SHAFAQNA – I have despaired at much of what I have seen and heard over the past 15 years. There was a time when people asked me quite frequently whether I was pro al-Qaida; whether I thought the 9/11 attacks and the 7/7 bombings were a good thing. I thought it was a bit offensive to ask that, but I was only in my early 20s and I reasoned that at least they were asking rather than assuming I was sympathetic to hateful ideology.
Time moves on, however, and no one ever asked me if I thought the butchering of Lee Rigby was good or what I thought of Charlie Hebdo, or Boko Haram or the atrocities of Islamic State across the world. I suppose that’s progress, but it doesn’t feel like progress in the grand scheme of things.
How do I … respond when I see racial abuse in public?
The fact is that over the past few years, I have felt increasingly ill at ease. This is what it’s like each time I hear of yet another atrocity. First, there is always horror, and a hope – a fervent hope – that the perpetrators do not consider themselves Muslim. Then I detest myself for hoping that, but I know if they do claim to be Muslim, the backlash will be terrible. It frightens me.
Next, I feel I have a duty to distance Islam from the acts of supposed Muslims. I resent feeling I have to do so; to “out” my faith as non-violent. I am tired of defending my belief system and myself. I have committed no crimes.
And though I am awed at the outpouring of grief – at the solidarity with those whose safety and way of life has been so cruelly violated – I wonder why we rarely see similar outpourings when atrocities are conducted in non-western countries. I become angry, but then I worry that this anger, while understandable and valid, is dangerous and divisive. I worry about the impact on me.
Since the Paris attacks I have been more frightened than ever. There has been a 300% increase in reported Islamophobic attacks. A number of Islamic centres, including the Finsbury Park mosque, have been targeted in arson attacks. This is against a backdrop of videos of verbal and physical Islamophobic attacks on public transport – and it is notable that, while people are happy to film these incidents, few appear keen to step in and assist.
And last week’s headline in the Sun, that one in five British Muslims have “sympathy for jihadis” – a fearmongering distortion based on questionable research – has done nothing to make Muslims feel safe or supported. It is certainly not the case that everyone is out to attack us, but we cannot be blamed for feeling frightened.
I’m a Muslim female of small stature. I use public transport to get everywhere. I often come home late. I wear the hijab. I am an easy target. But I have never, aside from one incident where a man called me “fucking scum” and then left me alone, had any trouble. I mean, I think a boy on the bus called me “clothhead” circa 1999, but we can hardly count that.
In fact, sometimes I am amazed that I have never had a torrent of abuse thrown at me or been beaten up – yet.
Because this run of good luck can’t last for ever, can it? One day it simply has to run out. People who look like me and speak like me are being given hell every day and I am not. And what if, one day, it is me? I doubt a full and frank theological discussion will dissuade my abuser. What am I going to say – “Actually, I’m a liberal, secular Shia, and Isis hate me probably more than they hate you, so let’s be friends”? Hardly. And I’m not the sort to inflame a situation by hurling insults back, so I’d have to sit there and take it.
It feels terrible to write those words. And if, one day, it becomes more threatening than that, I don’t have the physical strength to fight off anyone who assaults me. And if I ran I wouldn’t get very far. I’d have no chance.
I have never in my life been as aware of my Muslimness as I am now. I have never been fearful. I have lived in Britain all my life and it is my home and I love it, but now I am frightened of things that only a short time ago would have caused me no discomfort at all.
I roam around London, my home city, in a constant state of high alert; hyper-aware of a look or a person walking behind me. I have been wearing the hijab for 20 years and it has never hindered me. But in the past few days I have, for the first time, had fleeting thoughts about taking it off. I have no intention of doing it, but that’s what things have come to. My visibility puts me at risk, and a small part of me thinks that the only way to survive is to deny that I’m Muslim.
In almost 10 years of working in mental health, with often violent, dangerous, desperately unwell people, I have never had any trouble because of my faith. But now I am waiting for the day a patient refuses to work with me, or does worse, because I am Muslim.
Some time ago an old friend said to me: “It won’t always be Muslims who are the enemy. One day it will be someone else. One day it will be different and it will be easier.”
At the time I nodded along. But now I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that it will get better; that there will be a day when people like me are not the enemy. Why should I? Look at the state we’re in. Look at the government’s anti-terror strategy, which puts us all under suspicion. Look at the continued conflict in the Middle East.
So is this how it is to be? Discredited by the media and politicians; being told my way of life is “dangerous”; being thrown off planes as a “security measure”; being told that people like me are not wanted?
My family came here because their lives were threatened in their own land; where am I supposed to go? How am I supposed to live like that? How are any of us supposed to live like that?
You cannot fully understand unless it is your reality too. You cannot understand the helplessness and the rage I feel when I hear my bright, sensitive, gentle 11-year-old nephew has had to deflect racist and Islamophobic comments from his ignorant schoolmates.
I am terrified for the world my sister’s children are going to have to live in; for all those at the mercy of people who spread hate and promote aggression. I wish that Isis were the only enemy in that regard. Sadly, Isis is simply the tip of the iceberg, which is showing no sign of shrinking.
By Masuma Rahim – The views expressed here are the author’s own.