By Monty Majeed
March 22, 2016. The news of the Brussels attack had spread like wildfire, causing panic across Europe. I had been living in Prague for nearly four months. When I got out of home that morning, the scene was tense. All metro stations had upped their surveillance, stopping and checking anyone they found suspicious. Conversations among locals around me were peppered with words like ‘terorismus’ (meaning terrorism), ‘ISIS’, and ‘muslimsky’.
As my tram arrived, three women in hijabs, probably tourists from the Middle East, got off. It was as if the air had thickened. In a city like Prague, where hijabis are rare and where locals find brown-skinned people quite a novelty, these brown-skinned hijabis were attracting too much attention. And, not of the right kind. They had chosen to see the city on the wrong day, I thought to myself. I tried to smile at them, but I don’t know if they noticed as they scurried away too soon to avoid putting themselves in danger.
And, that was when I felt a little stir. A sense of fear, which soon turned into a sense of feeling discriminated, and then a sense of solidarity towards those women. Because, I, too, was one of them, a brown-skinned Muslim woman.
A few years ago, I wouldn't even have made such a statement. I am neither a practicing Muslim, nor a hijabi. Up until a series of such incidents, I would have vehemently made a case for reformation within Islam as the means to tackle widespread Islamophobia. When my non-Muslim husband felt strongly about Muslims being discriminated against, I tried to convince him saying that the fault lay largely on Muslims themselves.
This understanding came from having grown up in a restrictive community, which made me believe there is no place for a woman in Islamic societies. The way my community treated women led me to form strong opinions about the religion and its practice. But all this while I got away with all the phobia and discrimination because I didn’t ‘look’ Muslim enough and it was hard to judge by my first name that I was one.
When I moved to Prague, it became a different story altogether. This time it was my skin colour that was the problem. In a land of whites, I was brown. Older people stared at me and if I happened to sit next to them on public transport, they quickly shielded their belongings from me. Soon, I started feeling differently about the identity as a Muslim by birth.
Even when I speak to those back at home, I find a wave of Islamophobia staring me in the face. And, it bothers me that the rage the common man feels against communal forces is conveniently directed at only the Muslims. A case in point is the incident involving the Peace International School in Kerala, which was widely reported by mainstream regional and national media.
The school was under public scrutiny following allegations that it had links to the Islamic State. Soon after, photographs of a class two textbook with non-secular content taught at the school started doing the rounds on social media. The Kerala Police registered an FIR against the principal, administrator and managing committee members of the school under Section 153 (A) for “promoting enmity among different groups on the ground of religion”. Nationwide, media outlets claimed that the content advocated communal disharmony, it fostered non-secular feelings and that it forced students to convert to Islam.
However, just a few days ago, there was another similar incident, but this time involving Infant Jesus Public School, Paravur. Here, a religious studies book titled "Kunjumalakha" (translated to “Little Angel”), had a picture story about a Hindu farmer named Ramnath, who, despite frequenting many temples, could never pull himself out of poverty. He, then, goes to a church and prays to Jesus, after which he gets a bountiful harvest. Ramnath then spreads the word of his new God to the other villagers.
The photograph of this book did a small round on Facebook and WhatsApp, after which it was reported on a Malayalam website. The very next day, the website reported that school authorities had apologised and agreed to withdraw the books. No outrage, no widespread media coverage, no FIR, no terrorism claims, no non-secular accusations, nothing. In fact, the only English outlet I found that covered it was TNM, which spoke about it in an article that reported the arrest of the Peace textbook’s publishers.
The problem does not lie in whether a Muslim school or a Christian school is teaching such lessons in hate to children. The real problem lies in how we are selective in our outrage against different groups in society. Even about a decade ago, when I was in school, there were many schools in Kochi which did not allow children to bring non-vegetarian food for lunch, or made them wish teachers saying ‘Hari Om’ or ‘Om Nama Shivaya’. There were Christian schools that arranged compulsory religious retreats for all students. I believe all these still happen in Kerala and elsewhere. But why is the outrage only directed at a school run by a Muslim trust and not towards the general idea of communalising the thought-processes of our children?
World over, this narrative of Islamophobia is only getting stronger by the day. And, in our country, it comes with a mix of sickeningly forced nationalism. Case in point: the whole country coming down on a Bollywood inter-faith couple for naming their son after a Muslim ruler! It has, however, surprised me that it has managed to find such a space in an otherwise secular society like Kerala. I feel uncomfortable with the idea that my own people are pointing fingers at me. I feel defeated thinking that soon even my friends might alienate me for being born a Muslim. I feel ashamed that the land we once called ‘God’s Own Country’ with pride is being shattered with such agenda-driven politics.
Despite being a non-practicing Muslim, now I feel forced to don the identity of one because I feel terrified to the bone. On the streets of Prague, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, I walk with caution, second-guessing every glance a white person throws at me. And, I feel scared that I would be discovered, maybe even attacked without being given a chance to clarify my intentions.
Why should I be at the receiving end of these accusations? Why should I come clean of my intentions, faith or ideologies? Is it not our collective responsibility to make every person in our society feel safe, being who they are?
(Monty Majeed is an independent cultural journalist and editor.)
Note: Views expressed are the personal opinions of the author.