Living in a Minority Religion in the 21st Century

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Being a faith minority in some parts of the world can literally be the cause of your death. We have all heard of far too many examples, particularly in recent months: the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar Burma and the fate of the Christian Yazidis in Syria are just two examples of the evil inflicted on the followers of one faith, by the followers (or more accurately the misguided followers) of another.

As people of faith, we believe that there are fundamental laws that govern our daily lives. Laws that we believe are essential prerequisites for a good, caring society. But where do these laws come from? Some of them may be politically enforced edicts, human rights regulations, what we might choose to call our British values, or perhaps they are, what we like to believe, ‘God sent’ or religious commandments.

Now certainly those of us who are adherents of the Abrahamic faith on hearing the word ‘commandments’ will instinctively have thought 10 Commandments. It’s a bit like that word association game we played as children, where someone says a word and you say the first thing that comes into your head.  Some of you may be thinking, well actually the laws given to Prophet Moses do and should present us with a cohesive approach that determines how we live our lives, whether that be in the 20th, 21st or 31st century.

But how many of us actually know what the 10 Commandments are?

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There have been many interpretations of the meaning behind the ten commandments. When I mentioned them to my daughter she went into great detail about the misogynist interpretations of the commandments. However in its most simplistic form, these laws tell us how to live a good life, a life that considers others, a life that puts God above all else. Laws that show that those key attributes of our Creator are very much about love, compassion and courtesy for others. But is this how the majority of people view religion or certainly followers of a particular religion – my religion?

I was asked to come and speak to you about what it is like (or what it has been like) living in Britain as a member of a minority religious group. But who else is a religious minority in Britain today?

If you look at the information from the 2011 census we see that 3.2 million people (59.3 per cent of the population) said they were Christian. Compare this to the 2001 census we see this went down from over 70%. The second largest minority religious group were Muslims with 2.7 million people (4.8 per cent of the population), up from 3% from 2001.

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However, a staggering 14.1 million people, around 25% of the total population in England and Wales, reported having no religion in 2011. Whilst it might appear that the people of England and Wales are turning their backs on religion in their droves, the remaining ‘believers’ appear to be showing greater diversity of belief than ever before. These are just some of the categories that came up in response to the religion question in the 2011 census. Interestingly 6,242 said that they were Heavy Metal (should that be metalists?), 1,893 said they were Satanists and 650 said they were New Age.

Some of you may also recall that when the religion question  was first asked in the 2001 census, a national campaign was run that encouraged people to answer the religion question with ‘Jedi Knights’. So from the 2001 census we see that in England and Wales there were over 330,000 Jedi Knights. However the force began to wane when in the 2011 census this figure was reduced by almost half with only 176,632 Jedi Knights. I have been reliably informed that this was a result of their progression from Jedi to Sith. I have also been reliably informed that this will mean something to the Star Wars fans amongst us!

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I am of the opinion that all faiths and beliefs have as their basis in love of all creation. Jains for example, believe in non-violence and equality of all living things. Buddhists belief that meditation and good living can break the cycle of reincarnation and result in enlightenment. Taoism is a relaxed and peaceful religion that is based on following and accepting the flow of life.So why does it appear that as people of faith we quite simply hate each other, are on a mission to destroy ‘the other’ and destroy any chance of living in a pluralistic society, where the most rudimentary qualities of diversity, tolerance, commitment and communication are not respected?

Conflicts between faiths have always existed. This discourse exists not just between different faiths, but also between or amongst different sects, denominations or traditions within a single religion. Many of these arise as a result of the conflict between the more conservative and progressive factions within a religion. In Britain in truth, thanks to the amazing work that takes place around building bridges and community relations, relatively few conflicts have occurred between different faith groups. Some of these organisations are listed below.

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However, we cannot ignore the facts, as we see them far too clearly reported through various mechanisms such as the Community Security Trust and Tell Mama. Anti-Semitism continues to be a threat and Islamaphobic attacks are on the increase.  And then of course there is the growing conflict between those of faith and those of no faith, particularly those who call themselves ‘scientists’ but I’m not going to go into that mine field nor mention any names!

But for all the studies that have been done, the academic papers that have been written, the books that have been published and the column inches dedicated to analysing this issue, what in reality is it like being of a minority faith in 21st Century Britain? Do I as a Muslim, feel hated? Do I feel scared? Do I as a 50+ year old British Muslim woman feel that I belong?

I grew up in inner Leeds in the seventies. I went to a local comprehensive which could not have been more racially mixed if it had been done deliberately . The school had a three way split between White, Asian and Black pupils. Racial conflicts were par for the course. I remember the race riots in Chapeltown in 1981 and remember listening to the sounds of glass breaking, petrol bombs and screaming crowds from my bedroom window.

Religious conflict however never entered the equation. Whilst I was used to being called a Paki, my religion was never an issue. When human faeces were dumped in our front yard, it was not because we were Muslims, it was because we were ‘Pakis’. When someone tried to set light to my hair on the bus, it was not because I was a Muslim, it was because I was a Paki. I was still one of the lucky ones. Growing up in a racially mixed area like Chapeltown meant those who were ‘different’ were not actually in the minority – we were the majority. That in itself protected me from what could have been much greater levels of verbal and physical racial assaults. But being a Muslim was never an issue. I remember a girl at school saying to me ‘I hate Pakis Hifsa but you’re ok’. My religion was not a major factor for anything or anyone.

So what happened to put Islam, Muslims and ordinary people like me on the front page?

A number of events nationally and internationally transpired that for me were key to the way in which I was going to be perceived by others around me. People who had never known previously I was a Muslim and certainly had never felt it was an issue.

Before I talk about these wider events, I was reminded of one personal incident when I was in Leeds earlier this week. It was 1988 and I had been invited to an interview for a job at a local Catholic school. I arrived for the interview to be met by 4 men, all white, in suits, sitting in a semi circle. They were introduced to me as the Headteacher, Head of Science (the job was in the labs), school Bursar and Head of the RE department. The interview went as most interviews do, being asked a lot of mundane questions about why I wanted the job, my hobbies, etc. It was not until the end of the interview that the real questions started. The headmaster pointed out that as a Catholic schools the ethos of the school was very distinct and would I mind the Head of the RE department asking a few additional questions as they had become aware that I was a Muslim. My response I recall was ‘go for it!’.

After a few questions which seemed unnecessary, the real question was asked.

‘As a Muslim we are aware that you are expected to pray 5 times a day. If we offer you the job, are you at any point going to request time out during the working day to perform your religious obligation’?

After a suitable silence and biting my tongue (my initial response would not have been very polite) I replied, that at that current point in my life I did not pray 5 times a day. But I was aware that I should be doing. Perhaps in a day or a week or a month or three months I may decide that I wanted to be more observant and as such wanted to pray more regularly. Even then there were plenty of opportunity to pray within the given time scales before and after work. It would really only be in the winter months when it might become an issue, but even then I suspected smokers would take a longer break for a cigarette (which was very much the norm in those days) then I would require to say my prayers. If they wanted me to give them a reassurance that I would not at some point ask for 5 minutes during my lunch break or during the late afternoon, to say my prayers, then I was sorry, I could not give them that promise.

They offered me the job. I turned it down. This was my first experience at the age of 20 years old, of having to explain, or more accurately defend, my religion and my practices.

But what were those other significant events that had an impact on me and the wider British Muslim communities? This is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination, but they are just some of those principal episodes I remember vividly.

26 September 1988 happened. This was the day that Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses were published. The novel became instantly controversial as a result of its blasphemous references. Rushdie was accused of misusing freedom of speech and two months later 7,000 Muslims staged the first ever march, demonstration and book burning ceremony on the streets of Bolton.  The demonstrators claimed that they “burned the book to try and attract public attention” and a similar event early in the new year prompted the journalist Robert Winder referring to  “images of medieval (not to mention Nazi) intolerance”.  I recall seeing images of angry Muslim men crowding round a fire, shouting hate filled slogans and shaking their fists and all I could think was, what do they have in common with me?  Their actions not only painted me out to be part of a lunatic fringe but also provided free marketing to Rushdie’s book. Sales of the book actually soared as a result of all the attention. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity!

11th July 1995 in Bosnia  happened.  8372 Muslim men and boys were systematically killed in the worst genocide to affect mainland Europe since World War 2. A country less than 4 hours’ flight from London. The images and news coming out of Bosnia were heartbreaking. Husbands, fathers and sons ripped away from their family. Women and girls systematically raped in an attempt to ethnically cleanse the region of Muslims. (See my blog on my visit to Srebrenica with the Remembering Srebrenica charity last year).

11th September 2001 happened. When 19 militants associated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda hijacked four airliners and carried out suicide attacks against targets in the United States. Two of the planes were flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, a third plane hit the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C. with the fourth plane crashing in a field in Pennsylvania. Over 3,000 people were killed during the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. including more than 400 police officers and firefighters.

7th October 2001 happened. This saw the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom when the United States invaded Afghanistan with the United Kingdom in response to 9/11 and demands by the USA to Afghanistan to hand over Osama bin Laden and expel al-Qaeda. Supported initially by close allies, they were later joined by NATO beginning in 2003. Its public aims were to dismantle al-Qaeda and to deny it a safe base of operations in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban from power. Bin Laden had been wanted by the United Nations since 1999 and In 2001, U.S. President Bush demanded that the Taliban hand him over, a demand they declined unless they could be provided with what they deemed convincing evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks. [Dismissed by the U.S. as a delaying tactic, on 7 October 2001 Operation Enduring Freedom was launched.

20 March 2003 happened. The Iraq War was a protracted armed conflict beginning with the 2003 invasion of Iraq led by the United States. The invasion regime toppled the government of Saddam Hussein. However, the conflict continued for much of the next decade as an insurgency emerged to oppose the occupying forces and the post-invasion Iraqi government. An estimated 151,000 to 600,000 or more Iraqis were killed within the first 3–4 years of conflict. The United States officially withdrew from the country in 2011 but became re-involved in 2014 at the head of a new coalition; the insurgency and many dimensions of the civil armed conflict continue.

January 2004 Robert Kilroy Silk happened Kilroy Silk was an absolute disgrace. When he wrote a newspaper piece entitled “We Owe the Arabs Nothing” in which he spoke of Arabs being “suicide bombers, limb-amputates and women repressors” he failed to distinguish between those who had perpetrated the 9/11 attacks 200 million ordinary Arabs who were both Muslims and Christians. He further associated 2 billion peaceful adherents of the Islamic faith with the 9/11 terrorists. The dangerous and vehement terms in which he spoke about Muslims made observers anxious that there was a genuine threat that this could motivate some to attack those who appeared to be an Arab.

7th July 2005 happened, 22nd May 2013 happened and sadly there have been many ‘happenings’ since then. Including the sad murder of Muhammad Saleem and the attempted bombing of three mosques in the West Midlands by Pavlov Lapshyn and the very recent attack on Dr Sarandev Singh Bhambra, a Sikh dentist mistaken for a Muslim at a supermarket in Mold by a man brandishing a machete who attacked him in revenge for Lee Rigby

And suddenly Britain was the less secure, less tranquil, less accepting place to be for me. A country that can only be described as being the most tolerant in Europe, was developing a new identity. One that singled me out because I was now being identified as belonging to a group that should be feared. We were hostile and aggressive. We were the enemy who had been hiding within the host community ready to pounce for ever 50 years. People were now beginning to look at me with suspicion and contempt. A friend was asked if she carried a bomb in her handbag, by a ten-year-old. Another friend was told ‘my dad says you lot should all be rounded up and shot’. Another friend was asked if there was a bomb under her head scarf. You will no doubt be aware of the many disgraceful, worst cases that have been reported to Tell Mama including both physical and verbal assaults. And the saddest things I heard recently were from a bunch of young Muslim girls who said to me  “you know we get it both barrels. We get abused by the likes of the EDL and get called terrorists and letter boxes on a regular basis. But when we refuse to take leaflets from the likes of Al Muhaajirun and Hizbit Tahir on street corners we get called kafir and worse’. Others said ‘it’s not much fun being a young Muslim woman in some parts of the country any more’.

Yet despite all this, I profess that I am still one of the lucky ones. When I see and hear what is inflicted on Muslims old and young, male and female (though over-whelmingly female) in this country and minority faiths in other parts of the country and across the globe in fact,  it does make me question our ability as human beings to show any empathy to those who are simply different. I am often reminded of the pyramid of hate (below), that depicts the form discrimination and prejudice can take and how quickly things can escalate from being light banter, just a bit of fun and having a laugh, into something more sinister. I wonder where British society is right now on the scale? I wonder how long it took Bosnia, Rwanda, Nazi Germany to make its way to the top?

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The images below are from the world wide web. They are amongst the first to appear when you google ‘images of Muslims’. and depict Muslims overwhelmingly as angry, violent, bearded men shaking their fists  or pointing at you in a threatening manner.

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But as a 21st Century British Muslim minority I would much rather prefer to be associated with the British Muslims depicted below. Individuals who are part of British society, in politics, sports, media, music, law and community activism. Who wouldn’t! 

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“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
― Mark Twain

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