By Mary Ann Sieghart (THE TIMES, 09/02/07):
The Giraffe Heroes Project is an American organisation that celebrates the lives of ordinary people who stick their necks out for the common good. As its president, Anne Medlock, writes: “In stories back to the dawn of time, the healing of the wasteland has come only when someone refuses to be passive and summons up the courage to ignore all the naysayers, go forth, and slay whatever dragon has scared everybody else into terrified passivity. We need those brave blazers of trails, those people who are true heroes.”
So let me nominate a new Giraffe Hero: Gina Khan. The dragon that has scared everybody else into terrified passivity is Muslim extremism. But Ms Khan, an ordinary Birmingham-born mother of two, has dared to speak out about the radicalism that has permeated her community. She refuses to be passive; she has summoned up the moral courage, at great risk to herself, to face down the jihadists who are giving Muslims a bad name.
You can read my interview with Ms Khan in today’s times2. With great frankness and fearlessness, she laments the capture of her area of Birmingham by jihadist radicals. She describes how mosques and madrassas have sprung up like mushrooms on almost every street corner, dedicated not to helping the community but to spreading the message of jihad; how preachers are indoctrinating the young to hate Christians and Jews; how her community is in denial about the radicals in its ranks; and how the mullahs collude in sanctioning forced marriages and polygamy.
“Open your eyes” is her message to nonMuslim Britain. “It’s all happening on your doorstep and Britain is still blind to the real threat that is embedded here now.”
The Government, she complains, has listened too much to the Muslim Council of Britain, which does not represent ordinary Muslims’ views, let alone the views of Muslim women. And even David Cameron, who came up to Birmingham this week to talk about empowering Muslim women, focuses too much on their education, when he should instead — she thinks — be promising to ban the arranged/forced marriages of teenage girls that take them away from school and often condemn them to a life of misery and submission.
Ms Khan’s views are so refreshing. She was born here, of Pakistani parents, and says that she loves this country and is proud to be British. She has embraced this nation’s values, is grateful for the protection and opportunities it has offered her and has no problem reconciling her race or religion with her nationality. She would be happy if her son joined the police or the British Army.
It seems odd that such views should even be contentious. Generations of immigrants before her have felt the same, and have often been more patriotic and appreciative of British values than native-born citizens who take their country for granted.
Yet what the radicals teach — and what many Muslim youths now believe — is that their host country is to be distrusted and that religion must come before, or even instead of, their national allegiance. So Ms Khan is right to argue that more should be done to teach Britishness in schools, in order to combat the messages that young Muslims are often imbued with in their mosques.
But the most striking point she makes is that Britain is a particularly good place for Muslim women to live in, offering far more equality and opportunity than any Muslim country. Not only are girls encouraged to stay on at school, go to university and have careers. They are treated equally under the law and are not blamed for or expected to put up with domestic violence or rape.
There must be hundreds of thousands of Muslim women who share Ms Khan’s view of Britain as a welcoming, supportive country that liberates them from the assumptions of male superiority implicit in much of their religion and culture.
An interesting YouGov poll in 2005 found that the proportion of Muslim men who say that they feel no loyalty to Britain (18 per cent) is more than three times higher than the proportion of women who say the same. British Muslim men are also far more likely than women to say that Western society is decadent and immoral.
But while the male-dominated mosques are so influential, and while Muslim fathers and husbands continue to exert so much power over their daughters and wives, Muslim women in Britain are still being subjugated. They may be able to go to university (if they haven’t been flown to Pakistan for an arranged marriage before then) and they may be able to start a career, but all too many are forced to give up as soon as they marry, often to a husband they haven’t even been allowed to choose. And if Ms Khan is right, and informal polygamy is rife in the Muslim community, their lives are doomed still further.
The British authorities should not be standing by while such practices persist. Polygamy must be rooted out and the perpetrators prosecuted. And, as Ms Khan suggests, teenage marriages to unknown husbands from abroad should be banned. These young women need protection from the State, since they seem to get none from their own community. Ms Khan herself was forced to marry at 16, against her own and her mother’s wishes. But it was, of course, her father’s decision that held sway.
As she said to me: “Muslim women aren’t suppose to make waves. I didn’t even hear my own screams and tears for 34 years. I have now stepped back and decided to understand and challenge my religion.” What she is saying about it needs badly to be heard, and has all the more weight coming from a member of the Muslim community. Britons — Muslims and nonMuslims alike — should listen to her, take heed and, most of all, applaud her extraordinary courage for standing up to the bullies in her midst.