NS Interview - "The petrodollar-funded literalists think their version is the real Islam. I'm for an Islam that is at home in Britain"
Fareena Alam interviewed
It's a surprising admission. "I used to be militant," says Fareena Alam, 27-year-old editor of the Muslim magazine Q-News. "I didn't put my religious views into action, and I never joined an extremist group, but I was myopic and judgemental." Since 2002, Alam has emerged as a leading voice of liberal British Islam, calling for restraint and mutual tolerance. But in a community increasingly polarised by difficult questions - Abu Hamza, the Danish cartoons, Iraq and Palestine - her arguments are as determined, if not as shrill, as any advanced by her opponents in Hizb ut-Tahrir and other radical groups. "If we do not stand up to the bullies now, they will push us further next time," she says.
Alam is bringing the battle for the hearts and minds of British Muslims to the pages of the broadsheets and the streets of London, Bradford, Manchester and Luton. "I wonder what the parents of the child wearing the 'I love al-Qaeda' cap would say had their son been on the No 30 bus that terrible day," she wrote after the first London protests against the cartoons. She and her magazine have helped organise the Radical Middle Way, a series of talks funded by the Foreign Office aimed at tackling extremism among young British Muslims.
Battling religious and political radicalism is a tall order for any young woman. But Alam is no grim-faced ideologue. She is, incongruously enough, jolly: her eyes bright under her headscarf, laughing as she describes her rise to prominence while she tackles a plate of crab-claw starters. Born in London in 1978, she moved to Singapore with her Bangladeshi parents at an early age and grew up there, studying literature and sociology at the National University of Singapore. In 2000, she returned to the UK and "fell into" journalism. "I had no formal training at all," she remembers. "I saw Q-News in a bookshop in London, called them up and by chance their news editor had just left."
Four months later, after a crash course from the magazine's founder, Fuad Nahdi, Alam had filled the position. "I've been a journalist for 20 years, and you learn to spot people with integrity and conviction," says Nahdi. "Fareena's views were also in a state of flux - she had just started wearing the headscarf - which I thought was good for Q-News. We want to question things." Nahdi, Alam says, has been "instrumental" in guiding her career, and he takes on a Svengali-like tone when discussing his protegee. "She has followed in my footsteps," he says, adding that he insis-ted she take an MA in international journalism at his alma mater, City University, followed by a six-month stint on the Observer in 2003. "I was struggling with questions of who do I want to be: a Muslim journalist or a journalist who happens to be Muslim?" Alam says, describing her struggle not to be pigeon-holed as a minority-issues writer. But in 2003, when Nahdi invited her to become editor of Q-News, she accepted, finding herself at 25 in charge of an independent monthly magazine with an estimated circulation of 60,000. It was a canny move on Nahdi's part: Alam's articulacy and experience with mainstream broadsheets has put her at the head of a media-savvy generation of young Muslims.
She soon found herself immersed in a long-running battle for control of the aims and beliefs of an entire community. Q-News has long been at the centre of a feud between Nahdi and senior members of the Muslim Council of Britain, a microcosm of what the Muslim journalist Ehsan Masood describes as the "war being fought at the heart of British Islam itself". Q-News and MCB members have exchanged allegations of corruption, as well as disagreeing profoundly over the nature of, and solutions to, the problem of Islamism in Britain. In a 2003 Guardian article, written in the wake of a British-led suicide attack in Israel and proleptically titled "Tel Aviv first, then Manchester?", Nahdi warned of a coming "intifada in the streets of Birmingham and Detroit". The MCB dismissed this as hysterical scaremongering.
Nahdi is keen to play down the controversy, dismissing Ehsan's account of the conflict. Others are less diplomatic. "Q-News has been hostile to the MCB since its inception," says Inayat Bunglawala, the organisation's media secretary. "Nahdi is almost universally despised in this community. It's a tiny magazine, published sporadically." The feud is bitter, and, for Alam, personal. Following John Ware's 2005 Panorama film on the subject, A Question of Leadership, Alam's husband, Abdel-Rehman Malik, who is also a Q-News contributing editor, received death threats from within the community. When I ask her about the MCB, her face crinkles. "How can I say this?" she begins guardedly. "There's been a lot of trouble. It was even suggested that Q-News benefited from creating stories about extremism in Britain. Then 7/7 happened and I thought: I don't want to say it, but I told you so."
From her own brush with radical ideology, Alam knows extremism exists in Britain. She attributes much of it not to economic deprivation or political frustration, but to a warped interpretation of Islam provided by illegitimate books and websites. "I quenched my thirst for knowledge with guidance from the internet," she remembers. "I looked to half-baked online fatwas and badly translated books, and used that little knowledge to judge people around me, and fuel the arrogance and anger within me."
Her views began to change when, in 2001, she came into contact with the teachings of traditional scholars.
The only way to counter extremism, she believes, is with more religion, not less: by promoting an Islam she characterises not as "moderate" but as "fundamentalist". She argues: "Mercy and patience are the fundamental values of Islam. This is not a watered-down version of religion." Her conviction worries more secular Muslims, who perceive the group around Q-News as "odd", "crazy" or "Islamists by another name" - and so, perhaps, does her language. "I know people have trouble with the promotion of religion, and that's a legitimate concern," counters Alam. "But we cannot run away from the fact that religion is important to these young people. The 7/7 bombers didn't come on the platform of secularism, they came on the platform of being bearded, praying-five-times-a-day Muslim guys. We have to talk to people on their own level."
Yahya Birt, the Muslim convert son of John Birt, former director general of the BBC, and a research fellow at the Islamic Foundation in Leicestershire, agrees: "To deal with extremism, you have to understand the heavily religious culture of the extremists," he says. "A thorough theological engagement with violent radicalism is necessary." Like others, he is wary of any group within the community seeking to promote its views alone. "Q-News doesn't have a monopoly on understanding," he warns.
In the scramble for influence, the best-funded (and loudest) voices are likely to prevail. "The petrodollar-funded literalists think that their version of Islam is the real Islam, and they've had the money to promote it around the world," explains Alam. "I'm for an Islam that is very at home in Britain: I don't want a foreign religion." The Radical Middle Way project attempts to bolster moderate Islam in Britain by promoting traditional scholars, such as Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah of Mauritania and Habib Ali of Yemen, "whose learning and authority are undeniable".
The scholars' tour of Bradford, Oldham, Manchester, London and Leeds has attracted 15,000 young Muslims since December. Though the promotional material does not mention it, government funding is common knowledge. Birt sees this as a positive shift: "The debate is moving on from a knee-jerk cynicism against any government involvement. The basis of engagement is really changing." Yet this dialogue throws up difficult questions. In supporting the tour, the government is funding highly conser-vative scholars who accept few of the tenets of secular western society. Alam believes the scholars' piety and compassion make their cultural mores unimportant. "How is it that a man from Yemen understands so well the nature of our situation here?" she asks. "That's traditional scholarship for you."
The strategy seems to be working, satisfying a real hunger for religious knowledge among young Muslims. When Shaykh bin Bayyah, wrapped in a traditional Yemeni blanket, walked on to the stage at a recent Middle Way meeting in London, awestruck teenage girls craned to capture him on their cameraphones as if he were Pete Doherty. "It takes very little to tip someone over. To bring them back from the edge," says Alam. "I know this from my own first contact with the sheikhs, about five years ago."
Her own experience with radicalism has ensured that although Alam may sympathise with the pain of the Muslim community, she refuses to become a mouthpiece for their grievances. Her measured response to the cartoon controversy is a case in point. "The burden of representation is immense. But I am definitely not going to change to make myself representative," she says.
This determination has powered Alam's rise to prominence in a community almost exclusively led, as Nahdi puts it, "by middle-aged, bearded men". Some are quick to play down her achievements. "There are many talented Muslim women," observes Bunglawala drily. "Some are better at promoting their own work than others." Alam knows that as a young, articulate and influential Muslim woman she holds a rare position. "The absence of women has a huge effect on the end results of what we produce as a community," she says. She believes that more outspoken Muslim women will in time emerge, and be in the vanguard of positive change. "Women have a unique contribution to make: we bring humanity and compassion to the debate. These are things that men can do, but so often we do them better."
She insists that the many challenges can be best resolved through religion. "Islam has an incredible capacity to develop distinct cultural forms and expression while maintaining its universal principles," she says. "I want British Islam to reflect the best of my - and others' - faith and citizenship."