Islam is not at war with Britain, just as the latter is not at war with Muslims, even if extremists on both sides want that to be the case.
The Arabic phrase Bismillah, ar-Rahman, ar-Rahim translates as “in the name of Allah the beneficent the merciful.” These words open all but one of the 114 chapters of the Quran. Muslims repeat these words before every act of worship, from making supplication to eating. This religion that I practice, adhere to, love and believe in is to me the most complete and all-encompassing rules for life I can imagine. My love for Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, exceeds that which I have even for my own mother, under whose feet, Islam teaches us, heaven lies.
Yet for all the blessings I feel Islam has brought me I found myself, in the months after the September 11, 2001 attacks, having to answer questions from a fellow undergraduate as to why my co-religionists felt it within their “Islamic duty” to kill nearly 3,000 innocent people. “Why did they do it?” I was asked. “Why are you asking me?” I retorted, and the response, which has since become commonplace, was, “Since you’re a Muslim.”
This is not the experience for members of the other great monotheistic faiths when outrages are undertaken in their name. Why is Islam singled out in this way? This shared guilt, and having to explain the actions of murderous psychopaths whose beliefs have been perverted by hate preachers have given rise not to abandonment or any crisis of faith within me, but to a newfound resolve, and indeed increased belief, in Islam’s religious tenets.
With this reinvigorated emaan (faith) I felt duty-bound to challenge other young men at risk of being radicalized. This was happening online, through the kinds of social media content coming out of Iraq and Daesh (the Islamic State), or from dangerous literature and speakers that the media were all-too-visible in the UK, such as Abu Hamza or Anjem Choudary.
Response to Tragedy
In keeping with my faith, I have tried to do what I could in my little corner of the world, even voluntarily, to prevent my deen (way of life) from being associated with acts of heinous violence, on one hand, and from the slurs that the media and Islamophobes continue to spew daily, on the other. I have even approached the UK government to speak about my concerns around extremist content online, crafting counternarratives that I felt would help overcome these. I have also stressed that I was born, raised and remain a proud British citizen, ready to support the government’s work to both counterextremism and anti-Muslim hatred.
Perhaps it was my naivety, or perhaps it was the fact I said a few things some didn’t want to hear, but, despite my best efforts, my critique of the-then (2009) latest review of the Prevent counterterrorism strategy failed to lead to the expected follow-up call after my meeting in the Home Office.
Some 10 years after the 9/11 attacks tragedy literally hit home for me through the death of my uncle, Mohammed Zabir. His passing came during Ramadan 2011 following an alleged hate crime. A passenger in his taxi on the night before an English Defense League (EDL) march in Middlesbrough severely injured my uncle. This was a totally unprovoked attack and I firmly believe — as the police did at the time — that the injuries he sustained directly led to his ultimate demise in hospital the next month. Once again an extremist narrative, this time shared in the pub by English hooligans, had, by way of sabotaging and misrepresenting my religion, lead to the death of an innocent person — my uncle.
My response to this tragedy started with love — that same love that motivates my faith, but also love for my country and my family. It has led me to a career as a social entrepreneur. Merging my faith and social concerns, Media Cultured CIC makes films and content in order to counter the threat of extremism among British students through education and social unity programs. For example, we have now begun a pilot program with Kick It Out and the Premier League, delivering safeguarding and “Equality Inspires” sessions to football clubs.
As with our work with the Premier League, challenging extremism in all its forms means that we must come together as educators, neighbors, institutions and communities. The violent attacks against innocents at concerts in Manchester and on the bridges of London, but also the murder of the MP Jo Cox and the vehicle attack by far-right extremists near the Finsbury Park Mosque show that there are multiple threats and faces of intolerance, prejudice and hate, which, in the medium and long term, can be only defeated through education.
Mercy to All Mankind
For me, lesson number one is: Islam does not need saving from extremism. Islam is not at war with Britain, just as the latter is not at war with Muslims, even if extremists on both sides want that to be the case. Rather than feeding into this “us versus them” narrative, and rather than allocating mind-numbing terms such as “moderate Muslim” to those you agree with and “wahabbi” to those you don’t, it is vital that mainstream voices listen to what the majority of British Muslims say about Islam.
Prophet Muhammed was sent “as a mercy to all of mankind.” If there was a greater and more balanced education about him — not for the purposes of conversion, but community cohesion — I believe that much in the well of suspicion could be parched of the nourishment it currently receives. Put another way, no media agenda or the millions that fund extremist groups could ever negate the fact that your Muslim neighbor also enjoys a cup of tea and biscuits, and probably knows as much about football as you do.
So let’s start with what we share, rather than focussing upon and further entrenching divisions that make us all culturally poorer and politically tribal. If my work has demonstrated anything it is, first, that faith and understanding of the other can move mountains. But even for those of a different faith, and those without, I also know that solutions to serious issues within our communities can only come from the bottom up, lead with love by grassroots activists that are out there doing, helping, and caring, not posturing or inciting.
Islam alone does not need saving from extremism — all religions and communities do, and education is the key, not politics.
*[An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the words Bismillah, ar-Rahman, ar-Rahim open all of the chapters of the Quran.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.