This summer my son and I spent a few days in the house of a friend of mine from university days, a friend from a very different background, but a very good friend, very intelligent and very funny, who has always treated me with respect and a great deal of generosity. It was wonderful to see him. The problem was his girlfriend. (Now ex-girlfriend, so I dare write this without jeopardising the friendship).
The first thing she said to my eight-year-old son, after “hello,” was, “Do you feel uncomfortable because I’m not all covered up?” Some minutes later at the dinner table she squeezed her eyes at him and then me, and asked, “What nationality are you?” I should stress here that I’m a native speaker of English, and that my son, although he’s never lived in Britain, has inherited my proper British accent. By now it was apparent that there was an obsessional block in this woman’s head.
A little later my friend (as he does) said something silly about gay people. The girlfriend cast worried glances at me, then my son, and said in the childish tone some people adopt when instructing children, “I think gay people are great!” These educative comments continued, quite irrelevantly. The most absurd, aimed meaningfully at my little boy, was “I really enjoy getting drunk sometimes!” Normally I would argue back, but I was in the very uncomfortable position of being a guest in my friend’s house. Anyway, my son was grown-up enough to understand that this strange woman had a strange agenda.
By the end of the meal she told me, “I think you should bring your daughter next time. It would be fairer.” I had actually offered to bring my daughter to London, but she preferred to go straight to our destination in Scotland with her mother. And she’s only five, so long walks around London would not have been practical.
Later still the girlfriend asked, out of the blue, “Do you have to pray eight times a day?”
This is a woman who achieved a first class degree at Oxford.
Next morning at breakfast the talk was of the alleged car bombs discovered in central London (apparently containing explosives and nails but no detonators). I said the way terrorism works is by causing disproportionate fear, so I was more scared that my son would be hurt by a bomb as we walked through London that day than by a car, although logically I knew he was more likely to be hit by a car. “What?” she exploded (her detonator was well attached). “How can you possibly say it’s disproportionate?” A few moments later she was shouting at me. At this point I felt I had to defend myself, so I said my Arab-Islamic background appeared to be provoking her to false assumptions. “Well,” she said. “You haven’t cleared away your dishes. It’s obvious your wife does all the work.”
And there we have it. From her comments we can piece together quite easily what was going through her mind: this Arab Muslim, or more specifically his still malleable son, needs to be educated on the following points: covered women, homosexuality, alcohol, favouritism of sons over daughters, terrorism, the domestic drudgery enforced on women. At no point did she bother asking me what I thought about any of these issues, or what the people thought in the various Muslim countries I’ve lived in. She believed she already knew.
I don’t have a problem with someone initiating a discussion on any contentious Arab or Muslim issue, so long as they genuinely want to listen to what I say. Curiosity is a good thing. I often stop people in the street, especially in London, and ask them what language they’re speaking, where they’re from. I’ve never offended anyone because it’s clear that I’m really interested, and because if I discover differences of perspective or tradition I consider these differences to be enriching (a very traditional Muslim position this, not trendy multiculturalism. The Prophet said, “al-ikhtilaf rahmeh,” meaning “Difference of opinion is a blessing.”)
Problems arise when your interlocutor is motivated not by curiosity but by the certainty of prejudice. My friend’s ex-girlfriend didn’t need to ask my position on women’s rights because she already knows what people like me think of women’s rights. Whatever I said about bombs in London was irrelevant; she knew what murderousness was in my mind.
And when people immediately jump to, and return to, the same Daily Mail – Fox News – Ayaan Hirsi Ali Islamophobic buttons, you begin to wonder what the point is in having a conversation. On the last day of our meditation retreat (see previous posting), when we were allowed to talk, a man opened a conversation with my wife with the words: “The Qur’an says Muslim men are allowed to hit their wives.” I don’t think the man meant to hurt, but there we are, there’s the climate. Muslims in contact with Westerners now face this all the time, whatever their level of education or commitment to their religion. I don’t think that people of Hindu background are immediately asked to justify widow-burning or the caste system. Most Westerners aren’t even aware of a connection between Hinduism and the caste system, and if they’re educated enough to know about it, they also know that religious Hindus like Ghandi campaigned against it. If someone is wearing a cross you don’t immediately express outrage at Saint Paul’s order to burn witches, or the Biblical prohibition of men lying with men.
I recognise this Islamophobic racism because I’ve met it so often. Recently an Australian resident in Oman had a rant at me. “What you Muslims have to realise,” he screamed, “is that killing Muslims who convert to other religions just isn’t on!” I tried to explain that I have no desire to kill anyone for converting to anything, but he literally couldn’t hear me. He knew, much better than I did, that I hated ex-Muslims, women, gays, Jews, Christians, the West. “But I’m from the West!” I spluttered. To no avail. He didn’t listen, and he felt he didn’t need to.
A few days ago a white man arrived at Regent’s Park Mosque, the most important mosque in Britain, and asked to speak to an imam. An attendant took him to the imam and hurried off to bring tea and biscuits, at which point the white man started beating the imam about the head, and then stuck his fingers deep into the imam’s eyes. The imam is now in a critical state in hospital.
When a Muslim writer condemned the attack on the Guardian’s ‘comment is free’ site, tens of readers posted words to the effect of ‘what do you expect, terrorist? If you’d contributed anything but bombs to the world you wouldn’t be attacked!’
Bombs detonated by Wahabi nihilists have killed far more people in Muslim countries than in the West – in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria and elsewhere. When their bombs explode in London or Madrid Muslims are double victims, because they are killed and maimed by the bombs like any other passer-by, and because the hatred of the natives towards them intensifies and becomes more widespread with each attack or alleged plot.
Two of the four bombs which exploded in London on the 7th July 2005 were placed in heavily Muslim areas of the city – Edgware Road, the centre of the Arab community, and Aldgate, the centre of the Bengali community.
This summer’s bomb scares in London and Glasgow led to an immediate upsurge in violence against British Muslims, including firebombings of mosques and a car-ramming of a Muslim-owned shop in Glasgow.
Immediately after September 11th a taboo was imposed in the United States on asking why the attacks happened. At school in Britain I was encouraged to ask why Naziism took over Germany. No-one accused the history teacher of being a Nazi. But in the US after 9/11, linking the attacks to American foreign policy was tantamount to justifying terrorism. For a while there was more space for debate in Britain, but the climate is changing. For many, the question is no longer ‘why are we violently involved in the Muslim world?’, but ‘what is wrong with Islam?’
There is a connection between the Islamophobia of my friend’s ex-girlfriend and violent attacks on British Muslims, in that both arise from essentialising assumptions of Muslims being ‘all the same,’ and of all Muslim violence arising outside of any context, simply because Muslims are violent. Politicians (like Jack Straw, see my posting Hijab/Niqab/Blab at http://qunfuz.blogspot.com/2006_10_01_archive.html ) and the media bear a lot of responsibility for this. The media talks about ‘Islamic terror,’ but doesn’t describe Zionist attacks motivated by belief in the apartheid Jewish state as ‘Jewish terror.’ It doesn’t talk about the ‘Christian Crusade in Iraq,’ although many supporters of the invasion in America think of it in these terms. More fundamentally, in the absence of coherent oppositional politics (in both the West and the Muslim world) it has been easy for our rulers to shift the debate in essentialist directions. Forget about power and money, bombs are exploding in Baghdad, Jenin, and London because the Muslims are evil, or the Shia, or the Crusaders, or the Jews. So we all hurtle, blaming each other, to the abyss. The rulers hunker down in their gated communities while the proles fight outside.
In a later posting I will ignore taboos and ask why a tiny minority of British Muslims are attracted to al-Qa’ida ideology, and why they might even seek to kill their fellow citizens.