Britain's Muslims Still Feel The Need To Explain Themselves

Mar 2, 2015
Originally published on March 4, 2015 4:48 pm

Jihadi John, runaway schoolgirls, no-go zones: the headlines are everywhere in Great Britain.

If you are Muslim in Britain, you can't get away from them. If you're Salman Farsi, you're often at the center of it.

"It feels like we're constantly having to explain ourselves," says Farsi, the spokesman for the East London Mosque.

It's a huge complex in a booming and diverse neighborhood, serving 7,000 worshippers at Friday prayers; some 1,000 kids pass through its halls each week.

Farsi is the mosque's social media guru, posting sermons on YouTube and tweeting responses to the day's news.

The 29-year-old was born and raised nearby in a Bangladeshi family.

"Most Muslims — and there's 2.7 million Muslims living here in Britain — most Muslims feel they're very much part of the community, part of society, part of Britain, and so when our sentiments and feelings are not those that are perceived by the rest of society, it's quite challenging," he says.

And the recent climate of Islamophobia, and misconceptions, he says, has made his job difficult. For example, Farsi has to deal with the hate mail the mosque receives.

"It's having to fend off the far right, who see the actions of extremists and they blame the whole community," he says. "And we pay the price for it."

And the risk is that this need to constantly "explain themselves" will lead to disillusionment, or worse, among young Muslims, Farsi says.

"If mainstream society ... can't see things from the young people's perspective, then we're just going to lose them," Farsi says. "They're going to become disillusioned, and then, these are the ones that unfortunately will go off and join groups that are deemed terrorists."

What It Means To Be British

Arfah Farooq, 23, is another tech-savvy East Londoner of South Asian descent. She's British-Pakistani. One of the latest Muslim-focused headlines, a BBC poll touting that 95 percent of Muslims "feel loyalty to Britain," annoys her.

"You see in the paper all the time, your identity challenged," she says. "But all my friends ... we're practicing Muslims, but we're still going to support Britain in the Olympics, or England in the football."

She questions, too, what it means "to be British" or "to have British values."

"Is a British value meaning that I have to go to the pub?" she says. "I don't drink, I'm Muslim, I don't do that, that's not going to be a part of me, that's never going to be a part of me, and it's about respecting all of that."

She says she does feel that in general her identity and her religion are respected.

She says one of the hardest things she has had to do recently was to bring her prayer mat with her on the first day at a new job.

"I did it on purpose on my first day there, because ... they don't know me, so they just think it's a part of me," she says.

She contrasts that with something a friend told her: that if he "busted out a prayer mat" in his workplace all of a sudden, his colleagues would think "My God, he's being recruited by ISIS."

"You do kind of question yourself in terms of what do people think about me," Farooq says. "My colleagues really respect me; the CEO of the company actually turned around and asked me if I wanted a private space [to pray], so I'm very lucky."

But this is London — every other block is a riotous mix of languages and cultures — and just as New York City doesn't reflect the rest of the U.S., London doesn't exactly reflect the rest of Britain.

A Patchwork, Not A Melting Pot

Take Birmingham, for instance. It has been in the news recently: Muslim teachers there have been accused of radicalizing their students. And in January, a Fox News analyst falsely described it as a no-go zone for non-Muslims; Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana later used the same phrase.

It's one of Britain's most diverse cities, where the percentage of people who don't speak English is twice the national average and more than 1 in 5 identify as Muslim.

There are Pakistani, Somali, Indian areas. But it's less a melting pot than a patchwork.

Abdul Rashid, secretary of the Birmingham Central Mosque, says this isn't inherently a bad thing.

"Isn't that what we find in all societies, that people tend to get together with friends and people of the same background?" he says.

Rashid says the danger is that if people don't mix, they don't understand each other. That may lead to Islamophobia and radicalization, he says.

"Because the stigmatization and demonization of a community creates hatred in the hearts of some of the people in that community," he says.

The tensions in Birmingham are real; some white people NPR spoke with expressed strong views against Muslims. But they refused to speak on the record.

Mohammad Afzal, the first Muslim elected to Birmingham's city council in 1982, takes the long view.

"I remember back in the '70s and early '80s, white people would close their windows and say, 'Oh we've got this horrible smell of curry,' " Afzal says. "But now, everybody loves it."

That's partly a matter of exposure: You're comfortable with ideas and people that you're familiar with. And the Queensbridge School in Birmingham is trying to do something about that, by exposing kids of different backgrounds to each other.

A Matter Of Comfort?

Principal Tim Boyes is white, but he used to live in Pakistan, he speaks Urdu and he teaches the Islamic Studies course. And that has led to some illuminating conversations.

Boyes gives a recent example of a student who repeated something he'd heard at his mosque — that just like Sept. 11, the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris were a CIA conspiracy to justify aggression on the Muslim world.

Boyes says he took it as a chance to start a conversation about how to figure out what's true. And he also took it as a good sign: that the student trusts him enough to approach him with such questions.

In the school cafeteria, the food is halal. A 14-year-old named Phoebe Baker says everyone takes that in stride. Phoebe is white, and she has experiences at school that just don't happen at home — for example, during Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day.

Although you can see kids mixing happily at this school, the kids at Phoebe's lunch table are all white. Kids at the next table are Pakistani. Another table over, and they're all Somali.

It's not because of ethnicity, the students say. It's just that everyone hangs out with the people they're most comfortable with.

And for all the tensions, Londoner Arfah Farooq says she considers herself lucky.

"Comparing myself to other countries in Europe I am 100 percent lucky that I am in Britain," she says. "Just with the far right growing in Germany, with the forced secular stuff in France, I am so grateful that I live in Britain."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Muslims throughout Europe are thinking not only about their identity, but about how they're perceived right now - whether they belong. Many felt increased scrutiny after January's attacks in Paris. And this week, my colleague Audie Cornish is traveling to the three European countries with the largest Muslim populations, France, Germany and Britain. She's asking what it's like to be a Muslim in these places with the backdrop of current events. Audie begins her reporting today from London.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Jihadi John, three runaway schoolgirls, no-go zones -the headlines are everywhere here. If you're a Muslim in Britain, you can't get away from them. And if you're Salman Farsi, you're often at the center of it.

SALMAN FARSI: It feels like we're constantly having to explain ourselves.

CORNISH: He's the spokesman for the East London Mosque. It's a huge complex in this booming and diverse neighborhood, serving 7,000 worshipers at Friday prayers. The two dozen little boys playing soccer in this gym - they're just some of the thousand kids who pass through the halls each week.

FARSI: We need so many repairs in this building because the kids (laughter).

CORNISH: We've come to see Salman Farsi because he's the mosque's social media guru, throwing sermons on YouTube and tweeting responses to the day's news. He's 29 years old and born and raised nearby in a Bangladeshi family. When reporters ask what Muslims need to do about, well, anything, they call him.

FARSI: Most Muslims - and there's 2.7 million Muslims living here in Britain - most Muslims feel like, you know, they're very much part of the community, part of society, part of Britain. So when our sentiments and feelings are not those that are perceived by the rest of society, it's quite challenging.

CORNISH: What is that like for you?

FARSI: I think it's tough. It's tough. There's a climate of Islamophobia and a lot of misconceptions.

CORNISH: But what form does that take? When you say Islamophobia, what does that mean for you?

FARSI: Well, for me, directly, here at the mosque it means I have to - I end up dealing with all of the hate mail - some of the nasty letters that come to us, some of the DVDs that are sent to us.

CORNISH: DVDs?

FARSI: Yeah.

CORNISH: Of what?

FARSI: Of, you know, various things that someone thinks will offend a Muslim, so pornographic content to, you know, anti-Muslim messages. So it's having to fend off the far right who kind of see the actions of extremists and they blame the whole community. And we pay the price for it.

CORNISH: So what does this mean for the young people, maybe, who come here who are going through this?

FARSI: For young people, they're disillusioned because here on one hand, they're constantly being asked to explain themselves because of their religion. And on the other hand, they're living in the Western context. And for them, just trying to make sense of it all is such a challenge. And I think if mainstream society here in this country, especially, like, politicians, etc. - they don't - if they can't see things from the young people's perspective, then, you know, we're just going to lose them. They're going to become disillusioned, and then, you know, these are the ones that, unfortunately, will go off and join groups that are deemed terrorist.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting in foreign language).

CORNISH: And just as we wrap up, the call to prayer rings out. Salman Farsi gets back to work. He wants to plan workshops for the parents who are calling the mosque, anxious about their children on social media. It's a generational challenge he says.

Arfah Farooq is another tech-savvy east Londoner. We meet her at nearby Spittlefield Market on her lunch break from her new marketing job. She's British-Pakistani, and since she's 23, she insists the bag of chips she had for lunch is enough. She's annoyed by the latest Muslim-focused headline, a BBC poll touting that 95 percent of Muslims feel loyalty to Britain.

ARFAH FAROOQ: You see in the paper all the time that your identity challenged, challenged, challenged, challenged. But actually, all my friends, all the people I know, like, you know, we're practicing Muslims, et cetera. But, you know, we're still going to support Britain in the Olympics or, you know, England in the football. And all the time, all you get is, are you British or do you have British values? You know, you're not British because you don't do X, Y and Z. And it's the whole idea of actually what a British value is. Is a British value meaning that I have to go to the pub? And I don't drink. I'm Muslim. I don't do that. That's not going to be a part of me. That's never going to be a part of me. And it's about kind of respecting all of that.

CORNISH: Do you feel like that's respected?

FAROOQ: I think I'm very lucky to be brought up in the area that I have been brought up. Just a little example - like, one of the hardest things I had to do was when I started my new job was - it was my first day and in a way I kind of felt like I had to make a point by bringing my prayer mat along and just, you know, I've got to pray. I've got to do it. I did it. And I did it on purpose on my first day there were because I kind of wanted it to be that - they don't know me, so they just think it's a part of me. Whereas I remember talking to a friend about this, and we were joking around and, you know, my friend was saying, oh, but if I busted out a prayer mat in my workplace, all of a sudden they're going to think, oh my God, he's being recruited by ISIS or something like that. And it's really, really, interesting because you do kind of question yourself in terms of, you know, what do people think about me? My colleagues really respect me and, you know, the CEO of the company actually turned around and asked me if I wanted a private space etc. So, you know, I'm very lucky.

CORNISH: But this is London. Every other block is a riotous mix of languages and cultures. And just as, say, New York City doesn't reflect the rest of the U.S., London doesn't exactly reflect the rest of Britain. So we sent our correspondent, Ari Shapiro, to look at some of the ethnic tensions in Birmingham, a city where the percentage of people who don't speak English is twice the national average, a city a Fox News analyst falsely described as a no-go zone for non-Muslims. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal later used the same phrase. So Ari went to Birmingham to see for himself.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This is one of those areas that may have been described as a no-go zone. We are standing in front of a shop called Lahore Village across the street from Lahore Sweet Center. Virtually every woman walking on the street is wearing a headscarf. Most of them look to be of South Asian descent.

MOHAMMED MIA: If it was only for Muslims, why the hell are you here? It's like, you know, hang on, it's sharia law.

SHAPIRO: The this is Mohammed Mia(ph). He's wearing a Free Palestine sweatshirt, and he says this road used to have a lot of white English people, but they've moved away.

MIA: If you've got an English butcher shop, who's going to use it? Obviously he's going to move out because no one's going to buy his meat anymore because it's normally Halal meat around here.

TALA KAWAJA: To me, it's like I'm back into my old city, which is in Lahore, where I was born.

SHAPIRO: Tala Kawaja(ph) runs a store that sells high-end Pakistani fashions. He says if you walk just a few blocks, it changes.

KAWAJA: The next is a Somali area, which is further up the road - Stratford Road. Moving up further through the east side, it's - I think it's Soho Road, isn't it? Soho Road which has a big Indian market.

SHAPIRO: So the city of Birmingham is extremely diverse. But it's less a melting pot than a patchwork quilt.

ABDUL RASHID: Isn't what we find in all societies - that people sort of tend to get together with friends and people of the same background and all that?

SHAPIRO: This is Abdul Rashid, secretary of the Birmingham Central Mosque. He says the danger is that if people don't mix, they don't understand each other. That may lead to Islamophobia and radicalization.

RASHID: Because the stigmatization and demonizing of a community creates, obviously, hatred in the hearts of some of the people in that community.

SHAPIRO: The ethnic tensions here are real. Some white people we spoke with in Birmingham expressed strong views against Muslims, but they refused to speak on the record. At the mosque, Mohammad Afzal takes the long-view. He was the first Muslim elected to Birmingham City Council in 1982.

MOHAMMAD AFZAL: I remember back in '70s and early '80s, white people used to close their windows and they would say, oh, we got this horrible smell of curry.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

AFZAL: But now everybody loves it.

SHAPIRO: That's partly a matter of exposure. You're comfortable with ideas and people that you're familiar with. So we visited a school that is trying to expose kids of different backgrounds to each other. Queensbridge is one of the most diverse schools in Birmingham.

TIM BOYES: So the idea is we move as one group. You ready?

SHAPIRO: In a drama class, a diverse group of young teenagers stands in a circle with their teacher. They're literally trying to overcome their differences and move as one unit, jumping forwards, backwards, to the side, all at the same time.

BOYES: Forward. Back. Right.

SHAPIRO: The principal of this school, Tim Boyes, is white, but he used to live in Pakistan, and he speaks Urdu. He teaches the Islamic studies course here. And he told me about a conversation he had with a student just the day before our interview. The student repeated something he'd heard at the mosque.

BOYES: The preacher in the mosque, post-Charlie Hebdo in Paris, was saying that, like 9/11, the Paris murders were a CIA conspiracy just to justify aggression on the Muslim world.

SHAPIRO: He took it as a chance to start a conversation about how you know what's true. And he also took it as a good sign that the student trusts him enough to approach him with such questions. In the school cafeteria, the food is Halal. A 14-year-old named Phoebe Baker says everyone sort of takes that in stride. She's white, and she has experiences here at the school that just don't happen at home, like during Ramadan when Muslims fast during the day.

PHOEBE BAKER: Loads of people in my French group at the time were all doing, like, Ramadan. And it was really weird to be, like, one of the minority of the people sitting at the table and eating.

SHAPIRO: Although you can see kids mixing happily at this school, the kids at Phoebe's lunch table are all white. Kids at the next table are Pakistani. Another table over, and they are all Somali. The students tell me that's not because of ethnicity. They say it's just that everyone hangs out with the people they're most comfortable with. Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

CORNISH: And that idea of people feeling comfortable that Ari just mentioned - of belonging - it makes me think back to something we heard from Londoner Arfah Farooq.

FAROOQ: I think, comparing myself to other countries in Europe, I'm 100 percent lucky that I'm in Britain and I'm in England. Just with the far-right growing in Germany, with the kind of the whole forced secular stuff in France, I am so grateful that I live in Britain.

CORNISH: And we'll visit Germany later this week. But tomorrow we're in Paris to speak with French Muslims about their experiences since the attacks at Charlie Hebdo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.