I was standing in a small room in airport security at Heathrow, dutifully emptying my handbag, removing my scarf, jacket, cardigan, shoes. A young South-Asian man was doing the same across from me. The security staff looked bored, going through a checklist with only half an eye on the contents of my bag – travel sweets, hand wipes, lip balm – essential travel items. Suddenly a loud voice interrupted the muted hush of the room: an angry white woman was being herded in, furiously proclaiming in a strong American twang ‘You can’t do this to me! Do I look like a terrorist to you?! I won’t stand for it – I’m going to report you…’ The nonplussed security officer replied, ‘Don’t blame us, it’s your government that’s making us do this.’ As she continued protesting, I looked across to the young South-Asian man and we rolled our eyes at each other, a silent acknowledgment of the white woman’s privilege – to be so outraged at being singled out for inspection, and to speak that outrage out loud. We quietly shuffled along, our bored attendants waving us through as we quickly put our shoes back on, grabbed our belongings and re-joined the other travellers in the main gate area, going our separate ways. I felt eyes on me, folks who had seen me being taken into the ‘extra’ security check area, and I felt a flush rise in my cheeks as my husband came up to help take my belongings from my arms. His eyes were tight but we didn’t say anything about what had happened. It wasn’t the first time that I, a brown woman, had been separated from him, a white man, while at the airport. In fact, it has happened every time we have travelled to the USA. I expect it, almost as a part of the experience of visiting the Land of the Free.
These, and many more memories have come crashing to the forefront of my mind as I read Tawseef Khan’s The Muslim Problem: Why We’re Wrong About Islam and Why It Matters. It has been a difficult and illuminating read, uncomfortable in highlighting how much of my life experiences resonate with this work, and how I have numbed myself to much of it, primarily as a way to just cope with being a second-generation British-Pakistani woman navigating the world. Khan’s own experiences of travelling-while-brown, working-while-brown, living-while-brown, will mirror many – too many – brown folks’s experiences. And while his book focuses on living-while-Muslim, I want to acknowledge the collateral damage of Islamophobia on all bodies of colour, whether they are Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, athiest. As the Angry White Woman said at the airport, do I look like a terrorist to you?!
Tawseef Khan, The Muslim Problem: Why We’re Wrong About Islam and Why It Matters, Atlantic Books, 2021
Khan effectively deconstructs five toxic ‘myths’ of Islam: Muslims don’t integrate; Islam is violent; Muslim men are threatening; Islam hates women; and Islam is homophobic. Not only does he share deeply personal reflections from his own life and how these myths have damaged him, he also presents meticulously researched evidence of historical Islamophobia and racism in the Western context. More boldly, he addresses the distortions of the faith within the Muslim world that have contributed to these myths. While some Muslims will applaud Khan’s elucidation of Islamophobia, some may not be so keen to look within our communities and at how certain behaviours feed into the toxicity. But again, Khan keenly explores why this is so difficult. As he states in his introduction, ‘if the messaging coming from the media about you is negative, or one in which you don’t exist at all, it causes untold damage to your self-esteem and how you move through the world.’ If we are constantly protecting ourselves from ‘outside’ attack, we don’t always have the tools – or energy – to look ‘inside’.