Interfaith lessons: What the Jewish community has taught one Muslim convert

In Autumn 2016, I moved from the Midlands and sleepy Staffordshire to the hustle and bustle of London. Having moved to a more diverse, vibrant area of the country and being curious about other faiths (particularly Judaism), I started to notice a visible Jewish presence in and around the city, spotting Jewish brothers with payot curls or kippahs. Back home, this was not something you ever really saw. Now living in London and having been curious about Judaism for a while, after a quick Google search I contacted West London Synagogue to see how I could find out more about my Abrahamic brothers and sisters.

I subsequently joined the synagogue’s Jewish-Muslim interfaith women’s group and during our first meeting eagerly borrowed a book: Judaism for Dummies. Yes – I really was starting from zero! A few pages in and I started to understand something which would teach me not only about Judaism but also my own faith: the richness of diversity.

Liberal Judaism, Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Hasidic Jews, atheist Jews, secular Jews… The great (sometimes seemingly contradictory) diversity was apparent and very intriguing – if at first confusing!

Yet, as I spent more time at the synagogue (later becoming co-chair of the ladies’ group) and attended various interfaith events, I discovered exactly what this meant. I learnt that Judaism was incredibly rich and diverse – not just culturally but religiously. What’s more – such diversity was no hidden secret or elephant in the room! Visiting a reform synagogue, led by a male-female board of rabbis, which welcomed with open arms diverse members of both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, including LGBT devotees and non-Jewish spouses, I witnessed how the synagogue actively embraced diversity and didn’t shy away from debate.

Elizabeth Arif-Fear (2)In fact, questioning, debating and discussion were seen as such positive (not troublesome) elements of their faith that one of the recurring jokes at interfaith events centred around how disagreement is almost a marker of the Jewish community! Take two people with two different views to a rabbi and you’ll find the rabbi will declare that there’s no one answer. Difference of opinion is not seen as a problem but instead an eye opener.

Now when I think of Islam, whilst there is diversity – and a much richer diversity than many people realise – there seems to be somewhat of a shying away from questioning and inclusivity of the “non-traditional” or “mainstream”. Whilst I cannot generalise, and of course my experience of the British Jewish community seems to be mostly of liberal/reform Judaism and there is indeed a wide range of “branches” and views within both faiths, there appears to be far less inclusivity and debate, discussion and search of knowledge within the Muslim community. Often questioning and differing views are deemed as ignorant, overly liberal or even heretical.

At a recent event on “Islam vs. Islamism” held by Faith Matters, Dilwar Hussain (founding chair of New Horizons in British Islam) highlighted that the period in when Islam really “flourished” was during the “Golden Era” in Al-Andalus. In this era, the Muslim community practised a tolerant, explorative, enlightened and socially open form of Islam. This community accepted – not restricted – diversity.

So, what has my interfaith experience taught me? It’s highlighted that respecting and including diversity within our faith, given the current global socio-political climate is more important than ever. Diversity is something to be proud of. It doesn’t “water-down” Islam. It doesn’t threaten the Muslim community. Quite the opposite – it helps it flourish.

Credits and acknowledgements

This blog feature was first published by 3 Faiths Forum on 22/08/2017 (c)

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Have you heard of the Uyghurs? Read one sister’s account of the persecution she faced in China

The Uyghur community, both in China and abroad, are facing ongoing persecution. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with this community, please see my previous post – an interview with “Mr X” – which outlines the complex situation in China, in particular the east of the country (Xinjiang province). This province in was in fact once East Turkestan before being later seized by China and held under the Communist State.

Unlike the Han Chinese, the Uyghur community are an ethnic minority (mostly Muslim) which face a range of ongoing religious, cultural, social, economic and political restrictions/abuses under the Chinese government. I therefore first urge you to read my previous post to get a full insight into the issue. Slowly, slowly the issue is gaining more publicity but not enough. MUCH more awareness needs to be raised. Finding out more is a good place to start!

In light of this, I’d like to share with you the account of one Uyghur sister who was forced to flee China with her family due to the situation they were living in in their home country.

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My name is Gulnaz and I am a Uyghur Muslim. My place of birth is East Turkestan but the world knows it as Xinjiang because China says so. When I was a child, eleven years old, my family fled “Xinjiang”. At that point I had already seen enough. This 11 year-old girl had seen enough to understand that she was not safe in China. Today I am 23 years old and even after so many years, Xinjiang still haunts me.

Below is a write-up by me. I have tried to not reveal much about myself and have simply written my story. Maybe you will understand my position after reading it. If you wish, you may also share it.

I remember being not allowed to attend school because I had to work in the fields with my father. Sometimes I would work alone if my father was unwell. My little hands weren’t able to help much but I had no choice. I remember the eyes of Chinese guards looking at us in the market. It made me feel as if I belonged to a different planet – a planet which they disliked. This happened only because we were Uyghurs and Muslims. One night, they stormed our house, checking every nook and corner. My mother hid me in the basement, gave me a little bottle with liquid in it and instructed me to drink it if an officer tried to touch me. Thankfully, nothing happened and we were told that these were normal search operations. But soon a horrific incident followed which forced us to flee the country.

One of my aunts in the neighborhood was pregnant with her second child and her family was planning to send her away as Uyghurs weren’t allowed to have a second child. Somehow the Chinese officials found out about my aunt and they forced her to have an abortion. In a dingy hospital room, one night, she died. Patime was six months pregnant and doctors operated on her, risking her life.

This incident shocked my family and my father decided to leave China. We immediately fled to Turkey but kept changing places, sometimes countries, every two years or so.

Throughout this time we kept hearing news about China’s crackdown on Uyghurs, the Urumqi Massacre, how they were demolishing mosques, arresting innocent people and about their raids to find Uyghurs living abroad too. My father warned us to never reveal our Uyghur identities and refrained from teaching us about the Uyghur culture too. The terrifying news of Thailand detaining 300 Uyghurs and sending them back to China instilled fear in us again. The fact that no protests or hunger strikes by detained Uyghurs could save them made it clear that once China finds about our family then we will be punished too.

Despite of all the hardships we faced, my father never compromised our education. He made sure that we got a good schooling. He thinks that only good education can lead us off this path of slavery and fear. Today, he wants me to become a teacher so that I can contribute towards making our world a better place for everyone. I however think that I am an activist inside and whenever I listen to or come across a news of injustice, my blood boils and I become determined to do something. Our world has been seen as divided between “First World” and “Third World” countries but Uyghurs aren’t given a place within any of those spheres. We are people living in a fourth country which has been left to suffer by world leaders but why? Aren’t Uyghurs human beings too? So a few years back, the Uyghur in me took over and I made my account on Twitter (@iamgul8).

Here I try to talk with as many people as I can to convey the struggle of Uyghurs in China. Why should we suffer just because we are Uyghur or Muslim? What is our crime? Out of the many people I have contacted, some of them have always asked about my story but I can’t say anything else because that could place my family in trouble.

After writing this story, my chances of being chased by Chinese officials are greater so I may go quiet. However – our story is important. The world has ignored Uyghurs for long enough and now they must stand with us. Like many Uyghurs, another Gulnaz may get abducted, tortured or killed but her fight, our fight against injustice must be continued by someone and it has to be you!

In search of a safe world,
Gulnaz Uighur

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Please help raise awareness of this persecuted community who face imprisonment, torture and even death. Get active on social media and share the truth! You can start by sending a solidarity message to imprisoned Uyghur scholar named Ilham Tohti via the Amnesty International Write for Rights campaign. Your words can really make a difference to ease his suffering and show the authorities that they are being watched!

Credits and acknowledgements:

Thanks to Gulnaz for sharing her inspiring story. All my very best wishes to you, your family and the Uyghur community. May the persecution come to an end soon, insha’Allah.

Gul’s post was first published on the World Uyghur Congress website (29/05/2017). The original piece can be found here.

Image credits: Kök Bayraq (Uyghur flag) (CC)

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Visiting the biggest mosque in Western Europe – do you know it?

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Last night, I headed to the biggest mosque in not just the UK but Western Europe, to take a look and find out more about the local community. Can you guess where I was?

You may have seen this particular mosque in the 2016 Channel 5 documentary “Britain’s Biggest Mosque“. Yes, the mosque in question is Bait Ul Futuh, the centre of the local Ahmaddiyah community, based in Morden (London).

Now Muslim readers may gasp: “An Ahmaddiyah mosque?!”. For in the Muslim world, Ahmaddiyahs face economic, social, religious, political and even life threatening persecution in countries such as Pakistan for being deemed as “heretics” by non-Ahmadi groups. In Pakistan for example, citizens are required to sign a document declaring Ahmadi Muslims as “kafirs” (disbelievers) in order to get a passport, whilst violent behaviour by some local citizens is also a reality. Just this week, the journalist Rana Tanveer was run over by a car after being threatened for reporting on the abuse of religious minorities in Pakistan including the Ahmadiyah community (more info on such persecution to follow in a future blog post).

Now, I for one disagree with such statements and behaviours for a multitude of reasons. I reject the statement that Ahmadis are “non-Muslim heretics” and I reject such “takfiri” behaviour where people feel free to openly state who is and isn’t a believer on God’s behalf. I also most certainly in any case reject such treatment of any religious or non-religious minority whether Muslim or not on behalf of citizens and States. As a human rights activist and Muslim who refuses to fall into the Sunni-Shia dichotomy etc. and who rejects labels and sectarianism as well as takfiri behaviour and Islamic extremism, I wanted to find out more about this often demonised Muslim community and meet my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters, whilst also getting an insight into what Western Europe’s biggest mosque looks like!

I was warmly welcomed to the mosque by brother Noor for an evening of prayer and breaking our fast. To start with, we took a peek at the evening’s charity appeal in one of the larger rooms of the mosque. In the UK and USA, this community are most often known for their charity work and on the very night a significant sum of money had been raised for their charity work abroad. Moving on to the main entrance of the mosque area itself, there were lots of beautiful flowers to add a lovely fresh, colourful vibe to the site. But what about the inside of the mosque? What’s it like? Well from what I saw, the answer is simply this: pretty much like any other mosque! Take a look for yourself!

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Outside Bait Ul Fituh mosque

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Inside the men’s prayer hall

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The prayer area for disabled gentlemen – a nice extra feature!

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View of the minaret as the sun starts to set

So, apart from the security system which is in place to protect the community from attacks (which you’ll also find in place in other religious places of worship), you can see that it’s no different! Same salat (prayer), same washrooms to make wudu (ablution), etc. Yes – perfectly normal! And that’s the point.

The ladies ate in the dining area with the men, separated by a curtain, to break fast and then have dinner after prayer (rice and curried chicken!). We prayed in a separate clean, (fairly) spacious prayer hall (larger than a lot I’ve been to and with an additional floor which I chose not to pray in). I’ve actually been to places in London where the wudu area was so dirty that I couldn’t wash, only to find out that the extremist rhetoric was so traumatising I couldn’t even stay to pray there. And trust me – whilst I’m not judging (God knows what’s in their hearts) – these are exactly the same kind of people who would call our Ahmadi brothers and sisters “kafirs” (and me for going no doubt!)…

So brothers and sisters in Islam, live and let live. Enough with the takfiri labels, the violence, the demonising, the hating. We’re all believers. We all worship Allah (swt) with no partners. We all believe in the Prophet Muhammad and his predecessors (peace be upon them all). We all worship Allah (swt) and Allah alone. And… we’re all human! Can’t we just live in a tolerant, peaceful, united world?

Peace, salam

Acknowledgement:

Thank you to brother Noor and the staff at Bait Ul Futuh for arranging my visit and for warmly welcoming me to the mosque. Ramadan Kareem!

The Big Iftar: Breaking Bread amongst Friends

West London Synagogue (WLS) has long been a centre for members of different faith communities to come together and build bridges of mutual understanding, faith and friendship, and I’m delighted to have attended one of WLS’ recent interfaith gatherings.

Whilst Muslims are currently celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, where we fast from sunrise to sunset in remembrance of the poor and needy and celebrate the first revelation of the Qur’an, our Jewish brothers and sisters have also recently celebrated the festival of Shavuot, marking the monumental moment when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The combination of these two festivals this year shows that as members of the Abrahamic family, we really do have more in common than many may realise. Every year, our Jewish neighbours fast for 24 hours during Yom Kippur, whilst for Muslims, Shavuot reminds us of the importance of Prophet Moses and the Torah within Islam.

To mark the joint celebration and bring together the two communities, WLS hosted a joint Tikkun Leil Shavuot study night and Big Iftar, open for all to attend. The evening started with an Erev Shavuot combo service and Q&A debate which I, alongside other members of the Muslim and Jewish communities, thoroughly enjoyed. We then moved to the dining hall as 250+ of us united for iftar – the evening meal following the breaking of our fast.

20170530_223149.jpgWith everyone sat side by side amongst members of both faith communities, the hall had a joyful lively buzz of chatter as everyone got to know one another. The dinner consisted of a lovely mixture of Middle Eastern food including hummous, falafel, bread and a range of salads. As we broke bread together (dipped into hummous of course!), we learnt about each other’s faiths, with further reflections on the meaning of Ramadan and the importance of interfaith unity by both Rabbi Helen and Sheikh Ibrahim Khalil Baye Nass.

Enjoining in a heartwarming gathering of unity, solidarity and faith, the evening was a wonderful success – albeit a bit short for those of us who had to rush off to get the train home! The Big Iftar was later followed by a scriptural reasoning and all-night study session and subsequent Shacharit sunrise service, once again open for all to attend. Little did we know though that the success of the evening and the unity it portrayed were to become more important than ever. As we reflect on the heartbreaking terrorist attacks, merely a few days later, the evening is an inspirational reminder of the need to come together in harmony.

Thank you to Rabbi Helen, Julia, David and Neil plus Nic and all other staff and members of WSL for hosting such a wonderful evening and once again, welcoming the Muslim community with warm, open arms. May we continue to come together and may there be many more big iftars to come, God willing!

Salam, shalom, peace.

Elizabeth Arif-Fear

Co-Chair, Nisa-Nashim Marylebone

Credits and information:

Article feature for WLS Shavuot Review (2017)

Photography: West London Synagogue (featured image) (c), Elizabeth Arif-Fear (c)

Find out more about the Big Iftar campaign via their website and social media platforms (Facebook and Twitter).

#ChallengingTheNarrative – Which narratives do you refuse to endorse? Here’s 10 I won’t…

Last month, in line with International Women’s Day, I attended the Nisa-Nashim conference in London. Nisa-Nashim (meaning “women” in both Arabic and Hebrew respectively) is a UK based organisation which aims to bring Muslim and Jewish women together to build bridges, found friendships and develop understanding between the two communities. We’ve got more in common than you’d think: we both come from the Abrahamic family of faiths, we share many values and practices and  sadly, both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism – at least in visible terms – are on the rise worldwide including Europe and the USA.

However, this unfortunate trend appears to be bringing the two communities closer together. Back in February this year in the US, when thugs desecrated two Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and St. Louis, American Muslims raised over a staggering $140,000 to rebuild the graves. Likewise, when a mosque in Tampa (Florida) was attacked just day later, thanks to the support of Jewish donors, a massive total of $60,000 was raised to repair the damage. Gestures such as this go to show that we refuse to be divided by hate and that we actively challenge the narrative that “Jews and Muslims don’t get on” (due to predominantly Middle Eastern politics one would presume).

“Challenging the narrative” was exactly the theme of the Nisa-Nashim conference – a lovely day spent with lots of lovely Jewish and Muslim sisters (and one lovely gentleman)! We really are stronger together and we really do need to show that stereotypes, narratives and misconceptions must be challenged. During the day the question was posed: What narratives are you challenging? Other than by already being there, this made me think about what I am doing and what I can do – like all of us – to challenge people’s perceptions and to offer a different narrative. Here’s my list – what’s yours…?

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1. Islam and human rights are “incompatible”. Muslims hate “gay people”, agnostics, atheists, non-Muslims, Hindus, feminists, human rights campaigners etc.

I do not hate anyone. End of. God gave us all life and we must respect everyone – with no distinction in regards to ethnic background, nationality, race, religion or sexuality END OF. I myself am a human rights campaigner. I have a Master’s in Human Rights, I run a human rights blog and I’m a member of Amnesty International. I’m passionate about being active – online and offline – and I try and use my voice to speak out against injustice. This is my life, if I couldn’t do this well… there’d be trouble!

As a Muslim, Islam advocates feeding the poor, being just, honest, treating all humans (including women!) with respect, honour and dignity. Islam is serious about human rights. Unfortunately religious extremism, fear, sexism, tribalism, greed, intolerance, xenophobia etc. have all got in the way for many…

2. Muslims and Jews “don’t get on”

I’m Co-Chair of a local Jewish-Muslim women’s group in London as part of the Nisa-Nashim network. I respect and love my Jewish brothers and sisters. I may even have Jewish heritage (long story) and that is something I’m incredibly proud of. I’m forever saying how I’d like to make some Jewish friends! I – like many Muslim women – attended the Nisa-Nashim conference and are involved in its activities. The main hall was full of love! Since then I’ve been able to attend an interfaith Passover Seder and will continue to be involved in interfaith work. We’re sisters in the Abrahamic family and we’re sisters in humanity. And no: being Muslim does not equate to being anti-Semitic or a terrorist just as being Jewish does not equate to being a Zionist or Islamophobe.

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Jewish-Muslim solidarity (Washington D.C.) – Image credit: Joe Flood (CC)


3. Converts are suspicious, strange or wannabe extremists

There are Muslim converts, Jewish converts, Sikh converts (people I’ve met!) – it’s a fact of life. However we come to our new faith, we usually do so with love and enthusiasm – we’ve found something dear. Converts need to learn, they need support and they’re on a journey but hey – we’re normal!

4. You can’t be (truly) British and Muslim

British, Muslim and proud – that’s me. That’s also millions of British Muslims across the British Isles. My history and heritage is mine – it’s what got me here – and Britain accepts me as a Muslim, for who I am. Having spent time in other countries which are far less tolerant – I can tell you I’m proud to be British. Muslims who have spent their lives here, whose friends and family are here or have been offered a new life here – are happy being British too.

There’s no reason why you can’t be British and Muslim. Britain is a multicultural multifaith society and Islam teaches you to respect the law of the land and to be tolerant of others. For those who don’t like “living in a kaffir land” as they say – do they really feel British when they hold such beliefs?! Likewise for Islamophobes who worry about a “cultural clash” – we’re here and we’re happy. If we weren’t we’d go somewhere else! Look at the Muslims out there in politics, education, business, the charity sector, all over – we’re leading integrated, fulfilling and satisfying lives. And for those of you who aren’t convinced: we had an absolutely fabulous time at the British Islam 2017 conference back in February!

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Protester at an anti-Trump protest (London) – Image credit: Alisdare Hickson (CC)

5. Today’s youth are apathetic and superficial

Not sure I quite fit into the youth category any more but here’s the point. We’re young, we’re passionate, we have a voice and we get out there. Going back to my previous points, like many young British men and women, I’m involved with groups. Just look at those standing up against Brexit related hate crime, xenophobia, Trump, Islamophobia, you name it. There’s millions of us focused on real issues.

6. Islam is Sunni or Shia

I’m Muslim. I’m not Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Deobandi, Ahmadi or anything. I am Muslim and Muslim alone. Having said that, there are billions of Muslims who identify under a particular sect or label. Those who label any other as non-Muslim perpetuate intolerant extremist beliefs. Ahmadis are Muslims, so are Sufis, Shias etc.

7. Muslim women cover themselves for men

I do not cover myself for my husband, my father, (male) Prophets or any person – male or female. I cover for Allah (swt) and Allah alone. As a Muslim, I believe that God is not human and has no gender. For more on this point, cick here.

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Image: Elizabeth Arif-Fear (c)


8. Women convert to Islam to get married/for a man

I converted – like all the other converts I know – for faith and faith alone. I also converted before I got married. In Islam, Muslim men can marry Christian and Jewish women so there’s no need for such ladies. In any case, such conversion would be insincere and invalid. Without faith, you cannot be Muslim. Read more here.

9. Islam is an “Eastern religion” which oppresses women

Islam is a religion for the whole of humanity. I’m not from “the East”. There’s Muslims across the US, Canada, Latin America, the UK, France, North Africa – you name it (see point number four). Islam teaches that each land had their own Prophets. Muhammad and Jesus (pbut) were from the Middle East yes but there’s 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as “East and West”. The “Clash of Civilisations” narrative is FALSE. There is the Western hemisphere, countries in the Eastern hemisphere etc. but we’re ONE world – a world that happens to be increasingly globalised. What’s more I’m me. I’m Muslim yes. I’m British yes. But I refuse to put put in a box. You’ll know who I am and what I’m like by talking to me, listening to me and getting to know me.

What’s more, I’m not oppressed. I’m an active feminist. In terms of women’s rights, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught his followers to respect women. When the Qur’an was revealed women were treated as second class citizens with no rights. Islam gave women the right to own property, the right to divorce, a range of sexual, emotional and financial rights within marriage at a time when baby girls were being buried alive and women were sexually enslaved. Islam advocated for women’s education and social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. It forbade forced marriage at a time when women could be married against their will – used and abused for the pleasure of men – teaching people to instead respect their wife, mother, daughter(s), sister(s) etc. Read more here and here.

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Minneapolis (2006) – Image credit: Brian Wisconsin (CC)


10. A woman’s place is (solely) in the home

Women are the one’s who bear children, who go through pregnancy, who breastfeed and if a family can afford to have one salary – great, no reason why the lady can’t stay at home. There is no reason why a woman should be unhappy and unfulfilled staying at home.

However, woman also hold a valid place in society as a whole. We are half of the population. We cannot be completely cut off and shunned into the private sphere. Many women are mothers and carers whilst also holding a career at the same time or whilst being active in their community. Many women do not even have children. Women are doctors, teachers, educators, business women, politicians, writers, journalists, community workers, mentors etc. and as such we build (or aim to!) a more open, richer, more understanding world which represents the diversity of the population both in gender, nationality, ethnicity, culture and religion.

We cannot allow half of society to be misrepresented or even not represented at all. Society needs to serve everyone and therefore be built by both women and women. I like millions of Muslim women work full-time. I am active and I love it! For my sisters who are at home – great. Each to their own.

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So there we are, let me know your counter-narratives. I’d love to hear!

If you’d like to learn more, see also my previous post on the most common misconceptions of Muslim women. You might be surprised!

If you’d like more information about Nisa-Nashim, check them out online via their website and across social media: Twitter and Facebook.

Credits and acknowledgements:

Big thanks to all those who have inspired and supported me for who I am, who I aim to be and in everything I do.

Images: artgraffCarnagenyc, Martha Heinemann BixbyStraßenfotografie Hamburg (CC) (featured image). Image licences available to view via Flickr

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“I can only hope and pray that as I come through the airport I will find my home waiting for me…”- Experiences of American convert to Islam Ashley Bounoura

In light of Trump’s new “career change” and the rise in Islamophobic hate crime both here in the UK and USA, Muslims here in the UK, across Europe and in the US in particular, face being potentially verbally and physically abused whilst going about their daily lives. Discourse around values, identity and belonging feed Islamophobic rhetoric. As a Muslim convert living in the UK, I’ve had no real trouble so far. I feel happy, safe and wanted here in the UK. But what about in the US?

Having met the lovely Ashley – a young American convert to Islam currently living in Algeria with her husband and founder of the blog Muslimah According to Me – I wanted to get an insight into her experiences as a convert: how did her friends and family react to her decision to become a Muslim? Was she welcomed within and outside the Muslim community? What is life like in the US for a Muslim convert? Well, here’s Ashley’s guest post talking about her experiences in both the US and UK. Enjoy!

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15181533_10211268880938203_2784240802646481146_n.jpgAs I began to seriously think about reverting to Islam, I had no idea what to expect. I knew I was scared of the reactions of my friends and family, and I knew to expect some backlash in general from the public as I went out for the first couple of times in my hijab, but I didn’t know what form any of that might take.

Looking back, in the few months after I first reverted, the reaction was far kinder than anything I had come to expect. Especially within my family, the people who are most important to me were the most supportive. My mother, sister, and grandfather all felt some apprehension at first, but as they began to see that I was the same person, and even becoming a better person because of this faith, they were quick to let me know that they supported anything that made me happy.

Within my friendship group there was a slightly more mixed reaction; I had a couple of friends from Los Angeles area that had a little bit of a difficult time stepping out of their affluent republican mindset, and unfortunately my decision to wear the hijab officiated the end of some friendships. My best friend, however, was completely supportive of me, and now even participates in World Hijab Day every year to spread awareness. Of course, I also made a couple of new friends along the way, both born Muslims and reverts [Muslim converts].

Integration into the Muslim community itself – another problem many reverts face – was easy and painless for me, in the beginning at least. I had one very good friend, who acted as a sort of all-in-one mentor, shoulder to lean on, and resource library. She always took me along to classes and lectures with her, and her friends all accepted me as I was. I joined the Muslim Students Association at my university, and the sisters there were all also very welcoming and ready to share in my journey.

However, upon moving to London (United Kingdom), I found that such accepting communities are actually quite rare to find. I had in fact been spiritually “growing up” in a metaphorical bubble. I had been excited to move out of my tiny community into something bigger, and I thought London would be a great opportunity for me to make tons of new friends. I instead found the community there to be far less open, and deeply separated into cultural cliques that had no place for a native-English speaking American university student. Because of this, I ended up being very isolated for the year I was studying there. The one good thing about moving to the diverse city of London however was the fact that the people on the street hardly gave me a second look.

Back in my university town in California, I had found myself in an odd place between the two communities. I found myself experiencing my majority cultural community in a much different way than I ever had before. Though I am always, to some degree, a novelty within the Muslim community, within the wider community, I experienced everything from micro-aggressions and confused stares, to actual violent threats (though this was by far the exception to the rule). For the most part, I got an odd look or two walking down the street, but I made it my policy to just look back and smile, and this tended to put people at ease. The broad majority of interactions I had in my university course, with my colleagues at work, and in my extra-curricular activities were positive. People were curious but kind, sceptical but supportive, and sometimes they just ignored the change completely.

The negative things I did experience mainly consisted of mildly irritating micro-aggression, usually in the form of slightly ridiculous questions. One thing I got asked a lot by random strangers was: “Where are you from?” Of course I would answer with: “California,” but they would almost always follow up with “yeah, but where are you from?” Sometimes I would just be given two choices: “Are you from Iran or Iraq?”, “Lebanon or Syria?”, “Albania or Turkey?” People seemed to have a very difficult time believing that I actually am just from California, and so are my parents, and my grandparents, and my great-grandparents (with the exception of my maternal grandfather’s parents, who are from Italy). Other times I have been asked very strange questions, but as long as there is space for a conversation I am always OK with giving an answer. Beyond the small things though, the biggest problem that I find that people had with me is not the fact that I am a Muslim, or that I “resemble the enemy,” but the fact that I am white and I choose to dress and believe as I do. Many of my most violent and aggressive encounters have stemmed from this type of animosity and the fact that, according to them, my lifestyle choices are not valid.

So, as I am preparing myself here in Algeria to begin the move back to the United States with my husband, I sometimes worry about the situation I will be returning to. I hear stories daily from my Muslim friends of attacks, mosques burning, being sworn at an intimidated in the street. I have been the recipient of not-so-cordial comments on my own blog and social media, and I can only hope and pray that as I come through the airport I will find my home waiting for me, instead of being made to know that I am officially no longer welcome here, in the country where I spent the first 21 years of my life, because I choose to look and believe differently than those who hold the power.

……………

Credits and acknowledgements:

I’d like to thank Ashley for her time and efforts in writing this guest piece. I’d also like to wish her and her family all the very best for the future and their move back to the US.

If you’d like to find out more about Ashley and her experiences, please do visit her blog and Muslimah According to Me Facebook page. The blog is well worth a visit!

Images:

Greater than Fear (Shepard Fairey, Ridwan Adhami) (feature image) (CC), Ashley Bounoura (c)

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Orientalism is alive and thriving!

When it comes to the “Arab world” many so-called “Western culture” outlets portray a world of contradictions and racist stereotypes. Through TV, film, theatre and literature, we’ve seen the insults, lies and “mystery”. Think of :

  • Aladdin
  • Ali Baba
  • Scheherazade
  • A Hundred and One Nights

These portray the “exotic mysterious East” within Orientalist racist discourse further evoking images of the “backward” “uncivilised” Arab world of lies, thieves and male sexual dominance.

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“Moros” (Moors) – which refers to the Muslim Arab/Amazigh inhabitants of North Africa who invaded Spain and ruled Al-Andalus (Abdalucia) – is nowadays a racist term used to refer to present day (Muslim) Arab/Amazigh migrants/residents from the Maghreb region (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia)

I’ve just come to the UK after living in Andalucia in Southern Spain for quite some time. This region was once Al-Andalus – a region representing the Golden Era of Islam and The Moors (the Amazigh and Arab Muslim leaders of North Africa). It was an area of rich diversity, multiculturalism and an era of mathematical, scientific and artistic discovery which is part of Spain’s history, culture and heritage (whether Spaniards like it or not). I’ve talked in previous posts about Islamophobia and racism towards Arabs/North African/non-Europeans in Spain before (see here and here), but I’ve not mentioned the interest in Moroccan and Arab culture in a strange money making contradiction.

Whilst many Spaniards have no racist affinity whatsoever and love Moroccan decor, food etc., there is an undercurrent of racism and the government is definitely NOT working towards building social cohesion. What they are doing though is cashing in millions of Euros a year. The Al Hambra palace in Granada (just one example) is a UNESCO site and its architecture and gardens lends it to be called a new wonder of the world.

Added to that, there’s also the further hypocritical contradictory double standards which are often present/similar to those portrayed in Western media:

  • Moroccans are sometimes referred to as “Moors” which is a racist practise as it refers back to the Moor invaders from hundreds of years ago – a sore point for certain Spaniards still living in the past (think an “us” vs. “them” mentality).  On the other hand, people express a love for couscous and North African jewellery/symbols (e.g. the hand of Fatima)
  • Likewise, nuns in Spain represent “good, chaste modest Christian women”. Yet veiling in the case of Muslim women is seen as a practice of controlling Muslim women, looked at with shock, suspicion and deemed “unnecessary”. It’s a long running double standard of the modest Christian sister vs. the oppressed Muslim woman shrouded in her veil of Arab patriarchy.

In line with this, there’s the trend for “exotic” “Arab” shops. There’s been a lot of talk about cultural appropriation recently. I (just like many others) like to buy Moroccan pieces of interior: mirrors, pottery etc.. My husband is from the Maghreb, I love Moroccan culture and decor and I most certainly do not aspire to orientalist and racist discourse and behaviour. In Málaga – despite the racism against North Africans (and other ethnicities, cultures etc.) and the reality of Islamophobia and stark lack of multicultural cohesion – Spain still boasts an array of Arab style shops and merchandise in the southern towns frequented by both tourists and non-tourists alike. There’s a raw memory of the Moors (“us” vs. “them” – the word “Moor” is a raw, sore term), yet when it comes to making money, people have a bit of a penchant for “Eastern” cultures.

Take a look at these two shop fronts – one shop is owned and run by Moroccans, the other is a chain run by Spaniardswhich one is which (look carefully!)?

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These two pictures highlight exactly what is wrong with people’s perception of culture and the level of cohesion in Spanish society. It’s Orientalism at its pèak. The first photo is of a shop chain which hosts an odd concoction of Hindu, Indian, Moroccan, Buddhist pieces under the name of “Arabesque” in Arab style Latin letters. I wasn’t aware that Buddha was Arab…? Statues are forbidden in Islam as they are seen as idolatry.

The second photo is of an actual Moroccan run shop with other branches elsewhere outside of Málaga. The shop boasts Moroccan/Arab merchandise and nothing else. With the name “Sherazade” you may think Orientalist but this is an original authentic shop. This is a stark contrast to local shops in which everything “non-Western” has been essentialised, bunged into one category: EASTERN. Never mind the fact that “the East” (if we can even call it that) is an area comprising of various regions, continents, countries, languages, cultures, nationalities, religions and traditions. It’s beyond patronising and quite startling. Yet to make things worse, at the end of my time in Málaga I found a shop which appeared to be run my Moroccans yet boasted a mix of both Moroccan and Indian stock in one large “bazar”. It seems “Easternising” is rather popular and a  big money maker.

The problem is a lack of understanding, respect and social cohesion. Travelling and exposure to other cultures is a great way to develop understanding, break down barriers and build bridges but it must be done in a respectful, sincere way. If you respect Moroccan culture: go ahead and open your own shop. Yet in a society where Moroccans face so many difficulties and so much racism – a society which is far from being multicultural in terms of social cohesion, yet hosts a variety of different nationalities – this all strikes me as wreaking of Orientalism, hypocrisy, double standards and dishonesty.

In a smaller town, when I was browsing a market one day, I asked the seller where the (Moroccan/North African style) bowls were from. He said: “Africa”. Well yes Morocco is in Africa (and Africa is a fantastic place!) but firstly, Africa is a vast continent with a huge variety of different cultures and traditions and secondly – and this is the source of the problem – when he says Africa he means: not Europe, but a far off continent, a place that is far from us, our lifestyle, economy and culture, what we klnow and live: a distant foreign place. It’s Morocco. It’s a (Muslim, Arab/Amazigh) Mediterranean country with which you share hundreds of years of history and heritage – which your country markets to tourists. You share similar art, decor, names and many of your words come from Arabic – you probably share blood! All of these social problems stem from people’s perceptions; the “us” vs. “them” mentality and the way people perceive others. It’s all in the mind!

Build bridges, not walls

Remember and learn from the past – but don’t live in it.

Salam!

Feature image: Media Bistro