[Constant guilt by association an emotional and psychological baggage too draining for anyone to carry (Photo: AJV/Muslim News) ]
By Masuma Rahim
Patriotism is a concept I have always struggled with. Loyalty to a country on the basis that you were born or lived there has always made me uncomfortable. I think any kind of unwavering loyalty is bordering on the foolish. The only loyalty that matters is loyalty to your values. With that mindset, you retain the full right to criticise and object and all those things one should be able to do in a democracy. But of course it’s not quite that simple.
I was born in Britain and part of me is proud of this nation and the things it has achieved. After the horrors of war, it built the welfare state. It took refugees (including my family) when few other states would. It educated me and thousands like me and provided us with opportunities we wouldn’t have had in our lands of origin. Despite my issues with patriotism I am proud to be British and I owe this country a great deal. I may well be prouder of my citizenship than many of my fellow Britons. The problem is I don’t look very British. And because I don’t look British, I’m not always treated as though I am.
I have no desire to write in detail about the murder of Lee Rigby. Like all those who believe human life is valuable and who deplore violence, I was horrified by what happened in Woolwich. Unfortunately, my fear that the perpetrators would claim to be Muslim was realised. Having no interest in seeing atrocities being done or hearing them justified, I avoided all televised news. I read about the EDL response via Twitter and hoped the situation would calm.
The next day I worked from home as scheduled and in the evening I went into London for an engagement. And for perhaps the first time in my life I felt anxious about doing so. I have never been scared in London. But on that day I felt wary. I may live in a diverse area, but bigotry persists. In the end, all I had to contend with was someone spitting ‘fucking scum’ at me on the way to the station. It’s not much to complain about; my family and I have put up with much worse. But these things do colour your thoughts and actions: some sixty seconds after this incident I almost bumped into a man who had dropped his laptop and the cash he’d just withdrawn. I picked up his laptop and waited while he collected the cash as it blew in the breeze. Part of me wanted to help, part of me didn’t want to give the impression I was robbing him and a third part of me didn’t want to put myself in a position which would make me physically vulnerable. Standing two feet away I could make a hasty exit if necessary, but I felt both rude and foolish watching a man in his 50s scramble for notes whilst I pointed out where they were. Two days earlier I would have stooped down to assist him; I’d likely have done so two minutes earlier. But my paranoia was elevated; I didn’t want a fight, I just wanted to get my train. So I let a man twice my age struggle to pick up his money and I watched and I felt ashamed of myself. But maybe this is what fear does. It breaks the fragile bonds that exist between us, those bonds which make us into a society.
When I read the EDL response to the Woolwich atrocity, a part of me sympathised. I was outraged; why wouldn’t they be? Given what the murderers said after committing the attack, why wouldn’t they be furious? Hate breeds hate. We are primal creatures; we attack and we avenge. So they did. I deplore what both sides have done but I wasn’t surprised by the EDL response. But that response simply reminded me of one thing: it’s hard to convince people you’re British when you don’t look it.
I resoundingly do not look British and of course my values are not emblazoned on my forehead. But if we’re talking British values, I don’t think it’s very British to abuse people in the street. I don’t think it’s very gentlemanly to pull off women’s scarves. I don’t think your grandfather fought in two wars so you could burn mosques. You call me fucking scum, without provocation, and you think that you can take the moral high ground? Because someone I’d never met who probably wasn’t very well committed an appalling act, somehow I become responsible? I would never dream of screaming abuse at anyone. I would never set off a petrol bomb. I would never incite violence. I tell you this, I may not be white and I may not be Church of England, but I think your grandfather would be ashamed of you and I don’t think he would be ashamed of me.
I didn’t accuse all police officers of racism because of Stephen Lawrence. I understand that you can be part of a group without your actions representing every member of that group. Yet I am grouped with people who carry out appalling acts and it is incredibly hard to love a country when your fellow citizens clearly believe you are not equal to them. It’s a shame: Britain is the only home I’ve ever known but more and more I hear the call to ‘go back to where you came from’. To where I came from? A two-bedroom flat south of the river is where I came from. The colour of my skin doesn’t change that. I have more respect for Britain and its people than many of my white compatriots. I don’t care if you can trace your British roots back 600 years: if you’re aggressive to others without cause you have nothing to be proud of.
I still wonder what my response to the attack in Woolwich should have been. I and some friends had intended to go to Woolwich to lay some flowers and pay our respects. The police advised that we stay at home. So, even as we try to show that we mourn with you, that the life of a white soldier is a life worth cherishing, we are at risk. Tell me, what do you want from us? Do you want us to stay in our enclaves and stop any attempts at integration? Or do you want us to be part of a functioning society? When we do the former you tell us we need to be more British; when we do the latter you think you have the right to frighten us and violate those things which are important to us. You demand everything from us and then you throw it back in our faces.
And, again, what of my response? Should I talk about the value of human life in Islam? Am I compelled to highlight the murderers’ abhorrent belief system? Must I say what I think about Anjem Choudary and his band of hate-mongers? Is it right that the responsibility is placed on my shoulders? I don’t know. I don’t see why I should apologise for someone else’s crimes, but terrible people have hijacked my name and are committing appalling acts in that name. In some ways, I don’t feel I have a choice. But it gets wearing apologising all the time and I don’t want to have to fly the flag any longer. I want to live my life as I always have, I don’t want to spend most of it trying to prove my humanity and my decency. I have nothing to prove; I have committed no crime. But of course, to some of you, I have. I am guilty simply by association. And nothing I do will be atonement enough for you.