Maybe it is time we started getting scared, says Arzu Merali
Great news for all, that Monty Python are reforming and will be playing the O2 next year. I happily watched a clip on BBC Breakfast a couple of days back of the Spanish Inquisition using the soft cushions and comfy chair of torture on a little old lady in order to get her to confess to heresy. As it ended, I reached for my phone to post the infamous line “No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition” on my various social media profiles, when the phone rang: a request from BBC 3 Counties Radio to take part in a phone- in on Judge Khurshid Drabu’s comments about women wearing nikab.
Drabu’s comments were reported thus, that Muslim women who wear nikab might consider moving to a country where it is a norm rather than stay in the UK where it has no place. I haven’t been able to locate an exact quote, but this was the gist of how the story was being carried in the media.
I am a North Londoner by birth, and BBC 3 Counties broadcasts just around the area I grew up in the 1970s through to the end of the 1990s bar the three years at uni. I listened to two calls before the presenter came to me. The first was a lady from Cheshunt, just a few miles up the road of my family home and somewhere I used to be familiar with. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up in a white working class area as one of a handful of black kids as we were all known in those days, and there was racism aplenty, including threats from the far-right National Front. But we grew up and, so it seemed did most of society. Some of us even had the temerity to think that things had gotten better for a while before Islamophobia became so completely mainstream.
When I listened to this caller, I still wasn’t prepared. She may as well have been from another country – she was scared of women in nikab, she felt uncomfortable and resentful when a Muslim colleague started to cover her hair. When women come here they should fit in with people she argued, like herself, who though half French was “full British”. No matter how hard the presenter tried to make her see that a Muslim woman wearing nikab may also be British, it was anathema to her. What she was actually afraid of remains a mystery, I suspect even to her.
The next caller was even more vitriolic, blaming global unrest on Muslims which start with Muslims complaining about issues like this i.e. the nikab. A later caller, a Muslim man, chimed in between my contribution, on how Muslim women who wear the nikab need to see a psychiatrist. It might even be funny in a Pythonesque sort of way, if it was all made up. However this is how people see Muslims, and if I am honest I can hardly blame them. Hysteria and paranoia are rife and rather than placate this, politicians, the media and various institutions fuel it. The callers to the show, and even the everyday perpetrators of hate crimes - from name callings to physical assault, vandalism to arson attacks - are in a way, also victims of the rampant Islamophobic and racist discourses that surround us. I have argued as much elsewhere in academic work for IHRC with various colleagues. They are a symptom of structural racism and hatred, not a cause, provoked in their views and actions by the people they trust.
The people they trust – the government in particular and some significant parts of the media – project an idea of Muslim deviancy at home that when unleashed in other contexts e.g. the Middle East, becomes violent. I would be scared too, if I didn’t know better, if I wasn’t actually on the receiving end of actual hatred and violence.
As my piece on the radio ended, I went back to my phone, no longer in the mood to joke about the Spanish Inquisition, the real version of which was not so funny. Tasked with finding out secret Muslims and Jews, it was instrumental in the final genocide and ethnic cleansing of these communities from the Iberian peninsula. It didn’t matter to the Inquisition that Muslims and Jews had in fact been already expelled from the region or allowed to stay under forcible conversion to Christianity. It didn’t matter that Marranos (the Jews who had converted) and Moriscos (the Muslims who had converted) publicly confessed Catholicism, it was thought that they must be hiding their original heretical faith. It was an original form of racism – the indissoluble marker of wrong religion. Giving up their identity didn’t work then, and I doubt it will work for any of us, Muslims, Jews, dissenters or any other non-conformers today. I am properly scared now. And yes, I am expecting the Spanish Inquisition.