Interview: Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan on her new book ‘Tangled in Terror: Uprooting Islamophobia’

Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s new book ‘Tangled in Terror: Uprooting Islamophobia’ looks at the pervasiveness of Islamophobia in society today.

In the book Suhaiymah shines a light on the nefarious machinery behind Islamophobia, where corporations and governments – under the guise of security – peddle myths of a ‘Muslim threat’ to benefit various global stakeholders.  

We caught up with the writer, poet and activist to find out a bit more about her book and why she wrote it.    

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Can you begin by telling us a bit more about the book?

‘Tangled in Terror: Uprooting Islamophobia’

The book is called Tangled in Terror: Uprooting Islamophobia. I felt that the conversations around Islamophobia are quite surface level. What we see in this country is often that we think of people being Islamophobic because they say something; verbal harassment or because they physically harass somebody.

But what I really wanted to do in the book was to say, that these are just surface level things and Islamophobia has much deeper roots. It goes much further back in history. I think we even think that it’s only since 9-11 that Islamophobia has existed in the world.  

But I wanted to write a book that really gives us a historical context and gives us a target when we’re trying to resist Islamophobia. I think sometimes we think of Islamophobia as if it’s a bit random. We ask: “where does it come from? Is it just because people are mean, is it because they’re unethical?” And instead, I wanted to say that Islamophobia actually has beneficiaries. There are governments that benefit from creating this myth of Muslims as threats.  

They can then put up border controls, immigration controls, they can increase surveillance and they can go to war in other countries. And also, remember that Islamophobia makes people money, and lines a lot of pockets. You know, there are corporations that sell arms, there are corporations that sell surveillance technologies. All of this is done in the name of securitising and protecting the world against a Muslim threat. And, we all know that threat is deemed to be a terrorist threat. And we’re all assumed to maybe be a terrorist in the future.

So, I wanted to provide a deeper and broader analysis about Islamophobia, that maybe insha’Allah helps people to make those links. Because I think those are the links we need to make if we want to resist it properly.  

Do you think that’s something that the Muslim audience needs to hear? Or is the audience for the book also non-Muslims?

When I was growing up, and even now, I feel like sometimes you need somebody to articulate the problem. I’ve had lots of people already feedback to say that this is stuff they knew but just didn’t have the words to explain. So, in that sense, it is definitely for Muslims.  

But also, it’s for everybody because what I tried to say in the book is that when we hear conversations about Islamophobia, people can think that it is just something to do with Muslims, that it’s their problem. But actually, in the name of Islamophobia, you’ve got governments — let’s just take our own British government — who have built up apparatus and tools that can be used against anybody.  

So even if you think about Prevent, probably the most well-known piece of counter-extremism legislation in this country, of course it disproportionately affects Muslims — we’re surveilled, we’re criminalised. But once you have a surveillance structure like that, we’ve even seen Prevent be used against environmental activists. When the Black Lives Matter uprisings were happening two years ago, you have the government using the same kind of language; this is extremism, this needs to be stopped, people are being radicalised. And so actually, I’m trying to make the case that we all need to care about this — whoever you are, wherever you are. Because in the name of Islamophobia, or in the name of protecting us from a ‘Muslim threat’, all these tools acquired by states across the world can just be used against anyone.  

And an interesting example is if you think about Muslim states or Muslim majority countries who use the same rhetoric and say: “Oh, we’ve got terrorists in our population, we need to stop them” when actually they’re just using it against people who are dissenting or against protesters. And again, that’s happening here as well. We saw the Stansted 15, who are a group of activists who stopped a deportation flight, they were charged under terrorism laws.  

So I think, this is a problem that everybody needs to think about. Because, as we’ve seen throughout history, where things are justified against one minority, they can always be expanded against everybody.  

You’re known for writing creative pieces and poetry, what led you to write it in this particular form?

To me, they are not two separate things. I say in the book that when I do a lot of poetry workshops in the community, in masjids or in schools, I notice that Muslim kids, when they’re writing poems, they already are so aware of being seen as terrorists, being seen as patriarchal, misogynistic, all these things.

Even 11-year-olds are writing in their poems: “I am not a terrorist, I’m not this, I’m not that, I’m not oppressed”. And that really broke my heart. So it was actually through the creative angle that I thought, they deserve to have access to tools, to ideas and to voices who say to them that the onus isn’t on them to disprove anything about themselves. They deserve to imagine, to write and be playful and creative

And actually, that was the journey for me. I thought about the book that they deserve to have as young people growing up in the world — which maybe sounds a bit of a lofty aim, and maybe it won’t do as much as I hoped it will. The themes that I deal with in my poetry are really present in this book. This is just another way of articulating it.  

What are some of the key themes in the book?

One key theme throughout the entire book is to ask ‘what is safety? So much of what Islamophobia does is justify security policies. In the UK, what that looks like is lots of counter extremism policies and then abroad, it’s wars and interventions. Right now, we have a bill going through Parliament, that would make it possible for the Home Secretary to secretly remove people’s citizenship. All of this has done in the name of security.  

And my question to people is, who has this made safer? All of these legislations, all of these policies, have not made people safe. They’ve not stopped the kinds of attacks they say they’re supposed to stop. But on the other hand, they’ve made lots of us more unsafe. I interviewed lots of different people and I use different testimonies. Ordinary families whose homes have been raided and their children now have post-traumatic stress disorder. You have people who’ve been detained without charge or trial, and they’re living with crippling anxiety and can’t access mental health services now. Because if they go to an NHS therapist and say that they have trauma from being stopped under counter-terrorism laws that’s going to be a red flag to NHS therapists, who have to report to Prevent.  

There are people who’ve been detained in Guantanamo Bay and never faced charges or trials. Or just everyday people who are stopped at the border when they go on holiday and now don’t know what books they’re allowed to have on the iPad. And all of those things are really important because they’re about how safe we’re allowed to be in the world. And it’s a direct contradiction to the idea that security policies make us safer.  

So one of the key themes in the book is really that we’ve been sold a lie: that all of these things are making us safer. So many people using food banks, people living in poverty, more and more people are in prisons, you have detention centres at the border, you have refugees across the world. I don’t believe we’ve been made safer. And I believe that we deserve to say on our own terms, what would make us safer. As opposed to security policies, which have only make states safer against protesters and dissenters.  

What stories or case studies can you share with us from the book?

I use the story of Rukeya a two-year-old girl and her mother. And how they enter for 10 to 15 years a torturous cycle of being neglected by the state, being stigmatised by the community — and no one wants to help support them. The father, who ends up in prison, hasn’t been convicted of anything but the charges he faces are based on evidence that is secret. It’s kept secret on national security grounds. And so just tracing the story of one family, I felt was a really helpful way to make laws — that can otherwise seem very abstract and a bit dry even when you’re researching them — very alive when you look at the story of one family.

I talked to lawyers who work with the special Immigration Appeals Court —where secret evidence is used against people. And they talk about how people feel it’s akin to fighting ghosts. You’re having to go through your entire life story and think: “What have I possibly done that could make me a national security threat? Who do I know? What masjid did I pray in where that could have been seen as something suspicious?”

Hearing stories like that, and hearing the kind of perseverance that people have, to have the sabr, was really inspiring and also really devastating. Why aren’t we as a wider Muslim community, and the wider community of non-Muslims, talking about these usually poor, often immigrant families, who are just being completely neglected and left to their own devices to fight a government? To me, that seems really unfair. And I think one of the invitations I make in the book is to ask how we can be accountable and responsible to those people. They’re our brothers and sisters, and they could be us.

And I think that’s what’s really important; that this actually doesn’t just happen to people who deserve it, or people who do have something to hide. It could happen to any of us simply because  we are profiled as Muslim and we’re seen as Muslim in the wider world.

The kind of things you talk about not just in your book but generally in your work – whether it’s Islamophobia, race, or colonialism — are all heavy topics that can weigh on the soul to some extent. So why do you do it?

I love this question because I think it does sound all really heavy. But one of the things I was really conscious of was that I don’t want to give this book out to the world, and for Muslims to feel completely overwhelmed and go: “Oh my God, it is awful. Islamophobia is everywhere. What do we do?”

What was really important to me was the message of hope. And as Muslims, I think that Islam is that hope. I write about this stuff cause it is incumbent upon us to reveal injustices. We’re told to seek knowledge, to understand how things work.  

But really, the goal with this is to show people this is all made. Things haven’t always been this way. And that being the case, we can change them. We know that hadith that if you see something, you can change it with your hand. If you can’t do it with your hand, change it with your tongue. If not with your tongue, then with your heart.  

And I think the invitation I make to readers at the end of the book is, maybe not all of us are in a situation where we can change things with our hands; we’re not necessarily in charge of policy and legislation. But I think through conversation, we all have power — in our own homes, in our families, in our workplaces, wherever we are — to do something.  

What is it that you can do to try to make circumstances easier for others but also for yourself? I think justice is something that we all deserve. And we’re told in the Quran to seek justice, even if it’s against yourself, against your kin, your family, your parents. And so that is what inspires me.

And you said it’s heavy on the soul, but we believe that the soul is also in submission to God. So, what should we be doing if we’re trying to submit to God? Perhaps I’ve been placed to write and I am able to reach people through writing. So if that’s the kind of responsibility I have, then insha’Allah that’s one that I can do.

But other people will be in different places. And so I hope that is a bit hopeful in the sense that we can all do something depending on where we’re placed.

Do you worry about how you might get portrayed or how your opinions might be misconstrued? Many people shy from topics like this because they worry about slurs and false allegations being made against them. Do you worry about that?

Yeah, it’s a really good question. And I won’t lie, of course, that was something that was present in writing the book. But I think something that I’m also aware of — and actually the more research I did, the more I realised — is that there’s nothing that you can do to protect yourself from those kinds of allegations.  

Just being a Muslim, being vocal, that’s enough for you to be deemed an extremist or a terrorist sympathiser. If you support Palestine, are you aligned with terrorists? That’s the  situation we’re in, in the UK or in the West in general, where anything could fall under the banner of being deemed extreme. So I felt actually, what’s the difference? I guess I’m blessed; I’m a freelancer, I’m self-employed so I don’t work for an institution — in the sense that I don’t feel as if I’m gonna lose my job if I speak out.  

When people get backlash, that’s not an accident. I actually traced in the book, an example from a couple of years ago, where I produced a documentary with Radio 4. It was about poetry, about Muslim poets. And a couple of weeks later, I received an email from the security correspondent at The Times, saying that the think tank, the Henry Jackson Society had written to them saying that I shouldn’t be platformed on the BBC, because I have had connections with people they deemed to be, or that have been alleged to be, terrorist sympathisers or whatever.  

And it’s such a convoluted argument, but what that showed me was you have news corporations, you have so called independent think tanks, neoconservative think tanks, all invested in just silencing tiny grassroots individual voices. And so, something I wanted to share in the book as well was that as much as that might make us scared, imagine how scared they are, right?  

What effort they go to just to silence us speaking out? This happens to many people we know, who are smeared in the media. Alhamdulillah that piece never went up about me. But I think that threat is always there to silence us. And in a way, I’m trying to flip the script and say, doesn’t that actually prove how powerful our voices are. I mean, imagine if all of us spoke out, what can they do?  

And in a way this links back to the question about Islam as well. For us, Allah (SAW) is the Protector. There is no other protection, you can’t protect yourself by not speaking up. You’re not going to not lose your job, because you didn’t do XYZ thing. You’re only not going to lose your job, if Allah has written it. And so I think as Muslims, we have a kind of freedom that other people don’t have in that we have a fallback, and that fallback is God.

And I think that’s really liberating. We can trust that that protection is there and that’s what keeps us safe. It’s not ourselves, it’s not us not speaking up, it’s not the precautions that we might take. It is God. And so, I think that’s something that kind of helped me to even publish the book. Ultimately, what have I got to lose?  

The last question, what do you hope the book will achieve?

Insha’Allah, even if the book just helps one or two people to think more clearly and understand more clearly what Islamophobia is — to me that’s a huge blessing and I’m very grateful.

Ideally, if the book can raise consciousness on a larger scale, if lots of people can read it, and go: “Oh my goodness, I did not make those connections, I did not realise Islamophobia stems from these places”. That to me, is really exciting.  

There’s a quote that I use in the conclusion of the book from Malcolm X. He says if you give people a thorough understanding of what confronts them, and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own programme. And when the people create a programme, you get action.  

And I guess that’s something that inspired me in the book. If you give people the thoughts, the tools, the ideas, the evidence, then as a collective insha’Allah we can continue to really resist and organise. Let’s make organised demands of the state. We want Prevent to be repealed, let’s demand that. Let’s not go for anything less than that.  

Whatever areas we’re in, I hope it encourages people to really take action. Writing a book can only do so much. But it’s the conversations that come from that and the actions that it inspires that, insha’Allah, are the long-term goals of the book.

Tangled In Terror: Uprooting Islamophobia is out now

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