To be, or not to be; what is feminism?

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Guestpost: Jamshed Javed

Allow me to begin by clarifying I am not female. I’m a man. And that’s OK, because no definition of feminism I could find necessitates me to be a woman to be a feminist. And whilst biology has spared me the monthly cramps and other assorted challenges women normally endure, I have a lifetime of gained vicarious experience from powerful women and the struggles they have been and continue to go through, primarily due to their gender.

My mother worked incredibly hard to ensure I always had the best opportunities in life, the finest education she could afford, and she always made time to give me her personal attention. My aunts all run successful businesses, creating jobs in and around Wales, whilst simultaneously raising their families, not easy, but a testament to the efforts of my grand-mother in raising all her children to be successful after the early passing of my grand-father, despite not being able to speak much English.

Even within my own religious background of Islam, there are powerful women to take inspiration from. The mother of Moses, who made the ultimate sacrifice to save her son from the evil actions of the Pharoah, and the wife of Pharoah who convinced him to spare Moses and allow him be raised with them in the palace, at a time he was killing them all. Mary, the mother of Jesus, gave birth under extremely difficult circumstances and had to deal with the rejection of society. Muslims also have Khadija, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, an incredibly successful entrepreneur in a man’s world, and A’isha, whom he married after Khadija’s passing. In turn, she was regarded a scholar, one of the top narrators of Prophetic traditions in a field dominated by men, and responsible teaching a significant majority of what Muslims currently practice and hold dear in Islam today.

Brevity prevents me from mentioning more, but let us also not forget Prophet Muhammad himself, who taught us that the position of our mother is second only to God, that if there was a competition for who was most deserving of our respect, our mothers would be awarded the gold, silver and bronze medals, leaving our fathers with the runner up prize. That’s not to say our fathers are not deserving of respect, but how can anyone compete with our mothers who carried us for 9 months without rest, then suffered the pains and labours of childbirth, only to have us take our toll on their bodies whilst they try to raise us (especially in those days)? Prophet Muhammad also taught us that the best of people were those who were best to the women of their families, the one who raises daughters will have an honoured station in Paradise, and all believing men were commanded to treat them with dignity and give them their due rights. Also, bear in mind these teachings were being expressed within a society with a history of patriarchy, where women tend to be treated worse than third class citizens. Islam allowed women to inherit, to vote, to be treated as equal citizens, centuries before the rest of the world caught up. As a Muslim, feminism is part of my heritage.

On a personal note, I find it a real shame that so many of us deny ourselves the opportunity to learn what Prophet Muhammad taught us in an authentic pure manner, without it having been dissected and passed through a propaganda machine dictating the opinions we should form, instead of leaving it to us to make up our own minds. One of the many things I love about Islam is the constant call to think for ourselves, to explore our reality and search for the truth, and discard falsehood in all its forms. Muslims who understand Islam in its proper context grow an intense love and affinity for it, and Prophet Muhammad also, because (among many reasons), it can be very empowering.

This empowerment can be seen within Muslim women among British society today, easily recognisable by how they choose to present themselves: wearing head scarves, gowns and veils, commanding society to recognise and respect them for who they are on the inside, and not for what they look like. It’s no secret that modern-day society regards feminine beauty as a commodity, you only have to look at the cosmetic market or women that appear in the media for evidence of that. But as for Muslim women, their appearance is not for sale, and they dress to suit themselves, not what society or social pressure demands of them. It’s an oft-repeated trope that women who are covered are somehow oppressed, but nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve yet to encounter a single one who didn’t choose to cover of their own free will. Many find it a form of liberation from the expectations and demands of society.

Of course, there are deeper, more spiritual reasons why Muslim women choose to cover also, it’s not just about the practical benefits, nor is it to deliberately make themselves a spectacle. However, I’ll leave that for them to explain as it’s outside the scope of what I wanted to discuss here.

Tackling The Rise of Islamophobia

It’s no secret that Islamophobia, an exaggerated irrational fear of Muslims and Islam resulting in them being marginalised from various sectors of public life, has been on the increase lately, thanks to irresponsible comments and reporting by the media and politicians. Social conditioning is a very real phenomenon, and police statistics have seen an increase in attacks on Muslims, by as much as 800% in some areas. In some cases, even leading to murder.

Many of the attacks are perpetrated against women. They’re easy targets to pick out, and perceived to be vulnerable. Bullies always prey on those weaker than them. Thanks to the rise of technology and social media, these instances of aggression and assault against female Muslims are being recorded and shared at an unprecedented level, allowing us to witness horrific scenes out of the ordinary and gain a better insight as to the depth of the problem. Only in the last couple of months we’ve seen videos emerging of female Muslims being beaten and knocked unconscious in the streets, an attempt to push one in front of an oncoming train, veils being ripped offabuse on public services, the list goes on.

It’s important to point out that in each case, these women are completely recognisable from their appearance as being Muslim. Every time they choose to exit the safety of their homes, and go out in an increasingly hostile public space, whilst donning the attire associated with Islam, they are intimately aware that they could be the next target. There is a genuine fear there, but they don’t succumb to it. They choose to not to diminish their individuality and pander to the regressive whims of society, and instead they continue to embrace their choices proudly and bravely – and we must agree that this is their right to do so.

I am part of a small group of like-minded individuals who have recognised this as being an issue, and recently organised a dinner event in Cardiff City Hall to tackle it. Our group is majority female, outnumbering the men at a ratio of approximately 3:1, and being tasked with the main positions of responsibility. The head of the group is female, which in any other circle would be unsurprising (as it should be), but for some reason it’s considered surprising when it comes to Muslims, so I mention it only to challenge that misconception. Perhaps this is another example of that propaganda machine at work again?

As mentioned, the purpose of the event was to raise the issue of Islamophobia, the causes of it and the cures for it. We recognised that the media and politicians had a large part to play, but also that we as a community needed to engage with the public more, and avoid being insular. The aim was to promote dialogue and engagement between all parties, and from our perspective it was a complete success, thanks to the dedication and hard work of everyone involved. The event took place in Cardiff City Hall, and we also had the pleasure of Welsh Assembly Member, Mark Drakeford, delivering a short speech as well.

That Piece

So you can imagine our disappointment and confusion when shortly after the event, Wales Online published an opinion article by Shazia Awan which seemed to refer to our event, but with significantly different details. It’s been shared by several pundits as being ‘brave’, ‘truthful’, and ‘honest’ among many other adjectives, but being as not a single person that I could find could explain how it is any one of these things, I’ve decided to break it down and analyse it myself, so we can get to the crux of what Ms Awan is really trying to say.

She begins by mentioning her Welsh roots, and affinity for all things Welsh, no doubt to build that emotional connection and bond with the reader, “she’s one of us”. And though there are individuals, like myself, who have lived in Wales all our lives and never felt the need to move away at any time, I’m sure we can forgive her having done so at some point.

Flawed Practise?

She refers to herself as a “practising Muslim (though flawed)”, which I found to be really confusing? Sure, nobody’s perfect, but that’s not really how we introduce ourselves, is it? Can you imagine going in for an operation, and your surgeon introduces himself by saying “I’ll be performing surgery on you today, but I’m not very good”. I’d insist on being seen by someone else. Or imagine the mechanic at your garage telling you “I make lots of mistakes”, I’d go elsewhere. In fact, I can’t think of a single area of human activity where we’d welcome the opinion and expertise of someone who admits to being flawed in that very subject area.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the honesty, but it’s disingenuous to claim to be two contradictory things at the same time. You can’t have your cake and eat it. You can’t claim to be a charitable person, but never give. You can’t claim to be a chef, but never cook. And you can’t claim to be a practicing Muslim, but fail to follow and uphold the basic tenets of Islam. The only instance I could imagine where someone might claim to be two contradictory things is where they want to be awarded all the kudos and accolades of belonging to one group, but with a defensive caveat they can hide behind should any criticism or question arise.

Back to Ms Awan specifically, one only has to read her follow-on statement (“I’ve never felt the need to wear my religion as a badge of honour”) and supplied photo to recognise the juxtaposition with Muslims who do practice to the best of their ability and feel it important to maintain a modest appearance in-line with their practice. I’m not saying that you should judge a book by its cover (or in the case of Ms Awan, the lack of it), but the cover can definitely be used to give some indication as to what’s inside. If you wanted an authoritative medical opinion, no-one would begrudge you for selecting what appears to be a university level textbook over something more basic, based on the cover design.

It’s clear that Ms Awan chooses not to cover (her choice, no issues with that), but one must also recognise that Ms Awan will consequently also have no experience of what it’s like to live in today’s society as a woman who does cover. She’ll never appreciate the fear of being targeted in the street for the way she looks, of being bluntly marginalised and disrespected, because there is nothing remarkable about Ms Awan’s general appearance. She blends into our multicultural society and looks like everyone else.

Private Judging

Ms Awan goes on to state “Religion is a private matter”, a position I totally agree with, as does the Qur’an (the book of the Muslims) which boldly states “there is no compulsion in religion“. No-one has any business to force their opinions, religious or otherwise, onto anyone else. But disappointingly, she immediately follows this up by indicating her apprehension at watching “a young generation of Muslims with growing puritanical attitudes”, which I find a rather judgemental attitude for one who only just stated that religion is a private matter.

It’s clear from the context of the rest of the article that Ms Awan takes objection to the veil, but I really wonder why she can’t leave people to their own choices, and respect them all alike? The term “puritanical” is clearly used in a negative context, and it’s not really clear what Ms Awan is actually calling to. The attitude of Muslims isn’t changing, it’s been that way for centuries. And not just Muslims, but a cursory glance through history will reveal that women of all backgrounds used to go to great pains to cover themselves. Wearing clothing was seen as a mark of civilisation and progression. It’s only this attitude that has changed over the years. In Britain, it was only about 100 years ago that a single piece fitted swimsuit was considered acceptable, and since then they’ve gradually gotten smaller to the point where today nothing is left to the imagination. Even on the cold streets of Britain during the winter months, it’s not uncommon to see young women poorly covered, subjecting themselves to the freezing weather. I’m sure it can’t be for comfort, but it’s what society demands for them to fit in.

But Muslim women choose not to bind themselves to those values, where they feel the need to dress to impress, or spend their money and time acquiring and applying copious amounts of make-up before feeling comfortable enough to step out into public. That’s not a puritanical attitude, but rather it’s what I consider to be feminism in action. The women make their own decisions to suit themselves, not anyone else, that must be respected. It’s a shame that Ms Awan fails to recognise that.

Ms Awan then makes an interesting assertion, “you do not need to be an Islamic scholar to know [the veil] is not mandatory attire”. Interesting because this has been actually debated by scholars for centuries, and given that a significant majority of actually actively practising women choose to adopt a more modest appearance for themselves, it’s clear they’re discovering something they find convincing and compelling as a reason for them to don it. To take the opposite scenario, you don’t need to be an Islamic scholar to know that wearing gowns with polka dots is not mandatory attire, hence you find no-one wearing it.

If there is to be any apprehension towards anything, then there should be apprehension towards Ms Awan’s understanding and conclusion regarding this issue, which appears remarkably consistent to her self-confessed understanding and practice of Islam in the first instance  – that is to say, flawed. Worryingly, arbitrarily presenting complex theological issues as simple black and white conclusions, as Ms Awan appears to be doing, is also the methodology of extremists.

Feminism & Niqab

I’m really happy that Ms Awan goes on to describe herself as a feminist, and someone who believes in equality. She even agrees those who wear the veil have every right to dress as they choose – although I am concerned at her reason, “because we live in a democracy”. Sure, it’s a reason, but as a practising Muslim, I believe it’s every woman’s God given right to be able to wear the veil if they choose to. Living in a democracy just supports that. Even in countries that aren’t a democracy, I’d still assert a belief that it’s their right to wear the veil, the only difference is how far that belief can be translated into action.

Even so, it’s really disappointing that, immediately after making such positive statements about women being allowed to cover, Ms Awan then appears to oppose the decision of those who choose to do so, and with the flimsiest of excuses. I’d have expected a feminist to support the choice that women make, so long as it was their choice, instead of opposing it. If you oppose it, then you don’t really believe in the respecting the right for others to choose, you only respect choices that are in-line with your own. In some circles, that’s called bigotry, not feminism.

Ms Awan claims the veil is a barrier to communication, which puzzled me greatly until I came to the epiphany that she must not talk to anyone on the phone – ever! Maybe she’s never written an email, nor sent a text message, nor used social media. In fact, this went a long way into explaining why she never responds to anyone who raises questions about her article on social media. They end up being swiftly blocked.

On a more serious note, you don’t have to be an Islamic scholar to know that women don’t wear the veil in private gatherings with other women anyway, which means in reality, Ms Awan should always have been able to find a way around the veil issue, being that she is a woman. But she seems to support her position by saying she knows others feel the same (I really hope she’s not claiming to be an empath) but can’t say it for fear of being branded a racist – which suggests she’s talking on behalf of non-Muslims here, in which case Ms Awan’s claims to be a practising Muslim is even less relevant to the article as the issue is originating from others in the first instance.

Ms Awan never goes on to explain exactly how the veil presents a barrier to communication. She only asserts this position without any real basis or justification, requiring the reader to accept it as fact, which they certainly are not. As mentioned earlier, the head of our group of volunteers is a woman. Her name is Ms Sahar al-Faifi, and she is a molecular-biologist by profession, currently working in one of the biggest hospital in Wales, and volunteering her spare time with several socially involved organisations like Citizens Wales. She was part of the team that helped set it up, and one of the presenters at their launch event in Cardiff last year. She’s of Arabian origin, and she also wears the veil. By all measurable standards, she appears to have integrated just fine into a lot of roles that require communication. I’m not sure what else she would need to do to demonstrate this, and since Ms Awan has decided to erect her own barrier of communication against anyone trying to get in touch for clarification, we’ve been unable to ascertain any answer to this conundrum.

ISIS?

Ms Awan then makes what appears to be a random reference to the recent Paris attacks, an event worthy of condemnation along with all similar. It’s not clear how this fits into the rest of the article, other than to state the obvious that ISIS are evil and don’t represent Islam. She even suggests we unite to fight them. I’m sure no-one would be opposed to that. But I am concerned that she seems to be indicating that unification is the same as assimilation, that women in veils are making themselves the “other” and causing a community divide. Interesting, because the only people that seem to take it as divisive are those who are opposed to it in the first instance. There was a time when people were opposed to Jews, to Blacks, to the Japanese and the Irish, but we got over it by looking past race and prejudice.

If you really want to unite against terrorism, then unite as human beings who strive for peace, and stop making a piece of fabric the issue!

Britain is a multi-cultural society, and all the better for it, because we learn to accept all the differences. That’s what makes Great Britain ‘great’. And it seems to me the more noble act would be to champion this position of acceptance, rather than take the simplistic position of leaving our identities behind and becoming one homogeneous group. The spice of life is in variety; who wants to be exactly the same as everyone else, when instead everyone can be accepted, respected and celebrated for the individual that they are?

The Dinner

Ms Awan then jumps from Paris back to Cardiff, and mentions the dinner event, thankfully understanding its purpose – to focus on “tackling Islamophobia in Wales”. However, she immediately asserts that it wasn’t representative to her. If she had left it at that, I probably would have agreed. Personally, I do not consider Ms Awan someone who is subjected to the same trials of Islamophobia as those who organised the event are subjected to on a regular basis, being as she’s not easily and readily identifiable as a Muslim in the same way they are. I would also personally have had reservations about attending an event targeting a very specific minority sector of society to which I didn’t belong, and then complaining it didn’t represent me. That would have seemed obvious from the outset.

However, Ms Awan actually clarifies herself this time, her issues are two-fold: the lack of female representation on the “top tables”, and the involvement of MCW.

Regarding the lack of female involvement, Ms Awan specifically states as “not a woman in sight on the top tables”, which is puzzling because Ms Awan herself somehow managed to be seated on one of the “top tables”, i.e. one of the 5 reserved for MCW guests. We have photos that clearly demonstrate this.

Even assuming she meant other than herself, the table that was set dead-center of the stage at the very front only had women seated on it. Of the 10 seats available, 6 were occupied by women for the entire duration of the event, with a 7th arriving slightly later. How Ms Awan can categorically claim there was “not a woman in sight” suggests there’s either something seriously wrong with Ms Awan’s eye-sight, which may be following her practice of Islam in being flawed, or she’s employing deliberate word-play to be deceptive, because there wasn’t only a (single) woman in sight, there were actually several women in sight.

women-top-table-watermarkedPerhaps Ms Awan chose an extreme third option, which is to not recognise them as women at all. This would certainly explain why she also neglected to mention that the entire event was chaired by Ms Sahar al-Faifi herself, along with, Amanda Morris, another Muslim female (wearing a head scarf) who presented one of the items on the agenda and has also written a response to Ms Awan. It’s not possible for Ms Awan to have missed them, unless she had her eyes closed and fingers in her ears during a majority of the evening. There were other women also around the stage responsible for the co-ordination of the event as a whole – as mentioned earlier, women made up the significant majority of the volunteers and this was their event.

As a feminist, I’m extremely worried and concerned that Ms Awan chose to erase these hard working women from having even existed. Instead of championing their involvement, efforts and cause, she chose to completely omit them. That’s not feminism. That’s plain old-fashioned falsification. Furthermore, it’s well known that extremists like ISIS target ordinary Muslims, because they believe they’re not Muslim for refusing to support them. It’s worrying how similar Ms Awan’s behaviour is to theirs, in choosing to not recognise women because they adopt a lifestyle for themselves that she is opposed to.

event-leads-watermarkedUltimately, I, nor anyone else involved with the event, can understand how Ms Awan can even attempt to make the claim of there being a lack of women, especially in light of the photographic evidence to the contrary. There’s something clearly wrong with her testimony. As mentioned already, Ms Awan has refused to comment, or engage with anyone raising the question.

Her second issue is that the MCW don’t represent her, or (she believes) others like her. Given that Ms Awan also believes there were no women present, I think we should just put her beliefs to the side for now. The event was organised and advertised under the banner of MCW which, among many other reasons, was to lend legitimacy and credibility. It’s not possible for Ms Awan to have heard about the event and book her tickets without being aware of MCW’s involvement. Which begs the question, if she believes they don’t represent her, why turn up at all? Or, given that she turned up regardless, why complain about it?

Ms Awan is a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate. The Conservative party does not represent me at all, yet they’re the government. In fact, they don’t even represent the majority of the British public, they only won 36.9% of the vote. Most people in the UK voted for other parties. And given only 66% of voters actually turned out to vote, this means the Conservatives were elected with less than 25% of voters voting for them. They don’t represent a significant majority of the British public, as attested to by actual verifiable statistics. Yet they’re the government, and we all have to live with that. One would have thought that Ms Awan, being involved in such politics herself, would understand that umbrella organisations do not and cannot accurately represent everyone individually. Instead, they aim to collectively represent what they believe to be the significant majority, and the MCW does aim to represent the Welsh Muslim body as best it can. This appears to be another example of Ms Awan making an issue out of something that really shouldn’t be one in the first instance.

Walking Out, or Not Walking Out?

The next part of Ms Awan’s article is, in my opinion, the piece de resistance, where she states “the speaker who made me walk out was Salafi preacher Abu Eesa Niamatullah whose 45-minute speech I listened to”. Abu Eesa is a fairly well recognised Islamic speaker among practising Muslims, and he was the keynote speaker for the event. As such, his name was mentioned on all the publicity media. There can be no doubt in my mind that Ms Awan was aware that he would be present prior to purchasing her ticket, and certainly prior to the event itself.

I’d even go so far as to assert he is the real reason she came, because she had previously researched him (as she attests to, herself), and was looking for something to take issue with. The reason why I would say that is, by her own admission, she sat and listened to his whole speech, and only then did she stage a walk-out. We’ll come to the reason she gives shortly, but I can’t think of any other area where you can walk out of something after it has been concluded? You couldn’t go to a restaurant, eat the whole meal and then walk out in protest. You couldn’t go to the cinema, and claim to have “walked out” when the end credits roll. You don’t go to a concert and “walk out” after the main performer leaves the stage. It just makes no sense, unless Ms Awan is using another one of her double entendres (similar to “not a woman in sight”), and suggesting that she just physically walked out, as opposed to teleported or levitated. Unfortunately I don’t think that’s what she means because she claims she was “made” to walk out. Really, I can’t see how that’d be possible once the whole speech was concluded. If you want to stage a walk out, you do it beforehand, just like the students of Brunel University did to Katie Hopkins recently.

She seems to indicate the issue was that he was a Salafi, something which shouldn’t have been a surprise to her being as she’d researched him prior. Unfortunately, she does make another one of her over-simplistic generalisations as to what Salafi doctrine is, in the same manner as I’ve mentioned extremists are want to do.

Ms Awan says that Abu Eesa stated “many things I disagree with, including his idea of combating Islamophobia by being more orthodox”. This is the only thing she actually mentions of his 45 minute speech, and for those listening attentively (including non-Muslim guests), his point was completely clear and palatable. People have a fear of the unknown, they’re not used to seeing how Muslims pray, or how we dress, or even when we say “Allahu Akbar”. And the solution isn’t to shy away, but to engage more and not be an unknown. Islam teaches Muslims to engage with their communities in beneficial ways, that even clearing the street of rubbish is an act rewardable by God if done for the right reasons. I’m not sure why Ms Awan took exception to this above all else, but the only inference I can draw is that she either believes that Muslims should stop engaging in orthodox practise and become completely lax – which as the practicing Muslim she claims to be, I’m sure she’s not suggesting – or we take an extreme approach, to what end I don’t know. But I do know that would be quite worrying, although consistent with her narrative thus far.

She seems to mainly take exception to comments Abu Eesa made years previously in a specific context, and later clarified and retracted about women working – which begs the question as to why she even attended the event in the first place, and why she felt the need to “walk out” afterward if he didn’t say anything wrong. I’m not going to explain what Abu Eesa meant with his original remarks as he can and has done that for himself. However, I do want to point out that there was a time when Britain considered Osama bin Laden a faithful ally, when Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the Conservatives, and David Cameron allegedly considered bestiality a good idea. We don’t appear to see Ms Awan holding on to these views, and being as her Twitter profile proudly boasts a picture of her with Cameron and isn’t opposed to him having been given the highest position in the land, she’s either not bothered by it, or approves – either of which I find quite worrying and distasteful.

Ms Awan finishes up by asserting that young Muslims are drawn in by views of more radical Islamic clerics (the inference being our keynote speaker was one of them), and essentially pushing the academically debunked “conveyor belt” theory. But if you properly examine those who do go off to join ISIS, or those who committed the terrible acts in Paris, you find these are individuals who purchase “Islam for Dummies”, “The Koran for Dummies” and “Arabic for Dummies”, or described as “party animal who loves clubbing“, or people who “drank, smoked and ran a drugs den“. These are not people who are practising Muslims, with knowledge and adherence to Orthodox Islamic teachings, something they appear to share in common with Ms Awan.

Conversely, the preachers who speak out against such atrocities and try to guide people back to Orthodox practice are the very people Ms Awan takes exception to, and insist they not be given any kind of platform, which in turn would only starve Muslim youth of any kind of authentic orthodox guidance. Where else does she expect they will turn? If you make something forbidden by force, it doesn’t just disappear, it just goes underground, and who knows what they might find there? What Ms Awan is calling to would actually exacerbate the problem. She offers nothing at all by way of cure.

In contrast to this, the women who organised the event call for dialogue and integration (which is not the same as assimilation; integration allows both cultures to exist together in dynamic harmony, whereas assimilation forces one culture to be lost in favour of the other). They call for the inclusion of everyone, and each to be respected for the individuals they are. And there’s no better way to make that call than to demonstrate it themselves, which can be easily seen in this group photo where the variety of personal choice is displayed. That’s what feminism is, and if you want to tackle extremism in all its forms, that’s what you need to be championing. And that’s the point Abu Eesa was trying to make during his keynote speech – the very speech Ms Awan claims to have made her walk out.

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DISCLAIMER: Cross-posting/guestposting is not an endorsement. As this article has not been written by CoolnessofHind, the views expressed therein do not necessarily reflect the views of coolnessofhind.wordpress.com

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2 thoughts on “To be, or not to be; what is feminism?

  1. It seems careers in politics and journalism in this era can only be advanced by attacking Muslims, even if you are yourself a Muslim!

    Maybe we should give Ms. Awan a break, she’s only doing what she thinks she has to, to get somewhere.
    We all need to earn our bread, after all.

    • Just a clarification. This is a blog, and this is a guest post. Those connected to this blog do not have a career to “advance” in the political or journalistic fields. They would also (inshaAllah) not earn their “bread” by lying at the expense of the Muslim minority.

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