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An executive summary of Islam in Britain

Just finished this really useful little book: "Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam" by Innes Bowen. It could well be subtitled "An executive summary of Islam in Britain", because that's exactly what it feels like - a brief, breezy and dispassionate summary of the main Muslim groups in the UK, what they believe, how they interact with the world, etc.

Very handy reading, if you're a non-Muslim British person like me who might be wondering: the Muslims in my neighbourhood, are they sunni or shia? Does it matter? How do they relate to the various Muslim groups that are making the news these days? Which ones dress in special ways, and how significant is it? - All those naive questions that you can't just come out and ask.

All kinds of interesting stuff comes up while answering these questions. For example I learnt about the Tablighi Jamaat and why they wanted to build the "mega-mosque" that has been back and forth in the news trying to get planning permission. I learnt which groups have a voice in the Muslim Council of Britain. And even though the book doesn't spend much time on women's issues, it gives lots of titbits about different groups' conventions on veiling, staying in the house, marriage, and mosque provision - so it gives me some "local" insight to complement this other reading on veiling practices.

As in that other book, one thing that might surprise you is that some seemingly "traditional" things (like clothing practices) are borne of quite modern movements within Islam; really, you realise that "traditional" vs "modern" is not a particuarly helpful way to distinguish different strands of Islam practiced in Britain today.

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Understanding why some Muslim women wear a veil

I live in Tower Hamlets, the London borough with the largest proportion of Muslims in the UK. I see plenty of women every day who wear a veil of one kind or another. I don't have any kind of Muslim background so what could I do to start understanding why they wear what they do?

I went on a book hunt and luckily I found a book that gives a really clear background: "A Quiet Revolution" by Leila Ahmed. It's a book that describes some of the twentieth-century back-and-forth of different Islamic traditions, trends and politics, and how they relate to veils. The book has a great mix of historical overview and individual voices.

So, while of course there's lots I still don't understand, this book gives a really great grounding in what's going on with Muslim women, veils, and Western society. It's compulsory reading before launching into any naive feminist critique of Islam and/or veils. I'm sure feminists within Islam still have a lot to work out, and I don't know what the balance of "progress" is like there - please don't mistake me for thinking all is rosy. (There are some obvious headline issues, such as those countries which legally enforce veiling. I think to some Western eyes those headlines can obscure the fact that there are feminist conversations happening within Islam, and good luck to them.)

A couple of things that the book didn't cover, that I'd still like to know more about:

  1. The UK/London perspective. The book is written by an Egyptian-American so its Western chapters are all about things happening in North America. I'm sure there are connections but I'm sure there are big differences too. (I am told that Deobandi Islam is pertinent in the UK, not mentioned in the book.)
  2. The full-covering face veils, those ones that hide all of the face apart from the eyes. Ahmed's book focuses mainly on the hijab style promoted by Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood (see the photo for an example of the style), so we don't hear much about where those full face-coverings come from or what the women who wear them think.
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Book: Watch Your Mouth by Daniel Handler

Philippa read Watch Your Mouth and thought I might like it, which is news in itself since our tastes in books are really far apart. Who would have thought our tastes might meet in a surreal sex-mad incest-themed farce? - Dammit, those adjectives don't pinpoint the book at all but they give the right... flavour...

It's a bit like Gravity's Rainbow (but much shorter) in its unrelenting postmodern playfulness. By "unrelenting" I mean to imply "sometimes a bit wearing". Also all the meta-fictional jokes, and the way that the novel's structure is actually kind of part of its plot. (I thought at first that all the opera references were just annoying twiddles, but you soon see what they're there for.) Plus the fact that in both, I sometimes started to suspect the main character might not actually exist, not common in novels...

Philippa summed it up pretty well - and the author would be happy with this summary: "It's not the novel I thought I was going to be reading."

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I Am A Strange Loop

"I Am A Strange Loop" is a book that tries to support the (very plausible) idea that consciousness/soul/"I" can be largely explained by the self-aware loops of thought that we build up throughout our lives, and that no "special" essence is needed on top of the brain's universally-capable thought machinery.

This idea is part of the message of "Gödel Escher Bach", Douglas Hofstadter's famous and beautiful book in which he essentially invented the idea that the strange loops of self-reference that Kurt Gödel discovered in formal maths had deep implications for our idea of selfhood, and how that can arise from "merely" physical stuff.

Gödel Escher Bach is a masterwork, it's enchanting, illuminating, and funny. Unfortunately "I Am A Strange Loop" reads like a kind of postscript to that, a bit like someone who's not quite sure if he's got his point across so he keeps trying again and again in slightly different ways. "I Am A Strange Loop" is full of quirky analogies and lists, intended to be humourous illustrations, but one after another they quickly become very boring. Because he tries so many different analogies and doesn't stick to any of them thematically, the book seems very bitty and gets us nowhere.

If you're thinking about reading "I Am A Strange Loop", go and find Gödel Escher Bach instead - it's really a mind-altering book. If you've already read Gödel Escher Bach then read it again, and remind yourself of all the funny dialogues, the rampant thematic twists and turns and all the unexpected stuff that happens!

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D M Thomas better than Thomas Pynchon

D M Thomas is a really Freudian novelist, not just in his subject-matter and the way he deals with issues like desire, but more importantly in the way that rationality, although present, isn't what determines the course of events. (It seems like authors often forget about the possibility of the unconscious.) And like in psychoanalysis, events can be trivial and deeply significant at the same time. This allows his books to be about big subjects without floating off into abstractions, keeping the straightforward emotional sigificance.

I've just finished reading The Flute Player which is essentially about a woman who becomes a muse for a painter and two poets, and thematically it's about how art can survive through cataclysmic horrors we've seen in the 20th century such as totalitarianism and genocide. In fact, how it can exist in the same universe as those things. It's not a perfect novel (The White Hotel is) but it's good.

I remembered that some of the themes are a bit like those in Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. There too, war comes and goes in unexplained ebbs and flows, and themes of mortality, art, and sex fly around. But Gravity's Rainbow is basically a big postmodern romp around that world, a lot of very clever writing without real human significance. D M Thomas is much better.

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LRB on Dan Brown

"The greatest novel of ideas of our times, in case you didn't know, is Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. No novel in recent years has had anything like its impact in terms of challenging, refining and enlarging people's thoughts and emotions. It may be an absurd rigmarole - and indeed still hardly a week goes by without some Grumpy Old Man or knee-jerking journalist complaining about how badly writen it is - compared to what, an opinion piece in a daily paper? - but when it comes to raising interesting questions for the average man in the street about the role of the church, about art history and, most importantly, about whether Jesus fathered a child with Mary Magdalen and whether their only living descendent might look a bit like Audrey Tatou, Brown is absolutly without equal. Ministers of religion and professors of science can call all they like for national debates on important issues of faith; some cheapjack novelist has already done it for them."

[From article in London Review of Books vol 28 no 13]

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Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older

What a title: "Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older". And the book really does explain the phenomenon. That's not the whole subject of the book - it actually only occupies one chapter, worth reading for that chapter alone - and in fact the book covers a wide range of very …

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Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

"Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art" is a beautiful book. It's a meta-comic - a comic novel all about comics, in which a cartoonist leads you through the philosophy of comics, some of the techniques, the psychology of how comic art works, and a little bit of history too.

It's playful and …

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What the Twist Did for the Peppermint Lounge

The London Review of Books occasionally has some really interesting articles about pop things:

"Some of the great days of disco, in 1976 and 1977, coincided with punk, but if you read any received history of popular music, you wouldn't know it. The inveterate rock bias in the music papers …

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Freakonomics

I finally got round to reading the book Freakonomics - I'm afraid it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be at all.

It's basically about applying economics ideas (incentives and disincentives, etc) to everyday things, like what might make a schoolteacher rig the results of her children's exams. And …

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