In 2006, Robert Fisk, the Independent’s Middle Eastern correspondent, delivered a cautionary speech to an audience at the Islamic Society of North America, in which he recalled being on a trans-Atlantic flight on September 11th, 2001. After learning about the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks, his immediate response was to notify the pilot about what was transpiring on the eastern coast of the States. The two deemed it necessary to assure that the aircraft was not another target and so, proceeded to conduct an inspection of their fellow passengers.
Subsequently, the two singled out 27 men in total, profiled “because they had darker skin than us, or brown eyes, or had beards, or were reading a Qur’an, or using prayer beads, or were looking at me suspiciously, because I was looking at them suspiciously.” It was upon reflection that Fisk realised that the assailants of these attacks had succeeded for several reasons. First was that Bin Laden had not simply split the east and the west, but more importantly “the innocent from the innocent”. He concluded by criticising himself, for allowing a few fundamentalists for turning “nice liberal Bob on this aircraft into a racist, hunting for his racist enemies.”
However, for all of the criticism he heaped upon his own momentary slip into prejudice, he doubled for the official American line, as its politicians and media outlets decided to insist that the heinous crimes of a few men, changed the attitudes of the many. It became the first great generalisation of the 21st century, intensified on a broader western scale, where once it was a tool of US media sensationalism surrounding the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution.
As their numbers dropped, the racial jokes grew, essentially labelling them as terrorists.
This new incarnation of the Islamic bias stuck with such ease to the extent that I remember, during my time in primary school, when many of my classmates, oblivious to the fact that we had six Muslim pupils in the same room, began to use the terms “Arab” and “Muslim” as insults. Our teachers never said anything to sway opinion, never mind when one kid actually decided to ask:
“Miss, is it true that the Mozzies…”
“Right, is it true that the Muslims are going to attack Sellafield and kill us all?”
“Well, I don’t really know. Maybe, what did the news say?”
In the three years that followed, each of our Muslim classmates began to depart, when their doctoral parents transferred to hospitals elsewhere, and as their numbers dropped, the racial jokes grew, essentially labelling them as terrorists. Our class never received a lesson in how to discern a fanatic from a person. Our teachers let everything slide and it simply became “us against them”, we were given to opportunity to permit our views being hijacked, allowing everything to change, from New York City to St. Canice’s parish, Kilkenny.
I am equally as guilty of the blind ignorance, which I sought to challenge.
This annoyance never left me, as the same sentiment appeared time and time again, although one of the most memorable came in late 2014, after I visited the Ahlul Bayt Islamic Centre in Milltown, to speak with the Shia Imam, Ali al-Saleh. At a family gathering, two of my relatives began to ask me questions about the article, before one of them simply stated, “Well, how can you believe a word that they say? They’re all maniacs.”
In response, I attempted to explain the distinct difference between Shi’ism and Sunni Islam, but more importantly, recognising the violent fundamentalism of the latter. However, it fell upon deaf ears, not that I ever believed that any reasoning would make a shred of difference, as the two pairs of once attentive eyes began to glaze over. Yet, if you might assume that this is a case of me stating that I am right and everybody else is wrong, then I can assure you that this is false. I am equally as guilty of the blind ignorance, which I sought to challenge.
In late January, exactly one week after Gardaí apprehended a suspected French-Algerian jihadist in Dublin Airport’s Terminal 2, I sat on a bus travelling from the city to Kilkenny. Reading about the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, my attention turned to the sound of two men arguing in Arabic, seated in front and behind me. As the journey progressed, their debate died down, and the carriage slowly emptied until there were maybe six people left.
At this point, the man behind me began to converse in English with another young Trinity student, who attempted to mask his clear shock at the fact that this man’s father was simultaneously married to two women. As if a doe eyed student in a nightclub attempting to act square as another guy attempted to persuade him into purchasing a pill, their conversation awkwardly clunked on for about twenty minutes, until the bus stopped in Carlow. The student leapt up, shaking this man’s hand, before mumbling something utterly incomprehensible and finally, moved with haste off the bus.
The wheels started up again, the road became increasingly rugged and the man leaned forward a little, glancing in my direction as I was reading. We hit a bump, my book slipped and I swore aloud, to which he responded, “Irish roads.”
I laughed slightly, reaching down to pick up my book, about the Shia militarist Muqtada al-Sadr, whose face, I remember caused me to receive funny looks in JFK airport on the previous Labour Day weekend, when Homeland Security announced a red alert in New York City. Once again, the “Well, he’s a radical Shi’ite” assurance made no shred of a difference, however, for once, on this Irish bus, I received a rare question without any6 paranoid overtone.
“You like Islam?” said the man.
I turned around, to see him beaming behind a thick black beard as he gestured towards the cover.
“Absolutely. Most important thing to learn about at present.”
I told him that I had a copy, while deliberately forgetting to mention that I was atheist, and the one time I cited a religious text in an essay, my examiner nearly had a counterfactual conniption.
He grinned, before asking about my background. I explained that I was studying history, to which he immediately took a keen interest, inquiring as to whether the Middle East ever featured in my course. When I said that the previous year, I had a module on the subject in the context of World War II, we began to engage in a discussion about everything, from the Anglo-Soviet occupation of Iran, to the Jewish Lehi terrorist group, until the topic of Shi’ism came up, which he swiftly dismissed. The was a momentary pause, and then I asked,
“So can I ask about what you think about the news, y’know regarding King Abdullah?”
To this, he said nothing, but let off a big smile, before saying:
“As a history student, brother, I think the most important resource you should study is the Qur’an.”
I told him that I had a copy, while deliberately forgetting to mention that I was atheist, and the one time I cited a religious text in an essay, my examiner nearly had a counterfactual conniption. He grinned again, before yanking out of his pocket a small pamphlet, which he had read earlier, entitled “Science in Islam” that I recognised from the Mosque on the South Circular Road.
“Read this, my brother, we must all understand the importance of Islam, don’t you think.”
Thanking him, I agreed, before inquiring into his own life, as a student, which he had ambiguously mentioned earlier. Telling me that he was studying computer science in Dublin, while never actually mentioning the institute where he enrolled, instead he began to ask about where one could study the same course elsewhere in Ireland. My answer was an aimless list of names, trailing off until he interrupted me by asking about Kilkenny, where he and his friend intended to get off.
“I have only been in Ireland three months and we want to go to Kilkenny to visit a friend in the countryside. Where do we stop?”
His friend turned around, spoke to him in Arabic, and the two asked for directions to navigate the area. The bus came to a halt at Kilkenny’s train station and we all off-loaded. They shook my hands, wishing me well, before the talkative man reminded me to study the Qur’an once more.
I was guilty of profiling, falling foul of Robert Fisk’s warning that we should not allow a terrorist to dictate how we look at people.
As I began to walk away in a relatively upbeat mood, all of a sudden a rush of thoughts came into my mind, first about the Terminal 2 arrests, then about Ali al-Saleh’s statements in the media, warning that Ireland was a safe-haven for Islamic fundamentalists and then, about the attacks in Paris and Sydney. My attitude became one of suspicion, which a handful of people, whom I would later recount the encounter to, agreed, before suggesting whether I ought to report it and so, another effect of the American media viewpoint (“See Something, Say Something”) came back to Kilkenny, only this time, by my own hand.
Now, as I write this, exactly a month later, I am still unsure about what on Earth I could do, or think. For some reason, whether it was suspicious, or not, seems of little importance to me. I am more startled at how easy it was for me to cave, creating hundreds of possible subsequent news stories in my head, on the basis of a friendly conversation, where the absence of certain words enabled me to fill in the gaps with various subtexts, all of which I am ashamed to admit.
A few fanatics, I permitted to hijack my opinion, allowing me to create a line of divide. I was guilty of profiling, falling foul of Robert Fisk’s warning that we should not allow a terrorist to dictate how we look at people. The sole piece of consolation that I could tell myself was that this was a normal way to think, although I almost added, “It’s okay” to that thought, which pissed me off all over again.
I could say I am sorry, but that does not and cannot excuse what I did, which was an offensive projecting of my own blind idiocy, permitting myself to believe in something that was not there. I had a pleasant conversation with an amicable man, and decided to think the worst of him, because of what a group of killers did elsewhere in the world. I wanted an answer and reached for the easiest one to hand.
All I can say is not to make the same mistake that I did. 99.9% of the time, you will be wrong. Yet, unless you have actual proof to state your claim, what is the use in saying “better prejudiced than sorry” when you are simply playing into the hands of a group of assholes who populate both sides of the conflict? Now is not the time to take sides, stay where you are and remember that nothing has changed.