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22 January 2015

On Muslims and the Racism In My Head ● by Jess

Overcoming Prejudice

I had just turned 13 when 9/11 happened.

Just ten days into my teenage years, my world was suddenly tinted with dark thoughts about Muslims that hurt people. In hindsight, it's a bit alarming… I never even really knew those thoughts were in there, rattling around unconsciously. It wasn't until I went to University and travelled to the Middle East that I even realised I had feelings at all about Muslims.

In my first day in Turkey, I went to a park with a friend from China. We sprawled out on the grass, in our t-shirts and jeans, lazily people watching. Nearby, a little four-year-old girl, who was picnicking with her family, stared at us. We waved and she eventually wandered over to say hello. Even though we spoke different languages, we played a little game, and she showed me how to properly put on a head scarf. Both she and her parents eagerly shared their picnic with us. I remember being so surprised by this interaction. These people weren't the closed off, judgemental people I had in my mind-- they were warm, hospitable and loving.

Overcoming Prejudice

In Morocco I had a similar experience. I was in Casablanca, desperately trying to hail a taxi with a friend. When one finally stopped for us, I tried to haggle the price to get to the Medina (I'd been cheated enough to learn my lesson and negotiate a firm price before the metre "skipped" mid-journey). The man looked at me as if I were insane, then rolled his eyes and assured me that he would charge me a fair price. Feeling like we didn't have much choice, we got in the car. The roof was sagging and the stuffing was literally bursting from the worn-out seats (take a moment to think how long it takes car upholstery to get threadbare-- it was a beater).

Along his dashboard he had some religious items and a photograph of his family (with six children!). My friend asked about the items and the man gushed about his family, how tough it was to keep them all fed, but how much he loved Allah. He went on professing for awhile about the joy he finds in his faith, when suddenly the car lurched to an abrupt stop.

Outside, an old, bearded man in a tattered rob was very slowly crossing the road. A strap with jingle bells hung from his left hand while he swayed a stick back and forth with his right. The old man was blind. 

As he passed in front of our taxi, our driver took all the cash out of his cup (a good chunk of a day's wage I'd guess, as it was around 4 o'clock) and called over to the man. The driver reached his hands out to meet the old man's, who was having difficulty finding his way. The old man gasped and our driver said something to him in Arabic. Then, without a word, we were back on our way. 

I don't know if I've ever seen someone live their faith so clearly and beautifully before.

Overcoming Racism

Though Egypt, by contrast, was not so kind to me, I learned a great deal about the Muslim perspective on sexuality and modesty. Surprisingly, I found it far more liberating than I had previously understood it. In short, my entire understanding of the Islamic world was changed for the better.

Overcoming Racism

These feelings stayed with me for awhile. Jon and I married and moved to NYC. Our neighbourhood in Queens was one of the most diverse in the country and it was perfectly normal to see women in hijabs or saris or men in yarmulkes with ringlets. All religions and ethnicities seem to be happy together and it was really wonderful.

Then I moved to London.

Now, to be fair, I really feel London in general, is more accepting and loving than basically anywhere I lived in the States. Maybe it's because people get less offended about political correctness, and everyone is just fine if you are gay or straight or religious or atheist or whatever. No one really cares.

The one thing that does make people feel quietly uncomfortable-- particularly in the wake of the 2005 London tube bombingsCharlie Hebdo, and growing influence of ISIS-- is the more orthodox members of the Islamic faith, who are ever-increasing in the UK.

This discomfort isn't wholly intentional. As a white bystander, I do understand why most articles and programs discussing Islam on the BBC are about the radicalisation of London primary schools or homegrown terrorists or some other concern over extremism of certain Islamic groups. This stuff sells and its what the majority of white Britons are interested in hearing about. Unfortunately, not as many people are interested in happy, dancing Muslims when there are terrorists afoot (which is really too bad, because that video has got to be one of my favs). 

But I also acknowledge that if I were Muslim, I'd be frustrated and also feel a bit persecuted.

London Muslim Racism

Still, it isn't just the news. I often feel like I am fighting those negative over-generalised feelings within myself. Be it with my Muslim neighbours who let their children run screaming through the halls at 3am, or the flat above us where the occupant illegally smokes for hours on end, or the hookah cafes full of men that spend all day cat-calling women, these daily experiences collectively paint a very unhappy picture of Muslims in London, particularly because it's not as if my neighbours are all poor, uneducated immigrants either-- they are mostly wealthy oil tycoon families on extended holidays.

Reconciling beautiful cultural experiences I've had in the past, with the perpetual frustration I have felt recently, has proven to be quite difficult. I can literally feel racism creeping into my brain with every negative experience I have. I'm embarrassed to say it, sometimes I wonder, if it weren't for the positive experiences mentioned above, would I also be racist?

I read a book once by a man named Amartya Sen, called Identity and Violence. In it he points out that we all have multiple identities (ie I am a woman, a wife, a mormon, a heterosexual, an American, an artist, etc), but we seem to only focus on our, and other persons, dominant identity. For myself, I tend to think about my identity as a Mormon most of all. Maybe because it is so different from that of my associates, it seems to define me most. 

But Sen warns against this kind of thinking saying that "the increasing tendency towards seeing people in terms of one dominant ‘identity’ is... the denial of an important liberty of a person who [should be able to] decide on their respective loyalties to different groups."

I tend to SOLELY focus on the Islamic identity of my neighbours. I don't think of them as believers, lovers, givers, or inspirers. I never think about how they see themselves or how they wish to be seen. To say it out loud is mildly horrifying, but it's still true. 

Instead of battling within myself about which of my experiences with Muslim culture is most authentic, I could instead be empathising with their individual human experiences. As I've gone through these thoughts, I've been able to see the parents of the children that run down our hall, not as irresponsible and inconsiderate, but as the exhausted wranglers of triplets. I've also learned that the chain smoker above us as a man who has recently learned that he has terminal cancer.  

Their behaviour is not the result of the identify I've assigned them. Rather it is the result of life. 

While I can't excuse the violence that some people choose to inflict on others in the name of religion or politics or passion, as an individual, I can choose to stop the violence of thought seems to seep in way too easily. Why does it happen?! And why do we let it? Hopefully, 2015 will be a year filled with more positivity and more compassion to those around me. 

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done, Jess. You need to have a G+ button, too.