Being the only brown kid in class had always been hard. Being the only Muslim only made it harder. My experience of difference added to the usual woes we all go through while trying to forge a path through those tricky teenage years where every emotion is amplified and a continual identity crisis is the modus operandi, for even the most well-adjusted adolescent.
A significant number of my younger years were spent in Portsmouth, a predominantly white, largely working class city. Although I would not say that I experienced it in an acute form, racism was a fairly regular part of my youth and helped reinforce a sense that I was somehow not quite the same as the other kids. The familiar taunts of “Oi! Paki!” from the resident class bully as I walked the hundred metres catch the bus was as much a part of my school experience as milk cartons and hop scotch in the playground.
For much of my life I had seen my “difference” through several lenses including race, religion, colour and culture. After 9/11 however, all the multiple identities I was negotiating seemed to collapse into one. It was as if the complexity and the reality of my experience and that of others like me no longer mattered. To the media, to the policymakers and to many people in the street I was a Muslim, tout court.
Like most people, I remember very clearly what I had been doing on September 11th 2001. I came home from school to find my mother transfixed to the television and joined her in disbelief as we watched the surreal images of that archetypal American icon, the Twin Towers collapse in a smouldering mass of rubble and smoke. At that moment neither of us could have known how the world was set to dramatically alter and how our various multiple identities (female/ British/ Pakistani/ student/ mother/ teacher/ Muslim) would soon be subsumed, in eyes of many, into simply ‘Muslim’.
In the days following the attack, as information about the perpetrators emerged, there was a dawning realisation that somehow the majority of Muslims would be made to pay for the acts carried out by a few distant individuals. Gradually, irrespective of whether I desired it and irrespective of whether I felt it, I was labelled “Muslim”.
A decade on, as we look back on the events that occurred that day in New York, it has become clear that the last ten years have seen a gross simplification of identity in political and public discourse. It did not take long before crude analyses such as Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisations” took on a new salience and gained renewed currency in neo-conservative political circles, cajoled and supported by an increasingly anti-Muslim press. While this has been among the most dominant and talked about post-9/11 legacies, 9/11’s impact on Muslims and Muslim identity has been multifarious.
I want to return to Portsmouth as the setting to explore another important development that we have witnessed since 2001, as the last ten years have also served to reinforce and intensify other worrying trends that have taken hold in the UK. For a long time, Portsmouth’s main BME (black and minority ethnic) group had been a small Bangladeshi community. However, like many other small and medium-sized cities and towns across the UK, Portsmouth has quite recently experienced a fairly rapid demographic change marked by an influx of new, non-white faces to the city. While I welcomed these developments, as the immigrants settled in so did a more virulent strain of racism. After 2001 it is no longer just taunts such as “Paki” that ethnic minority individuals have to contend with. Today, it is more likely that a brown individual (Muslim or otherwise) will be called “terrorist” or “Osama”. A friend of mine even remarked that he had been called “Afghan boy” as he was on his way to work – a clear illustration of the link between the so-called “war on terror” “out there” and what was happening “back here” in the UK.
Supported by a public environment increasingly hostile towards Muslims, and a media and political establishment that condones and in parts even fosters such attitudes, the racists had learned a new lexicon and a new way of expressing their hatred, their anxieties and their insecurities, in a way that did not arouse so much popular ire. Upon hearing that a couple of teenagers had sniggered and maliciously whispered the word “terrorist” to my mother as she passed by them in the supermarket. I did not know whether to laugh or rise up in rage as my mother, a docile smiling woman, barely an inch over five feet, relayed the story to me.
This change in tack since 9/11 is very much exemplified by the remarkable rise of the English Defence League, which champions a largely anti-Islamic rhetoric. Although small in number, there is no doubt that the EDL punches above its weight, and part of that is due to its adoption and narrow focus on Islamophobia – despite members’ past links with a wider neo-Nazism. This suggests that the group’s anti-Muslim platform is partly motivated by pragmatism and a desire to play it tactically, since a group which today espoused anti-Semitic or anti-Irish views for example, would be unlikely to garner much support.
Of course 9/11 has spawned different anti-Islamic reactions, many of which are rooted in a very specific Islamophobia; fear and intolerance of Muslims because of their religion. However, for many EDL supporters (whose roots lie in hooliganism, fascism and wanton violence) and those teenagers that my mother encountered in the supermarket, the post-9/11 environment in which it became okay to publicly espouse anti-Muslim views gave renewed life among some segments of British society to what is a more general aversion to difference, rooted in anxiety, xenophobia, and a deep-seated hostility to immigrants.
Anniversaries are opportunities to reflect, and as we look back on the decade that has passed there is a feeling even among certain politicians and leaders that the “war on terror” was a flawed diversion and that the twenty-first century will come to be seen through more than just a counter-terrorist lens. Yet, while policy makers might have quietly realised their mistaken approach and sheepishly tiptoed away from the policies of George W. Bush, the accompanying environment of mistrust and fear towards Muslims that has been allowed to flourish cannot simply be re-written with a new stroke of the foreign policy pen.
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