I've been thinking about beards lately. Not just about growing my own, but about what they say about a person.
There are three options:
One: youth. In popular culture, many men use a beard to hide an otherwise bland or youthful face.
Two: sexuality. A 'beard' is a well known reference for a partner or date used to identify or conceal one's sexuality.
Three: terrorism. When a Muslim grows a long beard it's assumed that he may well be a terrorist. Reference: Osama bin Laden.
This weekend I had an experience with the third type of beard. I hailed a taxi on Las Ramblas, Barcelona (excuse the #humblebrag) and a Toyota Prius pulled up. Nothing unusual there.
Until Zaed stepped out.
When I saw that Zaed wore a fully grown beard (side point - why do people 'wear' beards?) I immediately started to feel uneasy. Even though my uncle has similar facial hair and Zaed was clearly a registered taxi driver, I had a sense of foreboding about the journey ahead. Maybe I was worried I'd have a Frances Barber moment?
When we stopped at a set of lights, the other half of the group I was with pulled up alongside us. Their taxi driver, seemingly also Muslim but sans-beard, called out that Zaed was from Afghanistan and that we should be careful. He (jokingly) implied that Zaed was a terrorist. After it was too late to say anything, I found myself wondering what that must have been like for Zaed to be accused of being a threat to western society - the society he now lives in and is forging a career in. Perhaps he's just a man with a beard who fled a war-torn country for a better life?
Therein lies the problem. We don't read about Zaed's journey in the news. A taxi driver going about his day-to-day life is hardly front page material. "Afghani migrant earns decent wage in Spain!" will never make the cut. Instead, a crazed person who doesn't have the temerity to understand his or her identity and faith in any depth does. Because he or she has decided to attack people. Much like what I was confronted with when landing back in England: an attack in East London and a trending hashtag.
#YouAintNoMuslimBruv. Left wing social media had a lovely Sunday evening. The hashtag has amassed over 100,000 tweets of Muslims denouncing the attack with a double negative slogan. And good on them. They're prioritising the headlines, with soft references to Britain's ability to 'Keep Calm and Carry On'.
But is it enough?
No. A hashtag alone won't change things in the long term. Curbing the current terrorist threat needs more action.
We have to do more institutionally.
#YouAintNoMuslimBruv is easy to jump on in the digital age. Yes, we don't think he's a Muslim but I can bet you money (how haram of me) that the attacker thinks he is. And there are plenty of people who will agree with him.
How about we actual (i.e. not crazy fundamentalists) Muslims channel a bit of that religious shame and push him out even further in the very institutions we spend so much time and money building - mosques? I've written before about the nonsense we get told about Christmas trees leading to the eternal hell fire and so I can't even begin to imagine what will being said by sympathisers right now.
Hatred is a learned behaviour - and it can't be fostered in complete isolation. Intelligent, reasoned Muslims need to be more vigilant about what's being said from the parapet and have enough faith to challenge it.
Non-Muslims need to speak up...and they are.
There are ever more heartwarming articles appearing since the Syria attacks were announced. One such example: '15 things I learnt about Islam and British values being a gay boy living opposite a mosque'. I've also had conversations with friends about Islam being a peaceful religion that encourages spiritually - something that the rise of mindfulness and meditation would imply we're craving in the western world. There's a very real challenge here. Those that do speak up may be part of the 920 anti-Muslim organisations around the world. They're uniting to form a voice, and who's there to counter it?
More normal Muslims need to speak up.
It's not in our nature to stick our necks out. Become a lawyer, doctor or dentist and assimilate as best possible is what the majority of educated Muslims are taught. There is some progress - last week Dr Masuma Rahim published 'As a Muslim woman I was never fearful in Britain. But today I'm afraid. As a Muslim woman I was never fearful in Britain. But today I'm afraid'. The comments section and sheer volume of sharing shows that the debate needs to be had. What does it mean to be a Muslim today? Put simply, where are the Zaed's of this world and who's telling their story?
That's why I'm launching Muslim Pride - a series of podcasts with every day adherents of Islam answering questions you may be too scared to ask them. How do you eat with a burkha? What happens if you accidentally eat pork? What do you do at Christmas?
The task is simple - reclaim Islam and tell the world that these crazed individuals running around attacking societies that are accepting truly are not Muslims, bruv.
Join the first few hundred people who have signed up to receive the first Muslim Pride podcasts: www.muslimpride.net