Monday, November 14, 2005

Selling Islam

Yesterday I attended the Birmingham finale of the MAB road show “Celebrate Eid programme”, a mixture of musical performances (Nasheeds), comedy, fundraising and admonition. The show’s flavour was strongly influenced by the predominance of the American entertainers on the tour. I came away with mixed feelings.

Don’t get me wrong, done properly Nasheeds, songs in praise of the prophet, peace be with him, are great to listen to. Malaysian Group Raihan were, as always at their best. Preacher Moss and his common sense humour were as appropriate as the sincere exhortations by Imam Johari Abdul-Malik. I can’t say I was too taken by the Islamic gospel variety of “silky smooth” Khaleel Muhammad, and I did frown to see 786 sing and dance inside a mosque for their music video. But Islam in the West is made up of so many different cultural strands, and they will eventually have to find the right pitch.

The audience were great too. They were told to clap but not to scream, but did both. Normally, at Muslim functions they are told not to clap either and just sit there sombre and bored. During the evening they raised well in excess of ten thousand pounds for the earth quake victims in Pakistan and Kashmir, and at the end they all felt like one big family.

It’s not the content I’m moaning about. It’s the general setup of Islamic events these days. To put on a big show in a concert hall of a major UK city you need sponsorship. The sponsors, however, aren’t in it for the love of Islam but for the money. You don’t get an Islamic activity any more, well not on a larger scale, without advertising the high-interest mortgages from Amanah finance, an offshoot of the colonial Hong Kong Shanghai Bank Corporation (HSBC). Glossy Muslim magazines sprouting up like mushrooms advertise mortgages (re-Christened as Shariah-compliant or halal by virtue of having appointed a board of scholars) alongside recruitment advertisements for the police service and the armed forces.

Islam is going commercial and there is a price attached. As a journalist I know the influence advertisers have over editorial policy. One magazine I contributed to had full-page ads withdrawn because of an article I wrote on how the High Street Banks fool the unsuspecting Muslim consumer into believing that their costly products are as kosher as halal pork properly dispatched using all the right rituals. That magazine is not going to invite me again to voice my opinion. And how long will we be able to criticise the government, the police and the military when they hold the purse strings?

This is not entirely new, of course. The first mosques in the UK were called “Pakistani Welfare and Cultural Centres”, avoiding the mention of Islam, because local councils only gave grants for ethnic, not religious activities. We’ve survived and still got the mosques we wanted. So this, too, may be a passing phase. Once the excitement of going with the money wears down, we might come back “straight and level” before we “spin out of control” in pilot-speak. Meanwhile, however, there seems to be a great deal of confusion whilst Muslims in the West are trying to find their feet.

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