THE BLOG

Weaving a Narrative of Demonization

16/05/2013 15:25 BST | Updated 15/07/2013 10:12 BST

Anti-Muslim rhetoric has reached such a fever pitch, and in the least expected places of all; British universities - which were once the beacons of free thinking and tolerance.

A recent article by the Times that characterized Muslim student organizations as promoters of extremism and sexist practices has prompted a tirade of abuse on this particular student community, who have become the subjects of a carefully woven narrative of "othering".

This ratcheting up of "gender segregation" observed by some Muslims, as well as people of other faiths, only serves to polarise a multicultural Britain and sow seeds of discord on our - both ethnically and ideologically - diverse campuses. It is propelling the narrative of the "Clash of Civilizations" and the entrenchment of two very different camps; champions of freedom and liberty, and the fighters defending religious values- in a protracted war of wills, where those in the former camp always own the higher moral ground.

Unfortunately, this demonization of Muslims has created a social consciousness that is being programmed to label people as the 'other', where they are seen as a fifth column and are conveniently utilized to justify and explain (and at times confirm) suspicions. As Tariq Ramadan states, this "can only lead to half hearted, fearful and dormant conflicts rather than a confident celebration of our riches."

Not only are the architects of this discourse discredited for their intolerance, but they also lack merit when painting a monolithic picture of Muslims who are diverse in their practices and beliefs. A recently published report on the Muslim world highlights that followers of Islam differ in their interpretation and depth of application of their faith and how they believe it should shape their personal, social and political lives. Nonetheless, despite this variety in schools of scholarship and cultural norms among Muslims, portraying this community as homogenous has been used as a gambit in pressing on with the labeling campaign, and categorizing Muslims as the 'other'.

The suggestion that this thick smog of Islamophobia blighting our vision as a society might be intentional is supported by Nathan Lean who, in his recent book "The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims" articulates that the tide of Islamophobia sweeping through the West is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is there by design.

In spite of this climate of demonization endured by Muslim students, they admirably continue to march forth to counter this current by being the proponents of community cohesion and civic engagement in both their student and local communities. From where I stand as a recent graduate, I take comfort in my observation that bridge building continues across cultural and religious groups on British campuses.

I felt - and still feel - particularly pleased encountering students who realize that discussion surrounding common values in our pluralistic society through the organization of debates and seminars in which the merits of ideologies and philosophies, Islam included, are challenged and defended, in an atmosphere of free and critical engagement are necessary.

In many cases Muslim students have led on these initiatives, such as the interfaith week held annually at the University of Manchester, which includes talks on faith and media, medical ethics and the role of women. Similarly the Islamic Society at the University of Oxford held a ground breaking conference entitled Rethinking Islamic Reform packing out Oxford's 17th-century Sheldonian with attendees from across the globe included political dignitaries and diplomats.

These inquisitive young men and women occupying our academic institutions are an example of the model for the tomorrow we want - a model we desperately need. We ought to learn from their example and engage in a public discourse that is productive and accounts for the diverse sensitivities of our global village.

Note on 'segregation':

From an Islamic perspective, relationships and interactions between people are based on etiquette of mutual respect in which no one is subjected to stereotypes or is demeaned or elevated irrespective of difference. Some members of the Muslim community, due to their religious convictions, wish to sit in a gender-segregated manner while others do not feel this is a necessity. Thus, Muslim organizations such as University of Manchester Islamic society endeavor to ensure that all services are accessible to their members irrespective of their religious or social inclinations and that each member has an equal opportunity to partake in events without disadvantage.

Therefore, some would often reserve one side of the room (such as the left side) for male attendees and the other side for the females. An area in the middle is allocated to those who do not wish to segregate, and for families. It is important that events are comfortable and completely accessible for all, and that everyone can participate equally. Respecting difference of opinion is intrinsically important and it is essential that all attendees can be comfortable to choose whichever arrangement they see fit without fearing coercion or judgment.