The Islam Expo schedule described the event as “Europe’s largest- ever exhibition to ‘combat the myths, misconceptions and misunderstandings of Islam’.” As I stepped off the Tube at Kensington Olympia amongst a crowd of Muslims (“thousands of families” attended, apparently) I started to realise how varied, interesting and exciting this event was going to be. There were Muslims in kaftans, Muslims in turbans, Muslims in tracksuits, women in burqas, hijabs, loose scarves or just the latest hairdo.
It felt like another country yet I felt completely comfortable and at home. No one looked at me for not covering my hair or for wearing jeans. I walked into the main hall and into a bazaar of stalls, small stages, workshops, exhibitions, displays of Islamic fashion, theatre, Islamic gardens, dubka dance, art, story telling, cooking - ah my favourite.
An open plan kitchen stood on a small stage. Sitting in lines of chairs around the stage was a crowd of punters. Before them a woman in a hijab with a mobile microphone was demonstrating how to cook the perfect curry. The sights, smells and sounds were a sensory overload.
I made my way up to the first floor where there was an exhibition on Islam through the ages. It included a rare collection of Torah scrolls and Christian Bibles to show the role of other faiths in Islamic civilisation.
I looked down onto the bazaar of stalls and at the minaret of a little mosque.
Opposite the exhibition there were rows of workshops. Women, men, children sat shoulder to shoulder practicing their calligraphy skills, next to a workshop on geometric art.
I’d come to get some vox pops for a documentary I’m working on about the double standard treatment Islam receives in comparison to the other major faiths.
We hope to make a film which tackles some of the major misconceptions about the religion. I questioned young women about their views on Islam as a religion, and on how it is treated by the media.
My cameraman complained that our interviews were biased against previous non-Muslim interviewees whose answers seemed ignorant and intolerant in comparison to these articulate Muslim women who explained their religion in detail and urged understanding.
Doing the interviews felt like a confirmation that there are educated empowered women in Islam who draw strength and inspiration from their religion.
In the main stage hall there were talks running throughout the day. Speakers varied from Jon Snow, Gareth Peirce and Trevor Brooking (FA director of football) to members of Stop the War.
Who speaks for Islam?
I was lucky enough to catch John Esposito, co-author of Who Speaks for Islam?, a book describing the results of a Gallup poll of tens of thousands of Muslims in 35 nations with majority or substantial Muslim populations.
The questions were about women’s rights, violence, the link between religiosity and extremism. Most people in most of the countries surveyed supported women’s rights. Most supported women having the same legal rights as men (85% in Iran; around 90% in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey and Lebanon; 77% in Pakistan; 61% in Saudi Arabia; and 57% in Egypt and Jordan).
Most people in most countries also supported women’s right to vote, women’s right to hold any job for which they were qualified, and the right to hold leadership positions at cabinet and national council levels.
When Gallup compared the men who say that women and men should have the same legal rights with men who hold the opposite view, they found little difference in their degree of religiosity.
In Lebanon, Morocco and Iran, men who support women’s rights were found to be more religious than those who do not support women’s rights.
According to research, 69.4% of men who committed honour killings in Jordan did not perform their daily prayers and 55.5% did not fast.
Esposito and his co-author Dalia Mogahed comment: “That these men fail to observe the most obligatory rituals of Islam suggests that their act of murder is not motivated by religious zeal or devotion.”
Their book reminds us that “The widely held perception that Muslim women are oppressed was one of the arguments used to support the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan.”
It was an inspiration to hear Esposito speak as a non-Muslim about being fair to Muslims, using solid evidence to dispel old-fashioned stereotypes.
This is the first time in my life that statistics have been of significant interest to me. They’ve acted as a factual basis for me to make arguments from.
In the past, I’ve always found statistics a bit dry and abstract, but in this case, they’ve been really exciting. I can actually see myself using them.