Shehryar Sheikh talks about his experiences at the hands of Islamophobia and terrorism, as well as the need for introspection and reform within the British Muslim community.


 

On the night of November 13, 2015, as murmurs of the Bataclan theatre attack in Paris had just begun to filter through to St Andrews, I was with some white British acquaintances. One of them didn’t know me and asked where I was from. Upon finding out I was Pakistani, he added that he hoped I was not from ‘that city with the stupid name.’ What? ‘Islamabad, it literally has Islam and bad in it, isn’t that ironic?’ Not particularly. A while later he quipped that it was ‘cute’ I was studying IR, since ‘you’re a terrorist.’ The all too familiar sinking feeling of being reduced to my colour, nationality and religion mixed with guilt and anxiety as terrorists massacred scores in the name of my faith. Suffice it to say it was a rather depressing night.

Islamophobia is a major problem in the UK. Huffpost reported that in 2013, 60% of young people surveyed felt that British Muslims were viewed negatively by society. Nearly every Muslim in this country has anecdotal experiences that feed our growing sense of insecurity. A relative of mine was cornered by a group of violent Islamophobic thugs in Glasgow, called a Paki, and told to go ‘home’. With each terrorist attack, I feel a growing sense of unease, as if we are reaching a tipping point in Europe, a point of no return. The fact that in 2010, the third largest party elected to the Dutch parliament had as part of its platform a plan to ban the Qur’an is terrifyingly indicative of the lurking rightwing fascism that threatens to ensnare us. ISIS (et al.) have guided our countries’ fingers to the ‘Kill’ button for diversity, inclusion and tolerance. Pressing it would be letting them win.

One of the major reasons I left Pakistan was because I was tired. Tired of the unending violence that had become my normal. When I was 14, the Taliban bombed Islamabad’s Marriott hotel, causing a shockwave to rip through my room. The next year they targeted the World Food Programme, leaving a crater by the traffic light my car stopped at on the way to school. A bomb exploded in the markaz (shopping area) down the road. My school received threats and eventually installed sniper towers. Even more frustratingly, my countrymen refined paranoid conspiracy theories and deflection into a veritable art form, blaming the ‘foreign hand’ for orchestrating the bombings. ‘These people can’t be Muslims, Muslims don’t kill or commit terrorism’ was the classic refrain. This sort of deflection actively aided the Taliban as the violence’s root causes went unaddressed. The uninformed, self-pitying hypocrisy was overwhelming. I needed to get out, and studied hard to get the sort of grades that convinced my parents to let me do just that.

Right before I did, I met a recent graduate from St Andrews in ‘Izlam-bad.’ In no uncertain terms did she tell me to avoid the Islamic society at all costs. ‘Yaar (mate), if it is deflection you are annoyed by, Isoc se bach kar rehna (stay away from Isoc). It’s not made for Pakistanis like you or I.’ I found her comment reeking of the typical elitist view that urban Pakistanis take of our primarily blue-collar diaspora in Britain, which makes up 40% of all Muslims in the UK.

In 3rd year, I went to an Isoc event and found the people exceedingly friendly and welcoming. A few weeks later, members of Goldsmith University’s Isoc aggressively interrupted ex-Muslim Maryam Namazie’s presentation, turning off her projector when she displayed a ‘blasphemous cartoon’, later posting a self-pitying status denouncing her and the university for ‘Islamophobia.’ To my disgust, someone on St Andrews’ Isoc committee had liked that status, implicitly condoning the attack on free speech. Ironically enough, St Andrews’ Isoc is probably one of the most liberal in the country. For comparison, look no further than City University London’s Isoc, which invited speakers who talked about killing homosexuals and apostates, or the fact that the former head of UCL’s Isoc went on to become the ‘Underwear bomber’ and tried to blow up a plane to Detroit. It was sobering to realise that the same sort of extremism and intellectual dishonesty I had tried to escape by leaving Pakistan existed to a great degree in the UK as well.

Let me be clear. I am no fan of Maryam Namazie. However, she has the right to freely express her anti-religious views, however offensive they may seem to me as a Muslim, because free speech is the bedrock of British society. I also feel that the vast majority of Isocs play an important role in allowing my religious community to peacefully organise on campus. That being said, a recent survey has shown that although British Muslims feel strongly attached to the UK, 52% felt homosexuality should be made illegal, 23% supported the introduction of Sharia to some extent and 31% condoned polygamy. These awkward statistics make me want to run and hide and equally I question the motivation of those who hold and then manipulate these polls. However, the results necessitate a conversation and critical self-assessment in the British Muslim community that by and large is not happening.

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The incident at Goldsmith did not occur in a vacuum. What British Muslims have fashioned for themselves is an aptly dubbed ‘narrative of grievance.’ There are apologists aplenty to feed this narrative. After every terrorist attack we have the usual naysayers deflect by pointing out that the terrorist drank or had a girlfriend and never went to the mosque. What? How can you say terrorism has nothing to do with Islam and then demand the terrorist’s Islamic credentials in the same breath?

I agree 100% that my Islam, the liberal, outward looking and inclusive faith I was raised in, does not condone terrorism. Clearly, however, there are various ways of understanding a text that is over 1,430 years old, and we need to address violent and literal interpretations that feed extremism. Alongside this, it is equally vital to deal with other factors such as poverty in some British Muslim communities, racism and issues around integration.

The kneejerk reaction that you find in generic and repetitive Facebook statuses that work around the lines of ‘Islam does not allow terrorism, this has nothing to do with my religion’ solves nothing. Muslims need to proactively engage with and challenge the puritanical Wahabist-Salafist interpretation of our religion that is becoming ever more vocal in Britain. This is a discussion that must be led by and occur within our own communities, and I believe Islam itself offers us a powerful weapon against Wahabism. The dual concepts of Ijma (consensus) and Ijtehad (reasoning) allow for the evolution of Islamic views with the times, and to use a particularly jarring example, were used by Saudi Arabia to validate the abolition of slavery in 1962.

Western Muslims in particular need to use Ijma and Ijtehad to discard regressive practices instead of trying to avoid discussing, or worse, justifying them. Islam at its inception was a fairly radical, modernising faith, and I believe that instead of deflecting and feeling sorry for ourselves, it’s time we recaptured that spirit and combated the terrorists’ interpretations verse by verse rather than turning our heads away, thereby implicitly enabling their interpretation.

The night of the Bataclan attack I realised that discrimination and Islamophobia were going to become a recurring feature of my life in Britain. Having been raised in a Muslim-majority country, I never saw my nationality and Islam as mutually exclusive, and I deeply sympathise with young Muslims in the UK who have to navigate that often problematic identity from birth. However, I refuse to let Islamophobia make me into an apologist, because I have seen the violent result of that hypocrisy firsthand. A modern interpretation of Islam and British values can and will co-exist to enrich this vibrant, multicultural, democratic society I love so much. But before that can happen, a frank and open conversation, together with a great deal of reform, need to occur.

British Muslims: it’s time to talk.

 

Shehryar Sheikh