By Fatima Patel

Are we are so blinded by our differences, that we can’t see what unites us?

I was recently invited on the panel for a JUST West Yorkshire public Question and Answers session on community and civil society responses to the Paris Killings. The main purpose of the open debate was to hear the ordinary voices of the person on the street that had been missing from the international, national and regional coverage of recent events.

Being away from work for over the last fifteen months due to sickness had made me somewhat a recluse and initially I declined to join the panel, as I wasn’t fully ready to be back in the public spotlight. But then a thought crossed my mind – this wasn’t work, this is life.

In the wake of the Paris attacks on 8 January early this year it seems the Muslim community (a community I proudly belong to) is at the forefront of controversy, yet again.

FullSizeRender (1)Whilst every member of the Muslim community I have spoken to has categorically and unequivocally condemned the terrorist murders of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, judging by the Communities Minister, Eric Pickles recent letter to religious leaders, the spotlight still seems to be solely on the Muslim community to rid the world of terrorism and extremism.

That’s why such open public debates organised by JUST West Yorkshire, in partnership with Sharing Voices and Bradford’s Muslim Women’s Forum, are so important for tackling such emotionally charged issues.

The Director of JUST West Yorkshire, Ratna Lachman opened the debate to the packed out hall, by condemning the terrorist murders of journalists by the Kouachi brothers. However she highlighted the failure of the press and media to acknowledge the bravery of Lassana Bathilly, a Muslim employee who risked his life and led Jewish customers in a Jewish supermarket to safety. She also pointed out that the sacrifice of Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman who died in the line of duty protecting the Charlie Hebdo office, had been largely ignored.

Ratna went on to say that terrorism does not discriminate: “The victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack were Muslims as well as white journalists. So it’s important we remember that terrorism does not respect anybody.”

Ratna warned against pitting the Paris killings as a western ‘Us’ and a Muslim ‘Them’ and said that such a “dangerous binary is polarising and implies that somehow Islam is incompatible with western values and the freedom of expression. We know that the victims of the Arab spring were fighting for those same freedoms that the Charlie Hebdo journalists died for. So it’s important we don’t pose this dangerous binary that divides communities.”

There was general agreement  from the audience that the attacks had impacted profoundly on the Muslim community and it wasn’t down to Muslims to apologise for terrorist murders they were not responsible for. There were powerful testimonies of women in hijab being targeted in the immediate aftermath of the Paris killings and there was genuine fear that hate crime would increase. The failure of world governments, including our leaders to acknowledge the murder of innocents in Peshawar and Nigeria by terrorist groups highlighted double standards in the West’s response to terrorist murders.

Gordon Clubb, who is a lecturer in International security at the University of Leeds and Director for the Terrorism & Political Violence Association said “90% of the people who are killed are Muslims so when you look at groups like the ISIS, I don’t think anyone would agree with them. It’s about understanding and appreciating different identities”.

Alyas Karmani, Chair of JUST West Yorkshire, highlighted that it was outrageous to accuse 1.6 billion Muslims of being inherently violent. He warned that it risked creating a divisive narrative of a clash of civilisations and reminded the audience that ‘1.4million people that have been killed as a result of the war on terror are Muslims, however, 5% of the non-Muslims who have died have received 95% of the coverage.”

Alyas highlighted Western culpability in the rise of terrorism across the world. He argued that both the war on terror and terrorist attacks are part of “a multi-billion pound  arms industry”.  While groups like “ISIS, like Boko Haram and Taliban should be condemned” he urged the audience to remember that” the biggest victims of these groups happen to be Muslims”. So we need to change that paradigm to one which normalises rather than exceptionalises Muslims.”

The exchanges made me reflect on the difficult issue of whether it is ever possible to balance the freedom of speech with the right to offend the Muslim community. As a newspaper editor, I fully support freedom of speech, but I firmly believe that rights come with responsibilities. . If you intentionally report knowing you will cause offence to a community, you should expect there to be a backlash. However in the case of the Charlie Hebdo, the journalists paid dearly with their lives and I am outraged at the spilling of innocent blood. The taking of human lives  cannot be condoned in the Islamic faith and it belittles the Prophet’s legacy.

I recall an incident in 2012, when one of my entertainment reporters covered an interview with the lead actor of the film, Midnight’s Children. The film adaptation of the book, written by Salman Rushdie in 1981, dealt with India’s transition from a British colony to an independent country following the partition of the British India.

I was personally targeted by a few hundred readers in a hostile social media campaign and accused of promoting Salman Rushdie against whom a fatwa had been declared.. They felt that I had insulted Muslims by promoting Rushdie’s work in my newspaper, despite the fact that I had not made any reference to the contents of Midnight’s Children in the article and was only seeking to establish why the lead actor had chosen to star in a film written by a controversial writer. I was told that if I did not apologise they would call for a boycott  of my paper and there would be a burning session of our newspapers outside my office.

The campaign against my paper and the personal threats went on for weeks and I was accused of being anti-Islam despite being a strong adherent of my faith. We ultimately resolved this in a spirit of open dialogue and through joint discussions I came to understand why they would take offense to the promotion of Salman Rushdie’s work and they understood that there was no malice or desire to offend. My detractors and I have since worked together on many issues affecting communities and we have developed a constructive working relationship.

The incident although harrowing for me at the time and offensive to them, created an opportunity to have a dialogue and understand one another better and today there is mutual respect and support.

As a Muslim community we have come a long way from the Salman Rushdie ‘Satanic verses’ incident in 1989. The Muslim community make up a third of the world population contrary to what we read in some of the papers. We are a peaceful, law abiding, well-integrated and philanthropic community. Despite painting Muslims as un-British, recent polls have shown that British Muslims are more patriotic than any other faith group.

The invasion of Britain First into our mosques in May 2014 is a clear example of our tolerance towards injustice and provocation. The continuous attacks on our beloved prophet and our faith and the continuous apologies we are expected to make for the very small minority of terrorists who kill in the name of Islam, is unreasonable. We mourn the 95% of Muslim lives that have died in the war on terror just as we mourn the lives of non-Muslims who have been killed by terrorists.

The issue of extremism and terrorism is going to be with us for a long time to come and we have many challenges ahead of us. My own experience in the Midnight’s Children episode, gives me optimism that we can find unity in difference.

That too was the message of the important meeting I was present at: there was a call for Muslim unity and tolerance and there was also a clear appeal to broader civil society and the government to stand alongside its Muslim community. As the Chair of the meeting, Ratna Lachman reminded us in her closing statement: “We have one world, one humanity and one life and we all have a personal responsibility to create a just, equal and peaceful world.”