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Islamophobia and me

Growing up

I was born and raised in Scotland to Pakistani parents and went to school in Edinburgh. There were very few pupils from a minority ethnic background in my school and I was fortunate in having experienced very little racism in primary school and for much of my first couple of years in high school. I have always been comfortable in my identity as a Scottish Muslim of Pakistani descent and, despite what some in the far-right would have you believe, I have never felt any contradiction in this. The way I would describe it is like a person who can be a father, son and brother at the same time with not one of these identities being mutually exclusive.

The tragic events of 11th September 2001 were a massive turning point, not only in global politics but also for Muslim communities in western countries who became the target of Islamophobia. I was in high school at the time and I remember very clearly walking into my classroom the morning after the attacks. Everyone, teacher included, had newspapers out and looked at me with disgust as I walked into the classroom to sit at my desk. For the first time in my life I felt like an outsider. Thereafter, I would get occasional comments like terrorist or Bin Laden but my response to such verbal insults was to laugh along with them and fire back. Whenever I got called “Paki,” I would respond with “I’m proud to be a Paki” and go onto boast about having a superior taste in food and “my people” driving flashier cars. Thinking about such responses makes me cringe now. In my mind I didn’t want to be seen as a victim so I would not let words offend me, I didn’t want to give the aggressor the satisfaction thinking that they had won. I also would never report any of this to teachers. Ironically, a teacher told me off for talking in class by calling me “tartan taliban.” I can still remember the jaws drop on my classmates’ faces but my response was to bite my tongue to stop myself bursting out in laughter. To this day it still makes me chuckle. Perhaps I was impressed by the creative alliteration or deep down I had just become so immune to such comments.


In the workplace

Islamophobia is not just limited to anti-Muslim hatred in the form of physical or verbal attacks but also encompasses discrimination and exclusion. My first experience of Islamophobia in a workplace setting was in recruitment. Just after university, I applied for a job at a call centre and after passing the interview stage I received a call inviting me in for a training session at 1.30pm on Friday – the only hour in the entire week that I could not make as it clashed with prayers at the mosque. I asked if there was another session that I could attend instead, as call centres tend to have high turnover I thought such training sessions would run regularly. The lady I spoke to was very abrupt with me saying that either I attended this session or I would not be able to start in the role. I therefore had no option but to politely decline. In hindsight, I regret not taking this further as I feel this was an example discrimination.

I was working with a direct marketing company around the time Osama Bin Laden was killed, the very next morning a work colleague came up to me in the office and said “mate, there’s an opening for you, you should apply.” I’ll be honest, I did find it funny but I think it was more because he said it in a strong east coast accent. There was a very clear trend in the timings I would receive Islamophobic abuse. The spike would usually come after events in the news and many Muslims I know share a certain trepidation on hearing about stories in the news. Our initial reaction is a hope that the perpetrator is not Muslim. About a couple of years back there were several horrific terror attacks in the UK, all within the space of a few months carried out by individuals identified as Muslims. Each morning after an attack, my manager would come into the office and question why someone would do such an act. It was a small office and each time they posed this question, I would feel obliged to respond. These were dreadful acts that were in direct contradiction with the teachings of Islam, I’d often have to quote from the Qur’an, “whoever takes a life… it will be as if they killed all of humanity.” Such micro-aggressions are defined as statements or actions regarded as indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalised group. Micro-aggressions have been likened to receiving small cuts from a knife, individually the cuts are not fatal but a sufficient number of cuts can be.

Although I may feel immune to Islamophobia, it has caused me to alter some behaviours. I’ve worked with a couple of Muslim charities in the past and have made the conscious decision to hide these behind abbreviations on my CV. An experiment by BBC News found that people submitting CVs with ‘Muslim-sounding’ names are 3 times less likely to get job interviews. I’ve not yet considered changing my name to John Smith but I do know of people who use names which are less ‘Muslim-sounding.’ Over 83% of Scottish Muslims have experienced Islamophobia and this is something that cannot go on. I know of people who have been physically attacked and others who have had their confidence shattered as a result of the Islamophobia they have received.


Positive change

Islamophobia can damage people’s lives and like other forms of racism, it has no place in our society. It’s important to highlight the positive contribution Muslims make to our country. British Muslims contribute over £31 billion to the UK economy and in London alone, there are 13,500 British Muslim businesses that create over 70,000 jobs. It’s worth noting that over 400,000 Muslims fought for Britain in WW1. And closer to home there are positive contributions by Muslims within their local communities up and down the country (no prizes for guessing who’s the kid munching the crisps).

By speaking out against Islamophobia whenever you witness it and raising awareness, together, we can tackle this form of racism.


Umar Malik


This blog post was originally written for Islamaphobia Awareness Month (November) and is reproduced here because it is a story that really needs the telling and outlines the experiences faced here, in Edinburgh by the very people we work with.


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