Reaching a wider audience (above: a cat listens to the live broadcast of the BBC Today Programme on Radio 4 at the British base in Basra Palace, 2006)

Thursday, 9 October 2008

The X Factor

Exhausted after several days of polite handshakes and “terribly important” high level conferencing, I decided not to cook breakfast last Saturday. Instead I slunk off to my nearest greasy spoon for a fry up. OK, it was Sainsbury’s cafe, but that’s as near as us middle classes get to slumming it these days. The contrast to the silver spoons of the previous few days was somehow comforting, and whilst I didn’t quite have a plastic knife and fork, I was delighted to see that the previous inhabitant of my ketchup smeared table had kindly left The Daily Star for me to read.

And there is was writ large “Muslim Plot to Blow up Eastenders”. Within moments I was back in the groove and I fear I raised a few eyebrows, as I all but launched a fatwa against the said newspaper. In moments The Daily Star had turned me into an extremist. But with a difference, I vent the feeling of injustice with words not with physical might. One reader had texted in “Are these Muslims thick?" and the paper in their wisdom printed it. Closeted in my safe world of The Guardian, I had no idea this ugliness went on – I felt ashamed that I was unaware of it and mentally wrote a note of apology to my Muslim friends who I had in the past written off as paranoid.

So here is the main point (I got distracted by describing my breakfast, sorry) - I didn’t need a three day conference on extremism to tell me that Islam is not the problem. My definition of extremism (which doesn’t include the kind of sporting pursuits my brother engages in) is someone who is willing to act in violence, not out of spontaneous anger, but because of a deeply held belief. And this X Factor lurks within many societies including our own. Tamil Tigers are doing it, Basque terrorists are doing it, British football hooligans are doing it. And well, yes it could even be argued that our troops are doing it (flashback to Baghdad Air Station 2006 when I overheard a young American soldier from the projects saying “we are going to kick some Iraqi ass”). My grandmother was a child when Britain’s radical youth lied about their age to bear arms against the German infidel in the First World War. Although they were child soldiers, we still consider this a noble act today. Before we begin to analyse why people are lead to violent extremism, we must accept that the X Factor is an inherent and potential part in EVERY society. This is nothing to do with Islam – Muslims don’t hold the monopoly on extremism.

It is also clear to me that if we continue to Islamise extremism, terrorism, and radicals (hell, I was pretty radical in my youth) we are playing right into the hands of the small group of murderers (and I mean small – some estimate Al Qaeda as being less than 500 strong). These bad guys need a narrative, they need a single ideology to sell to their followers. The west versus Islam is a neat strap line – but it is THERES and should never be used by anyone with even a vague vested interest in opposing terrorism. I used to work in advertising (you see, I said I was radical) and I have to say that it is would be extraordinary to see your main competitor defining your own brand for you.

Saying that “Muslims” are plotting to murder Britain’s favourite soap stars is like saying “football fans” are planning on slaying Sheffield Wednesday supporters in a cup final. It makes no sense (no, not the bit about Wednesday being in the cup final, silly). If this confusing line were taken, it would surely lead to a sense of persecution, exclusion and “they just don’t understand us”.

OK, it’s a strange analogy. But if only one Daily Star reader (or god help us an editor) gets it, there might be a glimmer of hope – a chance for me to enjoy a greasy fried breakfast with my family without me launching into an embarrassing rant in Sainsbury’s.

Celebrity Guide to Doing Good in the World

You may have heard me bang on about how celebrities who take on causes, don’t necessarily help those causes. Respect to Clooney who seems to be using his skills to record short promos for the UN, and hasn’t finger wagged Al-Bashir on Darfur lately (and I understand he has offered General Agwai a helicopter). But rather than analyse the effectiveness of Jude Law‘s recent mission in Afghanistan (Jude who? Many an Afghan is heard to mutter), I thought it would be helpful if I could pen a rough guide for those celebrities who have come to a point in their careers where they feel they want to give something back. Or maybe you have been asked to back a charitable winner (or a looser) and are weighing up your options. First see where you fit on the Do-good-o-meter?

My career is waning and my image needs improving

I’m bored
I am taking a break from my usual work

I can “raise awareness” of a cause (and let everyone know how nice I am)
I’m nice, of course I will help

I support a cause and want to take time out to help, I don’t really care what people think of me

I want to quit work for a while and do something with more meaning

I am passionate about this issue – I really want to use all my skills and experience to make positive change as effectively as possible

The rest of this article is really only aimed at those on the indigo end of the rainbow. Well done, you are coming from the right place. Chances are you have incredible ability to influence and be a top class ambassador for your cause and dare I say it - a public diplomat. So, a rough guide:

1. If you scored indigo you will already have a passion for your cause. You could want global nuclear disarmament, or better research for a particular disease which took away someone close to you. Maybe you are moved by the plight of the gorilla, or the people of a warring nation? The first thing to do is research. Go there. Meet the sufferers and those working with them. Don’t just talk to NGOs, talk to Governments, broad civil society, academia, the commercial world – get all views.

2. Next draw conclusions about what might help. For example the best way to save the gorilla might be to combat poverty and tribal warfare in the region – and not by “raising awareness” by printing a load of Save the Gorilla T-Shirts. Invite others to help you draw conclusions and get to the root of the issue.

3. Have a strategy. Get professional help with this (a-hem, I would say that) – it will help you hone into what you can realistically hope for, how you could achieve it and in what time scale. It will also help you explore who you should be lobbying and how to measure if your plans are working.

4. Co-ordinate. Is there anyone already tackling this, that you could support? Don’t reinvent a wheel in vanity, someone might already be doing some great work, and could just need a hand.

5. Think about what you are good at (and what you are bad at). Are you a writer, actor, or ice skater? Use your skills and make it relevant. I’m thinking Jamie Olivers school dinners campaign more relevant than Joanna Lumley championing the Gurkhas right to live in Britain (ok, she did well and there was a family history with them). But you get it – make it relevant and your involvement credible.

6. Finally think grass roots. Take your skills and the problem to the sufferers and ask them what you should do and what they think would work. Chances are they will now best. A top down approach is patronizing. OK – unless they are gorillas, silly. But you know what I mean. Talk to the family and friends of the…erm…gorillas.

So, just a few simple words of wisdom, perhaps better suited to my nomadic-wisdom blog, but not altogether uncomfortable on this public-diplomacy page. I look forward to hearing about your successes, so I can highlight them rather than banging on about the wrong approach! Even you, Jude.

The idea for this article was shamelessly pilfered from my bright boyfriend. Thanks hun.

BBC blogger on celebrity charity work

Me banging on about celebrity backers