DR AKBAR AHMED
AS I reflect on the events of the past few years and my recent journey studying Islam across Europe, a continent I had come to decades before as a young Pakistani student, I cannot help but think of the dramatic changes in the perception and position of young Muslims in the West. Muslim students today, irrespective of their ethnic, national and political backgrounds, tend to be seen as a monolith. Incidents of violence involving Muslims in one part of the world immediately impact Muslims elsewhere through the instant processes of global media.
Reports of mosques and women in hijab being attacked and students being bullied at school further create worries for Muslims. In addition, reports of savage violence conducted by groups like the so-called Islamic State seem to support the stereotype in the minds of many that Islam promotes violence and young Muslims need to be watched. Disgusting stories of “grooming” in which Muslim men are accused of corrupting young, often underage girls through drugs and drinks and worrying ones of Muslim schools as part of a “Trojan horse” strategy circulate widely and further defame Muslims.
In the media, the words “terrorist” and “extremist” are associated with Muslims and put the young further on the defensive. That so many Muslim students continue to pursue their studies with diligence in spite of these conditions and even make their mark is a tribute to their character.
I am struck by how different Europe was in my student days in the 1960s. Looking through some old and fading pictures, of no particular significance except to me as a reminder of happier times, I am able to make some comparisons of Muslim life then and now. I see the contrast in the pictorial evidence from those days. Looking at them, I think to myself how different most Europeans would find the appearance and looks of a Pakistani student today. The media stereotype makes us believe that a Muslim student would have a beard, a skull cap and wear a loose shirt and baggy trousers while planning to blow things up in his quest for the mythical 72 virgins waiting for him in heaven.
The first photograph is taken in Greece at a port as my English fellow students and I prepared to visit one of the Greek islands. It was my first visit to Greece, and I was already in love with Greek culture introduced to me through literature — from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” to Byron’s “The Isles of Greece.” In my meager travel bag I had Lawrence Durrell’s novels from “The Alexandria Quartet.”
The novels, which explored the theme of love, were set just prior to and during World War II in Alexandria, Egypt, and presented different perspectives on the same events as seen by different characters. I devoured the novels with my friends that summer on a Greek island, a feat made sweet by the knowledge that Lawrence and his younger brother Gerald, also a famous author, lived on and were inspired by these very islands. The references of Durrell to big scientific names and use of difficult words only confirmed to us, if to no one else, that we were ready for adult themes and esoteric literature that at the same time was erotic.
My trip to Greece was part of a dare when I impulsively accepted a challenge to hitchhike with a group of English friends from my university in Birmingham to Athens with a limited budget. For me, barely 20 years old, it was an adventure, as I had not done anything like that before. It was still possible then to hitchhike long distances before the dangers of doing so were graphically illustrated in so many popular films like “Duel” (1971) and “The Hitcher” (1986) in which there were good chances that you ended up being chopped into little bits by some psychopathic killer.
It was a hard few weeks on the road — we slept rough, ate little more than baguettes and cheese and depended heavily on the hospitality of strangers — but it gave me insights into European society. Shortly after this photograph was taken my Greek friend from the university came to see me at the youth hostel where I was staying with my English university friends and asked me to step outside. He was visibly angry with me. He reminded me of my social background and asked what my parents would say if they saw me living in these conditions like these “dirty” English.
After weeks on the road we did look scruffy and run-down, but his choice of adjective interested me. He was reflecting a historic suspicion and dislike of the English that some Europeans harbored; in that part of Europe both the Turks and Greeks, who dislike each other to this day, blamed the English for their national woes. He ignored my explanations of having accepted the challenge of hitchhiking and winning the bet as a badge of honor. He insisted on taking me home and his family, especially his mother and sisters, showed me Greek hospitality at its best. I must confess that I had missed warm home-cooked meals and especially clean clothes to wear and clean sheets to sleep in, and I was profoundly grateful to my hosts.
My experience in the 1960s could not have differed more from the situation facing Pakistanis — and others seeking refuge — in Greece today. On recent visits to Greece in connection with my study on Islam in Europe, “Journey Into Europe,” I met and saw the plight of the refugees and immigrants. They lived in fear of their lives as newly formed groups like the Golden Dawn party terrorized them. Some said that they had been physically beaten while bystanders looked on. The worst, they complained, were the police who saw them all as illegal and therefore a legitimate target for physical abuse. They were derisively called “Paki,” whatever their nationalities, as a racial slur. The word ironically derives from “pure” and is a term of pride for Pakistanis. As a term of derision, it did not exist in my time.
The problem of the refugees was one crisis among many facing Greece. The problems of high unemployment figures, the economic crisis and political uncertainty lay heavy on the land. In spite of this, however, there are heroic stories of ordinary Greek landlords giving shelter to the desperate refugees and coast guard officials saving their lives on the Greek islands. The sense of Greek hospitality and humanism that I experienced as a student does survive.
The second picture is taken alongside the famous Little Mermaid of Copenhagen when a Muslim student could pose with the famous symbol of the city without fear of being accused of wanting to destroy it. I point to this picture to show that I was like other students visiting famous local iconic figures and places. Today, unfortunately, Muslims — however much they may condemn the actions — are associated in the media with blowing up antiquities in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The beautiful mermaid has been defaced and even “beheaded” by different anarchists and student pranksters, but no Muslim group has launched a campaign demanding that her modesty needs to be protected and she be clothed in a niqab.
The third picture is in Cambridge with the iconic King’s College in the background. I was at Selwyn College and had to cross King’s to get to town. My Pakistani friends and I would often run into Ian Stephens, the famous former editor of The Statesman in India and author of several books on Pakistan, as we crossed the college. I can still hear his loud greeting as he spotted us and picture his blue eyes and ruddy face lighting up — “Pakistanis! My day is made!”
While Pakistani students can take pride in the fact that their community has contributed significantly to their host country — there are over a dozen members in the Houses of Commons and Lords, mainstream television presenters and even a former cricket captain with Pakistani backgrounds — there is no denying that the very word “Paki” is used as racial abuse. The irony is that it is now widely used even for those not of Pakistani origin such as people from India or the Middle East.
Finally, the fourth picture is taken in the English public school Sherborne in Dorset. Sherborne has produced some famous names like the actor Jeremy Irons and the mathematician Alan Turing, who was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game” (2014). The school provided the background for “Goodbye, Mr Chips” (1969), with Peter O’Toole in the lead role.
In the Sherborne photograph I am standing alongside a group of my senior A-level students, who were not much younger than me. The boys are smartly turned out with ties, jackets and hats called boaters. I was sent to the school to teach English for a term as part of my diploma in Education at Cambridge University. My arrival in the small town was unusual enough to merit a small mention in the local newspaper pointing out the curious fact that a Pakistani would be teaching English at Sherborne.
As part of my examination I had to do a “practical,” which meant an external examiner would sit in my class at the end of term and observe my teaching and my interactions with the students. To their credit, the boys, who held my fate in their hands, behaved impeccably. I was aware of how easily they could have jeopardized my degree. The examiner’s report mentioned how well the boys had responded to my class and noted their enthusiasm. In the end, I was awarded a “distinction” by the university both in my written and practical examinations.
When these photographs were taken, Europe was beginning to become conscious of being an economic and political entity. The highways and hotels that would link different points of the continent were just being constructed. In certain parts, like the southern areas of Spain and Italy, there were few blacktop roads and those that existed were narrow and in disrepair while railway services were erratic. It was the time of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and Pakistan was firmly in the camp of the former.
Pakistan was a key ally with vast geopolitical span as its borders touched Iran at one end and Burma at the other. Its president had received an unprecedented welcome in the United States with President John Kennedy hosting his guest in the home of George Washington at Mount Vernon. Harvard and World Bank economists spoke of Pakistan as being at the “take-off” stage of economic development. South Korean economists came to Pakistan to study its methods.
Most important, there was no overt hostility to Islam in the West. The media barely recognized the existence of the religion and certainly did not equate it to terrorism. When people discovered I was from Pakistan they were mildly curious about it as many thought it was part of India, but I did not experience any overt hostility because of Islam.
Over the decades, change in attitudes towards Muslims began to take place from the Iranian hostage crisis onward and then built up rapidly with global events such as the fatwa against Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” (1988), Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” (1993) and finally the events of 9/11 in which nearly 3,000 American lost their lives at the hand of Muslim terrorists.
The media have also been slowly but steadily building up a drumbeat of antagonism and suspicion toward Muslims. Pakistani militants have not been out of the news since then: they have been involved in, to give only the more notorious examples, the 2005 bombings in Central London, in which some 50 people were killed and more than 700 injured, the 2014 massacre of 148 in the Army Public School in Peshawar , of which most were schoolchildren and the December 2015 massacre of 14 Americans in San Bernardino , Calif.
I wonder if Ian Stephens were alive today in the UK and came across young Pakistanis heading his way, whether he would pause for a moment, turn around, and head the other way or greet them. Such is the distance we have travelled over the last half century.
The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.