Reyhana Patel: Can You Be a Muslim and Politically Active Without Being Called an Extremist?
Last week, prominent Muslim commentator Mehdi Hasan argued that fear-mongering and negative stereotyping of Muslims in public life has spun out of control. He outlined the racial abuse he encountered in trying to be a voice to a voiceless community and argued that “You can now say things about Muslims, in polite society and even among card-carrying liberal lefties that you cannot say about any other group or minority.” His post caused a number of other prominent commentators such as Owen Jones and Jonathan Freedland to show their support.
While I could not agree more with him, you do not have to be a prominent Muslim to experience such abuse.
From individuals who take an interest in politics to bloggers and organisations who are vocal in support of Islam and Muslims, somewhere along the line every one of them would have been labelled as an ‘extremist’ or experienced some form of racial abuse.
One only has to look at the number of websites which attacks practically every Muslim organisation that tries to engage and empower Muslim communities as “encouraging and promoting extremism.” The term ‘extremist’ has now become acceptable in society to be directed at Muslims who decide to take a role in being politically active about Islam and Muslims.
I do not write for a living nor am I anywhere as near a prominent Muslim writer like Mehdi Hasan, but I have always taken an interest in politics and have been involved in a number of political activist initiatives ranging from my student Islamic society to online blogging. Have I ever had some form of abuse for simply trying to educate myself and make a positive contribution to society?
Plenty of it and I’m not alone. Anyone that shares similar viewpoints and interests as me would have suffered some form of ‘Muslim bashing’ abuse. The sad thing is that it has now become the norm and expected if you decide to say something positive about Muslims.
I cannot begin to recall the amount of times I have been told to “go back where you came from” or as in a most recent Twitter conversation where I merely asked if mainstream media outlets contributed to Islamophobia, in which I received a reply; “well look you have the option of going back to where you’re from, where it’s all about Islam and nothing else.” Exactly where should that be? My parents are both from western countries. I’m a British citizen. I grew up in a county where Christianity was the prominent religion. Where exactly should I go home to?
I am not alone in this. The constant stream of abusive comments geared towards Muslims whether it’s on social networking or in the media can be very disheartening. I merely have to log into my Twitter or Facebook account to see phrases such as “Muslims, if you don’t like our country, go back home” and “Muslims need to integrate” from individuals of all backgrounds.
However, the worst abuse I ever witnessed was the response to the poppy burning incident which took place on Remembrance Day 2010 by now banned extremist group Muslim Against Crusades. I logged into my Facebook account to see numerous anti-Islam messages against the entire Muslim population of Britain. Comments ranging from “Muslims go home” to ”filthy Muslims” were prevalent across my Facebook newsfeed. It really was a shame that an entire 3 million Muslims had to feel the repercussions for the actions of 50 Muslim individuals.
And it’s not just anti-Islam comments that are worrying. Being associated with causes relating to Muslims puts one in a category of “supporting extremism.” At one of my previous jobs, I was called an ‘extremist’ for simply relaying that I spent my weekend travelling to London on a coach to attend a Palestine protest. However when it came to another colleague who defended the English Defence League, he was labelled as patriotic. A Muslim friend of mine also refuses to publicise his interest and involvement with politics at work because of the career limitations it would bring.
I’ve also met a number of Muslim graduates who are hesitant about writing about their involvement with Muslim groups on their CV for fear of being stereotyped. When filling out job applications last year, I deliberately refused to include my role as contributing writer at Canadian online magazine, Suite101, for certain roles because of the risk of it being used against me to land an interview; even though the skills utilised in that position could have been easily transferrable. Even now, I’m still hesitant to go into work and say ‘everyone, my blog post is published in the HuffPost today.’ However, it would probably be a different story if say my area of writing would have been movies or sports.
Should we be surprised at this? Muslims are often always portrayed by the British media in a negative light. Even government policies have always emphasised the need for Muslims to integrate more into British society. With such fear-mongering prevalent, it’s no surprise that Muslim representation in public life and politics is at its minimum.
But it’s just not in wider society that we are seeing such abuse. Even in Muslim communities, those who take a stand on issues as Islamophobia, foreign policy and extremism are also stigmatised as being too ‘out there.’ I’ve encountered numerous occasions where Muslim individuals would point out, “You shouldn’t be too vocal you’ll be mistaken for a terrorist,” or “Blogging about these issues is not your concern, you will gain a negative reputation.” Well whose concern is it then? Should we just shrug off the growing threat of Islamophobia and accept such discrimination?
One has to wonder why the fear. The problem is extremism, foreign policy and political activism are not openly discussed in Muslim communities. How many mosques address such issues in their Friday sermons? Or how many Muslim parents will encourage their children to get involved in politics?
I stand with Mehdi Hasan on this one. Fear-mongering and negative stereotyping of Muslims has indeed spun out of control to the extent that you cannot be a Muslim and politically active about Islam and Muslims without being called an ‘extremist.’ Muslims wanting to go down the route of politics, activism and public life should not have to undergo such abuse.
It’s about time the word ‘extremist’ is untagged from the words Muslim and Islam and assigned to the real ‘extremists.’