Excerpt: They by Sarfraz Manzoor
In this extract from his fiercely urgent account of life in modern, Muslim Britain, Sarfraz Manzoor tells the surprising story of a conversation between York Mosque and the EDL
If we want to build a bridge across the divide and challenge the fears stoked by the far right, this bridge will be built from greater understanding and interaction. In May 2013, the elders of York Mosque learnt that the EDL were planning a protest outside the mosque. Muhammad el-Gomati, a lecturer at York University, decided to take the initiative. ‘We realised that we did not fully understand the EDL stance in York and, from what we could make out, they did not fully understand us either,’ he wrote in an opinion piece for the Guardian.
'It was up to us to provide an atmosphere that was representative of our culture. When I say 'our culture', I mean all of us, including the EDL and the members of the mosque. We all think of sitting down with a cup of tea as something quintessentially English, so we thought that offering a cup of good old-fashioned Yorkshire tea and hospitality would be a start.' He decided to organise an open day to coincide with the EDL protest. Around 200 local residents accepted an open invitation to the mosque to enjoy tea, biscuits and a chat with their Muslim neighbours. A small gathering of EDL members also arrived to protest outside the mosque. They were eventually approached, and a heated argument ensued.
"Around 200 local residents accepted an open invitation to the mosque to enjoy tea, biscuits and a chat with their Muslim neighbours"
After a short while, a tray of tea and biscuits was sent over and EDL members accepted the invitation to join the others for a drink. With cups of tea lowering tensions, a few members of the protesting group were invited into the mosque and shown around. ‘When we listened, we realised the EDL may have thought that we supported extremist behaviour and the Taliban,’ el-Gomati wrote. ‘We pointed out that we condemned both in the strongest terms. Assumptions are dangerous, untested assumptions can be lethal. They were surprised, and they understood. The day ended in a game of football.’
Interaction and understanding. I started this chapter with Ivan’s story of joining the EDL. In 2012 he learnt that the Muslim community in Ipswich had bought a church and the rumour was that it was going to be turned into a so-called mega mosque. Ivan decided he would pay the leader of the mosque a visit. ‘I went up to him and said: “I’m Ivan Humble from the EDL. I’m the regional organiser for around here. You’ve just bought a church and I’ve heard it’s going to be a super mosque—can you prove me wrong?'. The man he contacted was Manwar Ali. ‘He told me there’s a council meeting that I’ve got to go to about this community centre,’ Ivan says, ‘he said, “'You can come along—some of your lads can come along.” So eight of us went to this meeting. Manwar was telling me the truth. The church was going to be a community centre for everybody so because he told me the truth I wanted to learn more, so we just started talking.’ Ivan and Manwar begun a conversation that would last two years, the pair meeting every fortnight, with Ivan sharing his concerns and Manwar explaining they were misconceptions. He associated sharia law, for example, with barbaric punishments involving dismemberment. I could hardly blame him—for years that was what I believed sharia law meant.
I assumed ‘sharia’ was a synonym for ‘barbaric’ or ‘medieval’, when it actually refers to the system of laws that determine how Muslims lead every aspect of their lives. The word ‘sharia’ has been weaponised by the far right, who claim that Muslims want to impose sharia law in their adopted homelands. A 2019 poll revealed that two-thirds of Conservative Party members believed parts of Britain operated under sharia law.
"The word ‘sharia’ has been weaponised by the far right, who claim that Muslims want to impose sharia law in their adopted homelands"
'For most Muslims [sharia law] is about births, marriages and deaths,’ writes Sayeeda Warsi. ‘Britain has been accommodating Sharia law and religious practice for Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and others for decades.’ I am no Muslim scholar and I had not believed I had any personal involvement in sharia law, but then I remembered that I had had a nikah—Islamic wedding—so perhaps that counted as adhering to sharia law. When my children were born, I found someone with more Muslim knowledge than me to whisper some words from the Qur’an in their ears. I was told this was a ritual that Muslims did, so perhaps that too was following sharia law. It is hard to scare folks with the benign reality of these examples, which is perhaps why they are not better known. ‘I’m not bothered by it any more,’ Ivan says. ‘I now realise sharia law is a way of life—it tells you how to cut your fingernails and everything. Cutting off your hands (the punishment for stealing) is after about twelve other chances—it’s the final, final act they can do. Realising that that’s not going to come here and be affecting me was a big thing.’
The more Ivan talked and listened, the more he began to question his views on Islam. ‘When I was talking about the religion [in the EDL], I was cherry-picking verses of the Qur’an,’ he says. ‘It is like the same as extremists do on the other side, they cherry-pick the Qur’an.’ He recalls attending a demonstration in Slough towards the end of 2013. ‘I remember walking on it and thinking this ain’t for me no more. Some of the chants people were saying—I thought I can’t say this shit no more because I now had Muslim friends and it felt disrespectful to say some of them things now.’ So, Ivan made a decision: he left the EDL.
"The more Ivan talked and listened, the more he began to question his views on Islam"
The reason he left, in short, seems to be that he actually met some real-life Muslims who were able to correct him on some of his prejudices. I am around the same age as Ivan and it made me wonder if we had lived on the same street as children, if we had played sport on the street and he had gotten to know me and my family as neighbours who also happened to be Muslims, how likely did he think it was that he would have joined the EDL? ‘I can’t say I wouldn’t have done,’ he says, ‘but it would’ve helped me a lot. I wouldn’t have stereotyped all Muslims if I had that better understanding.’
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