Muslims are the ‘new Irish’

Muslims are the ‘new Irish’

What are the main myths or stereotypes you think are associated with Islam, why are these untrue and why do you think they are being put forward by the media or extreme right wing parties?

Islam is a violent religion, Islam does not give women equal rights, Muslims are terrorists, Muslim men are wife-beaters, Muslims refuse to integrate…..sounds familiar?

I believe that when it comes to myths and stereotypes, there are two parts. The myth is usually applicable to Islam as a faith and the stereotypes are applied to Muslims.

The ‘popular’ myth about Islam is usually focused on how the nature of the faith itself is violent and misogynistic which leads to the stereotype that its followers, particularly Muslim men are violent and misogynistic.

A photo of Muslims praying
Muslims praying in a mosque

However before I give the impression that Muslims are perfect, I have to add the caveat that Muslims are by no means a perfect group of people. Like any other group, we have our fair share of individuals who are nasty individuals and to be fair the Muslim community does not have the monopoly on such individuals.

Muslims are also a very diverse community in itself. We come from very different cultural backgrounds, social class, family structures. Our dress, diet, language and history differ from one another.

There are Christians, Hindus, Jews, agnostics and atheists who commit crimes however in today’s media it is rare that their faith is highlighted.

I was at an event last week launching a report on a Muslim Civic Society and one of the speakers was an Irish journalist. He spoke about how the Muslim community were the ‘new Irish’. One could easily swap that word Muslim for Irish in the media headlines and it would be a headline from the past.

It is human nature to want to blame someone/a group of people for when things go wrong and putting that blame on a group of people because they share a common characteristic is not new to British society. Not too long ago the Irish were the target community and now it has moved on to the Muslim community.

How do you think women’s roles in your community have changed? Is it becoming more equal, is there a need for more equality, what are some of the challenges that women face?

From a general perspective, the fight for equality between men and women still continues to this day. In 2012 women are still campaigning for equal pay and we have to fight against the glass ceiling.

A photo of Bazir Bhutto
Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, and the first woman elected to lead a Muslim state

Within the British Muslim community, we are seeing more Muslim women going into further education, embarking on professional careers and also being active in public life. Whilst that is progress compared to how things were 20 years ago, I do believe that within some homes, the struggle still continues where Muslim women and girls still have to deal with being treated differently from their male family members. This includes having to fight for equal access to education, social networks and general life choices. It has to be made clear that this is not a faith-based issue, it is a cultural issue and is linked to the cultural heritage of the family.

Islam has a rich history of strong and empowered Muslim women. We have a great example in our Prophet Muhammad’s (Peace be upon him) wife Khadija (may God be pleased with her) who was already a very successful business woman when he met her. We also have numerous female scholars who taught both men and women who went on to become great scholars themselves. We are from a faith that gave women the right to own their property, inherit etc even before women in the UK were awarded the same rights but somewhere along the line it got lost amongst some of its followers.

It isn’t however all doom and gloom, what is encouraging for me is that there is an increasing number of Muslim men who are joining the fight for justice and equality alongside Muslim women and would not hesitate to stand up for their Muslims sisters.

How do you think society views Muslim women? How do you feel about media sensationalism and negative claims that the Burqa is anti-British and claims that the men in the Rochdale case were influenced by Muslim culture?

There is a stereotype that Muslim women are oppressed, submissive, meek and don’t have a voice. My argument would be that you would be able to find the same ‘type’ of women in other faith and non-faith groups.

4 photos of different Muslim Women's groups
Women in Islam

The reality is that in every group of women, you will find a diversity of individuals who have to deal with different challenges in their lives. Wearing a headscarf or niqab does not automatically equate to a suppression of a woman’s rights; it is other people who do that.

I strongly believe that a woman has the right to choose the way she dresses. If she wants to wear a bikini, a mini-skirt, a maxi-dress, a shalwar khameez, a hat, a scarf or a veil, the choice is hers. My issue is when that choice is taken away from her and she is either compelled or forced to wear a certain item of clothing.

At the same time it is worth bearing in mind that there are sections of the British public who do have an adverse reaction to women who veil their faces and this attitude will not change overnight. Long-term work needs to be done on both sides of the fence i.e. those who have the adverse reaction to the veil and also those who force women to wear the veil to respect the concept of choice.

With regards to the issue of the Rochdale case and Muslim culture, I would ask what exactly is Muslim culture? Perhaps….just perhaps these are nasty human beings by nature and had they been following another faith i.e. Christianity or Hinduism..they would still do what they did.

The recent grooming cases have had an over-representation of Asian men, however in general the majority of convicted paedophiles in the UK are men from ‘white’ backgrounds. Should we start asking the question if there is something wrong with ‘white culture’? With my practitioner hat on, the questions I would ask in relation to the grooming cases is how do these gangs operate? Why is it that they are able to operate so well? Are there unique traits/characteristics within their upbringing or community which resulted in them acting as a group rather than as ‘lone’ individuals? I would also explore the issues around ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ and ask if their families did know what they were up to but chose to keep quiet because they did not want to bring shame upon the family.

In your of experience in supporting victims of forced marriage and honour related violence and domestic violence, are they becoming more sociably unacceptable?

Over the past few years more and more people from the within the community have spoken up against such practices indicating to me that it has become more socially unacceptable

However that does not mean that the community is at a place where they are able to support victims nor is it made easy for victims to access help.

We need to work in partnership with mainstream services to capacity build our communities and support the victim.

My advice to those who are well-meaning and who want to help make a difference, don’t attempt to solve the situation on your own. Make sure you ask for advice and support from practitioners who have case-handling experience. Sometimes what you deem as ‘good advice’ could easily cost somebody their life.

By Shereen Williams, Director (Projects & Strategy) of Henna Foundation

Disclaimer: The Henna Foundation  is a  registered charity committed to strengthening families within the Muslim Community. If you have been affected by issues such as family conflicts, forced marriage, domestic violence or cultural identity please visit their website at: for information, advice and support.

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