Coming from an Egyptian Muslim family and growing up in New York after 9/11, I’ve experienced Islamophobia first-hand. I still remember my 7th grade teacher making fun of how Arabs ululate, calling it “their mating call” as if we were animals. Everyone knew what my ethnic background was, so students roared with laughter while looking and pointing at me.
To see how others were dealing with Islamophobia, I traveled to Manchester, U.K., a city with a large Muslim population.
Raveena Bibi, a 22-year-old British born Muslim student of Bangladeshi descent living in Manchester, U.K., says that ever since she started wearing the hijab at the age of 18 she’s been more conscious of her actions towards others, fearing that people would judge her religion and not her. She wishes that “non-Muslims would just learn about Islam more” because it’s frustrating to keep telling people that ISIS doesn’t represent Islam. “If everyone would educate themselves on Islam then the media would have no power,” she said.
It’s no secret that Muslims have been the targets of discrimination all over the world since 9/11. Islamophobia seems to be more and more evident after every terrorist attack made by a Muslim. A few bad apples ruin the batch. But what about the good apples? What about those good Muslims who see their religion as a religion of peace and love? We never hear about the average Muslim, the hard-working father who provides for his family, the mother who cares and worries about her children, or the student that’s bullied in school.
In the U.K., a country with nearly three million Muslims, mosques and organizations like the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester, as well as individual Muslims, are working to educate the public on Islam and promote a better understanding of the religion and culture. The goal is to replace a person’s fear or resentment of Islam and Muslims with acceptance.
Bibi says she has experienced explicit discrimination against herself only once. When she was giving out free Qurans, a man passed by and said, “that’s disgusting.”
Bibi tells me of a time when her manager asked her to work on a day when she had planned to feed the homeless. After explaining to her manager that it was her religious duty to help the less fortunate, her manager responded, “But you all believe in the same God. That’s what I don’t understand—you all believe in the same God.” How could some Muslims feed the hungry while others act as terrorists?
She’s right: Muslims believe in the same God. Together with Christians and Jews they are called “people of the book”—or followers of the monotheistic Abrahamic religions. it is the interpretation of the Quran that causes differences.
Qahtan Aziz, an Iraqi-born Kurd who owns a barbershop in Manchester, says that the media is the reason Islamophobia is rife. If people were to try to get to know their Muslim neighbors or travel to the Middle East they would see how they really are. Even Aziz’s wife, Audrey, had misconceptions and a negative view of Muslims until Aziz took her to see Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.
“I don’t understand why some Muslims want to go back to their country. Here there is more freedom. If you want to drink alcohol or whatever, you can do what you want here,” Aziz said. He is happy and grateful to be living in the U.K. and adds that in the U.K. it’s not as bad for Muslims as in other countries. “The mayor of London is Muslim!” he exclaimed proudly. He does hope though that “maybe one day, the prime minister could be a Muslim.”
Khalil Benkhalil is 23 years old, of Libyan descent, born and bred in the UK. A regional fundraising manager for the charity organization PennyAppeal, he thinks that Muslims should counter Islamophobia by being more open to other cultures. He says many Muslims don’t interact outside their communities and that needs to change.
Ayoub Anwar is a 32-year-old of Pakistani descent. He serves on the board of Urban Sanctuary, an organization that reaches out to vulnerable Muslims, particularly newly converted Muslims, and assists them with the transition, helping them to socialize with others. Since he’s never experienced prejudice he believes that Islamophobia is theoretical. He does recall a moment when someone threw chicken bones at him in the city center and spurted out some racial slurs. However, he says this may have had to do more with his skin color than Islamophobia.
At 29, Mohammad Anwar, Ayoub’s younger brother, has a different perspective about Islamophobia. Like Ayoub, he was born and raised in the UK and works with Urban Sanctuary. He is also the founder of Blessed Hope, a charity organization that helps the homeless in Manchester. He believes Islamophobia is a real issue. Once, while feeding the homeless, a woman came to the table and shouted at them, “What are you doing here!?” When they replied that they were just feeding the homeless, she answered, “No, you have an agenda!”
Due to Islamophobia, Muslims are finding it harder to find jobs, and Muslim women, perhaps because of their overt religious appearance when they wear the hijab, are 71 percent more likely to be unemployed in the UK.
Mehdi, who preferred not to give his last name, comes from a “very British, Evangelical family.” He is a 55-year old and has been a Muslim for 16 years. He says his initial distancing from Christianity came when he was only 14 or 15 years. While at church, he found himself questioning, “What kind of God has a son?” He was afraid to come out to his family after he converted but he did so after an Imam told him he needed to be honest. He says his family had a “didn’t-want-to-hear-it” attitude and that he may have been lucky: His friends were ostracized by their family or thrown out of the house after they converted.
Nadia Bennet, a 25-year-old woman born in the UK is of mixed Jamaican and Trinidad descent. Her family are Jehovah Witnesses. Bennet suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts. After she was introduced to Islam by a friend she started reading the Quran and found her peace in Islam. “Allah saved me,” she said. She wants people to know that she’s not a terrorist and that she’s not trying to push Islam on non-Muslims. “I’m a normal person, just a human being.”