Myriam Francois_Cerrah was born in London of French and Irish heritage. She completed her BA in Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge University in 2003, and worked for a year for MEND, a Palestinian NGO in Jerusalem, where she received training in active non-violence and conflict resolution techniques. In August 2005, she travelled on a CCAS scholarship to Georgetown University in Washington DC to pursue a MA in Arab Studies, specializing in Middle East politics. There she collaborated on the production of a documentary (Arabs and Terrorism, Bassam Haddad) and published current affairs articles. She was formerly the assistant editor at Emel magazine and she continues to contribute to the magazine. In May 2010, Myriam co-organized and hosted the Rethinking Islamic Reform conference at Oxford University. As a researcher with the European Muslim Research Center, Exeter University, she contributed a chapter on European Muslim identity to the 2010 report “Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime: UK Case Studies.” She has been the media spokesperson for the Oxford University Islamic society and the “Inspired by Mohammed” campaign aimed at fostering a greater understanding of Islam. She is currently a contributing scholar to State of Formation, a forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. Miriam is currently undertaking a PhD at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco. She speaks fluent French and proficient Arabic.
|1. What was the strongest thing that pulled you toward Islam?
I wouldn’t say I was pulled towards Islam, possibly quite the contrary. My engagement with Islam and its principles began on the basis of an instinctive hostility I felt towards it in the post 9/11 climate, and as a result of an education which tended to regard religion at best as a moral crutch and at worst as a dangerous delusion. I began talking and debating with Muslims on the basis that I felt I could help them overcome this lagging in development by rejecting what I then viewed as outmoded and archaic views. It wasn’t until I began to do some independent research into it, including into the life of Prophet Mohamed (saw), that my perspective began to shift and most specifically in my interaction with the Quran.
|2. How do you feel that your path to Islam has helped you be a better spokesperson for the religion?
I’m not sure I’m a ‘better’ anything to be honest, I’m grateful for all my life experiences. They’ve been pivotal in shaping me and I certainly regard sports and drama as very positive activities for all young people since they encourage self-confidence and public speaking skills.
|3. What led you to choose the Islamic movements in Morocco as the focus of your doctorate?
I have an interest in modern Islamic theorizing and the forces that shape it, whether consciously or not! Morocco fascinates me for a number of reasons. It’s a meeting of African, Arab and European influences. It has a long and rich history as an Islamic state, which long predates the contemporary modernist obsession with creating an Islamic state. It combines a strong Sufi tradition with a more recent literalist Salafi trend, Islamists and a king who is also “amir al muminin” – its a rich religious tapestry and yet still considered a hub of European tourism and a key Western ally. At the same time, it is a post-colonial developing nation struggling with corruption, poverty, illiteracy and negotiating an independent identity. On a more pragmatic note, it being a French speaking nation, it also meant I wouldn’t have to do ALL my research in Arabic. Need I say more…
|4. How do you feel that Muslim women are perceived in the UK?
Sadly not very positively – you don’t need me to tell you that – the overarching portrayal is passive, mindless, brainwashed victims who need freeing from oppressive husbands/practices/traditions – its a very reductive perception which I personally experience as a tiring wall of prejudice in my day to day. That said, it is far better in the UK than in France or Germany…
|5. What do you think we can do, as Muslim women, to improve the way we are perceived?
Get involved! Look beyond the comfort zone of the community and become an invaluable asset in the improvement of broader society – the reality I experience of Muslim women is generally far removed from the stereotype. It is a question now of interacting sufficiently with the public sphere for perceptions to shift.
|6. In one of your articles, you talk of how Islam has helped you see through the myth of modernism. In what ways do you feel this myth has affected Muslim’s women perception of Islam?
The myth of modernity affects all of us – it is rooted an evolutionary perception of history whereby humans are on a continual path of human progression – this means we view other societies and cultures as lagging behind not just our obvious technological advances, but also our current moral stances and abandonment of religion. It also holds a singular version of modernity rooted in Western historical experience to be Universalist in nature and assumes all other cultures are moving towards it. This therefore assumes that the dominant model of femininity, as epitomized by the women we find in the public sphere, represents the height of ‘modernity’, i.e. the highest level of human social and moral evolution.
|7. What advice would you give to a young Muslim woman who aspires to be successful in the media?
I’d say don’t aspire to be successful, for success’s sake, aspire to be true to your principles and to use any presence you may have to further good. Any industry has norms and expectations – it takes a strong person not to allow yourself to become shaped by the commercial drive, but rather to draw on your principles to help try and shape it. Whether your actions receive widespread public recognition or not, may not be a reflection of the worth of what you’re doing, so much as a reflection of the expectations of the field you’re operating in. Stay clear in what your objectives are and whom you’re trying to please…success is relative.
|8. Do you have any Muslim women role models?
Certainly, my good friend and mentor Sarah Joseph, OBE (emel). Dalia Mogahed (Gallup), Salma Yaqoob (RESPECT), and the women of the Arab revolutions, out there struggling and even dying for their principles. Historically, I’d say Aisha (rA), Fatima (rA), Khadija (rA) and Rabia Al Adawiya are hugely inspirational models.
|9. Do you feel that young Muslim women suffer from a lack of role models?
Yes I do – where are the female scholars, the authorities and not just on women’s issues! I think there is a certain visibility of a particular model of Muslim woman in the public sphere, but we need much more diversity. This impedes young women’s ability to conceive of themselves as active in those spheres and means they conceive of men as the guardians of the faith and necessary gateways to a correct praxis. We don’t necessarily men to affirm our interpretations – if they’re grounded, reasoned and well justified, that is sufficient.
|10. What are you most proud of?
My kids, alhamdulillah, who actually inspire and challenge me more than many adults!
Myriam regularly contributes to public debates on a variety of issues, including on BBC Newsnight, the BBC Big Questions, The Times, the Independent, BBC Radio, The London Paper, Index on Censorship, The Cherwell, The F-word and others. She gives talks within the Muslim community on a variety of topics, as well as to mainstream institutions such as the BBC, the Scottish Interfaith forum and universities on Muslim related issues. She also provides diversity training for public and corporate institutions (The MET, Clifford Chance LLP, BBC).
She blogs at: http://myriamfrancoiscerrah.wordpress.com
You can also find out more about the programs she is involved in through these links:
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