‘So, how do you feel then? British or Palestinian or Muslim or whatever you call yourself? Hmm?”
Dr Faysal Mikdadi
What is it to be a Muslim in today’s Britain?
“Oh, it’s sad, very sad that the old adage has been confirmed for the umpteenth time: ‘What one Christian does is his own responsibility, what one Jew does reflects on all Jews’.”
Anne Frank’s remarkably astute youthful observation applies to today’s Muslims in a Western world that still resonates with Crusader attitudes to the infidels.
The quotation heading this piece was asked of me by a person very close to me. It was meant as a simple response to curiosity. Its effect on me was to remind me – yet again – that I did not fully belong. That I had to play the part of a visitor and respond to my host’s patronising and crassly insensitive enquiries. I felt my anger rising to a fury and – as always – repressed it. Sadly, the person asking the question is a lot less close to me as, fatigued by years of idiotic queries, I do not wish to tolerate any form of racist attitude, conscious or unconscious. Of course, that fairly understandable self preservation response from me created the chip on this little shoulder.
What is it that creates this antagonism and fear?
Events are not enough to explain the prejudice held about and against Muslims. Neither is history. In November 2003, Denis MacShane, a British senior politician, tells British Muslims to make a choice between the enlightened British way and the Muslim way of extremism. He does not ask British Jews to make a choice between the enlightened British way and the warlike way of the Jewish State. He does not ask British Catholics to make a choice between the enlightened British way or the irresponsible endless baby production regardless of ability to sustain way practised by those who vow blind obedience to the Pope’s Humanae Vitae Encyclical of 1969. MacShane apologised a few days later. The Pope still stands by his predecessor’s edict.
The London bombings have produced a long catalogue of demands for Muslims do condemn the criminal acts. When the IRA killed, we heard no clamours for Christian Catholics all over the world to condemn their acts. When Israelis kill we do not appear to hear any demands for Jews to express their disapproval. When Europe killed millions in a world war, there were no clauses in any settlement asking Christians to make it clear that they disapproved of killing. Why am I, as a Muslim, being asked to condemn a criminal act that has nothing to do with me or with my cultural or religious background. The act was a deplorable crime committed by men. We might as well start asking all men to atone for this behaviour (whilst presumably women do not have to as they were not party to the deplorable murder to innocents). This is a bizarre notion of collective responsibility that defies logic.
This is the first and most significant problem. Each and every act, way of life, attitude, feeling, political stance made by a Muslim is seen as emanating from his or her Islamic background. It is as if each and every Muslim is a replica of all other Muslims. Islam is made up of identical clones with one aim in mind: to achieve martyrdom at the earliest possible opportunity, to hate all things Western, to have contempt for Blair or Cameron and Bush or Obama, to maltreat women whenever possible, to wear silly clothes used primarily in pantomimes, to shoot innocent Pakistani Muslim girls for wanting an education, to speak in odd sounding tongues that Shakespeare would have cringed to hear and to talk incomprehensibly about things that are not considered nice at dinner tables.
Apart from the contempt for Blair and other politicians, I, born and brought up a Muslim, do not seek martyrdom, sadly, I do love all things Western, I am fairly normal with women (whatever that means), the silly clothes I wear always include a shirt, a suit and a tie, I speak English, French, a little Italian and much Arabic and, being quintessentially Renaissance Man, I make sense (except in matters political or about things which are chips on my shoulder, of course).
Having contempt for Blair can not possibly be construed as a purely Muslim characteristic. One of intelligence perhaps. Good education. Deep perception. Ability to see through spin. To understand fiction. To smell insincerity. But not of a particular faith.
But these attitudes are entrenched in many a sub conscious thought process in the Western world.
This is so much the case that I, having lived in Britain most of my life and having adopted a British way of life (my religious beliefs are as much my business as my neighbour’s are hers) I still have to put up with endless idiocies almost every day. In one week selected at random I kept a record of essentially Islamophobic statements.
“Merry Christmas – if your people can celebrate Christmas.”
“I am looking for a doctor in this waiting room but dare not say his name. It’s foreign.”
“Of course your people do not have the same respect for the sanctity of life.”
“But then you are used to wars where you come from, aren’t you?”
“Tell me, can a Muslim be a racist?”
“Is it true that Muslims have a strong sexual drive?”
“Can you speak about the suffering of the Jews at the Holocaust Memorial? Would the Muslims allow you?”
“Do you understand the purpose of prayer in the Christian faith?”
And the most precious of them all, another person, also very close to me, wondered about the Scottish origins of the name Mikdadi and was told that it was a Palestinian Muslim name. I would not like to quote her response for fear that extreme right wing Zionists might give her an award (which I think I should personally have for being a mad Muslim who talks to people of all races and of all religions and of all backgrounds – fancy that!). Yet another person now a lot less close to me. So, racism, my visible ethnicity, plus my refusal to tolerate, equal a mighty solitary existence. I can feel a formula coming on: R+Ve+Rt=Se.
And in answer to “can a Muslim be a racist?” I can but repeat the words of the Prophet Muhammad:
“All humankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab: also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”
So in answer to the question “can a Muslim be a racist?”: Yes. Just as can any human being of any faith, background, nationality, race…etc…
But the Prophet said:
“Learn that every Muslim is the brother of another Muslim, and that Muslims constitute one brotherhood.”
Yeah! Right! And Jesus said to turn the other cheek, to love one’s neighbour, to remain faithful to one’s spouse… Hmm!
Where does such venomous prejudice come from? There are many sources.
There is the age old European arrogance exemplified by the previous Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi telling the world on 26 September 2003 that Western civilisation was superior to Islam because it provided wealth and guaranteed respect for human rights. He conveniently forgot the Islamic Civilisation’s contribution to Western philosophy, medicine, science, mathematics, education, language, politics, poetry and a few others. Berlusconi apologised saying that his remarks were badly translated and out of context. Andrew Mitchel could say the same thing – except he lost his temper against a police officer in English. Ooops! Never mind, the Prime Minister expressed his full confidence in him. So he will be gone by next weekend.
There is also a tendency to put the spotlight on Muslims in any walk of life. It is as if their differences are anathema to the West. The previous French President has accepted the recommendation that all ostentatious religious symbols should be banned from French schools which include the head scarf, the Jewish yarmulkes and large crucifixes and steered this to law. At the beginning the news immediately gives this out as the French government proposing to ban Muslim girls from covering their heads with a scarf. Put aside the idiocy of a government that concerns itself with what people wear on their heads, why the singling out of Muslim girls? Why is the scarf such a major threat to a free society such as France allegedly has been since the not so glorious revolution of 1789?
The media help with this insidious control of knowledge. At this juncture in human affairs, such power exercised by prurient and unprincipled media happens to fit in rather neatly with the West’s attempt to replace communism with a new demon: Islam. The ontology of our culture is predicated on an innate human need to patronise victims. The Romans did it to the Christians, the Nazis did it to the Jews and the West is now doing it to Muslims.
The focus on Islam for the most trivial of reasons is itself a form of patronising and rather ignorant response to events. Imagine the following scenario: Henry the Eighth wanted to remarry. Pope allows him once. He wants to do it again. Pope says, “Enough!”. Henry flips. Leaves the Catholic Church, creates the Church of England, marries and has a merry old time – several times over. So, the Anglican Church is created because of one man’s lewd (and maybe loving) desires for lots of women. In 2003, a gay man in America is ordained as bishop. The Anglican Church goes into a major crisis. It is now on the verge of splitting. So the Anglican Church is about to disappear because of one man’s lewd (and maybe loving) desires for another man. Hmmm! A history of the Church of England that would be rightly judged to be wrong and innately offensive. But never mind Islam achieving a new schism because a little French girl wants to cover her head!
Both histories are testimonies to humanity’s innate stupidity and spiritual vacuity and not to anything noble about Islam or Christianity.
Talking about innate stupidity, there is also the deplorable state of many countries that wish to call themselves Muslim. Given that they are undemocratic, often violently dictatorial, corrupt, rich with little benefit for the ordinary citizen and given that many such countries harbour a deep suspicion of all things Western, there results an immediate implied enmity between the two sides – the Islamic tradition on the one hand and the Judeo-Christian one on the other. However, this in itself is a form of racism. Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was a Muslim one but Pinochet’s was never called a Christian Catholic one. Egypt’s Mubarak was a Muslim autocrat but Deng Xiaoping’s was never called a Taoist or Confucian one!
In other words, Muslims have not been particularly effective in the PR department. Their Western detractors have helped aplenty in pointing the finger regardless. It is as if the Crusaders’ wars are not quite finished. Maybe it was true that when British General Allenby marched into Jerusalem in 1917 he did mutter “Saladdin, eat your heart out!”. Did Rumsfield say something similar in Baghdad? Or did he just call out, “Let the oil of freedom flow boys.”?
Added to this is the current confusion amongst Islamic societies. The new world order requires societies to live in a materialist, free market, permissive society. Some of this is anathema to many Muslims. A Muslim academic friend of mine recently asked, “If I choose to live a Western way of life, do I also have to have Pop Idol, Lord of the Rings, the glorified violence of Rugby fields, alcohol, divorce, prurient press as part of the package? Is this a case of, ‘love me, love my filth’?”
Along with the rather incompetent Muslim PR goes the West’s inalienable tendency to stereotype Muslims in so many ways of which the above are only a few examples. Islam is at the centre of the news. Nine eleven was an act of barbarity committed by Muslims against innocent people. The thousands killed in Northern Ireland were killed by the Irish (never Christians). The thousands killed in Lebanon were killed by the Israeli Defense Forces (never Jews). We have even coined a new language to describe what nasty Muslims do: Islamicism, Islamic terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism to name but a few. In other words, we are back where we started: Oh, it’s sad, very sad that the old adage has been confirmed for the umpteenth time: ‘What one Christian does is his own responsibility, what one Muslim does reflects on all Muslims’.
Welcome to our brave new world where history repeats itself. And where the Muslims are the new Jews: convenient victims within a new demonology.
Is there a solution?
It all starts with education. Britain, and most of the Western world, offer religious education as part of the development opportunities of their children and young people. Even in the hands of the most liberal and well intentioned teachers, Islam is at the very best misrepresented and at worst execrated by the most stereotypical representations imaginable.
A simple visit to any religious education classroom in Britain would give the reader a clear idea of what is meant by misrepresentation or execration.
Muslims are not represented as varied human beings who speak Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi, Russian, Sanskrit, Urdu, Wolof to name but a few. They are not represented as men and women who, like everyone else in the world, love, hate, marry, divorce, have children, have grandchildren, quarrel and make up, laugh and cry, occasionally lie to avoid hurting each others’ feelings to give but very few examples. Muslims are not presented as citizens of other cultures who like poetry, fiction, the theatre and who enjoy celebrating various Eids and who enjoy fasting sometimes for religious reasons and at other times as one in the eye for Dr. Atkins. They are not shown as people who love the sound of the Holy Quran being recited (without, in some cases, many understanding much of what is being recited), who like to travel and see the world and marvel as its many wonders.
Muslims are invariably represented to children as a bizarre breed of people who are obsessed with their faith to the exclusion of all else. Who spend their whole life trying to avoid that which is prohibited (Is it not strange that Islam is represented as prohibiting all that is remotely enjoyable?). Who spend endless hours genuflecting seemingly aimlessly. Who blindly obey what their elders tell them and all wear white robes, pray theatrically, look like aliens from outer space, read the Quran invariably sitting on the floor and looking vacuous, eat very little but cook huge amounts to give away to any passer by, never buy houses because usury is forbidden, go on a pilgrimage where they do funny things and eat only meat from animals that they had previously treated deliberately badly.
Not only are the representations stereotypical and therefore erroneous, they are at times downright funny. I still wonder at the things that our children at school are told about Muslims. Being brought up a Muslim I do not recognise most of them. I wonder if this is because a Muslim in Morocco is different to a Muslim in Palestine who is, in turn different to a Muslim in Iraq and so on.
Islam as a way of life is identical for all genuinely practising Muslims. However, the stereotypical representation in our school’s religious education syllabus does not take into account that Islam today also contains each and every slightly different national characteristic of each believer, e.g. secular Muslims, Westernised Muslims, breakaway schisms from within the original Islam born in Arabia and many others.
To my knowledge, the Egyptian education system does not teach Christianity in the same way. I do not remember pictures of Christians sitting in serried ranks in churches, wearing bowler hats, holding on to black umbrellas, eating undercooked beef, drinking red wine occasionally interspersed with lukewarm bitter beer and cracking carry on jokes to make your side split (if you understood the Christian humour that is, of course), spending enormous amounts of emotional energy voting for a Pop Idol (and very little energy doing so for Parliament), and incessantly invoking the name of today’s deity Pendleton or Hoy or Ennis of the Church of England Olympic team and Cameron’s New Year’s Honours icons.
The net result is that our children in schools are already predisposed to regard Islam and its followers as something somewhat mystical, strange, rather odd. Something not dissimilar to those awful orientalist representations of the nineteenth century exemplified most of all in paintings where the Harem hinted at a well of sexual fantasies to balance the most repressed Victorian sexual hypocrisy. The difference is fascinating for the very reason that it is alien. Anything that is alien is interesting particularly within a society that prides itself on its rationalism, scientific dialectics and positivist humanism. Yet… Yet… A society that thrives on journalistic and media prurience raised to the status of a veritable spiritual movement.
These failings go back to the Crusades which expansionist wars masqueraded as religious quests, to Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt which conquest masqueraded as a major scientific approach to the study of the orient, to Britain’s Empire the sheer greed of which masqueraded as the intention of civilising the savage man and teaching him how to play fair (and some Cricket). And which today masquerades America’s commercial greed and racial supremacy as the liberation of a weakened and hungry Iraq from a dictator (but note not the liberation of the less weakened North Korea, Syria, China, Pakistan, Egypt, Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and probably most countries in the world from their dictatorships).
The West’s own failings, double standards, self-centredness and an inability to empathise with anything that is remotely ‘different’ are more to blame for this state of affairs. A major contributory failing is a strong and sophisticated cultural and political credo that encourages real and definable double standards. Recent events are the results of such failings. Failings which our education system prepares our children to accept without questioning.
The Iraqi people deserve to be free and prosperous in their homeland. The Palestinians do not. The Iraqi people must not possess any nasty weapons. Israel may. The Iraqi people must not languish in prison camps. Palestinians and Lebanese do not mind so much.
How long does the Western world really think that it can continue with its Blairite type hypocrisy and double standards without feeling a trifle guilty? Apparently, Presidents Bush and Obama hold Christian values dear. Iranians hold Islamic values dear. Apparently, President Bush started every National Security meeting with a prayer. Iranians start every cabinet meeting with a prayer. What makes it seem that what Bush does is right and what the Ayatollah does is not? Media representation. Self centred history. Sanctimonious superiority. Military might. Wealth. Fear.
Anne Frank made another astute comment:
“Britain and the rest of the world have discovered that burying your head in the sand doesn’t work, and now each of them… is having to pay a heavy price for its ostrich policy.”
History does repeat itself and Anne Frank was a Muslim too.
Britain now requires every school in the country to teach a subject called citizenship. The purpose of doing so is to inculcate in each child an understanding of democratic values, anti discriminatory tolerance, the British constitution (which most teachers can not teach since there isn’t a written one to produce a worksheet from), the parliamentary system, the way we vote and other matters civic.
When this was first proposed, I was so excited that I thought that I might volunteer to be retrained (I was trained as a teacher of English originally – strange thing for a Muslim but then as a colleague of mine once inspiringly said, “A pig may be born in a barn but that doesn’t make him a horse”. Oink! Oink! This pig bites).
I thought how wonderful it would be to teach children about the Holocaust and show them (and it is so easy to do) how idiotic it was that anyone, let alone a comic figure with a silly tooth brush moustache, could even remotely wish to hurt a people because of what they believed in. I could teach them the ‘never again’ principle. How wonderful it would be to show them how each and every human being is different and that different is good. How to respect diversity as the stuff of life. How to understand our history. How glorious and brave were the individuals who did so much to build the British Empire and yet how unChristian and inhuman the enterprise was. How wonderful it is to be free and to live in a democracy where we can make endless fun of Blair, even after we are shot of him, with no come back (mind you, reader, if Blair ruled Russia in the thirties and forties, we would still have made fun of him – can’t be helped: have you seen the outstretched hands, the palms joined together, the tremulous lips and have you heard the moved voice – the Churchillian determination. Oh! Mea Culpa Winston. Mea Culpa.) The most exciting prospect was the one for which I have always had a pathological passion: democracy. Teaching children and young people how to disagree, how to debate, how to stand up and express an opinion no matter who does not like it. How to listen to each other and try to reach a civilised consensus. How to respect the opinions of others no matter how seemingly misguided. How to get politically involved and engaged. I had dreams of school councils being created where debate and discussion would take place and decisions would be made. I thought of the endless hours I would spend as a teacher trying to calm frayed nerves and to discuss the essence of disagreements being lived within a real democracy where they are never personal.
So, back to the real world then.
The excitement died down fairly quickly. I inspected citizenship on behalf of OfSTED (please forgive me everyone, I was only obeying orders!). What larks! What fun! What nonsense! Most schools give it no lesson time. Most give it to the teacher whom they would have liked to lock up in the stock cupboard years ago but daren’t. Most schools think that they can cover it in assemblies where Iraq is mentioned and Ramadan is smiled at and children look as if contemplating that instant suicide would be better than listening to such bone crushingly, mind numbingly and excrement creatingly idiotic assemblies. Most schools assume that it can be covered vaguely in personal, social and health education and religious education.
There you have it. Religious education. Back where we started again. Islam as a representation of clones whom we should all tolerate and try to be nice to.
Islamophobia can be countered. There are clear measures that could be taken to ensure that irrational fear of Muslims is lessened.
Education: School has a contribution to make. The religious education syllabus should be rewritten to present Islam, Judaism and other religions as belonging to a system of faith believed in by other people whose essential humanity is no different to the students studying the subject. The syllabus should be transformed from a representational model whereby the student is put in the position of a voyeur watching what appears fascinatingly odd and different to a model where Muslims are presented within the context of their humanity and history. We should attempt to understand our common humanity within a larger and stronger context of diversity and difference. Strategies for doing this should include an understanding of other faiths best obtained by meeting persons living within that faith and not through a death by a thousand worksheets with pictures of minarets to colour in! Teachers themselves need to be taught to understand other faiths and the way that a system of belief has an impact on the way the believer lives.
Still within the context of education; we should be striving to inculcate a strong respect for democratic principles within our children and young people. We should create as many situations within the school as possible to allow for the exercise of democratic and informed debate and for making informed choices, e.g. school council, representative debates with senior staff, debating societies, activities put on entirely by students, listening skills enhancement and other related qualities that inculcate independence and intelligent choices. Schools find this very hard. It is almost as if the adults themselves are frightened of children being too independent. In many schools, students’ independence and insistence on democratic processes are seen as some kind of rudeness and a form of cockiness. There may be a case for ensuring that these democratic values are part and parcel of the school’s own adult world. At this stage there will be teachers all over Britain reading this whilst trying to stifle hysterical laughter as they think of idiotic senior managers too frightened to stop hugging their laptops, in offices with terrifying paper moats piled high against any challenge to their bureaucratic and pathetic power bases.
Democracy hurts. When people do not agree with your views it hurts. When others form a majority and tell you to shut up and comply with the majority view, it hurts. When a vote takes place and others do not vote the way that you do, it hurts. When you speak with passion and others smile and go their own sweet ways, it hurts. Democracy hurts.
But it is wonderful and can never be replaced. Honest. And if you don’t agree with my views, it is because you do not understand. Really.
But I will not be hurt.
Education is not all. Communities need to work together. Every community within the context of religion needs to work with other communities. I can not and will not sit back and think, “Ah, they are desecrating Jewish graves. Thank God it is not my community’s resting places”. But it is. When a Jewish grave is desecrated so is every other grave belonging to every other religion. We are a sea of faiths. Every unsavoury drop diffuses itself and pollutes the whole sea.
It is therefore imperative to work together across the religious and cultural divides. It is not easy for many reasons some to do with belief whilst others are to do with culture. As a Muslim I find it difficult to understand how a Christian could believe in the Trinity. It is anathema to me. Yet, for reasons that I do not fully understand, I feel so comfortable sitting in on a Catholic Church service. I am fully comfortable within a Jewish community but find it difficult to understand much of the Hindu traditions because they have been relatively remote in my life. I do not and will not equate Israel with Judaism. It has no more to do with what is honourable about the Jewish faith than does Saddam Hussein with what is honourable about the Muslim faith.
We do not need to share the belief systems. We do not need fully to understand each other’s beliefs. What we need to do is to share our common humanity, what is common in our beliefs and to respect each other’s democratic right to believe as our hearts and souls tell us to. Hence the importance of education in religious faiths, in democratic values and in the essential necessity of sharing our diversity.
Politics could also help. Would it not be wonderful if we stopped describing ourselves as a Christian state? We criticise Iran for being a theocratic Islamic republic. We watch Israel with some bemused suspicion for being a Jewish state. And we cheerfully have our head of state as our head of the church. Religion perhaps needs to become a personal matter anyhow. On the other hand, how wonderful it would be if Her Majesty were to declare herself not as the Defender of the Faith (ironically the Catholic one presumably, since the award of the title was made by the Pope) but the defender of all her citizens’ faiths. Then on Armistice Day we could pray in many tongues, and remember those who died for Britain many of whom were Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and other faiths.
Is there hope? Can we learn from old mistakes? Will ignoring these mistakes oblige us to relive horrors that we once declared would never happen again? Never again.
I am the eternal optimist. I am also a very simple optimist and fully subscribe to Edmund Burke’s uncomplicated dictum that ‘all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men [and women] to do nothing’.
And men and women are getting together more and more. Whether they are good or not depends on the education that they receive, on the democratic values that they live by and on their ability to appreciate differences as positive qualities.
How are they getting together more and more? Through doing business. The profit motive is a great democratiser. Through the Internet. Curiosity is a powerful equaliser. Through easy travel. Travel experience is a very effective leveller.
So, let’s get together in a free democratic world, free market economy, well educated citizens living a culturally diverse existence. And as Dame Julian of Norwich once so optimistically said, “Sin is behovely, but all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”.
Dr Faysal Mikdadi is Head of Education at Facilitate Global and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org