A path towards ally-ship: Reframing 'The Muslim Problem'
Politicians, tabloid news, and the silver screen continue to bombard us with depictions of Muslims as being 'unwilling to integrate,' 'violent,' 'extremist,' 'sexist' and 'homophobic.'
These harmful narratives have been constructed and imposed on Muslims by European powers since the era of the Crusades.
Examining this discourse is Manchester-based lawyer Tawseef Khan, who has penned a manifesto of sorts called The Muslim Problem.
Khan holds a PhD from the University of Liverpool; his thesis explores the experiences of lesbian, gay, and bi-sexual asylum seekers in Britain.
In The Muslim Problem, Khan deconstructs Western stereotypes about Muslims while also shining a lens on contemporary issues existing within the Muslim community.
|Islamophobia really boils down to three or four stereotypes: that we don't and can't integrate, that we are violent, sexist, homophobic and transphobic, and that Muslim men are a problem|
It is Khan's attempt to facilitate honest conversations across communities about the harmful and long-lasting effects of Islamophobia, as well as the effects of puritanical religious dogma within the Muslim community which sometimes behaves in an exclusive rather than inclusive manner. Khan says these are the two defining forces which throughout his life he has pushed up against.
"Islamophobia really boils down to three or four stereotypes: that we don't and can't integrate, that we are violent, sexist, homophobic and transphobic, and that Muslim men are a problem," Khan tells The New Arab.
"These are the kinds of narratives that have existed from the very beginning of Christian-Muslims interactions, so I wanted to make that connection between medieval and contemporary Islamophobia, and show how easy it is to dismantle it.
"These sorts of essentialist ways of understanding any community are harmful and dangerous and I demonstrate how they harm people, and how they are also untrue."
Tawseef had been a human rights activist for a number of years before deciding to write the book.
He explains that the catalyst for writing The Muslim Problem wasn't just a culmination of events in which he experienced and witnessed others being subjected to Islamophobic racism, it was also his own questions around life after his activism, where he belonged in the world, and what he had to say.
Spending his free time writing in Waterstones, Khan describes how chancing upon a particular book made him decide it was time to write The Muslim Problem.
"I was actually writing something else before I started writing The Muslim Problem," he says. "There was a book that I saw called Letters to a Young Muslim. I read the beginning and was extremely disappointed. It seemed to deal with being Muslim entirely through the prism of extremism and terrorism, and I felt that the existence of Muslims at this particular time is just far more complicated than that.
"I started complaining about it to my friend and he said, 'well, maybe you should write something'. So I started working on an idea, which took a year to turn into a proposal for the book that we have now."
|I am having two conversations in the book, about the West and Islamic communities, and I think that those two conversations have to happen. We don't have a choice|
As well as being a book rich in history, facts, and insights from prominent figures in the Muslim community like Reza Aslan, Amina Wadud and Hussein Kesvani, Khan opens each chapter by sharing an anecdote from his life, enabling the reader to connect with him on a personal level.
From his experiences going to school as a Muslim boy in the United Kingdom, to being pulled aside for a 'random' search as an adult at an airport, Khan uses his experiences to illustrate the everyday effects of Islamophobia. But it was revisiting his relationship with his parents that was the biggest revelation.
"I began to understand why they made certain decisions about how they raised me. For example, they were very dogmatic about religion at times, and now I realise that they were worried about racist violence and were trying to make sure I had a strong understanding of my cultural and religious identities. So the book has renewed the empathy that I feel towards them."
Since its release in March, The Muslim Problem has received an accolade of praise for its fresh and nuanced perspectives. But there have been critics too, with a couple of reviews claiming Khan puts the West on trial, and a small number of Muslim readers claiming he puts Islam on trial.
"I think the book is much more nuanced and even-handed than people deciding that it is a book that puts the West on trial. It's not actually about the West; it's about Muslims and how we can navigate our identities and relationships with God with an understanding of the broader forces that exist around us.
"I am having two conversations in the book, about the West and Islamic communities, and I think that those two conversations have to happen," he tells The New Arab.
"We don't have a choice. There are spaces where Muslims can critique behind closed doors, and there are spaces where, unfortunately, we have to have those conversations publicly. There is no way to write a book and have that book only exist within the Muslim community."
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Since the publication of his book, Tawseef has been busy with the launch of his podcast Muslim, Actually which picks up where The Muslim Problem ends.
Muslim, Actually is a space where Khan invites a guest each week to share what it means to be Muslim, no strings attached.
With guests speaking about topics such as the queer Muslim community, climate change, and Islam and feminism, Khan is providing an inclusive space that allows for plurality of thought, and it is this plurality that Khan says is integral to his Islamic practice.
Facilitating open conversation across communities is a vital task in the West today, where Islamophobia has not only become systemic, but European politicians have become blasé about their racist attitudes.
If The Muslim Problem was to find its way into the hands of Western politicians, Khan says he hopes it would wake them up to the reality of what is "a really sad and destructive relationship" between the West and Muslim communities.
"I would like for them to understand the way it harms us and the confidence we have to move throughout the world. I would want them to be inspired to end that toxic relationship. I think there is a better way to be, that doesn't need to rely on having an enemy and having Islam as its enemy. It's the job of our elected leaders to find it."
The Muslim Problem is published by Atlantic Books and is out now. Muslim, Actually is available to stream on Spotify and Apple.
Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, being published by Hashtag Press in the UK in October 2020
Follow her here: @UNDERYOURABAYA