I was walking with my children on the heath surrounding Lyme Park, the stately home famous as the backdrop for Colin Firth's wet T-shirt moment, in Pride and Prejudice. It was a breezy morning and my teenage daughters, pasty faced, baggy eyed (from our early start) were in a sulky mood, hands shoved deep into hoody pockets.
We fell into step with some elderly English walkers, in countryside jackets using professional hiking sticks. I noticed my girls in their subtle, yet, fashionable, stretchy hijabs, getting curious glances, especially from the older ladies. Letting the group walk on a little way, I turned around, giving my eldest a brisk kick on the shins.
'Will you try to look less like a pair of jihadi brides? What will they think of us?'
The girls knew what I meant.
Reverts to Islam, are acutely aware we're on the front line of inter faith and cultural outreach to our peers in 'mainstream' society in the West - and in the Gulf for that matter.
As for my skin color, pasty at the best of times, I thought it would take a back seat once the hijab went on. It hasn't. There is a definite down side to being noticed in both societies. Headlines keep telling our neighbors that no matter how innocent and 'normal' we hijab-wearers may seem. Like all Muslims, we are boiling with an unfocused and inexplicable rage. A fury that if unchecked by intense scrutiny and new laws, will violently combust.
Western heritage hijabis, like our sisters and brothers who wear niqab or long beards are a new kind of toxic celebrity.
We've seen this before. When famous actors, seem to be sliding towards addiction, all manner of stalkers, professional and general public, scrutinize their every moment. iPhones are poised whenever they leave the house, waiting for the - somewhat inevitable 'slip'. Like when Britney Spears told everyone she was okay and not in the least bit having a breakdown. Flash! There she was caught on camera, having her head shaved in a a dodgy barber shop. Our moves, as Muslims, are watched and monitored by suspicious eyes, awaiting our social downfalls, however, small, with glee.
What this translates into, is a hyper sensitivity in public spaces. Every interaction with a non-Muslim feels as if the well-being of 1.8 billion people depends upon it. No longer do we get to tut at the attitude of the sullen assistant at the Garden Centre. If we snap at their rudeness, they may go home and tell everyone they know; 'Had one of those Muslims in the store today. Typical terrorist - no manners!' We ask ourselves if our demeanor is happy enough, kind enough, polite 'enough' to be repeated in a positive way by the Austrian tourist we accidentally bumped into on an escalator and as for being cut up by White Van Man - well giving the finger is totally out of the question. And all of this consideration is actually good for us. Yes, it's good for us. Because it moves us closer to our faith, not further away. The Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, came to 'perfect manners'. And now, as attitudes to us harden, we have lost the right, so enshrined in Western culture it allows offensive cartoons of Prophets to be run in national papers, to be rude to others.
Visibly following the Islamic faith, outside the home or the mosque feels about as fashionable and trendy as a case of uncontrollable flatulence.
We Muslims have become social farts. People wrinkle their nose at us. And we must smile back and pretend nothing unsavory has taken place.
Beneath the wrinkled noses and angry stares the general public is under the allusion that we have toxic beliefs and worse community practices. Yet, ask a stranger, 'what do you know about Islam and Muslim beliefs' and you will largely draw a blank. People simply don't know what we believe or how we live.
A new report, 'Normative Islam' was released this week by the Muslim news website 5Pillarz.
The goal of the research is to underpin core concepts and the most universally-held beliefs of Muslims.
If our faith then is not all FGM, wife beating and beheading apostates, maybe, just maybe, in the UK for a start, we can move forward as a part of a more coherent, fairer British society.
The website commissioned a private market research firm to gather views of influential Muslim community members on a pre-selected range of Islamic beliefs and practices. I was one of the respondents.
A series of 95 statements about Islamic beliefs were proposed, to which we were
asked to indicate our level of agreement. The findings should put minds more at ease about who we are as Muslim members of society and give a big clue as to the main tenets of belief which influence our daily lives and actions.
Eleven individual statements attracted 95% or higher levels of strong agreement amongst all who were asked. These included:
- "God is the only One worthy of worship and all acts of worship should only be
- directed to Him alone" (98%);
- "The Prophet Muhammad is the last and final prophet and messenger of God"
- "The Prophet Muhammad is a mercy to all of humanity" (97%)
- "Forced marriages are forbidden in Islam" (97%)
- "Muslims have a religious duty to be compassionate, just and ethical to all living
- beings" (95%)
- "There is no compulsion in religion. No one can be forced to become a Muslim"
I recommend you take a moment to look at the full report - linked here. After all, Muslim or not, we are all expected to have a view on Islam these days. The more information we have, the better.
Back on our walk, we crossed a picturesque bridge. Janet, in her eighties, stopped my daughters.
"I am so glad" she said "that you are out here going for a walk instead of going to fight 'over there'. It's just wonderful!"
As she gave us a merry shrug and walked on, I hissed to my daughters:
'Smile more!' again.