The Muslim Problem: Why We’re Wrong About Islam And Why It Matters is the first book by UEA writer Tawseef Khan and is published by Atlantic Books on 4 March 2021. The following is taken from the Introduction.
I was fourteen years old when, during one lunch break in high school, I burst into a classroom and announced that I’d become a pagan. My friends were sat on desks, huddled against a radiator for warmth in a room that we claimed as ours during break times; a room in the Science building that was musty with the smell of animals because it was home to two rabbits and two hamsters, a tank of terrapins and an albino rat. They shrugged in response and continued chatting. My confession came as no great surprise. We already had a pagan in the group, and a white witch too.was fourteen years old when, during one lunch break in high school, I burst into a classroom and announced that I’d become
This was my first act of rebellion against Islam; against the dogmatic, observance-oriented Islam in which I was raised. My critique of Islam actually began much earlier, as an eight-year- old, when my mother first told me off for breaking my prayers to answer the phone. Precocious perhaps, maybe also unbelievable that I was criticizing religion at such a young age, but my mother had been teaching me about Islam since I was able to speak, and I was incredibly sensitive about being told what to do. When she chastised me in front of my cousin, I was so humiliated I began to privately question the very ritual I was participating in.
As I got older, the limits imposed on my relationship with Islam became clearer. I wasn’t supposed to question doctrine; God had supposedly determined every aspect of our religious practice. To critique Islam, therefore, was to be a bad Muslim who was destined for hell. When I was old enough to pray independently, my mother began pushing me to perform my five compulsory daily prayers. She warned me about God’s punishment if I didn’t comply. Sometimes I would pretend to fall asleep to avoid them, but she would yank off the bedcovers and send me to wash. And in the bathroom, as I sulkily cleaned my hands, my ears, my nose, my face, my arms, my neck and then my feet, I would ask myself why God wanted this. What was the point in prayer if my heart wasn’t in it? Prayer was more than a series of movements showing off my religious devotion. If God refused the prayer I had broken off in order to answer the phone, then surely God would also refuse these unhappily performed prayers I was offering as a teenager?
So my frustration had been bubbling away for several years when I adopted paganism. I knew that many Muslims would have found my behaviour disrespectful, insubordinate, insulting to Allah even, but I didn’t care. I needed to register my complaint with Allah. I was angry with God and felt that I had every right to be. I had been deeply unhappy for such a long time. It was not the general melancholy and malaise that teenagers experience during puberty. It was rooted in my discontent with how Islam was being framed, as something based around observance, permissibility and submission.
Today I can understand my parents’ decisions a little better – they were trying to shape my identity in a non-Muslim landscape as best they could. They were trying to instil me with self-worth. They wanted to save me from feeling dislocated as a British-Pakistani Muslim – from being caught between two worlds – especially as they navigated their own feelings of disorientation living in a country where they hadn’t been born. But that ended up happen- ing anyway. Using Islam in such a way led to a crisis of faith. There was nobody to talk it over with. Protesting to God seemed like the only thing I could do.
Every protest has its critics. Maybe you would have criticized mine. After all, I had no idea what paganism actually involved. Was it enough that I felt a greater ‘connection’ to nature than to my community? Probably not. And to all intents and purposes, I continued to live a tangibly Muslim life. It didn’t occur to me to change that. Besides, I hadn’t given up believing in God altogether. I fasted (because I enjoyed it), prayed (when I couldn’t get out of it) and travelled to Saudi Arabia for umrah. At the ages of fifteen and twenty-two, I performed this pilgrimage with my family. Both times, I sat inside the sacred mosque in the city of Mecca and spoke to Allah in the same way: ‘I am stuck. I am angry with you. You know this. You know why.’ I prayed for a solution. But as much as I sought distance from my religious identity, to get some perspective on its place in my life, the world would not allow it.
The attacks of 9/11 occurred a short time after I first registered my protest with Allah. The effect was that my personal spiritual crisis began to unfurl in the shadow of a much larger political and religious one. Before I had even developed a sense of who I was as a Muslim, I was on the back foot. I felt like I was carrying a narrative – what would become perhaps the defining narrative of our time – of a war brought to the West by terrorists inspired and guided by ‘radical Islam’. In the years to come, I would be weighed down by this burden. It coloured my internal struggle and I could not escape it. I remember the jokes made by high-school acquaintances, where the punchline centred on me being a terrorist. How my friends laughed without hesitation, and I felt such impotence at having no comeback.
I went shopping with my mother in Manchester city centre the day after the London bombings of July 2005. As we walked along the high street I felt tension rising in my body. There was the distinct feeling of self-consciousness, of being monitored, of deliberation over every step in case we stoked someone’s anger. The latent threat of reprisals seemed to be everywhere. Mum’s hijab clearly identified her as a Muslim, and for those looking to blame the bombings on Islam, she’d be fair game. We expected it. We had already heard about the anti-Muslim attacks on the news. Then there was a visit to Latvia in February 2007. After dinner, I walked back to my hostel in Riga with some friends. A man approached me with an invitation to attend a club he was promoting. When I declined, I watched his expression turn ugly and aggressive. ‘You big Osama,’ he said, as he gestured towards my facial hair. ‘You very, very big Osama.’
In those years, Muslims were barely represented in public life and, when we were, media coverage was bleak and unwavering. ‘We tend to write about Muslims mainly when they cause trouble,’ the journalist Brian Whitaker once admitted. Newspapers that had mostly ignored Muslims before 9/11 (resulting in scant knowledge about Islam amongst journalists, and even less amongst the public) were suddenly obsessed, writing almost 600 per cent more articles about us than in the years before – and that was just 2001–2002. In those pieces, representation was constructed almost entirely in the context of terrorism. We went from being more or less invisible to every aspect of our existence being connected to and framed by violence and hatred. Media outlets assembled panel discussions to understand the ‘trouble’ with Islam. In 2005, Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, published caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that seemed to be a deliberate provocation to Muslims. It was not just that the Prophet had been illustrated that was the problem, but that many of these representations reinforced stereotypes about Muslims in general: he was depicted with devil horns, holding a sabre and preparing for battle, and with a bomb inside his turban (which was inscribed with the shahadah – the Islamic declaration of faith). Muslims, who already existed on the margins of society, were being vilified and even further excluded. A Daily Mail article by Richard Littlejohn seemed to summarize feelings about Islam at the time, ‘If they hate us so much, why don’t they leave?’
This portrayal of Muslims as illiberal and violent was regurgitated across the media. It infected everything. Even well-meaning representations upheld racist tropes; the media assumed that all Muslims were bad unless and until we could perform our ‘goodness’ and, when we did, these examples were celebrated as proof that some Muslims could theoretically assimilate into Western society. Young Muslims, like me at that time, saw Islam being portrayed as regressive, barbaric, bloodthirsty and incompatible with Western modernity. We tried to counteract these stereotypes and hoped that we could find a way out of this narrative. But inevitably we internalized their alienating rhetoric – how could we have avoided it? – causing us to feel split within ourselves and fight a battle with our identities.
I am a product of the construct that is the ‘War on Terror’. I am one of its children. There are so many of us. I consumed its negative messaging and found myself recoiling from my religious identity. Every time a Muslim was responsible for a terror attack somewhere around the world, I lashed out at my faith and myself. My critiques of Islam became harsher. I resented my heritage and my community. I became uncomfortable openly identifying as Muslim, with Islamic practice that I had decided was shallow and performative. To greet another Muslim and give them my salaam – the most basic expression of human kinship – was something that I struggled with deeply. I had no coherent sense of self. I became extremely depressed.
And yet, despite all the years that have passed since my adolescence, I’m dismayed to see that the situation hasn’t improved. If anything, it has grown worse. Young Muslims are developing their identities in a climate of unparalleled hatred, fear and stigmatization. The Right is in ascendance across the Western world, and Muslims continue to be ‘othered’ in new and surprising ways. This rhetoric of ‘war’, of the West fighting the Muslim world, and the very notion of the Muslim world as a foreign, external entity, is an ingrained and historic one. But it is more pervasive and harmful than ever before, in part because of the massive influence the media has in shaping our lives and identities, particularly the lives of young people. Human beings look to the environment around us to understand ourselves and give meaning to our existence. If the messaging coming from the media about you is negative, or one in which you don’t exist at all, it causes untold damage to your self-esteem and how you move through the world.
Jawaab is a British charity that focuses on young Muslims. In 2018, they found that 61 per cent of young Muslims surveyed had either personally experienced Islamophobia or knew somebody who had; 60 per cent felt the pressure to suppress their Muslim identities, especially when travelling or operating in work environments; and 43 per cent felt conflicted in their identities, citing extremism, disenfranchisement and evolving relationships with Islam as the main reasons for this. The report detailed experiences of struggling to resist negative stereotypes associated with Islam. As one young Muslim woman said: ‘I’ve felt excluded. When you’re young all you’re trying to do is belong, be accepted… It’s difficult being not white. Then you’re not white, and you’re a Muslim and female.’
I worry about how my brother is being shaped by the continuing War on Terror. When I began writing this book, he was twenty years old (I am ten years older than him) and in the middle of studying for a degree in Biology. Early on, I asked him about being a Muslim in Britain. He replied with his knowledge that no matter how busy public transport was, how crowded a university lecture happened to get, the space next to him on the bus or in the lecture hall always remained empty. He insisted that he ‘didn’t care’ about being singled out, but I know first-hand that creating an identity in opposition to ever-present stigma isn’t easy, that this identity always lacks something; it is never fully whole. My brother’s knowledge of Islamophobia is still in its infancy. It will grow, and his twenties will be a critical time for him and the making of his identity. If there is a way to make that journey better – smoother – for him, I want to find it.
Across the West, the overdue conversation about race is commanding more attention than it has for years. That conversation has been forged by many different segments of our societies: the emergence of activist movements like Black Lives Matter; musicians, actors and athletes like Beyoncé, Jesse Williams and Colin Kaepernick using their celebrity to bring attention to racial injustice; social media platforms providing the space for individuals from all walks of life to learn, engage and organize; and conditions like the coronavirus pandemic in which racial inequalities become extremely difficult to ignore. Books have been integral to this conversation – through those such as The Good Immigrant, Brit(ish), Natives and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, British writers of colour are claiming and creating spaces where they can voice their experiences of discrimination and othering, educate and push for systemic change. But as much as I’m inspired by these conversations, the prospect of giving voice to another overdue conversation – about the West and its relationship with Muslims – is daunting. Where do I begin?
I know when the need for that conversation first dawned on me. I was born and raised in the city of Manchester. I am a proud Mancunian. The terrorist attacks that have occurred near constantly around the world over the last twenty years both horrify and depress me, even as they often barely cause a ripple in our news cycle. But as a Mancunian, I can’t deny that it was the bombing of the Manchester Arena in May 2017 that had the most profound and long-lasting effect on me.
I remember lounging on the sofa as the news came in. My parents were watching a Pakistani news channel, so we heard it in Urdu first, then quickly flipped channels to watch the BBC. My body grew numb as I watched the details emerge, as I picked out various parts of my city from the coverage. I would never have imagined that Manchester could be targeted in this way.
Late into the night, my Muslim friends and I texted each other in disbelief. Our initial feelings were of heartbreak. An attack on our city felt like an attack on us. But where there was vulnerability and anger, there was also relief that we and our loved ones were safe. On any other night, I could have been there. Some of my happiest memories of Manchester involve dressing up and attending pop concerts at the Arena. So, when we texted each other that night, we also mourned the way that things sacred to us all – life and freedom, music and the innocence of youth – had been violated. Then, as the news sank in, we began to fear how this event would change things for us. What would it mean for Muslims living in Manchester, in the UK? Would we be at the forefront of the backlash?
This fear did not subside in the weeks after the attack. I watched Mancunians unite and felt heartened by the refusal to be divided, but the attack was a jolt. It was impossible to forget it and move on. Around Manchester, raids were being conducted on houses and arrests made. The bomber’s links to Libya and Didsbury Mosque in South Manchester – a mosque I have visited – were under investigation. Intelligence officials continued to insist that a second attack was imminent. There was every reason to feel tense. But there was another dimension to my fear, to the fear felt by other Muslims. Amongst the calls for defiance and unity, the voices of anger and dissent felt like they were directed at me. Islamophobic hate crimes surged again. Some critics demanded that Muslims condemn the attack; always there is this transferral of anger, a pressure that we bow down and atone for crimes committed by people with whom we share nothing but our faith (if we share that at all). The singer Morrissey, for example, lambasted Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, for his failure to condemn Islamic State, which had assumed responsibility for the bombing. Other commentators restated Islam’s incompatibility with the West. In this vein, the newspaper columnist Katie Hopkins chillingly tweeted the need for a ‘final solution’. Taken with the Westminster attack that had occurred two months before Manchester, and the London Bridge attack that took place a fort- night after, the summer of 2017 was a frightening one for us all, but especially terrifying if you were a British Muslim.
The Muslim Problem: Why We’re Wrong About Islam And Why It Matters is published by Atlantic Books.