Where prejudice takes wing

Being Muslim in a climate of paranoia...

Written by Irena Akbar | Updated: June 21, 2017 5:12 pm

Messing up your grammar to ensure your safety,or rather the safety of your fellow air-bound passengers (or “guests”,as air carriers like to call them these days) thats a step I reflexively took on a recent Bangalore-Delhi flight. Standing in the bus that ferries passengers from the terminal to the tarmac,I called up my father to inform him that I was about to board. I wasn’t loud enough to divert anyone’s attention. But the moment I said,“Insha Allah,plane 11 baje udega,” I startled a woman whose seat I was clutching on to. The woman,playing with her Blackberry and sporting oversized glares,suddenly looked at me,and after examining me from head to toe,got back to her phone.

I wondered whether it was the “Insha Allah” or the “plane udega” which made her look up at me. I would have concluded that it was just the “Insha Allah” in these Islamophobic times but thanks to a recent episode in which a bearded maulana was deplaned because he said “plane udega” on the phone,I supposed that both parts of my innocent sentence were “dangerous” enough to shock her. That she was perturbed only for a moment,unlike the paranoid NRI woman who refused to fly with the maulana on board,was maybe because of my secular attire,a salwar kameez. Had my head been covered or had I been in a burqa,or worse,if I were a man,she would have probably confirmed her suspicion. Conversely,had I been in jeans or a skirt,her comfort would have doubled.

My phone beeped again and this time I told my uncle,“plane 11 baje chalega”. Yes,I edited out the “Insha Allah” and changed the flying machine into a road vehicle.

Islamophobia doesn’t inflict just non-Muslims. Many “regular” Muslims (meaning that they don’t sport a beard or hijab,can speak English,and wouldn’t burn Danish flags) are Islamophobes too,fearing that any exhibition of their religiosity could land them in trouble. Because the root cause — 9/11 — had happened on a plane,people are most Islamophobic at airports. The maulana episode is only a recent example in a long chain of similar incidents. In 2002,three bearded youths were detained at Delhi’s IGI airport,and interrogated for 12 hours before they were released because they used the Urdu word “masail” (meaning problems) at the airport. They were complaining of various “masail” people have to face at the airport but someone took “masail” as “missile”. In 2006,Arab-American peace activist Raed Jarrar was forced to take off his

T-shirt at the JFK airport in New York because it sported Arabic script. The same year,12 Muslim men were arrested at the Amsterdam airport for allegedly suspicious behaviour arising out of using and exchanging cellphones aboard a Northwest Airlines plane.

These examples and several unreported incidents (one young Muslim man told me how the security staff at the Bangalore airport kept questioning him about the “taaweez”,an Islamic talisman he was carrying) have caused many Muslims to be extra-cautious about airport behaviour. I know of a Muslim who didn’t carry a box of Lebanese sweets (with its label in Arabic) on her flight from Jeddah to Chicago in 2006,following the transatlantic liquid bomb scare that year. She was afraid that ingredients such as sugar and cocoa powder written in Arabic could be mistaken as terrorist literature.

Looking inwards,Muslims are,in part,responsible for Islamophobia. How would you expect people to react to any Islamic/ Arabic/ Urdu sign when terrorist outfits adopt Islamic titles (“Jaish-e-Mohammed”) or pepper their speech with “Insha Allah” while communicating with the likes of Ajmal Kasab as they rampage Mumbai? Or when protesters shout “Allah-u-Akbar” even as their causes are only political?

Talking of semantics,Muslims drag Islam into every name. So now,we have a “Muslim”

Facebook,MillatFacebook,following Facebook’s hosting of the “Draw Mohammed Day” page. Yawn. Reminds me of Makkah Cola that was sold in Saudi Arabia as “competition” to Pepsi in the ’90s. Even as a schoolkid who gulped down more cola than water,I never tried a sip of Makkah Cola. Not that I had any views on America,I just liked Pepsi. Around the year 2000,a Shia cleric in Lucknow had called for the boycott of Coca Cola as he thundered on television that the mirror image of the words “Coca Cola” read “La Makkah,La Madinah” in Arabic. I sat with a bottle in front of the mirror to find any semblance of the Arabic words,Makkah and Madinah. I didn’t. And I gulped down my cola.

But I cringed the most when the otherwise shirtless Salman Khan wore a topi when he was arrested in the hit-and-run case. He wanted to show he was being victimised because he’s a Muslim. Sigh.

irena.akbar@expressindia.com

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