“Terrorists’, “Sexist” and “Backwards”. These are just some of the phrases that Muslim people come face to face with every day. We see aggressive words like “terrorists” alongside non-aggressive words like “Islam”, quite literally meaning ‘peace to people’, in newspapers and on TV every day. For those of us who are more visual, we see photos of bloody attacks accompanied by images of veiled women every other day.
Negative stereotypes about Muslims come in a variety of different shapes and sizes to cater to all types of readers. It’s up to us to either read, or simply sift through, a selection of awful and biased photography against Muslims.
“Experiencing the #VisitMyMosque initiative was one of the most heart-warming experiences I have ever had”
Alongside the media’s portrayal, ignorance comes close to being the biggest cause of widespread misconceptions about the Muslim faith. Luckily ignorance can be cured and the best way to do this is by being educated. After, quite admittedly, having gone on a massive tirade against the way we are fed negative stereotypes about Muslims in the media, I am ready to start talking about my own experience of being educated about Islam. Despite the negatively toned opening, experiencing the #VisitMyMosque initiative was one of the most heart-warming experiences I have ever had.
On Sunday 18th February I went to a mosque. This was the first time I’d been to a mosque since being a nine-year old whose major concerns revolved around feeding my Nintendogs and re-enacting every scene from High School Musical. As you can imagine, I took a lot more from my visit to the mosque this time around!
Admittedly, I wouldn’t have known that visiting a mosque was even possible if it wasn’t for Shannon Jackson, the founder of the University of Nottingham’s Immigration Education Nottingham (IEN) society, but even so I am extremely grateful that I ended up going.
The #VisitMyMosque initiative was initially set up with 20 nationwide mosques opening their doors to the public. In its 4th year, it’s incredible to think that the initiative has grown tenfold with an incredible 200 mosques now taking part with the aim ‘to welcome neighbours from all faiths’ to ‘build bridges across communities’. Most mosques tend to have an open-door policy at any time throughout the year, but this day felt particularly special.
It was clear to me that the As-Shifa and Karimia Mosques in Hyson Green fulfilled the #VisitMyMosque initiative of ‘building bridges across communities’. On setting foot into the mosque, we were greeted with the most welcoming smell of food. This was the smell of home-cooked, non-student prepared food in the form of samosas, lentil dhal and Bombay potatoes. If our noses weren’t leading us to the cuisine already, we were all escorted to the buffet table where one of the mosque’s members took us through the fine selection. Let’s just say I took my fair share of all that the buffet table had to offer, and I did not regret it. The only person who did feel a little disappointed was Jarnai – an IEN volunteer who had already eaten her chicken mayo ‘meal’ deal just minutes before entering the mosque – a decision that was always destined to be a failure. At this stage of the day my preconceptions of both Islam and the term ‘refreshments’ were being shattered all at once.
The day continued with an observation of prayer. We were kindly told to remove our shoes to enter the prayer room but as visitors there was no need for us to do anything more. As I stood at the back of the prayer room, I could see nothing but sheer admiration and curiosity from the other visitors observing the prayer.
Behind me were two elderly British men who kept asking questions to one of the mosque volunteers about the meanings behind the prayer procedure and the poses being made. Despite the multitude of questions being asked, the mosque volunteers seemed genuinely delighted to answer. They were most happy to clarify that ‘Allah Akbar’ means ‘Glory to God’ as this has unfortunately been associated with violence thanks to its use by terrorist groups. I would’ve, personally, lost my patience with having to answer so many questions but the Imam (a person with an Islamic scholar title and leadership position in a mosque) asked for questions at every given opportunity and couldn’t seem to stress this enough to the visitors.
I realised that this was, after all, the purpose of the day – to clarify all misconceptions that stem from what seems like, the small irrelevant and awkward questions that no one ever asks about Islam.
” In the light of all the Islamophobia, the mosque’s community are still able to see the beauty in this world”
This then led to my favourite part of the day – my chance to sit down with a few of the locals and have a chat over a hot cup of tea – a sentence that is unforgivably British no matter what your faith or creed. It was from these conversations that I learnt of the sheer and upsetting levels of Islamophobia that are experienced each day. Yet, in the light of all the Islamophobia, the mosque’s community are still able to see the beauty in this world – a quality that they attribute to their religion.
According to Gurmit Kaur, a retired police inspector who now works with the Trust building society at the Karimia Institute, women tend to experience the worst of Islamophobia. Kaur used to hear incidents where Islamic women were told to go ‘back to your home country’.
Islamophobia is on the rise with social media platforms making it easier for people to verbally attack and threaten self-identifying Muslims over the web. According to a study by Demos an average of 4,972 Islamophobic tweets are sent per day. We have to understand that religion is a major part of an individual’s identity whether that be with your own religion or somebody else’s. That is why, when Kaur talks of incidents, where women have felt uncomfortable to wear their hijabs or burkas in public, it infuriates me because they are being denied a part of their identity.
“These incidents are so frequent and yet only around 10% are reported”
As a retired police inspector, Kaur cannot stress enough how fundamental it is for people to report these incidents of Islamophobia both as a victim or a bystander. The fact is that these incidences are so frequent and yet only around 10% are reported.
After having discussed these awful incidents, I couldn’t help but think how hard it must be to be a Muslim in Britain. I went in with some fairly touchy questions about Islamophobic incidents that some of the community had faced and was shocked by the responses. One of the women* I spoke to had been told by a stranger that she should ‘take off that dress’ and go back to her home country. At the time the woman had been speaking to her friend over the phone. Her friend had overheard the incident and told her not to respond, but the woman couldn’t just stand there and let these remarks continue. She felt like she had to take a stand. She turned back to the ignorant man and said, ‘In the future it might be best not to say that to a Muslim woman’. Luckily the man apologised but, in many cases, this would not have happened.
“Women are standing at the forefront as representatives for their religion and this radio station is a key feature that allows them to”
It is encouraging to see how both the Muslim men and women have created a family in this mosque. Radiodawn 107.6 FM has been set up to bring the community together. The manager is a woman and explains how lucky she feels to be in a position where she can give a voice to her faith. There are common misconceptions that women are submissive in Islamic culture but this radio station sheds light on just how wrong this misconception is. Women are standing at the forefront as representatives for their religion and this radio station is a key feature that allows them to.
As a Religion, Philosophy and Ethics students I stood at the entrance of the mosque thinking I’d learnt a fair amount about Muslim culture from that one Islam module I’d taken in first year. I was wrong. Faith cannot be learnt from a textbook, it cannot even fully be taught in lectures, it can only truly be experienced first-hand. I am very grateful to the Muslim Council of Britain for this initiative, for without them I would not have gained the education that I both craved, and needed.
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Featured Image courtesy of Jarnai Lewin, IEN volunteer.
*Anonymised so as to protect their identity