By Khaled Diab
Our intrepid and fearless reporter visited the fabled capital of the European Caliphate, Londonistan. What he discovered was shockingly, surprisingly, confoundingly, almost frighteningly… ordinary.
Sunday 9 September 2018
“Other tourists may remember London for its spectacular sights and history, but I remember it for Islam,” wrote columnist Andy Ngo in the Wall Street Journal after a recent trip to the British capital, which seems to have coincided with my own visit during which I experienced a very different city.
“I wanted to cut past the polemics and experience London's Muslim communities for myself,” he claimed. Despite this commendable sentiment, Ngo immediately proceeded to launch a polemical diatribe about the capital's “failed multiculturalism”, in which he does not quote a single London Muslim nor does he appear to have had any actual conversations with these terrifying individuals, as if they have not yet evolved the capacity to speak or he has not discovered the capability to listen.
Instead, he depends on the mood music of imagery, spending most of the column describing the dress code of conservative Muslims on their way to Friday prayers, as if their choice of clothes defines who they are, what they think of others, how they treat their fellow citizens or how they relate to their country.
But as I know from experience, judging a Muslim (or anyone) solely by how (s)he dresses can be highly deceptive. Although extremists undoubtedly exist, if Ngo and others so fearful of the other took the time to spend time with ordinary Muslims, they may be surprised by what they learn.
Take the Iraqi woman whom I happened to chat to on a London bus after I almost landed on her lap when the driver braked too hard. Dressed in a baggy black dress, cloak and headscarf, she was the fabric far-right horror is fashioned from but, in reality, she was cut from a different cloth to their nightmares.
Despite her conservative attire, she was a harsh critic of the sectarianism and religious identity politics that had overrun her native land, despised ISIS and looked back with nostalgia to Iraq's secular past – though her admiration for the Arab dictators of yesteryear and her poo-pooing of today's young Arabs as ignorant and apathetic riled me. Moreover, she was a proud Londoner of 30 years and her enthusiasm for the city had not been dimmed by the UK's role in the disastrous and illegal invasion of her homeland.
At a certain level, I understand how the unknown other can be frightening, especially if there are some extremists in their midst. For instance, as a child in London in the 1980s, I feared skinheads, initially unaware that in addition to the violent and racist fringe who sometimes hurled racial abuse at us or who picked fights with me as a teen, there were leftist or apolitical skinheads – some are trying to reclaim the movement – who loved reggae and ska and hung out with fellow black working class Londoners, many of whom were also skinheads. In the London of today, there are many men with shaved heads (often because they are balding) and sporting elaborate tattoos who have absolutely nothing to do with what used to be known as skinhead culture when I was a kid.
Either through ignorance or malice, Ngo notes that near the mosque in Tower Hamlets he saw a sign which read “Alcohol restricted zone”. This leaves any reader unaware of British law and customs with the impression that, through ‘creeping Sharia', the local Muslim community had managed to ban alcohol. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, as reflected by the enormous number of pubs and off-licences in the area.
In its battle against what it defines as ‘anti-social behaviour', the UK government has reserved the right to restrict the consumption of alcohol in certain public spaces, such as parks, including in Tower Hamlets and over 600 other places across England and Wales, while the ban on consuming alcohol on the London underground was introduced by that well-known firebrand Islamist Boris Johnson.
This view of alcohol as a social ill or evil has nothing to do with Islam or multiculturalism and stems from Protestant Puritanism. This is reflected in the 19th-century temperance movement. In the United States, where this form of zealotry was far more successful, temperance eventually led to prohibition. Today, alcohol is still banned in hundreds of local counties, representing an area that constitutes an estimated 10% of the land mass of the United States.
In today's America drinking on the streets or in public spaces is prohibited almost everywhere, as I was surprised to discover on my first visit to the country, which makes Ngo's surprise at the sign he encountered in London, which is relatively rare, appear faux and contrived.
Moreover, the Muslim attitudes to alcohol and drinking are not as straightforward as many believe, as I point out in a chapter dedicated to the theme in my book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect. Many, many Muslims openly drink, both in the diaspora and in Muslim-majority countries where it is legal, and many Muslims who do not drink tolerate and accept the right of others to consume alcohol.
This diversity of attitudes is reflected in Arab- and Muslim-run establishments. Take the famous Little Arabia on and around Edgware Road, which is home to numerous off-licences and pubs. There, many Middle Eastern eateries, especially the cheaper, faster ones, serve nothing stronger than fruit juice, but some, especially the more upmarket ones, serve wine, beer and spirits from their countries of origin. In fact, for certain types of liberal Arabs, eating mezzas without washing them down with arak would be considered sacrilegious.
While a disproportionate amount of Western media attention is directed at the relatively small number of radical Islamists, missing from the picture is the fact that London is probably the main capital of Middle Eastern secular, progressive and leftist culture outside the Middle East. The city has been drawing a rich and diverse tapestry of Arab and Persian writers, artists, opposition figures, dissidents, exiles and refugees for generations – a few of whom I met during my latest visit.
One ageing Arab intellectual who has lived in London for decades pointed out to me, for instance, a stretch of territory in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea which had been a mini Iran in the 1970s and whose inhabitants found themselves stranded after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Most Iranians in the area moved to the United States or other parts of the UK.
One of the most unintentionally hilarious moments in Andy Ngo's column is his observation of how, outside the mosque in Tower Hamlets, Muslims and non-Muslims “avoided eye contact with the other”.
As anyone who has lived in or spent time in London will tell you, making eye contact is considered one of the gravest social sins (I exaggerate only slightly), and those who engage in it could elicit silent contempt, a hostile, “Oi, what are you staring at?”, or occasionally even stronger reactions.
This is partly because Londoners guard their private and personal space jealously. The upside of this oft-unfriendly attitude is that Londoners are also generally meticulous respecters of other people's private and personal space, and their right to do what they wish within its actual or imagined confines.
That is why the streets of London often appear to the outsider like an archipelago of random subcultures, each existing in parallel and each studiously ignoring the other, whether that is the colourful circuses of colour on the buses, tubes, along the embankment of the Thames, or at the city's huge array of pop-up festivals and carnivals. Nobody even bats an eyelid when, say, a woman dressed in a black coat and hijab shakes hands with a headless street performer dressed in a dark suit.
Despite the growing anti-Muslim sentiment and general xenophobia in the UK, the London of today appears, to my eyes as a relative outsider now, to still be a more open and tolerant place than the city in which I grew up. That is not to say that there is no tension or hatred in the city, especially as inequality sores and socio-economic welfare tumbles. Nevertheless, many of the city's inhabitants take London's multicultural kaleidoscope in their stride and seem to thrive on it, especially those who grew up since large-scale immigration began.
I hope London remains London, maintains its unique spirit, and ignores rightwing fear-mongers.
This article was first published by The New Arab on 31 August 2018.