Appearances can be deceptive.

By Sarah Khan.

Like many other people, I was completely shocked and appalled by the murder last week of an innocent man on the streets of London. Having adopted this city as my home town, I have come to love it with a passion and appreciation for all the freedoms found within this multicultural metropolis. I have lived in London through many terror attacks; 9/11, 7/7 and the car bombs in the centre of the city. Nevertheless, the good people of London weathered each of these atrocities with tremendous grace and strength. The reaction to this most recent attack, however, indicates that perhaps a small, yet significant, wave of public opinion has begun to change and that future attitudes towards Muslims in London and the UK are more uncertain than ever.

One response to the attacks which caused a furore was given by the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson. Reporting on the attack, he took the decision to impart information about the suspects which he must have felt were important to the case. He claimed that the attackers were ‘of Muslim appearance’. Such was the backlash from this choice of words, that he later issued an apology through his official blog, claiming that he was merely repeating the words a source had relayed to him. He summed up the reason for people’s anger with the last line of his apology:

This all makes people understandably sensitive about anything which could be used to justify hostility to people on the basis of their appearance or religion.’

So here we have the political editor of the BBC admitting that being of ‘Muslim appearance’ is a reason for others to become hostile towards such individuals. A far more worrying admission was also made in this blog entry. Robinson stated that:

This information (about appearance) changed the news from a crime story to something of more significance.’

By inference, this appears to indicate that the involvement of a person dressed in Muslim garb, or with a beard or hijab, in a crime such as murder would necessitate that the act is assumed to be terrorist in nature. The wider implication – whether intended or not – is that Muslim people of Muslim appearance, who are involved in a crime, are likely to harbour terrorist inclinations. Never mind that in reality there was nothing ‘Muslim’ about the appearance of the attackers, they were dressed in casual ‘western’ clothes.

It can be concluded then that, if you are on the streets of London and of Muslim appearance, then you must realise that you already fulfil certain characteristics of a terrorist. Should you become involved in any incident, accidentally or intentionally, then the fact that you look like a Muslim means that your actions or mere presence are ‘something more significant’ than those of people from other faiths or appearances.

I had already come to know that this attitude existed among some sections of society. As I go about my daily business in the capital I often receive stares and puzzled looks as a white woman wearing the hijab – the Muslim head covering. I am used to it and thankfully admit that such incidents are isolated. I have always been able to get jobs, join courses and make friends and I have never felt that wearing a hijab hindered me in any way. Even after 7/7 when a bus driver refused to wait for me as I ran to catch the bus at its stop with my back-pack on, I shrugged off the issue because, in the main, people dealt with me as a person and not as a piece of cloth. They could see beyond the outer layers and responded to my actions and my behaviour rather than my outfit.

When Nick Robinson talks about ‘Muslim appearance’ he is talking about me, and thousands of other women like me across the UK. When he, as a key member of the BBC, equates looking like a Muslim with the expectation of terrorism then we all need to tread very carefully indeed. If we look at the other reactions to the stabbing, then we have further cause to be worried about the tide of opinion turning against all those who outwardly convey their faith through their clothes.

Most worryingly, there are the facebook and other social media pages which quickly became a beacon for all Islamaphobes and racists. Members of such groups openly boasted about their hatred of Muslims in the filthiest language and even attempted to incite violence against mosques and Islamic places of worship. The threats issued from these platforms are frightening and intimidating, but they were not idle. In the hours after the stabbing several mosques were indeed attacked, defaced and threatened. This led to an increased police presence at some mosques. Far from being reassuring, the heightened security demonstrates that we are not safe, reinforcing the real notion that we are under threat if we chose to attend prayers.

It was also of great concern that the well-known fanatic and hate-preacher Anjem Chaudhry was afforded large amounts of air time in the days after the stabbing, both on the BBC and other channels. This makes me feel betrayed and it was a true injustice to the family of the victim. This man has openly incited his followers to an extreme and unwelcome ideology and done more to damage the reputation of Muslims in Britain than many others. He is a fanatic well beyond the spectrum of what an average Muslim professes in their faith. He has also been shown on television and through his own admission to have associated with at least one of the perpetrators of the stabbing. Upon this backdrop, why would the BBC and others validate his extremism by affording it attention and by allowing him to speak on behalf of Muslims or Islam? He does not now, nor ever will, share my views on Islam, life or faith. I have no connection with him whatsoever and I am disgusted by his words and ideology. In giving him the attention he so desperately craves, news outlets are letting me down. They know he is a fanatic and I am disappointed that they would, once again, pander to the authors of social discord and disruption.

So what now for the Muslims of Britain in the post-Robinson era? Is it safe for me to wear the hijab? Must I change the way I dress so I am not deemed to be a potential threat? I cannot remove my hijab; It is part of my belief and central to my identity. I do not want to separate myself from centuries of tradition, nor do I want to capitulate to the mood of the moment. I would like people to continue to see past the cloth and to realise that I am not an extremist because I cover my hair.

Both Muslims and the government have much to do in order to achieve societal peace and stability. Mosques must open their doors and become part of the wider community.For as long as they remain aloof or apart from life in Britain, they will be viewed with suspicion and mistrust. In being open they can reassure the public that there is nothing to fear. Also, Muslims and the government should take steps to reign in hate preachers. No mosque in Britain should give shelter to those who openly speak against the government in terms of violence or hate. Mosques should not be politically aligned; they should remain places of worship to serve the needs of mankind. It is in the tradition of the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) that mosques were a source of peace which were welcome to all. As long as hate preachers are allowed to continue in their recruitment and training of of young people to view the world through vengeful eyes, mosques and Islamic centres will remain under a cloud. The general public cannot be expected to know which mosques are ‘friendly’ and which are not.

Nick Robinson did not intend to cause offence with his remark – of course he didn’t. He was merely reporting what a police source had said. While I am worried and concerned about the use of such labelling, rather than remaining insulted, Muslims in the UK should acknowledge the fear and suspicion with which many others view them and take active steps to welcome the whole of Britain into their mosques so as to rebuild the trust that must hold strong between people and faith in a country which has provided so many benefits for so many in recent years. I am proud to say that I am already a member of a community which fulfils all these requirements.

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2 thoughts on “Appearances can be deceptive.

  1. Some good points regarding the appearance of muslims and how this can create stereotypes and discrimination, conscious or subconscious. Contrary to many people, I personally believe that a woman who wears the hijab is demonstrating great character and strength. Regarding Anjem Chowdhary, I think it was fair enough for the British media to interview him, because one of the two accused had attended his meetings. I also think the media have always portrayed Mr Choudhary as an extremist, I don’t think they say he represents mainstream Islam, so we can take some comfort from that. Lastly, I don’t support Mr Choudhary, but if you read his statements in response to the murder of the British soldier on British soil… in fact, he condemned it. His political view was quite sophisticated, to give him credit. He said that muslims are permitted to fight against soldiers who invade their countries, but not permitted to kill people in the UK where they are living peacefully under the security of the UK government. I’m not sure what he’s said on other occasions, but on this occasion, I don’t see the problem with his statement. Even the UN Charter and international law gives the right to every country to fight against an invading power. I agree with your statements on media manipulation, and therefore I think it’s important that we don’t permit the media to demonise anybody (including Anjem Chowdhary) to the extent that we don’t fairly evaluate their position. This is one important feature of “Love for all, hatred for none”.

  2. Mrs. Khan,
    I’m deeply impressed by your courageous words, which I deem to be fit to be delivered in any of the mosques you mentioned or also elsewhere. May Allah enable you and all of us to do so, Ameen

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