Take the fear out of Islam

1st April 2011 at 01:00

Being Muslim

By Haroon Siddiqui

groundwork pound;11.56pound;5.54 (amazon)

3 OUT OF 5

Terrorism, wars, Jihad, the hijab and the burka, polygamy, female circumcision, honour killings, stoning and the status of Muslim women. These are just a few of the topics covered in awarding-winning Canadian journalist Haroon Siddiqui's readable, engaging and provocative book, Being Muslim, part of a series published by Groundwork, that attempts to provide an overview of key and contemporary political and social issues for secondary pupils.

Helping students to understand what it means to be a Muslim in the modern world is important. According to a YouGov poll, published last year, over 75 per cent of non-Muslims believe that Islam has provided a negative contribution to British society; 58 per cent linked Islam with extremism; 69 per cent believed it encouraged the repression of women; and 80 per cent admitted they knew very little about Islamic faith, beliefs and practices.

This is not a traditional RE-style textbook, but that does not mean it is not enlightening. Siddiqui's explanations of common Muslim phrases and etiquette, as clues to Islamic attitudes to life and destiny, fascinate, as do his explanations of the roles of culture and religion in women's activities and dress codes. He tackles tough topics, offering a remarkably balanced overview of the range of opinions, especially within the Islamic community, on contentious issues like the role of women.

Being Muslim is excellent to help young people explore current political, religious, and secular aspects of being a member of the world's fastest- growing religion, but would need expert and careful mediation.

- The author is not afraid to challenge Western assumptions about Islam and is prepared to assign blame to both Western democracies and Islamic fundamentalists for fanning the flames of Islamophobia. Drawing on his travels and interviews in Muslim countries, he attempts to show that a new generation of Muslims is challenging extremists. He also asks penetrating questions: for example, why does the UK government ignore suffocating restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia?

Siddiqui acknowledges the desperate living conditions of many Muslims in the developing world and says they should be addressed, instead of offered as an excuse for violence. In one of the most poignant and thought- provoking parts of the book he describes post-911 life for Muslims in the UK, the US and Muslim countries themselves. He argues that since 911 many Muslims living in the West have found life extremely challenging, if not downright unpleasant.

In the opening chapter Siddiqui writes that "every Muslim must do jihad" then, reassuringly, you find out later that the word jihad more accurately translates as "struggle", than as "holy war" or "crusade". There are other surprises: "Laughing at the Siege" introduces us to Muslim comedy; we find out the difference between hijab and burqa, the logistics of providing food and water for pilgrims of the Hajj and Islamic references in hip-hop music.

This book can help teachers deal clearly and directly with contentious issues involving Islam. It is refreshingly unequivocal and highly effective in exposing contemporary media's double standards and inconsistencies relating to Islam.

About the author

Haroon Siddiqui is an award-winning Canadian journalist and a recipient of the Order of Canada, the nation's highest civilian honour. He is a past president of PEN Canada and current chair of International PEN's Writers- in-Exile Network.

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