I found myself doing the same thing with my four-year-old daughter recently (reciting prayers, that is, not driving erratically.) I wanted to re-create that memory of being in the car with my mother, to experience that sepia-tinted moment from the other side of the table.
When we were next at the mosque, I watched my daughter smile when she recognised, and could repeat by heart, the prayer that the imam was relaying over the speaker. But then, a few days later, she returned from pre-school and sheepishly told me that she’d spoken to her friends about what I’d taught her and none of them knew Arabic.
I told her not to worry and explained that it’s okay for her to do her own thing as best as I could before I pressed play on Frozen again. While we watched Elsa serenade us once more with details of whatever the hell it is that she needs to let go of, I remembered being at my daughter’s pre-school committee meeting a few weeks earlier where her teachers mentioned in passing that they had to follow a government policy designed to protect children from the risk of radicalisation by picking up on cues that might signal the embryonic stages of extremist behaviour. I got the impression that they thought it was a bit ridiculous but I still thought to myself: my kid is walking around her nursery bellowing the Islamic equivalent of Hallelujah to a bunch of tots in dress up corner and Ofsted are hunting for child terrorists... what have I done?
I joke now but I did feel uneasy about it at the time. It made me consider how the Muslim habits that I find to be harmless could be perceived by others as alarming; the innocuous misconstrued as noxious. After all, it was only a few months ago that a nursery reportedly threatened to place a four-year-old boy on a de-radicalisation programme after his teachers’ thought he’d drawn a picture of a cooker bomb instead of, what was in actual fact, a cucumber.
Today Muslim people are thrown off planes for looking a bit sweaty and saying the word “Allah”, primary school children are identified as “future extremists”, women who want to dress modestly could be potentially criminalised for choosing to wearing burkas and burkinis, immigrants are vilified and dehumanised in racist propaganda and Islamophobia has become a hulking beast which feasts on a daily news agenda ripe with anti-Muslim rhetoric. All of this makes me want to keep my child at home and never let her out of the door.
Muslim women are the most economically disadvantaged group in Britain – they face discrimination based on their name, faith and appearance when applying for jobs
More than anything, it makes me ask what her future will be like. Muslim women are the most economically disadvantaged group in Britain. According to a new parliamentary report, they face discrimination based on their name, faith and appearance when applying for jobs and the fear of that prejudice puts them off applying for certain roles from the outset. This form of racism is the most worrying kind because it quietly chips away at opportunities for economic success, tramples on self-confidence and distinguishes hope. It’s more guileful than those in-your-face racist moments, like those occasions when people yell slurs at you on the street, because no one quite wants to believe that something so ‘unsporting’ could ever occur in Good Old Blighty.
I feel overwhelmed by my duty to protect my daughter from this distressing atmosphere – it’s almost a physical sensation. Something happens to my heart when Islam is portrayed negatively in the media for the millionth time – it thuds to the ground and the rest of my body curves around it, hunkering down like a fleshy, futile shield. I feel sick worrying what will happen to my tiny child, who thinks unicorns are called sweetcorns, when she is faced with this in later life. Will her personality and her confidence be strengthened, shattered, broken or worse?
I ask a friend who has a three-year-old son how she feels. “I work hard to make sure my son remains confident and has positive self-esteem,” she tells me. “But the constant negative attitude found in the press towards Muslims and Muslim men in particular makes me feel as if the media is undoing my efforts. Our positive role models are few and far between.”
However, BBC journalist and mum of three Sabbiyah Pervez explains that there might be some hidden benefits to being a Muslim parent in this trying climate: “I only really started learning about my faith and then subsequently my heritage after 7/7. I had no identity until then. And I think as parents raising kids today we can’t afford to do that to the next generation because they will be scrutinised and questioned... questioning is good. It helps you develop into a critical thinker.”
To love this religion that everyone else appears to loathe she’s going to have to be a Super-Muslim
I know my daughter will have to be extra perfect, doubly kind and unreservedly compassionate to be the antidote to the hideous misconceptions about Islam that seem to have become the norm. To love this religion that everyone else appears to loathe she’s going to have to be a Super-Muslim. And I feel ill-equipped and unprepared to be the one to teach her how to do it. So I try to take her to spend time with her Muslim cousins because there’s strength in numbers and comfort in familiarity. I tell her that of course she doesn’t have to say prayers out loud, she can just say them in her heart. I make sure she spends lots of time with her grandparents, who are brimming with Islamic knowledge and are wonderful examples of confident, kind-hearted Muslims. Her grandma has given her a money box and teaches her to split her pocket money into three – a part for spending, a part for saving and a part to give to someone in need – and I’m grateful to have that extra layer of parental support and secure scaffolding.
The other day, my sister asked me: “Is there any point in trying to make our kids good Muslims when no matter how much we teach them they will still have to live in an Islamophobic climate? Isn’t it like washing a fish clean and then putting it back in dirty water?"
My mother adjusted her hearing aid and chimed in: “Your children are not fish! Your children will be lights in the darkness! And people are always drawn to the light.”