Border Crossings

By Mohammad Tufael Chowdhury

My Journey as a Western Muslim

I was born and raised in Britain but it wasn’t till I was in my mid-thirties that I was referred to as a Westerner. Surprising you might say, given that as a child I spoke English with a perfectly formed middle-class accent, at Oxford University I wrote compelling essays on the values of liberal democracy, and started my career at a blue-blooded consulting firm in London that was founded during the Victorian pomp of Imperialist Britain. But as a brown-skinned young man, in those days acceptance as being British was a triumph over the subtle racism of 1980s and 1990s Britain. Acceptance as a Westerner wasn’t quite as straightforward, as this required being seen as someone who subscribed to the dominant local culture of the white, English middle class (in my case) – something which for me as an observant Muslim of Bangladeshi ancestry was near impossible to do. The fact that I believed in Western ideals of freedom, democracy and liberalism didn’t count for much. No matter how much I tried I was never accepted as “one of us.” At the same time, my family community didn’t see me as proper Bengali either, giving me the cold shoulder treatment of instead being a fake Englishman in brown skin. So there I was, the subject of an unrewarding, no-win upbringing of coping with being the outsider pretty much all of the time, stuck between incompatible worlds, my cultural relevance not appreciated. A migration rounding error.

It was an Oxford friend who described me as the Westerner, one drizzly afternoon as we both sat at a favourite café in Marylebone, meeting after a gap of ten years. As we chatted, I complained that life for Muslims in Britain had become difficult post the 9/11 attacks in New York. The discussion simmered quickly to a heated debate and to put a stop to it she abruptly told me that I need to accept Britain as an open-minded country underpinned by values that do more to protect the spirit of Islam than most Muslim nations do. This was two years post 9/11, a time when suspicion over Muslims in the West had never been greater. Almost every month, one Western country or another would announce that an Islamic terrorist attack had been foiled, or had taken place. Muslims in the West were experiencing a level of isolation and mistrust they had never felt before. Within just a few years from the early 1980s, the suspicion that Muslims could not be trusted as signed up members to the ideals of Western society escalated sharply. All of a sudden Muslims were profiled as being different ideologically, singled out as a group as if they were the new Cold War protagonist, a new enemy but this time within our own borders. Politically unacceptable in a free society to single out a community due to its ethnic identity or religious beliefs, anti-Muslim suspicion remained a shadowy and ill-defined phenomenon and its many examinations were generally impossible to counter. Life became a daily test, littered with innocently formed questions that came up in conversation that repeatedly asked you to explain your beliefs and justify your actions, and frequent stoppages by the police or passport officials. And then there were the glances of passers-by, conveying oblique, unspoken looks of suspicion often experienced in public places such as on trains or buses or in airports. By the early 2000s, picking on Muslims had gained acceptance in many quarters of society, including in the press, in matters of national security or even in Parliamentary debate. Even though racial prejudice remained in society, in a country as generally liberal as the UK it carried a guilty conscience with it. But the pillorying of Islam and its followers became all but legitimized in many Western countries, helped along by some of its leading thinkers and writers, and encouraged by many influential leaders. Some commentators began to draw parallels between how Muslims were being grouped to how Germany began to classify Jews in the 1930s.

Post 9/11 there sprouted a host of sometimes confusing activities that confirmed the new term of “Islamophobia” really was taking hold. Countries such as the US began to take specific and often quite randomly targeted measures to monitor the movements and activities of Muslims, particularly through the escalation of security procedures for people arriving from overseas, something which continues to this day and which I remain a victim of myself. Oddly, countries such as Britain suddenly began to recognize Muslims for their contributions to society, convening patronising and vacuous commissions to write reports on the good things Muslims are doing for the nation, supported by some Muslims who caved in to the lure of the recognition this might bring them. I quickly accepted that we would have to live with added border checks for a while due to the heightened terrorism risk in Western countries. But the celebratory aspects of recognizing Muslims’ contributions appeared to me to be politically-motivated and shallow. Their falseness worried me, as though even the moderate leaders of our society were now wondering “is there really something wrong with them?”

Things were definitely not right for me. After 9/11 I had begun to feel foreign in my own home town of London. Matters got significantly worse post the harrowing 7/7 attacks of July 2005 in our nation’s capital. When outdoors, particularly on trains or in ‘planes, I felt under scrutiny, sensing and sometimes imagining anonymous stares and stolen looks, accentuated when I was alone or carrying a bag. But the suspicion wasn’t just a figment of my imagination, although I am sure paranoia took over at times. During these years I was questioned, detained, interrogated or physically searched by security police and border officials in London, New York, San Francisco, Milan, Jersey, Boston, Madrid, Brussels, Dallas, Cairo and Paris, and refused entry visas to Australia and India without attending special interviews at the embassy. Perhaps with not the best timing, I was learning Arabic at the time as a way to understand my faith better and connect more in the Middle East. Over the years I had grown sick and tired of the idiocy of reciting prayers in Arabic but not understanding a word. Attending a wedding in Istanbul, I decided to add to the trip a coastal journey across southern Turkey, Syria and Lebanon with an objective to immerse myself into the culture of the Levant. This trip was my first chance to “go live” with Arabic. I was excited. I kept a daily journal through the trip, shared as a regular weblog with friends. Wherever I went in remote parts of southern Turkey and northern Syria, I was welcomed. Despite being a strange foreigner, weirdly I felt more at home here than in post 9/11 Britain at the time, or indeed in Bangladesh where I spent much time as a child being made to feel on the outside. The unguarded way in which this curious Muslim from Europe was embraced contrasted to the suspicion of my fellow citizens on the streets of London. What these people gave me in an instant was something that the British and Bangladeshi sides in my life hadn’t been able to give me: plain and unconditional acceptance. Based around these thoughts, I eagerly drafted out the first cut of Border Crossings, typing away during solitary evenings in hotels, after meals with my laptop on the table in noise-filled, atmospheric brasseries, and during overnight flights as I zig-zagged across the world on an endless run of business trips.

I reprised the story of how I emerged through a series of testing passages in life that caused me untold anger in childhood and left me with years of unconsoled bitterness towards Britain and Bangladesh. I was brought up in a crossover generation where our parents idealistically inculcated the religious and social perspectives of their homeland on us, leaving us to close out the gaps between what they taught us to expect and what actually happened. Real life was more brutal: exclusion for not being white and frozen out for not being proper Bengali. As I laboured through the narrative, I began to realise that even in my formative years seeds were sown that would later help me conquer my challenges and emerge as a more culturally settled person. In particular I saw how learning multiple languages had helped me bridge cultural gaps, and how my global perspective somehow connected my modest life to major world events.

I am not sure my late father would have felt that I was fulfilling my potential as I established my career, advising Ministers, CEOs and a few heads of state on what to do with their economies. I suspect a part of him would be disappointed that I haven’t done more to join the ranks of my clients rather than remain their adviser. Whilst he wasn’t vocal about it, he held great expectations for me to one day enter public office and before his death he took the opportunity to expose me to influential politicians. As a young graduate I met Peter Shore, Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green in London and a senior member of the Parliamentary Labour Party, in the times when he was keen to see a Bengali emerge as his successor in his largely immigrant-populated constituency, and in Bangladesh we regularly visited the home of my great uncle, General Osmani, who was a national hero and the country’s first Minister of Defence. In Britain, my father saw an opportunity for me to rise through the ranks since the government wanted to see non-whites get into positions of influence and I was one of the best educated immigrant graduates available.

But as political upheaval and Islamic fundamentalism spread across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, my career opportunities mesmerized me, taking me to the world’s hotspots and exposing me with uncanny regularity to societies in flux. Regularly I got to look inside and, due to the nature of my work as a government adviser, here and there I got to apply a twist to the golden thread of political and social reform. At times I liked worked on topics which were pertinent to social trends that were resulting in political upheaval in Muslim countries. For example, in Egypt I headed government relations for a major telecommunications operator at a time when the military-backed government of President Hosni Mubarak was attempting to get mobile operators to open up their networks for more surveillance of potential uprising activity. A few years earlier, I had advised the Saudi Arabian government over liberalizing access to the internet, having to consider carefully how to create competition in internet services provision whilst safeguarding against uncensored content in politics, religious topics and pornography.

In fact through my career I remained directly or indirectly connected to the question of how Muslim societies have been trying to adjust their relationship with the Western world, all along occupying the cultural no man’s land I had been stuck in ever since school days. But as time went on I learnt to deal with the downsides of being in this space, and became more comfortable with its ambiguities and advantages. This life of traversing cultural and physical border crossings has given me the narrative for this book. There are plenty of “identity” themed books out there, including a few excellent Muslim ones. What lies in Border Crossings is my journey, and the time it has taken me to complete the book has been taken up looking for a way to relate it to yours. This is regardless of whether you happen to be a Muslim, of any faith or of no faith at all, whether you are man or woman and British or any other nationality, because we live in a world where we are exposed to some form of being the “other” some of the time, and most of the time for many. My journey has been one of understanding, accepting and benefiting from being such an outsider. It has taken a few knocks and incidents to appreciate it, but I have discovered that the hardship of being the “other” is in fact one of life’s hidden privileges.

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