Artwork by Rukia Begum
By Akkas Al-Ali
Years ago, as we were lining up in the playground, Carlos Ruiz (the class bully) ran up behind me and, quite beyond my worst nightmare, slipped a dead pigeon he’d found in the bush into the hood of my coat. Almost three decades later, I admit that I’m petrified of pigeons. My fear reminds me of that experience in the playground when I was six. I can remember the time of day, the weather and therefore the season, what I was wearing and who was there. My fear is located in my past imaginary. In other words, it’s not the pigeon itself that frightens me; I don’t run off screaming whenever I see one. What frightens me is the association I make when I see a pigeon.
I was reminded of the pigeon incident not long ago when I was walking near Aldgate East tube station in Tower Hamlets. I came across a wall on which someone had sprayed: ‘Bin Laden lives in E1’. My initial reaction was to laugh – until I remembered that, until the summer of 2009, I was also a resident of E1. Whoever had defaced the wall wasn’t thinking of the Bin Laden recently assassinated in Abbottabad. Rather, he or she was thinking of the borough’s large Muslim population. He or she was thinking of me. Just as the leap from one dead pigeon to all pigeons everywhere is not a great one, neither in the the popular imaginary is the leap from ‘one Muslim’ (Bin Laden) to ‘all Muslims’.
There’s a difference between a phobia of pigeons and a phobia of Muslims. But to understand the phobia behind the graffiti one needs to understand what it means in the British context. It’s easy to think of Islamophobia as simply a fear of the religion itself and that this fear emerges solely from the phobic’s preconfigured study of the Qur’an. In fact, Islamophobia has less to do with Islam’s holy book and, at least in the British context of the war on terror and the war on immigration, more to do with Muslims themselves whether they are the armed enemies within or the unarmed invaders from without. It is this fear that has produced the idea of a nation – a culture – under siege and, on the ground, a racism that cannot tell a settler from an immigrant, an immigrant from a Muslim, a Muslim from a terrorist. All of us, at first sight, are potential terrorists. We wear our passports on our faces.
Neither is this fear of Muslims, unlike my own fear of pigeons, directed towards a particular object. It is amorphous and, as we have seen in recent months, subject to continual change. It is a fear that dwells in the imagination. It can be projected onto any item that catches the eye and, as with all such irrational fears, excuses must be made to justify it. So an item of clothing as harmless as the veil becomes the symbol of the impenetrable stranger in our midst. It must be banned – indeed, it is banned. And the justification? Women who wear the veil pose a security risk. In fact, all the popular stereotypes that have come to be attributed to Muslims – the bearded mullah, his burka-clad wife and their radicalised son – all of these differences are subsumed under one category of Islam that sits loosely in the popular imagination. In this sense, it is no longer a phobia but an anxiety experienced through stereotypes and the belief that our lives are in constant danger from ‘them’. And the anxiety becomes a state of being that is permanently at play without its sufferer ever knowing what exactly is provoking it.
Nor does the anxiety stop there. It constructs a Muslim identity that bears no relation to how Muslims actually live their lives. (How many Muslim families really quote the Qur’an at each other every five minutes? If the Masoods of Albert Square are anything to go by, we do it all the time.) The Islamophobes of the English Defence League are more likely to accept Fox News’s caricature of a Muslim as the real deal than they are to accept the beardless Muslim youth sitting next to them on the bus or the unveiled city lawyer standing behind them in the supermarket queue. Unlike my fear of pigeons, theirs of Muslims is not based on any personal experience but on what has been filtered to them through other sources. The Muslim they fear and hate does not exist. He has been constructed – by the media, by governments – for mass consumption.
When the image of a human being we carry in our heads has no basis in our everyday experiences, this state of anxiety becomes a form of racism. And so the Muslim – like the Jew of yesteryear – becomes an ever-present spectre, summoned when needed, but never materialising as a real human being. It is this latter attribute which gives this racism such wide appeal.
There is a purpose to this racism however. We see it in the current discourse on integration and social cohesion. Certain types of Muslims are set against each other. The bearded youth exists on the outside because he looks different and dares to question the status quo. On the other hand, his consumer-oriented opposite is the ‘good citizen’ within because he is so integrated. Those who do not qualify to enter this sphere, who reject and resist the dominance of this norm, are the targets of this new racism. Just as there are good values and bad, there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. This is what the Islamophobe reminds us.
But this racism has also created an unbounded space for resistance that sits between the binary of the Muslim spectre and the ‘good citizen’. It is within this space that we must come together as Muslims and non-Muslims to vocalise our rejection of that binary and, more importantly, to give life to a politics that bears a different vision of what it means to be part of a community in which such artificial faultlines no longer exist.
Akkas Al-Ali is a playwright, dramaturg and director.
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