"Well as long as your imam doesn't have a hook for a hand I won't get worried!". A strange thing to hear from a co-worker to say the least. To put this in context, this reference to the infamous Finsbury park Imam and fundamentalist preacher was made by a former colleague of mine at Deloitte who was genuinely shocked to find that I prayed five times a day. They then proceeded to rule out that this wasn't some kind of special day in the Islamic calendar, and that I did in fact (like many other Muslims) perform obligatory prayers, eat halal, fast in Ramadan etc.
This was obviously a joke and I didn't take it in any other way. However, it struck me as odd that someone who worked for a company that boasts London's largest and most active Muslim network was so painfully unaware of common place practices of so many of their colleagues (Deloitte even has an amazing multi-faith room on campus that can be used at all hours).
After recounting the incident, I found that many of my Muslim co-workers felt embarrassed drawing attention to this side of their lives, even if it meant missing a prayer rather than excusing themselves for 5-10 minutes or becoming perpetual vegetarians rather than asking for a halal option (not that there's anything wrong with vegetarianism; it's just a life style choice I'd rather not be forced into).
The danger here is that by covering up aspects of our lives that hold huge importance to us, we risk making the divide between 'us' (the 47m Muslims living and working peacefully in Western countries) and 'them' (the individuals seen committing the atrocities we've sadly become accustomed to) seem larger than it really is. Attempts to normalise ourselves to seemingly fit in with society, could mean that we end up relegating some of the most basic tenets of our faith to being viewed as 'too extreme', whether it's attending the mosque on a Friday or wearing a headscarf in public.
I am truly proud to have lived and worked in a city as diverse and culturally rich as London. Deloitte provided me with the freedom to practice my religion openly and with my recent move to a much smaller firm where I was the only Muslim requiring a prayer room, I felt completely at ease to ask if a prayer space could be made available (a request they didn't hesitate to accommodate). Unfortunately, I'm not sure I could say the same if I lived and worked in some of our neighbouring European countries.
The European Court of Justice's recent decision to allow firms to ban all 'visible religious symbols', a ruling spurred by the dismissal of two women by their employers for refusing to remove their headscarves, is thankfully an unimaginable and highly disturbing scenario here in the UK -despite those who would undoubtedly welcome it.
We cannot let the actions of a few be representative of the 22% of the human race that identify as Muslim, but neither can we let them dictate the way in which we live our lives. By hiding the aspects of our faith that we hold most dear, we miss the opportunity to show those of other faiths and cultures the other side of the coin through our daily interactions with people at work and at school.
I for one will not be hiding.