Voices behind the veil
By Jack O'Sullivan, The Guardian, 24 September 2001
Q-News, the magazine whose news editor was briefly the 'shame of Britain' for making the ex-US ambassador cry on TV, is the biggest Muslim voice in Europe. Jack O'Sullivan meets its journalists to find out how they are responding to the aftermath of the US atrocities while coping with hate mail.

At Q-News, finishing touches are being put to Europe's biggest Muslim magazine. It's the first edition post-World Trade Centre attack and the message will matter when readers pick up their copy at Friday prayers. This edition will also be the first to be sold widely in the US.

So, I'm expecting to meet intense, middle-aged men with beards locked in serious debate. In fact, among the piles of paper and boxes in the messy north London office, two modest-looking young women are in charge. Well-covered in dark clothing, heads draped in their hijabs, they discuss their most immediate problem as journalists: getting to work safely.

Shagufta Yaqub, the 25-year-old editor, has many friends who have been harassed or attacked lately while wearing the hijab. "It is a sign of a pride in our religion, but it makes us very visibly Muslim and vulnerable," says Yaqub, who began covering her head only in her 20s after visiting Egypt. "We have considered, if this is a time of war, whether we should wear hats instead and play down our Islamic identity."

"It's a real issue for us," adds news editor, Fareena Alam, 22. "We have taken to travelling together in clans to and from work. We are careful not to be out late. The magazine is full of tips this month about how to keep safe."

Times have suddenly changed for the glossy monthly which was happy to make elderly mullahs fumble at their worry beads as it irreverently declared itself beyond the old Islamic struggles of setting up mosques or opening shops to sell halal meat. The apparently demure editors, university graduates, products of immigrant parents and British youth culture, are not quite what they seem in their hijabs . Q-News, said the last issue's tongue-in-cheek advertisement, is "about street drugs, designer fashion, human rights and Hollywood movies". But the attempt to move young Muslims out of the ghetto and into mainstream life is now more difficult as British Islam looks increasingly beleaguered.

Fareena Alam has already been branded as a hate figure for anti-American remarks she made on Question Time in the days following the attack on the World Trade Centre. Her comments are said to have made Philip Lader, the former US ambassador, tearful - producing an apology from Greg Dyke, the BBC's director-general, and turning her into a central figure in "The Day the BBC Shamed Britain" (Daily Mail).

A week on, how does she feel about the upset she caused by accusing America of harbouring Israeli "terrorism"? "Personally I feel it was only polite for Greg Dyke to apologise," she says. "I understand that. But the show was excellent. Friends from Canada and America rang to say they don't have any free discussion like this on TV over there. I felt so proud to be British that day."

The mood at Q-News remains resolutely upbeat among journalists still committed to an aspirational message rather than taking refuge in presenting themselves as marginalised victims. That is not easy when the hate mail arrives. "Do us all a favour," declares one email to the magazine, "Fuck off back to the swamps that you crawled from, just so that you can be there, when we exterminate you, which we will."

Yaqub explains the optimism: "Because of the attention Islam is getting, there have been a lot of serious, positive articles explaining what we believe. There's been a big jump in traffic on websites about Islam." Alam adds: "There are usually only enough people to fill one Islam chat room. The other day there were five going."

Also taking up staff time are requests for help from the mainstream media. Faisal Bodi, a well-known Muslim commentator who also writes for the Guardian, has been sought out by several tabloids asking him to infiltrate extremist Islamic groups. "5 Live wanted me on a show to tell them what's going through Osama bin Laden's mind," says Yaqub. "How on earth should I know? I told them to find a psychiatrist."

The past week has also had a lighter side as various readers called Osama have contacted the office. Fuad Nahdi, the publisher, recalls: "One of them, a barrister, rang us, sounding quite relieved, saying: 'At least now no one misspells my name.' Another caller complained of discrimination after passengers on a flight to Scotland requested that he be removed from the plane. The other passengers seemed to be disturbed not by his Taliban attire, but by his naughty eight year old. They couldn't take any more of his mother shouting: 'Stop that Osama'."

The biggest frustration for journalists at the magazine is their lack of access to the story. "We are incapacitated by inadequate resources," says Fuad Nahdi, a former Associated Press correspondent who founded the monthly. He knows New York well, regularly went with hundreds of others to Friday prayers on the second floor of the World Trade Centre and lost three friends in the tragedy. "I'd like to go off to Afghanistan to grab Bin Laden by the beard and ask him a few questions," says Nahdi whose family, like Bin Laden's, originally comes from Hadramawt in southern Yemen. "I'd like to go to New York, get in the thick of it, smell a little of the smoke and the shrapnel, take a proper look at this case. No one from the Arab media seems to be there. They are just translating the Reuters copy, using the same CNN pictures as everyone else, so it becomes much more difficult to question the story everyone is telling. We don't get to hear about all the Muslims - many of them menial workers - who died working in the towers, or the Muslim rescue workers who perished.

"Meanwhile, here we find ourselves excluded. We are not allowed into Downing Street briefings. The Home Office holds meetings with friendly Muslim leaders, but we are not invited along to ask questions. We are just thrown in with the trouble makers."

The magazine's tiny staff has, for now, taken on the task of reading, listening to, watching the circus and then applying a sceptical Islamic eye to what emerges. "We're interested in stories which question whether bin Laden is actually behind all this," says Shagufta Yaqub. "The Muslim world is full of rumours, some of which we take less seriously than others. There is even one saying that 4,000 Israelis did not turn up for work at the World Trade Centre, because they had been tipped off. Another claims there are pictures of the Israelis celebrating after the planes hit the towers."

Alam adds: "There are reports that the hijackers drank and went to clubs and yet we are also told they are Islamic fundamentalists. I thought fundamentalists had beards, avoided alcohol and stayed away from lapdancers. It doesn't all quite ring true.

"We are also questioning reports that they found the passport of one of the hijackers in the rubble when they can't even find the black box. They say they found flight manuals in Arabic in the back of a rented car at the airport. But they would not have been doing their homework on the way to the airport. We're asking whose interests this evidence serves. It all looks good to the US, but to Muslims it just incriminates the FBI as untrustworthy."

She sees her journalistic role as that of sceptic, trying to wake up those who are heading for war because their critical faculties have been addled by grief. "I trust that, in a couple of weeks, the American public will be asking some serious questions. But right now they are grieving and accepting what is going on. Their grief is being exploited. Is this really democratic?"

In the editorial meeting, Bodi urges scepticism about friendly over tures from the British government to Muslims: Tony Blair has even written an article for this edition declaring of the attacks: "Such acts of despicable cruelty are, I know, wholly contrary to the Islamic faith." Bodi responds: "We know what is coming. We're being softened up for the butchering of thousands of people."

There are nods of agreement, as cartons of falafel, tabouleh and pitta bread arrive from a Lebanese restaurant around the corner. "The government's idea at the moment is that no one should rock the boat," says Nahdi, "but our task is to look behind the gloss, which is why we are not popular with some Muslim leaders, who are cosying up to the government."

If Alam's job as hard-nosed, aggressive news editor is to untangle fact from fiction, Yaqub's as editor is to give her younger readers a sense of identity within a traditional theology. She is to Q-News what Cristina Odone, now deputy editor of the New Statesman, was when she shook up the Catholic Herald, but without the short skirts.

"I think there is a difference between the way men and women approach all this," she says. "With the men, it's more, 'Let's go on the streets and demonstrate,' whereas the women fear more, stay at home and say: 'Don't go out, put your safety first.' The most extreme anti-American voices are all men. I don't think it is a coincidence that they have the ability to detach more in political terms, whereas as a woman it would only take the image of a child crying for his father to melt me."

The forthcoming cover is plain in its opposition to the killings: three Muslim high-school girls from Florida are pictured beside the American flag during a candle-lit vigil for the victims. "End of Innocence" is the headline.

Hamza Yusuf, a US Islamic scholar, has been drafted in to give uncompromising theological guidance: the suicide bombers cannot be counted as martyrs. The act is haram, prohibited, like a mortal sin. "They are mass murderers, pure and simple."

Yaqub explains: "I cried when I saw the scenes. It was those images of people walking around holding pictures of their loved ones."

Nahdi thinks young Muslims are lost and his magazine has a unique opportunity to give them direction, because British Islam is a bridgehead between east and west, where the melee of so many different types of Islam will eventually produce a modern, exportable hybrid.

"The danger is that there are a large number of Muslim leaders in Britain who come from the same school of Islam as the Taliban. They are not extremists, but they copy the style. In Leicester, for example, they won't allow the women into the mosques. There are big sales of walkie talkies so the women can connect from home to the loudspeakers in the mosques.

"Meanwhile, there are platoons of young Muslims roaming the streets. They saw the TV images of the intifada and copied them during the Oldham riots. Now they are seeing bin Laden turned by the BBC and others into a glamorous, Rambo figure. Next time, will they be copying the bombers? We have to invest in forging a positive identity for them so we create the right kind of Muslim. Otherwise it could be dangerous for everyone."

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