‘I’m glad I met Islam first before I met Muslims…’

I will never forget hearing those words. They were uttered by an Imam during a Friday khutbah (sermon). Of course, like other statements, it defies a single interpretation. Below is my understanding of what the Imam meant.

It is important to know that the Imam is a revert (the argument has been made that we are all born Muslims and internal and external factors such as our upbringing, the household and society we are immersed and raised in and the choices we make determine if we remain on the path of Islam or if we deviate. Based on this premise, the term ‘revert’ is used instead of ‘convert’ for those who decide to return to the path of Islam). You can imagine the Imam when he wasn’t a Muslim going to the mosque and seeking for knowledge about Islam from other Muslims. What I imagine is that he experienced what many other reverts and Muslims who are new to the area and mosque do: arrogance. That’s correct, although Islam makes it unambiguously clear that if you have a trace of arrogance in your heart you will not be admitted into jennah (paradise) however this disease seems to be widespread in our communities. So, what is arrogance? In Islam Muslims believe that God created Adam (RA) out of clay and he commanded the angels and the Jinn (a sentient being that has also been endowed with free will and therefore will also be judged on the Day of Reckoning) to prostrate. The angels and the Jinn obeyed God’s command save for Iblis who was recalcitrant and stiff-necked. Iblis, who is a Jinn and NOT an angel (in Islam there is no such thing as ‘fallen angels’ for they can never disobey God’s commands) stated that, ‘you made me out of smokeless fire and Adam out of clay. I am BETTER than him’. Iblis incurred the wrath of God and was subsequently banished from jennah.

As Muslims we must learn from this example of how disdainful arrogance is and we should do our utmost to guard ourselves from it. We must engage in introspection and be brutally honest with ourselves and identify any arrogance that we may be harbouring and do our utmost to expunge it. How do we combat arrogance? In Islam, we are encouraged and indeed rewarded to greet one another with the term salam (peace be upon you). It is a duty to respond to this salutation with wa salam (and may peace be upon you). The first person to make the offering of peace is the humbler one and his dwelling place in the hereafter will be closer to the throne of Allah (the ultimate honour in Islam is to be in proximity to Allah SWT and devout Muslims all yearn and strive for this).

Being the first person to say salam takes humility and courage because although it is obligatory to reciprocate the Islamic greeting, regrettably many Muslims don’t. You therefore take the risk of essentially being a ignored which, let’s be honest, is not the most pleasant of feelings and can even be quite embarrassing and humiliating depending on your own coping mechanisms and context. And this is what we do, we Muslims in my experience do not make newcomers to Islam feel welcome and valued. I can relate an anecdote from personal experience. I remember when I was praying in a mosque in New Zealand. I had just arrived from the UK and I didn’t know anyone. There were many people in the mosque who were from the same cultural background and with hindsight I realized that they must have prayed together for years and thus they, consciously or not, created an in-group. Because I was a newcomer and because I was not from the same background as the in-group I was an outsider. Upon completing my prayer, the Muslim man to my right asked me if I spoke Arabic and I can’t deny that I was grateful for the attention. I thought (naively) that this was an overture and that the Muslim man wanted to welcome me to the community. So, I responded with a smile and affirmed that I can converse in the Arabic language. Almost immediately after the affirmation the Muslim man admonished me and criticised my posture stating that how I pray is flawed. I was caught unaware and responded by saying that I have an ankle injury which prevents me from adopting the proper posture. The Muslim man retorted but identifying yet another perceived error in how I pray and then concluded the conversation. I thought this was astonishing. Here was an opportunity to welcome a newcomer to Islam and yet this individual instead decided to criticise me the moment we first met. I wasn’t expecting that he would be like this (although I should have known better and I should have had a riposte available). This is but one of many, many examples of how unwelcoming Muslims can be which is the complete anti-thesis of Islam which encourages its adherents to embrace newcomers and to treat them with courtesy, respect and dignity.

Attitudes such as these will continue to prevail in Muslim communities unless we do something about it. I have attended Friday sermons that have addressed this issue, but I don’t think enough is being done about it. From a very early age Muslim children must be taught the sunnah (the blessed prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) example) and how he treated other people, newcomers to Islam, his neighbours, guests and even people in the marketplace (it is narrated that there wasn’t a single person that the person would make eye contact with in the bazaar that he wouldn’t smile to. A small and simple kindness such as this would make such a tremendous impact).

Why is all of this so important? Many Muslim youth may sadly live in hostile households which are devoid of love and they may not feel valued. They may subsequently turn to society for inclusion and validation yet since Islamophobia is rising inexorably, and they may only receive exclusion and derision. They therefore attend their local mosques and hope to be embraced by their Muslim brothers. If we do not have the awareness that many of our Muslim youth are in pain and that they need to feel that they belong to a community than this is a disastrous failure on our part. These Muslim youth may wander aimlessly to seek comfort in nightclubs, brothels and casinos and may try to escape the real world by consuming alcohol and drugs and by rolling the dice.
I say this as much to myself as I do to others: be kind to one another people, smile and greet one another. As I enumerated above, a small kindness can have such a tremendous impact.

Review: Lost Boys? What’s Going Wrong for Asian Men

I was inspired to watch the documentary, ‘Lost Boys? What’s Going Wrong for Asian Men?’ after I read an indignant and intellectual thread from an Asian Muslim lady (the brilliant Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan) who I understand has received a commission from the BBC to produce a piece about it.

My immediate response was ‘fantastic’ but surely the best person to analyse and discuss a documentary about our ‘lost boys’ and what is going wrong for Asian men is an Asian man himself? I reflected some more and realised, that’s the problem, that we don’t actually have a spokesMAN that I know of so I felt it was incumbent upon me to compose this blog. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an admirer of the person who received the commission who is clearly a very eloquent and perceptive individual. However, there are inherent limitations to her understanding of the subjective experience of an Asian man in Britain as there are inherent limitations in my understanding of what it’s like for an Asian lady who wears a hijab in Britain.

I’ll start off with the title which is blatantly sensational and that for me raises immediate concerns. It’s also hugely loaded. Are we lost? What ‘went wrong’ for us as if nothing ‘went right’ for us? I’ll return to this point. The next issue I want to raise is the selection of the presenter. Mehreen Baig, according to her website, is a teacher turned blogger turned TV presenter. I personally think the BBC made an error with who they chose for the task. What we need is one of our own; a Muslim brother from our own ranks who knows what it feels like to have a fire burning in his belly, who is an expert by lived experience and who can relate to the Asian men he is interviewing because he FELT the pain of exclusion and being at the receiving end of racial slurs and discrimination. A brother who is made to feel like he is a heathen beast and that he is below his white male counterparts. Such a brother would have lent the documentary more credibility and authenticity. The presenter clearly had her own agenda and, in my opinion, was not qualified for the job. She was also far too privileged for my liking. It almost felt as though the BBC wanted to justify their choice whenever she would launch into a soliloquy which indicated how thoughtful and caring she is.

The next issues are racism, Islamophobia and identity. Racism is rampant in the UK although it is important to state that inclusion and acceptance do exist albeit not as widespread as they should. Remember the London 07/07 bombings? The perpetrators of that horrific and heinous atrocity were from Leeds. I can surmise that from a very early age they, like me and other Asian men, were constantly told that they would never amount to anything in life. I know what if feels like to be avoided and ridiculed and let me tell you it hurts. A lot. These boys were ignored and not listened to and conjured a nefarious plan to make their voices heard. I condemn their vile actions in the strongest possible terms but I don’t think we have done enough to understand and address the social, political, psychological, cultural and economic factors that contributed to their despicable actions. There are a lot of Asian boys who are in pain and we need to have the humility to reach out to them, validate them, dignify them and remind them that they can make important and meaningful contributions for the betterment of our society. We need to make them FEEL that we value them, care for them and that we love them. We need to make them BELIEVE in themselves and, by doing so, we will empower them.

Identity.

When I was younger it felt like there was a constant tug of war in my mind. I longed to be accepted by British society, but I did not want to forsake my faith. Vice is seemingly ubiquitous and I gradually strayed from the path of Islam. The temptation was just too strong and I succumbed. I recall beholding my reflection in the mirror one morning and being almost unrecognisable to myself. The realisation was overwhelming and I was consumed by remorse which drove me over the edge.

As a mental health professional, I think we must address identity and acculturation and be cognisant that many of our Asian boys and men experience an identity crisis and that this can precipitate psychological distress and illicit substance misuse (the latter is a form of escapism). We must also teach them the skills to reconcile both ways of life. I am a proud British Muslim; you don’t have to indulge in what is prohibited in Islam to be ‘British’.

So, what does it feel like to be an Asian boy/man in the UK? Are we truly ‘lost’ and did things go so terribly wrong for us? Well, I left my family when I was 17 years old and started off as a janitor cleaning floors on minimum wage. I was naive and will never forget how it felt when I would say good morning to people and they wouldn’t reciprocate. But at least over here education is a birth right, so I enrolled into a sixth form college and continued to work full time hours to sustain myself. I received straight A grades in my A Levels despite being in full time employment and matriculated into medical school. Structural racism and Islamophobia de-railed me and I was rendered impoverished, ostracised and homeless. Like our boys, I started to search for my soul and I found it in both my faith and in British society. I got back on track, resumed my medical training with renewed resilience and determination, qualified from medical school and in 2013 received the Royal College of Psychiatrists Foundation Doctor of the Year Award which marks the highest level of achievement in psychiatry in the UK. There are many Asian boys and men out there who, like me, have triumphed in the hostile face of adversity. Things actually went ‘right’ for us. So, we may at times be misguided but I would not describe us as collectively lost. Our boys are feeling stigmatised and a documentary that addresses and challenges this and the issues of structural racism and Islamophobia is what we sorely need.

‘The ink of a scholar is nobler than the blood of a martyr…’ M (PBUH)

So, I thought it was about time that I started a blog. I’m definitely a word person and I derive a lot of comfort from expressing myself and from reading. I’ll share a memory with you to give you an insight into who I am and what I stand for. I attended an event at King’s College London not too long ago. The thinktank Ipsos Mori were showcasing the findings of a survey on perceptions of the military in the UK and beyond. The Chair of the panel was the former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Professor Sir Simon Wessely. I had a few meetings with Professor Wessely before the event and so he had some idea of my proclivities. Following the presentation, there was a question and answer session and members of the audience were invited to contribute. I confidently raised my arm up and gained the attention of the Chair and asked the panel how many participants in their survey were Muslim. It turned out that not a single person recruited for their study was an adherent of the Islamic faith (you would think that the British Army would be interested in how Muslims perceive them since their most recent military operations were in Muslim majority countries! Muslims are also underrepresented in the British Armed Forces and there is currently a drive to recruit more people from this Abrahamic faith to join their ranks. I was later invited to Whitehall were I presented the findings of my survey entitled, ‘Muslim perceptions of British combat troops’ to military officials from the Ministry of Defence.) I think the consensus among the panel was that I made a valid point. The Chair then said (almost affectionately), “That will be enough from you!!” The point is, with so much injustice in the world, I have a lot to say and in the words of Albert Camus, ‘To be silent is to help the oppressor’. Islamophobia is rife in Europe at the moment and I’m hoping to challenge that in whatever way I can. We know that there is an association between Islamophobia and psychological distress in Muslims. I think a good start would be through the power of the written word, after all, ‘The ink of a scholar is nobler than the blood of a martyr…’ (Muhammed (PBUH)