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’.

Sieving Metaphors out of Concrete: the Battle between One and All

I’m still bothered about this Shafelia Ahmed killing. After 4 hours sleep I’m already buzzing. There is something huge that needs to be said about it, so if you don’t mind me burbling on, here goes.

There is a fundamental imbalance at work in belief communities – whether they be religious or political – all around the world. It’s a tug-of-war that goes back perhaps to our earliest experiences of human society, a tug-of-war between the well-being and growth of the group (which individuals are dependent on for their own safety), and the well-being and integrity of the individual (each one of whom makes up the whole).

I could rummage around for hours looking for ‘expert’ quotes on this matter but I don’t think there’s any need – we can see it all around us, all the time. A society clique has its own interests at heart, so people instinctively take on its ‘dos and don’ts’ and most of them will not cross the line for fear of being cast out of the gang.

This is totally primordial. We might not remember it but there was a time when wild animals threatened our live and there was safety in numbers. But the bigger the group is, the more difficult it is to maintain any kind of homogeneity; greater differences of space and time give rise to variances in culture and language. Our climates and landscapes offer us different challenges.

When there is a hierarchical power structure, or just a lot of people with enough will or need to maintain the group intact, repressive tactics begin to emerge. Dissent, whether it be in the form of a teenage schoolgirl wanting to have a boyfriend or a group of social activists campaigning for change, is suppressed – sometimes violently.

This is when the balance between group and individual has been thrown out of whack, and it’s given us Communism, Fascism, repressive Muslim regimes, and vigilante acts like ‘honour killings’. The sacredness of life is subjugated to the survival of the group.

There have always been, in the history of every tribe, pioneers who sense the need for movement, be it through a change in physical conditions (a spring dries up, so they have to move), or disagreements with elders, or simply the overpopulation of a group and the need for fresh space. So a smaller group splinters off and finds a new way – but this doesn’t necessarily mean they cut their ties with their old group, or that they suddenly give up their language and customs.

Humanity is in constant flux. Historical linguistics shows a fascinating story of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, a place where few written languages have long histories and so the movement of people and the interfaces between cultures are tracked by words that have been borrowed and grammatically absorbed by one or other of the 2,000 languages indigenous to Africa. Few languages are used ideologically; you don’t lose your language when you move upcountry – it evolves.

But when this idea of movement and flux is applied to religion and politics, infuriatingly often we find that a shell of customs, ideas and dogmas handed down from one generation to another becomes encrusted over people and they cannot think creatively enough to see when conditions have changed and so modes de vie also must.

The spirit of Islam is finding the ‘Middle Path’ (not unlike Buddhism); the Prophet Muhammad (s.) always advocated looking for a intermediate path between two extremes. The extremes in his day were a diseased kind of tribalism and religious zeal. Today there is a different disease, composed of fashion, market forces, hype, spin and consumerist herd thinking; today’s religious zeal can now be seen in extreme adherence to one’s patria, religion, racist ideology, political party, football team…the tribes are proliferating all the time.

In the first extreme, behind a smokescreen of development and progress there is deep, grave injustice. Children and young mothers forced to work in mines so people in consumerist societies can buy new technology. Children sold to sweatshops to sew sequins onto dresses. Indigenous peoples displaced from their homelands so the natural resources in them can be pillaged. All of this happens so that certain priviledged individuals can have the freedom to buy whatever they want (or are encouraged to want), whenever they want. This is neo-liberal capitalism. This is extreme individualism.

On the other hand, there is the weight of tradition, sometimes (or often) woven and warped into a heavy helmet of you-must-think-this and you-must-do-that, otherwise you will be harming or disrespecting your group in some way. The alternative, for these people, is a dangerous individualism; the threat of losing their identity as a member of that group is so great that they consent to horrific abuses taking place in the name of Nazism, Communism, tribal culture or a repressive Islamic state. In a way, both extremes are nothing more than herd mentality.

The founding principle of Islam, of balance and harmony over chaos, is absolutely dependent on Muslims being confident and creative in the way they apply it. The detritus of the past does not have to be carried forward on our backs. It is stupid to live according to conditions that no longer exist. Would we wear winter clothes in summer?

The individualism we are accustomed to now is isolating; with no need to look after their neighbours or even their own families, people become emotionally detached and capable of doing extraordinary acts of cold-blooded cruelty, or simply neglect. It is unhealthy for the individual to ignore the whole that surrounds him, just as it is unhealthy for a society to ignore the needs and rights of the individuals that make up its whole.

The extremities facing us in today’s world, here and now, might have resonances that go back to a Biblical era – that’s where religion becomes a fountain of wisdom, a body of past experiences that can be observed and learned from – but without the independent thinking that knows how to sieve the metaphor from the concrete, the lesson from the teaching material, it is worse than having no guidance at all.

The balance between all our extremes can be regained, but it will happen one conscience at a time.