*Repost*: Terrorist vs. Terraced – Do Muslims really have free speech?

Almost a year ago, Aasiyah Faryal wrote about the implications of a child’s innocent mistake. To an extent, with everything that’s going on in the world, and has been over the last few years, it’s still relevant – unfortunately. Read on to see what she had to say…

In the news last Wednesday was a story about a child and his spelling mistake, essentially. But the implications of this mistake were huge: instead of writing that he lived in a ‘terraced’ house, the 10 year old boy wrote that he lived in a ‘terrorist’ house.

While you can go and read about the story itself, as broken and covered by the BBC here, this post is not about the story itself, but more about its connotations in the wider world. It became the subject of the BBC Asian Network’s phone-in show, hosted by Nihal, on 20/1/2016.

On the day, I called into the show, because this topic was both interesting and, at least to me, highlighted a worrying pattern: it was the third Islam/Muslim-related topic of the week, and when I say related, I mean it had a negative connotation associated with the question posed.

I was asked, in relation to the course that I’m studying, whether I feel paranoid in relation to what I can or can’t say in open discussion, or whether that was something that was applicable more to primary and secondary school: I actually think, and I currently feel, that I’m (the first person being used in a general term, as in not specifically me but also my other Muslims peers around me) ‘watched for what I say’ and it is more applicable to me as a university student than it would be to any other age group. My reasoning for this comes from various influences: firstly, university is always considered to be the starting place for ‘radical’ (read here ‘different’/’new’/’contrary to the establishment’) thinking  and where it is encouraged, in effect to make changes to society (whether this assumption is true or not, is left for both university staff and students themselves to consider). Secondly, and almost as a result of the first influence, we have seen that ‘young adults’, especially those in the sixth form and university states, seem to be targeted (as well as children, but child radicalisation is another topic for another day), as they are more impressionable and more susceptible to absorbing new/’foreign’ ideas. Thirdly, and perhaps – personally – the most important influence was anecdotal evidence: I have heard of a case in which a university student was reading a book on terrorism, was reported for doing so and thus picked up on by counter-terrorist police. The irony in this story lies in the fact that this student was studying counter-terrorism law, so the book he was reading was in fact relevant to his course. In the same way (relating it back to myself), as part of my own degree it is part of my responsibility to criticise what’s going on in the Middle East, but the way things are going now, it’s so difficult to do so: I don’t feel like I can freely express my own opinions without feeling like it’s going to be noted down somewhere. Nihal pointed out that the academic community are worried about this, because they have said that inviting extremist speakers is part of the debate, because they can then be challenged – there’s no point in speaking to people everyone agrees with. He went on though, to note that “it’s very scary that you, as a fresher are at university, and are already thinking that you can’t express yourself, especially academically.” For me, thinking now about my future, I feel that it’s to some extent true, because there are other aspects of what’s going on now that I’m looking to study in terms of postgraduate studies and my own research, but I feel sometimes, as a Muslim, I can’t do that without knowing that I’m going to be watched extremely carefully, or potentially prevented from doing so, just due to the nature of what’s going on and coincidentally my link to it in terms of my faith. My fears are perhaps exemplified best in the reaction to Reza Aslan writing his book ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’. Summarised, this reaction suggests that, being a Muslim, Aslan couldn’t have had a neutral angle, despite the fact that he’s a qualified academic on his subject – I fear that I may not even be able to reach the level of a qualified academic without feeling that some sort of obstacle may be put in my way.

In terms of the story itself, I remember watching a news piece, I think done by Priyanka Deladia for BBC News in which a mother did say that she was afraid of sending her child out to school for fear that they may say something which they construe to be perfectly innocent, but which might be misinterpreted. In Rahila’s piece she writes that “Critics argue teachers are overreacting for fear of breaking the law, rather than using their common sense,” and this is actually true.

If you look at social media, which, granted, isn’t that brilliant in terms of an opinion poll, but for now will have to suffice, then you can see that a lot of people are afraid of saying what they may consider to be the ‘wrong’ thing. Even discussing IS, criticising the government or government policy as a Muslim is difficult, for fear of sounding like ‘the jihadi next door’. Essentially, this fear of saying the wrong thing is a everywhere, not just in schools or universities, but in life in general.

Related links:

BBC – Police investigate schoolboy ‘terrorist’ spelling error

BBC – ‘Terrorist house’ boy ‘became isolated’

BBC – Lancashire ‘terrorist house’ row ‘not a spelling mistake’

BBC Asian Network Phone-in Show – 20/1/2016 (04:47-01:01:06)

Image credits – The Backbencher

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