Before Ramadan began, I came across Steve Rose's article for the Huffington Post on the Media hoo-hah surrounding Channel 4's decision to broadcast the azan, the Islamic call to prayer, on mainstream British television throughout Ramadan. After reading the article, I began to read Steve's blog and follow his informative twitter stream which shows his particular interest in highlighting and writing about Islamophobia in the British media.
Steve's contribution to the ongoing debate surrounding Islam in the media helps, in no small way, to shed light on what Islam really means to the millions of Muslims in Britain and forms part of a larger network of Muslim activists as well as those of other faiths and none who are working towards social cohesion.
Today, as part of the Interfaith Ramadan series, Steve explains his interest in Islam, reflects on the portrayal of Islam in the Media, and shares his views on faith.
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My interest in Islam (as a non-Muslim) was born from the pages of Edward Said’s seminal book ‘Orientalism’. In 2009, as I prepared my dissertation topic, I knew I had to write about the Western demonization of Islam. In the subsequent months, I read a range of books that offered a competing history against the ‘Western’ tradition of knowledge I was comfortable around.
I learnt that Islamophobia pre-dates the modern tragedies of 9/11 or 7/7. It has existed for centuries and continues to evolve. I learnt the word Qur’an means ‘to read’. Yet, for many non-Muslims, we remain remarkably ignorant (perhaps wilfully) to its contents. We do not read the Qur’an. We digest our knowledge about the religion from the media.
But ordinary Muslims are often marginalised from newspaper pages and television screens. I began to realise I was not going to learn about Islam from most British media.
After graduating, I moved to Toronto, Canada for a year. It was where I began my tentative steps towards interfaith dialogue. One day, when the air felt warm, on a season I cannot recall, I walked along Yonge Street (famous for being the longest street in the world). On one very busy corner, I found a collection of street entertainers and pamphleteers.
I noticed a group of Muslim men handing out books about their faith to little public response (as most pamphleteers find). However, I approached them and took the booklets on the promise I would read them with an open-mind. I still have them. They sit under my bed among many other unrelated books I own.
Sometime later, Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens came to the city to debate religion. I joined many others to protest and briefly met some of the city’s Muslim community. Sadly, the opportunity to have this dialogue never presented itself. At least I was engaging with more Muslims (superficially) than before.
I returned to the rural obscurity of Dorset in 2011 knowing I wanted greater dialogue. Twitter became my ideal platform to both highlight rising Islamophobia in Britain but also follow Muslims and learn about their faith. In two years and thousands of tweets later, I can claim a measure of success.
Last January, thanks to a journalist on Twitter, I was invited to attend a conference in Istanbul about Islamophobia. It was full of academics and journalists from the UK and Turkey. I finally had the dialogue I sought from many different Muslims.
Ironically, an Easter visit with my girlfriend to a church (I had not visited any for years) reminded me of the power of faith. I agree with Chris Hedges when he described God as a verb, not a noun.
Through faith, we seek answers to the human condition and create a respite from pains of despair and suffering. Not everything can be explained through the cold rationale of science (as some New Atheists would argue).
I understand when people call God perfection and how we might piece ourselves together in the purpose of his words. Everyone’s relationship to God is different because faith can define our entire being, culture and appearance.
I've witnessed the tears of a woman who was baptised and observed the serenity of afternoon prayers at a mosque. Both are different religions but both draw peace in their actions. I think that is worth celebrating.
I have read enough of the Qur’an and spoken with my Muslim friends (through Twitter and real life) to understand Islam outside of the media caricatures. When I have written in defence of Islam or highlight Islamophobia, I have been labelled an ‘Islamoapologist’ and ‘Islamophile’.
I am sometimes drawn into online debates about these topics and I will continue to have them because I recognise the seriousness of Islamophobia. I will continue to speak up for the Muslim community in my attempts to punctuate a different media narrative (however small that might be).
Steve Rose is a freelance writer and blogger based in Dorset. He contributes to The Huffington Post and maintains his own blog.