How I accidentally narrated an audiobook Quran for an 'extremist' Imam

Why it always pays to dig deeper when you get a job offer


Quran in the mosque

February 08, 2023 20:45

For years I’d had intended to read the Quran – its influence in the world seemed too important for me not to. But I could never have imagined my first reading of it would be into a microphone, for potentially millions of Muslims discovering their own holy text for the first time in English.

As a news broadcaster and TV producer I was told early on that I had ‘a good voice’, so I set up a side hustle doing voiceovers – good to earn some extra cash when work’s on the quiet side, I thought. Mostly it was phone menu systems or an Egyptian real estate development advert. Nothing too glamorous.

So when the opportunity arose in 2019 to record an audiobook of a new, plain English translation of the Quran, I couldn’t resist. Sure, I’m not the obvious choice – I’m Jewish for starters – but in the world of voiceovers, nobody’s looking at your face or your background.

Finally, I would be judged not on the colour of my skin but on the content of my… voice. Or so I thought.

As I sent off my sample reading, I briefly fantasised about the dinner party value of a story that started with “when I recorded the audiobook of the Quran…” Soon after I forgot about it, with my day job keeping me busy reporting on the Labour Party antisemitism crisis and the upcoming General Election.

Three weeks later the offer came through from the Karimia Institute, which was producing the audiobook: I was to be the voice of the Quran. Slightly daunted by the scale of the job, I set about preparing for my first audiobook recording. An Imam called to run through how I should pronounce “Allah” (more guttural, with the emphasis on the second syllable) and various other Arabic words. He wanted me, he said, to listen to David Suchet’s audiobook of the New International Version of the Bible. I should sound just like that (posh English, not Poirot).

Thus it was that after seemingly endless days of covering Jeremy Corbyn’s problems with Israel and Jews, I would sit down and record Quranic verses long into the night. And someone said that we Jews don’t get irony!

Of course, I made sure to check who I was recording the work for. “What if he’s an extremist?” a Muslim friend had asked me when I told him the new translation had been done by a Nottingham Imam.

A quick online search for Dr Musharraf Hussain revealed he had been awarded the OBE for ‘services to Community Relations’ and that he had even visited Yad Vashem in Israel, declaring it part of an effort to “advance peace and coexistence in the Holy Land of Muslims and Jews and Christians.” And now he’d hired a Jew to read his Quran translation. Seemed kosher to me.

Determined to repay his trust in me, I worked hard on the project. I dedicated many hours to reading, recording and re-recording. I even had a Whatsapp chat on the go with the Imam’s son, where I would report any typos I found in the text and he would send me voice notes of how to pronounce words and names in Arabic, from Mecca, Maryam, Ishaq and Yaqub to Haj, Umrah, Kaaba and the names of all the Surahs.

The feedback I received was good. With the project complete, I sat back and waited for publication date so I could proudly send copies to friends and family. But just a month or so later I discovered the entire project was being redone by another voice artist after the job had been re-advertised.

Meeting a friend for a drink I shared my disappointment, recounting the entire story of how I’d nearly become the voice of the Quran. His look of polite patience as I spoke changed dramatically when I mentioned the Imam’s name. My friend, an expert in counter-extremism who works closely with the government, rushed off to send me some extra information I hadn’t previously seen.

Now, as William Shawcross’ long-awaited review of the Prevent programme is published, Dr Musharraf Hussain’s name has been included as one of several “problematic figures” who may have spread Islamic extremism whilst receiving taxpayer funds – a claim that Hussain denies.

Despite the encouraging signs I’d seen in my original research on him, two years later in 2021 Dr Hussain said in an interview with the BBC that he felt “positive” about the fall of Kabul because it was “an amazing opportunity for the Taliban to show they can bring positive and good change.”

By 2021 he was also writing about Israel as a “settler-colonial state” which “seeks to push back its still undeclared borders to take as much Palestinian land, with as few Palestinians living on it, as possible,” suggesting that “Israel’s targets are civilians as well as the so-called ‘terrorists’ of the legitimate resistance groups.” So much for advancing peace and coexistence in the holy land.

I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t my voice work that was wrong, but that someone had finally Googled my name and thought twice about having my voice presenting Islam’s holy book to a worldwide audience because of my background and public profile. I’m pretty easy to find online and my coverage of Jewish topics and Israel speaks for itself.

I’ll never know, because my questions to the Imam’s son all went unanswered. But I did learn that sometimes you have to dig a bit deeper when making your own evaluation of people’s positions on difficult subjects, including extremism. It seems this week that the government, too, might be learning that lesson.

February 08, 2023 20:45

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