By Sarah Khan, London, UK
Nowadays I often feel that I’m standing in a constantly moving pool of quicksand. There are clear seismic shifts in the ground upon which I stand and often they are caused by events entirely unconnected to me and they reverberate through my life as a direct result of my faith.
Take my wearing of the headscarf, known as a hijab, for example. I’ve made the choice to cover my hair in public for nearly twenty years. I began as a self-conscious teenager trying to find a balance between faith and fashion, wanting to look good and not stick out, a process modern teenagers still endure. After twenty years it has long since become a fundamental part of my life, so much so that it is no longer something I notice. I feel confident in my faith and my style, I have matured into my own image, as most women do. I have been enabled to develop undisturbed in peace by a society that accepted me as I am and as I chose to dress myself. I lived in the hustle and bustle of London, a city which welcomed me with open arms and accepted me as one of their own. Our multicultural metropolis did not require me to change, to be someone other than I am. For two decades I have lived, studied, shopped, commuted and worked here. The headscarf was never a barrier to anything I desired to do. Even in the wake of the atrocious acts of 9/11 and 7/7 I continued to carry on as before, mourning the loss of life and the maligning of a faith I love. But there was never personal attack or comment directed towards me, there was never even an inkling of a feeling that there was a link between such crimes and my law-abiding existence. Sadly, in 2016, this statement is no longer true.
Every time another bomb explodes in a Western nation, or where Western citizens are involved, the ground shifts again. I remain the same, my values and my dress code, I hesitate to go as far as calling it style, remain as they have been for so long. But as the ground shifts, so attitudes towards me change as I walk the streets of my beloved city. Now I am seen as a part of the problem. Despite all these Muslims committing acts of terror, I remain as I was. Where once my headscarf was merely a personal choice, now it has become a visible symbol that I belong to ‘them’, the terrorists and jihadists that live amongst us.
Now I am a figure of suspicion where before I was just another Londoner going about my daily business. This new era of me as a symbol of evil found in others and therefore deserving of mistrust has quickly taken firm root both in Government policy and public opinion. The Prevent Strategy which stretches through all branches of childcare from new-borns to undergraduates sends a shiver down the spine of every Muslim mother. No matter how much the Government half-heartedly claim otherwise, it is aimed specifically at Muslims, designed to catch us in the act of being radical or extreme. Every deed, action and word uttered by our children will be analysed and recorded if someone, probably someone with no knowledge of our faith, deems it to be suspicious. As a mother who has been working for 15 years in the education sector, knowing that children often say ridiculous and nonsensical things, this new added layer of observation is chilling. I send my children to school because I want them to function within wider society and learn how to interact with different people. The new role of teacher/child carer as spy makes Muslim parents feel isolated and targeted. It creates the spectre of ostracising and social exclusion where none existed before. I remain the same mother I was before Prevent, I hold the same values and morals, only now they are being scrutinised. This scrutiny exists within the media also.
On Thursday 24 March the Daily Mail, published an article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. This article was full of factual inaccuracies and glorified stereotypes but it’s danger was not in the essential falsehoods it spun, but rather in the fact that it was allowed to be published in a national newspaper at all.
Ms Alibhai-Brown speaks of ‘too many’ Muslim families who isolate their children and keep them ‘unfree’ in a free society. She paints a picture of university students unable to drink coffee in the canteen or banned from speaking alone to people on the telephone. My first reaction is to simply laugh at the immature cartoon depiction of adult Muslim students seemingly turning to Ms Alibhai-Brown as their saviour and advisor. Nowadays our phones are mobile and carried with us so unless these students have a family member as a personal bodyguard at university then presumably there are many hours in the day when they can use their phone without problem. I simply cannot reconcile a mobile phone being given to someone for hours a day and then monitored so closely in the home. Neither am I convinced by the tale of a child being slapped and thrown out of the family because he wanted to study art. It’s almost too clichéd to be true.
She claims that ‘it’s common’ for Muslim students to not be allowed to drink coffee in the canteen by their family. Really? Does she actually believe these absurdly ludicrous statements she’s making? Clearly Ms Alibhai-Brown has not seen a London university canteen recently and my question again is – if such students are given freedom and financial support to attend university is it likely that they would be stopped from drinking a coffee? Are Muslims commonly forbidden from Starbucks too? It’s clear from the article that Ms Alibhai-Brown knows she is on shaky ground because it’s full of contradictions. While the headline grabs the attention of the Islamaphobes and ignorant, she also points the finger of blame at the ‘permissive nature of Western society’ itself for forcing Muslims to isolate themselves. She goes on to say in the same article that although in 2004 ‘30% of Muslims refused to condemn atrocities completely’, nowadays that view is far less widespread. The article ends as a confused ramble trying to claw back some moral ground from such a blatantly inflammatory, divisive headline published hours after the tragic loss of life in Brussels.
As much as I would like to laugh, I know it would be more accurate to cry. I weep for the loss of life, of innocent blood shed for no purpose and with no justification. I cry for myself and for my children because I can see before my eyes further proof that, although I remain much as I have always been; a loving, caring mother and member of society, articles such as these widen the gulf between myself and those who do not know me. The stranger on the street does not know my character but they judge me by my clothing and articles such as this create false impression about me which I cannot address as I simply go about my business.
But most of all I weep for my faith because I know that the image of Islam will be further tarnished by such articles and atrocities and the truth of Islam is far from what the terrorists or Ms Alibhai-Brown assert. I know that the Quran tells Muslims to protect churches and synagogues, to serve neighbours regardless of faith, to protect the innocent, the poor and the needy. I know Islam abhors violence and that at the victory of Mecca the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) met his enemies of twenty years with forgiveness, a hand of reconciliation and a flag of peace. I’m glad to be a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, who have been in the UK for over 100 years, because we promote our mantra of ‘Love for All, Hatred for None’ in every corner of the earth. We came to the aid of recent flood victims, we work in partnership with local and national charities, we fundraise, we give food and friendship to our friends and neighbours. But these truths were glaringly missing from the shallow, inaccurate caricatures depicted in Ms Alibhai-Brown’s article.
So now every time I feel another seismic shift within the earth beneath my feet I call to mind the verse of the Quran ‘…let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice. Be always just, that is nearer to righteousness…’ (Chapter 5, verse 9). Because what such articles do not convey is that, like the wise man, I built my house upon a rock, the rock of my faith. And even if the sands shift around me, my faith remain firm in its principles of justice, kindness and truth.