The Art of Conversation - Britons, Britain, Muslims and Islam
by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed
Readers of a sensitive disposition should be advised that this article contains words of a difficult nature. What you are about to read may cause a temporary shut down in common sense and a brief outburst of hysteria.
Are you still there? I have smelling salts if you need them. Beware, here are a few more: fatwa, hijab, apostasy, niqab, cousin-marriage, Imam, Muslim women.
We can take a short breather now, and collect ourselves. Phew. I apologise if my outburst has reduced some readers to gibbering ranting Alf Garnett type creatures.
When the Archbishop mentioned the scary S-word, all rational debate - even if it be to score a resounding knock-out in the first three minutes for the secular corner - was suspended. What on earth have we just experienced in the last few days? Rowan Williams barely mentioned the word ‘shariah’ and the country was in an Armageddon-style-end-of-the-world frenzy. It wasn’t even possible to get a word in edgeways to say that he was not in fact advocating shariah law. Instead, the media was awash with images of floggings from Somalia to the rings of Saturn and all the way in between.
Now that we are in the post-MTV, post-spin sound-bite century, we have lost the ability for discussion and debate. Sophistication and subtlety are a thing of the past. What I rue most is the lost art of conversation. Mention a word, and its caricature will be whipped up in front of you. Muslim woman in hijab? Poor, oppressed woman, one of four wives forced into marriage to her cousin, barely speaks English, wishes she could wear a mini-skirt… Muslim Imam? Mad ranting mullah burning a flag… Fatwa? Sentence to death for parking on a double yellow line.
It is completely impossible to have any kind of conversation about these issues without tantrums and hysteria. If British culture, values and laws are robust, then they will stand the test of discussion about these concepts, and vanquish anything that turns out to be barbaric or medaeival, or simply just not suited to the stiff upper lip and rugged British constitution. The knee-jerk ranting that surrounds us belies a lack of confidence and an unfounded sense of mistrust in the historic institutions that have made this country great.
We must ditch the cartoon (pun entirely intended) responses to any Muslim-sounding word that decorate our front pages week in week out. If we could get away from the unhelpful and misleading stereotypes that have lodged themselves into the public psyche, then maybe we could work our way through these minefields that seem to explode every few weeks. We might find our national debate engaging in that elusive thing - progress. Instead, the conversations that we need to have are being de-railed by the inability to communicate on the same wavelength. How can Muslims be part of the national conversation, if their terminology is at best unheard and misunderstood, or worse is misrepresented and the object of scaremongering?
P.S. To reduce the burden on some ‘opinionated’ readers, I have prepared some comments in advance that you might like to make. If you still feel het up, you can register your vote for your preferred tantrum. (1) What on earth is this Muslim complaining about? If she doesn’t like it here she can go home (2) Stop blowing us up if you don’t want us to react with hysteria every time you mention a foreign word (3) All Muslim women are oppressed. This is a fact. Thus Muslims are wrong on every possible count and we are right about everything (4) The sooner Muslims get it into their thick heads that this is Britain and we do things the British way, the happier we will all be.
Visit Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s site Spirit21