Muslims are ruining Islam for me

I love my religion, but if there’s anything that’s going to ruin it for me, it’s a group of Muslims talking about Islam. Or maybe just Muslims in general.

This seems harsh, trust me, I think it is too, but every time I feel ready to reassess my stance on the matter, I’m presented with yet another incident that leaves me groaning in despair. Last night, that moment came as I was watching BBC’s ‘The Big Question’ as they debated whether we needed a ‘British Islam?’ Instead of feeling solidarity and empathy with my fellow Muslims, I was filled with rage and irritation at the petty arguments and deep divides we were flaunting on national television. Needless to say, those feelings are not conducive to religious Zen and love for my fellow brothers and sisters in Islam.

As I watched the debate unfold, the one thing that stood out for the world to see was that no one agreed. At all. Nicky Campbell desperately tried, and failed, to control the conversation as the Muslims steamrollered over one another in their desire to be heard. One woman obstinately refused to stop talking, an Imam refused to answer when asked about killing people in the name of Islam, while another man consistently mentioned terrorism and Islam in the same breath. Any non-Muslims watching the show would be forgiven for thinking that Islam is basically a bunch of people who won’t listen to anyone, potentially agree with killing people, and who talk about terrorism an awful lot.  

I watched, spiralling further into my pit of despair as I thought, is this the best we have, are these the people I want representing me and is this my voice? Invariably the answer is no to all of the above, because what we so desperately need is to stop and listen to one another, to not hesitate when asked questions about killing people, because you’re actually making it worse for all of us, and for God’s sake, can we please stop talking about terrorism. We live in a society that is desperate to paint Islam and terrorism from the same brush, and our incessant desire to pair the two in the same sentence, contributes to that picture as much as the media does.

As I watched everyone battle it out with one another, it struck me that as British Muslims we have absolutely no unity. We never have, and that’s always been part of the problem. On one hand, we have conservative Muslims leading witch hunts for those Muslims who drink, smoke and have sex, while on the other hand, Muslims with a westernised view of their religion are equally unsympathetic towards conservative, and more traditional Muslims. We’re our own worst enemy. We face a huge amount of oppression and islamophobia from the Western world and until we find some unity within us, we’re never going to be able to present a portrait of Islam that is realistic.

By unity, I don’t mean a total agreement to the way everyone practices, but a loyalty to the faith needs to exist somewhere between us all. That basic faith we all share, no matter how various Muslims choose to practice or live that faith.  The guy drinking a bottle of bud before going to the mosque and the guy that’s always in the mosque, who’s never set foot in a pub, fundamentally hold the same core values, believe in the same five pillars of Islam and abhor killing, yet we’re quick to condemn each other’s choices. Being a Muslim in Britain is difficult enough, and yet here we are, determined to make it even worse for ourselves.

I remember going to the mosque as a teenager and I would almost always have a ‘kindly’ older aunty tell me that my jeans were too tight, or I shouldn’t be wearing nail polish or that I was showing too much skin. These comments were normally delivered with a kind smile and a ‘I’m just helping you avoid hell’ look, as she sacrificed her shawl to wrap around my bum and thus preserve my entry to the pearly gates. These exchanges would always infuriate me and instead of being filled with calm and serenity in a place of worship, I was immediately incensed and swore that I would run down the street naked just to get back at these ‘oh so kind’ aunties.

An adolescent thought of course, but it always bugged me that they couldn’t just accept that I was there in the first place. I knew my friends were in clubs getting drunk or shacked up with their boyfriends, and yet there I was in the mosque and it still wasn’t good enough. I didn’t want to cover my arms and I really didn’t mind that I had tight jeans on. Those things didn’t bother me and in my version of Islam, God wasn’t sending me to hell. Yet those encounters always gave even me, a Muslim, a negative image of Islam.

Similarly, as I was walking through Leicester Square with a friend last week we passed a stall playing Quran and giving out leaflets about Islam. Behind the stall a man was praying and I stopped and smiled. Smiled to hear the Quran in the middle of Leicester Square mixed with the show tunes, and smiled to see someone praying in an open space, without harassment or consequence. As I stopped, a Muslim man approached to give me a leaflet. I joked that I was ‘already a Muzzer so he didn’t need to worry about me’ and smiled at him. The second he knew I was Muslim he raised his eyebrows at the short dress I was wearing before quickly lowering his gaze and taking a step back, maintaining a bigger distance between us, before quickly hurrying away. The whole exchange lasted a few seconds but irritated me for the rest of the night. I thought I would find some solidarity from a fellow Muslim as we shared a moment of understanding in the middle of chaotic London, yet there was none. It was just another interaction that left a bad taste in my mouth.

I’ve also sat with Muslim friends who have pointed and laughed at the boys with rolled up trousers and big beards, and the girls who wear headscarves and blush when boys are mentioned. Those conversations are equally unhelpful and leave an equally bitter taste in my mouth.  

In a religion that is built upon the idea that only God can judge you, we’re flinging around an incredible amount of judgement, and those opinions are more harmful than ever before. I know I should be more sympathetic to people who don’t like the way I dress, or practice my faith, and similarly, I know they need to appreciate that not everyone will want to follow the same interpretation of Islam as they do. We also need to acknowledge that programmes such as these are constructed by the media to feed into the narrative of ISIS, terrorism and Sharia law. It keeps everyone worried that the Muslims are swamping and changing a Western lifestyle. Nicky Campbell might have struggled to control the debate, but he certainly gave everyone on the show enough rope to hang themselves. These are the moments we so desperately need to be standing shoulder to shoulder so we can effectively guide the conversation in the right way, instead of being controlled by it. We’ve let a discourse of fear, misunderstand and negativity frame Islam for far too long now.   

Our cultures, context and experiences will all shape how we believe and practice our faith, and they’re always going to be diverse and multifaceted. Isn’t it past time we acknowledged that and accepted one another for who we are and the different ways we live our faith? I’ve known people who have come home blind drunk every night and the conviction of the faith that sits in their heart astounds me. I’ve also known people who spend the majority of their time bowed down in prayer and they hate every minute of it. We’re just not the right people to judge, and we definitely need to stop etching cracks in our own religion. Islam is incredibly beautiful and yet I honestly think we’re ruining it with our stringent opinions and refusal to accept all types of Muslims into the fold. Why haven’t we got more solidarity, loyalty and respect for each other? Until we find that, how can we ask the rest of the world to give it to us.

Salma El-Wardany