Years ago, just after the 7/7 bombings in London, when Islamophobia was on the rise, I made a film with my colleagues at Coventry Peace House Education Trust. It was a small, cheaply made production called “Conversations with Coventry Muslims” and it was exactly that – we chatted to people we knew about their lives, their beliefs and the kinds of prejudice they were encountering. I was proud of that film. It was televised on the Community Channel and it’s still being used to educate West Midlands Police Force about Islamophobia, so I’m told. One star of the show was a boy who talked about having to take the bins out and who proudly recited the Koran for us. He’s now a Hafiz and yesterday I was at his wedding reception.
I was bursting with pride at the wedding. It’s a long time since I’ve seen this man, but as with anyone I’ve created work with, he’ll hold a special place of gratitude with me. There was someone else there, a Muslim woman who I interviewed for an illustrated book and I have the same feelings about her. I’ll always remember her eloquence in talking about how different languages express certain emotions more readily than others and observing, as she spoke, the eloquence of her hands. At the wedding, I was talking to this woman and another Muslim woman I have met through work. Both of these women I have a great deal of time and respect for. They chose to share with me their more recent experiences of Islamophobia. I tried to respond with empathy. I’ve experienced racism vicariously through my family and gone through some of those experiences alongside them, but it’s not the same. I have been othered, but only in a situation where I felt my passport or my skin colour still gave me some protection. I don’t know what it’s like to be made to feel less than by your neighbours, by the Institutions of the country you grew up in, or continuously pulled aside at airports. I’m saddened that rather than getting better, since I made that film, Islamophobia has got worse. Muslim people I know have been used as political pawns and punching bags in the most awful way and it’s a disgrace. I am sickened by it.
I was in Coventry Library the day before yesterday, running a poetry event. At the end of the event I was with my husband (African) and child (mixed) who were helping me pack up. An older (white, British) man came in shouting about wanting to read a paper, only he couldn’t because he couldn’t read Swahili, going on and on about how the library didn’t have English papers (ridiculous), swearing his head off. I was livid. No one said anything to him and the two younger people he was with came and sat right by us. I am not a person to let things pass (it terrifies my poor husband!) but I knew that this man was itching to start a fight – to have his prejudices confirmed when someone ‘angry black person’ tried to stand up to him. So instead of calling him out on his racism, I stood and angrily said to him “Please can you stop swearing in front of my daughter?!” He immediately apologised and sat down and dumbfounded, I nodded at him.
My intention by focussing on the swearing was to say to him, look, my black family is more civilised than you! He looked cowed, to be honest. People will always look to others to blame for their losses, their lack of education or decent employment, or disappointments, or inability to whatever. People are always looking for a scapegoat. I think poverty, lack of social mobility, an education system that has been messed up by government after government, an underfunded health service, appalling mental health care – AUSTERITY – is a factor in this increase of prejudice people face on a daily basis. But there is no doubt that this has been fed by an owning class who have used difference as a way to deflect anger away from themselves as they; claim expenses, take backhanders, privatise services from underneath feeding lucrative contracts to their pals, use the media to make money for themselves and fix the system in their favour.
When I challenge people about Islamophobia they come back with domestic violence, fgm, women who are kept at home unable to speak English, forced marriage and honour killings. Well, you can lay plenty of thigs at the door of Christianity too but Islam, like Christianity, is incredibly diverse in the way it’s practised and Muslims, like anyone else, are an incredibly diverse bunch of people. The thing about prejudice is that it affects everyone in that perceived group. You can’t tell me that any prejudiced is a well thought out intelligent or ideological response to a deep knowledge of an individual’s values and culture. It’s aimed irrationally and generally at a group because of one defining feature – like a headscarf or a beard, or skin colour, or a bus seat.
Seriously, the other day a man posted a picture on Facebook of a load of bus seats – did you see it? It kind of, in a very vague way looked like a load of seated women wearing niquab. A right wing website got hold of it and the posts were terrifying, because they were aimed at people, but hilarious, because they were being made about bus seats. It perfectly demonstrated how senseless prejudice is.
I know this post isn’t very coherent. I’m not sure exactly what I am trying to say. But I guess it comes down to this: it’s up to all of us to make sure that things get better instead of disintegrating into hatred. I write this blog because I want a safe place to bring my daughter up. I want a good life for her and I really hope that the children of my superstar Hafiz and his new wife don’t have to face the hurt that they have had to face growing up.