Demonising mosques and Muslims

Fear and ignorance abound in the debate over the so-called Ground Zero mosque in Manhattan.

I blogged earlier in the week on the row over a proposal to build a Muslim community centre in Lower Manhattan, two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center. The project has been dubbed the "Ground Zero mosque" by right-wing, Republican critics, who have been up in arms about this for several months now..

I have an article in today's Guardian explaining why I believe the mosque row has "become a struggle for the soul of the United States, the nation where freedom and democracy is supposed to reign supreme". Here's a short extract from the piece:

Ignorance and bigotry abounds. Cordoba House is not a mosque but a cultural centre, which will include a prayer area, sports facilities, theatre and restaurant. The aim of the project is to promote "integration, tolerance of difference and community cohesion . . . a place where individuals, regardless of their backgrounds, will find a centre of learning, art and culture". Nor is it being built at Ground Zero. The proposed site is two blocks to the north.

Neither of these inconvenient facts, however, has stopped a slew of high-profile Republicans falling over one another to denounce the project. The former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, in her now-notorious tweet, urged "peaceful Muslims" to "refudiate" the proposed "mosque", because it "stabs hearts". Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said the project was a "desecration" and the former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich declared that "there should be no mosque near Ground Zero so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia".

I didn't have space in the Guardian piece to explain how Gingrich and his bigoted Republican allies have demonised not just the "mosque" itself, but the moderate imam behind the project. As Mark Potok explains over at the Huffington Post:

The project's chairman, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has criticised Islamic extremism but is still being attacked for not denouncing Hamas, the militant Muslim organisation in Palestine, and for not identifying his source of funding.

Is Rauf, author of What's Right With Islam Is What's Right With America and a regular contributor to the Washington Post's On Faith blog, actually a nefarious Islamist bent on glorifying the 9/11 attacks with his controversial Cordoba House initiative? Time magazine's Bobby Ghosh disagrees:

And yet [the project's] main movers, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, are actually the kind of Muslim leaders right-wing commentators fantasise about: modernists and moderates who openly condemn the death cult of al-Qaeda and its adherents -- ironically, just the kind of "peaceful Muslims" whom Sarah Palin, in her now-infamous tweet, asked to "refudiate" the mosque. Rauf is a Sufi, which is Islam's most mystical and accommodating denomination.

The Kuwaiti-born Rauf, 52, is the imam of a mosque in New York City's Tribeca district, has written extensively on Islam and its place in modern society and often argues that American democracy is the embodiment of Islam's ideal society.

Jeffrey Goldberg -- not normally a man I'd cite or agree with! -- goes further than Ghosh on his Atlantic Monthly blog:

This seems like such an obvious point, but it is apparently not obvious to the many people who oppose the Cordoba Initiative's planned mosque in Lower Manhattan, so let me state it as clearly as possible: The Cordoba Initiative, which is headed by an imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf, is an enemy of al-Qaeda, no less than Rudolph Giuliani and the Anti-Defamation League are enemies of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden would sooner despatch a truck bomb to destroy the Cordoba Initiative's proposed community centre than he would attack the ADL, for the simple reason that Osama's most dire enemies are Muslims. This is quantitatively true, of course -- al-Qaeda and its ideological affiliates have murdered thousands of Muslims -- but it is ideologically true as well: al-Qaeda's goal is the purification of Islam (that is to say, its extreme understanding of Islam) and apostates pose more of a threat to Bin Laden's understanding of Islam than do infidels.

I know Feisal Abdul Rauf; I've spoken with him at a public discussion at the 96th Street mosque in New York about interfaith co-operation. He represents what Bin Laden fears most: a Muslim who believes that it is possible to remain true to the values of Islam and, at the same time, to be a loyal citizen of a western, non-Muslim country. Bin Laden wants a clash of civilisations; the opponents of the mosque project are giving him what he wants.

On a separate but related note, the tarring of Rauf as a secret "Islamist" and a Muslim extremist, based on dubious evidence and dodgy quotes, is not so dissimilar to the manner in which the right-wing neocons and "muscular liberals" who populate the British commentariat and think-tank world accuse most Muslims in British public life of harbouring "radical" or "Islamist" agendas. Andrew Gilligan is one such pundit, and he used his Telegraph column yesterday to accuse senior British civil servants of being "sympathisers of Islamism" because some of them happen to be advocates of dialogue and engagement with mainstream British Muslim organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain. (Disclaimer: I am not a member of either organisation, nor do I agree with all of their views. But they're not the British equivalents of al-Qaeda or Hamas either!)

I happened to take part in a Sky News debate with Gilligan this morning. He didn't define "Islamism" in a precise or coherent manner, he couldn't explain why he wants the British government to shun groups like the Muslim Council of Britain while he himself works for the Iranian-government-owned Press TV and he chose not to respond to the comments that I cited from citizens' groups and interfaith forums in east London, which have accused journalists like Gilligan (and Martin Bright) of misrepresenting supposedly "Islamist" groups such as the Islamic Forum of Europe and the East London Mosque.

Odd, eh?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.