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Reflections of a Peacemaker

Thursday, 22. September 2011

Nargees Choudhury is a law student in London. She is also a teacher at the Islamia Girl’s School in North/West London. She was one of the young European Muslim ‘Peacemakers’ participating in the Multicultural World conference organized by Initiatives of Change in Caux, Switzerland, July 2011.

'The day I felt safer with members of the English Defence League than I did with my own Muslim brothers...'

Nargees Choudhury under bannerAfter much deliberation and a little heated debate, a small group of peacemakers decided to mark the historic event of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks with a peace table outside the American Embassy. This day was always going to be highly publicised, emotionally charged and tribute filled. Located right in the heart of central London, and within walking distance of one of the areas targeted in the 7/7 London bombings, the American Embassy wasn’t just an empty figurehead of a location, but one that seemed to be connected to the 9/11 tragedy in a much more meaningful and interconnected way. Our agenda was simple: we wished to express our deepest sympathies for the families of the 9/11 victims and to condemn terrorism (whether perpetrated by a network of terrorists such as Al-Qaeda or state-led campaigns) in all its multifaceted forms. 

By chance, perhaps, I stumbled across an article in the Metro (London free newspaper) on the way to work, a week ahead of the much anticipated/dreaded anniversary. The article explained how the Muslims Against the Crusades (MAC - an Islamic extremist group) had also had the bright idea of holding, not a peace table but a demonstration outside the American Embassy - on the very same day! Soon after, it was announced (albeit through the grapevine) that the English Defence League (EDL -a far-right anti-Islamic group) were also intending an impromptu visit to the same location. This seriously complicated things. Our originality in shatters, we heatedly debated (as heated as a peacemaker can get) whether or not to go ahead with our plans. We considered issues such as safety, whether our initial agenda could be maintained in this new climate of hate and we also considered the appropriateness of our presence on such a heart-rendering day reserved for the bereaved. Despite harbouring some serious reservations we decided to go ahead with the plan. We understood it would be important to strike a delicate balance, as we were not going there to preach religious dogma, nor did we harbour or wish to espouse a political agenda, we simply wanted to convey a message of peace. 

The big day arrived and we were all a little tired from the last minute preparations of the night before. Banners, leaflets, mini peace-cards, CDs and booklets in stow, we made our way to our destination. We arrived to find the Embassy cordoned off and a strong police presence. At our request, we were directed to the location where the MAC and EDL were demonstrating. We could hear the hate speech delivered through the megaphones even before we arrived (so too, presumably, could the families of the 9/11 victims who were holding a private ceremony a few hundred meters away). To my surprise, we were not the only peace-agents who had decided to protest against the MAC madness! There were a handful of others, and I felt some relief knowing we were not alone. As they stood there peacefully waving their banners it suddenly struck me that they were standing side-by-side with the EDL. This was not by choice, of course, the limitations in space meant MAC members were on one side and everyone else, be it journalists, spectators, peacemakers, EDL members, were on the opposing side - together. 

As we set up our peace table and joined ranks with the other peacemakers the strangest thing happened: members of the EDL came over to express their gratitude for our decision to attend and protest against MAC. It was almost surreal. The EDL members explained that they understood not all Muslims were identical and certainly not as unhinged as MAC, and at that moment I realised that not all EDL members formed one monolithic community either. Having said this, I also recognised that the EDL were far from being champions of ethnic minority rights and were in many ways the flip side of the MAC. 

I decided to take hold of some of the banners we had made and hold them up in the direct line of vision of the MAC members (we were separated by a police line). I received a great many death stares and one man in particular, with his face covered, kept signing to me that I was crazy: I found the irony of this incredibly amusing. Another MAC member looked at me and pointed to a sign that showed women and children covered in blood and clearly injured (presumably the wounded in Iraq/Afghanistan). The message was clear, and it sounded familiar: ‘you’re either with us or with the enemies’. As if balaclava boy couldn’t work out that I no more supported the wars in the East than I did the senseless terrorist attacks in the West. I noticed how I was attracting more attention from the MAC than the EDL were, even though they were far greater in number. It soon dawned upon me that I was the only blatant Muslim (via my Hijab) and the impact of this was profound. The MAC, it seemed, were accustomed and even comfortable with EDL demonstrations against their hate speech, but for one of their own (and a woman at that) standing side-by-side with the EDL to publicly reject their message was a lot more hard-hitting. 

I returned to the table and I suddenly felt an incredible sense of shame dawn upon me. I felt like my religion had been hijacked by a group of angry young imbeciles. I felt betrayed by the wider Muslim community for their passivity. I felt annoyed with myself for having lain dormant for so long. I even felt annoyance towards the state for having allowed the demonstration to take place at all. When the call to prayer (adhaan) was made it sent chills down my spine. The one universal call, the beautiful adhaan, which usually impacts the heart and hastens the soul to prayer had been stripped of all its spirituality, an empty menacing voice echoed into my ears instead. More shame descended upon me after the EDL started chanting ‘SCUM’ ‘SCUM’ ‘SCUM’ and the ‘sophisticated’ response of the MAC was flung back ‘YOUR MUM’ ‘YOUR MUM’ ‘YOUR MUM’. 

A bottle was thrown and it was time to go. As we walked away I felt sadder than I had in a very long time. We lay flowers down in remembrance of the deceased and headed back towards Bond Street station. I noticed how the shoppers seemed completely oblivious to everything that was going on only a few roads away; getting to Selfridges, it seemed, was of far greater importance. In the days following the protest, our normal routines re-established and the memories of the protest beginning to fade, a sole thought hounded me. A feeling I shall never forget. It was the day I felt safer with the EDL than I did with my own Muslim brothers.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.