Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Who'd be a Muslim writer at a time like this?

'One Muslim wrote: "You should shut up and pray for forgiveness. We do not want women like you shaming us" '
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The Independent Online

British Muslims working in the media have been through interesting times since 11 September. Those of us who work in mainstream outlets are easily identified (only four of us are regulars, and I am the only woman), which inevitably places a weighty responsibility on our shoulders.

Of course, we get more business, too. When there is a riot, racist murder or ethnic conflict, black and Asian journalists find their earnings shooting up, leaving most of them richer but unsure about their role and aspirations. Are we taken seriously only as "ethnic" or "religious" journalists, or as journalists with added value? Today, the questions for Muslim journalists and writers with Muslim-sounding names (there is a difference: Tariq Ali and Kamal Ahmed, the political editor of The Observer, are the latter) are even more complicated because of the conflicting demands and the assumptions that follow us like a swarm of persistent wasps.

A few days after the tragedy in the USA, I was in Siena, at a conference. I felt (maybe I imagined it) that some people were suddenly more wary of me and others were perplexed, even irritated, that I still described myself as a practising Muslim. One delegate said what I believe many were thinking: "How can an intelligent woman like you believe in Islam? Where do your loyalties lie at times like this?"

I recoil when I hear that heavy word "loyalty", as do other non-white commentators who refuse to comply with the oppressive demands of both Taliban and Bush: that we must take sides. We find ourselves unable to share in the paroxysm of vicarious American patriotism that has erupted all around us, yet most of us are just as distanced from the Muslim fanaticism.

The writer Arundhati Roy wrote, in an essay after the attacks: "America's grief has been immense and immensely public... However, it would be a pity if, instead of using this as an opportunity to try to understand why 11 September happened, Americans use it as an opportunity to usurp the whole world's sorrow to mourn and avenge only its own." That makes her, according to one respondent, "a black bitch who made her name through American support and now kicks them in the balls." In the past five days, people have written to me, calling me an "anti-American whore", a "dog", a "communist" and a "coon". Most of the letters end with that unimaginative flourish: "Why don't you go back to...?"

But harder for me to accept are individuals who are not racist but still seem discomfited by the presence of vocal Muslim journalists in public debates. The journalist Stephen Pollard says he endured my supposedly vile, anti-Western views during a three-hour radio programme. Unable to argue with me for all that time, he had to put his pain down in the Daily Mail the next day, poor sod.

Fanatical Muslims who write are no better. One writes: "You should shut up, cover up and go and pray for forgiveness. We do not want Muslim women like you shaming us and teaching our girls to be showing their faces."

We are not martyrs. There are more than enough of those in the world already. But we understand that the space we occupy between the warring parties is more important than ever. That, I suspect, is what keeps us all doing what we do, in spite of the avalanche of abuse that lands on us daily.

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