Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ramadan confusion

It is satisfying that this year's Ramadan got off to an almost uniform start. With the exception of socialist Libya and secular Turkey, there were no countries this year who saw the moon long before it could even make an appearance or used calculated astronomical data whilst confusing the birth of the moon with the time when it might possibly be seen by the naked eye. Maybe the disquiet amongst rank and file Muslims about lack of unity and leadership has finally reached those declaring the start and end dates of Ramadan - we'll have to wait and see when it comes to the end of the month, of course.
Meanwhile, we can turn our attention to more detailed timing issues. Gone are the days when mosques turned to the experts (such as the Royal Observatory or the Met Office in the UK) to obtain their prayer times. A proliferation of online prayer time calculators means every mosque and association can now publish their own time table for Ramadan, and sadly they hardly ever agree with each other. One of the reasons is that you only get out what you put in, of course, and few mosque secretaries know how to handle the options when, for example, choosing between civil, nautical or astronomical twilight. For the observant Muslim following their timetable, this can make all the difference of starting to fast an hour earlier or later in the morning.
But the problem goes a little deeper. Most of the online prayer time calculators, such as at, only go by the longitude and latitude of a geographical location, ignoring elevation data. Other, non-Muslim, sunrise and sunset calculators do the same, e.g. the world clock calculator at, but at least they provide a disclaimer: "The times for sunrise and sunset are based on the ideal situation, where no hills or mountains obscure the view and the flat horizon is at the same altitude as the observer... on a high mountain with the horizon below the observer, the sunrise will be earlier and sunset later than listed." Some even state that the data are for guidance only and not fit for any particular purpose.
No such disclaimer is given with the online Muslim prayer calculators which, by definition, are meant to be for a particular purpose, namely to determine when to pray and when to fast. Yet, most only provide "flat" data without correction for altitude. Here is an example: Cranfield airport has a published sunrise on the first of Ramadan (22 August 2009) of 5:55 and a sunset of 20:15; because these figures are used for aeronautical purposes they are accurate and authoritative for the location. The prayer calculator at returns a sunrise time of 5:58 and sunset time of 20:12, three minutes out at either end, because it assumes that this central England location is at sea level when its actual elevation is 358 feet. For higher level locations the error would be quite substantial.
There are prayer calculating programs which allow for the input of elevation data, such as the extremely useful DOS program written many years ago by Dr. Monzur Ahmed whose essay on the subject would be a useful primer for mosques wanting to publish their DIY timetables. Essentially, what is required in order to start and break the daily fast at the same time within the same location is exactly the same as what is required to have a uniform start and end date of Ramadan - education and leadership, or: a proper understanding of the issues involved coupled with the willingness by Muslim leaders to put their own self-interest aside for the benefit of wider unity.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

When a terrorist is not a terrorist

Thank goodness, British justice is consistent - unfair, unequal, but consistent. Prosecutors and judges make sure that the lines don't get blurred. Nowhere is this more important than when it comes to what defines who is with us and who is against us: terrorism is an exclusively Muslim hallmark, and it must stay this way.

Prosecutors and the bench at Glasgow Sheriff Court knew the distinction. There was a man before them who had threatened to blow up Glasgow Central mosque, called himself a "proud racist" and promised to execute one Muslim a day until all mosques in Scotland would be closed. A man with a problem, but definitely not a terrorist. To be a terrorist you have to confess Islam. MacGregor hates Islam and Muslims, and his patriotic choice is reflected in the leniency of his sentence. Three years probation provided he seeks occasional psychriatric help.

Contrast this with Isa Ibrahim, a disturbed convert to Islam, who was also a heroin addict and fancied to blow up Bristol shopping centre. He didn't have the capability and in his first experiment with explosives promptly injured himself. He was a lot more in need for psychriatric help than the proud racist MacGregor, but judges at Winchester Crown court knew that the moment he had converted to Islam he had crossed the line to becoming a terrorist and awarded him a life sentence. Ironically, it was his local mosque who reported him to the police, thus giving the media another frenzy to feed on about the dangerous Muslims in our midst.

Or take the "lyrical terrorist" Samina Malik. Her crime was to write poetry. She didn't plan or threaten to kill anybody. Her poetry was tasteless, but no more so than being a proud racist. At the Old Bailey, judges knew the difference, and gave her a nine months suspended jail sentence under terrorism legislation.

Take Peter Stephen Hill from Skipton in Yorkshire, a former territorial army soldier who had amassed a large amount of explosives. A risk analyst by trade, he knew he would not be branded a terrorist if found out. He was charged at Leeds Magistrates court under the "Explosive Substances Act 1883". By the time the matter was due in the Crown Court the prosecution withdrew from the case.

Or former British National Party candidate Robert Cottage from Lancashire who kept all kinds of chemicals for the purpose of making explosives in preparation of a civil war and who also wanted to shoot the then prime minister Tony Blair (many Brits did, but he meant it) - he also was charged only under laws relating to explosives. Sure, it's naughty wanting to take out the prime minister, but at least he had the right reasons. There was no doubt he wanted an Islamic State to emerge from the civil war he was preparing for. He was jailed for a mere two-and-a-half years and the media kept it all low key.

One could give many more examples. But more telling is that the terrorism charge is usually not brought to court but used as a blunt bludgeon to hit innocent Muslims with. Like the Pakistani students rounded up and expelled without evidence when an anti-terrorist police chief Bob Quick cocked up by showing an open dossier to press photographers. Or the Bengali Kalam brothers in East London who had there house raided and got seriously injured in the process, followed by a media smear campaign, all on the basis of unreliable police "intelligence". Or Barbar Ahmed, brutally assaulted by police and still fighting a US extradition warrant. Or the thousands of Muslims who get stopped and searched going about their ordinary daily business. And thousands of Muslims have been arrested and held under terrorism legislation to date only to be released without charge. The police would love to hold them all indefinitely.

You can say what you like about the British justice system. It may be antiquated, slow, expensive, inefficient. But the charge of ambiguity in distinguishing those who are with us from those who are against us cannot be levied against it: British injustice remains consistent.