by Nabila Idris
One chilly evening this Michaelmas, a group of drunk men accosted a friend of mine in front of the Cambridge railway station. They patted her on the head, ruffled her scarf, and leered, “I like your little turban”. When she protested, they told her to go back to her country.
In the current political climate, such incidents are distressingly common. Looking visibly Muslim paints a target on our backs that attracts a range of responses – from institutional harassment (think Prevent) to individual isolation (like this). The Islamophobia epidemic has a marked impact on our education and career as well. A report last year from the government’s Social Mobility Commission outlined several ways Muslims are regularly held back:
- Students face stereotyping and low expectations from teachers and a lack of Muslim staff or other role models in the classroom.
- Minority ethnic-sounding names reduce the likelihood of people being offered an interview.
- Young Muslims routinely fear becoming targets of bullying and harassment and feel forced to work “10 times as hard” as their white counterparts to get on.
- Women wearing headscarves face particular discrimination once entering the workplace.
For my fellow Muslims, much of this is old news. Due to my own brush with harassment at Cambridge, for the past couple of years I’ve been trying to drum up interest in opening channels through which to report incidents of Islamophobia to the university.1In this journey, numerous students have shared with me their personal experiences, which prompted me to ponder: How do we survive Islamophobia? Although the following paragraphs by no means form a comprehensive answer, I hope they will contribute to a wider discussion on the topic.
A key problem with Islamophobia is that it is insidious. Straight up harassment, like my friend faced, is at least easy to identify. But it’s far harder to pinpoint that the name your parents lovingly gave you, Muhammad, is what’s behind the string of job application rejections. The wise amongst us are conscious of the danger of mistaking average life struggles for Islamophobic impediments – perpetual victimhood isn’t productive. On the other hand, being oblivious to the enormous institutional and social barriers we have to daily wade through may make us question our abilities far more than is justified. How do we navigate this conundrum?
I have found I draw strength from the Muslim community around me. I appreciate that I have a Muslim friend circle where I am constructively supported, and to whom I can unload in that first wave of anxiety and bewilderment, which are my reactions to unreasonable contempt for my faith. I can just be me, without fear or judgement, and—crucially!—without the burden of representing a billion Muslims worldwide. I am only half-joking when I say this Muslim community is one where our hijabi sisters can fully unleash their resting bitch faces without worrying they come off as threatening to the random onlooker – maintaining a permanently pleasant mien sorely tax the facial muscles, trust me! Here our bearded brothers can enjoy moments of camaraderie—even use taboo words like ‘inshallah’—without being “seen, said, sorted”.
If you don’t have a community like this already, just turn up to the oasis that is the ISoc prayer room or your nearest mosque. We’ll be there.
Fortitude from faith
Islamophobia is old wine in a new bottle – it’s been a thing since the dawn of Islam. So the patience and courage with which Prophet Muhammad and his companions faced the abuse hurled at them for their faith form a template we can all learn from. “There has certainly been for you in the Messenger of Allah an excellent pattern,” says the Quran (33:21).
Islamic history is replete with incidents like the Prophet’s journey to Taif where he was met with violence and derision, the systematic persecution of the early Muslims, the deadly siege of Banu Hashim, etc. We are fortunate that our historical records discuss in detail the Prophetic response when confronted with insurmountable and vicious Islamophobia – Martin Lings’ Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources is, hands down, my favourite biography that beautifully describes those times.
In this context, how we speak about Islamophobia matters. It would be truly unfortunate if, in our attempt to battle present day Islamophobia, we only draw upon resources available to us through the current secular social justice discourse, as if our own history is mute on the topic. Given it is Islam that is driving the phobia, Muslims miss a great opportunity to prove the baselessness of the prejudice when our response isn’t mediated by the rich tradition of Islam itself.
Finally, we must remember that in the West we only scratch the surface of this irrational hatred. This is because what we face is merely a blowback from the real battleground where Islamophobia plays out. The victims who have to bear the brunt of Islamophobia are the innocent, largely Muslim, communities in forgotten corners of the world where the global War or Terror wages its barbaric onslaught. They are the thousands, again largely Muslims, who drown in the Mediterranean, just for being born on the wrong side of barbed borders, in a perverse real-life Hunger Games to save themselves and their families. A focus on this bigger picture can help us build our resilience. This is not to belittle our own struggles—far from it—but to recognise the trans-border and trans-generational aspect of it.
Dr Martin Luther King’s assertion that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is axiomatic for Muslims2. Our faith assures us that, in the long run, justice is guaranteed. Our job simply is to put in the effort; it is to resist the demonisation of innocents, be it in Lesbosor London. Each of us will choose our own ways of doing this, but as long as we do it, I believe we can survive Islamophobia with our head held high and authentic selves intact.
1I have since been told the university is pointing to Breaking the Silence as the solution (although much can be said about the questionable efficacy of lumping together disparate forms of harassment and sexual misconduct under one header).
2Because I am a pedant, I investigated if he really said it. It’s complicated. He appears to have quoted Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and abolitionist. Some sources put the whole King quote as: “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross but that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”Quite beautiful, really. But although King did say all of this, I didn’t find any evidence he said both the sentences in the same piece of work. I could be wrong. Google only takes you so far.