Sunday, April 21, 2024

From India to UK, Islamophobia is omnipresent

Various manifestations of Islamophobia can be experienced across the world, but there is nowhere one can escape its clutches.

In India, every time, I leave home, many eyes stare at me, not because of something unusual about me, but because of the Hijab I wore. Those eyes were not intrigued to find out what I was wearing or why I was wearing that piece of cloth over my head but clearly manifested their blatant hatred for my beliefs and religious practices. My very existence was loathsome to many in the most popular public transport in the capital, the metro, which is frequented by the ‘educated’ and ‘elite’ class of our society.

I remember how an elderly man started chanting “Jai Hanuman” in my face when I boarded the train. Although I don’t mind anyone remembering their God or chanting verses, I wonder why I was the trigger behind ‘an act of worship’?  Probably he felt satisfied by his failed attempt to insult me or my religion. By this act, he was averring that India is a land explicitly for Hindus. As expected, everyone in the jam-packed train coach remained tight-lipped, reflecting the venom that probably a majority of Indians are thriving on today. Such menacing public silence on quotidian acts of subjugating Muslims openly suggests fallacious support to oppressors. 

This was not all, my attire led many to think that I was illiterate. Once passing by the street, children not more than ten years old asked me questions like “Where have you come from, Pakistan? Do you study at a Madrasa?” Their young minds had been corrupted to believe that Muslims belong to Pakistan, they are not truly Indians, they are uneducated and only go to Madrasas, which radicalize them and are not schools, but breeding grounds.

This deep-rooted enmity has been inculcated in children steadily, with much effort and calculation. Children are seeing their society as a divided one, on the lines of religion because of the communal opinions of parents and family members, unprecedented fake news and propaganda spread by prominent media outlets and daunting changes in the school curriculum. The purging of important scientific theories, historical facts and political case studies from school syllabus, an extensive celebration of Hindu festivals, and incidents of violence with Muslim children in school have all contributed to the proliferation of ubiquitous antagonism and hate.

My experience of Islamophobia did not come to an end even at the last moment when I was in my country. At the airport, the immigration officer tried his best to keep me standing and demean me because I had travelled to Pakistan. Besides his routine questions, he asked me why I went there, what was the need to go, how I got there, why my relatives lived there and where am I actually from, despite holding my blue coloured Indian passport in his hand with official visa stamps of my entry and departure from Pakistan. It was a humiliating experience, for fifteen-odd minutes my heart kept pounding at a high speed until he finally decided to stop enquiring any further about my Indianness and allowed me to move ahead. These instances may seem to many as ordinary and not worthy of being considered as gruelling acts of right-wing Hindutva nationalism, but to live in those moments and respond to them, is strenuous especially when you are all alone amongst hundreds of people, and incidents of mob lynching of innocents across the country, Delhi pogroms, cat calling and hate speeches of parliamentarians, illegitimate arrests of students and bulldozers destroying years of hard work of generations spin in your head as a Muslim. 

As life took a turn, I ended up here in one of the most prestigious universities in the UK. I love the weather, the work atmosphere, and my university and there is hardly anything to miss about my previous life. The numerous mosques in the vicinity, separate spaces for prayers in universities and their openness to women and people from all faiths impressed me abundantly since it is not as common to pray in mosques for women in India. I was made to believe that the UK promotes diversity after the unique Strength of the Hijab statue sculpted by Luke Perry was revealed recently. This statue impressed upon the inclusive nature of British society. It is due to be installed in October in the West Midlands, as a remarkable symbol of Muslim women’s representation. Thus, after coming here, I seldom thought that I would have to face the same questioning eyes again. But it did happen, it happened when I went to find part-time work. I was bluntly told that ‘we don’t give work to Muslim women!’. This may be considered a sexist remark, but I was shocked to see how he dared to say that in a country which is inhabited by so many Muslim men and women, contributing to the economy at various levels. Besides, just like in India, people here also assume that Muslim women generally have limited access to formal education. They were surprised to see a Muslim woman travelling alone and how easily she was ‘allowed’ to pursue higher education abroad without any family member being around. 

Besides these instances of typical stereotypes against Muslims, the growing animosity against Muslims in the capital was pronounced in the recent vandalization of the West London Islamic Centre, or the Al Falah Institute on 26th September, which served the community for more than a decade. Now laid in ruins, this centre, running on public donations, provided a safe place to pray and offered quality education to women. The perpetrators brazenly burnt the Holy Quran and the structure disregarding the beliefs and aspirations of the community. Worse still is that the police have not made any arrests in the case till now and the mainstream media is also muted on the matter. The nefarious attack on the centre by unrecognized goons, limited action by the police and the silence of the media is reminiscent of the numerous instances of illegal demolitions of houses, mosques and shops owned by Muslims in India. The sequence of events happens to be similar, if not identical.  Nonetheless, Muslim brutal persecution leading to the loss of lives, livelihood and political voice in India cannot be effortlessly compared with a relatively handful of acts of enmity and discord in the UK. 

All this just leads me to think that various manifestations of Islamophobia can be experienced across the world, but there is nowhere one can escape its clutches. Its impact may also differ, but it is the same vehemence which anchors hatred among people. It is the feeling of ‘othering’, which breathes soul into acts of physical and/or verbal violence against Muslims, which coerces individuals to forget centuries of shared culture, environment and human values. Hence, being a Muslim in the 21st century is unfortunately accompanied by innumerable intimidating questions, unnecessary glances and a string of constant prejudices. But I wonder whether people from other faiths too face such situations, or if Islam is simply privileged to be the only religion to be targeted.

Sumna Sadaqat is a postgraduate student at the University of Birmingham, UK.

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