We are not the enemy: a Pakistani migrant′s reflections on Islam and Islamophobia | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 29.05.2017
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Essay

We are not the enemy: a Pakistani migrant's reflections on Islam and Islamophobia

The values of liberty, tolerance and rational inquiry are not the birthright of a single culture, reminds DW's Farhad Mirza, exploring the people who were left invisible in the aftermath of the Manchester attacks.

UK | Love-not-Hate-Demonstrationen in Manchester (Getty Images/AFP/B. Stansall)

A multi-faith vigil outside the Town Hall in Albert Square after the Manchester attack

In the aftermath of the recent attack in Manchester, the debate on Islam's compatibility with "western" values has flared once again. When people see their children slain at a pop concert by someone claiming to be inspired by the Quran, who could blame them for asking: Is this Islam?

I am a Pakistani migrant, living in the West. So, naturally, I fear the divisive rhetoric that follows tragedies such as the one we witnessed in Manchester last week. I am dismayed by the embrace of Islamophobia in mainstream politics and I appreciate the concerns of liberals who jump to my defense when unfair assumptions about migrants are made.

But I also know what religious fascism looks like: It is laws that hold a woman responsible for her own rape. It is a murderous horde beating a student to death over a flimsy rumor of blasphemy. It is the brutal massacre of 132 school children. 

In many Islamic countries, the political mainstream is dominated by religious extremism. Therefore, I understand the panicked inquiries of people who ask me: Is this what Muslims want? Is this what they would do if we let them into our country?

As reasonable and earnest as this inquiry is, it can not ever produce a clear answer. Yes, many Islamic societies are hostile to progressive politics, but it doesn't mean Islam does not inspire progressive politics in these societies.

Who is made invisible by terrorism?

People's religious beliefs are shaped by their personal experiences, making it impossible to trace the intrinsic moral value of faith. The 132 Pakistani children, butchered by Islamists back in 2014, were born to parents who also identified as Muslims. And I don't know how to reconcile these two facts.

UK | Love-not-Hate-Demonstrationen in Manchester (Getty Images/L. Neal)

A member of Manchester's Syrian community attending a vigil after the attack

Terrorism is a frightening spectacle of violence that aims to use our imagination against us, reflected Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari in "The Guardian." This "theater of terror" distorts political perspectives, making some ways of being more visible than others.

What is important today is to keep our eyes on what is being made invisible by terrorism: the vast and varied ways of being Muslim that don't regularly permeate our imagination.

While oft-repeated, this argument nevertheless compels a closer scrutiny of such cherished analytical categories as "The Western Civilization." The belief that Islam is a permanently fixed entity, impermeable to time and space, is an extension of an equally flawed belief that western civilization reached its liberal exaltation in complete disconnect to the rest of the world.

The values of liberty, tolerance and rational inquiry are not the birthright of a single culture. If we truly wish to see the "Muslim world" in all its complexity, we must first move aside so as to free it from our own shadow. 

Manchester's diversified Muslim community

One of the most striking things about Barry Jenkins' 2016 coming-of-age drama film "Moonlight"  was that it did not feature any white protagonists. Though it tackled all the issues typically associated with black communities in the US (hyper-masculinity, drugs, crime), it managed to portray them in their own context, independent of their function in the imagination of outsiders.

When a fight breaks out between two school boys, the teacher who intervenes is also black. So are the counselors, the doctors, the police officers, and the father-figure who unknowingly sells crack to one of the boys’ mother.  

Imagine a similar film about the Muslim community in Manchester. What sort of characters would we meet? Perhaps, a 22-year-old British-Libyan kid, indoctrinated by extremists during his trips to a country torn by civil war. He considers himself an important foot-soldier in a predestined holy war, and for some inexplicable reason, thinks he must play his part by exploding into pieces at a pop concert. 

Meanwhile, Sam Arshad, the owner of a Manchester taxi firm, arrives at work to the cacophonous sound of ringing telephones - hysterical teens, worried parents. He learns of a large explosion at a pop concert nearby and realizes that the audience must have been rather young, lacking the money to hire taxis. At that point, he makes a decision to offer free rides, making sure people get home safe and sound.

Some of his passengers have serious injuries, so they are rushed to the hospital where they are received by Dr Mounir Hakimi. The wounds are daunting, but he recognizes them from his time as a volunteer in rebel-held Syria. He remembers operating under the threat of air strikes.

Hours later, the Islamic State group claims responsibility for the attack. Hakimi hopes the lives he has saved will one day recognize what they have in common, what is at stake here.

Fighting for the right to be called a Muslim

UK | Love-not-Hate-Demonstrationen in Manchester (Getty Images/J. J. Mitchell)

Members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community at the Albert Square vigil

As the news of the attack spread across the city, thousands of people gathered in Albert Square to express their unity and defiance. Many Ahmadi Muslims attended, with banners reading "Love For All, Hatred For None." 

Ahmadis know a thing or two about communal anguish. In Pakistan they are ostracized, demonized, declared non-Muslim by law. Despite the negativity associated with the Muslim tag, Ahmadis endure the worst for the right to call themselves Muslims.

Returning home after the vigil, they likely braced themselves for the abuse and humiliation they could expect the following morning. Meanwhile, aspiring terrorists rejoiced. Each of them going to bed praying to the same god.

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