Ah! But is it racism?

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

The recent poll claiming to reveal “what Muslims in Britain really think”:  claiming to have identified “a community within a community”, and a proliferation of attitudes unpalatable to what we assume to be predominantly liberal Britain.  On the one hand, I am sceptical that a poll conducted on 1081 adults can really tell us what 2.71 million Muslims in England, and 80,800 in Scotland and Northern Ireland (2011 census), all think.  Among these adults, we have different ethnicities, different generations, different countries of origin, different degrees of religiosity/secularity.  If we break up the 1081 “polled” adults equally into different generations alone, we have approximately 360.33 young adults, 360.33 middle aged adults, and 360.33 elderly adults.  Is it valid to treat these “polled” Muslims as representative of their generations of co-religionists in Britain, let alone their entirety?

On the other hand, this news item drew me back to a certain memory.  We may assume that some more unpalatable, unliberal and violent views may be held by those who dress differently from liberal Brits, segregate the sexes more; attend their place of worship more regularly; etc.  In other words, those who look less acculturated.  So, my memory….

At some point while I was completing my thesis in Oxford, a photo competition was organized in my college, and winning photos were blown up, mounted and displayed in the college common room. I shortlisted a few photos from my doctoral fieldwork in Israel, and from a subsequent visit to Ethiopia, to submit, and asked my neighbour to help me choose from among them.

Above, is one of the photos I chose (which also appears in my book, Gondar’s Child). The period of my fieldwork in Israel included the first Gulf War, and these children are in a shopping mall with their gas masks. Saddam Hussein was threatening to use mustard and nerve gas in attacks on Israel – a prospect which terrified me, as there was a precedent: he had already murdered whole villages of Iraqi Kurds using these chemicals. Everyone was issued with a gas mask, which we had to take with us everywhere at all times, and children had all decorated the boxes containing their gas masks at school.

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Back in Oxford, I was living in postgrad student accommodation, and my neighbour, in the next room, was a science doctoral student of Iranian descent (“Y”). We were in and out of each other’s rooms most days, and I considered her to be a warm and supportive friend. When she saw this photo, she thought I shouldn’t submit it for the competition because she considered it to be “controversial”, because “there are people who think that Israel shouldn’t exist!” Why is it controversial that Saddam Hussein wanted to gas these children? – I asked her. But she just repeated her assertion as if it were self-evident. This caused a lot of tension between us. A few days later, I brought up the subject and gave her the chance to take back what she had said, but she just repeated it again, and I let her know in no uncertain terms that it was an anti-Semitic view. After this, I did not feel that we could continue being friends, but of course, how could she ever have been a friend if she considered it “controversial” that Saddam Hussein had wanted to gas me?!  Having an enemy, once considered a “friend” who is still a neighbour, living in the next room in the same house is not something to be recommended!

Perhaps if I had told her these children were not Jewish, she might not have thought it controversial? After all, these lovely children who let me take their photo might have been Muslim or Christian. Would she then have minded that they too were threatened by Saddam’s chemical weapons, which he had incidentally used against Iran?!

It was such a mindless assertion by a British-born entirely secular Muslim of Iranian descent! So we can’t necessarily judge people’s views and values – for example, the extent to which they may justify extreme violence and evil against a certain religious, ethnic or national group – according to whether or not they are wearing the religious gear!  Other Iranians who have come into my life – Iranian-born secular Muslims – do not appear to hold such views! One only has to look at the Israel Loves Iran and Iran Loves Israel Facebook pages to see that there are plenty of people living in Iran who do not hold such views! I have read that there are a number of Iranians who are supportive of Israel especially in defiance of their own government.

To return to Oxford, two former housemates, one a Jewish doctoral student from Germany (whom I characterised as having a mouth like a sledge hammer, before Y showed me a true sledge-hammer mouth!), another a Norwegian PhD (“K”), (yes – we were a diverse lot! – probably unlike most of the undergrads!)  both commented that Y “isn’t political”, but, K wrote to me from Norway, she should know what she’s saying and who she’s talking to!  Surely she should have known what she was saying whoever she was talking to!  So:  “not political”, highly educated (in science), but expressing the view that the threat or use of chemical weapons on a group of human beings is “controversial” – i.e. “open to debate”, and having obviously come down on the side of the “controversy” that would state that this might be valid in the case of Jews in Israel, since there are people who don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist!  (So if we apply such a conclusion to the aforementioned poll, could it be that there are some “non-political” Muslims who  nevertheless find the threats and actions of Islamic extremists to be “controversial”, possibly justifiable?!)

Shortly after this incident, another housemate and friend, a British doctoral student of Nigerian descent, “L”, came into the kitchen one day, agitated and perturbed.  A stranger had stopped and asked directions, addressing her query to L’s “white” friend. L helpfully gave directions, but the stranger refused to acknowledge her, and asked further questions, continuing to address them to L’s friend, and to ignore L and her further attempts to be helpful. (It could not have been that she could not see or hear L, blessed with a resonant voice and a tall stature.)  This was offensive enough, but what troubled L perhaps even more was that her own friend had unconsciously cooperated with this, and then questioned and doubted whether the stranger’s behaviour had in fact been racist.

L was in a grumbling mood for which she apologised. I said it was OK – she was angry, and she was right to be, and this acceptance of the validity of her anger, and acknowledgement that she had in fact been subjected to racism, seemed to lift some of the burden away from her.

I then told her that Y and I were not speaking because she had said something anti-Semitic, and related the incident to her. “Ah!  But is that anti-Semitism?” L asked.  My expression must have been full of indignation and outrage.  As I opened my mouth to respond, she quickly answered her own question: “Of course it is, because it can never be right to use chemical weapons against anyone!”

I submitted the photo of the children with gas masks to the competition, and it was not selected to be displayed in my college common room!  These two photos were, however, displayed:

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Ethiopian Jewish boy who had just arrived in Israel in Operation Solomon in 1991, posing for me when he saw me with my camera!

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Shoeshine boy, Addis Abeba, 1992.  The colours in this photo are not right – when I had jpeg files created from the 21 year old negatives, I was told this is because the negatives had become “magenta” with age, but I don’t think that’s true!  I have the original photo somewhere…