SHAFAQNA -Â In Britain, young Muslims are made to feel that they are on the wrong side, forced to constantly explain and apologise for extremism in which they have no part.
AtÂ Eid prayers in a rainswept Aberdeen this month, the imam gave thanks to Allah Almighty for the blessings of life in Britain. We had successfully completed a month of fasting whileÂ Muslims in China were banned from observing RamadanÂ and in other parts of the world,Â many fasted through distressing circumstances of poverty and war. In the sports hall that was booked for the prayers, we listened to the imam in our rain-splattered best clothes before heading for our first morning coffee in a month and the candy floss on sale for the children.
Older, first-generation immigrants understood the logic of Britain being better and freer than â€œour own home countriesâ€. But the young who were born and grew up in Britain would say that it is hard work being a British Muslim.
On top of exam stress, friendship troubles and anxieties over body image, on top of the pressures experienced by other immigrant children and youngsters of colour, Muslims are required to be on alert, distancing themselves from extremism, apologising for the latest atrocity, explaining, defending, dodging, avoiding confrontations or even discussions. Before even being exposed to radicalisation, young Muslims are talked down to and told off. They are shoved under the microscope. Whatever the news item, whatever the issue, be it cultural practice or immigration rules, regardless of how religious they are or how much they practise, by simply being Muslim the youth are made to feel that they are on the wrong side.
It is a climate. It clings and pervades. We feel it, young and old. Holding our breath, afraid of what can happen next. Another terror attack? And then the aftermath, the repercussions, the revenge. Perhaps in the future, people will look back and talk about these years the way we now talk about the â€œcold war climateâ€? Perhaps in the future, they will laugh, as we cannot do now, about reports thatÂ link extremism with not shopping in M&S and not celebrating Christmas.
On the day following the Charlie Hebdo attack, my friendâ€™s 15-year-old daughter takes off her hijab. We are relieved. Her safety matters more than anything else. There will be those in her school and on the way to school who will hold her responsible for what happened in France. Or those who will belligerently want to question her faith, demanding answers and condemnations. Better not provoke them with a hijab or anything else. And this â€œbetter not provoke themâ€ wariness is part of the climate, part of the holding back when integration and oneness are urged as the cure.
The prime ministerâ€™s speech against extremist ideology might reassure religious Muslims, perhaps even the silent majority, that a peaceful, proper, official Islam will be upheld by the government, similar to the situation in many Muslim countries. But those who condemn the repressive situation in Muslim countries and feel strongly against the injustices in Palestine, Syria and Iraq, the articulate and the engaged, will lean towards the argument that it is politics and foreign policy rather than ideology which are the root causes of terrorism.
The causes and solutions can be hotly debated but it makes little difference to the daily life of Muslims. Until this climate eases, the day-to-day anxiety, the feeling of being tainted, of being tested, will still be the same. Ironically, it is liberal integrated Muslims who bear the brunt. On them lies the responsibility of explaining and apologising. If you live in the kind of ghetto where you never read the newspapers, never make friends with non-Muslims, never participate in sports, you can feel safe and oblivious. Start to engage and you will immediately realise just how careful you need to be. Young British Muslims are being watched. This is not paranoia. This is just how things are after 9/11 and 7/7.
In 2011,Â an article in the Guardian reported that under new anti-terror legislations, university staff would be expected to inform on Muslim students vulnerable to radicalisation. This immediately fired my imagination. Some university staff are Muslim. What if one of them, eager to fit in, eager to distance themselves from being Muslim, sets out to inform on those of her students who were â€œat riskâ€? The protagonist of my new novel, Natasha Hussein, interested me because she is flawed and ambivalent. Unlike her colleagues, who righteously resist these new anti-terror guidelines, she seizes on the opportunity to further her career and writes the required reports.
Ironically, it is Natashaâ€™s favourite student, Oz (real name Osama but he is ashamed to use it), who is arrested on suspicion of terrorism. When Natasha is asked by her supervisor to write a report on him afterwards, she reflects, â€œSo I would write that heÂ joked spoke about setting up a jihadist camp in the countryside.â€ My copy-editor thought that I intended the strike-through as a deletion of the word â€œjokedâ€ and corrected the sentence to read, â€œSo I would write that he spoke about setting up a jihadist campâ€ But the strike-though was deliberate on my part and I restored it. It was my intention to show that for Oz the distance between innocence and suspicion could be as small as a single word.
It is true that British Muslims are counting their blessings. But they are praying, too, for the safety of their young ones.
By Leila Aboulela – the views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect that of Shafaqna’s.