, who he works for in the kindergarten says it, his mate Gunner says it, his best friend’s wife says it. All within the first 10 minutes. Lucas himself also implies it when we first meet him. He stays calm even in the presence of an irrational ex-wife who we only hear through phone exchanges. The children in Lucas’ care adore him. Until they don’t.

The drama revolves around one incident: Klara (played by child actor Taya Tower) misreads Lucas’ kindness and instigates an inappropriate kiss, rejected by Lucas. As revenge for her humiliation she falsely accuses Lucas of sexual assault. We as the audience know it did not play out that way, but the remainder of the drama explores the reaction of this small Danish town. Lucas’ old school friends, coalescing around a hunting lodge, turn on him. The only friend he has left is his dog Max (played by a real dog), who meets a less than pleasant fate.

The mechanics of life in a small, rural community is always an interesting place for drama, although it is certainly well-trodden at this point. The claustrophobia of this town life is symbolised in the major piece of set design: a transparent hut in the middle of the stage. It is a thrifty piece of design, including a couple of visually arresting opportunities to squeeze the entire cast into the same place. Yet there was nothing in the town folk’s response and obvious hypocrisy that offered an especially new perspective on small town life, which affected the play as a whole.

A good, hard-working, quiet male protagonist who has his life turned upside down – without much input from him – is not especially new ground for any story, told in any format. What was especially jarring, however, was the fact that everything bad that happened to Lucas was the result of a woman. His ex-wife, who is implicitly portrayed as insane without the audience ever meeting her, and the manipulative five-year-old girl that engineered his downfall, are the masters of his grief – and there is never a moment when Lucas himself does anything wrong. His hyper-masculine friends are not without fault in this tragedy, but what the play asks us to critique is their quickness to believe that child rather than Lucas’ conduct. The play may appear to be a veiled criticism of society’s reactions to accusations of child abuse. And while false allegations are made, the majority of victims of child abuse are not falsely-accused middle-aged men, but vulnerable children.

Despite strong performances from the entire cast (including both children and animals) and quite impressive staging, the plot and the characters were too weak to really get behind. Lucas, a good guy that keeps things bottled up, never did anything to contribute to the plot – everything simply happened to him, and therefore lacked the kind of tension that a thriller might offer.

The Hunt is showing at the Almeida Theatre until 3 August 2019.

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

Categories: Muslim blogs

Olive Morris: The Challenger, The Talawa

The Platform - Sat, 29/06/2019 - 17:16

Olive Morris (26 June 1952 – 12 July 1979) was a political activist in Brixton, London, and in Moss Side, Manchester, described as a “challenger”. On her birthday this week, we remember her legacy.

Challenging bullies in the police force

On 15 November 1969, Olive Morris confronted two racist police officers as they dragged a black man out of his car and began to beat him. The man happened to be a Nigerian diplomat, and his supposed crime was a parking offence, meanwhile his wife and children bore witness to the assault from the inside of the car. Aged just 17 years old, Olive’s determination to challenge bullies was no more evident than this moment – standing at five feet and two inches, valiantly trying to stop the officers, she herself was violently abused and arrested.

Olive states that her abusive treatment and humiliation at the hands of the police did not stop there. When in police custody, she recalls: “They all made me take off my jumper and my bra in front of them to show I was a girl.” Olive’s brother also states that this incident left her so bruised from the police beatings at the time, that she was unrecognisable.

Olive was fined £10 and given a suspended sentence on charges of assault on the police, threatening behaviour and possession of a dangerous weapon. Even when her own safety was at risk, Olive did not back down.

Challenging the establishment amid the housing crisis

Due to an affordable housing crisis in Lambeth, squatting in Brixton in the late ‘50s was particularly prevalent. Olive and her friend Liz (Obi) Turnbull found themselves with nowhere to live in 1973, and eventually, decided to squat in a private property at 121 Railton Road, Lambeth.

The owners and property agents made several attempts to evict them, and the police arrested them many times. But Olive and Obi always returned to the property. The most well known occasion was when Obi was forcibly arrested by the police, and Olive returned to the property that same day where the police tried to arrest her too. She then resisted and climbed onto the roof of the building where she protested her treatment by the police and property owners. Photos of this incident appeared in several newspapers and, years later, famously adorned the front of the Squatters Handbook, 1979 edition.

Even when threatened with homelessness and legal action, Olive did not back down. Being the first to successfully squat in a private property in Lambeth, she was a pioneer in her own way, opening up the conversation about homelessness in the area.

The squat at 121 Railton Road became a hub of political activity, with Olive and Obi running various community groups through it, as well as the first black community bookshop. The property remained a social hub and base for the squatters’ movement until 1999.

Challenging radical movements in Britain

Olive Morris was a radical black feminist, whose everyday actions were a reflection of her values.

While studying in Manchester University, Moss Side, Olive successfully campaigned with black parents to establish a school that provided a better standard of education for their children. She seemed to resonate with people who were being taught that they had less rights than everyone else and communities who felt isolated from a world in which they were lied to – where their submissive position was reinforced day after day.

Olive not only challenged class oppression, but also the fractures within class movements. After trying to work with trade unionists, she said:

“We have used the great British tradition of trade unionism to try and further our cause for equality and justice, but on countless occasions we have found that the movement does one thing for white workers and another for black workers.”

“White workers have time and time again refused to give our unions recognition, they have crossed our picket lines for racist reasons, they have organised against our organisation in the trade unions.”

When Stella Dadzie met Olive in 1977 as part of black women’s organising, they instantly got on. She states that Olive was intelligent but relatable:

“Olive was different, Olive was the sort of woman I felt, yeah, you could be one of those people I was raving with last week, in this club, sort of thing, in a shabeen [an unlicensed bar] even!”

She continues: “I always remember her at events speaking out, always having a contribution to make in her own way and always challenging the men.”

Danny DaCosta, a photographer with the Black Panthers in the early 1970s and a friend of Olive, calls Olive a “talawa”. He explains what he means by this term: “[Someone who is] well-grounded and firm and strong, and that’s my definition of “talawa”. Olive, to me, always suggested somebody who was strong within themselves, was well-grounded, could hold her own.”

Challenging the UK black power movement

Black organisations in the UK in the 1970s, like the British Black Panther Movement, would address issues that faced the black community broadly. But women within these movements did not feel that their voices were being heard.

Olive saw this injustice and moved away from these organisations. She became one of the founding members of the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), the first black women’s organisation at the time. She also co-founded the Brixton Black Women’s Group.

Olive, along with other members, actively challenged organisations that were about empowering black people. It was not good enough to empower only the black men in these organisations, women – all women of colour – had to be worth fighting for.

Challenging established cultures and ways of life

Olive was a role model. When everyone went right, she would go left. In her ever so short life of 27 years she travelled as much as possible. She visited China to observe how a socialist society was being built. She would later convey that information when she returned to Britain, believing the resources of the world should be spread evenly amongst everyone. She also travelled to Morocco, Algeria, Spain, France and Hong Kong, experiencing different cultures. Olive embraced every culture and tried to answer important questions about how we can truly achieve equality.

Challenging social expectations

Olive was not afraid of being herself. She had a white boyfriend, a relationship that, at the time, other black radicals might have frowned upon or hidden. Not Olive, a talawa. She was upfront and open about being in a mixed race relationship. She was a role model for those in a similar situation, afraid of “coming out” and a role model for mixed race people who regularly had their “blackness” questioned.

Olive and her partner Mike McColgan wrote a piece in 1978 titled ‘Has the Anti-Nazi League got it right on racism?’ where they looked at institutional racism within the police force and education system, and ways of dealing with fascism. Remember, this was 21 years before the MacPherson Report, which detailed the extent of institutional racism following the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Olive was not seduced by the cry of anti-Nazi groups to “unite and fight”. She commented that this was doomed to failure stating “there is no sound basis on which such unity could be built”.

Challenger to the very end

Olive died at a brutally young age of 27 from lymphoma, a type of cancer. The situation was tragic, but Olive displayed a dignity which was ever present in her life. Stella Dadzie comments on her final moments:

“Olive sat up in bed and called to the nurse – remember most of the nurses were black in those days, still are, really – called to the nurse and said ‘I’m thirsty. Can I have a glass of water?’ And the nurse brought her the water and she drank it, and laid back on her pillow and breathed her last. And I kind of liked that story, I don’t know why, there’s nothing particularly heroic about it, but it was just so matter of fact, such a mundane thing to do.”

“There was no, ‘Please sit with me. I think I’m dying’, although she must’ve known. I’m sure we all have an instinctive feeling when we’re about to go. A strong, brave, grounded woman right up to the last moment.”

Olive’s legacy, in my mind, is that of local activism. Through her political stance, her fighting spirit and her ability to connect with people, Olive challenged racism, social norms, the establishment, the police and education systems. She stood up and empowered herself and her community – and fought until the day she died.

Talawa ‘til the end.

Danny DaCosta, Date of Interview: 06 July 2009
Judith Lockhart, Date of Interview: 15 July 2009
Stella Dadzie, Date of Interview: 29 May 2009
All interviews from the ‘Do you remember Olive Morris? Oral History Project’ at the Olive Morris Collection at Lambeth Archives

Learn more about Olive Morris through the Remembering Olive Collective website, the Olive Morris Collection of archival materials housed at Lambeth Archives, or the new ROC 2.0 website.

Image via Fawcett Society website

Categories: Muslim blogs

Poem: Waiting for Boris

The Platform - Fri, 21/06/2019 - 09:26

after Constantine Cavafy

What are they waiting for,
the archbishops and casino owners
clutching their bags of cocaine,
the barman at Wetherspoons eyeing the clock,
and the little people who live
in Jacob Rees Mogg’s top hat
who’ve been watching things
go slowly downhill
since thirteen eighty one?

Boris is to arrive today
in a chariot driven
by a man with syphilis.

Why so few new laws
up for debate in the House?
Why do the Lords seem happy
to lie about the place waiting
for aneurysms to take them,
without even the energy
to pay their assistants
to give them one last beating
with Daddy’s bloodstained walking stick?

Because Boris arrives today
wearing an eye-patch he borrowed
from Madonna.

Why should the Honourable Member
for Cambridgeshire South bother
crying her usual tears?
Boris, when he gets here,
will have everyone except himself in tears.

Why do the Chairs of Select Committees
race up and down Whitehall
wearing only ceremonial dicky-bows
quoting passages from the Magna Carta
and the new Ann Widdecombe cookbook
into the surprised faces of tourists?

Why have the Speaker of the House
and Lord Privy Seal exhumed
from Westminster Abbey the bones
of Alfred Lord Tennyson
and dragged them to a cheap hotel near Waterloo
to engage in a rattly threesome?

Because Boris arrives today
and approves of such things.

And why doesn’t the Office for National Statistics
give us the latest disastrous news?
Because Boris arrives today
and is bored by people who can add and subtract.

What does this sudden outbreak
of accountants and High Court Judges
vomiting on each other mean?
How grey their jowls have grown.
Why have all the escalators stopped moving?
Why all the red buses crashing into the Thames?

Because the clock has rung
and Boris is not coming.
Some journalists formerly resident in Hell
but now working for the Telegraph
have been sent from the frontline to confirm
there is no Boris.
And now what will we become
without Boris?

We must urgently set about inventing
some other catastrophe
to rescue us from ourselves.

Image from here.

Categories: Muslim blogs

The Flowers of Spring

Imam Zaid Shakir Blog - Wed, 01/05/2019 - 17:12

Like as the glistening snowflakes adorn the wintery expanses of fields, trees, and rolling hills in a soft blanket of downy frost, so do the flowers of Spring embellish our lives. Their colors charm us, their fragrances permeate into the depths of our souls and their voices join in serenading harmony the birds magically appearing after an absence that can seem, at times, to rival eternity. Yet their enchanting presence is fleeting for they inevitably wither and fade taking with them the glorious canvas they had painted in our gardens, parks and hillsides. Yet go they must for they are but an ephemeral reminder of the incomparable beauty to be found in that boundless realm wherein exist wonders no eye has beheld, no ear has captured and no imagination has fancied. Were the flowers of Spring to linger, perhaps we would never learn to yearn for the magnificent garden to be found beyond this world. And so we enjoy the beauty the flowers offer us and welcome their departure as the beginning of our arrival.

Categories: Muslim blogs

Their Religion is Hate

Imam Zaid Shakir Blog - Tue, 23/04/2019 - 06:57

We awakened yesterday morning, Easter Sunday, to the news of the horrific slaughter in Sri Lanka. Sensationalizing news organizations rushed to identify the religion of the perpetrators of such a nefarious act. Were they members of the Buddhist majority, the Hindu Tamil Tigers, or were they wretched Muslims who had been seduced into the murderous embrace of ISIS, Alqaeda or some other pseudo-Islamic organization? Such a search is meaningless and simple.

It is meaningless because no matter what religion the murderers claim, that religion rejects them. If the criminals turn out to identify themselves as Muslims, they should know that Islam does not accept them. Our Prophet (peace and blessings of God upon him) made that clear when he stated, “The murderer does not remain a believer at the time that he kills.” In other words, when he engages in such a grave violation of the sanctity of life, a sanctity affirmed by Islamic teachings, faith is stripped away from him and he is left staring into the abyss of his savage, uncivilized, beastly nature.

It is simple because there is a readily identifiable religion to which the misguided savages undertaking such acts belong. They belong to the Religion of Hate. They have coreligionists who have engaged in similar acts in villages in Myanmar; mosques in New Zealand; a retreat in Norway; a theatre in Paris; hotels in Mumbai; a synagogue in Pittsburgh; a Sikh temple outside of Milwaukee; a church in Charleston, SC; marketplaces and bus stations in Abuja, Nigeria, and, sadly, in far too many other locales. While the victims in all of these attacks had many different religious identities, the perpetrators had only one: they had all been converted to the Religion of Hate.

The Religion of Hate will not be conquered by “crusades” or “jihads,” nor by bombs and bullets. It will not be eradicated as many atheists believe by the effacement of religion itself. The elimination of religion in Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia only increased the ghastly slaughter of innocent human beings, for the Religion of Hate does not need a theology to thrive. It thrives on ignorance, blind vengeance, a lust for power, the pursuit of a lost paradise which never existed, and empty, love-starved hearts that are all too easily filled with hatred and a callous discard for the rights and lives of manufactured, anonymous “others.” These are the dark temples of the Religion of Hate.

Hence, that religion will only be conquered when enough of us conquer the places within ourselves that nurture it. To do that we will need to revive and spread the moral, ethical and spiritual teachings of true religion. Those are teachings that cleanse our hearts of darkness and fill them with a love of God, the light of true faith and a respect for the God-given sanctity of human life. That conquest will only ensue when we put the world in its proper place. It is not the rarest of treasures to be fought over or to kill for, and when misunderstood and misused it can be cursed.

The world can also be rendered beautiful and a source of great benefit, but only when we see it is as an abode of trials and tribulations where we are tested to see which of us are best in our moral fiber, ethical commitments and true God-consciousness. The adherents of the Religion of Hate have failed that test. If we allow them to turn us away from God, to turn us against each other, and to lead us into an ever deepening downward spiral of bloody contestation over the world, then we too will fail.

Categories: Muslim blogs

The Unfinished Business of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Imam Zaid Shakir Articles - Mon, 21/01/2019 - 19:25

During these days many in this country are commemorating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born January 15, 1929. While most remember Dr. King for his soaring oration, symbolized by his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered before a sweltering throng at the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963, Dr. King was far more than a moving orator. He was a formidable intellectual, an effective organizer and a passionate advocate for the freedom of his people. These qualities combined with Dr. King’s oratorical abilities to make him an individual oppressive political powers came to both despise and fear.

For all that he was able to accomplish in the context of the Civil Rights struggle and in advancing the rights and dignity of African Americans, Dr. King realized that his work was not complete; neither in the South nor in the North, as his painful experience in Chicago underscored. To a certain extent, his unfinished work is larger than the Civil Rights struggle, that work revolves around what he identified as the evil triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. Decisively combating these evils is a daunting challenge, some might even describe it as nearly impossible. Dr. King realized, however, that with the help of God all things are possible and he thus never lost hope that we could overcome these forces. As people of faith, this should be our firm belief.

Our Muslim community is one whose existence, contrary to popular misconception, is predicated on the establishment of peace. It is a community that came into existence as a multiracial force and lists anti-materialism as one of its foundational principles (renounce the world and Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) will love you). I believe that we have been divinely prepared to take up the torch held aloft so courageously by Dr. King and dedicate ourselves to the completion of his work. This is absolutely critical for the wellbeing of our nation and the world for as long as those evils rip through the waters of our collective humanity, the dehumanizing violence they give birth to will follow in their wake.

In his powerful but oftentimes overlooked speech, “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam,” delivered at the Riverside Church in Manhattan on April 4, 1967, Dr. King showed how these three evils are connected and how they combine to make the United States, in his words, “…the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” The fact that such violence continues, unabated, should cause all of us to reflect deeply on why we as a society have not done more to address it. The gut-wrenching violence we visited upon Vietnam has directly afflicted Afghanistan and Iraq and indirectly defines the fate of nations like Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Palestine.

I believe one of the reasons we have done so little to arrest that violence is because we as a nation are so effective in denying its existence. In the words of a popular song, “Memories may be beautiful and yet what’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget…” As a society, we find it far too easy and convenient to simply forget the painful horrors of native genocide, chattel slavery, Jim Crow and its accompanying brutalities, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan or the next place whose name might be added to this list. Dr. King forces us to remember these horrors and the violence they birthed –through the brilliance of his oration, the seriousness of his struggle and the testimony of his death.

The following lengthy quote from Francis Fitzgerald’s vivid chronicling of the Vietnam War, “Fire in the Lake,” serves to both awaken us to the magnitude of American violence and also the tragedy of how easy it would be to replace Vietnam with Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria or Yemen and find that it would be an apt description of any of those places. She writes:

“In the refugee camps and isolated villages people die of malnutrition and the children are deformed. In the cities, where there is no sanitation and rarely any running water, the adults die of cholera, typhoid, smallpox, leprosy, bubonic plague, and their children die of the common diseases of dirt, such as scabies and sores. South Vietnam knows nothing like the suffering of India or Bangladesh. Comparatively speaking it has always been a rich country and the American aid has provided many people with the means for survival. But its one source of wealth is agriculture and the American war has wreaked havoc on its forests and paddy lands. It has given great fortune to the few while endangering the country’s future and forcing the many to live in the kind of “poverty, ignorance and disease” that South Vietnam never knew before.

Still, the physical destruction, perhaps, is not the worst of it. The destruction of an entire society –“That is, above all, what the Vietnamese blame the Americans for,” said one Vietnamese scholar. “Willingfully or not, they have tended to destroy what is most precious to us: family, friendship, our manner of expressing ourselves.” … “Physical death is everywhere but it is the social death caused by the destruction of the family that is of overriding importance.” 


One could realistically ask why mention these things at this time when we should be celebrating Dr. King’s life and work? Why should we even care when we can do little or nothing to change such monstrous realities? I would respond that his nonviolent opposition to the stultifying violence of our country is the very essence of Dr. King’s life and work and collectively, with the help of Allah, we can begin to change the regime perpetuating that violence. I would respond to the above queries with a different set of questions. Namely, how many more innocent societies have to be destroyed before we as a people say enough is enough? What type of world do we wish to leave our children? Is it one where the situation described in “Fire in the Lake” becomes so common that it does not even prick their consciences. Have we become so blinded by the American dream that we can no longer see the accompanying global nightmare that helps to make it possible?

Some would say that the mere mention of such issues is overwhelming for the average person and hence could well lead to a type of socio-psychiatric paralysis. One the beautiful features of Islam is that it allows us to recognize our limitations while still maintaining a principled opposition to wrong. By so doing we are able to escape becoming socio-political zombies. Our Prophet (peace and blessings of Almighty God upon him) wisely stated,


“If one of you sees something wrong let him change it with his hand. If unable to do so let him speak out against it. If still unable to do so let him hate it in his heart, and that is the weakest manifestation of faith.”


Thus, if one finds himself or herself unable to do something lawful and practical like joining with the work of the Quakers or other institutions with a long history of nonviolent anti-war activism in this country, or founding a similarly-oriented Muslim group, let him or her speak out against it at every forum and via every medium available. If even that is not possible then let them hate it in their hearts. Doing so is the least we can do to honor the life, legacy, and sacrifice of Dr. King and hopefully, it will serve as a first step in our moving to finish the work he so valiantly started.

Reprint from Muslim Matters, Jan.19, 2019:

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