The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted

Yesterday, I was helping my son to research famous speeches so he can pick one to do a presentation on as part of his English homework. There were the usual suspects – “I have a dream” and “We shall fight on the beaches” – and a whole host of others, many of which I had not encountered before. I myself, being both a woman and a historian, was keen to introduce my son to Queen Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech. Can this really be bested? ” I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” Go girl!

The boy though, was unimpressed. He wanted to find a speech that related to some of his interests (trains and planes). One suggestion was JFK’s going to the moon speech, but that too didn’t gel. Finally, we settled on Ronald Reagan’s address to the nation following the space shuttle Challenger accident. We listened to it on YouTube, then printed out the transcript and analysed it for rhetorical devices. We highlighted emotive language, repetition, the use of personal pronouns, etc.

However, what struck me most about the speech was how it acknowledged the pain of a nation in mourning, yet was able to project a defiant, resilient, and even an upbeat message in the midst of this tragedy. It’s a powerful speech that resonates more than 30 years on, and has relevance to our situation today as we try to emerge from the pandemic that has held us hostage for months and months.

The launch of the space shuttle Challenger was watched live on television across the United States, with millions of schoolchildren tuning in to see a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, go into space and teach a lesson from there. Instead, they saw a horrifying explosion seconds after lift-off. Reagan addressed the children in his speech as follows:

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

He went on to affirm that the tragic accident would not stop future space exploration.

We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.

As I listened to these words, I compared their sentiment with the messaging we are bombarded with on a daily basis about staying safe, not letting our guard down and the fresh worries being put in our minds about virus mutations and vaccine-induced thrombosis. It’s a far cry from “Keep calm and carry on.” It seems to me as if the goalposts keep moving and our state of emergency keeps replicating itself, not willing to let us go from the firm grip it has us in. In some strange version of Stockholm Syndrome, many people have so accustomed themselves to hiding away in their homes, protecting themselves with their masks and watching the daily press briefings for the latest dose of fear-inducing headlines, that they have fallen in love with their captivity.

Thankfully, as a teacher, I am considered critical enough to the national effort that I have been released from captivity and allowed to go back to work. It’s a captivity I have been chafing against. If I had been allowed to, I would have continued teaching my classes in school all the way through this pandemic. It’s a disappointment to me that the great majority of my fellow teachers were clamouring for the opposite. Instead of fighting for schools to stay open for all children, they fought for our confinement at home. When school re-openings were announced, they complained that it was not “safe”.

But what does it mean to be safe? Is it sitting at home getting back pain, putting on weight and developing mental health issues, all of which are likely to contribute to the shortening of our lives? Perhaps being “safe” is just a chimera, obscuring the real truth: to be alive is to be at daily risk of sickness and death.

Many years ago, when I was 9, I went on holiday to visit family in Syria and came back with Typhoid, which had me hospitalised and isolated for several weeks. I could have died, but I didn’t. My father had only a few months to live after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 55, and my mother only a few hours after she had an aneurysm just a year later. One minute they were there, then they were gone. Life is fleeting, and we don’t know when the grim reaper will come to call. We can coddle ourselves up to the maximum, thinking it will keep us safe, but there is no such thing as safe. We cannot hide away from life and the risks that come with being alive. So perhaps we should remind ourselves that sometimes painful things happen, but the future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.

In the final part of his speech, Reagan paid tribute to the seven astronauts on board the space shuttle Challenger, quoting the poem High Flight, which celebrated the joy of flying high up in the sky and was written by John Gillespie Magee, a fighter pilot in World War II who was killed in action at the tender age of 19.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

Another reminder, that our lives can be long or short – fate is capricious – but what matters is how we live in the time that we are given.

Room needed for a conversation on young girls and the hijab

Yesterday evening I responded to a tweet on my timeline showing a young girl celebrating St Patrick’s day by wearing a green hijab.


Almost as soon as I posted the tweet, I felt a twinge of regret – not for what I had said, which I stand by – but because I knew that such a tweet would inevitably invite attention, some negative; the Twitter mob can often be rather cruel. As it happens, the mob was not quite a mob, but nevertheless, there was enough criticism there for me to want to write this clarification.

First of all, I should perhaps have made it clear that I myself am a Muslim, and thus the tweet was not in any way an anti-Muslim rant. I am, however, increasingly concerned about the direction mainstream Islam is taking at the moment and in particular with its increasingly patriarchal and misogynistic tendencies, most notably demonstrated in the increasing “hijabification” of Muslim women and girls.

Second disclosure: I am a Muslim who does not wear a head covering, nor do I believe in it. That of course influences my perspective on this issue, but let me get some clear facts into the ring before my opinion is dismissed out of hand. Firstly, wearing the hijab is not a pillar of Islam. You do not have to wear the hijab in order to be a Muslim and there is no injunction anywhere in the Qur’an that says a woman must wear a hijab. There is a verse, widely cited, which asks women to cover their bosoms with their “khimar” but that verse can be interpreted in many ways. Some see this as a clear instruction for women to cover their hair while others interpret it as meaning a woman should cover her cleavage and not “flaunt her assets” – i.e. dress modestly in a way that will not invite undue sexual attention.

The verse asks women “not to show their adornments except that of it which normally shows. They shall cover their cleavage with their ‘khimar’.”

suraThe word “khimar” has been taken to mean a hijab (or head cover) by some, but the etymological meaning is simply that of a cover, such as a curtain or a dress.

Now, I don’t mean to meander into a theological discussion here but the point I want to make is this: the issue of women’s dress in Islam is open to interpretation; it is not set in stone. The Qur’an is meticulously detailed in some parts, but when it comes to women’s dress, it is not so. The spirit of the message is very much one of modesty but the degree of that modesty is left to our own personal interpretation. Unfortunately, the manifestation of Islam today, in large communities and in the mosques led by their imams, gives the impression that there is just the one interpretation. Women must wear a hijab, no ifs, no buts, case closed.

The imams in the mosques do not represent all Muslims, neither does their message represent the one truthful prism through which Islam must be interpreted. There are many thousands of Muslims like me, who no longer feel comfortable going to mosques because the message being preached there does not chime with our beliefs. There are a small minority of “progressive” mosques out there that preach a much more inclusive and tolerant message, but they are few and far between, and don’t get heard very much by non-Muslims. The net result is that the overwhelming impression non-Muslims have of the faith is that it requires women to wear a headscarf.

There is another factor to bear in mind here: the relatively recent spread of the “hijabist” ideology. If you go to any Muslim country today, or visit a strongly Muslim-populated area, you will see the majority of women wearing a headscarf. Scroll back forty years or so, and the opposite would have been true. Watch an Egyptian movie from the 1950s or 1960s and you will be hard pressed to find a single woman wearing a veil.

If I go back in time to my own childhood in the 1970s, I cannot recall any member of my family wearing the hijab. My family hails from Medina, in Saudi Arabia, the city that welcomed the prophet Muhammad and where he is buried. My grandfather was a very pious man who spent a lot of his time praying and reciting the Qur’an. And yet, I have photos from the mid 1970s of my grandparents and aunts visiting us in Geneva (where we were living at the time) and not a single headscarf in sight. Visit my family in Medina today and everyone of them is in a hijab. What has happened in the meantime?

I don’t have definitive answers to this question but I have already attempted an explanation here. It is perhaps no coincidence that the rise of “hijabification” has come at the same time as the rise of Islamism. The two are connected somehow – they are on the same continuum. It is in this context that I find the celebration of a picture showing a young girl wearing a hijab slightly troubling. The spread of the hijab has become insidious. First, it was a handful of women here and there, then it slowly but surely spread to whole communities. Next, it spread to girls, getting younger and younger as time has gone on. My son is in year 3 and there is a girl in his class who has worn the hijab since the beginning of the school year – from the age of 7. Where do we draw the line?

At this point, I may hear people say, so what? What’s wrong with girls wearing a headscarf if that is what they believe in? Shouldn’t we have religious freedom and tolerance? After all, it’s just a scarf, no need to get into a lather about that. But let’s go back and remember what that headscarf represents, what the Qur’anic verse quoted above is taken to mean. A woman must cover her bosom and her adornments with a “khimar” which some take to also include covering her hair. This is all about a woman covering her sexual attractiveness so as not to tempt a man into sin. The headscarf is not just an item of clothing, comparable to a suit or a tie. The hijab has sexual connotations and it is used, like it or not, to subjugate women. It is women who are made to wear it, not men. In the sweltering heat of last summer, I saw Muslim couples stroll in the park, the men wearing comfortable Bermudas and T-shirts, the women swaddled from head to toe. It is women who have to endure this discomfort, not men.

Now, if a grown woman decides of her free will to dress in this way, then that is her choice and must be respected. Can we say the same of young girls though? In his responding tweet, Dr. Umar AlQadri said that it had been his daughter’s choice to wear the headscarf. I think he was being slightly disingenuous here. It may be true that the young girl was not forced to wear a hijab but equally it is clear that at some point, she would be expected to do so. The fact that she chose to do so sooner rather than later doesn’t take away from the fact that in reality, she has very little choice in the matter. Girls in certain Muslim communities are expected to wear a hijab or face opprobrium. They are not invited to view the evidence, explore interpretations and then reach their own conclusions. There is only the one acceptable interpretation.

So yes, I am deeply uncomfortable at the sight of young girls wearing a hijab. The indoctrination starts from an early age. I am not sure I would go as far as to say that I would ban it in primary schools, but I am certainly troubled by it and don’t think I should apologise for questioning the practice. The problem is, that in these febrile times of Trump and Marine Le-Pen, people are wary of criticising because they don’t want to be seen as intolerant. There needs to be room for a conversation about this issue without it being tainted by accusations of Islamophobia.

The dangers of signing things on your doorstep

Yesterday on a whim I decided to Google my name to see what would show up in the results. Here’s what I found.

The top result was a link to the various videos I have uploaded on YouTube over the past few years. These are mainly videos of my son that I have wanted to share with family or videos of my son’s trains which he likes to film. There’s also a sweet little clip of him singing Boney M’s “Brown girl in the ring” which I had totally forgotten about.

Then there’s links to my Twitter page and my Linked in profile (which must be very out of date as I have not looked at it in years). The rest of the first page of results gives links to various sites that provide information on company directorships. I have been a director of two companies in the past and so it is not surprising that my name comes up in relation to these on a web search.

So far so good. I then clicked to see the second page of results. To my surprise, I saw my name on a PDF document on the Lambeth council website. What could this be? I clicked to open it and saw that it was a list of the candidates for the last local council elections, together with the names of “proposer, seconder and assenters”. To my shock, I found my name listed as the “assenter” of the Ukip candidate. Impossible! How could this be?

I thought back and remembered answering the doorbell one day to an Afro-Caribbean man who said he wanted to put his name forward as a candidate for the local council elections and that he needed to get a certain number of signatures from local residents in order to get his name on the ballot paper. He sounded very humble and sincere. I remember asking him what kind of policies he would put forward as a candidate and what he stood for. I don’t recall exactly what he said in response but it all sounded very worthy and commendable. No mention of immigration, no mention of the EU, and certainly no mention of Ukip. It would have been churlish to have refused his request so I signed and wished him luck, then I promptly forgot about the matter until yesterday. One of my neighbours was similarly conned as I saw her name on the list of “assenters” too.

And so now I have my name officially on record as a Ukip supporter. Anyone who knows me knows just how far from Ukip my political views are. I am, after all, an immigrant to this country. My worry is that potential future employers might do a quick Google search on me and find this incriminating document. What to do?

Should I write to Lambeth council to complain about this and ask for my name to be removed? I doubt if it is possible to change public records after the fact. Someone suggested I should contact Google and ask them to remove the link. Again, I am not sure that Google would remove a link to a bona fide public record published by a government body.

My solution to the problem is to write this blog in the hope that it will show up first in any Google search of my name and act as a rebuttal. May this also act as a warning to all of you not to sign any documents from strangers on your doorstep!


It’s not easy being a Muslim these days

This morning I was reading the Independent online while sipping on a cappuccino and indulging in a croissant. I was feeling mellow after having dispatched my son to school and ready to enjoy some peace and quiet. The mellow feeling didn’t last – it has been replaced by depression underscored by a sense of disquiet. Why you may ask?

A cursory look at the dozen or so headline articles might provide an answer. Islam, Muslims, Isis, Israel all figure far too prominently. Let me start with the first depressing article. Canada plans to make boycotting Israel a “hate crime” and thus legitimate protest against Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is to be suppressed and labelled anti-semitic.

The next happy article informs us that there has been a massacre in Ramadi as Isis captures this city, the Iraqi forces proving too weak to stop the onslaught. The Iraqi government is to seek help from Iranian backed militias to try to take back the city despite fears this may fuel more sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites.

Next I read about Aldi apologising after selling black pudding containing pork labelled as “halal”. It seems some administrative mistake was to blame and the labelling is being corrected. Could anyone really have thought that black pudding could be halal? If so, there must me some very gullible people out there. Surely this story, in ordinary times, would not be worthy of such a prominent headline. But we live in an era where there is great fear of upsetting Muslim sensibilities.

In another headline, I read that Madonna is stoking controversy yet again, this time by posting an instagram photo of Jewish and Muslim men about to kiss. Do I care? No not really, but apparently a lot of people are up in arms about it.

Finally, I read : “Welcome to the worst job in French politics – Education minister” which describes how the Morrocan-born French education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkasem is facing very nasty criticisms of her planned reforms to French middle schools. Right-wing politicians are fear mongering about Islam yet again, making the emotive – and false – claim that teaching of the history of Islam is to be “made compulsory” and that the history of Christianity is to be “downgraded”.

That’s not the end of it of course. There are also articles about the LGBT community being oppressed in Egypt and Boris Johnson writing something to the effect that, if unchecked, Isis will blow up the pyramids. Sigh. It’s not easy being a Muslim these days. It may be hard for others to realise how wearing the constant barrage of mainly negative stories about Muslims and the Middle East can be. I long for the day when I can open the papers and not a single headline will be about us.

With a heavy heart I go upstairs to do some much needed cleaning of the house. I switch on the radio and catch the tail end of women’s hour. The interviewer is on the streets of Leeds, asking women questions about their lives. One lady, aged 98, is asked if she is happy. “Yes”, she says. What is the secret to her happy and long life? “Be kind”, she replies, “it doesn’t cost much”. And with that positive message, my heart lifts again ever so slightly.

In case many of you haven’t noticed, a general election is on the way…

Yesterday several election leaflets came through my letter box. Let me share two seemingly conflicting graphics.


Hmmm, who should I believe? According to the Lib Dems, this is a two-horse race between them and Labour, the Tories and other parties “can’t win here”. According to the Conservatives, this is a two horse race between them and Labour, the Lib Dems and “Others” have “no chance in this area”.

On closer inspection, the difference in the statistics can be explained quite easily. One shows results of the last general election whilst the other is actually results for the last mayoral election. In reality, whichever statistic you choose to believe in the most, the one common thread in both graphics is that Labour is by far the biggest party in this area. This is going to be a one-horse race and if I were a betting person my money would be on Labour winning fairly comfortably here in May.

Still, there is something about being told that a party “can’t win here” or has “no chance here” that I find particularly galling. Surely anyone whose name is on the ballot paper has a chance of winning if enough people vote for them? In the privacy of the ballot box, voters can mark their “X” wherever they choose. Yet such is the nature of tribal politics in this country that a large proportion of votes get taken for granted. Elections are decided by the floating voters not by the loyal party members.

Something about this status quo irritates me greatly and makes me wish I had the nerve to run as an independent candidate in order to upset the apple cart. But of course that is not likely to happen – I am not made for politics. There is something quite deflating about living in a “safe” constituency, no matter what ilk it is. Why bother to vote? It won’t make much of a difference to the result. I’m sure a certain amount of voter apathy – not all – is due to people feeling that their vote won’t influence the result. I am half tempted to not turn up at all on 7th May. Not a single party appeals to me and besides, it’s going to be a slam dunk isn’t it? But my British citizenship and with it the right to vote, obtained with some difficulty less than ten years ago, means that at the age of 44 I will have the opportunity to vote in a general election for only the second time in my life. I cannot waste that hard won opportunity.

As someone who has come to party politics (not general or international politics) rather late in life, I have never felt that belonging to or supporting a particular party was part of my identity. Yet I know many staunch Labour and Conservative supporters who would never consider voting anything else because it is so much part of their identity, almost a religion. I saw this during the Blair years, when he took us into what many saw as an illegal war – one for which we are all paying a heavy price today. People were fiercely critical but when it came to the ensuing election still voted in their familiar way. The ballot box was not used to punish politicians for wrong decisions but to reinforce the status quo. People say they are disenchanted with politicians, with their expenses scandals and so on, but few stop to think about what makes politicians accountable to the public.

Let’s imagine for a minute or two what would happen if voters in a safe Conservative seat voted anything other than Conservative and voters in a safe Labour seat voted anything other than Labour, just to show the parties that no vote should be taken for granted. Wouldn’t that shake up the political system!

To a certain extent, that is exactly what is happening in Scotland at the moment. There is no such thing as a safe Labour seat there anymore because voters are fed up with being taken for granted. The referendum last year invigorated the electorate into believing that their vote can actually make a difference. The SNP should tread carefully though. Whatever wave of enthusiasm is causing them to surge at the moment could also cause them to crash next time around if they do not actually deliver on their promises. That’s democracy for you.

So as a floating voter myself, I would ask any of you out there who are planning to vote Conservative because they come from true blue stock and for those who are planning to vote Labour because they and their family have always done so, to stop and reconsider. Tribal loyalties only entrench power and block any real change from happening.

Overcoming Childhood Myths and Conditioning is not Easy

This week I have been reflecting on the Islamic traditions that have been bred into me from childhood and how my adult self can see logically that some of these rituals are myths but still finds it hard to shake off the conditioning.

I didn’t have a very traditional Muslim upbringing as both of my parents stood out from their community in being forward thinking and questioning about all aspects of life. Yet even within this progressive environment some dogma was passed on which stays with me to this day. I wonder what it must be like for children growing up in more conservative households, where their faith is set out for them with certainty without any room for debate. Could this be one of the factors that render young men and women vulnerable to radicalisation?

The media is in meltdown at the moment trying to analyse what could have turned Mohammed Emwazi into the monstrous “Jihadi John” we have seen in the appalling ISIS beheading videos, or what could have compelled young teenage girls to leave their families and head for Syria. Personally, I think you have to have a screw loose somewhere to enjoy slitting another person’s throat so perhaps we are all wasting our time trying to understand Emwazi’s motivation. Let’s not give this fanatic any more publicity than he already has.

However, the numbers of Muslims living in the west who have left the comfort of their homes to join the fight in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East is significant enough for questions to be asked about what makes them want to do it. They can’t all be psychopaths or thugs. Many come from stable family backgrounds and are grade “A” students. While there are no easy answers to this question one common thread seems to be that at one point or another these people have come under the influence of charismatic preachers, whether in mosques or online through social media. I am struck by the very dogmatic language used by the jihadis that have posted videos and messages online. It feels almost like they are parroting what has been preached to them.

Could it be that people who from childhood are taught religion in certainties rather than in shades of grey are more susceptible to the influence of others? Obviously many other factors would have to come into play to bring about radicalisation. I am certainly not putting forward the idea that a conservative upbringing is to blame for all this. I am just trying to address one of the factors which I think does make a difference. And that is the lack of development of independent thinking. Young people need to learn not to accept things just because they are told but to make their own journey and reach their own conclusions. Their faith will be the better for it.

I have lost count of the times people have said to me that I am not learned enough to make a judgement, that I have to trust what the religious scholars tell me. They have spent years reading all the religious texts whereas I only know a dozen or so surahs of the Qur’an by heart. If they say so then it must be true.

So they tell me I must always eat and drink with my right hand, not my left. When I cleanse myself before prayer, I must always follow the ritual of washing my limbs three times on each side (starting with the right of course). When I pray in the privacy of my home I must cover every single hair on my head although it’s alright for my brother to show God his hair.

Now I am a grown up and can think for myself. I sometimes drink with my left hand if it is more convenient but I always get a little frisson of doing something naughty. I try not to be too dogmatic about the Wudu’ ritual but somehow can’t stop myself from washing my arm three times on the right then doing the same on the left. I have tried to pray in my bedroom without a headscarf but each time I have felt very awkward so I have reverted to the traditional head covering when I pray even though both my heart and my head tell me that God does not care about these trivialities only that I approach my prayer with pure intentions. Conditioning is hard to overcome.

That Dratted Headscarf!

The hoopla over Michelle Obama’s lack of headscarf during her recent visit to Saudi Arabia has had me sighing yet again. There is hardly a day when I don’t read the newspapers and sigh, shaking my head at this or that. But that’s another story for another day.

For the avoidance of doubt, there is no law or protocol that says non-Muslim female visitors to Saudi Arabia need to wear a headscarf. They should dress modestly out of respect for the customs of the country, so no to short skirts, plunging necklines and sleeveless tops. Most non-Muslim expats go about their daily business in the Kingdom wearing the abaya (a cloak of sorts) but with their heads uncovered. And, shock horror, the expats are not always the only ones without a headscarf. Sometimes it is the Saudi girls themselves going about with heads uncovered and I count myself one of them.

Of course it’s all to do with context. The culture differs from city to city and from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Riyadh and the central region are generally the most conservative parts of the country. Jeddah, in the west of the country, takes a more relaxed approach. You would probably make sure you were all covered up if you were going to government offices or going through immigration at the airport. On the other hand, you might feel comfortable enough without the headscarf going to the supermarket, the shopping malls or simply travelling by car to visit a friend.

For me, the decisive moment came rather symbolically on the first day of the year 2000. I had recently moved back to Saudi Arabia after the death of my parents and had decided to start a business there. I was going about every day wearing the customary uniform of abaya and headscarf but I started to notice a lot of local women putting their headscarf on very loosely and sometimes letting it fall back altogether. The dreaded muttawa (a kind of religious police) were also notable by their absence. I remember being terrified of them in my younger days when my family lived in Riyadh. They were at the height of their powers in the 1980s, harassing women on a daily basis but it seems this power has now been severely curtailed and women are no longer quite so fearful of encountering them when they go out in public. It is very easy for journalists in the west to portray Saudi Arabia as a conservative country clinging to its old customs but things do change there.

Anyway, let’s go back to 1st January 2000. I had stayed up all the previous evening thinking about this glorious new century we were entering and how I would mark its beginning. I started thinking about the dratted headscarf and questioning why I wore it. It was certainly not from religious conviction – it should be obvious by now that I am one of the non-hijab wearing types of Muslims. I concluded there was no compulsion to wear a headscarf, no muttawa to frighten me and that I was just wearing it out of habit. Time to stop this hypocrisy, I thought, and be true to myself. The next morning the headscarf was cast aside, all was fine and I felt happy and free. My sister joined me in Jeddah some time later and she took her cue from me. We went about to shops, restaurants or walks by the seaside with heads uncovered and the country did not die of shock.

Thus you can imagine my loud sighs of annoyance at the twitter storm surrounding the first lady’s omission of the headscarf. There are a lot of Muslims who are in “outrage mode” these days, ready to take offence at the slightest thing. Have they been reading the Daily Mail by any chance? They need to calm down and the western world should not pander to them – there really was no need for a White House official to make a statement about this matter and to defend Michelle Obama’s wardrobe. Ignore the silly twits, I say. Don’t give them the oxygen of publicity.

Muslims are not the Enemies of the West

The past few weeks since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris have set in motion a maelstrom of debates in the media about free speech, Islam and the integration of Muslims in the western world. The violent attacks on the offices of the French satirical magazine have given the green light for many to voice what they may have thought in private but never articulated openly before.

The debate has yielded some insightful writing and discussions in the media but for the most part it has felt more like a free-for-all mob out to have a showdown with Islam, the bogeyman of the free world. Politicians are getting in on the act, writing to Muslim organisations throughout the country asking them to clean up shop and do their bit to stamp out the violent extremism, the implication being that somehow they had been remiss in doing so before.

Let’s get things straight. The gunmen who committed those hateful murders may have proclaimed they were doing it to avenge the prophet Mohammad but in truth these men were no more Muslims than Richard Dawkins is. These men were part of a terrorist organisation with a terrorist agenda which happens to cloak its vicious objectives in Islamic rhetoric.

The Taliban overlords who peddle heroin in order to finance their power struggles, the ISIS leaders who extort vast ransoms through the kidnap of innocent aid workers and slaughter en masse innocent civilians in Syria and Iraq, the Boko Haram fighters who butcher entire villages in Nigeria. These are not God-fearing people. These are cynical, ruthless and power hungry men for whom religion is a convenient tool for brainwashing their drones. By all accounts the Paris gunmen weren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the shed. They were drones doing their masters’ bidding whilst parroting the words of their Al Qaeda mentors.

Is the growing power of these pseudo-Islamic terrorist groups a cause for global concern? Absolutely. Let’s not mince our words here. We are at war. The rise of pseudo-Islamic terrorism presents one of the greatest dangers to societies both in the West and in the East. This is not, as is often portrayed, a conflict between East and West, between the Islamic world and the secular/Christian one. It is a conflict between anarchic, power hungry thugs and the rest of us.

The front lines of this war are being fought in Africa and the Middle East – witness the thousands of civilians that have been killed this past year in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and so on – but the global world we live in means no country is totally safe from attack. The terrible massacres at Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher grocery store, horrifying as they were, are just another manifestation of this global war. To see them uniquely in terms of an attack on free speech is to miss the point. The cynical masterminds of these various plots are well aware of the impact such attacks on Western soil can have, how they can further marginalise Muslims within society and create fertile ground for recruitment of more “drones”.

So we come to Charlie Hebdo, which published cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad in a manner that many people (both Muslims and non-Muslims) found offensive. With a mere readership of 60,000 this publication caused ripples rather than tidal waves. It did not spur imams throughout the country’s mosques to incite their congregation into murderous retaliation. However, for Al Qaeda here was an opportunity to put themselves back into the spotlight again. To whip impressionable men with questionable pasts into a vengeful frenzy was easy enough to do. The calculating minds behind such a plan would surely predict the reaction to such an attack. Yet more cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad, yet more backlash against the Muslim population, yet more impressionable recruits. By publishing this week’s cover with prophet Mohammad wearing a shirt saying “Je suis Charlie”, the magazine played into Al Qaeda’s hands, doing exactly what it wants it to do.

Naturally in the wake of these horrific murders, people were shocked, angry and scared. They wanted to find a way to express these emotions. They wanted to stand up for democracy and free speech. Thus people of all faiths came together on the streets of Paris and other major cities in a show of solidarity against the terrorist extremists. This unity did not last long. The dust had barely settled before questions began to be asked of the Muslim community. Was the religion itself inherently violent? Were Muslims at fault because they failed to prevent radicalism amongst themselves? Are freedom and democracy compatible with Islam?

Pressure like never before has been put on Muslims to denounce these acts of terrorism and to prove that they are not “fifth columnists”. Social media has been inundated with cartoons mocking Muslims and articles showing contempt for their beliefs, particularly focusing on women’s rights or lack of them. Like any religion, there are many shades of Islam. Some women in Islam wear the hijab (veil), some wear the niqab (face cover) and others don’t wear any head cover at all. The starting point for all Muslims is an affirmation of their belief in God and that Mohammad is a messenger of God. Beyond that many differences of opinion emerge. The Koran, the holy book of Muslims, is open to different interpretations but the one clear message it preaches over and over again is to do good, help the poor, be respectful of others, do no harm, and follow the path of truth. It is a powerful message, one that has inspired more than 1.5 billion people worldwide (23% of the world population) to follow this faith.

There is nothing here for the western world to fear and no conflict with its democratic traditions. Muslims do not need to justify their beliefs or apologise for them. It is time to stop pointing the finger of blame at Islam and for all decent people to stand united against a common threat to our peace and prosperity.