Gina Khan on Breaking the Silence
Last February an article by Mary Ann Sieghart in the Times (London) introduced us to Gina Khan: ‘a very brave woman. Born in Birmingham 38 years ago to Pakistani parents, she has run away from an arranged marriage, dressed herself in jeans and dared to speak out against the increasing radicalisation of her community.’ Here she tells us more and brings us up to date on her campaign.
What prompted you to start speaking out?
I had been doing my own research for a few years. After all, being a British Asian woman from a Pakistani ethnic background, a Muslim, the atrocities commited in the name of Islam effected me profoundly. Being a Pakistani had its own stigmas – being female meant being treated as sub-human in relation to the Muslim man. I can see how the ideology works – half the ideology is about oppressing Muslim women. That’s evident when you note that the first thing Islamists do is reverse the rights and freedom of Muslim women, when they do manage to create an Islamic state, as in Afganistan or Iran. I wasn’t going to participate in my own oppression!
I have lived within the Muslim community in Birmingham. I’m a born and bred brummie, I had been speaking out for a while. I had been writing to a lot of people hoping someone would want to focus on the truth. I knew what I knew and didn’t want to forever remain silent at any cost. I remain forever grateful to Mary Ann Sieghart for believeing in me and supporting me so that I could break my silence. It gave me the confidence to continue and believe in myself. These things have to be said and it was my duty – after all, we are engaged in a protracted and widely dispersed war at the Jihadists’ discretion, which I knew had been going on before 9/11; our goverment was in denial…and still is. My insight has been through personal experiences and those of people around me.
My father was indoctrinated with this ideology in the early 1980s. My dad was in his 60s, a pensioner when I was 14, he was 28 years older than my mum. He was a hardworking, honest, warm man who ran his corner shop like any other Mr Khan. Dad became religious towards his old age. After fulfilling the last pillar of Islam, the Haj, Dad started to attend the nearby mosques regularly; many of them had been established in the 80s by Tablighi-Jamaat and Jamaat-e-Islami. He used to talk to me a lot but it was only about God or religion and I was the only one who wouldn’t get bored with his rhetoric. It was more or less the same rhetoric that you hear Islamists constantly repeat. Dad would say ‘you kids don’t know nothing – Islam will take over, there will be mosques everywhere, you must think of your after-life – not this life. Kaffirs will burn in the fire of hell.’
His words would frighten me, and I had no reason to doubt his words of wisdom as he was reading the Quran and attending mosques where pious religious mullahs gave sermons about the Quran. He was becoming anti-Jewish, even though he had never met a Jewish person in his whole life. He was becoming anti-west although he never actually went back to live and retire in Pakistan until mum died. Even then he had an agenda, a holy mission. He had donated land in his village to construct a huge madrassa in Pakistan. His village isn’t far from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. He put all his money into it and had even denied us siblings the right to Mum’s properties in Karachi by stating that she had wanted to donate the rent of the bungalows and the properties to the Madrassa.
When he was feared to be very ill, I flew out to visit him and observed how 20 to 25 young boys who were orphans lived inside the madrassa, fed and clothed on kind donations..but they were not allowed to integrate with the villagers and spent nearly every living moment of their lives praying or reading the Quran to perfection. A residing mullah controlled their lives and these lads were very quiet and submissive in behaviour.
I asked Dad why he built a madrassa and not a girls’ school or even a hospital, which would have benefited the whole village, and he said,
‘Even if just one of these children from my bloodline memorises the Quran off by heart – 7 generations of my bloodline will go straight to heaven.’
Now in hindsight I realise he was brainwashed into an ideology – by the same mosques and mullahs in Birmingham that preach tenets of Jihadism. Pensioners as well as the young get indoctrinated. Dad had become colder and more disconnected the more religious he became.
When he died, Pakistani army officials turned out to show respect at his funeral…I sometimes wonder if anyone there grasped the real threat. Today he is buried inside the compound of his Madrassa.
In 1996 I remember seeing flyers and posters advocating meetings for Muslims to talk about Jihad – a call for the ‘umma’ and anti-west propaganda…in a chip shop in Ward End run by mullahs. I remember thinking: why haven’t the police arrested these guys?
When the horrendous events of 9/11 happened , I remember thinking ‘oh my God, they have started to attack the West’. I was gripped in fear…and I understood who the enemy was. I was shocked when I realised that Western governments didn’t know who the enemy was. I also predicted an attack on British soil, and sadly that happened too – 7/7. It was pretty obvious to me that that would happen. I spoke to a police officer recently and he agreed that had I spoken out ten years ago, I would have been considered ‘mad’ and no one would have listened to me. I had stopped my children from attending local mosques where children were being smacked over the head if they repeated any word of the Quran wrong. I remained silent for most of my life but I was seething with anger at Islamists…how did this goverment not sense what was coming, while many at the grassroots level could sense it ? Remaining silent wasn’t an option for me any more, especially when more Jihadists were being discovered and named locally. Many mujahideens were known to people who had gone off to fight in Jihad in Bosnia. One of the Jihadists who was arrested in Birmingham in February was a friend’s brother. A local British-born Pakistani lad in the armed forces had been killed in action in Afganistan, and I couldn’t believe they wanted to behead someone in the armed forces just to instill fear in us all. My kids are in the Cadets. I’m proud to be British and have always found British people kind. I could have been doctrinated too, had I not questioned what I was reading against my own logical reasoning and thinking. In search of my religion I had also picked up books translated in English from the same bookshops that were raided. I had been a victim of domestic violence…the beating of women authorised in Islamic books and political Islam theories put my faith in turmoil. I’m pleased that other Muslim people are speaking out.
My mother is buried here…I will be buried here…my children will be buried here…this is my Motherland. I have every reason to seek, acknowledge, expose the truth as I saw it and still see it…as I lived it and as I experienced it…without Fear. A loving Allah/God has got to be on the side of humanity…yeh?
The Times article mentioned that you would love to start a movement of like-minded people. Has that been happening? Have people been contacting you?
Yes. I had over 700 emails from people. It was almost as if what I said was on a lot of peoples minds – people from all races and religions, atheists, Muslim youths, and even a kind email from Cherie Blair. A lot of organisations and media contacted me but I knew I still had a lot of research and studying to do on nearly every issue I talked about. I had some amazing emails, some incredibly sad stories, all really supportive, a few radical Muslim women were disappointed in me but then that was expected. I wanted to get to the root of the ideology. I have stated to many that this war will last at least 25 to 30 years. Prime Minister Brown, just like Mr Blair, won’t use the word ‘Jihad’ – they mention the ideology but never define it to their people, which I believe is counter-productive. Muslims themselves have to understand the concept and reasons behind the ideology, and it isn’t just because of foriegn policy; this ideology was being implemented long before the Iraq or Afganistan war. The only way to really understand the enemy and what Jihad means, is to understand the historical roots of Jihad, intertwined with the history of Muslim women and their struggle to be emancipated. This is a slow process and I’m not keen to be on national tv – and I hate my voice on radio. I’m a one-woman band at the moment but there are things in the process that I am working on and then I hope to network with all likeminded people and organisations more closely. Thank God there are other people out there who know what they are talking about. I’m a huge admirer of Dr Wafa Sultan – one gutsy, brave and sincere woman. I hope to challenge these Islamists face to face one day. The real clash is between modern 21st century Muslims living in the present and backward-thinking Muslims with the mindset of the 7th century.
Have you had support? Have you had criticism? hostility?
Yes. I have had both. But nothing could ever make me remain as silent as I did for 34 years of my life. Just recently I had someone say to me ‘only the kaffars (meaning unbelievers – anyone who is unislamic or a sinner) have supported you.’ I gave this British-born young Muslim woman a mindful. How dare she use a discriminating and insulting term to define British people or Muslims who are supportive? It’s a term that Islamists use a lot, and it is very insulting even to Muslims themselves. Initially I did face hostility and I was accused of ‘putting the community down’…as if they didn’t do anything themselves to bring down the communities. Non-muslims have more or less left the community. Trevor Phillips was spot on when he said we were sleepwalking into segregation…only everybody was waking up 20 years too late. I had a brick put through the window and the police were supportive. I had to have an alarm put in…my Catholic nieghbours looked out for me. People were more worried about me than I was for myself. I don’t fear anyone…I’ve lived in fear for too long. I had to consider the children though…both are proud of me and I’m educating them my way; after all, the education system won’t teach them Islamic history on Jihad. I have had moments where I thought: what am I doing? But then every time I look at my children, I know it’s for the next generation that I have to keep trying to create change. We all want our children to live in a peaceful world. They have never asked me to quit…they have always encouraged me. I began to realise Islamists would always win if people like me remain silent.
I remember in 1989 when Salman Rushdie recieved a fatwa off the mullah in Iran..I remember thinking ‘my God he’s had it’. .We are always taught never to question the authority or literature of the Quran…But looking back, I understand how they used Rushdie to instill fear into the rest of us British-born Muslims in the West. Truth is a lot of us didn’t really care, my generation were more intergrated than the kids in the communities now, but the fear was silently embedded into the back of our minds.
Islamic history is important to study and analyse. It wasn’t always like this. Islam was frozen in the middle ages: it’s time to defrost Islam.
The Quran is a magnificent historical record. Even Imams couldn’t possibly understand the depth of it. Millions of us read the Quran in Arabic…that doesn’t mean we under stand what we read, we are dependent on translations. That’s why I call it the biggest con of the century…interpretations and translations imported into this country for 40 years were more to do with Jihadism than with a peaceful Islam that gave equality to women and was plural. There is an American woman, Laleh Bakhtiar, who is a convert and isn’t extreme…she still wears jeans – she doesn’t wear the hijab as most do, she has interpreted the Quran in English and has had death threats. I’m waiting to read her translation. Jihadists don’t want women translating the Quran or women becoming Imams…Yet the Prophet had a woman Imam in his first mosque who preached where men and women weren’t segregated.
Islamists have almost written Muslim women out of history and their natural rights. I do acknowledge that the Quran has violent edicts, but you have to read the Quran in context and time. To say that what happened in the 7th century must be revived and considered the ‘true Islam’ is ridiculous to any reasonable thinking human being – that would mean reviving desert Arabic Islam, which is becoming obvious and beginning to look like a cult. Muslims have to revive the spiritual message of the Quran, which is often suppressed by Jihadists. I guess I’ll get a lot of hostility, but no one owns Islam. We all can have our own personal relationship with God. I’ll do as I damn please. Islamists psychologically suppress us. It never worked on me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a Muslim. I’m against the idea of a revived Calipha…I mean for God’s sake, who do these people want as a Caliph, Osama bin Ladin or Omar Bakri??
It can be hard to reform religious practices and rules, because they are supposed to be ‘above’ human beings. It’s always open to people to tell you ‘That’s not what Allah says’. Do you get comments like that? If so how do you deal with them?
Yes all the time; Allah’s name is used to put the fear in us and close off debate or logical thinking. I ask Muslims to look within themselves and ask themselves – question their own humanity. What God would want you to behead an apostle or murder a gay or hate Jews? We are all human beings, no one is better than anybody else. The truth is the majority of Muslims like my mother lived through Partition and never wanted to live through it again, but there are signs that Jihadists want to revive Partition again. Indians and Sikhs understand this supremacy better.
The reason it is diificult to change is because Islamists have invaded the public domain and media beneath the skin of the nation for nearly 40 years; we have been fed lies and they use the Quran to justify their actions. Watch Osama bin Ladin in videos and you will see he uses 7th century history in the Quran in order to strengthen the cause. Their aim is to spread extreme Islam to ‘the four corners of the world’. Their ideology is the cause of terrorism and the young turning themselves into human bombs…brainwashing them to believe they will be blessed with 72 virgins in heaven or that female suicide bombers will sit at the right-hand side of God . What an insult…these guys kill themselves as well as others, in order to be blessed with milk, honey and perfect virgins…so that Isalmists can revive a Calipha and change the order of the world. My dad believed he had pleased Allah too, and saved 7 generations of his bloodline. Islam is in crisis…
People say Islam needs reformation or enlightment…true…but I say that the thousands and thousands of Muslims who integrated in the West over the last 100 years, did transform/enlighten Islam. We are the Muslims who don’t believe in violence or this modern Jihad, we are the Muslims who don’t want extreme Sharia law, we are the Muslims who believe in democracy and adhere to the law of the land. We are the Muslims who don’t agree with forced marriages, polygamy or honour killings. We are the Muslims who don’t carry historical hate for the Jews or non-muslims. We are the Muslims who love our neighbours. We are the Muslims who would never murder Salman Rushdie or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, just because they are ex-muslims and use their freedom of expression or make their own informed choices. We are the Muslims who live and let live. We are the 21st century modern Muslims. Great Asians like Ghandiji and Jinnah and Bhutto were educated in Britain and took back the tenets of democracy to India and Pakistan. My mum was a feminist and supported democracy for Pakistan. She would have been sad to see how dangerous politics has become in Pakistan. She empowered herself in this country…she knew my dad couldn’t commit polygamy in Britain because it was against the law. She knew that the British laws gave her rights she would not have had otherwise in her own country; unfortunately the tide seems to be changing and our goverment is letting us down by engaging with Islamists.
How can any humane Muslim believe this wave of suicide bombing can be justified in the name of Allah/God and still remain silent? People don’t realise that this ‘ideology’ has been manifested for centuries in the Middle East and Asia. The most tolerant, and plural brand of Islam is Sufism which emphasises inner and spiritual meaning of the Quran; elements of Sufism respect the views of women.
For a long time it seemed that both the government and the media talked to the MCB and to no one else about Muslim issues. Do you think that’s changed? Are you in contact with any more reform-minded groups? Groups in which women play more of a role than they do in the MCB?
The goverment had until recently engaged and somewhat funded the MCB. In my eyes they are Islamists, they are Jihadists’ mentors.
They are not the voice of British-born Muslims or British Islam. Inayat Bunglawala gets on my nerves…everytime he makes a statement to the press, I wish he’d put a sock in it.
Initially Inayat Bungalawala had supported Osama bin Ladin, calling him a ‘freedom fighter’ in 2001; he supported Wahhabi Clerics and Hamas leaders, and currently these men want a new law so that banning religious discrimination can be implemented – which could shut down debates about Islam.
Bungalawala tried to shut down the veil debate by stating that ‘the veil is not debatable’. Excuse me…the veil, polygamy, and child-bride marriages have all been debatable for over 100 years since the first Muslim women activists in Eygpt, Turkey, and India used the pen as a weapon and wrote to the first newspapers printed, to break their silence and create change for the emancipation of the Muslim girl and woman. They wanted their full humanity back , they fought for education and schools for young girls, demanding changes to family laws and divorce laws, demanding the end to child-bride marriages and husbands taking on other wives. In other words women have always stood up to the harshness of Sharia law and harsh Islamic practices. Who is he to say the veil cannot be debated? Under the current threat of terror and the segregation the veil causes – it must be debated. Historically ‘taking the veil’ meant becoming a wife of the Prophet. The veil is a 7th century Arabic dress…The Quran only asks the muslim woman to ‘cover her bosoms and private parts’ and most of us do that anyway, Muslim or not!
Bungalawala made a statement when Rushdie was knighted, asking Muslims to ‘remain calm’ – as if we were all going to go out onto the streets of Britain and burn effigies and disrespect the Queen and our Motherland. Only Islamists cause the violence and incite hatred.
Recently after the Conservatives’ Policy Exchange did a research and report of extreme literature (The Hijacking of British Islam), which it found in the East London Mosque (that Abdul Bari is chairman of) among other places, Bunglawala made a statement to the Times: ‘we live in an open, democratic society, where it is not illegal to sell books which contain anti-west views.’ Is he making a dig at our democracy? He knows like most Muslims that the literature found incites hatred, intolerance, and abhorrence of non believers. These people use our democracy as a means to implement their political Islamist agendas.They have engaged with Islamists. Sacranie had previously made many comments that are counter-productive to modern Muslims.
I use the term modern because a lot of ‘moderates’ are hypocritical. Modern Muslims – and there are millions of us – we have to break our silence. The MCB are bigots and have never done anything for the emancipation of Muslim women. At least Salman Rushdie has supported the emancipation of Muslim women. I have a suggestion for Bunglawala and Sacranie, who still hold historical hate for Jews and gays: why don’t they buy a one-way ticket to any of the 22 Islamic states around the world and practice their ‘true Islam’ freely there? Why our government believed we needed imported imams or bearded Islamists as our voice for British Islam I’ll never know. They dug us a grave.
There are women’s groups – Dr Shazia Vaassi does some great work. Asian women have been actively involved against extremism and the subjugation of Muslim women here – we just don’t get to hear about them often enough. I wish someone would invite Dr Wafa Sultan over and put her in front of some British Islamists or mullahs…she would eat them alive. Her words have a profound effect on me.
Is it your experience that women see these things differently from the way men do? Are women more receptive to what you’re doing than men are?
I don’t know for sure – I think it depends what kind of family you are from and what kind of parents you have, what kind of community you engage with and your geography, and which brand of Islam you were taught as well as education opportunities. My brothers are British Asians through and through. When we were living in Ward End in the ’80s, we were the only Asians there with shops, we blasted Saturday Night Fever or Bollywood music out for our customers and we intergrated. One of my brothers even dressed like John Travolta. Our friends are from all religions and races. Muslim men still have more freedom than women though…I have had to fight for my freedom and equality, it wasn’t easy. I still see Muslim women trapped by backward thinking practices – and then, I see some Muslim women who participate in their own oppression, believing Allah ordained it. As girls we are conditioned from an early age to be submissive…for me it was completely unnatural. I’ve always been a free spirit.
Most Muslim men would never commit polygamy, beat a woman or marry their young daughters off by force, but a backward wave still holds Muslim women captive because they live to a script. Each generation creates change…the cycle has to be broken, but it will still take some generations. A lot of British Asian men wrote to me with very sad stories about their sisters or female family friends who were subjugated, committed suicide or were victims of honour killings; they applauded my stand. Some Muslim radicals, men and women who emailed me, said I may have ‘mental problems’…Oh well…But if you talk to Muslim women who came here from oppressed poorer countries, they thank Allah everyday that they were treated humanely and equally under British law. A lot of Pakistani women who have settled here embrace the culture and educate their children. Pakistanis understand all too well the agenda of Islamist political parties in Pakistan. All in all I found most British women and men receptive. After all we are all human beings first. We are the strongest sex no doubt…but we need the co-operation of men too. I don’t agree with gender apartheid!!
How are things going now? Are you feeling optimistic?
I’m an optimistic person…I have to be. I’m doing a writing course, I want to be able to write in my own style without sugarcoating my words.
I choose to speak the truth as I witness it, it’s like off-loading for me: it’s uplifting to be able to be my authentic self and never lie to myself again and hence to do what I believe. I was always critical about certain elements of my religion, but never thought I could exercise my rights.
It’s true life does begin at 40. I’m a lone mother but I never get lonely…too much to do and I have my little family to tend to. Unfortunately the lone mother is rarely in the Islamic conscience. I value my freedom. I’m committed to the work I do. I have a real passion for it – it’s a challenge to me. I have met some wonderful people through this line of work – people with real integrity. You have to find your real purpose in life and I’ve found mine. I know that I will have ‘issues’ if I’m critical of my religion and the supremacist attitude that govern us all currently, but I’m not disrespectful, I wouldn’t disrespect anyone’s God or anyone’s beliefs, but what the heck, Islamists disrespect our logical reasoning and humanity every day. I have a right to my full humanity…I do not believe that whoever created me wanted me or any other woman to walk out of the front door with half the IQ He blessed us with, no one could suppress/oppress me or shut me up again – ask my ex-husband. I don’t want my daughter to have my life…I intend to set her free as a full human being, one day. She was born in a free country. She can write her own life script.
In the mean time I will continue to fight this mentality and backward mindset – I will exercise my freedom of opinion and debate…that’s what democracy is all about isn’t it?
Posted November 11 2007