For the author Tawseef Khan and our own writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, challenging Islamophobia is sadly a fact of life – but it’s vital that problems aren’t ignored within their religion
You are a 14-year-old Muslim boy from Manchester, hormonal, straining at the leash, on the cusp of young adulthood. In your home, you – being male – have been much loved, perhaps a little spoiled.
Your parents, both solicitors, have effortlessly melded their Muslim and British selves. They took you to visit Father Christmas in the Arndale Centre every year, and waited patiently in the long queue, so you could get a present from the jolly, beardy chap. You sang in the school choir. Your mum always said: “There is nothing wrong with any of this, with singing carols, with Christmas dinners. There’s no harm to it at all.”
They are practising, not punitive Muslims, but you are becoming rebellious and vexed. It’s more than the usual teen aggro. It’s a proper spiritual crisis. You announce that you have become a pagan because you have been “angry with God” and deeply unhappy for a long time.
Shortly after this dramatic conversion, Al-Qaeda terrorists hijack four US planes and crash them into emblematic buildings in New York and Washington. The atrocity shatters and disorientates the novice pagan struggling to understand and define himself.
Twenty years on, Tawseef Khan has achieved that – with a thoughtful, exploratory, candid, passionate and thoroughly modern book on migration, identity, individuality, integration and faith, reflecting on what it means to be a member of the religion we both belong to.
The title, The Muslim Problem, indicates the societal context of his spiritual quest, which “unfurled in the shadow of a much larger political and religious one”, Khan tells me.
Millions of young Muslims grew up in the violently ruptured post-9/11 world. For all sides, this has been a time of war without any comprehensive purpose. The worst of conflicts in previous times at least had method, meaning, objectives, an end point. This one is inchoate and unending, and, arguably, more toxic.
Since the 9/11 attacks, and other savage extremist attacks, followers of Allah have been demonised in the West. As a result, some became – and some are still becoming – demonic enemies of UK, US and France, whose avenging wars have killed countless (and uncounted) Iraqi, Afghani, Pakistani, Libyan fighters and civilians, with the distinction not seeming to matter.
The Arab Spring came and turned into a hard, dark winter. Next month marks the 10th anniversary of the Syrian civil war, which began as an uprising against a brutal Assad dictatorship only to be hijacked by the murderous extremist cult of Isis, one that groomed British teenagers such as Shamima Begum and led to massacres across Europe that killed people of all faiths.
Later this year we will be marking 20 years since 9/11, when all the terrorists were Saudis. Saudi Arabian rulers have never been held to account for the atrocities, or their sinister ideological colonisation of the Muslim mind. Their state messianically pushes hard-line, hateful, joyless and castigatory Islam through the north and south, east and west but is still considered a favoured ally by the UK, US and other Western nations.
British Muslims, from the most integrated to the most alienated, have been marked, turned and scarred by these diabolical geopolitical games. With a Brexit spurred on by warnings of Turkish migrants now completed, and all our attention fully focused on the pandemic, the issue is not at the forefront of discussion for once. However, it will still be there when something like normal life resumes, and perhaps that makes the timing of this book by Khan – a specialist immigration solicitor – more important.
In 2018, I interviewed a Muslim family in Birmingham about their teenage daughter who had sunk into depression, and their seven-year-old son who felt ashamed of being a Muslim and wanted to change his name from Irfan to Ian.
“Bin Laden took away the peace in our lives,” the mother said to me in Urdu. “Nothing is as was before his men attacked America. I curse him. Will go to hell. We were happy before. My nephew became his follower.” Although they don’t know for sure what happened to him, he took his passport and they believe he went to a training camp in Afghanistan. “There will be no happiness for Muslims anywhere again,” she added.
Khan’s own family, once at ease with their dual identities, became anxious too. All of us did. What did it mean to be a Muslim in a non-Muslim society? What were our rights and responsibilities? Instead of just getting on with life, Muslims had and still have to continually prove their loyalties to the nation on the one hand, and to pass the test of true Muslimness on the other. Both sides have been judgemental and zealous.
As we talk, Khan, I sense, is pulled back to those chaotic, early years of the 21st century. His voice changes and words flow, as memories surface.
“I remember the internal chaos,” he says. “I became incredibly aware of racialised Islamophobia and reacted to everything, even friends who told certain jokes which were not really jokes.
“I was angry. I was sad. I took it out on myself. I blamed my community for creating the conditions for terrorism. ‘Why are we like this?’, I asked.”
As he matured, Khan grappled with other big questions, like “why, time and time again, politicians pit Muslims against the rest of British society to advance their aims”. He concluded that there is political capital in Islamophobia. There can be no doubt about that.
In the US, false Republican claims that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim and Donald Trump’s blatant anti-Muslim racism magnetised vast numbers of nativist, white, fanatically Christian voters. In the EU and UK, nationalist parties and individuals – centrist as well as extremist – cast Muslims as deadly enemies of Europe’s cultural and political integrity.
Today’s ‘respectable’ Tory party, which many of its opponents – including me – regard as essentially ‘Ukip Lite’, has learnt that denigrating Islam and Muslims brings cache and easy popularity.
As Khan writes: “Muslims provide our political class with a scapegoat for rising inequality, diverting public attention from austerity politics and neoliberal policies.
The system is evidently loaded against British Muslims. Research shows that in employment, housing, media coverage and public discourse, anti-Muslim discrimination is regularised and institutionalised.
Mo, a young Muslim lawyer I know, talks to me often about how these injustices fill him with furies. “I don’t tell anyone – I stay calm, very English-like. But I am thinking: why?
“The killers of Lee Rigby have become poster villains, but not the white man who murdered Jo Cox, the MP. They talk about his mental health and family background. It’s not right.
“Young Muslim extremists are banged up for years and a white teenage neo-Nazi who downloaded info on napalm, Molotov cocktails, AK47 assault rifles is given a 24-month community sentence. It makes me so mad.”
Makes me mad too. But looking through this single lens distorts more complex, and uncomfortable realities.
Racism is a blight in Britain and its victims come from all minority backgrounds. Yet black Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews appear to be more resilient and less destructive than we Muslims. Why is that? It is a question that hovers in the air, but is never tackled by Muslim activists.
There is another side to this pivotal, millennium story, a side that isn’t widely acknowledged or articulated.
Muslims around the world, enthusiastically and simplistically, circulate the Islamophobia narrative because it is about ‘them’ – outside oppressors. They rarely, if ever, examine the way families, communities, faith leaders and ideologues deny us our liberties and human needs and rights. It’s easily done. Anti-racists and feminists fall into that same habit of censuring the external enemy and disregarding the enemies within.
It is right for Zara Mohammed, who has just become the first ever female secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, to aim to “remove the stereotypes” about our faith, as she told i earlier this month – but Muslims must also not shy away from confronting genuine issues within our religion.
While we chat, I’m concerned that Khan might have fallen into this all-too-easy blame game. At times he sounds defensive and seems to be impugning mainstream society, media and leaders for all the tensions and problems suffered by British Muslim individuals and communities. So what a relief it is to discover that his views and analyses are anything but simple. They are rounded, evidenced, sophisticated, clear-sighted and honest.
Too many Muslims, he points out, reject the West “using exactly the same logic and rhetoric that Islamophobes levy at us”. That means intellectuals and activists like him “are battling on two fronts: community dogma as well as dehumanisation by the wider society.”
He is right. Freethinking Muslims, including the most successful in British politics, such as Baroness Warsi and Sadiq Khan, have to endure and survive these frontal attacks and back stabbings.
It doesn’t get easier. Today, the well-funded propaganda missions of the Saudi Wahhabis and increasingly, the Iranians too, control both Shia and Sunni Islam. Believers have become more rule-led, hidebound and stark than when I was growing up, and when Khan embarked on his journey of self-discovery.
Diversity, ecstatic communion with Allah, poetry and dialogue are not tolerated. The obscurantists need to be resisted, their ideologies firmly rejected. That isn’t happening. Instead, vocal Muslim spokespeople have simply adjusted to this new, backward norm, closed ranks, some because they believe revealing any fissures – theological or cultural – fuels Islamophobia. In truth, expediency and accommodation cause more anti-Muslim prejudice and hand power to religious and cultural authoritarians.
In some localities with clusters of Muslims originating from the same homelands, elders disallow free choice or interactions with “outsiders”, including other Muslims. Forced marriages, family oppression and abuse carry on and total obedience is enforced by families or religious figures.
Khan musters more sympathy for them than I can: “We fear loss – of ourselves, our cultures, our customs, our way of life… It is only normal that we cling to other symbols of the faith – things that will set us apart in the west – rather than the faith itself.”
Looking on the bright side, the author believes that whatever the existential worries, no big wall separates these citizens from their compatriots. He quotes respectable studies showing that Muslims across Europe and in the UK are integrating and do have “social and emotional connections to their adopted lands”.
As a journalist I find such studies problematic. I edited a report titled The Inner Lives of Troubled Young Muslims, published last November. It was researched and written by six Muslim women. Many of us found that, at first, interviewees gave what they believed were the “right” answers to our questions. It took some probing to get at what was really going on in their heads and lives.
Young Muslims who are lost, furious and wretched beyond reason, need hope. Although I find Khan overoptimistic, his book would touch them and, perhaps, lead them to a better place.
It is a guide on modern Muslim dilemmas and choices, showing that you can fulfil basic tenets without rejecting contemporary realities or suppressing personal desires. It is also a liberationist text, with daring assertions. And there’s this: “At the very outset of Islam, the duty begins for Muslims to use their critical faculties to engage with the world and enrich our spiritual practice”.
Khan is involved with LGBT Muslim charities and says that statistics show that attitudes are changing within the faith on this issue, too. “There is less conflict, openly gay people are accepted.”
In the first volume of his towering work, The Story of the Jews, the historian Simon Schama praises Maimonides the 12th-century Jewish thinker, doctor and philosopher from Córdoba, Andalusia, in Muslim Spain, who was much maligned and much revered for articulating a powerful truth: “It is not only possible to be both devout and rationally alert, but impossible to be truly devout unless the questioning intellect was working full time.”
Centuries on, Tawseef Khan, has reinforced that vital message. You can’t be a true Muslim without questioning what you are told, reflecting, and being the Muslim you want to be. This is radical in today’s world. And heroic.
‘The Muslim Problem: Why We’re Wrong About Islam and Why It Matters’ by Tawseef Khan is released on 4 March (£14.99, Atlantic Books).
‘The Inner Lives of Troubled Young Muslims’, edited by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, is available from British Muslims for Secular Democracy
These are the personal views of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
The full article can be found here:
The dilemmas facing British Muslims like us – from outside Islam and within (inews.co.uk)