Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan on Islamophobia, storytelling, and the politics of existing.
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Suhaiymah – thank you for speaking to me. Your latest book, Tangled in Terror: Uprooting Islamophobia, is written with such clarity. It’s really validating, as a Muslim woman, to have someone say exactly what you’re thinking. My first question is simple but not: how would you describe Tangled in Terror, and in what way does it differ from your previous work?
Firstly, thank you. That means a lot to hear. My previous work has tended quite explicitly to use poetry and creative methods to express and articulate grievances – particularly political grievances – and expose injustices. This book is very different, because it is not so much a creative piece; it is prose, and I suppose more of an “analysis”. What I’m trying to provide is not just an expression, or a feeling, but the actual analysis that helps us to make sense of why it is that Islamophobia feels so violent. So, the way I see this book is that Insha’Allah it is an accessible tool.
I don’t think there has been a non-academic book about Islamophobia that you can pick up and read and feel like you are being empowered – with a rigorous analysis that gets to the root causes, that isn’t just about superficial fixes. I hope it gives a full, broad, and deep picture of what Islamophobia is; I hope it’s a tool to help us to build broader solidarity and organise movements against all racism, of which Islamophobia is a manifestation.
I think it’s very much a call to action for all sorts of prejudice. The book doesn’t say that Islamophobia needs to be highlighted above anything else, but it’s a part of one big movement against the injustices that move against all of us.
The scope of this book is huge. Something I thought really underpinned a lot of what you were saying was that colonialism persists within the systemic prejudice that we are facing. How far can we say that modern Britain is postcolonial?
We are in the colonial world system right now. There’s no ‘post’ to it. I know your question is about Britain, but Britain is inseparable from the world in terms of its economy and border regime that – and I touch on this in the book – are repeated over the world: the UK Government is working in collaboration with other governments to stop people coming to this island. I think a part of this book looks to show that Islamophobia is just an extension of colonialism, its current manifestation.
I suppose that, when people talk about postcolonialism, they’re talking about the end of the often-physical occupation by British troops, or the UK government’s apparatus running other countries. To an extent, we can say that it’s less visible, but what does it mean when we can trace direct history (which many historians have) between counter-terror policing today and anti-insurgency and colonial policing from only 100, 200 years ago? You start to wonder whether there is that much change or difference. When you think about the ways in which arms and surveillance technologies are sold in the name of securitising the world against a threat that is essentially global, it’s a discourse with similarities to what we saw even 300 years ago. So I don’t feel that we are out of a colonial moment at all, and I think the only way to understand this movement right now is to have a much fuller and very open, honest conversation about what colonialism was.
You touched on something else I was thinking about whilst reading the book: the colonial tactic of trying to dehumanise certain communities. It reminds me of one of your pieces from the Roundhouse poetry slam where you say, ‘If you need me to prove my humanity, I’m not the one that’s not human’. What struck me about Tangled in Terror is your use of human experiences throughout – for example the story of Ruqayah and her family, which not a lot of people know about. How far does Tangled in Terror articulate that statement from that piece of poetry?
To be honest, I think the ethos of that poem has underlined a lot of my work since. For me, the use of human stories is not about humanising the experience of Muslims, but about making the book more accessible. Talking about counter-terror laws in this country can be really dry and boring; it’s just lists of so many pieces of legislation, which, frankly, even as the writer of this book, is tedious to read. Storytelling is part of why I write poetry. We remember better when we hear stories of people’s experiences, and we understand better the impacts of things like tedious-sounding laws and legislative language.
I have tried to veer away from making the case of Look, we are so good, we’re so normal. We’re just like you. We’re good citizens, therefore we don’t deserve to face Islamophobia. I’ve tried to show that it’s more complicated than that. Muslims are everyone and anything. We can be flawed, we can be – whatever. And that’s irrelevant to the fact that Islamophobia is oppressive and unjust. I think that, so often in the conditions that Islamophobia has created, Muslims are in a position where we’re having to prove that we’re not a terrorist and, therefore, we deserve our civil rights – I am not a threat to national security so please don’t stop me on the train or report me to Prevent. So I refuse to play the politics of proving anything about my humanity, my goodness, my worthiness, or that of any Muslims.
You mentioned storytelling and poetry being a great way to understand, and that brings me on to another question I had for you. As a poet of colour, do you feel that you need to make your poetry political?
I think that my poetry is inherently political because of the world that I live in. I don’t think any poet can detach their identity from their poetry. Poets of colour don’t receive whiteness as an identity, yet we live in a world in which that’s the normative voice. Even if I wrote love poems, they would be political, because the context in which I’m loving is inherently political. I would say, actually, that lots of my poems are love poems, because they stem from love. I think there’s a perception that writers of colour go out of their way to think or write about topics like racism. In reality, we write from feeling, and I think oftentimes love is one of the strongest feelings we write from, whether that’s a love for other people, a love for the community, even a love of ourselves, or hope that we could love ourselves. And I think all those loves are bound up with other political questions; you’re already being quite subversive in a world system that thinks you don’t hold value.
I want to talk about the process of writing this book. You’ve contributed to anthologies before, and you’ve had solo outings with your poetry. But I want to know what the process was like this time, with a book that’s solely your work.
Good question. On a practical level, it was a much bigger project. Something I found quite difficult was, as you referred to earlier, the scope of the book. I was keen to centre the intersectional nature of racism, and the way that Islamophobia intercuts with all violence: with gendered violence, with imperialism and capitalism. I didn’t want to section off separate chapters; I didn’t want to just tokenise topics and link them to Islamophobia.
I kept asking myself what the key question was that I was asking. And I think what cements the whole book together is in its title: we are enmeshed and entangled in a system of violence that ostensibly exists for our security. We live within countless counterterrorism laws, countless border and immigration bills, nationality bills, wars, imperialist wars abroad, policing and counter-extremism policing – layers and layers of things that apparently make us safer. The question I have is, Well, who has been made safer? And the evidence is clear.
I also think there’s a difference between writing a book like this as an academic and writing it and as Muslim whose life is directly affected by its themes. I know it will have a lot of Muslim readers, and I didn’t want them just to feel really depressed. But, at the same time, I don’t have all the answers, and I didn’t want to pretend that I did. That’s why I wanted to present alternative questions like How do we really make the world safer? which maybe empower people in believing that we are deserving of an alternative.
One thing I found interesting was how you unpack secularism, and show how it’s trying to shape the parameters of how we understand Islam. We both grew up post-9/11, and our outlooks and understandings of Islam are different to those who grew up in the years before. I was thinking about the conflicting messaging we see in the community because of this. Often, you’re too Muslim, and sometimes you’re not Muslim enough. Do you think that, as a community, we’ve lost sight of who we are?
That’s an interesting question because there are so many questions within it. I really enjoyed writing the secularism elements of the book, and it was an important one. The people who are willing to talk about Islamophobia often address the idea of Muslims as racialised subjects as constructed through white supremacy, orientalism, and imperialism. But, when we only do that, we miss the fact that Muslims are also people who believe a whole host of things, primarily that there is a God, which is often seen as positioning them as at odds with modernity. Because of the War on Terror, we’ve been asked to prove that Islam is compatible with so-called “liberal values”, but at the same time there’s the underlying contradiction that those liberal values have never been applied to Muslims. We’re being told to show that Islam can be democratic, that it can be liberal and abide by rule of law, but the governments that are asking us to do are not working in democratic ways. They are violating human rights and the rule of law, across the world and at home.
I don’t want to say that we have lost who we are, because it would imply that there was an essentialised Muslim somewhere. I don’t want to do that, because I don’t believe that there is one real way to be Muslim, and all other ways are just misguided. But I think that we have to some degree lost the space to articulate what being Muslim means on our own terms. Even in Muslim spaces like mosques, the conversations we’re having are oftentimes dictated by the parameters of the outside racist world. We’re having to debate questions like Do Muslim women have rights in Islam? when it’s a known truth that women do. These are questions that come from premises of the state, and Western discourses that say we are patriarchal and violent. We’ve been diverting so much time to proving that we are not what they say we are. Where’s the space to say ‘I just believe in God, and I just want to worship God without having to constantly justify it’?
In the book, I talk about how I grew up always hearing the phrase ‘Islam means peace’. It does not “mean” peace (in terms of the meaning of the Arabic word), and the fact that we felt the need to declare that it does says so much about the ways in which the conversations we’re having about Islam are dictated by the War on Terror. I feel I was robbed of having a deep relationship with Islam from a young age because I was never able to ask the questions I wanted to of, or from, Islam.
A lot of political change can start from messages shared within the arts and through writing. How do you think Muslims can adopt that space and feel heard again?
I think Muslims are already doing that. The context is that there’s so little space for Muslims to speak freely. Take, for example, the Prevent duty, which essentially criminalises Muslims for saying anything that might be perceived as being ‘against British values.’ Speaking against Prevent itself is cited as something that could be a sign of radicalisation, or a sign that someone is “extreme”, as can speaking in support of countries currently facing occupation and imperialist wars by the West. Many legitimate protest movements and groups are being framed as extremist and potentially criminalised. And in that context, it’s difficult to find many spaces in which to express yourself.
I think that anywhere in the world where we’ve seen police states, we find that it’s poets, writers, artists, songwriters and creatives, who often lead the resistance, because art is mistakenly perceived as apolitical. Sometimes, it becomes the last space to articulate truthfully the violence of the world that we’re in. I see a lot of young poets writing amazing pieces in my workshops, and I hope that’s because they are spaces where people feel empowered to express themselves. But I would add the caveat that through counter-extremism policing in the UK, these spaces are getting smaller and smaller, because you now have youth groups and art clubs funded in incongruous ways by the Home Office, with the people leading those spaces being told that they have to look out for signs of radicalisation.
This reminds me of a quote from Elif Shafak at one of our Library of Exile events in 2020, in which she said ‘the novel is the last democratic place’ that writers have. Will we ever see you venture into fiction?
I have a lot of anxiety about fiction – I feel like I have no imagination! I will say that I’m writing some plays at the moment, and that comes back to the point about storytelling sometimes being the most powerful way to get across messages. The histories that have stuck with us the most, and through which we have most understood the depth of structural violence, are often known through the most intimate and interpersonal stories.
Finally, what is the main thing, if anything, you want people to take from Tangled in Terror?
There are two things (I’m going to defy the question – sorry!). I want people to come away from it and think that, even by its own standard, the current world system is not working. That, though it says all these measures are in place to make us safer, even by that standard, it fails, because we see every day that we’re not safer. More people are more exposed to violence because of border policing, counter-terror policing, internal policing, surveillance, the arms trade, wars and persecution.
And, secondly, that, as people who believe in justice, this world system cannot be enough. That what we can wish and hope for shouldn’t be limited simply to reforming it. I think we sometimes fall into that trap of thinking that if there were more of us at the table taking part in the conversation about how to end terrorism that would be better. But my provocation is, Don’t we deserve a broader horizon? Isn’t it the case that we could come up with something different altogether?
I wanted to trace the history of how we got to this moment in order to say that this moment was made; that it is not inevitable, it is not natural, it is not the only way that history could have led us. We need to say that security on these terms does not keep us safe; that we want security on our own terms, and we know what it looks like. I use examples throughout the book of ways in which people do already look after each other. Someone who really inspired this book is Imam Shakeel, an Imam at a mosque in Lewisham, who does what I would call transformative justice work. He doesn’t immediately bring police to intervene in the lives of young people who may be involved in crime or gangs, and instead understands that these people need to be approached with love and care. I think we sometimes believe that another world system is too difficult to imagine. I’d like us to think it’s not. In fact, as difficult as it may be, that’s the only option we have, otherwise we’re heading towards more misery and persecution and, quite simply, we deserve more than that.
Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan is a writer, poet, educator and activist, disrupting ideas of history, race, knowledge and violence. Her poetry performances based on her book Postcolonial Banter have millions of views online and she was the National Roundhouse Poetry Slam runner-up in 2017. Suhaiymah has written for the Guardian and gal-dem and her work has featured across radio and TV stations. She has been commissioned to write plays by theatres including the Royal Court.
Interview by Nadia Saeed, Co-editor.
Photo credit: Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan.