Society, islamophobia and I

“Asian men beat up their wives and force them to cover up. Mummy says Asians are bad people.”
“Really?! Thank God I am not an Asian!”.

This is a conversation between two five year olds where the first child spreads word about dangerous Asian Muslims for the safety of the other child, who is incidentally her friend. The second child is horrified that such atrocities are taking place and feels a sudden surge of anger towards Asians for their callousness.

I was the second child.

I was so horrified about what I heard that an immediate protest was necessary. I was adamant that the authorities must find out who these Asians were and make them accountable for their actions. Admittedly, at the age of five years, the only authority I recognised was my mother’s and so to her I presented my case and sought justice. She heard what I had to say and her first (and perhaps appropriate) response was educating this simple child before her. That was the day I learned that I was an Asian.

In a single moment I went from being Abbie’s “friend” to being her “Asian Muslim friend” – all within the span of a sentence or two. In all fairness, the revelation that I was an Asian Muslim was also shocking to Abbie. It turned out ok though. Mother provided us with some curry and rice and all was well again.

Whilst I continued to meander through life and explored my identity as a Muslim, I discovered that a lot of people had a whole lot to say about a Muslim woman and what her existence should entail. The voices disproportionately belonged to the male gender – both, in and out of the Muslim community.

Being a Muslim woman is not an easy task, especially if you are “visibly” a Muslim woman i.e. wearing the hijab. During sixth form and the first semester of my first degree, I decided that I wanted to wear a headscarf. Both my parents tried to talk me out of it as they felt I might experience a backlash. The Mothership, in her desperation, even tried the “it will ruin your hair” approach (we, the Khan’s are somewhat dramatic in our approach to life).

Nevertheless, it was not long before the hijab came off. A person’s decision to wear or not to wear any item of clothing should be their prerogative. My decision to take the hijab off was not based on a spiritual reflection or my journey as a Muslim. Rather, on a winter evening whilst walking from the J.B Priestly library to my car – a white man thought it funny to pull my headscarf off. As hilarious as it may have been for him and his friends, it made me question why someone felt bold enough to walk into my personal space and rip something off that was a part of me. I picked my scarf up, got into my car and went home.

The concept of identity is perhaps one of the most burdensome things I have tried to understand in recent times. Not only are constructs of identity determined by our perceptions, associations and experiences; they are also closely embedded in historical, political and anthropological frameworks.  Identity, unfortunately, is somewhat an essential disease of the human condition. Whilst it can give the security of being part of something bigger than oneself, it also provides the basis of othering communities and nations.

On the Equality and Diversity checklist I manage to score points for gender, race, disability and religion. Whilst any struggles I may have endured as a woman of colour with a disability have been supported and my causes championed, it’s the Muslimah (a Muslim woman) who feels isolated at times. I believe my feelings are a reflection of how we perceive these attributes as a society. I have never been challenged, mocked or belittled for the other aspects of my identity. A whole community of voices, rightly so, would rise to challenge that. However that is not the case when it comes to Islamic identity. In a true dystopian sense I found myself in a society that is compared to a letterbox, burglar and stereotyped as “traditionally submissive” by public servants. This made the headlines, led to 300%+ Islamophobic hate crime in a week and forgotten about by the next.

I have not experienced any significant backlash or direct Islamophobia. However, I wonder how much of that is related to my conscious decision to not talk about my faith. I avoid talking to the Muslim community about it in case I am not the right type of a Muslim. I also avoid talking about it to the non-Muslim community in case I am not the right type of Muslim for them, either.

Islamophobia has become brazen, amplified and accepted during my lifetime. Muslims will continue to feel isolated and outcasts of society so as long as political, institutional and social spheres continue to unapologetically let Islamophobic comments and actions slide. Silence in the face of human rights violations is not mere silence. It is the validation of the discriminatory act.

I have not come across any other religious group in my personal circle who has explicitly been asked to cite their position on fundamentalism. Prior to 9/11, it would seem absolutely bizarre to me if someone asked my views on terrorism or if I was a “moderate” Muslim. It has become a pathological norm to expect people to ask this question now. This is how much society has shifted. This is the impact of Islamophobia. We accept and internalise the narrative and that is what we pass on to our children. Unfortunately, the voices rising to support victims of Islamophobia have not been diverse. A progressive society cannot pick and choose the definition of solidarity and support and apply it in varying senses. In the words of my great friend, Priyam, single issue progressive is not progressive in the truest sense of the word.

The issues associated with Islamophobia are not distinct from racism, sexism, anti-Semitism or xenophobia – they are all constructs and modalities through which minorities are discriminated against. However, my concerns, specifically to this debate, are with the intersectional aspects of Islamophobia and its widespread social acceptance.

The media narrative has successfully juxtaposed Muslims against the West. The issue with the “us versus them” culture is that it forms a basis for prejudice and discrimination in society. The statistics regarding treatment of Muslims are damning – the highest unemployment rate, the highest likelihood of being restrained in prisons, worst health outcomes, highest proportion of society living in the most deprived local authority areas etc. You can peer into any public sector and find objective evidence of discrimination against Muslims be it education, justice system, employment or welfare.

I have reached the point in this piece where I must leave you, the reader, to question and reflect on all that has been said and all that remains to be said. However, my final and most important point is that the issue of Islamophobia is not an issue of the rights of a specific religious group. It is the issue of basic human rights, which are entrenched in international law, celebrated as fundamental pillars of a just society and applicable to all people regardless of class, colour, culture or creed.

And if we are not striving towards a just society – then what are we for?