Muslims need their non-Muslim friends

No to the SDL

More than 11 years ago the world stood still in shock as terror came the heart of new York.

Forever known as 9/11 it was one of those events that conjures up memories of where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news.

My life, like so many others, would change forever but as a journalist working for a major British newspaper I will always remember it as a day that changed the world in so many ways.

9/11 brought us the War on Terror and the media began to portray Islam as an enemy towards mankind, especially in the West.

Islam became the new face of the public enemy and Muslims, whether young or old, man, woman or child became targets of physical and verbal abuse. None of this was justified and the demonization of one set of people, singled out for their faith, had not happened since the 1930s when Jewish people were targeted in an unjustified manner.

They were demonized in Danish and French cartoons – yes, the same newspapers which targeted rabbis, portraying them as subversive preachers of hate in the 1930s turned their attention on the Muslim community.

None of this was could be justified then and it certainly can not be justified now. But even today a man with a beard is portrayed as a terrorist and the word "terrorism" became linked to "Islam."

I remember talking to Leon Kuhn, an extremely talented cartoonist whose work is very well known I the anti war movement. He told me his grandparents were killed in the Holocaust and then revealed how cruel caricatures and cartoons of Jewish people were used in the propaganda war to demonise people of one faith.

Rabbis were portrayed as dangerous subversives and grenades were cynically drawn into their ringlets. There’s no need to tell you where it all ended.

targeted, bullied and ridiculed

But I asked Leon what he thought about the demonization of the Muslims in Europe and he did say that we were at the head of the very same street that Jews were dragged down by the Nazis. The parallels are alarming and chilling and we can not allow ourselves to take on step further down the same road.

Hate crimes are already beginning to spiral out of control – Muslim men, women and children are being targeted, bullied and ridiculed in the West in the workplace, in school, at university and in the street.

Islam is not a threat to mankind or humanity and we can not remain silent and allow others to hijack our beautiful religion.

So what can we do to stop the lies and distortion of our Faith? How can we make people see that Islam is a religion which promotes peace encourages education and makes it perfectly clear that there is no rank in Islam between men and women – they are equal in spirituality, education and worth.

I remember when I converted to Islam my late father was distraught. He saw my conversion from Christianity to Islam as some sort of betrayal, something sinister and dark. It didn’t matter what I said to try and convince him that Islam was a religion of peace he would only see the headlines of hate branding Islam as backward, evil and violent.

Then, one day, I returned home from a Muslim event and I had been presented with a copper plate of the Messenger's Farewell Speech. He read it in silence and then he turned to me and said: "Do you mind if I put this up on the wall?"

My father was a man of few words and found it difficult to express emotion but I swear to God when he read that message his eyes filled with tears.

That message seemed to erase all the negativity he had picked up from the media, all the hate, all the Islamophobic headlines, lies and distortions.

It was gone after he read the message and the passage which moved him so much was this one:

"All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety (taqwa) and good action."

I still smile now when I remember that moment because for all the turmoil my reversion to Islam caused in my family, suddenly my father seemed to not only accept my decision but approve of it. At least he went to his grave with a better understanding of Islam.

And isn’t it ironic that it took the words of one man 1400 years ago to really resonate with my father – the power of those words erased all the hateful headlines, all the negativity around Islam.

If ever there was proof that the pen is mightier than the sword this was it.

Most of us around the world live and breathe words. As a journalist they are the tools of my trade, my way of communicating with a wider audience. Yet despite all the articles I’d written since my conversion nothing could persuade my father that Islam was good; not until he read that farewell message. My words were pale imitations to those of Mohammed, pbuh. His words lit a fire in the mind of my father and moved him to tears.

We should never underestimate the power of the written word and we should never underestimate the power of the media. Why are we so careless with words that we leave them in the hands of knaves and fools who will use them to harm our great religion and the people who follow Islam?

telling the truth can be a dangerous occupation

Surely there is nothing more noble than telling the truth, than finding the haq and bringing it to the people. Yes, in some places, telling the truth can be a dangerous occupation.

There is only one way to counter "Islamophobia" and that is by educating the public about the true essence of Islam. Getting the message out there is probably the easy part but convincing the reader, listener, viewer is another challenge.

Changing the way the public views Islam is an uphill struggle because the path to the top is blocked with ignorance, hatred and false stereotypes.

We need an antedote to the hysterical hate-filled headlines which carpet bomb cultural differences, which fail to define the difference between free speech and offensive speech which incites hatred.

There are around 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today, nearly 70 per cent of Asians are Muslims and still the ignorance about Islam is staggeringly high.

We need to become more media savvy and start challenging the myths. For instance, if Western wars 'liberate' Eastern women, Muslim women would be among the most liberated in the world following centuries of Western imperialistic military interventions. They are not, and never will be, especially when freedoms and liberty for women is associated with Western hegemony.

We only have to look at Afghanistan which has endured British, Russian and American military intervention to no avail. As I said, there are few career women emerging from the rubble of Kabul and according to women's groups I’m told conditions for Aghan women have worsened since the US invasion a decade ago.

The Taliban's social norms might be an affront to modern values in the West, but their values cannot be replaced summarily with Western values, and certainly not by force.

The truth is that those who seek military solutions to social problems fail to make the distinction between Islam and the Taliban or between the cultural and religious aspects of life in Central Asia.

But where are the journalists brave enough to challenge these points? They certainly can not be found in the White House lobby or among the Westminster media village in London where the cosy relationships between politicians and journalists should be questioned.

Truth has been the first casualty of western wars since 9/11 and Muslim women are not far behind. Hundreds of thousands, in fact millions of Muslim women have been turned into mourning widows, mothers, sisters and daughters by wars which we are told will bring Western civilization and democracy.

We need to lift the veil of ignorance towards Islam across the face of the West and the best way of doing this is to create more and more journalists from our ranks.

Misinformation, deliberate or otherwise, and negative stereotypes heighten tensions and serve to legitimize wars, brutality and torture against Muslims. The media needs to take account of Muslim views, monitor output to see how Muslims are represented, and improve accountability. Governments also have a duty to ensure that Muslims are protected from hate speech.

Muslims need their non-Muslim friends more than ever before and to those of you today who have come along to show your solidarity and support, I say thank you. One day you may need our help and I like to think if you shout for it we will come running.

Copyright © Yvonne Ridley 2013

This is the text on which Yvonne Ridley based her speech at the Islamophobia Awareness Conference held in Edinburgh on Saturday 16 March, 2013. The SDL helped make the point by turning up to stand outside in the rain chanting Islamophobic slogans.

Photo: Julia Davidson
Demonstration No to Racism and Fascism, Saturday 20th Feb 2010 Edinburgh

More about the Islamophobia Awareness Conference

Islamophobia - Anti-Muslim Racism - presentation by conference chair, Mujahid Islam.