In the early hours of Sunday morning, at 2am, I met Ahmed. Ahmed drives a cab, lives in London and has a young son. As we drove, the news briefly came on the radio - he quickly turned it off. "No more news for me,” he said.
When I queried why, he let loose. Our conversation carried on long after we'd reached my house. And what he said was so extraordinary, I began to record him.
Ahmed speaks English. Perfect English, with only a hint of a Pakistani accent. He's a second generation immigrant, a British Muslim man, and his experience of living in the UK now is utterly depressing to hear.
"What am I supposed to tell my son? He's only ten. Every time I turn the news on, people are talking about Islam, about Muslims, about the religion I'm bringing him up to love."
Following yet another attack by "Muslims", Ahmed feels his religion is again being assaulted. His friends and family feel so ashamed, they feel compelled to apologise for what happened. They hold up 'Not all Muslims' signs. Like we have to be reminded that not every follower of Islam is out to murder us in the name of Allah. It proves how pervasive this mentality has become.
His religion has become a synonym for evil.
He went on to explain that, each time one of the attacks happens, it gets increasingly difficult to feel secure on the streets of London. "I don't feel like I belong here anymore,” he said.
I then asked if he'd ever considered leaving, tired of the abuse and the anti-Islam rhetoric. "All the time,” he said, "but where would I go?" He explained how he has family here, a home, a job. He couldn't go to Pakistan - "I'm too Westernised". The same goes for other Islamic countries, too. "Plus, I'm British, and don't want to go anywhere.” Why should he?
Ahmed has a magnificent beard. The sort I'm unable to grow and am jealous of. Now, because beards have somehow become a symbol of terrorism, he's genuinely considered shaving it off - "just to blend in". He no longer wants to be recognisable as a follower of Islam in the UK. "My community is becoming alienated from everyone else. We don't feel we belong here anymore."
With each of these assaults on our freedoms, there's a predictable swell of right-wing rhetoric. Anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment becomes the default setting. But for the sake of Ahmed, his son, and the future of a civilised world, we have to fight the urge to join in with that mentality.
We have to stop blaming the world's 1.5 billion Muslims for the acts of a singular death cult. We have to ensure more young people aren't lured to Syria under the false promise of belonging, after being convinced that they can never live side-by-side with their fellow citizens because of their religion. We have to re-welcome Ahmed, beard and all, back in to society where he belongs.
More importantly, we have to stop calling the perpetrators of these attacks Muslims. They are extremists, terrorists, murderers - anything but 'Muslim'.
As if that needed emphasising, it's recently emerged that the leaders of Islamic faith groups told Muslim women they "should avoid going out in public places and stay vigilant" after what happened in Paris. Sadiq Khan told LBC his daughter asked him if it was safe for her to leave the house, and a mosque in Glasgow has been set alight. We cannot allow this to continue.
I promised him I wouldn't publish our recording, so he wouldn’t become a recognisable target of hate. But Ahmed, if you're reading this, please know you're not alone, not hated, not feared.
As I finally stepped out of the car, I turned to him with one last question.
"When you get home in the morning, what will you tell your son?"
"I just don't know anymore,” was his exhausted answer.
What can we, as fellow British citizens, tell Ahmed’s son? We should tell him to be proud of his heritage, proud of his religion and proud of his father for having the courage to speak out. Hopefully, we can give him a country to be proud of too.
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