An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week by Andy Ngo entitled “A Visit to Islamic England“. It caused a storm on Twitter because it was massively Islamophobic.
Well, actually it wasn’t. Or rather, technically it wasn’t. He writes about his account of a recent visit to two Muslim communities in the UK and I have no doubt that every observation he makes is true.
It may all be true, but that is not the same thing as being honest.
I am going to look paragraph by paragraph, and in some places sentence by sentence, at the ways in which the author says Islamophobic things, without saying Islamophobic things.
I cannot comment on what motivated Andy Ngo because I do not know him, however, I will do my best to imagine what he must have been thinking as he sat down to write it:
Other tourists may remember London for its spectacular sights and history, but I remember it for Islam. When I was visiting the U.K. as a teenager in 2006, I got lost in an East London market. There I saw a group of women wearing head-to-toe black cloaks. I froze, confused and intimidated by the faceless figures. It was my first encounter with the niqab, which covers everything but a woman’s eyes.
Should I write “puzzled and uncertain” or “confused and intimidated”? I guess that depends on my target audience.
This summer, I found myself heading back to the U.K. as it was plunging into a debate over Islamic dress. Boris Johnson, the country’s former foreign secretary and London’s ex-mayor, wrote a column opposing attempts to ban face-covering veils. Nonetheless, he added, “it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.” The responses could hardly have been more heated.
Which phrase should I include from Boris Johnson’s 1,000 word article on the niqab? If I quote the most controversial one then I can say it without really saying it.
I wanted to cut past the polemics and experience London’s Muslim communities for myself. My first visit was to Tower Hamlets, an East London borough that is about 38% Muslim, among the highest in the U.K. As I walked down Whitechapel Road, the adhan, or call to prayer, echoed through the neighborhood. Muslims walked in one direction for jumu’ah, Friday prayer, while non-Muslims went the opposite way.
I’ll imply that non-Muslims are being scared away, when actually they were just heading in the other direction anyway. And ‘echoed’ makes it sound loud and intrusive.
Each group kept its distance and avoided eye contact with the other.
I won’t mention that no-one in London made eye contact with me.
A sign was posted on a pole: “Alcohol restricted zone.”
I’ll say “posted” to make it sound like an scrawled note taped to the pole when in reality it was an official sign found in most British towns and cities.
Women and girls were dressed in hijabs, niqabs and abayas (robes).
Should I say how many were wearing jeans or wore their hair out? Better not.
Some of the males wore skullcaps and thawbs, Arabic tunics, with their trousers tailored just above the ankles as per Muhammad’s example.
Thawbs sounds so much more exotic when it is italics. I’ll just have to hope no-one notices that most trousers are tailored just above the ankle. Better mention Muhammad here just in case they forgot about him.
The scene could have been lifted out of Riyadh, a testament to the Arabization of Britain’s South Asian Muslims.
Apart from the white vans and the William Hill around the corner, obviously.
At the barbershop, women waited outside under the hot sun while their sons and husbands were groomed.
“The women waited outside a barber shop for their men on a lovely sunny day, rather than sit inside surrounded by hairy, sweaty men”? No, that sounds too reasonable. Must try fit in a ‘groomed’ reference somewhere here as well – alludes to paedophiles as well as making them sound pampered and lazy.
Inside the East London Mosque, visitors were expected to dress “modestly.”
Better put “modestly” in air-quotes. Their “modestly” isn’t your modestly, if you know what I mean?
Headscarves were provided at reception for any woman who showed up without one.
It was very thoughtful of them.
A kind man on staff showed me around the men’s quarters.
I liked the way his eyes sparkled.
He gave me a bag filled with booklets about Islam. In one, Muslims are encouraged to “re-establish the Shari’ah,” or Islamic law. Those who ignore this mandate are “of little worth to any society.”
I better not mention that most of those books were self-published tosh that even lots of Muslims struggle to take seriously.
That night, I visited the Houses of Parliament. Rifle-carrying police officers greeted me when I stepped out of the Tube. The extra security was mobilized in response to last year’s car and stabbing attack in Westminster by Khalid Masood, who killed five people. Outside the station, there are roadblocks along Westminster Bridge and a new security fence in front of the palace yard. I asked an officer about Masood’s attack. “I’d rather not talk about it,” he replied. “I was there that day.”
In case anyone forgot that Muslims do bad things.
Forty-eight hours later, I woke up to the news that a car had rammed a Westminster security barrier. Police arrested Salih Khater, a 29-year-old Sudanese refugee who had been given asylum and British citizenship. Three people were injured in the attack. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, expressed support for banning vehicles from parts of Parliament Square.
And I have to put that in somewhere. I should also remind people that the Mayor of London has a Muslim-y name.
Next I visited Leyton, another district in East London where some Muslim social norms prevail. An Arab cafe near the Tube station was filled with men; no women were inside.
Just like that Wetherspoons I went to for breakfast.
An Islamic bookstore sold hijab-wearing dolls for children. The dolls had blank, featureless faces, since human depictions are prohibited in conservative Islam.
I think everyone would agree that they are a bit creepy.
I stopped outside the Masjid al-Tawhid, a South Asian Salafi mosque and madrassa (school), just before afternoon prayer time. A group of girls in robes and veils walked around back, toward the dumpsters, where the women’s entrance is located.
How can I make it sound like women are considered garbage in Muslim communities without actually saying it?
I later saw the Islamic Shari’a Council of Leyton. This community has religious, educational, business and legal institutions to maintain a separate identity.
But no legal powers.
All this gave me pause. But I was unprepared for what I would see next in Luton, a small town 30 miles north of London and the birthplace of the English Defense League, which has held unruly anti-Muslim demonstrations.
What word best describes a violent, thuggish mob? Unruly!
At the Central Mosque, I met a friendly group of Punjabi-speaking young men.
This one had a great smile.
“You’ve come to see Luton?” one struggled to ask me in English.
To be fair, he did a better job with English than I did with Punjabi.
The young men asked me to follow them through the town center.
This is also the first sentence of my erotic novel.
Within minutes, we walked by three other mosques, which were vibrant and filled with young men coming and going. We passed a church, which was closed and decrepit, with a window that had been vandalized with eggs.
I wonder who threw eggs at the church? Nudge. Wink. No, seriously, I have no idea who threw them.
We squeezed by hundreds of residents busy preparing for the Eid al-Adha holiday.
“Squeezed” will make it sound overcrowded: it was busy but I couldn’t be bothered to count.
Girls in hijabs gathered around tables to paint henna designs on their hands. All the businesses had a religious flair: The eateries were halal, the fitness center was sex-segregated, and the boutiques displayed “modest” outfits on mannequins.
Must get in a few more obvious differences and make sure I use some more unnecessary quotation marks again.
Pakistani flags flew high and proud. I never saw a Union Jack.
It was Pakistan Independence Day after all. And the only place in the entire country that I saw a Union Jack was at Buckingham Palace, and even that wasn’t very big.
The men finally led me to a discreet building that housed a small Islamic center. They spoke privately to its imam. I was led upstairs to see him. The imam asked me if I was prepared to convert. Apparently there had been some miscommunication with the young men.
That makes them sound stupid. Probably couldn’t understand English, either…
I told the imam I wasn’t ready for that, but I would appreciate any literature I could take home. He led me to a bookshelf and said I could have whatever I wanted. I grabbed the first booklet that was in English.
He was very generous. There were a lot of books in English but saying “first” makes it sound like there weren’t many others.
It was by Zakir Naik, a fundamentalist preacher from India. “The Qur’an says that Hijab has been prescribed for the women,” the booklet explained in one section, “so that they are recognised as modest women and this will also prevent them from being molested.”
Gosh I was lucky that this was the first one I chose! If it was on his bookshelf then he agree with it?
Other tourists might remember London for Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus and Big Ben. I’ll remember it for its failed multiculturalism. Or perhaps this is what successful multiculturalism looks like.
Always leave them on a cliff-hanger…
I did encounter some very nice people, who showed me around their mosque, and gave me a free book; I wasn’t threatened, attacked or blown-up in any way, and I actually got to see some vibrant places, families celebrating Eid and the colourful traditions of a different culture. Maybe my Visit to Islamic England wasn’t so bad after all?