How Muslims are challenging Islamophobia by refusing to condemn terrorism
When atrocities were committed by the likes of far-right killers Brenton Tarrant and Anders Breivik, there was no demand for the Christian community to condemn such violent behaviour.
Yet Muslims, who have nothing in common with terrorists apart from perpetrators claiming to have the same religion, are constantly associated with extremism and expected to denounce extremist groups.
‘We cannot speak without first verifying our humanity,’ says Asmin Qureshi in his book of essays, I Refuse To Condemn.
The writer and research director of human rights organisation, CAGE, is talking about an interview with Channel 4’s Jon Snow. In the conversation, Asim is asked the famous question: ‘Do you condemn this?’, about the actions of Jihadi John, the infamous ISIS killer.
The association of Islam as inherently violent and linked to terrorism is prevalent in media – with terror attacks involving Muslims receiving 357% more coverage than when the religion of the attacker is unknown.
Muslims across the world are looked to when violent acts of terrorism happen at the hands of so-called Islamic states and those who subscribe to their ideals.
On TV chat shows, in vox-pops, or in national debates, Muslim figures are asked to speak out against terrorism in no uncertain terms.
Asim points out that a question like this to a Muslim person presumes their guilt.
In I Refuse to Condemn, 18 essayists argue that not outrightly denouncing these acts – though they do not champion them either – is a political act in itself and a way to resist anti-Islamic prejudice.
In it, the writers explore how Muslims can resist what’s expected of them altogether and exist beyond the monolith they’re portrayed to be.
‘I had a number of experiences being interviewed or being at events where people would ask me if I condemned terrorism,’ Asim tells Metro.co.uk.
‘I wanted to capture the lived experiences and feelings of scholars and activists from different communities, who have this demand made of them.
‘My hope for this book is that it helps those who feel the pressure to condemn find voices and experiences that they recognise, and find a pathway to resist that demand.
‘I hope it will help wider society think more critically about the hurt they cause others when they make unreasonable demands of us.’
The writers are aware that statements like ‘I refuse to condemn’ may result in further scrutiny of the community – readers may see the speakers’ reluctance to conform as a threat to the British way of life.
Psychologist Tarek Younis writes in his chapter: ‘To stand against the nation-state is to render all suspicions true – that you, in fact, do not belong’.
So why not just condemn?
Drawing parallels between how the Black community is seen as a monolith and thus members are expected to speak for the whole cohort – for example on matters of knife crime – Dr. Remi Joseph-Sailsbury says not condemning becomes a ‘political act’ for Black and Muslim people.
He says that not doing what’s expected is the ultimate form of resistance, writing: ‘The pressure to condemn serves a purpose. It seeks to limit our capacity to agitate. Often it is weaponised to undermine us, or to shift the focus away from structural and state racisms, and onto our communities.’
With this in mind, others have also been resisting – whether by refusing to condemn, breaking the barrier of what’s expected of them, such as academic neutrality – and passing on the message to the youth.
The cost of this can be high.
Human rights lawyer Fahad Ansari has faced plenty of Islamophobia in his career. Though he finds resistance personally liberating, a refusal to condemn could mean having a complaint bought against him, compromising his job – an ever-constant fear.
He fears that Muslims who resist calls to condemn may be misconstrued as Muslims who condone terrorism.
Fahad tells Metro.co.uk: ‘The greatest challenge is resisting the performative act of condemning atrocities with which we have no connection save for the perpetrators identifying with the same religion as us.
‘This is incredibly difficult because of the expectation to say something; if we don’t condemn, people will assume that we condone these acts.’
As well as losing one’s standing, there is another effect for Muslims who refuse to condemn; alienation.
‘The risk of alienation is very real and at times I have acted with cowardice in the face of such pressure,’ says Fahad. ‘The fear of losing your job, your livelihood, and everything you have worked for is a genuine one and it is often all too easy to just go with the flow.
‘As I explain in the book, I subconsciously learned the language of self-respect and loyalty from my late father who despite (and probably because of) his refusal to compromise his fundamental faith-based principles, became beloved to the non-Muslim society he lived in.
‘However, it was only after I became a father myself ten years ago that I began speaking that language with conviction. In refusing to condemn today, I hope that my children and their generation will not face the same dehumanising culture tomorrow.’
Academics Shereen Fernandez and Azeezat Johnson navigate refusal in academia and how it also opens them up to alienation.
They write about how they’re looked to condemn acts of violence but then expected to keep neutral when Muslims are the victims, such as in Christchurch.
Azeezat and Shereen resist by choosing to not remain neutral in these situations.
‘We’re working in institutions that don’t really recognise our right to refuse things the way they are, particularly because collegiality or ethics is meant to be “neutral”,’ Azeezat explains to Metro.co.uk.
‘When you mention the problem we have with how things work in academia (which is very white), people reply with “well you know you need to remember that this work is slow” or, “I felt really attacked by the way you said things”. There’s a lot of tone policing which makes you feel further isolated and leaves you second-guessing yourself.’
Azeezat has words of advice for those who want to refuse what’s expected of them – whether that’s terrorism, the model minority myth, or generally to shake up stereotypes people have about Muslims.
She adds: ‘Us being here is already a form of embodied resistance because we’re taking up space in places that we couldn’t imagine us existing within initially.
‘It’s about weighing up when you can afford to say no to certain things. And when you have to just kind of bide your time until you can get to a place where you can say no. Resistance is a long-haul project, it’s something that you do your entire life.
‘All of that just needs to be in the hope of eventual liberation.’
To achieve that liberation involves getting the youth involved in resisting, which academic Nadya Ali explores in her essay.
Writing to her young nieces and nephews, Nadya states: ‘The feelings that drive me to resist, and even take to hope, are feelings of the deepest love I hold for each of you’.
The lecturer looks to the future generations to resist in their own ways.
Nadya tells us: ‘I think it’s up to each generation to cultivate their own forms of resistance together, in the circumstances that they might find themselves. I have the constant privilege of observing my students engage in acts of resistance – whether on the picket line, in the classroom or out in the world.
‘The book provides a vocabulary to speak our truth in times of “public safety racism”, but also a much-needed connection to a vibrant tradition of resistance. We are more than just the labels that have been attached to us.’
I Refuse to Condemn, resisting racism in times of national security, published by Manchester University Press, is out now.
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