Islamic State (IS) wants you to believe that Islam is a brutal, intolerant religion, and they are doing a pretty good job of it. Wider perception of Islam in the UK is not how it can seem in the cushioned environment of Oxford University: almost every South Asian or Middle Eastern person I know has some story of a brush with Islamophobia (I have two, both unpleasant). Media representation is still catastrophically bad while government anti-radicalisation policy isolates and insults the Muslim community. British Muslims are being ‘othered’ and denied the important fused identity they often wear effortlessly, and the ignorance of Islamophobes is such that the problem is now not only one of religion but of race.
The persistence of Islamophobia in the UK is everywhere to be seen. Just a few weeks ago Mohammed Umar Farooq, a student at Staffordshire University, was ‘questioned’ under the Prevent initiative. He was so intimidated that he quit his course. Why? He was found reading a book on ‘Terrorism Studies’ in the library. Farooq is reading for a Master’s in terrorism, crime and global security – he is quite literally a counter-terrorism student, but unfortunately for him, he’s Mohammed not Michael, and in someone’s eyes his beard said something more like Damascus than Dalston.
Or how about the 14-year-old from north London who was left terrified by a two-on-one interrogation – so afraid that his parents are taking legal action – after he used the term ‘écoterrorisme’ in a discussion in French? And almost everyone has heard about Ahmed Mohamed in the US, the 14-year-old arrested for the terrible crime of building a clock. The BBC reported recently that Islamophobic attacks in London have risen by 70 per cent over the last year, a total of 816 reported incidents, and there have been similar increases across the country over the past decade.
There is a whole cohort of problems here: restriction of academic liberty, growing paranoia, all resulting from an irrational fear of Muslim culture. There is a real issue related to the ‘othering’ of British Muslims: the attitude of seeing them as strange and not-quite-like-me. There is an implied denial, even, of the very idea of a British Muslim. Seeing and treating Muslims as anything less than they are is, for one thing, a hugely counterproductive strategy as far as anti-radicalisation goes. But most importantly it is inhumane and profoundly dehumanising. You don’t have to look very far to see how dangerous that is, but a quick reflection on IS’s treatment of those it dislikes will make it all too clear.
Forming a cultural identity as a person of foreign descent in a country that only gave up on colonialism half a century ago is never going to be easy. But what’s essential is that those identities are formed in a wider community where differences are not brushed under the imported Persian carpet but approached with empathy and openness. It’s from this that we can see the fluidity and emptiness in our cultural identities and focus instead on the reality that is our shared humanity – and the more secure we are in that simple, obvious, often forgotten universality, the weaker both European fascism and Islamist extremism’s grip will become.
Despite recent instances of Islamophobia making headlines, there is some hope that things can be improved. It’s a little surreal to say, but the Great British Bake Off has become a perfect example for the fight against both Islamist radicalisation and creeping fascism. The fact that Nadiya, who won the show last week, wears hijab is a complete non-issue, it’s an interesting cultural difference, an elegant feature of her faith that’s incidental to the fact that, fundamentally, you, her and I are just human beings with a sweet tooth and a passion for good food.
Nadiya empowers British Muslims and all British people with complex cultural identities; her presence on our TVs has been a huge amount of fun, but also declares unequivocally that British Muslims, British Asians, British and non-British people from all over the world are recognised, and welcome. It says that even if we don’t quite know what Britishness is, we are certain that it’s as much about empathy and understanding as it is about anything else, including baked goods. Humanising someone should be effortless, and Bake Off has shown that it really, really is.
This isn’t about ‘political correctness’, or complex race relation theories, or even right vs. left – this is about people, and seeing them as nothing less than that. Keep on isolating and ‘othering’ Muslims, and you both destroy hard won, fused cultural identities and welcome in hatred with a smile and a slice of cake. Fight the effortless fight and reinforce awareness of our shared humanity, and fascism and Islamist radicalism will all but disappear from the UK.