Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Challenging CAF on their statistics

BFTF noticed a link to an interesting press release from the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) that suggested that people of faith give more to charities than people of no faith. Now, just to be clear, BFTF is perfectly cool with that, and indeed it would fit with BFTF's own experience. But, fortunately, anecdotes and personal preference aren't evidence!

The key parts of the press release (which is shown in its entirety at the foot of this post) seemed to be the following :
The average amount given to charity by those who are religious was £576 over the previous twelve months, compared to the £235 contributed by those of no faith.. . However, only 31% of religious donors had given money to a religious activity. . . The split across the other causes tended to be more in line with the rest of the population, 68% donating to medical charities and 48% to overseas aid, which were also the two most popular choices for those of no faith . . .The figures come from CAF's 2011 Market Tracker Report, which asked 507 donors giving at least £50 to charity a year a variety of questions about their charitable habits.

BFTF felt a little uneasy with this, as it seemed to leave a lot of questions unanswered. So BFTF sent the email below to CAF to see if they could provide a little meat to the bones of the press release:

"I've seen a couple of references to the CAF press release entitled "Religious donors give more than double those of no faith" recently and was hoping you could provide a little more information on the data behind it.Specifically, I am wondering about the following :
i) Why 507 donors?How did you select them?
ii) Were the results distorted by a small number of donors who gave very high or low amounts?
iii)How much (in £) did the religious donors give, on average, to non-religious charities?
iv) How much (in £) did the religious donors give, on average, to religious charities?"

Update 17th March
Having had no response, sent another email to CAF

Update 26th March
CAF responded that the donors were selected randomly, that there were no outliers in the data and that they had not asked for the total amounts, not the amounts given to specific causes. This last point doesn't quite answer BFTF's questions in (iii) and (iv), but that is probably because BFTF's email was ambiguous.

The CAF press release
People who are religious donate over twice as much money to charity as those without a faith, according to figures from the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF).
The average amount given to charity by those who are religious was £576 over the previous twelve months, compared to the £235 contributed by those of no faith.
However, only 31% of religious donors had given money to a religious activity.
The split across the other causes tended to be more in line with the rest of the population, 68% donating to medical charities and 48% to overseas aid, which were also the two most popular choices for those of no faith.
The figures come from CAF's 2011 Market Tracker Report, which asked 507 donors giving at least £50 to charity a year a variety of questions about their charitable habits.
CAF Director of Research Richard Harrison commented: "These results not only show that those of faith are more generous to charity in general, but that their giving is not uniquely focused on their own religious activities.
"If anything, people of faith broadly give in line with the rest of the general public - to a variety of different appeals.
‘The culture of giving within religious circles that is demonstrated by our survey is an admirable one, and a phenomenon that clearly enriches our society."
The results of the CAF study are published just days after the Richard Dawkins Foundation (RDF)’s report, which shows those who claim to be Christian do not necessarily follow the faith.
Even within the research from CAF, only 51% of those claiming to be a certain faith agreed that they ‘had strong religious beliefs’.
The remaining participants either disagreed (6%) or didn’t specify, supporting the RDF’s findings that there is a certain disparity between identifying yourself as a part of a faith and having strong beliefs.
However, although Richard Dawkins took this news as proof of Christianity being redundant in Britain today, the CAF data could be seen to tell a different story.
‘The survey shows that there is a link between associating with a religion and charitable behaviour, even when people aren’t actively practising their faith,’ Richard Harrison added.
‘The survey shows that there is a link between associating with a religion and charitable behaviour, even when people aren’t actively practising their faith,’ Richard Harrison added.

Monday, 27 February 2012

The Baader Meinhof Complex

BFTF was utterly transfixed by a true-life film drama called "The Baader Meinhof Complex" that was aired on the always excellent BBC4 TV station a few days ago. The film, in German with subtitles, described the early years of the 1970s West-German left wing terrorist organisation The Red Army Faction (sometimes called the Baader Meinhof gang after its original leaders) and was based on the book of the same name by Stefan Aust.

Pulling no punches, the drama dramatically showed the brutality of the bank raids, bomb attacks, shootings and kidnappings that the organisation undertook against political and NATO targets.

What really struck BFTF was that the members of the RAF had been born before or during WW2 and had grown up in post-war austerity - a world of cars with running boards, valve technology television and propeller aircraft. But, by the 1970s, they were living in a world of Ford Granadas, transistors radios and jet aircraft. Truly, they were people who had witnessed profound changes in the world around them. And yet, they felt they were not seeing the same kind of changes in the political structure. The situation, and how it caused the formation of these far left groups has been commented on by Stefan Aust:

"World War II was only twenty years earlier. Those in charge of the police, the schools, the government — they were the same people who’d been in charge under Nazism. The chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, had been a Nazi. People started discussing this only in the 60's. We were the first generation since the war, and we were asking our parents questions. Due to the Nazi past, everything bad was compared to the Third Reich. If you heard about police brutality, that was said to be just like the SS. The moment you see your own country as the continuation of a fascist state, you give yourself permission to do almost anything against it. You see your action as the resistance that your parents did not put up."
No douts these fears would have been fed by the introduction of laws such as the 1972 "Radikalenerlass", which banned radicals or those with a 'questionable' political persuasion from public sector jobs.

One of the most surprising elements of the story is the level of support that the RAF had amongst the general population, as explained by Stefan again:
"A poll at the time showed that a quarter of West Germans under forty felt sympathy for the gang and one-tenth said they would hide a gang member from the police. Prominent intellectuals spoke up for the gang’s righteousness (as) Germany even into the 1970s was still a guilt-ridden society."

Another surprise was the level of co-operation between the German far left groups and organisations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). For example the group involved in the 1976 "Entebbe" airliner hijacking comprised two Palestinians from the PFLP and two Germans from the German Revolutionary Cells. In another example, the RAF co-operated with the the Palestinian terrorsts who hijacked Lufthansa Flight 181 in 1977, with the release of a number of RAF prisoners being one of the hijackers demands.

RAF "WANTED" poster from 1986

Incidentally, the RAF weren't the only left wing terror group operating in Germany at the time, for example, the Revolutionary Cells group committed some 186 attacks (including 40 in West Berlin)at around the same time.

And it wasn't just West Germany that was facing these challenges, in Italy the far-left group The Red Brigades were credited with 14,000 acts of violence in the first ten years of the group's existence and some 75 killings in total.

In France there was Action Direct, who carried out some fifty attacks, including a machine gun assault on the employers' union headquarters in 1979 as well as assassinations and attacks on government, commercial and military.

Meanwhile, the Greek authorities were facing the actions of the Revolutionary Organization 17 November, who assassinated 23 people in 103 attacks on U.S., British, Turkish and Greek targets.

And in Spain, GRAPO had, since their inception in 1975, assassinated 84 people, including police, military personnel, judges and civilians, either by means of bombings or shootings. Of course, Spain has also had to deal with ETA who, since 1968 have been held responsible for killing 829 individuals, injuring thousands and undertaking dozens of kidnappings.

And here in the UK, it was the Provisional IRA who were causing the casualties, including 1,800 deaths (1,100 of whom were members of the British security forces).

Looking back, BFTF is glad that the only thing it really had to worry about at the time was making sure that didn't scuff its school shoes too much!

Next week : The 1980s and the threat of imminent nuclear destruction ! (aye, but we were happy)

Image Source : Wikipedia

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Recipe - Easy Pilchard and Pepper Curry

Whilst the rest of this blog is, admittedly, a bit "do-gooder", the recipes section is here for a very different reason - BFTF appears to be utterly incapable of keeping track of the recipes that it has tried, especially the ones that seemed to work. So putting them here will hopefully ensure that BFTF can find them when required.

I suppose you could call it a "Digital Deliciousness. . ."

Easy Pilchard Curry
Pilchards are a very economical fish to cook, and BFTF is using it increasingly in these tough economic times. From a sustainability point of view they get a rating of "2" on the 1-5 scale of sustainability at the good fish guide (where 1 is the most sustainably sourced) so should be ok from that perspective.

BFTF was wondering what to cook today and thought a combination of fish and peppers might work. Turns out that it certainly does!

some new potatoes
450g pilchards in tomato sauce
140g tomato puree
1 onion, chopped
a cereal bowls worth of chopped peppers*
a little oil
butter/spread (optional)
grated cheese (optional)

* : as in red/yellow/green peppers, not as in jalapeno - capiche?

a)Bung the potatoes in some boiling water and simmer for about 20mins

b)While they are boiling, make the curry as follows:
i) Remove spines from pilchards, discard the sauce they came in
ii) Fry onions in the oil until almost done
iii) Add the peppers and continue to fry for about 5mins
iv) Add the pilchards, tomato puree, salt, pepper
v) Give is a stir for a few minutes to sort itself out

c)Drain potatoes

d) Melt butter/spread

Serve by cutting potatoes in half and drizzling the melted butter/spread on them and sprinkling on the grated cheese.

If this was MasterChef, the dish would be called "Boiled new potatoes drizzled with an olive oil emulsion and a sprinkled with grated cheddar, accompanied by a stir-fry of South Asian Pilchards, Peppers and tomato concentre. Served with a garnish of cucumber and tomaoto discs".

The dish rates as "EASY" on the BFTF Washing Up Index

Saturday, 25 February 2012

"Non-Dom" Tax and Residency Rules

A Tweet that popped up in BFTF's Twitter feed (is BFTF down with the kids or what?) pointed towards a rather disturbing article in the Guardian about "non-doms" and their residency and tax status, suggesting that the way they are treated is so generous that the UK is viewed as a "tax-haven" by the super-rich around the world. The article prompted BFTF to write the question below to the local Conservative Party . . .
Dear Conservative Party,

Having read a number of articles regarding the rules on so called "non-dom" residency and tax status, I am concerned that the current status-quo is unfair, resulting in a high level of complexity and giving the UK as reputation as a tax-haven for the foreign super-rich. I am not a tax expert, but the comments of some who do know something about the issue are shown below :

Duncan Bannatyne, not known for having particularly left wing views, comments that, to reduce their tax on UK earnings, a non dom needs only "say that his or her UK company is managed by a board of directors outside the UK and then make a charge to the company for “management services”. This reduces the pre-tax profit of the company and so reduces its corporation tax bill. The money transferred offshore for “management services” is tax free and can be used to fund the non-dom lifestyle abroad – the yachts, planes and mansions.". His solution is that "UK residents should have a duty to pay UK tax unless they can prove that they are paying equivalent taxes elsewhere in the world. This would level the business playing field and encourage, rather than stifle, the growth of enterprise and small business in this country."

The Chartered Institute of Taxation, comments that "what is really needed is a simpler, more certain basis for the levy. . . in many ways we think the remittance rules are so overcomplex as to really need a complete rethink."

The TUC has written a comprehensive report on the issue and recommends a number of changes that would result in a system that was clear and free from abuse. They estimate that these changes (in which they emphasise they "not making suggestions that make the UK a less attractive place to come to live or work for a period of a few years").According to the TUC, their proposed domicile and tax residency changes should add an additional £4 billion to tax revenues.

My question, at the end of this is to ask what the current government is doing to ensure that non-domicile residents of the UK are paying tax on the same basis as the rest of the population?

Having had no response, sent another email to Nottingham Conservatives to ask for my previous question to be answered.

Received a response from Nottingham Conservatives recently which said :

. . . You are right that in this area and others work needs to be done to ensure that everyone is paying their fair share of tax. It is wrong, although not necessarily illegal, that many high earners can arrange their affairs in such a way that they pay almost no tax at all. The government has pledged to change this. . .

. . .In terms of what has already been done, in the 2011 Budget the Chancellor announced reforms to the taxation of non-domiciled individuals. From April this year the existing £30,000 annual charge for non-domiciled individuals increases to £50,000 for those who have been UK resident for twelve or more years and who wish to retain access to the remittance basis of taxation. Furthermore the Chancellor has pledged to close other major loopholes that the very wealthy exploit and I look forward to hearing more about these proposals in the near future. . .

Perhaps a little embarrrasingly, the HMRC is housed in Nottingham

Image Source : Wikipedia

Friday, 24 February 2012

The Daily Mail and the "Strict Muslim" - Part 2

Quite a nasty article in the Daily Mail today entitled "'Strict Muslim' raped four women at knifepoint to 'punish them for being on the streets at night' about one "Sunny Islam" who has been jailed for a series of vicious rapes in London.

There is no evidence whatsoever that he is a "Strict" Muslim (although his family are reported as being so).

Part 1 of this post details efforts to challenge advertisers on their support for articles that appear to break PCC guidelines, whilst the post you are reading deals with a complaint to the PCC itself.
BFTF sent a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) about the story and just received a response, a few keypoints of which are detailed below. The response states the number of people who complained and BFTF notes that, aside from BFTF, three other people contacted the PCC. Collectively, the complaints to the PCC were in the following categories:

Section 1(i) - Accuracy : The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

In relation to this the PCC commented that:

"One complainant had raised concerns that the headline had included statements in quotation marks that Mr Islam was a “strict Muslim” and raped women to “punish them for being on the streets at night”, although the body of the piece had not repeated these comments or attributed them to anyone.

The Commission acknowledged the complainant’s position, but it noted that inverted commas can be used to indicate a summarized claim as well as a direct quotation.

Given that the article had included a summary of Mr Islam’s offences and the comments of Judge Lees and the defending counsel, the Commission was satisfied that readers in general would not be misled by the headline in such a way as to constitute a breach of the Code.

Discrimination - Section 12(i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

In relation to this the PCC commented that:
The complainants considered that the article had unnecessarily focused on the religion of Mr Islam instead of the acts that he committed: his religion was not genuinely relevant to the story. It was their contention that such practice was customary for the newspaper and was another example of discrimination against Muslims.

However, the clause does not cover references to groups or categories of people. Various complainants considered that the continual references to Mr Islam’s religion discriminated against the Muslim community. However, given the terms of Clause 12 do not cover references to groups or categories of people; the Commission did not establish a breach of the Code on this point.

Discrimination - Section 12(ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

In relation to this the PCC commented that:
"the Commission made clear that it would require a complaint from Mr Islam, or his personal representative, in order to establish whether he believed that the references to his religion were irrelevant. In the absence of such a complaint, the Commission could not make a ruling under Clause 12 (ii) of the Code and as such, it could not comment further on this aspect of the complaint.
In summary, the PCC stated the:
The Commission did not establish a breach of the Code.

Of the many aspects of this response that are disturbing, perhaps the most worrying is that section 12(i) can apparantly simultaneously cover "an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation. . ." and also "not cover references to groups or categories of people"

BFTF genuinely cannot reconcile those two sentences, so sent an email to the local MP asking if they could explain what it meant.

UPDATE : 03 APR 12 : Having had no response, emailed local Labour MP (again) to ask "what efforts the Labout Party is doing to stop, or at least speak out agiainst, this kind of demonising journalism that is unfair, selective and damages community cohesion."

Received response the next day saying that the issue was being looked at and that " as a result of the Levenson Enquiry, and serious concerns expressed by all political parties – including Ed Miliband – about the regulation of the UK’s media, the PCC is to be disbanded and a new regulatory body be established. The following link will take you to the draft proposal for the future structure of the system of press self-regulation: http://www.pcc.org.uk/assets/0/Draft_proposal.pdf
BFTF has read this document and does not see anything in there that provides assurance that demonising media reports will be tackled.

UPDATE : 26 JUN : Recently received a response from the local (Labour) MP, who had contacted the Home Office. The MP felt that the Home Office response had not fully addressed BFTF's concerns. The Home Offices' reply said, in part:

"We have a long and proud tradition of free speech and tolerance in the United Kingdon, which means that people are entitled to the peaceful expression of their beliefs, no matter how unpalatable they may be. However, we have to balance the right to freedom of speech with the need to prevent speech which incites others to hatred and violence"

BFTF certainly did feel that its concerns had not been addressed so sent the following to the MP:
"...my original question was "what efforts the Labout Party is doing to stop, or at least speak out agiainst, this kind of demonising journalism that is unfair, selective and damages community cohesion" and I do not believe I have received an answer to this.
What comments has the Labour leadership publically made regarding this issue?
Has any senior Labour figure stated clearly that the demonised portrayal of Muslim in the Daily Mail is not acceptable?
What proposals does the Labour Party have to ensure that inflammatory and biased media coverage - which can destroy community cohesion - will be tackled?. ."

UPDATE : 09 SEP : Chased up local MP again as no response received so far.

The PCC website

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Muslims and the Holocaust Memorial Day

Back in 2007, BFTF was becoming very disturbed by the fact that the Muslim Council of Britain was boycotting the Holocaust Memorial Day.

Not only was this the wrong thing to do, it was hugely damaging to the Muslim Community in the UK.

BFTF decided to find out what the REAL views of the Muslim community were by conducting a survey in co-operation with a local mosque(see here) and found that over 85% of worshippers questioned WANTED the MCB to attend the HMD.

So BFTF was heartened to see a recent article by Mehdi Hasan in the New Statesmen where he says: "I yield to no one in my support for the Palestinian cause. But denying or ignoring the Holocaust does nothing to advance that cause. Palestinian suffering is not reduced by belittling the mass murder of Europe's Jews."

and, encouragingly, he states that "the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) have dropped their boycott over the past three years and I'm happy to report that the MCB not only attended one of the main HMD ceremonies in London yesterday evening, but deputy general secretary Dr Shuja Shafi was asked to light one of the candles."

However, he closes by noting how "the whole British Muslim community must do much more to remember the Holocaust -- whether through hosting events at our mosques or sending our children to visit Auschwitz."

Auschwitz concentration camp, arrival of Hungarian Jews, Summer 1944

Despite there being a significant Muslim community in the UK, the stories of the many Muslims who saved Jewish lives during WW2 has remained largely untold. To try and redress this a little, the names below are some of the Muslims who, often at great personal risk, sheltered or otherwise helped Jews to escape capture by Nazi forces. Many of these can be found in a booklet by entitled "The Role of Righteous Muslims.” published by Faith Matters. The director of the organisation, Fiyaz Mughal, comments that “We’re looking for bridging points, and we thought this fits the perspective of mutual understanding and shared history.” and the he hopes it will demonstrate that “life is not black and white, straight and narrow.”

Abdol-Hossein Sardari,
Abdol-Hossein Sardari, a junior Iranian diplomat in Paris, 1940 helped some 2,000 Iranian Jews flee France. Mr Sardari neither sought nor received much recognition for his efforts in his lifetime and, sadly, died lonely in a bedsit in Croydon, south London, in 1981, having lost his ambassador's pension and Tehran properties in the Iranian revolution.

Khaled Abdul Wahab(see also here)

Shaykh Taieb el-Okbi

Si Ali Sakkat

The Arab Man

The Arab Neighbour

Hamza Abdul Jalil

Mustafa and Zejneba Hardaga, Izet and Bachriya Hardaga, Ahmed Sadik

Roza Sober-Dragoje and Zekira Besrević

Fatima Kanapatskaiya and her daughter Aysha (Anna) Trofimova-Kanapatskaiya

Selahattin Ulkumen

Borici Family

Hoti Family

Shatoka Alima

Kurtijeva Aishe

Kurtijev Adzhikadyr

Kurtijev Dzhafer

By 1943, some 600-1,800 Jews had found refuge in Muslim majority Albania, seeking sactuary from persecution in Germany or elsewher in Europe. Following German occupation in 1943, the government refused to turn over lists of Jews residing in the country to the Nazis - on the contrary, many government agencies provided Jewish families with fake documentation to allow to hide in the general population. These are some of their stories . . .

Nuro Hoxha

Ali Sheqer Pashkaj

Destan and Lime Balla

Besim and Aishe Kadiu

Brothers Hamid and Xhemal Veseli

Iamge Sources : Hungarian Jews

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Sustainability of Wanis Mackerel in Tomato Sauce

BFTF thinks fish is a delish dish - but wants to buy it without causing unsustainable depletion of the worlds fish stocks.

The blog has some "form" on this issue, with previous posts (here, here, here, here, here and here) that have looked at a number of aspects of fish stocks, fish products and fish eating.

Whilst BFTF tries to buy fish that is MSC certified, or that has been farmed in a sustainable way, this doesn't always happen.

For example, BFTF recently bought a perfectly delicious can of Wanis Mackerel in Tomato Sauce, partly because it was being sold by a local independent shop who BFTF wanted to support, and partly because it was about half the price per kg of the MSC certified mackerel at ASDA (admittedly, the ASDA mackerel was in smaller cans)

But afterwards, BFTF felt a little guilty, so send the following to the supplier. . .

"I bought a can of your Mackerel in Tomato Sauce recently. It tasted just fine, so no problems there ! But I am a little concerned that the fish it contained were not caught in a sustainably way (I would usually buy MSC certified mackerel). Is there any information you can give me regarding the sustainability of the fishing practices used to catch the mackerel in this product?"

UPDATE : 18th March
Having had no response, chased up Wanis with another email

UPDATE : 03rd April
Having had no response, chased up Wanis with another email

UPDATE : 24rd April
Having had no response, chased up Wanis with another email

UPDATE : 25rd June
Having had no response, chased up Wanis with another email

UPDATE : 25th Nov 2012
Recently, BFTF noticed that ASDA were selling mackerel by "Tropical Sun Foods", which appears to be the same company, so BFTF asked ASDA why the Wanis/Tropical Sun Foods weren't responding to emails...

"I've bought a tin of Tropcial Sun Foods Mackerel in Tomato Sauce and would like to know what efforts the company have made to ensure that the fish has been sustainable caught. I have emailed them about this 5 times this year, without any response. This suggests to me that ASDA is dealing with a company that does not take sustainability seriously."

Tropical Sun Foods

UPDATE : 29th Nov 2012
Received a response from ASDA saying that they would contact their buying team to ask whether the Wanis / Tropical SunFoods mackerel was sustainably caught.

UPDATE : 05th Dec 2012
Received a response from ASDA saying that:
"I am really sorry, I am unable to provide you with the information you need, as it is a branded item. You will need to speak with their supplier and they will be able to help you."
To which BFTF responded that the supplier did not respond to emails, adding that
"I am somewhat disturbed that ASDA has not asked them for their policies on sustainability as part of the process of stocking their product. Do you not care at all what practices they are using to catch their fish? "

UPDATE : 10th Dec 2012
Received a final response from ASDA which included the following:
"we are unable to comment on how the fish is caught as it is a branded line. We have no control over any part of this product, including where they catch it. We can only exert control over products which carry our own label. You will need to keep trying with the suppliers contact details. "

UPDATE : 9th Dec 2013
BFTF is only human, and essentially gave up on Tropical Sun Foods following the lack of response described above... until just yesterday when decided to give to challenge them (via the magic that is Twitter). Tropical Sun Foods now responded within hours, as shown below:
Tropical Foods appear to be on the case....

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Bigging up the Zooniverse

BFTF was chuffed to have the opportunity (as alter-ego Nottingham Science Blog) to interview astrophysicist Chris Lintott.

One thing that Chris talked about was the citizen science projects that he is involved with. These can be found at www.zooniverse.org and represent opportunities for ordinary members of the public (both adults and children) to help astromomers analyse the huge amounts of data and imagery that is being generated by the latest satellites (see here for a review of what has been happening, spacewise, over the last year).

BFTF has had a go at one of these, the Milky Way Project, with Number 3 Son and was surprised to see just how excited he was about the project. He and BFTF both enjoyed seeing and evaluating the images of stars and gas clouds taken by a robotic camera - pictures that we were quite possibly the very first to see.

Number 3 Son comments that "I like to find the dark nebuloo and the fuzzy red objects." and that likes the project because "I like to help scientists."

Identify new stars and other objects at the Milky Way Project

With this very positive feedback in mind, BFTF sent emails recommending the project to two local Nottingham schools, some mosques and Nottingham Interfaith Council. One of these mosques has a scout group and a discussion with them led to the possibility of the scouts there getting their "astronomy" badges. The youth worker at the mosque pointed out that it is actually quite hard to do this because they requirements for the badge are pretty strict (see here). As the youth worker said, 'they don't just give these badges away!".

BFTF remembered that the astronomy department at Nottingam University has a really strong outreach department. Sure enough, a quick email resulted in the astronomy department saying that they had helped scouts get their astronomy badges before and would certainly be interested in helping again. Result !

Dear reader, BFTF cannot recommend this project highly enough, so please, visit www.zooniverse.org and have a go!

It would be great to hear how you get on!

Interview : CitizensUK and Himmah

The Building For The Future Blog is a big fan of the CitizensUK project, which aims to draw on the “proven power of person-to-person organising, our work transforms communities and builds the local power necessary to create local and national change” and was chuffed to have the chance to interview two people involved with the project recently. Muhammed Suleiman is a professional organiser for CitizensUK and is working with a relatively new chapter that has been set up in Milton Keynes) while Muhammed Sajid is a volunteer of Himmah, a grassroots community organisation based in Nottingham who are involved in the work being undertaken to set up a chapter of Citizens here in that city

The interview touches on Suleiman's experiences in Syria, examples of what CitizensUK has achieved, what is being done in Nottingham and the challenges of getting organisations to work outside their comfort zone.

The best bits of the interview have been transcribed for you below. One thing worth mentioning to readers who are not from the Muslim community (and BFTF hopes that there are many such visitors to this post) is that there is a tradition amongst Muslims of giving people the title of “Brother” or “Sister”. Where this has happened in the interview the term “Brother” has been abbreviated to “Br.”

Hope you enjoy the interview!! :

BFTF : To start with, Br Suleiman, can you give us a brief outline of the CitizensUK project and how it started in London.

Suleiman: A community organising model, one that came from America by Saul Alinsky, a pioneer back in the 40s and 50s of community organising. He managed to get a lot of the black communities engaged with the process of making change. As you can imagine in the 40s and 50s in America, there was a lot of prejudice against black people. So this concept and tools of organising were brought to the UK about 20 years ago started off in East London with the East London Community Organising Group. They were organising there for about 10 years, getting people involved, training leaders and listening to the people who form the membership. This then widened and you had South London Citizens, West London Citizens and, more recently, North London Citizens. We, in Milton Keynes formally became a member of the Citizens UK group on Nov 2010, although the process of getting the organisation up and running takes about 3 years about that.

Saul Alinsky

BFTF : Can you give a couple of examples of the kind of organisations that comprise the London branches of CitizensUK?

Suleiman : The key concept of London Citizens is that the power is in the diversity so they look to recruit member organisations made up of as wide a diversity as they can. It is very much independent of the state. So you have churches but you also have mosques. In North London you have synagogues. There are also student unions, tenant associations, groups from communities like the Congolese – anything really where the people behind it want to make change.

BFTF : Citizens UK run a number of campaigns. Can you tell us a little about the Living Wage and Housing Community campaigns as these are areas that the Muslim community does not usually get involved.

Suleiman : The Living wage campaign came about some 10 years ago when the local Citizens leaders in East London were speaking to a group of their members in a community hall and asking them what issues or problems were important to them. Many of the people said that they did not have enough time to spend with their children because they were working two or three jobs because the minimum wage did not provide them enough to live on. So CitizensUK did research into this and worked out what was called the living wage. We would argue that the minimum wage will keep you in poverty while the living wage will allow you to get out of poverty. As an example of what we are talking about, right now the minimum wage is £5.93 in London, whereas the living wage would be £8.30 an hour. What the team in East London wanted to do was to look at the people who were earning these low wages, such as cleaners. They tried to get a relationship with HSBC but this was not forthcoming, as you can imagine. So what they ended up doing was talking to, and training, one of the cleaners who worked for HSBC, he cleaned the office of the chief executive. The cleaner got a share in HSBC [bought by local organisations] and went along to the AGM. He stood up and asked a question to the chief executive of HSBC, John Bond that began, “Mr Bond, we share the same office, but we live in different worlds. . . ”. That sparked off media attention right there in the room and this led to a relationship being built between CitizensUK, the cleaner and the CEO of HSCB. In the course of that relationship we managed to convince HSBC to pay all of their staff, including their contracted out cleaning staff, the living wage.

Cleaners and office staff shared the same space but lived in different worlds

BFTF : Wow, that story touches on so many points. It touches on patience, on not having the attitude that “I’ve tried that once and it didn’t work so I am going to give up now”. . .

Suleiman. . .Your point is very important. A lot of times we say “I’ve sent the letter and I’ve not got a reply”, but a lot of the time you aren’t going to get a reply and you have to keep plugging away, and sometimes you have to get that person to recognise you and the power that you hold. As individual people, as individual masjids, we don’t have that power. But if we get together with diverse other groups, suddenly people start to take you more seriously because you represent a far wider group of people.

Sajid: We did a very similar action at the Tesco AGM which was held at the University of Nottingham recently. Once again the issue was the living wage. Why were the security guards, the cleaners, on a lower wage than everyone else who worked for Tesco? We took an action, once again we bought shares in Tesco as this gave us an automatic right to go the AGM and just before the AGM, as the chief executive was coming in, a young boy (who has previously met the CEO of Tesco a week earlier) asked him whether he would meet with CitizensUK to discuss why your security guards and cleaners are paid less than anyone else in your organisation. To our surprise, the CEO said, “I’ve read up about CitizensUK and I am really eager to engage with you and talk and we can certainly discuss this”. It’s that understanding of the power dynamics, the tension and knowing which card to play, these are the incredibly powerful tools that CitizensUK teach, and this is exactly what we are trying to bring to Nottingham. It’s about using the basic principles of Islam. It’s about understanding what unity is - both within the Muslim community and unity across relationships with the wider community. And another principle, that of leveraging resources, when people come together and leverage their resources they have a greater impact to make that change.

Suleiman: Most of what we do is training and development of people to become leaders so that they can go into these high powered negotiations and speak directly with the CEO of Tesco or whoever it may be. So when we have these meetings, it’s not professional organisers like myself that go and negotiate, it will be leaders from the community that are hand picked, that are trained and developed. We do a lot of practice, a lot of training before we go to these meetings. It’s crucial because the Muslim community lose out because they don’t have training in negotiation, in how to conduct meetings. I’m also a trustee of the Muslim Association here in Milton Keynes and one of the things I’ve found is that some of the meetings are two or three hours long and you come out of it and you haven’t really gained anything. Whereas with Citizens meetings, they last a maximum of 45minutes to an hour but they always have action points that you go away with. This is something that the local Muslim community in Nottingham can really benefit from when and if they join Citizens Nottingham.

Although he was early, the moment Imran entered the meeting room he realised that nothing useful would be decided that day. .  .

BFTF : Certainly it has been my experience that trying to get notes and actions out of any community meeting is a very difficult task. Br Suleiman, I’m hoping that you can give us a little background please about your life story and how you got involved in this.

Suleiman : I was born and bred in Milton Keynes. I went away to University and studied Law and my interest was to get into commercial law and earn a lot of money. And it took a long time because commercial law is a niche market and there is a lot of competition. But when I eventually got job as a trainee solicitor I moved back to Milton Keynes and got more involved with the Muslim community here and I realised that they needed a lot of work, so I set up the Milton Keynes Muslim Association, made it a registered charity and started working with the Muslim community. And I found I was getting more satisfaction from the work I was doing with the community than the legal work I was clocking in for every morning. So by the time I had qualified as a solicitor, it struck me that I did not want to pursue that line of work anymore. The underlying motive of making money really wasn’t such a motive for me. And naturally, by building the Muslim community I had become more interested in my faith and felt that there were a lot of aspects of commercial law that didn’t fit well with my religion. I had recently been married and spoke to my wife and said “what shall we do?” and we decided to go to Damascus in Syria to study Arabic and Islam, just for six months while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. And it ended up being two years that we spent out there and what really hit home to me was the injustice that the local people had to put up with the regime on a daily basis and, with that in mind, I decided that when I came back I wanted to do something here where we could make a physical difference, where we could make a grassroots difference to peoples lives, rather than a lot of initiatives that talk a lot but don’t get a lot done.

BFTF : Just to stop you there for a second, with what is happening in the Arab world being very much a current topic, could you give some examples of what kind of injustices these people were facing.

Suleiman : You expect to be a in a Muslim country and that you can live life freely, but when I was there and I enrolled in the Institute to learn Arabic but I had to trim my beard quite short because you are not allowed to have long beards out there. Also people out there western clothes so if you wear long robes you are viewed with suspicion. Also, another aspect is that we lived near the souk (market) and often you would see the security forces come in and take peoples merchandise, their food and vegetables and put it in the back of their truck or throw it on the floor. For a while I couldn’t figure out why this was happening and then I realised that they didn’t have licences to trade and when I made further enquiries I realised that the reason they didn’t have the licences was that they didn’t have the money to bribe the officials to get the licences. So at all levels, the society was very corrupt there. And the honest people, the very lovely people out there in Syria are the ones to suffer and that was what really struck me.

You can have a stall here - if you bribe the right people.

So when I came back I wanted to find a job in the charity field where I could make a difference and Musa, my predecessor, approached me and said ‘look, you are trustee of the Muslim Association, I want the Muslim Association to join CitizensUK” as they were setting up something in Milton Keynes. And when he explained the concept I thought that this is exactly what we need as an association to be involved in. We want to be outreaching, to be mixing with other members of society. Because a lot of the time Muslims are under the microscope at the moment and we seem to be very inward looking, just thinking about our own community. And I thought that the best way of us doing dawah (invitation) and also to engage with our own community and the wider community is to be involved with something like Citizens.

So we decided to join and it was through the process of that that Musa sent me on the 5day training to develop me as a leader. So I started doing some of the things in CitizensMK, chaired meetings etc. One thing that really struck me was that the organisers that did the job professionally came from very good universities, they had very strong academic backgrounds and they could be in the marketplace earning very good money. But they were working at this grass roots level, for a pittance really, so that they can make this social change and they have such job satisfaction, which I hadn’t seen in the legal area. From there I spoke to Musa and said ‘if a job does come up , please let me know’. Musa is from Iraq originally so he decided to move there and use the tools he had learnt in the UK to Iraq to try and organise out there. And he told me to apply for his vacant position, which I did and, by the Grace of God, I got the job. So I am an organiser employed by CitizensUK to do the work of bringing organisations together and helping to facilitate these actions that we do.

Milton Keynes is  a great town, so long as you can handle plenty of roundabouts. . .

BFTF : So, regarding the wages being paid to you and, perhaps, some other people - where is that money coming from?

Suleiman : That’s a very good question. We never take money from the State because the whole point is that we hold the state to account so really the money has to come from the member institutions that join the Citizens organisation. Ideally, that should be 90% of the money, but the reality is that it is more like 10%, which means there is 90% funding gap which one has to find from grants, trusts and charitable foundations, but the problem with that is that it is “soft” money, it may not be there next year. We are not talking about much money and the rewards that can come from that money are tremendous. It’s all about organising your money, one bring and buy sale can bring in the money that can keep the organisation in funding for a year.

BFTF : So, having got an outline of the organisation and how you got involved, can you give some outline for what Citizens MK had been doing?

Suleiman : Our leaders went back to their communities and asked them what their concerns were, what issues did they have? One of the things that was high on the list were to make Milton Keynes a safe city. Although Milton Keynes is a safe city, by the Grace of God, we do feel that there are some areas of Milton Keynes that could do with some work. So one of the things that we are looking at is to train up some members of out institutions so that they can go into those estates and keep the sustainability going by having a core leadership in those estates. That is one of the things that makes us different from other organisations. Other organisations might put money or resources into an area and then they will move away from it and those resources then dry up. What we do is that we don’t do for other what they can do for themselves.

Another thing that we are acting on nationally as well as locally is the minimum wage. I myself have spoken to cleaners who have to borrow food from their own families because they can’t feed their children on the amount that they earn, and there is no dignity in that really, or there are cleaners who have to work 60hrs a week to make ends meet.

There are some real stories here that make you think that something has to be done and it we are not going to do it, if Muslims are not going to do it, then who is going to do it?

BFTF: Normally, the “living wage” is something that charities are fighting to get in places like Bangladesh or Vietnam. It’s a bit shocking to hear it being applied to the UK.

Suleiman : I know, I know, you don’t really think of it in the UK but I watched a programme about child poverty and, in Milton Keynes, one in five children lives in poverty. You can’t say to yourself that “they are more poor in Bangladesh” because it is all relative. There are people here in Milton Keynes, as there will be in Nottingham, who do not have two square meals a day.

He deserves a living wage too

BFTF : Before we get onto what is happening here in Nottingham, can you give a flavour of the organisations that are involved in Citizens and also any tips you can give to people who would like to get involved, what should they be saying to their mosques?

Suleiman : In Milton Keynes we have the Congolese community, we have the Hazara community from Afghanistan, we have the Shia mosque involved, the Milton Keynes Muslim Association, a Sunni organisation, we have about 4 different churches, we have the Quakers and the Q Alliance as well as schools - we have three of the major secondary schools in Milton Keynes involved as well.

What I would say to your listeners is that it’s a great initiative and we need more masajid involved. It’s a shame sometimes because we have more Muslim groups in Milton Keynes but they don’t always come on board because of politics. They say ‘ this group is involved so we don’t want to get involved’ or ‘we don’t have time for this kind of thing’ or ‘we are more worried about our own Pakistani community, or Bangladeshi community’. And it’s a real shame because we shouldn’t live in a vacuum, and as Muslims we make up part of the broader spectrum of civil society and if we take ourselves out of the equation there is a gap there which isn’t being filled. So if there are Muslims out there who have connections with the masjid committee, say to them ‘this is an investment, not just for us but for our children to give them the tools and to make our lives and our children's lives and the people of Nottingham in general better’. And it works! If you have a good organiser and good leaders then the model works.

BFTF : Sajid, perhaps you can tell us what is happening in Nottingham?

Sajid : Just to reinforce what Br Mohammed Suleiman said, it is just amazing to hear an experience that is virtually identical to our experience in Nottingham. We are at a very formative stage and are creating a steering group of alliances and Himmah is part of this. So far we have the Church of England Diocese, 4-5 independent churches, two trade unions, we’ve had talks with the University, we’ve had talks with several other organisations as well. Remember that we are also still constituting ourselves and arranging funding sources, both hard money such as memberships and soft money from grant-making authorities.

I’ll be frank with the Muslim community and say that we were very close to the Muslim community not being represented in Citizens. We had negotiations with several key Muslim organisations in Nottingham but no-one stepped up to the plate and it was in that vacuum that Himmah entered - it wasn’t a position of choice. We were acting as a facilitator but after several attempts at getting leading organisations involved, no one came forward. So we had a choice - do we let our children live in Nottingham in an unsafe place with high unemployment, high pollution, high crime, or could the Muslims step in and add value to the pot. And that is how the membership of Himmah made the decision that is was absolutely essential that there was a Muslim at that table.

What really brought it home to us was when we met with some organisers from CitizensUK and they also met with some local leaders and what really impressed us was the fact that we get capacity built, learning about these methodologies of leadership, learning about dynamics of power, learning about relationships - this is all absent from the Muslim community. One of the things we negotiated with our membership fee was the ability to have 20 people trained, 5 people on 6 day training courses and 15 people on 20 day training. Now usually this training will cost thousands but joining Citizens has given us the ability to undertake that training at minimum cost. So what we are asking people in the community to go on our website and see the information on community organising at www.himmah.org and come and volunteer yourselves. If you want to get involved in this, if you want to make a real change, get involved. Himmah is about individual change and about communal transformation of both the Muslim community and the wider community. Himmah is a vehicle of Islamic ideals - serve the people, justice, compassion. And we believe community organising using the structure of CitizensUK as a vehicle will allow us to do that individual and communal change.

BFTF : It’s a little bit sad to see the while the East London Mosque, an organisation that has a lot of traditional Muslims, has been able to get involved, mosques in Milton Keynes have been able to get involved but there has been no interest from the mosques in Nottingham.

Sajid : We’re hoping for that to change. We’ve hoping that if people from the community say ‘Look, we’re going to miss out on this, our children are going to miss out on this, to improve the environment, improve our living standards’ and then the next time they are at the masjid, speak to one of the elders at the mosque and perhaps say ‘Himmah has got involved in this, they are asking for more Muslims and Muslim organisations to get involved, why don’t you get involved?’. I’ll tell you what the real injustice is, it is the injustice of ourselves, this is an opportunity for the Muslim community to express Islam and perform dawah in the most positive way in the form of action and serving other people through the principles of Islam. If Nottingham's Muslims don’t wake up and get involved they could miss out on this. Individuals, please come to the website, come and volunteer, talk to your Muslim organisations and say ‘we want you to get involved in this. We are part of your congregation, we are part of the community, part of Nottingham and we need you involved’

BFTF : One of the things you have mentioned before Br Sajid, is that whilst you want people to get involved in civil society, they don’t need to do it through you. They could talk to their masjid and ask them to, say, have the Woodland Trust in to talk about the woodlands close by, or ask their masjid to lobby against injustice in the UK or abroad, for example they could ask their masjid to send a letter to the Syrian embassy saying that it is outrageous that a Muslim government is killing its own people. What would be your comment on this?

Sajid : One of our principles of change is that ‘It takes the local people to empower themselves to make change.’ No-one is going to make the changes we want except ourselves. God Almighty has told us that He will not change the condition of a people unless they change it themselves.

We need to empower ourselves, by whatever vehicle we want to do.

We don’t have a lot of resources. I have a full time job, you are working full time, and we both have family commitments on top so we need to work intelligently, which means looking at the most effective way of sharing our resources together. Himmah is about diverse people in the Muslim community - it’s not just me, I am only a spokesman - Himmah gets involved with the homeless, with refugees, in education, with new Muslims and the list goes on but we have come together because we understood that to make change loads of little streams need to come together to make a mighty river, which can cut through mountains.

Nottingham - do you want to make it a better, fairer, happier city ?

BFTF: Br Suleiman, what kind of feedback have you received about this project so far?

Suleiman : As we have mentioned before, Muslims are usually seen to not really engage themselves and when people see Muslim organisations on the front line really doing something, it empowers the organisation, it empowers the mosque and it empowers the mosque leaders to say ‘ we can make a difference in civil society’. It also encourages people to want to have training, to want to be leaders, or future community leaders if they are young. We recently had a training event where we had about eight Muslim people come on the training from various different backgrounds and they all gained a lot from it. They can take those tools back into their jobs, into their life and their families. Ultimately it is to help civil society take us forward in the campaigns that we are running in Milton Keynes

BFTF : Okay, one final question, one we ask of all the guests on the show : What is the best thing about living in the UK?

Suleiman : Having been in Syria and in other Muslim countries in the Middle East, it is the freedom that we have here, without a doubt.

Suleiman and Sajid wereinterviewed on the Buidling for the Future show (Wednesdays at 5.15pm ish) on Radio Dawn 107.6FM, one of Nottinghams community radio stations.

Image Sources:
Alinsky, HSBC, Meeting, Souk, Roundabout, Cleaner, Nottingham

Monday, 13 February 2012

MSC Fish Fingers

BFTF thinks fish is a delish dish - but wants to buy it without causing unsustainable depletion of the worlds fish stocks.

The blog has some "form" on this issue, with previous posts (here, here, here, here, here and here) that have looked at a number of aspects of fish stocks, fish products and fish eating.

Fish Finger Sandwiches. Does it get any better than this?

One thing BFTF looks for is the MSC logo as a sign that the fish product has been sustainably sourced. With MSC certified fish fingers having disappeared from Aldi, and impossible to find at Tesco and Asda, it is a relief that MSC certifed fish fingers can be found -at a very reasonable price (~70p for 10) - at Sainsbury's.

BFTF wonders if these are the most ethical fish fingers on general sale today. . .

MSC certifed, Fillet fish fingers, reasonably priced. What's not to like?

In a spirit if giving credit where it's due, BFTF has told Sainsbury's that it is chuffed to see them supporting MSC certified fish products.

It's probably also worth mentioning that the Co-op are also very strong in this area. According to their website:
"we topped the latest Marine Conservation Society (MCS) league table of supermarkets for supporting and selling sustainably-sourced fish (Dec 2009). . . We have been named as one of only five worldwide recipients of a prestigious Seafood Champion Award for 2010. Recognised for “outstanding leadership in promoting environmentally responsible seafood”, The Co-operative was the only UK recipient of an award. . ."

As Sainsburys is a little out of the way for BFTF, tend to buy in bulk when go there. This should be enough for a while...

A reader of BFTF on Facebook comments that:
"We did a taste test - cooked both the Basics and Sainsbury's ordinary Cod ones at the same time.
The pollock ones were slightly mushier but they didn't really taste any different, they were just a bit on the measly side.
The traffic light pie chart said they were lower in fat and salt. Also I noticed Jamie Oliver ones, overpriced ordinarily but they use natural breadcrumbs and are on offer at the mo so might give them a go too."

Update:24 Apr 14
After a gap of some considerable time, it's great to see MSC certifed Fish Fingers back at ALDI !

MSC Fish Fingers back at Aldi

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Computer Science vs ICT

As a child of the 80s, BFTF has always had a soft spot for programming and laments the fact that todays PC's no longer boot up into a programming environment like the ZX Spectrums used to "back in the day".

Similar thoughts have clearly been going through the minds of others and one result of this has been the Raspberry Pi project, which aims to give kids a low cost computer that can handle video and is programmable, just like the they were in the 80s (well, apart from the "can handle video" bit). BFTF's spin off sciency blog www.nottinghamscience.blogspot.com has had the chance of interviewing Eben Upton, one of the Trustees of the Raspberry Pi foundation and you can read a transcript of all the best bits of the interview here

Following on from this, BFTF was talking to a secondary school teacher of ICT and suggesting that they look up the Raspberry Pi project. BFTF followed this up with a rather heartfelt email :
"I thought you might be interested in looking at the Raspberry Pi project, which will very soon be selling small, really cheap computers that give kids a chance to experiment in the same way I was able to back in the 80s :
www.raspberrypi.org.It pains me that students are not taught about programming, or the components of a PC, or data farms, or how a CD works, or logic gates, or what a transistor is, or the difference between machine code and a programming language.I cannot see how he can succeed in this field without this information.

It really breaks my heart.

"The work you are doing feels, to me, more like a social science course than anything about computing. During our discussion today I was waiting for the bit where you told me what he was learning about computers, as opposed to design or specific software packages, but it never came."

BFTF received a reply saying that the teacher would feed these comments to the heade of department and also supplied a link to where kids could learn some of these coding skills. The teacher pointed out that they were available during lunchitmes to provide addtional help and to answer questions.

Muslim Writers Awards and Shakespeare

It's great to see the work being done by the Muslim Writers Awards to promote a culture of literature and writing in the Muslim Community.

In particular, their Feb11th event at the Globe Theatre sounds really interesting. The event will see MWA working with. . . :blockquote>
". . . the team at Shakespeare’s Globe to explore the Bard's influence on Middle Eastern story-telling and creative expression.This fascinating one-day experience will include practical workshops delivered by Khayaal Theatre Company exploring interpretations of Shakespeare in the context of the Arab Spring. . . Award-winning Kuwaiti playwright and theatre director Sulayman al-Bassam, whose work as Artistic Director of Sulayman al Bassam Theatre (SABAB) has achieved worldwide acclaim with Arabic adaptations of Richard III and Hamlet will also be running a series of interactive discussions and debates.

William Shakespeare, yesterday
Certainly provides an altervative viewpoint to that of the Daily Mail, whose 2008 article on Muslims and Shakespeare still occasionally leaves BFTF shivering at the level of its demonisation and lack of any comment from any mainstream Muslim organisation.

Image Source : Wikipedia