“Frankly, if you open your door to uncontrolled immigration from Middle Eastern countries, you are inviting in terrorism.” – Nigel Farage
In January 2019, a sixth form student, aged 17 years old at the school in which I work at made a terrorist joke directed at me. This was not the first time he had said an inappropriate comment to me. I spoke to him and told him: I am not your friend. You need to be aware of student and staff boundaries. I said that his comments are inappropriate. He apologised and asked me if I was going to take this situation further. I said I am not going to report him because it will be the last of it.
The following week, that same boy referred to me as ‘ISIS’. I was taken aback. I said to him distinctly ‘I have spoken to you before about your inappropriate comments’- he interjected and said, ‘But, those were regarding other comments’. I interjected and said firmly ‘I told you the other week that you need to be aware of student and staff boundaries, you chose to ignore what I said. I will report this.’ To this, he responded ‘Okay’. He gave me attitude and shrugged his shoulders as he slowly packed his belongings and left. I tried to continue with the data spreadsheet which I was working on. The columns and rows blurred into one. The statistics I was trying to focus on had lost all meaning to me. I sat in silence at my desk breathing deeply for 5 minutes trying to calm down.
Two students, friends of the boy asked me: ‘Are you okay?’ To which I responded with ‘I am fine’. I was not okay. They could see it through my body language and my facial expression. I was angry. Angry and upset. I left the room to find my manager, she was busy leading a lesson. I spoke to my coworker. We went to one of the staff toilets. I had a mental and emotional breakdown.
It wasn’t the comment itself that made me become so overwhelmed, to the point of tears, it’s what the comment triggered. When that boy made that ISIS remark, it reminded me of every single incident of discrimination and prejudice I had experienced since I was 3 years old, from white parents telling their children that they are to not play with me, from a Moroccan mother at primary school telling me that I am brown and dirty, and that I look like I need to have a bath, from a member of staff at school interrogating me, asking me why I ‘wear that’ on my head now, from men spitting at me on the streets, from men screaming ‘fucking Paki, go back to your country’, from men throwing alcohol in my face, from a year 11 student throwing bacon at me whilst I ate my lunch during my A-Level years, from being the only person stopped and searched and patted down in the houses of parliament whilst on a school trip out of hundreds of other students from other schools, and not realising what had happened until my deputy head of sixth form came up to me and asked me ‘Aisha, are you okay?’ to which I said ‘Yes, why wouldn’t I be?’ to which she responded ‘I just don’t like the way she did that’. I then went to my other fellow classmates and asked if they had been stopped and searched and patted down, to which they all responded ‘No’ to, despite some of them being Muslim but not looking stereotypically so. I realised at the age of 16 that this was my first incident of racial profiling, incident of which I had been conscious of that is, and I broke down in tears. The list does not end there, it goes on and on to more recent incidents of a woman accusing me of stealing her bag whilst calling me ‘an Indian terrorist bitch…9/11’, and to some more extreme cases of men physically harming me to the extent that the police had to get involved, on more than one occasion. Incident upon incident, flashback upon flashback, is what I saw in my mind as soon as that boy called me ‘ISIS’. The word itself triggered something deep within my subconscious.
‘My family’s Muslim, why would I throw bacon at you?’
That specific student comes from a Muslim familial background, he is not Muslim himself. Similarly, the boy who threw bacon at me during my A-level years, also came from a Muslim familial background, but did not identify with being Muslim. When I was 16 and felt those cold bacon slices hit my face, I immediately ran up to the boy who did it and asked him ‘Why did you throw bacon at me?’ To which he responded, ‘My family’s Muslim, why would I throw bacon at you?’ And as I said, in primary school, a Moroccan mother, distinctly told me that my brown skin was dirty, whilst emphasising how clean and white her daughter’s skin was. My point is, regardless of whether you are a minority or not, from a Muslim background or not, you can still be islamaphobic and racist.
After having a mental and emotional breakdown with my coworker, I spoke to my manager about what had happened. She told me to write up an email to the boy’s head of year, and to include her in it too. I reported what had taken place. In the last part of the email I noted ‘I have experienced islamaphobic abuse verbally and physically numerous times since I was a child prior to me even choosing to wear the hijab as a teenager. I have experienced it from people of all demographics, from people whose family identify as Muslims but they themselves do not. It’s sad to say, I am used to this but I never thought I would experience islamaphobia first hand by a student towards me, a member of staff’ especially not in my first graduate role, within a school that is so ethnically diverse in terms of its students.
Muslims are perceived as other by society. The media’s rhetoric surroundings Muslims and Islam direct a hegemonic notion of us vs them, West vs East. That notion is inaccurate however because boundaries surrounding identity, individuals and social groups are not so rigid. In recent years, there has been a regression of minorities who come from Muslim families who do not identify as Muslim, for different interpersonal reasons whom in turn project their hatred towards Islam and their distinct childhood experiences to those who identify as Muslims, practicing and non-practicing. Comparisons can be drawn to the way in which these minorities perceive Muslims and Islam as a whole, to the way in which leading members of society cannot separate Muslims from Muslim extremists, Islam from radical Islam, a Muslim from a terrorist, a minority who isn’t Muslim to a minority who is Muslim. It is that same level of ignorance. Though both the student who referred to me as ‘ISIS’ the boys who threw bacon at me in sixth form come from Muslim backgrounds but they themselves are not, they still ‘look’ stereotypically Muslim, and therefore will be treated as such, discriminated as such and racially profiled as such by members of society.
The Guardian noted that in 2017, there were 1,201 verified reports of islamaphobic incidents within Britain, which was a rise of 26% on the year before and the highest number since TellMAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) was founded in 2012 in the UK. 31% of young children think Muslims are taking over England; 37% of Brits would support a political party that would reduce the number of Muslims in the UK; Muslim men are 76% less likely to be employed than their white Christian counterparts; and half the British Muslim population live in the 10% most deprived areas in the UK. In January 2019, an Islamic school in Newcastle was the target of a hate crime. The school had swastikas and anti-Muslim graffiti spray-painted on the walls including the phrase ‘moslem terorists’ which had left staff members fearing for their lives.
Islamophobia is very real. It is more than just a mere dislike towards Muslims and Islam. It is prejudice, racism and an intense hatred towards the unknown; which has the power to, and does, impact the very lives of Muslims and those who look stereotypically Muslim/ have stereotypically Muslim sounding names, socially, economically, politically both nationally and internationally, covertly, overtly and institutionally, from being racially profiled at airport security gates, shunned from a job because of your physical appearance or Muslim sounding name despite you being Muslim or not, to being demonised within the media as a congresswoman and receiving islamaphobic threats and perpetrated political propaganda, to losing your life at the hands of a racist man who cannot tell the difference between a muslim, sikh and terrorist (Balbir Singh Sodhi).
What is worse than the incidents themselves are the psychological effects the incidents have on you as an individual.