The Invisible Muslim, part 1



Victoria Park panorama, Lawrence Fredric White (Wiki Commons)

  Taking my kids to the V&A-designed playground at Victoria Park this morning, where toddlers in swim nappies braved the indecisive English weather to splash in a trickle of water pumped into a sandpit, I was sitting on a rock to watch my children climb the wooden castle when a girl of about one stumbled up to me, grabbing my knee to steady herself, and stared earnestly into my eyes.

  Her brother seemed embarrassed; smiling, he tried to coax her away, back to her pink Disney princess toy buggy, with the blonde haired, blue eyed, gormless-looking dolly sitting in it. He spoke to her in Arabic; both had tumbles of black hair, and a skin tone that I found hard to place on my Mental Map of Ethnicities: perhaps Sudanese? Or Southern Egyptians? 

  There was another sister, who wore a vivid purple satin dress with a flowered sash, unusually festive for the sandpit, where my son and his friends were exploding damp sand-balls off each other’s shoulders. She also seemed particularly excited, amazed even, at this place. At some point I realised that they did not speak enough English to talk to the others, only speaking Arabic to their mother (a pretty, round-faced woman in a brown hijab and jilbab, or long tunic coat) to to each other.

  Then I noticed that in the process of doing my best impression of an exasperated mother (why is it I can’t stop doing that impression sometimes?) I was yelling out the names of my kids and their friends – all of which were Arabic. I might have imagined that the mother’s ears pricked up, looking out for the Muslim-named children, but it seemed as though they did. 

  The peculiarity of the situation struck me. A couple of white, English-looking people, shouting Arabic names to their equally white, English-looking kids…without a means of communicating fluently with a Muslim family right beside us who probably would have been glad to have been able to communicate with someone there. Did the mother or the children think we’d just given our kids those names because they were fashionable that year? Beyoncé, Travis, Chantelle…Muhammad, Sakeena, Jamal…

  And did our kids understand that they had something in common with these other kids, playing alongside them silently, their wide eyes reading the playground and all the sandcastles and plastic watermills like a sort of field trip to England?

I started hunting for a pretext to practice some of my (rather limited) Arabic with the mother. Spoken Arabic is always the bugbear of classroom students – and me perusing a dictionary or bouncing grammar questions off my friends’ heads doesn’t even count as a classroom lesson. ‘As-salaamu ‘alaykum an…er…afham…‘Arabiyya…er…shuayya shuayya!’ Not the scintillating conversation I’d like to have, but I’ve started worse in other languages and still received warm responses. There is something about the language barrier that has always made me want to scale it.


Aerial shot of Victoria Park by Bald Boris (WIki Commons)

  But the family moved on before I got a chance to ask where they were from, if they were holidaying here, if they liked Victoria Park/London/all that smalltalk stuff, if they needed any help with translation, what their kids’ favourite games were…In any case, I wouldn’t have been able to ask all those things. 

  And who knows what their response would have been? Wondering why my friend and I weren’t wearing scarves? I’d avoided the SOAS Islamic Society like the plague for the first few years of my time there out of fear of being judged; when I was eventually lured by the smell of free iftars, in my fourth and final year, I noticed how many people there dressed like me: with the subtle veil of normalcy (well, relatively speaking). I had wanted to kick myself at prejudging the ISOC as being so judgmental. 

  How many beautiful connections had I missed out on because of my avoidance tactic? It is so hard to know how you will be taken, accepted, rejected, treated as a kindred spirit, scolded, looked after, criticised, hugged; but the years are proving to me that the worst of it happens very rarely, and the best of it happens more often than you realise. 

  Probably the greatest fear of randomly speaking to other Muslims is the unavoidable fact that I will never be one of them – at least, not in the sense of their homeland, their food, their customs. Language seems like one of the only ways, bettered only by praying in jam‘a, that I’ve really felt a part of a Muslim culture other than my own, English micro-culture. It’s a bit of a pathetic fear, though. I’d rather focus on this wonderful filament that connects us.

  Only a few days previously, I’d been in the exact same spot, being alternately drizzled on and sprayed with sand, when I’d seen a group of Bangladeshi women strolling their kids and buggies through the park, some hijab’ed, some nijab’ed. And the sight of one of them, dressed entirely in black with only her eyes showing, sent a shiver of fear through me.

  I have never had to wear a face veil, and always thought it would feel suffocating; but a new friend, met this summer, relates that growing up in the city of Medina, girls looked forward to being able to wear a niqab, as this was what grown-up women did. It was like owning your first pair of high heels – equally impractical, and yet so deeply ingrained into our understanding (in the West, at least) of womanhood that it feels like you’re hopelessly conservative if you don’t wear one!

  But, as I am beginning to see, there is so much I still fear about my own fellow Muslims. The papers must be getting to me.

P.S. A very funny new animated cartoon from Pakistan, Burka Avenger, takes the idea of this fear and turns it on its head; the term ‘ninja’ couldn’t be more apt!


This post is part of a forthcoming series of reflections, ‘The Invisible Muslim’.

And the Prize for the Narrowest Mind Goes To…

That great genius for inter-religious tolerance, Richard Dawkins, has finally come out and tweeted it: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”


Apart from the obvious steps that will surely ensue, the official banning of Islam in all European nations for being counter to human development, the jetting of all outlaw Muslims to the moon (while the far right complains that it was their tax money that built them the interstellar asylum centre), and the honouring of this day in history as Democracy Day, I have a few points I’d like to make to Signeur Dawkins.


Firstly, how much would he expect to have achieved if his nation was the colonised, rather than the colonising? (Repeat argument ad infinitum regarding various Muslim countries and various, in some cases nearly incessant, occupations).


Secondly, what kind of achievements was he hoping we’d make? The invention of the atom bomb? For all the ‘achievements’ of the non-Muslim world (and that is about as laughably reductive a label as ‘the Muslim world’ is), it has succeeded in destroying more of our natural resources in 100 years than in the entire history of humankind, with no sign of that rate slowing. Nice work.


Alfred Nobel, chilling.

Alfred Nobel, chilling.

Thirdly, what does a Nobel Prize actually constitute? Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and celebrated it by instigating drone strikes on Pakistan. Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres won it in 1994 for their efforts in establishing peace in the Middle East; not sure we saw much of that. Nelson Mandela had to share his in 1993 with the then South African president Frederik W. de Klerk, who sure as hell didn’t have to suffer as much for ending apartheid as Mandela did (and who only seemed to allow it because it was interfering with the country’s economy). How much are Nobel prizes genuine reflections of truly marvellous work, rather than simply reflections of what people want to see?


Come to think of it, the number of women who have received Nobel Prizes are markedly low, too. Could it be that – don’t take this the wrong way – they aren’t up to much either? Did womankind peak in the Middle Ages, as well?


I am frankly astonished that anyone widely considered to be intelligent could judge people’s ‘achievements’ in such grotesquely blunt terms as how many prizes they win. The logical next step is to judge them for how many letters after their names they have, how much money they earn, how many followers on Twitter they have. Could it be that this is the criteria by why Richard Dawkin’s own achievements are judged?


He might as well ask how many Far Eastern countries they have chemically defoliated/nuked, how many massively polluting conglomerate companies they run, how many politicians kowtow to their industries, how many diseases they cure whilst a dozen super-resistant ones emerge, how many useless theories they come up with, how many tons of plastic junk they have to ship to other countries to bury each year, how obese their population is, or how mentally ill they are. If any of these things are a measure of a given society’s value, then the West wins first prize for Unflinching Devotion to the Cause of Humanity’s Destruction.


Regardless of the fact that Muslims are not immune to the odd Nobel (or indeed any of the bozo-like behaviour cited above), I am deeply suspicious of any argument that seems to judge the worth of a people’s existence by the sort of thing one might put on a CV to impress a future employer. If that is all you have achieved, you have really achieved very little.


The 'achievement' involved in this family crest was apparently subduing a badger with nothing more than a couple of ostrich feathers.

The ‘achievement’ involved in this family crest was apparently subduing a small zoo with nothing more than a couple of ostrich feathers.

You might have written bestsellers, but do you friends trust you? You might have a PhD but do your children hate you? You might have millions of fans but are you incapable of having a loving relationship? You might earn a ton of money, but is it all sitting in high-interest accounts or shares in unethical mining or arms companies, while the people around you are eating tinned dog food? You might have earned the praise and admiration of your peers, but does the old lady at the Post Office secretly call you ‘that pompous, rude git who swans about like he owns the place and couldn’t tell a joke if it bit him in the arse’?


Achievement has about as much to do with what looks good on paper as beauty has to do with plastic surgery. What have Muslims contributed in the last 500 years or so? Many millions of tiny acts of kindness that no newspaper would bother printing and no organisation would bother stumping up the cash for an awards ceremony to celebrate.


Dealing with your own self – though most Muslims certainly don’t spend a whole lot of time doing that – is a far more difficult task than going to university, getting a job, and rising up the career ladder, gathering accolades on the way. You can employ all sorts of underhanded methods in the latter, but in the former, only ruthless self-accounting and discipline will work – and that doesn’t get you any certificate.


Humility, disinterested acts of kindness, generosity, service to others, being the kind of everyday hero that doesn’t demand a medal – these acts are elevated in Islam to the rank of achievement, far more than winning a battle or having your critics pat you on the back for that paper you just published.

The higher you climb in this world, the further you have to fall. In contrast, practising non-attachment to the world whilst caring for it is surely the greatest challenge humanity faces.


Living on a floating island of human debris certainly keeps all the undesirables away, though I can't say it's got a stable real estate value

Living on a floating island of human debris certainly keeps all the undesirables away, though I can’t say it’s got a stable real estate value

Dawkin’s statement rings so loudly with hubris that surely it is only a matter of time before everyone but the far right (who will have to build a high-security settlement on one of those floating islands of plastic in the Atlantic, in order to be free from all these underachieving Muslims and that horribly contagious plague, Shariah law) begins to see through the flimsy smokescreen that worldly success presents.


Now wouldn’t that be an achievement?