Alhamdulillah I had the opportunity of attending the GPU Global Peace & Unity Conference here in the UK and thought I’d share my thoughts about it as someone who’s an ‘outsider’ getting a glimpse of British Islam. I’ll try to add my pictures soon as well, maybe in another post. This conference is like the ISNA/ICNA conventions in the US, but it’s apparently not run by any one organization and only happens every few years. It spanned 2 days, a Saturday and Sunday.
First and foremost, I definitely admire the dedication and effort that went into organizing this huge conference. I have interned at ISNA in the USA twice and I know the blood, sweat and tears it takes to putting an event like this together. The conventions would rarely break even by the way and none of these people receive any personal benefit from it! Getting British Muslims to gather for any kind of unifying event is a Herculean task, so I admire the efforts of the organizers although I believe they could improve and benefit immensely from people’s feedback and critical reviews.
GPU is so needed in the UK, where all the organizations, Mosques, and scholars are so fractured and worse, fighting each other constantly. These conventions are a great way to bring everyone together. No one is saying one speaker or organization is “right” at these things. As someone once said to me long ago: “I love ISNA. Without it Muslims in the US would be all broken up and in disarray. ISNA is a place everyone can come, it is a marketplace of ideas. It self-regulates extremism. It is mainstream Islam at its best. A place for everyone to network, and for the Muslim Community in the US to come together and formulate its own vision.” I mean ISNA even allowed the ‘Muslims for Bush” group to have a table. Honestly, GPU should even allow Quilliam or even the EDL (if they promise not to bash anyone up!), let people bring their ideas and let people counter them.
Ok so starting out, registration for the event was very easy online through eventbrite. But the website was extremely sparse. I kept checking for updates or what they were going to have there, who the speakers were, the program etc. and they just didn’t seem to have anything. Where was their Facebook, Twitter? Their theme? What things were going to be there? No online hype at all?
The amazing thing is that starting a few weeks before the event, a lot of hate started going around on Twitter against the event, calling it Haram and UnIslamic etc. (Much more on this later, including an encounter with this Haram brigade!!) Finally, just a few days before the event, GPU posted a very basic schedule. I found it really odd that they just had a list of like 10 speakers every 2 hours. So they were going to speak at 10 minute intervals throughout the day? (This turns out to be disastrous but more on that later too!) I really could not believe they would give 10 minutes to people like Muhammad Al-Shareef or Yasir Qadhi, etc. Then after clicking around I realized there were some private “workshops” through other organizations like Engage or Ebrahim College where you had to register for them separately through eventbrite. So I registered for those too. As well as the “Fashion show” event for sisters which seemed to be doing a great job of advertising itself all over Facebook.
The event was held in the London Excel Exhibition Center which is this huge complex somewhere near the docks of London. The place was very huge and had a long hall of restaurants with seating in the middle and on the right side was a huge bazaar area and on the left was a huge main seating hall and behind that a separate big prayer hall. (The first day we didn’t even know where the prayer area was! And we were never given a program. We just prayed in the back of the bazaar when the times came.)
When I fist arrived as soon as I got in line a Niqabi sister approached me and told me this event was HARAM! And handed me a laminated little flyer that had Warning! GPU Haram! Haram! in yellow and black all around it and on the back it had a list of what was Haram. I asked her why she thought it was Haram and she said ‘O they have intermixing there’, and I was like ‘Uhh this is London, there’s intermixing everywhere, this is the same as going to one of your shopping centres’. She said ‘No, no they have music and dancing’. I was like yes the fashion show has music but it’s separate and the other stuff on stage is Nasheed. And she said, ‘No, no last year someone told her they had music and dancing etc’ and then she came up with this piece de resistance: ‘If the Prophet Muhammad [saw] was here, do you think he would be happy with this!’ I was like ‘Yes, why not, this is bringing Muslims together for the purpose of Dawah, educating and networking for Islam’ and this went on for a bit and she kept repeating the same things then I gave up and went in. I would really like to address their list of criticisms at the end of this article.
So anyway, we first walked into the Bazaar as there wasn’t much going on at the program side the first day. Apparently there were only a few introductory GPU people, some awards winner announcements, a few performances of poetry, some ex-politicians etc. and then a huge concert that went on from 6pm until 10:30pm. This was kind of shocking to me as this block of time on Saturday night is like the PRIME TIME of ISNA. This is where they showcase the best scholars and speakers in North America like Hamza Yusuf, Zaid Shakir, Nouman Ali Khan, Imam Siraj, Yasir Qadhi and Suhaib Webb etc and whoever else. Scholars who have visions and ideas for the community. They give reassurance, motivation and spiritual insight to Western Muslims. Again, no one has to agree with them. They are bringing their vision and sharing it with everyone.
It just seemed kind of like a waste to me. They could have had this concert as a whole kind of separate thing maybe in the afternoon. The kids were the main one’s it was for and having it so late like that I heard many parents complaining. When we walked into the program later in the day it was all a big mess. It was like 2 hours late and all the speakers were jumbled up. I mean if you had come to hear Lauren Booth or the ex PM of Mauritius at their certain times you’d have missed it. There was absolutely no way to know who or what was going on when. I like to call this the ‘Chaos theory of GPU’. I think their theory was like ‘ok we’ll put everything in a big pot and ppl will just come over and sit in the main hall the whole day for 12 hours’. Ummm ok! They also put some of the best groups… Native Deen, Zain Bhika and Ahmed Bukhatir last. Native Deen told me they didn’t get on stage till 10:45pm!!! Most of the attendees who took public transport or had kids were gone by 9pm, which was probably just about everyone.
OK, so the bazaar was a lot like ISNA’s except one whole side of it was this huge fun fair for kids with rides, bouncy castles, huge slides and spinning ferris wheels and even an ICE RINK!! How awesome is that! Along the other wall were some food stalls from local restaurants, some Malaysian, Arab and Desi foods. The lines for these were incredibly mercifully short and not crowded at all. (This is incredible given the loooong lines of hungry angry ppl at ISNA/ICNAs!! lol) I can only put it down to all those restaurants up and down the outer hall like Costa/Burger heaven/sandwich shops/even newsstand corner type shops or whatever that people were going to for food.
The bazaar layout also followed the ‘chaos theory of GPU’. There wasn’t any grid of aisles per se, it kind of just went around and around, there were some alleyways and there were some huge spaces. One huge space was kind of cute as they called it the ‘Garden of the GPU’ complete with a fake fountain, Astroturf and palm trees and there were kids running wild in it. But there were no numbers labeled on the stalls and no reason to how it was arranged. Charity stalls were next to Jilbab stores, next to Mosque orgs next to jewelry. In one way this was good as it forced everyone to wander around everywhere, but you honestly couldn’t find anything if you were looking for a certain stall. Try remembering where you last saw something! (The so called “map” they had was printed so tiny faded you couldn’t read it and remember we also didn’t receive it till the second day) But hey, we pretended it was like Alibaba’s Souk of Mysteries and enjoyed it anyway. (except for the 02830810810921883 charity workers everywhere with buckets and bags and balloons)
The actual amount of charity stalls there was pretty amazing. The community that gives the most in the UK to charity are Muslims (mashaAllah) and you could see this with all the groups. They were also very innovative by having give aways of water bottles, ipads, free professional pictures with Mickey and Minnie, with famous Muslims or even a painting on the ground of a surreal bird in flight so if u sat on it and took a pic it looked 3D! (who comes up with this stuff?!). They also had dressed up mascots of bears or Dora walking around giving kids balloons and candy. And one charity group even had a little smart car filled with balls and if u had to guess the number of balls you won the car! I mean these guys are professionals. After all that I kind of missed the charity aisle at ISNA where there are two seated people at every stall and you kind of walked by and saw what everyone was doing and went to the tables you were interested in!
I also went to the fashion show the first day which was a closed off curtained area towards the back of the bazaar. They had 3 fashion shows a day at different times. The fashion show itself was really well organized and a lot of fun. Some of the clothes were extremely beautiful. But I couldn’t understand why it was in the middle of the bazaar with openings on both sides where people could peek in (including every brother walking by!!) The music was just blasting right into the bazaar. Sisters were also taking pictures/videos/recording the whole thing on their phones and even big ole’ ipads! I think they just shouldn’t allow this because it takes away from the experience but I do understand it’s probably impossible to enforce this. There weren’t many sisters in the audience for the show we went to and we also learned that they showed different clothes each fashion show, which was a bummer to know! They could do well to maybe make this a totally separate/concurrent event in a separate hall at just one time each day. Have all the clothes shown and also have those designers’ stalls in that area too. I liked that they had this whole fashion show thing as part of the GPU because it was fun and pretty to look at and brought in a whole crowd of sisters that might not otherwise go to GPU.
The workshops I registered for were a mess. Apparently they had all changed times or were moved. And absolutely no one knew about them. This is so perplexing because ISNA has like 10 concurrent workshop sessions that are always full. I think the problem is GPU is trying to farm out the workshops and events to other groups and neither knows what they’re doing. The main program on Sunday didn’t start until at least one hour later and then it was something else entirely! I think a program committee is sorely in order.
The big prayer hall was nice but people just went in and prayed whenever. There was no Jamat!! This is what makes ISNA so amazing, you are praying together with like 40,000 Muslims! The biggest gathering of Muslims outside of Hajj in your own country and yet people here were praying in groups of 5 or 6. There were like 6 different Jamats going on all the time. Is it really so hard to post some Salah times somewhere and appoint a mu’athin and Imam at that time to pray. Main program and Bazaar should be shut down at those times and people have to be told to go pray.
Interestingly enough the matrimonial program was openly in the back of the prayer area. You could see a sectioned off area of chairs in circles of brothers and sisters past a sign-up table. Some families (probably the anxious mothers and fathers) were waiting sitting on the prayer area side.) One side wall had everyone’s biodata/profile posted up. Some were handwritten, some were typed, some had amazing GQ like photos. (I was so tempted to read some just out of curiosity but of course I didn’t! lol) There were facilitators speaking and telling the groups to introduce themselves and discuss various things then when I came back another time I saw the chairs set up so brothers and sisters could speak to one another one on one. All of this was in front of the entire prayer hall and public. Nothing was private and untoward. I’d like to ask those critical of these “speed-dating events” how much more Islamic can this get. How else are Muslims going to get to know each other I ask? (No wonder we have a marriage crisis in our Ummah.)
Ok so the other criticisms written on that little flyer were:
“Promotes free mixing (without permit)” – I think we covered this. If you think going to a place where there are tons of Muslims, including families and kids running around is Haram then don’t go. Not sure where/how you’d get a “permit” for it tho!
“Promotes imitating the Kuffar (non-Muslims)” – Well, doubtful that the “Kuffar” have huge religious conventions like this. In fact, none of them do. I think we are pioneers ppl.
“Promotes speed dating/Haram engagement” – I think I described how the matrimonial event things were. I did not see any “engagements” taking place!!
“Promotes police & their anti-Muslim agenda” – I did see a big police bus and them recruiting people for jobs. Interestingly, most of the police were Muslims! And they had one session about Hajj fraud (that no one knew about unfortunately). I can’t see how this is a bad thing. I’m sure there’s a lot of issues with their treatment of Muslims/prejudice/prisoners and other issues but getting Muslims into the system seems to be a good start to me.
“Promotes unislamic concepts e.g. democracy” – Don’t know what to say except to ask what the heck ppl are doing in England?! They need to go on Hijrah I think. Go to any ‘Muslim country’and see how much law and order there is, how much say you have in what the government does to you, and how much you can practice and spread Islam.
“Promotes Kufr concept of interfaith” – I do know there are people against interfaith, but not everyone is against it and I’ve never heard any scholar call it a “Kufr concept”.
“Gives platform to apostates (Murtadeen)” – Not sure who exactly they are declaring ‘apostates’.
“Gives platform to taghoot MP’s” – Again, I’m sure lots of people are against participating in the government and voting and the certain policies of Muslim MPs, but why not use this as a platform to speak to them and get the concerns of Muslims.
“Aims to counter Shariah & Jihad” – Still scratching my head on this one. Not sure having a convention, some speakers and a bazaar is countering “Shariah & Jihad”.
Ok what else… ok some ppl didn’t like the “catwalk”– yes there were fashion shows but it was sisters only, the clothes were all quite modest. there was music so I can understand that if a person was against music they shouldn’t attend this.
Allright so in the end, I would tell people who were against GPU to go to the conference and refrain from whatever they didn’t like. Take the benefit from where you can, and you should be welcome to hawk your ideas in the big market of Islamic ideas as well. If you think it’s all Haram or whatever then you know what, sit at home that weekend. No worries. To everyone else, these big conventions are all about mainstream Islam, that’s why extremists or what I like to call Haramists (ie “Everything is Haram Akhi!) oppose it so vehemently. In my book, that means it should be supported.
Finally in conclusion, I think the main problem with GPU is that it can’t figure out what it is and this is confusing everyone. Is it a social event? Is it a Dawah event? Is it a networking event? Is it a political event? GPU and the Muslims in the UK have to come to an understanding over what GPU is. Personally, I think it should be a Dawah event that has room for all Muslims, and I’ll even say that this includes practicing AND non-practicing Muslims (and even non-Muslims)! Side things like the Nasheed concert, fashion show, and matrimonial stuff should be side events! The main thing should be having a stellar, unifying well-run program that people can benefit from. I hope to see more organization, vision and unity at the next GPU and perhaps that can contribute to helping British Muslims in the same as well!!