I walk through the doors of the marquee where the event is held. It is packed. Headscarves and beards intermingle with fancy hairdos and smooth chins laced with aftershave. An exhibition is on the left. I walk over. A picture of the extremist Anjem Choudhry hits me starkly. Sensationalist headlines scream out at me from the display: ‘Norway’s 9/11’, ‘Muslim Plot to Kill Pope’.

I am at the Islamophobia event organised by Muslim Engagement & Development (MEND), an organisation formerly known as iEngage, which describes itself as empowering British Muslims to be actively involved in media and politics. The event is part of Islamophobia Awareness Month (IAM) to highlight the growing problem of Islamophobia. The exhibition is depicting how negatively Muslims are visualised and represented in the mainstream media.

I spot two women standing in front of a massive picture with a young girl in a headscarf alongside big black letters spelling ‘(Mis)Representing Muslim Women’.

“How do these headlines make you feel?” I ask one of the women. “Any excuse to demonise Muslims, really,” she replies in a matter of fact way. Her companion nods her head in agreement.

At that moment, a woman on the stage calls out for everyone to be seated. We are about to start.

The event is chaired by Dr Shameela Zulfiqar, best known for being on the same convoy as Alan Henning when he was abducted and subsequently killed by ISIS. I find the contrast interesting. Alan Henning was a victim of Islamic extremism. Dr Zulfiqar is at an event with victims of Islamophobia. We all appear to be affected by one form of hate or another.

The event starts with a reading of a statement from Baroness Warsi, the same lady who once said, “Islamophobia has passed the dinner table test,” making it an acceptable form of bigotry. She starts by expressing her disappointment that she can’t be here on a night discussing “the biggest issue facing Muslims”. I can’t help contrasting how well this statement would have gone down at an event discussing anti-Semitism.

“Do you think Muslims feel ignored by mainstream political leaders?” I ask the young woman in a headscarf sitting next to me. “I think that is our own fault,” she replies. “We just don’t know how to make ourselves heard. We need to engage more politically.”

The evening passes with a multitude of speeches. The Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner Tony Lloyd assures us that, “we are not two people who have to live together. We are one people. We must challenge Islamophobia.” Shehnaz Bunglawala, head of research at MEND, speaks about an analogy to the film, The Matrix. This appears to go over most of us ordinary people’s heads, though we pretend to understand and smile.

The reality of Islamophobia kicks in with the accounts of two young girls who have both been the victims of this ugly crime. In particular Mariam Ansari, a 20-year-old photojournalism student at Stafford University, makes us feel anger and sorrow at the same time as she narrates how four white women in Piccadilly Gardens attacked her simply because she intervened to help a lady, wearing the headscarf, they were verbally abusing. Mariam was called a “Paki slag”, her face was slapped and her headscarf pulled. But she says, “What really got to me was the words she said, ‘I will bomb your face off, you terrorist’”. Despite her ordeal, she stands there brave, fighting back tears as she tells us, “If it is one thing that my mother taught me, it is to stand up for what’s right even if it means you stand alone.”

I get a chance to mingle during the starters. A young scientist, Urslaan, tells me, “I can relate to what is being said as I have faced discrimination.”

But what about those who say Muslims are committing terrorist offences – is it any wonder they are facing such hate? “If you take members of any community and vilify them to such a degree they are going to react,” Urslaan says. “Look at what Western foreign policy is doing in Muslim lands and then they call us the extremists,” says Ahmed, a business student. “We are not condoning extremism. We are simply saying one must understand the root cause of the problem,” Ahmed’s companion Mo adds.

Tamim Estwani, a prominent member of the Muslim community, further reiterates the sentiment that Islamophobia cannot be justified. “We have one or two idiots, but we don’t have to blame everyone for that.”

So what is the solution, then? “This event is a part of it, but it isn’t the full solution,” says Urslaan. “We need to do this on a much larger scale. Any time discrimination crops up we need to address it there and then.” “Raise awareness,” says Sarah, a Biomedical student. “Get active; vote strategically,” says Usman, a young professional.

What can communities do? “Fight it, show zero tolerance. Islamophobia affects all of us – Muslim or non-Muslim,” says Aisha, a Medical student.

I leave with the speech of Moazzem Begg, an ex-Guantanamo detainee, echoing in my head. “There’s a problem. It’s not just a fear of Islam – it’s an ignorant hatred of Islam.” It is our responsibility to fix that problem.

iengage.uk.net

Sarah Ayub