Taj Ali is a freelance writer with an interest in class and socioeconomic inequality. His work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Metro and the Independent. He is a co-host of The People's Podcast, a podcast dedicated to amplifying working-class voices and highlighting underrepresented issues in the media. He has a keen interest in British South Asian history and recently started a public history project documenting British South Asian political activism in the late 20th century.
We talk to Taj about the power of words, tackling inequalities in British Muslim communities and using art as a tool for social change.
Can you tell us about your background, how did your journey working as a writer and activist begin?
I'm a British Kashmiri, born and bred in Luton. I've been interested in current affairs from a very young age. My hometown often received and continues to receive a negative reputation. It has been inaccurately labeled as a no-go zone for non-Muslims and falsely accused of being a hub for Islamist exteremism. We were often plagued by the English Defense League and Britain First. Growing up surrounded by moral panics and misrepresentations about my community, I was determined to challenge and change this racist narrative. Alongside issues of Islamophobia and racism more generally, I was also exposed to widespread poverty and the various associated issues resulting from it.
I started writing once I left university. I began writing opinion pieces on various topical issues, with a keen interest in highlighting Islamophobia and socioeconomic inequality. After a few months, I started writing longer interview-style features and have written extensively for Tribune Magazine covering industrial disputes and issues affecting working-class communities such as gentrification and the housing crisis. I was often dismayed with the lack of coverage when it came to issues affecting communities like my own so I started The People’s Podcast, a podcast dedicated to amplifying working-class voices and tackling underrepresented issues in the media.
Can the arts be used as a tool for social change?
Various social movements throughout history such as the civil rights movement in the US and the movement for Palestinian rights have used artistic mediums such as poetry and art to draw attention to their respective causes. The arts can and have been used effectively to communicate ideas in a creative way. I believe the arts can engage people in a way that traditional political methods can't.
What does Islamic art and culture mean to you?
Islamic art varies greatly, and this reflects the incredible diversity of the Muslim world. From Persian rugs to Ottoman architecture, art has flourished in the Muslim world. Islamic calligraphy, geometric patterns and stunning mosques are just some of the many examples of Islamic art that come to mind.
What are thoughts on the idea that words hold power?
I believe that words do hold power and we often underestimate how powerful words can be. English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the well-known adage that "The pen is mightier than the sword” and he was absolutely right. When we communicate effectively with others, we can challenge perceptions and influence others. There is a reason why authoritarian regimes clamp down on freedom of speech- because they know the power that both written and verbal communication can have as a tool for change.
Through your writing why are you committed to raising awareness of class and socio-economic inequality?
The media is the second most socially exclusive profession in the country and there are very few working-class voices. I believe issues affecting working communities are neither adequately nor accurately covered and I hope through my writing that I can shed light on these issues and change the narrative. Covid-19 has not just exposed the class divide, it has exacerbated it too. Class inequality is the root cause of so many issues in society, it is astonishing that it is not spoken about more.
How has your faith as a Muslim and cultural heritage influenced your writing?
I believe it is the duty of every Muslim to act against injustice. Surah Nisa emphasizes this point: “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both.” I hope through my writing that I can highlight instances of injustice and speak truth to power.
As a second-generation British Kashmiri, I am acutely aware of the struggles of my parents’ generation who grew up at a time of considerable racism and hostility in the UK. I am also aware of the impact of colonialism and how it has shaped both the Indian subcontinent and much of the modern world. I think it is important to acknowledge and learn from this history.
You have written for the Huffington Post, Metro and the Independent. What article or feature are you most proud of writing?
I am most proud of writing an article for Tribune Magazine highlighting how residents on a deprived council estate in Luton came together to improve their area through grassroots community organising. They transformed a derelict seventeenth-century farmhouse into a community hub, home to eight social enterprises including a restaurant, radio station and studio. News and current affairs can be incredibly negative and whilst I think it is important to highlight things like racism and inequality, I don’t particularly enjoy writing about hardship and suffering. It gives me great pleasure to interview people doing incredible work- particularly when they hail from the same hometown as me! It inspires me and hopefully it inspires others too.
To what extent do you think Muslim diaspora communities in the UK are impacted by class and socio-economic inequality?
British Muslims are disproportionately working-class but are often invisibilised from narratives surrounding working-class communities. According to the most recent census, almost half of the Muslim population resides in the bottom 10% of the most deprived Local Authority Districts in England. British Muslims experience the lowest earnings of any religious group, earning £350 less each month than average. Socio-economic inequality has a massive impact on many British Muslims and more needs to be done to tackle it.
What are your thoughts on the inclusion and representation of Islamic art and culture in the mainstream creative industries and media?
I believe there is a perception that the Islamic faith and arts and culture are antithetical to one another. There is a clear lack of Islamic art and culture depicted in the media and when it is depicted it is often done through an orientalist lens rather than by championing the voices of Muslims themselves.
British Muslims had the highest COVID-19 mortality rates by faith group. Has this impacted your work, and have you felt a need to address this?
Absolutely. I think the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many existing inequalities. Many British Muslims live in overcrowded homes and work in jobs which put them at a higher risk of contracting covid-19 such as in the taxi trade and the hospitality industry. British Muslims are also less likely to receive an adequate level of sick pay and many suffer from underlying health issues. I have felt a need to address this, particularly in light of inaccurate claims which suggested that some communities had higher mortality rates because they were less likely to follow lockdown rules. I believe the disproportionate COVID-19 mortality rate is directly linked to the socioeconomic status of British Muslims and this is not spoken about enough.
Which artists, writers thinkers and activists have inspired your practice?
I read the autobiography of Malcolm X when I was 14 and it had a massive impact on me growing up. Malcolm read every book he could get his hands on and emphasised the importance of seeking knowledge and speaking truth to power. Malcolm X placed a strong emphasis on reforming yourself and your own community and I think this is something that we don’t focus on enough.
What does the future of Islamic art and culture look like to you?
I hope to see greater diversity when Islamic art and culture is depicted. The Muslim World is incredibly diverse and I hope that as the world becomes more connected through social media that we can develop a greater appreciation for the varied forms of artistic expression in the Muslim World.
For more information follow Taj Ali on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Taj_Ali1
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