Undercover: Some impressions

Indigo Jo Blogs - 19 May, 2016 - 21:40

A still of a Black man wearing dark-coloured jogging clothes with a flourescent yellow strip along the zipI couldn’t write a full review of Undercover, the six-part TV series about a police spy (Nick, played by Adrian Lester, right) who fell in love with and married the woman he was meant to be spying on (Maya, played by Sophie Okonedo, below left), as I tend to forget large chunks of the plot over the six weeks (or seven, as the final episode was delayed by a week), although others who watched the series and commented on it on Twitter couldn’t see the point of certain characters, for example, either. I watched it intently as a relative of mine had a minor role in it (as one of the cops in episodes 2 and 3) and believe that despite the strong acting, it had a weak plotline which fell to pieces in the final episode. It’s also problematic in how it handles issues of race.

The plot is based on the recent stories of undercover cops who formed relationships with activist women, who in at least one case bore the spy’s child. One of them turned out to be Bob Lambert, who later resurfaced as an academic and bridge-builder with the Muslim community until his past was exposed. Nick (a pseudonym borrowed from the identity of a dead child, something that has happened in real life) is sent undercover to infiltrate a Black civil rights protest group shortly after a man called Michael Antwi is beaten to death in a police cell. It appears that the police put him in a cell with a known racist who then killed him; however, it later transpires that in fact the police pulled him off and then killed him themselves. Nick encounters Maya, a young lawyer who is helping Antwi’s family, and forms a relationship with her. However, he falls in love with her and marries her, leaves the police behind and appears to start a new life as a writer (although strangely there is no evidence of him doing any writing, let alone publishing any). Years later, Maya is made Director of Public Prosecutions while also representing a man who is on Death Row for murdering the mayor of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and he suffers a botched execution. However, Nick’s police colleagues reappear and ultimately he can no longer hide his past from his wife. It ultimately turns out that Michael Antwi was a drug ‘mule’ and in fact murdered the politician whom Maya’s client was convicted of killing.

So, here are my impressions:

(1) The murder of Michael Antwi reminded me of a number of other murders with obvious racial angles, in particular Zahid Mubarak, who was murdered in Feltham young offenders’ institution by a violent racist the prison staff had knowingly placed in his cell. Tnat part of the story also had parallels with the murder of Blair Peach at an anti-racism demo in Southall, west London. Zahid Mubarak had been locked up for committing a crime but was close to being released, and obviously had a right to be protected from violence that was entirely predictable and there have been suggestions that they were put in a cell together so that staff could watch the confrontation. However, in this drama it turns out that Antwi was a criminal and supposedly “deserved” to be murdered, and even Maya is supposed to just accept this (just after discovering that her husband was a police spy, no less). Frankly, to make a story out of two well-known stories of lethal racial injustice and turn it against the victim is at best cheap, and at worst racist. And I checked: the author (whose father was a cop who served in Northern Ireland) is white.

Picture of Maya Coppina (Sophie Okonedo), a light-skinned Black woman wearing a dark-coloured suit jacket with her hair tied behind her head in a bob, standing with her back to a front door on a London suburban street.(2) Like most people commenting on social media, the last episode was by far the weakest and included some downright ridiculous scenes. I was particularly unimpressed by Maya’s arguments at the Supreme Court, which consisted of very basic arguments against the death penalty (and lethal injection in particular) that you could get from any anti-death-penalty pamphlet. The American South is notorious for assigning inexperienced or downright incompetent lawyers to poor (and particularly Black) defendants in capital cases, and she struck me as precisely that type. We don’t see what arguments actually got Rudy off, except for the bit where he refused to name the real killer (a real court would have rejected his appeal in these circumstances). The assistance of Clive Stafford Smith, a real lawyer (also British) who has defended capital cases in the South is credited; where was he when these scenes were written? And it was curious, to say the least, that Maya was still able to travel to the USA to work on a capital case while she was DPP (or that she got that job despite having always been a defence barrister, or the fact that the authorities would have known about her past).

(3) A lot was left unexplained in that weak last episode. We see Dan, Nick and Maya’s learning disabled son, kindle a relationship with a white girl named Lola, whom he meets twice in a park and then invites back to his room for a “wrestle”. Nick tells Maya, in his farewell letter, that Lola is “not all she seems”, but we never learn what he means. We learn that Antwi in fact killed the mayor of Baton Rouge, but we do not learn why, or why Rudy had not named him sooner (given that he was dead) rather than spend 20 years on death row, or why the British police would have Antwi murdered in a police station rather than co-operate with the American authorities and have him extradited.

It rather looked like they were trying to leave a lot of ends loose for there to be a second series. Frankly, I think they shouldn’t always reprise drama serials for second or third series; much like film sequels, they don’t really live up to the original (Broadchurch was the worst recent example, but Happy Valley’s second series was not a patch on the first either). If a series is conceived as a self-contained story, why does it even need a second series? It is not like a sit-com where each episode is a story and you can always write more stories. This last episode seemed to use coincidences to quickly tie up the threads towards the end, and the connection is just not plausible. How likely is it that a lawyer had two cases that she dedicated much of her life to, and it turns out that one of her clients actually committed the murder the other was convicted of?

But my biggest complaint is that this drama isn’t true to life, and it’s untrue to life in a mean and reactionary way. Others have already noted that in real life, the police spies who formed relationships with women they were spying on disappeared and moved on to other police work, but it also takes real stories of racial injustice, uses them as a plot device and distorts them so that the victim in fact deserves his fate. Despite the fact that the drama contained multiple rounded Black characters (pretty rare in British TV drama), this story does not do justice to the issue of intimate police spying or of racial injustice and violence by the police. I don’t think it merits a second series on those grounds alone.

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Walking Without Seeing the Path

Muslim Matters - 19 May, 2016 - 20:33


I have often found myself at the crossroads. The greatest decisions I've made in my life have been at the fork of the road, often with two distinct goals. While one road is well paved,  some of my loftier goals have paths that are not well trodden.  More often than not,  I have been drawn to take the unclear path towards that loftier goal at the fork of the road. Although I can't always see the path, I know that the destination is worth the trials I faced getting there.   

As a researcher, I often look up multiple how to's and guides. I try to prepare emotionally and intellectually for the decisions I make.  Often, I am able to find general road maps.   If I can chart a certain course,  take so many steps left, then right, then bare north, I can get somewhere near that destination.  But I am reasonable, I know that I may not have the vessel to navigate some seas. I know that there are multiple destinations and numerous paths to find a sense of place.

When I co-founded MuslimARC with our original steering members, we had just an inkling of the mantle that we were taking on. Three years ago, I felt ill equipped, but knew that my community had tools that could get us there. I had little idea that it was much more challenging to find true travel companions, sometimes people would walk with us for a short distance, a few  would discourage us.  

Sometimes,  I walk when I don't see the path.  Is this the right way?  Is this the right thing to do? I have to constantly recalibrate. It reminds me of  that scene from  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade “Only in the leap from the lion's head will he prove his worth.” So much can be said about Kierkegaard's Leap of faith. 

Sometimes my faith morphs into abstractions. What are the tangible benefits of my work? My heart becomes clouded with doubt. The doubts increase as I see certain negative aspects of myself, some  that I have long buried,  emerge. Am I going forward or backwards? Is this good for me? 

In some ways I have submitted to my path, but there are times faith in the decision I have made is shaken. Islam also distinguishes between belief and faith. The Qur'an says: 

The bedouins say, “We have believed.” Say, “You have not [yet] believed; but say [instead], 'We have submitted,' for faith has not yet entered your hearts. And if you obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not deprive you from your deeds of anything. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” 

According to the prophetic tradition, there are three stages of faith: Islam (submission), iman (faith), and Ihsan (perfection).  For me, along this journey, I have walked with insecurity.  I have thought about the implications if I fail. What do I do? What is the right course? I submit, and take steps forward. I believe that what I am doing has deeper implications, that the impact will reverberate for Eternity. I think about my positive actions tipping the scales for my shortcomings. I think about redemption and hope to fill the void inside me with God's love. 

So much of my community work is spiritual, about purifying my soul through the process of continual self reflection. I see that my organizing work is a spiritual journey.  I still have a long way to go before Ihsan. I have much work even on iman. I may even go through the motions of my faith, the day to day as a mother as a wife, as an educator and writer often getting in the way of me truly connecting. I have to think about ways in which I can walk the path knowing my Creator is close to me and ever present. 

As many of the masters of Islamic mysticism have pointed out, there are always pitfalls in purifying the soul.  Our egos can easily take over and we can become pleased with ourselves in our higher level of consciousness and more disciplined actions, our self righteousness and self satisfaction then debases us and undermines that hard work. There are times when I go through the motion with the weakest of belief. Then there are times where faith kicks in and sparks a light on my journey. Maybe for brief moments to do I see the light at the end of the tunnel and I am in awe at how my Creator has eased the path for me. I keep walking to turn the corner and find that peace that comes with the perfection of faith.

Gay Muslims are essential in the global fight against Aids | Samra Habib

The Guardian World news: Islam - 19 May, 2016 - 15:41

An organization of Muslim countries has forbidden LGBT groups from the UN Aids conference. But our voices must be heard

Three days ago, I sat in a cafe in Brussels to interview a transgender Muslim woman named Raeesa. She’s from Mali. I was invited by a couple of Belgian not-for-profit organizations for an exhibition and to speak about my work, which consists of archiving the stories of queer Muslims around the world, many of whom are refugees who had to leave their native Muslim countries because their lives were in danger.

It is my goal to document the lives and stories of queer Muslims like myself because often, we’re told that our lives don’t matter because of who we are, and because many are subjected to daily violence, humiliation and erasure. Like Raeesa, many of us flee and seek asylum in countries that offer protection to LGBT refugees.

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No Matter What You Think about Israel, BDS Won’t Help

altmuslim - 18 May, 2016 - 18:27
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It’s Time to Stop Discussing BDS and Get to Work

altmuslim - 18 May, 2016 - 17:00
Editorial Note: With BDS continuously in the news, especially in light of the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, Altmuslim is hosting a two-part series arguing for and against the movement, which aims to use boycotts, divestment and sanctions to force Israel to abide by international law and end its occupation of Palestine. In this article, Kristin Szremski [Read More...]

Sadiq Khan makes his debut LBC appearance as mayor of London – video

The Guardian World news: Islam - 18 May, 2016 - 12:46

Speaking on Wednesday on his first LBC radio phone-in since his election as mayor of London, Sadiq Khan stands by his invitation to presumed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to visit him and his family in London. He also maintains that Trump’s views on Islam are ignorant. Khan also comments on the Garden Bridge and using positive role models to tackle radicals

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Geelong mosque destroyed in suspicious fire after witness hears loud bang

The Guardian World news: Islam - 17 May, 2016 - 23:36

Police launch arson investigation into gutting of mosque housed in old church in Geelong, Victoria

A mosque in Geelong, 75km south of Melbourne, Victoria, was destroyed in a suspicious fire on Wednesday morning.

Police say the fire was reported at 2.15am after a nearby resident heard a loud bang. The resident went to investigate and saw the mosque alight.

Related: Mosque opposed by far-right political groups likely to be blocked

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Islam and Christianity share 'idea of conquest', says Pope Francis

The Guardian World news: Islam - 17 May, 2016 - 12:08

Pontiff condemns ‘ghettoisation’ of migrants and hails Sadiq Khan’s election as first Muslim mayor of London

Islam and Christianity share an inherent “idea of conquest”, and those who refer to Europe’s roots as Christian often veer into colonialism, Pope Francis said in a wideranging interview about the the migration crisis and the ability of Christians and Muslims to live together harmoniously.

Speaking to the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, the Argentinian pope also hailed the election of Sadiq Khan in London, saying that a Muslim mayor personified the idea of integration within Europe.

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali on Q&A: do not subject Muslims to bigotry of low expectations – video

The Guardian World news: Islam - 17 May, 2016 - 02:27

On the ABC’s Q&A program, Somali-born author and human rights campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali says it’s ‘perfectly fine’ to question and criticise any religion, including Islam. The program was criticised on social media for discussing Islam without having a practising Muslim on the panel. The panel was selected as part of the the Sydney writers’ festival and featured international authors.

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