The Problem with Respectability Politics

So today social media was all a buzz. After the horrific ordeal when someone was attacked at Leytonstone station by a knife-wielding man and his subsequent arrest, a hashtag #YouAintNoMuslimBruv emerged. The right wing papers lauded it as the British thing to do, and what a typical London response. This made me a bit nervous.

I’m always cautious when right wing papers want to champion hashtags and respectability politics. Always.

The same media channels who are forever spitting indignation and suggestive labels about Muslims making the whole religion synonymous with pejorative labels such as jihadists, Islamists and terrorists were now supportive of this hashtag. Nah mate.

I wrote two posts ago about terrorism not being the premise only of the religious but this event sparked something more for me. The issue of respectability politics.

For context for those who haven’t read the story. The attacker of this innocent victim in the station allegedly shouted,
“This is for Syria”.

So everyone assumed he is Muslim. And yet why is this? Those affected by the conflict in Syria include not just Syrians but Kurdish, Jordanians, Iraqis, of whom there is a mixture in backgrounds of secular, Jewish as well as Muslim. And even amongst the Muslim community there are sectarian differences; Sunni, Ahmadiyya and Shi’ah including the Alawite sect of which President Assad is a member of. So why the assumption?

This doesn’t mean that he wasn’t Muslim, my questions are,
Why do we immediately make the assumption he was?
Why could he not have just been someone who was mentally imbalanced?
With the media still not sure as to who the attacker was why are so many assumptions made?
And just remember why did we not question, in the Paris attacks, how the media claimed one of those found dead had a Syrian passport beside them? Like you would go to bomb somewhere with a passport on you, right?

For me, the jumping on the bandwagon with this hashtag is the concept of respectability politics. Not just in a situation like this one but so many others where minorities want to perceive themselves as other.

Things like #YoureNotAMuslimBruv bare the brunt of trying to please an audience of people who are fed only one image of what a Muslim is to become defensive. This same dialogue happened around 7/7, Rotherham child abuse cases and the Paris Bombings. People jumping to try and defined a British version of “safe Islam” like there’s a need to.

So what is a Muslim then?
I was in conversation with a teacher on Twitter. I explained to him that as part of my spiritual journey I explore the main sects of Ahmadiyya, Sunni, Shi’ah and National of Islam. All of them had very different interpretations of how Islam worked for them. Of course, the core principles around the role of Allah, Mohammed, the five pillars of faith and the Quran are standard. But like Christianity, Judaism and indeed many of the other world religions it is a matter of interpretation based on postcode and whose family or community you managed to be born into.

Look at states across the world, that embody sharia law, specifically where there are huddud crimes. Huddud crimes are laws where Islam defines a specific penalty. The most popular ones we know are Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, where people have limbs amputated for theft, you can be whipped in public for drinking, having sex outside of marriage of even speaking against the government (include modern Turkey in that last one) or public stoning for adultery. Would we consider those living under such laws less Muslim? Would #YoureNotAMuslimBruv be applicable to them? Of course, one could argue that this was an extreme case where an innocent was harmed in broad daylight, which goes against Islamic texts. I get that, but at the same token could we state that #YoureNotaChristianBruv could be applied to the Obama administration when they bomb, kill and maim others. Especially when America is positioned both within and without as a Christian country?

Thinking inside the box
I guess what I am saying is, that the danger in isolating incidents and my overall problem with respectability politics is that we try to put people into a box. Not in my name is a symptom of this.

I think of the tensions in the black community in America. One of the elephants in the room about the #blacklivesmatter movement in America is how often those found dead at the hands of the police tend not to be well to do middle and upper-class blacks. Whilst there are exceptions to the rule, in the main those who have been victims to such treatment don’t fall into that group. It is so clear to see that when you hear the narratives that come from that smaller group of the black community.

For example, Bill Cosby and his famous Pound Cake speech. Playing into all the stereotypes those hard working Protestant blacks who have made it try their best to avoid. Street slang. Low riding trousers. Single parent families. Getting into trouble with the law. A speech resoundingly accepted by many middle class or aspirant blacks in the US. It didn’t seem to matter to many listening that these issues are more of a class issue than a race one. That they pander to existent stereotypes of working class blacks. Even worse was the emergence of wholesale hypocrisy on the part of Mr Cosby in his own personal life. Within that box however people want to support respectability politics. Especially if it brings social status and a protection of current or future economic stability for those who buy into that brand of politics.

On a personal level, I was invited to 10 Downing Street the week of the riots that gripped London and other major cities in England. I along with a host of youth workers and educators were invited to meet David Cameron and share our thoughts and ideas as to what was happening and what could be done. This was followed by a conference in Westminster Methodist Call. The focus for the day was “Not in my name”.

In my frustration, I wanted to challenge these young people destroying property in their neighbourhoods. On some level, subconscious or otherwise I know I was silently screaming at young black folk,
“Come on youngsters be like me. I came from neighbourhoods just like you, and look at me now, I am at Downing Street ”
It dawned on me after how quick we are to impose our narratives, privilege and outlook on others who see things different than we do.

Two things dawned on me afterwards
1) As quick as the organisers were to get us into Downing Street, was as quick as they were to say they were too busy to pursue longer term approaches to tackling youth problems like the riots.
2) I had not spent any time on the ground finding out what triggered so many young people to kick off like this.

Lesson learned.

We all have different stories
Which brings me back around to my main point here.
We cannot speak to everyone’s stories. Tackling societal problems is an ongoing dialogue and to be honest, a battle. Not something that can be easily brushed aside with a hashtag and 140 characters. (Or more if you use twitlonger)

Every single community has those who will have varying degrees of difference.
Trying to police them with hashtags places them in a box and often is only done to appease others.

The truth is there are probably many people, Muslims and others, who support the guy who attacked in the name of Syria.
As heinous as it sounds we know this is the world we live in. Crazy has no boundary. Religious or otherwise.
Just as there are many black people who think those shouting #blacklivesmatter should pull up their pants, stay out of trouble and get an education.

This doesn’t mean that hashtags and opinions have no place in society, of course they do. They are a part of the continuing debate and struggle we have as humanity. My problem lies when we other people. See them as less than because they don’t see the script as we do.

If someone commits a crime and those who share traits with said offender be they black, Muslim, young, gay whatever, are quick to defend by saying they don’t represent me, maybe you have to ask the question “why and whom am I actually defending anyway?”

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