‘When your personal multiplicity is printed on your face, in an almost too obviously thematic manner, in your DNA, in your hair and in the neither this nor that beige of your skin – well, anyone can see you come from Dream City. You have no choice but to cross borders and speak in tongues. That’s how you get from your mother to your father, from talking to one set of folks who think you’re not black enough to another who figure you insufficiently white.’
Zadie Smith, Speaking in Tongues
I never know what to put on forms where I’m asked my nationality and ethnic origin. Nationality seems easy enough, ‘British’ should do but options such as ‘British Pakistani’ confuse the issue. I don’t have dual nationality, I was born in Britain but my ethnic origin (the politest form of ‘hey! you! why aren’t you white?’) – what is that, my parents? My family’s last five generations? My place on the Dulux chart? I FEEL (irrelevant for forms, I know) British and Pakistani. Not a British Pakistani or Pakistani British but both of them, whole.
Growing up in England meant I spent roughly 20 years of my life (for example, being a 7 year old and not wanting to let the other kids see me eating my samosas for lunch) subconsciously mimicking what I thought was whiteness (which in this example constituted…soggy cheese salad sandwiches). This involved anything to bugging my parents for jeans (even when I wear salwar kameez now it niggles at me; when I was 16 my life revolved around not letting my Pakistani relatives see me in jeans and not letting my friends see me in salwar kameez…), learning to cook ‘English’ food (it’s ok, I can spice properly now) and mentally disassociating myself from anything that could be associated with Pakistan. The post-9/11 and post-7/7 atmosphere for brown people quickly turned me out on my arse (mentally) and now…well, now, I’m a little better at not subconsciously hating myself and the culture I inherited.
The point is that the discourse surrounding what you’re ‘supposed’ to be is that, when everyone’s talking about terrorism and rounding up all the extremists they can, it’s the little things that make a difference. Just like in high school, any difference in the “Real World” is tallied up by everybody. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody sits on a train saying ‘omg that brown person isn’t wearing jeans and a t-shirt’ but that the brown person could be sitting there thinking ‘everybody ELSE is wearing jeans and a t-shirt.’ This thought process comes from having white people overwhelmingly represented in every form of media – every genre of television and film, radio stations, posters for LITERALLY ANYTHING because only white people catch diseases and do gardening and drink wine with friends while laughing like kale-addled hyenas. The cultural comparison is a natural effect of being bombarded with whiteness as normativity.
Welcome to your regularly scheduled Muslim Moral Panic of the Month
One such example of cultural comparison involved a storm in a teacup about a major corporation catering specifically to Muslims, if only in certain areas. Subway’s website details how just over 10% of their UK stores stock halal meat. Their definition of halal is fulfilled through certificates from The Islamic Foundation of Ireland and the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand, with clear displays in stores stocking halal meat. Such stores not only have halal cuts of meat but also replace pork with turkey ham and turkey rashers.
A few Facebook groups popped up a few years after the Subway announcement objecting to being ‘forced’ to have halal meat. Granted, this is a storm in a teacup; four of these pages only had about 1000 followers each. The problem, however, is their approach to the perceived problem. ‘Subway? No way, Boycott Halal Subway Now’ claimed stunning meat wasn’t halal – there’s a debate to be had about that as certain schools of Islamic thought believe stunned meat causes extra suffering for the animal and is therefore haram. The group, however, also shares posts from English Nationalist News including one particularly colourful example that apes stereotypes of both Muslims and cultures from the Middle East and South Asia.
Any sense of the groups having a legitimate problem is initially compromised by the fact they’re objecting to anything associated with Islam and their perception of Muslims as only brown people. Another example from the group ‘Subway Halal Protest’ expands the implied focus of the group to organise a commemorative service for Lee Rigby, the murdered British soldier. In firmly involving themselves in the opposition of ‘Britain v Muslims’ the group encapsulates the attitude of a certain few that are entrenched in racist, bigoted reactions.
The groups also bypass the fact that it makes logistical sense for a minority community (4.4% of the UK’s population are Muslim, as of 2011 – actually surprised at this, considering the media coverage it feels more like 40%) to cluster together in order to have the requirements of culture/faith catered to easily. In supplying halal meat in certain (not all) branches Subway is just following a good business plan. Apparently it needs to be stated that meat for Muslims is not as barbaric as a) the Muslims and b) any worse than meat for non-Muslims. If people are so concerned about the ethics of halal meat they should boycott all meat – halal meat is no more or less ethically sound than non-halal meat for the very simple reason that it is no more cruel in its practice because the animal still dies. Astonishing as it is, I would suggest that the objection was more to ‘Muslim values’ (there’s no such thing – that would require total cohesion across the Muslim community) than to Subway’s decision to cater to Muslims in areas with sizable Muslim communities.
This one is even stupider. A page was started by comedian Zayn Sheikh called ‘Muslims Against Peppa Pig,’ alleging that Muslims should boycott the cartoon because, as pig meat is haram for Muslims, a more appropriate role model was needed for Muslim children. It soon emerged that the page was ‘satire’ but this didn’t stop Facebook commenters cracking out the racist, Islamophobic contributions:
Britain v Muslims again – this comment is representative of much of the vitriol on the page. It’s in a similar vein to the reaction to Subway’s halal meat, ‘don’t eat our meat/don’t watch our show if you don’t like it, these are BRITISH VALUES.’ Apparently meat and a cartoon pig.
Another side of the group reaction; accepting the satire – a sort of ‘not feeding the trolls’ type of comment. As with the Subway example the story itself is – in my opinion – not much of a story and more an excuse to further the apparent opposition between ‘Britain’ and ‘Muslims.’
The reaction to Alan Henning’s murder amongst parts of the Muslim community has its root in the opposition of both British’ and ‘Muslim.’ ‘British Muslim’ and even ‘brown British person’ are identities that are constructed as disparate; as described above there’s a poisonous separation of being either ‘too’ English or ‘too’ different from white English people. Alan Henning’s murder and the reactions of shock across the country came with Muslim apologies, partly in the form of #notinmyname, and the Facebook group RIP Alan Henning – Muslims Grieve For You Also. The Facebook group especially focused on Hennings’ humanitarian work in Syria, and uploaded the following status update:
It is entirely ludicrous to expect Muslims to distance themselves from the actions of a select few. These apologies are of course partly to express sorrow and regret for Hemmings’ horrifying death but that can be expressed without clarifying that Islam does not advocate for murder, without stating that Muslims do not support Hennings’ death and certainly without implying that Muslims have something to distance themselves from. I’m not going to talk about the politics and validity of ISIS and so-called ‘Islamic extremism’ because I shouldn’t have to. Muslims shouldn’t have to distance themselves from the actions of a select few and to do so, or to expect it, is to destabilise the fundamental humanity of Muslim people. Personhood and humanity is not an innate right, but a privilege afforded to those who fit all or some of the criteria of the most powerful in society i.e. straight, white, western, able-bodied, cis-gendered, middle class men.
Subway, Peppa Pig and ISIS are going to have varying reactions from people but while the first two are relatively straightforward racism the latter example is one that says a lot about an insidious attitude towards Muslims. Racial, cultural and religious difference have, for many British Muslims, become embroiled into a toxic environment where all Muslims are thought of as terrorists until they actively prove otherwise. Racism comes in many different forms – sometimes it involves being stared at in the street for wearing ‘unusual’ clothes and sometimes it’s being expected to apologise or pointedly express remorse for the murder of a man you couldn’t possibly have caused the death of. There needs to be no apology from Muslims for either Alan Hennings’ murder or ISIS because to do so is, in spite of Boris Johnson’s suggestions, to assume that by virtue of being a Muslim, somebody is guilty until proven innocent.
Mehreen Kasana – No Apology: http://mehreenkasana.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/no-apology/
Muslim Apologies: http://mic.com/articles/100240/19-muslim-apologies-everyone-should-see
Reaction to #notinmyname: http://murderwhitepeople.tumblr.com/post/98082892554/micdotcom-young-british-muslims-tell-the
The greatest Peppa Pig clip in existence: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RvlSfkitOtA