Islamaphobia and Other Excuses

This article was penned by a friend and guest writer. 

It is no grand task to unpick the arguments of a racist. But the task may be a necessary one, here and now in the UK, where the arguments have become all the more convincing for their being adopted by a near majority (polls show nearly half of Britons think “there are too many Muslims”).

First of all, there needs unpicking the claim that hatred of Muslims is not racist, for Muslims do not constitute a race. In fact, they do – the human race – but forgetting that for the moment (as we often do), the conclusion does not follow the premise necessarily, since it may be that one hates a Muslim because of his race.

Then there are those more cautious racists who, having already perceived the above, claim to only hate Islam, but not hate Muslims. If they were sincere in that, you would see from such proclaimers only the utmost sympathy towards Muslims: Mr Griffin likens Islam to a ‘cancer’, but you do not see from him the same attitude towards cancer victims as you do Muslims.

Racist intellectuals will often argue that the beliefs of Muslims lead to terrorism and violent hatred. The problem here is that not all Muslims believe the same thing. There are almost 3 million Muslims in the UK, and the claim that the beliefs of all of them tend to violence does not cohere with the fact that the vast, vast majority of them are living peaceful lives. Furthermore, if we want to know, it is worth asking them (as we often don’t) if their personal beliefs teach them to be violent.

Islamic beliefs are often used to justify violence though. That much is true, but it does not always mean they were the cause of the violence. Except in rare pathological cases, human beings always provide justifications for their actions. Terrorist incidents conducted in the UK always leave me sceptical that Islam is the main cause rather than a conscious justification, given that the perpetrators always suffer from some unfortunate mental health difficulty, usually as a result of minority disenfranchisement, inferiority complex, difficult childhood environment, abuse or neglect. I do not doubt that there are cases where Islamic beliefs are the cause, and I think those beliefs terrible, but cast your mind back to any terrorist act where a cause was given. Almost always it is a political one – a reaction to another episode of violence (and that’s not to mention the cases where the cause is not consciously known, such as with a mental health ailment). The role religion plays in the process is in part to make the perpetrator feel as though he has the moral high ground, and in part to give him the courage to go all the way. Regardless, there is no racism in hating a certain belief; it is hatred of Muslims we are concerned about in this essay.

To jump to what I expect would be the response of a racist to all I have said, it will be argued that hatred of Muslims is justifiable because Islam is a religion you choose, not a trait you are endowed with; acquired, intellectual beliefs, not inherited characteristics. That is to say then, “I hate the person who chooses those beliefs”. I think it a weak, unjust and superficial excuse for hatred of a person, because it takes no account of the circumstances in which religious beliefs are almost always acquired; in many ways it is more accurate to use the word inherited – and that’s instructive.  Religious beliefs are almost inextricably linked to upbringing, which is informed by ethnic origin (sometimes called, confusingly, ‘race’). It is the rare Galileo who finds his way out; few even feel incentive to leave. Suffice it to say, religion is not, for most, an intellectual pursuit. It offers any number of cultural identities, community and counsel, a safe hold for ideals and values, and most of all security from haunting fears. Racist intellectuals often see fit to take the friendliest of Muslim passers-by and pin them to an unattractive passage in a holy book that they have never read, let alone read literally. It’s a lovely way to justify hating an individual, while concealing from oneself the true motive for hurting poor Joe Muslim.

Withstanding a tide of racial sentiment can be tough, and so I would offer the following two exercises as a check. The first is to observe the effects of any given remark or behaviour we might suspect. Behaviour inspired by racist sentiment serves only to alienate and tense, make hostile and defensive, and in the end, if it is allowed to reign unchecked, bring destruction to one of two fictitious camps. The second is to simply take any suspect quote or passage containing the word ‘Muslims’ and replace it with the word ‘Jews’. I’m sure there was a time when replacing the word ‘Jews’ with ‘Christians’ was necessary, but a new scapegoat has emerged, he is usually brown or foreign sounding, and it will take time for us to include him within our all-too-limited bounds of sympathy.

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Just George

At some point life will bring us into contact with a person whose soul exudes startling purity. We may react towards the idea with scepticism- it is hard to believe that, amongst us, there are those who have not been lured into all the pits of darkness that beset the face of this earth. Such people do exist and, it is accurate to say, they come from no particular faith group, ethnic background, or nationality. Something in their spirit vanquishes these boundaries. Your tribe, your clan, your nation, your religion; your conceits fade away in the light of a resplendent spirit. I do not know many of these people (undoubtedly, because few exist), but there is one whose name I do know, and whose story I have to tell.

His name is George. George is an elderly man, approaching his 90’s. As a family, we have known him since the day my father bought a shop, and a new life. That was 15 years ago, and George is still with us. But George is being faded away by vengeful time, and his life, we feel, will soon be nearing its conclusion. This realisation gives me great sadness, because George is a human being of rare quality, and most of the world will not know of its loss once he is gone.

Why then, do I so admire this man? To begin with, I believe he has spurred my father’s superhuman efforts these past fifteen years. Almost every day, of every week, of every month, of those long years, my father has opened the shop at 5.30am. Ever present has been George, there to collect his newspaper. There, to rattle the shutters when my father failed to wake on time. A somnolent world has missed the melody of steel sheets vibrating in the void of morning’s air. After waking him up, George has always to help move things to their appropriate positions, and help take the newspaper bundles out of the cabinet outside, and into the shop.  In the beginning, my mum would sometimes open the shop, and she told me that George would carry the bundles of newspapers inside the shop himself, rather than allow my mum to do it. When a single bundle contains approximately 80 newspapers, that is indeed a very heavy bundle.

But more than anything, his greatest act of goodness is that he has always been there. He has been there on lonely, cold, bleak English mornings, when most sane people are tucked away in the warmth of their beds. He has always been there, when the world is soulless and there is work to be done. He has been there, one kind soul, easing the burden of another.

Two further things strike me about George: a) his simplicity and b) his manners. His simplicity is expressed most strikingly by his dress: he has worn the same jacket and hat and trousers, for as long as I can remember. But, somehow, they remain in such pristine condition that you would think he had only just unpacked them. Who owns the same clothes for anywhere near that length of time anymore? We are capricious hoarders and discarders. But George hails from an era when a pair of boots for one’s feet were a blessing, not a fashion item with a wear-by date.

George is a man of incredible kindness and grace. To listen to him, it is impossible to ever detect a hint of scorn, or malice towards others or towards the world. It is a voice that is immersed in tranquillity, and a level of contentment that is absent from most of the world. Even in times of great distress, he has behaved commendably. For example, when his wife of many decades passed away a few years ago, we saw him only a couple of days afterwards and he behaved with extraordinary dignity. There was deep sadness in his eyes, but he was not hysterical or bitter. That is the thing about George: he is not a man of extremes. He does not let his emotions take possession of him. He acknowledges the emotions of human experience- sadness, happiness, melancholy, amusement, anger- but does not become absorbed by them. That, to my mind, is an indication of elevated character.

When you talk to him, you come away realising that he does not wear masks- there are no surprises. His ever-present smile, his generosity, and his simplicity may capture some small aspect of his wonderful character, but mostly his character is beyond description- it is ineffable. To be understood, it cannot be described, only experienced.

No doubt, there have always been people like George, and there are many like him still in our midst. There is probably a Hindu George, A Jewish George, a Sikh George, and a Muslim George in this kaldeiscopic world of ours. And most of the adherents of a faith will give George an ultimatum. They will say ‘listen George- Krishna, Yahweh, Allah, demands your devotion. Renounce others, and you will find salvation’. It is a tawdry squabble for the allegiance of a man, whose deeds are deemed to come to nothing if it is not obtained. This is surely a profoundly immoral position to take, and I have seen it taken before: in YouTube clips, where an elderly person lies on his deathbed, hardly capable of comprehension or utterance, swarmed by men who want to coax the right words from him before his life expires. And what happens if those words are not forthcoming? We dispose of him, and of his humanity. We disown him.

If George’s time comes before mine, I hope this fate does not befall him. He has lived a more worthy life than most. My hope is that, in his last moments, he lives it in the tranquillity that has been a hallmark of his life on this earth.

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Where are we now? Where are we now?

By nature, I am not a confrontational individual. I like to keep violent inclinations towards fellow human beings firmly suppressed because

a) the outcome of giving vent to them is unpredictable (I might get hurt),
b) Confrontation requires a measured reaction in a pressurised situation, which I am sometimes incapable of.
c) All humans are, after all, only frail and often foolish.

Although these are the true reasons for my inertness, I often tell myself that non-confrontation is fine, since being slow to anger is a prophetic characteristic. This is of course, a convenient delusion. I can start simmering with rage just as quickly as anyone, except I can keep a lid on it.

That’s the person I thought I was, but it appears that a more refined theory is needed in light of recent events. Walking home from the park with my little brother, I saw a man walk by on the opposite side of the road. This being Alum Rock, there was nothing very peculiar about him: he was dressed in traditional south Asian clothes and he sported a henna-dyed ginger beard so bright it lit up the road with its luminosity. As I walked towards the road to cross it, I passed a pub on my left and thought I heard someone say something about a beard. As I turned to look at where I thought the comment had come from, I saw a huddle of people standing outside the pub doors laughing with gusto. As I stood waiting to cross the road, I thought I heard another taunt- in a voice loud enough for me to hear, but not loud enough to be heard by the bearded man who was now about fifty yards away. And there was more laughter. Just as I was about to cross the road I heard something else. And I stopped. I turned around, and the laughter also stopped. What I had heard was, ‘he’s got a bomb in his bag’.

I turned around, and I can only recall the next few moments as a haze of wild gesticulations, angry words fired with venom, and pathetic justifications. Having made a protest loud enough for most people in the vicinity to hear, I finally walked away trembling with rage, promising that I would bring the matter to the attention of the police. How could it be that, in broad daylight, without provocation, a person could have the audacity to shout racist abuse and not be held to account for it? How disgraceful would it have been for me to walk by like a coward after hearing what I had heard?

Very recently, I had started reading the auto-biography of Malcolm X, and I was taken aback by the rhetoric he sometimes employed against white Americans. Notwithstanding his later moderation in attitude, I felt his words tended to be extreme and divisive. But I realised this: he lived the age of overt racism; an age when the shackles of servitude had to be violently, uncompromisingly cast open. He was a brave man and a truthful man; a man unafraid of confrontation.

As I walked home with my little brother, I realised that this is the world in which he must make his way. It is no longer the black man who is fettered, but the Muslim. His dress, speech and beliefs must be moderated by a society increasingly intolerant of difference. And it would be yet more difficult for my little sister who-if she chooses to wear it- will wear a headscarf with great difficulty. This is the future bequeathed to us by the bigots and fundamentalists. Justice, let us hope, may yet prevail if we stand together to confront them.

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From Russia, without Love.

From Russia, without Love.

 

‘For every exotic twist of an attempt at pronouncing his name, there is a theory to explain his motives.’ These are words that I remember writing in an article for my University newspaper in the aftermath of the failed ‘underwear bomb plot’ by a student of UCL, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab. That was an event that we thought could have chilling implications. So far removed were the alleged beliefs and activities of this young man from the experiences of any Muslims I knew, that it had to be made clear that Muslim students collectively did not constitute a sinister cabal committed to acts of the grossest inhumanity. That’s what went through my mind at least.

 

Here was a middle class Engineering student whose upbringing, intelligence and education were no barriers to an act of terrorism. In one sense, certainly, it failed to be an act of terrorism: farcically, the bomb didn’t go off and his underpants caught fire. In another sense, though, it was a very successful act of terrorism. It was successful in the sense that it spread terror through the minds of ordinary people. It sowed the seeds of suspicion and it bought anxiety and a feeling of uncertainty. It bred, I think, a sense of paranoia. To my mind, it meant that no Muslim, regardless of background, could be deemed exempt from being a terrorist in the making.

 

 Successive acts of terrorism only compound this deep sense of mistrust. Personally, I feel less and less inclined to openly proclaim my beliefs with every new bomb blast. Every blast blows apart the nascent bonds of trust and understanding. Every blast causes a haemorrhage to the ordinary person’s sense of reason. Every blast causes, increasingly, a visceral reaction.

 

This was how I felt when I saw throngs of cheering Bostonians on the news after the capture of 19 year old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I may be wrong, but this seemed to be a strange reaction to the news of the capture of Tsarnaev. Scenes of jubilation just didn’t seem to fit the context. A sense of relief, surely, but unbridled joy? This was also how I felt when I learned about the reluctance of many Imam’s to offer funeral rites for the elder brother. This reluctance to be associated with the bombers has nothing to do (as far as I understand) with Islamic funeral practices, so can only be explained as an ultra-defensive reaction: no-one wants to be tainted by an association with a terrorist, even if what remains of him is a cadaver. No-one wants to have anything to do with the body, because it might be interpreted that you sympathise with him, or even condone his actions. No-one wants to be perceived to be reading blessings over the body of a terrorist.  These thoughts have made the Muslims of Boston fall into a state of fretful inertia.

 

If ordinary people are not the direct victims of terrorist atrocities, they become indirect victims. They huddle together, like the cheering people of Boston appeared to do- not a brown face in their midst. On the other side, Muslims pledge their allegiances and make proclamations beginning ‘We Bostonians…’ It’s a way of saying that they’re with the huddled masses, not apart. Judging by the reported rise in Islamaphobic incidents since the bombing, Americans are not convinced.

 

The erosion of trust has been evident for some time, and it is making it increasingly difficult for anyone to behave reasonably. Our reactions are becoming more insular and almost primitive as we seek to defend ourselves against sinister forces. 

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Morally, morally on our way.

I recall someone who once posed a question to the effect ‘does being a more intelligent person make you a morally better person?’ My immediate response was that it couldn’t be the case that greater intelligence would give one a better moral sense, a reaction which was based on a lecture I had heard by Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad. In that lecture the Sheikh was speaking about the Higgs Boson (the so-called God particle), and about whether an irrefutable scientific proof for the existence of God was possible. His opinion was that such a proof would never be possible because it would entail an elite minority being granted privileged access to God- but God is supposed to be equally accessible to all human beings irrespective of contingencies like race, intellect and language.

By extension, I thought that the intellectually more privileged couldn’t possibly be more capable accumulators of good deeds. Otherwise, it would entail an alarming injustice, with certain people-seemingly arbitrarily- born for salvation, and others for doom. And yet my experiences had shown that more intelligent people tended to make morally better decisions and less intelligent people making morally worse decisions. For example, there was a young man who was employed at my father’s convenience store who was an absolutely wonderful human being, but whose moral reasoning was sometimes slightly askew. On one occasion he asked me ‘so what’s wrong with smoking weed since it is a plant, it’s natural, God has created it; and why else would he have created if not to be used by us?’  So for him, using marijuana was a perfectly legitimate action. But the point is that his reasoning led him to consider an action widely considered to be morally suspect, to be morally laudable.

The bit that he disregarded was the aspect of religious instruction, which prohibits the use of substances that cause harm to the body- he reasoned around it, not realising that his reasoning was faulty. That made me realise that, to a greater or lesser degree, all human reasoning is faulty. Whether you have the IQ of a Steven Hawking or a Jodie Marsh, you will never be completely infallible. And so it made complete sense that moral actions are instances of rule following, and not reasoning. A rule applies to both a Steven Hawking and a Jodie Marsh, so that neither can make a morally bad decision as a result of bad reasoning- even if Jodie Marsh is much more likely to reason badly, Hawking is not immune from ever tripping up in the realm of moral decision-making. Because religion involves rule following (or dogma), the more intelligent do not have a better chance of salvation than the less intelligent. In other words the less intelligent can always behave just as morally as the more intelligent.

My experiences since then have supported this idea. Yesterday at work, for example, my team leader acted in a way that I thought was morally wrong. His reaction was ‘no, it’s all in your head and you’re over-reacting’. At that point I realised it was futile attempting to convince him that I had made the morally better judgement, and that if he had just followed an item of religious instruction, there would not been an issue. And if I had also adhered to (a separate) item of religious instruction, the situation would not have escalated to the degree that it did. To an extent, we both promoted ourselves above the rules we ought to have applied in the given conditions, which made life more difficult for us both.

So, Religion- there’s no better way to distinguish right from wrong.

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Preview, just a preview.

The following is a preview of themes I will shortly be writing about.

1) Contentment.

What makes us happy, or content? Are happiness and contentment synonymous? Are we grasping at shadows, pursuing what is ever-elusive? This a topic to which I have given some thought previously, but never thought enough to write about it. But now a friend has asked me to offer my thoughts on this topic and I have decided I may be able to contribute something.

2) A brief History of Alum Rock

This idea was, in a sense, inspired by a television program I saw last night, in which Michael Portillo takes a tour of Scotland by rail. Portillo’s mother was Scottish, and this relation between his mother and her country appeared to give him a sense of his own past. In turn, this caused me to think about programmes such as ‘Who do you think you are?’, in which celebrities delve into the past to discover their roots. Thinking about people who can say where they belong, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of personal sadness. Where do I come from, where do I belong? The answer is that I don’t know where I truly belong because in the cultural setting I come from in South Asia, there was never any tradition of record-keeping. All four of my grandparents are still alive, but if you ask them a question as simple as ‘how old are you?’ they can only give, at best, an approximate answer- this is not because they are senile, but because birth-dates weren’t considered an important item of information. Life was lived, not recorded. All I have are a cluster of memories- some good and others bad- which bind me to a past that I yearn to know.

Beyond that, if I attempt to trace my roots into that particular past I would only ever find myself swallowed into a void. However, having lived most of my life in Alum Rock, I can say that I have a sense of belonging to this place- a sort of surrogate belonging though. What I want to do, therefore, is to research and write a history of this place, from its earliest beginnings. I think I have set myself a not insignificant task, but it will, I hope, give me a sense of where I belong- and why so many of us from the same small districts in Pakistan, many thousands of miles away, came to belong here.

It will be a history, firstly from an objective perspective, of what and who Alum Rock consisted of, and how it changed. Secondly, it will be a history of my own experience, from the moment a 5 year old boy and his shiny new boots set foot on English earth.

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Like Dorothy, We Dream.

Who has heard of Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Normal Henkel Emmanuel Ambroise Diggs? Come on now, this is common knowledge. You know, but you don’t know that you know. And if you really don’t know, then you should be permitted a second childhood because no-one should not know who O.Z.P.I.N.H.E.A.D is- or as as he preferred to be known, Oz. He is a creation of L.Frank Baum, and appears as a wizard, holding benign dominion over the Land of Oz. Dorothy and her variously debilitated retinue embark on a quest to find this wizard, believing he is equipped to solve their problems. They skip along, this trio of maladroits, in sanguine expectation and blissful revery.  On the yellow-brick road, they skip along. (What I never understood is why it had to be a yellow-brick road and not a golden road. Because, in every stage or screen performance, the yellow is such a lurid hue that it feels as though your vision is being drowned in a vat of sick). Why am I telling you about OZPINHEAD? Well, recently, I have found employment at a large electronics retailer, and working here has- amongst other things- reminded me of the character, Oz.

Speaking as a consumer, you have certain expectations when you set foot inside a big electronics store. If, for example, you go to a PC world, the person who greets you looks tidy and presentable, with his lilac shirt and wise mien- his costume gives him dominion in the laptop or TV section. He is a trusted and venerable individual, imbued with insight and knowledge that escapes ordinary human understanding. He is your guide in the tech-jungle, your saviour in the electronic hinterland. You let him take you by the hand and lead you to salvation. There is so much choice-yet, apparently so very little difference- and only he has the sacred knowledge that can unlock the right laptop package for you.

If you go to a Curry’s, over by the washing machines and cookers a spritely being greets you with an unusually expansive smile, skips about you, and flutters and falls about you in fits of giggles. She is enchanted, she knows some esoteric (product) knowledge and she leads you along in the magical world of Curry’s, where you cannot be allowed to roam alone. Now, a lot of the time, we might be inclined to give a two-finger salute to the wise laptop man and swat the washing-machine fairy aside, but this is more to do with wanting to explore the place for ourselves than having a belief that they can’t help us. I always believed they can help us.

But now I am on the other side. The first thing I can now relay from the other side is how inexplicably polite some people are. In other contexts, on a day-to-day basis, you meet people who don’t care how you are, nor do you particularly care how they are. So you ask ‘you oryt?’ and you’re met with a totally ludicrous reply that comes careering in the slip-stream of your question, with an answer that is a question: ‘you oryt?’ Obviously it is a burden to explain how miserable your affairs are in reality, so it’s much easier to say something illogical, but conventionally accepted. But in an electronics-store environment people genuinely seem to care, and to think that you care. You might say that this is because they think you might be of assistance to them; but much of the time, they just want to be left alone, but are very polite anyway.

(An aside: I’m actually panicking because I have to work today, and I realise that i’ve had to construct an elaborate fiction in my head about being a salesperson. But now I realise that by writing this, I’m unravelling it all.  I’m going to be back to square one: actively avoiding customers for fear of having to convince them of things I don’t believe in. (Luckily, my point-score was high yesterday, so I should be able to have an off-day)).

The second thing I’ve realized is that people do truly believe that there is some asymmetry of knowledge, whereas in most cases there isn’t. This is where your skill as a salesperson comes in. In most cases, I have to make an entirely specious case for why one type of technology is superior to another, whereas in fact they are in all important respects identical. Someone will ask why one kind of equipment that has the same specification as another costs £20 more, and I can’t say the truth: ‘Sorry, I don’t know’. Instead, I have to fabricate  reasons that neither of us will ever know to be false. People think that we know more about the product than they do, but in reality they would know just as much if they read the label.
The LG 84 Inch Ultra HD TV in all it's glory...

The third thing worth mentioning is that labels are useless. When there are twenty laptops in front of you, price is usually a good indicator of quality- or so you would think. But prices change seemingly arbitrarily. They go down and up, and this is something that made me re-evaluate my understanding of discounts. Previously, I thought that discounts meant that the retailer takes a small hit by selling a product at a reduced price, because its corporate self felt it should be beneficent for a time. But it seems that it’s all a game, because a price-drop for one product is complemented by a price-rise for another. Prices rise and drop as conditions change, to suit the retailer. When I think I’m getting a discount now, I think not that I am gaining anything, but that I am losing less.

The final thing I should mention is the unreality underlying the whole setup. Retailers are adept at constructing a convincing fiction, and set a stage upon which the consumer is invited to be an active participant. The advertising, the employee’s costumes, the posters and leaflets, all these sundry details create a believable unreality. And the stores themselves are the coup-de- grace: with flashing, shiny, dazzling things rendering you insensate. So, it is at this juncture that I should refer again to the Wizard of OZ.

Like others before her, Dorothy believes that Oz will solve her troubles. When finally she meets him, he appears in various startling guises, and then finally as a voice. In the end, it becomes clear that Oz is only an ordinary man who has been using various magic tricks to make himself appear tremendously powerful. His dominion is built upon illusion, and his subjects have always been held in thrall by a clever hoax. In essence, that is what consumer goods retailers amount to: they are very clever at doing tricks, appealing to our primitive lust to be dazzled.

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