It makes a change from the “Muslims are cancelling Christmas” headlines. But “A very merry Muslim Christmas” – the social media slogan for the first report by the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims – still feels reductive: as we approach 2018, humanising Muslims is a trend that isn’t going out of fashion any time soon.
The parliamentary group was set up to address Islamophobia, and its report – launched this week with the title Faith as the Fourth Emergency Service – highlights the work of Muslim charities, communities and individuals in helping vulnerable people across the UK.
It tells the stories of Muslims volunteering at food banks and assisting in their communities. It draws attention to the sense of duty that many British Muslims have for their country, and how charitable work and giving is part of their faith.
But why does this need highlighting? British people who happen to be Muslim have responded with humility and generosity to help people in need, because it is what human beings are programmed to do – including Muslims.
We saw this in June, as the Grenfell fire took hold. A group of young Muslim men on their way back from praying in the al–Manaar mosque, during Ramadan, were among the first people to run into the tower to wake up residents and urge them to evacuate.
Interestingly, the report made no reference to the British Muslim aid workers who, it emerged last month, have had their nationality stripped in near secrecy while working in Syria, after the Home Office deemed that they posed a security threat. The men deny all the accusations against them.
And this is the problem. When the state decides which Muslims it wants to endorse with its rubber stamp and which it wants to reject, it becomes a flawed and dangerous political exercise.
Why as a society do we need to humanise Muslims? It is a cottage industry that has come into this own in the past few years. As Islamophobia continues to be mainstreamed, humanising Muslims becomes more of a thing. And to what end? And what purpose does it really serve? As the spoken word poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan said in This Is Not a Humanising Poem (which went viral after she performed it at the Last Word Festival in London’s Roundhouse): “If you need me to prove my humanity, I’m not the one who’s not human.”
When Muslims do “good things”, the humanising Muslims industry gets to work: we are celebrated and our goodness is pointed out to us and everyone else. We are pitted against those other Muslims – you know the ones who don’t want to integrate and be fully British.
When we go surfing (with or without our hijabs) and make people smile and laugh, and when we bake cakes that are not shaped as mosques, we are turned into exceptional human beings and the face of British Islam. We are the good Muslims, the ones you don’t need to be terrified of, or avoid becoming friends with.
Ultimately what these narratives are about are attempts to make us more relatable and normal. And this is why these narratives are part of the problem and not the solution.
Last weekend I was on a train from Manchester to Oxford. The passenger next to me started spewing random racist comments towards the two Chinese passengers sitting opposite us. She then turned to me and said: “If I was in the country that you come from I would be stoned to death for being a Christian.”
After I called her out for her racism she apologised and then asked me if I celebrated Christmas. I responded by telling her: “This is my country, I’m in my country.” And no, I don’t celebrate Christmas in the same way she does, but my family cook a big Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.
As she stood up to leave the train I put my hand out and she shook it. I wished her and her family a very happy Christmas.
It was my way of humanising a racist.
Shaista Aziz is a standup comedian and former aid worker. Her essay on Everyday Bigotry will be published in the upcoming 'Values' issue of Critical Muslim.
This article was first published in The Guardian