A few years ago, when ISIS was all over the headlines and Islamophobia was surging in the UK, the following headline appeared in The Daily Mail: ‘1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis’. The article was later investigated by the press regulator, Ipso, and was found to be significantly misleading. At the time, I remember feeling like it was a personal attack on me, because it was implying that I might be in some way sympathetic to ISIS even though I abhorred everything that they were doing. It was implying that I didn’t really belong in the UK, because my religion made me a potential terrorist; a hostile entity, a virus. I felt like the society I had lived in all my life hated me; when I got home from school, I lay down in bed and just cried into my pillow.
Fast-forward to last year. I was walking to a friend’s house in Nottingham, and these two guys cycled past me while staring me down. As they passed, one of them hissed at me, “ISIS”. At first I didn’t realise what he had said, but then a few seconds later it hit me. Once again, I was painfully aware that I was being judged purely on the basis of my skin colour and my religion to be a terrorist, even though if I was living in ISIS-controlled territory I would probably be one of the first ones that they would kill, given that I support gay rights, women’s rights, religious freedom, freedom of speech and democracy. None of that mattered to these guys, though; I’m a brown Muslim, so therefore I’m no different than ISIS.
A few days ago, I went to see a panel discussion at Nottingham Trent uni, featuring the right-wing American activists Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens, as well as the founders of Turning Point UK, a newly established right-wing student movement. I got into an argument with them about US foreign policy in the Middle East, during which they defended bombing and sanctioning Muslim countries. Most of the audience was white and non-Muslim, and, judging by their raucous applause, overwhelmingly agreed with the panelists.
I found out recently that Candace Owens has previously tweeted: “according to the birth rate, Europe will fall and become a Muslim majority continent by 2050. There has never been a muslim majority country where sharia law was not implemented”, and “if France wants to defend itself against anything, it ought to be against the declining birth rate of its people. All signs indicate that it will be a Muslim majority country in just 40 years! Defend your culture first, @EmmanuelMacron! We are your allies”. The terrorist who shot dead 49 Muslims in Christchurch cited Candace Owens as his main inspiration.
When I see people who I went to school with sharing posts on Facebook about how Islam is destroying the West, praising Tommy Robinson and referring to British Muslims as “invaders”; when these same people accuse me of supporting Sharia law even though I have never advocated for Sharia law in my life, and never will; when I see people like Melanie Phillips and Douglas Murray getting slots on the BBC and being treated like respectable commentators, even though the former believes that Islamophobia isn’t real and that all 1.6 billion Muslims are terrorists, while the latter believes that Muslims should have fewer civil liberties than non-Muslims and that Europe is being destroyed by Muslim immigration; when I see headlines in The Daily Mail like ‘Muslim Plot To Kill Pope’, ‘Muslims Tell British: Go To Hell’, and ‘Ramadan A Ding-Dong’; and when I see articles in ‘respectable’ journals like The Spectator saying that there is “not nearly enough Islamophobia within the Tory party”, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed sometimes.
I’m not trying to play the victim. I live a very comfortable life compared with millions of people throughout the world. But it’s hard not to be emotionally affected by all of this, and this rampant Islamophobia leads to atrocities like the one carried out in Christchurch. Please remember: Muslims don’t want special treatment. We just want to be treated like human beings.