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Fareena Alam during Question Time, 13th September

A Time to Question

Fareena Alam, 22, is a news editor of Q News, Britain's leading Muslim magazine. (www.q-news.com) She spoke from the audience on the now-notorious live Question Time debate on the night of September 13. BBC director general Greg Dyke publicly apologised the next week after receiving over 2,000 complaints from viewers over the expression of "anti-US sentiment."

"A friend suggested I should join her in the audience. I thought we could just watch the show, I didn't expect to get on TV. I didn't plan to say anything.

"I told them one of the reasons the world despises America is because it sees Israel as a terrorist and America as one who harbours Israel as a terrorist. The former American ambassador on the panel, Phil Lader, said he couldn't believe I was talking about this two days after the attack on the World Trade Centre.

"The whole point of the show was to discuss what America was going to do next. I think I got picked on in the papers because I had tanned skin, I'm a Muslim, a woman and I was wearing a headscarf. I was the perfect symbol of anti-Americanism. I was portrayed as an Arab, automatically lumping me together with the people accused of the attack. But I was born and educated in London to Bangladeshi parents. I am a British citizen. Judgments were made purely on appearance. No one bothered to find out.

"Two tabloids put my picture on their pages, one with the caption 'Angry Middle-Eastern woman'. It seems I have been made a symbol of anti-Americanism, which is totally inaccurate. A lot of Muslim women I know are being insulted in the street, being spat at and having their head-scarves pulled off.

"After Question Time, lots of people in the audience came up to me and said, 'Good on you'. I was surprised at what a positive reaction I got.

"I don't think the BBC should have apologised. It is stifling good, balanced debate, which is what we need at the moment, not rhetoric - that is dangerous.

"I wept when I heard about the terrorist actions in New York. I was absolutely horrified. But I think one of the reasons why I spoke out during the debate is because I find the nationalism, vengeful rhetoric and talk of war on CNN and other media very worrying. I think this kind of talk is an exploitation of US grief.

"I think it strange that America refers to the West as the civilised world, the free world, implying that the rest of the world is not. "I worry that the US public isn't seeing what it needs to see. CNN is not giving the American people the whole story. The events in New York were a big insult to the US government. It is meant to have the best intelligence organisation in the world, but it obviously isn't that intelligent." - Interviewed by Max Daly.

Fareena wrote these post-Sept 11 thoughts for SchNEWS:

They say that in war, truth is the first casualty. I look back on the day I chose to be a Muslim journalist; I could never have fathomed my choice would undergo such trials. Our first war. Prisoners of faith. Prisoners of war. Not a day has passed since September 11th that I have not wondered how loyal I, and others in this profession, will be to truth and justice in what has proven to be a tumultuous time.

Within minutes of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, our political leaders informed us that these were attacks on the 'free and civilised' world. As a British citizen, I assumed that one of those key values was the freedom of speech. Question Time was an epitome of this right, giving ordinary members of the public the opportunity to put their questions to the country's key thinkers.

For days after the show, the Muslim woman who brought the ex-American ambassador to tears, was transformed into a emblem of anti-American sentiments. Her question, after 30 minutes of heated discussion about American foreign policy, was: "When Bush speaks of a war against terrorists and the countries that harbour them, does he consider that the reason why so many people despise America is because they consider Israel a terrorist and America a nation that harbours Israel?"

It was 'the day the BBC shamed Britain' according to the Daily Mail who described her, inaccurately, as an 'angry middle-eastern woman' while the Sun referred to her as an 'Arab' woman. That woman happens to be me.

In a nation that spends millions of taxpayers' pounds protecting Salman Rushdie and claims to wage a war for the sake of 'freedom', the BBC apologising says political correctness is the new censorship.

Despite audience and panel members being equally, if not more critical of American foreign policies than myself, I had been made the target. Naturally, I was the only one with the audacity to mention the words terrorist state and Israel in the same breath in front of Question Time's 5.6 million viewers. I am a "brownie" like most immigrants to this country. I wear a scarf on my head, which for many translates as an oppressed Muslim woman covering her mind as well as her head. Coat all of the above with the accusation that I am supposedly anti-American and I was suddenly the alien spokesperson for those suspected as responsible for Tuesday's attack.

Contrary to popular belief, the terror of September 11th led to a great deal of grief and introspection within the Muslim community. More than ever before, Muslims are looking inward for answers to a thousand painful questions: how did these fringe elements take refuge in our community? What could we have done to stop this? Where do we go from here? Will we ever feel at home in these nations where we were born and raised?

Bush's threat that 'you are either with us or against us' has radicalised a number of Muslims who feel they've been pushed into a corner. To many, this is a war against Islam and Muslim interests. In a Newsweek interview shortly after September 11th, I expressed the fear that the impulsive war mongering was creating adverse currents in society. People who ordinarily wouldn't have been involved are getting more and more involved. Muslims who aren't normally devout feel a formerly dormant loyalty to the Muslim struggle. British Muslims who were already considered militant, are pushed towards terrorism. Barring extreme cases, I have always believed that a little Islamophobia is good for the Muslim community. There is nothing more dangerous for a faith-based community than apathy!

A large majority of Muslims, however, have found renewed belief in the importance of building grassroot alliances. A fresh, new identity of British-Muslim-ness is emerging. It is exciting because it overrides over a hundred languages and ethnicities of its members. Before September 11th, non-faith based left-wing movements were far more reticent about engaging with faith-based communities - let's face it, many are very uncomfortable with Islam. This is changing because it cannot be ignored that as a community, Muslims in Britain suffer the most acute levels of economic, political and social marginalisation. This has led to a paradigm shift within mainstream left-wing movements: if they are to continue to ostracise the Muslim community, while claiming to stand for social equality and justice, they have always been and will continue to be just as racist as right-wing movements.

Muslims are also beginning to internalise the realisation that we must break out of this dangerous victim mentality. We must slowly stop leaning on our marginalised status in society as some sort of sad crutch. It is time to wake up and recognise that despite all our differences - gay and abortion rights being two sore spots - there is a myriad of issues that are of common interest with non-faith based groups: the anti-war movement, protection of the environment and anti-globalisation are prime examples.