Inspired by Reni Eddo Lodge and her best selling book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Mariya bint Rehan has decided to channel that same energy for conversations about religion
Content Note: discussion of Islamophobia and link to an Islamophobic YouTube video in this article.
I’m quite a talkative person, but there is one topic you’ll find me uncharacteristically silent on, if I dare utter it here, it is religion.
It was shortly after I began looking into Islam beyond what I had passively absorbed as a child that I made the realisation that religion was never going to be my preferred topic of discussion. I had hints of this before I had fully begun giving my faith any real thought. In situations where I was forced to show my hand, and admit to a religious belief or practice, responses would range from patronising head-tilts – as though I was literally talking about leprechauns and unicorns – to knee-jerk, defensive and often hostile retorts.
What I hadn’t bargained on was how pervasive this pendulum of public opinion, ranging from condescension to outright anger, swinging over puerility in the middle, was. And so, I’ve decided I will no longer be engaging in any form of religious discussion…
…Because it’s never a genuine conversation
I have heard every social, scientific and economic case for the promotion of alcohol. I also know the intimate drinking habits of a fair few people. And this is not because I have a strange obsession with gins and spirits, or because I spend my days Facebook stalking people I’m acquainted with, this is because I am subject to a barrage of word vomit whenever it becomes evident I don’t drink. Typical encounters often go along the lines of
Random person: “Are you joining us at the pub today?”
Me: “Erm, no, I’ve got a lot of work on”
Random person: “Come after!”
Me: “I don’t really drink so-“
Random but now annoying person: “Yeah but you know alcohol is an enabler don’t you? Studies show that red wine is actually good for your heart too. Doesn’t your Koran say its beneficial? I mean I only have one or two on the weekend, it’s just a bit of fun…”
And so this unsolicited soliloquy begins. I have once again fallen into the barely concealed rhetorical traps. The signs are always there – the narrowing of the eyes before the initial question, as though there is some suspicion I’m a ‘religious’ type, I look about the right shade of brown. And then the prepared, condescending diatribe, as though I hadn’t actually thought out my life choices for myself and need a good schooling in social ethics. As though being a passive subject to media hysterics regarding Islam makes you better informed on a way of life I’ve diligently studied.
BBC video – 7 Questions British Muslims Are Tired Of Hearing
These conversations are almost always instigated to provide a platform for someone else to spout of their own views, to validate their own sense of self and flatter their own ego by fashioning me into the role of parochial, superstitious half-wit. They are performative, designed to exhibit the speaker’s superior rationality, empiricism and demonstrate they are above the realms of faith and religious delusion.
Often they prove the opposite, and more than a few times I’ve found myself entertaining lengthy, tenuous hypothetical situations designed for an aimless ‘gotcha’ moment.
“So, like, what if you were in the desert and your GPS isn’t working, and your car broke down, and there’s no wifi and you have no other means of contact and all that you have left on you is a bottle of scotch – would you drink it then?”
These conversations are revealing in many ways, mostly they unearth a profound ignorance, but out of respect for the questioner, neither of us acknowledge the glaringly obvious fact that even if I managed to find myself lost in a desert, in the middle of North London, I still wouldn’t have any intoxicants on me. Although I hate to shatter any illusions, we don’t carry around a bag full of proscribed items ready for outlandish and surreal situations in which it becomes necessary to consume them. Just putting that out there.
My favourite is when they throw in ‘I don’t mind you practising what you want, as long as you don’t force it on me’, having already lectured me, and without a hint of irony. The amount of grace required to be tolerant of someone’s ignorance and myopia, while being made to feel your existence is being tolerated.
“At a time when where we are increasingly encouraged to give less thought towards others, and where we are facilitated to obsess over ourselves, my actions are interpreted as an act of combative assertion or a casting of judgement towards others rather than a personal commitment I had made, for myself, to my faith.”
See also – attempts to avoid shaking a man’s hand, having the temerity to take time out for private prayer. All are perceived at best, as exotic but misguided quirks, endured with tight lip smiles, and at worst attempts on my part to be controversial and difficult which provoke lengthy, passive aggressive ripostes. And I am never at any uncertainty as to what those around me think.
At a time when where we are increasingly encouraged to give less thought towards others, and where we are facilitated to obsess over ourselves, my actions are interpreted as an act of combative assertion or a casting of judgement towards others rather than a personal commitment I had made, for myself, to my faith. Most people seem to think that implicit in my actions is snide, self-righteous commentary on their own life choices, that now need defending.
…Because they’ve already made up their minds
The most bizarre example of this phenomenon is the number of times I have been forced into a completely one-sided conversation. For instance the time I had to explain to a personal trainer I would only uncover my hair during a workout when no men were present. To which she responded, that her children often come into her work out room. But that this was only innocent. They were only children. Children are ok. Why don’t you like children? Please don’t hurt the children.
Of course, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. At the time I stood totally agog, wondering how I’d been talked into a conversation where I was a supposed child hater, and whether there was any point in contributing to a conversation I was only present in symbolically, whether it was possible to tiptoe out of the room and leave them there with their own crazy ramblings.
And while there was no apparent malice in this ostensibly innocent exchange, or the countless others like it – how often I’m presumed to be on a personal mission to bring down Christmas for example, or the enduring belief that I’m offended by basically anything porcine related. It demonstrates how I am forced to play the role of a villain that is not of my own making. How on a micro scale, as an individual, I find myself losing a conversation someone else appears to be having with the spectre of a macro-scale Muslim villain that bears no resemblance to me, but the weight of which I am carrying on my shoulders. Constantly.
A cartoon by Giacomo Cardelli
…Because Islamophobia is the new black
While there is no doubt that all major forms of bigotry and racism have gone through a radical rebranding of late – hatred has had an IKEA, soft furnishing and tiki torch make over and now upholds a hipster aesthetic – there is no doubt anti-Muslim bigotry is in the Apple Inc. league of rebirth.
There is little doubt that there is a concerted effort to vilify and scapegoat Muslim communities here in the UK; the fact that major newspapers are able to fabricate whole, front page stories maligning Muslims without causing any uproar is indicative of how little our humanity is recognised today. The Tower Hamlets fostering case and Trojan Horse scandal being two of the most obvious examples – the threat of Islam is depicted as being in our very homes, schools and other public institutions.
The “Muslamic rayguns” rant (content note: Islamophobia)
The fruits of this constant media onslaught are most obviously laid bare in the now infamous ‘Muslamic rayguns’ rant. Despite our outspoken maverick having consumed what appears to be an inordinate amount of alcohol (it’s a great enabler you know) he embodies the most accurate reflection of the media’s anti-Muslim narrative; a white noise of threat so great and so pervasive that there is no need to articulate it. It’s obvious isn’t it – Muslims are bad and that. Although his references are rambling and incoherent – and the joke is they make no apparent sense – you are able to piece together every popular reference, find its root in every hyperbolic, inflammatory headline.
That’s because the debate concerning Islam that plays itself out in the media and other discursive contexts is actually designed to paint a vague, omnipresent threat in the mind of the receiver. It’s a colour by numbers style template on terror – we know that Muslims have a different world view to us, it’s all to do with the dark ages and medieval philosophy.
“This is dangerous… because media and public discourse feed into policy, culture and institutions. It leads to profiling of Muslims in schools and hospitals. It has resulted in larger numbers of Muslims being wrongly referred to Prevent, while right-wing extremism goes underreported”
There is no attempt to engage with our texts, our beliefs and our customs in any meaningful way.
This is dangerous, not only because it shuts me up and denies ‘Random but annoying person’ the opportunity to put his best anti-Muslim argument to use, but because media and public discourse feed into policy, culture and institutions. It leads to profiling of Muslims in schools and hospitals. It has resulted in larger numbers of Muslims being wrongly referred to Prevent, while right-wing extremism goes underreported. It means our Muslamic Rayguns friend who has obviously been failed by the education system, will try to find blame in a community that is equally at a disadvantage.
…Because we’ve learned to hate ourselves
As a Muslim I am in a unique position in which this reality is also mirrored in my own religious circles, as well as non-Muslim circles. Upon adopting the hijab, I was most frequently met with disdain from male relatives, despite the commonly held assumption from the outside world that it was one of these men that was behind my decision to cover. This got worse at some muslim gatherings where my mere presence in hijab was viewed as a literal attempt to remind everyone of their mortality. Aside from the few confused, adolescent months I spent as a dark-eyeliner wearing emo, this has never been my intention. And as I began adopting a more modest, less mainstream aesthetic in the rest of my dress choices, I was again treated like I was walking around proclaiming loudly that I could see dead people.
“Like many dominant ideologies, despite our best efforts, we often internalise narratives which place Muslims and Islam on a spectrum of ignorance and barbarism and secular, humanist thinking on the opposite end – as civil, rational and enlightened”
To a whole host of secular muslims, my mere presence as a visibly muslim women, before I even begin the task of opening my mouth, is irksome. There is a strange sense of guilt involved in this, as though my right to express myself religiously is done at the expense of members of my own community. This tension is amplified in situations where I’m exposed to muslims whose restless and agitated desire to express they are somehow more enlightened, modern, forward thinking than I, means they are physically moved by seeing me.
While the idea of native informants and uncle toms are not unique to marginalised communities, Islam’s highly racialised construction in public imagination means that we exist in a strange overlap between religious and racial prejudice. Like many dominant ideologies, despite our best efforts, we often internalise narratives which place Muslims and Islam on a spectrum of ignorance and barbarism and secular, humanist thinking on the opposite end – as civil, rational and enlightened.
This means for many Muslims, we are facing a double prejudice from both within and outside of our community. We are often too busy putting each other down in a vain attempt to curry favour or attain proximity to ‘whiteness’. (See: Sajid Javid.) That is not to say that religious debate should be stifled, but that perhaps debates regarding religion should be had through a more critical lens, rather than being rooted in orientalist notions of Islam.
This is why a healthy number or referrals to Prevent are made by fellow Muslims, the intracommunity tensions over what it means to be Muslim are exacerbated by a hostile external climate. One that situates terror, barbarism and violence in Muslimness itself. Which has us using terms like ‘moderate Muslim’, as though the term ‘Muslim’ needs to be qualified.
This is also why, to pick a seemingly more innocuous example, we have begun apologising for our religious beliefs. It is almost tempting to precursor any discussion regarding my faith with a goofy shrug and eyeroll – yeah, you know me, not one for night clubs! Implicit in these self-deprecating gestures is an acceptance that our beliefs are ripe for ridicule.
And so I’ve perfected my own polite, tight lipped smile when I see a conversation going in a certain direction, refusing to dip my toe in conversation. I artfully steer the direction onto safe terrain when I think we’re hitting rocky waters. And I’ve sometimes been known to offer tips and prompt people in their pro-alcohol tirades when I feel they’re lacking imagination, and in order to derail their trajectory. And this is because I don’t feel the need to qualify myself, or see someone else’s barely masked prejudice as a reflection on me and my life choices, and there is a liberation and sense of contentedness in that. It might also be because I’m hiding that my inner emo does actually want to bring down Christmas. Who knows.