Research is a terrible habit. Once you have looked at the world from a researcher’s lens, you cannot help but process the information you come across via the prism of your research. So, when I realised, in the wake of the Paris attacks in November last year, that my social media was more populated than ever by stories of anti-Muslim hatred, I couldn’t help but start bookmarking anything and everything related to Islamophobia.
It started off as a folder called ‘Islamophobia’, then had to have subfolders for UK and US-specific incidents, with everything else remaining in the general folder. Over a course of just eight weeks, I had collected a total of 62 links, averaging more than one unique link per day – these were individual incidents as well as stories on Islamophobic policies, or what IHRC, in their recently launched report, called an ‘environment of hate’. After two months, this is what my bookmarks looked like:
The entire exercise got me thinking about Muslims in the current age. Going into 2016, what’s it like being Muslim in a Western society? I guess we could start from an international perspective. Our clothing and our ideas continue to be policed in France, so much so that you cannot enter school grounds to pick up your child if you are wearing a hijab. Our homes, mosques and businesses are raided in the interest of public safety. In Italy we have been driven underground because of a lack of space to practice our faith in public. In Germany, far-right movement Pegida is on the rise and we fear the backlash on Muslims from sexual assaults in Cologne which were allegedly carried out by ‘North African/Arab’ refugees. In Australia, we reportedly face racism that is three times greater than the national average.
The US, of course, is a whole other story. Demands for us to carry ID cards and be banned from entering the country are now so mainstream that a presidential candidate can make them publicly and only improve his standing in the polls. Public calls for our genocide are made without repercussion, and even being a court judge or a Congressman won’t guarantee protection from death threats. We are thrown out of shopping malls and off flights for which we are paying customers, for no reason other than racist paranoia. Our children are terrorised and face the risk of arrest even if they should so much as dare to build a clock for a science project. We are spied on in universities and entrapped by the people responsible for our protection. This list of Islamophobic incidents post-Paris attacks, including a taxi driver shot after being quizzed about ISIS, only begins to scratch the surface. Not only Muslims, but even those mildly resembling Muslims – a clever Sikh kid, non-Muslim women in ‘hijabs’ both accidental and deliberate, and Brazilians mistaken for Middle-Eastern – have all faced anti-Muslim sentiment.
Sometimes we look across the pond and say to ourselves in the UK: ‘phew, at least things aren’t that bad for us over here’. Of course, that’s only when we overlook the fact that our children are placed under suspicion purely for the crime of being Muslim, from as young as two years old. We are physically attacked and spat at on public transport, whilst all the while having racist abuse hurled at us – unless we’re lucky, in which case we just get asked to leave for the heinous crime of switching off our tablet. Getting thrown off buses or flights no longer comes as a surprise. We are rejected by patients in our care, the expression of our faith is obstructed by universities, and we might as well be accused of boiling the Easter bunny – after making it halal, of course. Our mosques are defiled again and again, and then we are told we should just make them invisible in order to avoid making English people uncomfortable. Our immigrant status is exploited to turn us against our own community. And even a mayoral candidate for London or a favourite to win the Great British Bake-off is not safe from Islamophobic hate – regardless of any attempts to throw Muslims under the bus or appear ‘well-integrated‘. In fact, Nadiya Hussain’s case demonstrates how being a Muslim woman is particularly bad news. It means having the spiritual meaning of our clothing dictated to us, and our acceptance being contingent upon conformity with Western capitalist ideals of fashion. For Muslim mums, it means not only being expected to keep a better eye on our children but also being told to learn English so that we can report their activities more efficiently to the authorities – that’s if we’re allowed to stay here at all. And to top it off, it means living in fear and facing the risk of hate-based violence on a daily basis.
And what impact has this environment had on the Muslim community at large, especially in the UK? To add insult to injury, we are constantly having impossible burdens placed upon us – not only are we told we must root out the radicals in our midst (because seemingly every Muslim closet has hiding within it either an actual or potential terrorist), but also that we must be sure to report all anti-Muslim incidents, so that policymakers can take Islamophobia seriously. We must integrate. We must reform. We must wear a poppy. We must shake hands with the opposite sex. If we want to change the system we must engage with the system. If we are under-represented in media or politics, it is our own fault for not engaging, rather than any possible discrimination against us. If we are misrepresented in the media, it is our own fault for not knowing how to make complaints to the relevant bodies. If poverty or access to education in Muslim-populated areas is being neglected, it is our own fault for not lobbying our politicians to bring the issues to their attention. If the Tories got elected, it is our own fault for not voting. But our organisations must not address politics in a way that may cause us to be labelled radical or extremist. We must engage the white majority at all costs, which means only speaking in terms which do not alienate, antagonise or cause them discomfort. We must bow our heads and accept our honours from the Queen. We must deny the effects of empire on our histories and our present, because we are British now and we should be grateful this country accepted us in the first place.
Even the most prominent academics continue to deny that Islamophobia is a form of racism, thus denying Muslims access to an anti-racism defence (coz Islam not race). If we make an organised effort to resist state-sponsored campaigns of mass suspicion, we are subjected to smear campaigns in the press. If we call Islamophobia a form of oppression, we are being disempowering. Perhaps worst of all, Islamophobia has corrupted our religious practice to the extent that it seems we are no longer capable of doing good for its own sake, or for God’s pleasure – every good deed has an ulterior motive. Every act of charity, every gesture of goodwill, every mosque open day, every interfaith encounter must be publicised and broadcast and used as an attempt to convince the world that we are not as bad as everyone thinks we are. That ‘us’ Muslims practising ‘The True Islam’ are really good people. That Islam is a religion of peace. (… I keep re-reading that last sentence and screaming inside my head.) And we will continue to condemn terrorism and disassociate ourselves from acts for which we bear absolutely no responsibility, just in case the world didn’t hear us the last ten million times.
Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? It truly is. And yet I constantly need to defend myself when I say it is not my responsibility to engage with the system. If I have been marginalised by those in power, it is their responsibility to engage with me – and with any Muslims who, unlike the Maajid Nawazes of the world, will tell the system not what it wants to hear but what it really, really needs to hear. Dismantling this system of oppression – this capitalist, white-supremacist, over-securitised, patriarchal system – is my choice. But this system is not of my making, so its dismantling is not my burden. We must continue to resist, to speak out, to agitate, and we must do it not as a fulfilment of responsibility but as an expression of our fundamental right to liberation. And that’s my resolution for 2016.
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Afroze Fatima Zaidi completed her MPhil at the Theology department of the University of Birmingham. For her academic research, she has sought a more holistic understanding of Islamophobia which goes beyond the popular scholarly and policy focus and looks critically at Islamophobia as a form of racism and oppression. She has blogged for the Huffington Post and Media Diversified on issues related to Islam and Muslims, and has been active within Birmingham’s local Muslim community. Afroze is also a winner of the Media Diversified #EightWomen Awards for 2014. Find her on Twitter @afrozefz
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam and commissioned and edited by Adefemi Adekunle. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.
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