Around the same time as ‘#prayforparis’ started circulating last night, I was swapping between reading Aldous Huxley’s novel ‘Brave New World’ and the BBC News updates on the unfolding events, that were coming straight to my tablet as I read. It was a bizarre situation to find oneself in; swapping continuously between the fictional world and the real, at a time when the fictional world was making more sense, had a more coherent narrative and was, at this point, a lot more calm and serene than the world of absurdity and illogicality that was but a swipe on the screen away. The consequent out pour of reactionary posting on social media came with a stronger rhetoric of blame and persecution than that of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and I noticed a trend for demands that Islam/Syria be combated; that this attack was not to go without retaliation.
I’ve met and made friends with quite a few Muslim’s, amongst other religions, during my time in Leeds. In particular, a girl called Nazish that I worked with, was someone that came to my mind as the horrific events unfolded last night. Not, may I be clear, because I aligned Naz (or ‘Nazdem’ as she was sometimes nicknamed) with the attacks taking place, but because I wondered to myself, how many people out there have never met, made friends with, or shared a lunch date with a Muslim? I realised how privileged and lucky I am to count as a friend someone who, is not only a wonderful, kind and hilarious person, but is also a follower of and a practising devotee to a religion that, like many of my other friends, forms such a huge part of their daily lives. Naz does not to wear a Hijab out of personal choice, she chooses not to drink or eat non-halal meat and also fasts for Ramandan. She was at hairdressing college when I met her and was working in the call centre with me part time, it never even occurred to me at the time to think of myself as being ‘friends with a Muslim.’ I was simply ‘friends with a person.’ It was only when calls would dry up and the team – (like a poster campaign for in work diversity) made up of a one Sikh, one Christian, one Muslim, one Agnostic and one atheist – would descend into political, ethical and philosophical debate; (whilst choosing what free dessert to have with our team Domino’s order) would I remember the fact that I was indeed ‘friends with a Muslim.’
I guess in Northern Ireland exposure to Islam is in many ways limited, the Muslim community here (or lack there of) is not to any extent on the level of that in urban areas of England. Buildings such as mosques, halal butchers and international supermarkets are not something that frequent our landscape. Whilst cultural diversity is in no doubt growing, there is no active presence of Islam here, bar passing a few women wearing a Hijab, or in a very rare instance a Niqab, in the City Centre. Islam, generally, is something people are only familiarised with by news coverage or social media. It’s a shame then, that so many people here and in other close knit rural regions of the UK, may not have the chance to interact with Islam or consequently with Muslims in the way that I’ve been able to. Often, assumptions and stereotypes are applied, fear of the unknown comes into affect and Islamophobia is born out of sheer inexperience or accidental ignorance more than anything else. I feel it is more important than ever, to remember that the attacks carried out last night across Paris, were as much a reflection of Islam, as the Nazis were of Christianity, or the IRA of Catholicism.
For centuries upon centuries religion has been used as a tool to construct justifiable means to slaughter innocent civilians in the name of (a) God. The British Empire, now a constitutionally celebrated historical achievement, holds a discourse of genocide, rape, pillage, destruction, death, slavery, theft and debauchery, spanning to almost every corner of the globe. The privileged lives we lead are only the result of the endless, unimaginable suffering our ancestors and theirs before, inflected on isolated communities and societies around the world to allow our own capitalist agenda to thrive. International business’ around the world still run on money that has its foundations in the slave trade, we wear clothing made by children younger than we would allow out in the street to play, working in squalid conditions, so that we can satisfy our need for the ‘instant fix’, we actually celebrate and raise awareness/money for armed forces that have carried out barbaric attacks on women, children and unarmed civilians in the Middle East and further afield, and we declare, with disgust and vigor that we don’t want ‘migrants’ coming into our country and taking our jobs. ‘Migrants’ that we perceive to be after ‘our’ benefits, ‘our’ jobs and ‘our’ liberties – liberties we’ve removed from them by supplying weapons to the regimes or rebels they’re fleeing. The word ‘migrant’ eludes to someone moving by choice to a land in which they wish to be, to set up a life they wish to lead – ‘Expats’ I believe we call them, should their skin be white and their English unbroken. But ‘migrant’ couldn’t be further from the reality facing the refugees of war, both from Syria and around the world. These are often people (and it’s people that is the key word here) who have lived lives like you and I; they’ve went to school, gained an education, they’ve worked hard to buy cars and homes and take holidays, they like to follow trends and TV shows, they have mobile phones, Twitter, Facebook, they have boyfriends and girlfriends and hobbies; they’re people very much reluctant to be leaving their homes behind for a life of rejection, isolation and struggle in a land they would never have considered visiting never mind somewhere to begin attempting to build a life from nothing. They’re people who are spending their last hard earned life savings on paying wealth hungry, greedy, deceitful people traffickers with the hope to gain places on rubber dinghy’s, that we wouldn’t even allow our kids to use in Bangor harbour, to cross over dangerous and turbulent waters to try and access freedom that we so gluttonously take advantage of. They are people fleeing exactly what France has been faced with in the past 24 hours – mindless, perilous, cold hearted murder masquerading as religiously motivated revenge.
The attacks in Paris are truly inhuman, barbaric and unfathomable, let that be clear. The desperate, meaningless loss of innocent life at the hands of despicable, wretched, cowardly fools is something that will be felt by the rest of the world for decades to come. It is hard to find words to describe the intensity of the pain that Paris must be reeling in currently, but let us not forget the internationally recognisable allure of Paris and consequently of France, as being a land of love, romance and enchantment; as a home to some of the richest offerings to art and culture the world has ever known. France is a beacon of all that is revolutionary and radical, whether you agree with the politics or not. It is a land of beauty, culture, art, class, diversity and progression; it’s a land of ( and in accordance with) it’s national motto: Liberty, equality, fraternity. And so I hope, that the motto of this stricken country will be the message that rings out to the international community amongst all the angst, hatred and fear that are becoming the wide spread emotions synonymous with the tragic events of yesterday. I hope that liberty, equality, fraternity are the words that come to mind when we negotiate our way through not only the atrocities in France, but globally, at the hands of any extremist, freedom hating, antagonistic and hate fuelled minority.