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22 December 2015

My year in Islamophobia

From Donald Trump's comments to my own (truncated) interview with Richard Dawkins, this year I saw just how acceptable the casual denigration of Muslims has become. 

By Emad Ahmed

Many years ago, when I accidentally flicked the TV to Fox News, my dad pointed out the need to be aware of what’s being said by those you disagree with, no matter how objectionable those views can be. It’s been the most important lesson for me to remain as inquisitive as possible, and the reason why I (as a Muslim) pounced at the opportunity to interview the most outspoken atheist living today, Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins is in fact so outspoken about religion, particularly Islam, that I was genuinely stunned when he decided to angrily walk away from our scheduled interview after I confirmed my beliefs in the revelations of the Islamic faith, calling my views “pathetic”.

This is an area of great interest to him after all, and my friend Mehdi Hasan has made an excellent argument for the peaceful coexistence between science and faith, and distinguishing between evidence and proof. There is no evidence for the existence of parallel universes, for example, unless you’ve watched Jet Li kill multiple versions of himself in The One too many times. Yet I’m more than happy to sit down and have a sensible discussion with someone holding this view as well as those deemed completely intolerable. It’s just an opinion after all.

This unsavoury encounter got me thinking about the Islamophobia I’ve faced throughout the year like many Muslims, aided by the continuous stream of stories which leave me in a permanent state of facepalm.

It’s so alarmingly difficult to identify as a Muslim today. I’m having to prove my sensible existence in a world dominated by dramatic headlines and tweets. The Charlie Hebdo attacks proved this. The whole purpose of that silly magazine (which has made international headlines in the past) is simply to offend, a degree above satire. It’s why I was terrified when “sensible” public figures like Stephen Fry were urging their followers that it had somehow become everyone’s duty to offend. Of course everyone has the right to be offensive and annoying (within the limits of the law), but why bother? The response to those attacks was Islamophobia, pure and simple, fuelling exactly what Islamofascists across the globe love.

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It’s also an argument of complete false balance, because insulting Christianity and Judaism in the same way would never have been tolerated (nor should it). Fanatics of all faiths continue to terrorise and kill all over the world, whether it’s in the Middle East, the Christian Right in America or the torment suffered by the Rohingya people in Myanmar. It’s hard for Muslims to make these simple comments because we’re immediately seen as conflating this with being apologetic or sympathising with such atrocities. I’m not at all defending such violence merely as a human being, let alone a Muslim, but that won’t stop people thinking that I am. It’s the way the world works now. You have to keep doubling down on your own dribble and see how far you can go. Just look at Donald Trump.

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This is a multi-billionaire who is happily changing the debate in American (and subsequently, world) politics, pushing an-already far-right Republican Party further to the extremes, with breath-takingly racist and xenophobic rhetoric. It’s no wonder the man has become the de facto candidate for white supremacists, making it easier to make sense of the reality envisioned in Bioshock Infinite, a game where non-white folks like myself have been totally eradicated.

Another example surrounding the difficulty of addressing Islamophobia is the recent knife attack at Leytonstone underground station. The bystander’s shouting at the attacker claiming, “You ain’t no Muslim bruv” was an excellent demonstration of someone knowing that Muslims don’t follow a practice of stabbing random members of the public, making clear just how unwelcome he was.

However, I – and many of my friends and family members – were saddened by the fact that something like this needs to be said in our digital age, where people can dive deep and learn the true meaning of Islam and other religions so easily. But here comes the paradox: had the bystander not said anything, many people would have used the story as yet another reason for why Islam is “evil”, in a comment that would have been muttered by a Ukip councillor at some point.

These stories and remarks translate to experiences of subtle bouts of racism every day. The blasé comments about the Syrian migrant crisis I heard while travelling in Europe in December, for example, or silly things such as someone jumping in front of me in the queue. And it’s absurd for those who distinguish their hate of religion to completely separate the effect it has on race, especially given the fact most Muslims in the world are black and brown, with names sounding more exotic than “Emad Ahmed”.

David Cameron made this exact point in his recent party conference speech, that there is still a systemic form of racism in the job application process, where non-white sounding names are immediately deemed problematic. Despite this gesture, it comes from the same man who defended letters being sent to Muslim leaders after the Charlie Hebdo attack, asking for Muslims to cut out the terrorism, plz! Because history tells us, grouping people together in this way is not at all a form of bigotry and ignorance. And let’s not even start with Islamophobia in schools, where 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for having a clock in the classroom.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what a person’s religious identity is, and I personally couldn’t care less either, so long as we can all act as functional human beings and get along with zero problems. I guess this is my sad, low expectation of what I see in a utopian world. After all, why would anyone want to live a life for the sole purpose of being offensive and annoying, just because you can? Like most people on the planet, I think of religion as a source of spiritual comfort and calm, something science simply can’t offer.

It’s about being tolerant of others, because proving or disproving the existence of God is the most circular argument you can have with someone, especially when it’s ultimately just an opinion. And you don’t want to fall down the slippery slope of thinking your opinion is somehow better than someone else’s, especially when it comes to faith and not take a peek into history and the effects of imperialism and slavery.

There’s a reason why we have laws against discrimination, even if some (usually white) people suggest we’re in a “post-racial” society and there’s no need for positive discrimination. I was definitely thinking this when I kept my head down and going through airport security more than once for a 90-minute flight to Dundee.

Sayeeda Warsi is someone I completely disagree with, politically. But when she said Islamophobia had passed the dinner-table test a few years ago, I thought it was so profound because it meant someone had finally come out and admitted it was the norm, even if it did take Donald Trump to break the code and say it as bluntly as possible. But us Muslims are still awkwardly sat at the same table whilst a handful of hate figures are savouring the taste.