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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Can’t stop thinking ‘Muslim’? Don’t say it

I’m standing in line at Dubai International airport, Gate B21. Bag in one hand, boarding pass and coffee in the other. Sleepless and dazed, I’m not paying attention to the two Indian college students behind me. But I do notice when they suddenly switch to laborious French.

“Look at her boarding pass," says the boy. “She’s one of those."

“Oh!" says the girl. “Yes." Then she makes a guttural “Kh" sound in her throat, the Urdu sound that starts words like “Khadija". I realize that they are discussing me, and checking out the “Abdulali" on my boarding pass. They go on to comment on my purple motorcycle jacket and jeans, and laugh—a nasty laugh, not a let’s-be-joyous-about-this-wild-and-wonderful-world laugh.

I turn around and gaze at them. I tell them I understand French, and they should stop. They stop and remain frozen in silence until we board the plane and they disappear from my life.

Two weeks later, dining in a restaurant in Chembur, Mumbai, with my family. After some fine biryani and kebabs, I go to the toilet and see that the flush isn’t working. Ever the concerned citizen, I go to the nice maître d’ kind of chap and tell him, “I just wanted you to know that the toilet seems to be broken."

He immediately looks behind me at the table next to my family, where another large family is tucking into their dinner. They look jolly. The teenage girls are all wearing hijab.

“That’s because those Muslims used it," he says, contemptuously.

We are also Muslims, I tell him, and he says, “Sorry, sorry, hanh."

So here’s the thing: I know incidents like this are deeply offensive, but my first thought isn’t about how insulted I am. It’s more along the lines of “How stupid can you be?" What kind of person thinks, and is rude enough to say, that someone named Abdulali wouldn’t wear a purple jacket and jeans, or that a large chunk of the world’s population cannot correctly use the toilet?

There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, according to the US-based Pew Research Center. That is 23% of the world’s population. India and Pakistan are home to 344 million of these. 1.6 billion leaves room for a whole lot of variety. Some of us are covered from head to toe in black; some wear purple suede jackets and carry cappuccino to go. Some of us speak Farsi; some understand French. Some of us pray five times a day; some are—tauba, tauba!—atheists. Muslim Nobel Prize winners; Muslim lesbians; Muslim mathematicians; Muslim rock ‘n’ rollers; Muslim crooks; Muslim saints; Muslim butchers, bakers and candlestick makers; we’re all out there.

We’re not all from the same place, either. During the terrible time of the Babri Masjid riots, I lived alone in Delhi. After the worst was over and street vendors restarted business, I unlocked my door and went to my friendly neighbourhood flower-seller to buy some gladioli. She looked up at me from her cross-legged position on the footpath and said, “Why don’t you go back to Pakistan?"

Back to Pakistan? But I’m not from Pakistan.

Come to think of it, what is a Muslim anyway? Are you one because both your parents are, or because you choose to become one? Do you stop being one because you marry outside the faith, or start being one when you marry into it? Can you chuck the label if you just get fed up of it? These days, life is a lot more fluid than it used to be, and it’s complicated to pigeonhole people (do eunuchs belong in the ladies’ compartment? Is an Alphonso mango lover superior to a devotee of Langras—yes, and yes). What do I call my daughter, the product of two renegade parents from three different religions? Maybe it’s a ridiculous waste of time to even think about it.

But I digress. There’s no way around it: Prejudice sucks. And there’s no way around another truth: We all have our ugly prejudices, whether it’s about Muslims’ hygiene, women’s inferiority, this group’s looks or that group’s intelligence. I have my own set of squirmy biases. I’m ashamed of them (Langra lovers are people too) and try my best to overcome them. I also try very hard not to pollute the world by airing them. Maybe, by pretending to be a better person than I am, I will actually become better.

I’d have found the restaurant guy’s comments equally repelling if I had been Hindu, Jewish, Christian or anything else. His apology was almost worse than his comment—he was sorry he hadn’t recognized my religion (which just happens to be the one I inherited), not that he said what he said.

Sexist generalizations present similar dynamics: Is it all right to say demeaning things about women when you’re in a group of guys, and should you apologize if a woman shows up and hears you? Or should you try to behave and speak with respect no matter where you are or who hears you? Why not set the bar a little high?

It’s hard to overcome prejudices, but here’s something that shouldn’t be quite as difficult: manners, people, manners! Here is what the grand and righteous Caitlin Moran has to say in her book How To Be A Woman:

“All along, we must recall the most important Humanity Guideline of all: BE POLITE. BEING POLITE is possibly the greatest daily contribution everyone can make to life on earth."

Hear, hear! It’s better not to make grand generalizations about groups of people, but if you can’t help thinking them, at least DON’T SAY THEM. In the end, it just makes you look idiotic.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

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