Reading hearts

As a community we need to stop pretending that we can see into the hearts of others, for it is damaging our mental health and preventing us from contributing positively to society. Our sense of victimhood is exaggerated when every event that effects us is viewed though the prism of understanding that is, “It’s because I’m Muslim”. Witness the defeatist threads on social media, in which every misdemeanour of the other is amplified as further evidence that they’re all out to get us. Of course, if you perpetually reside on the comment pages of The Guardian and Telegraph websites amidst the trolls and haters, you will naturally conclude that everybody in the world hates you. But to step outside, carrying those sentiments with you, is to become judge and jury on the intentions of others.

I confess to have lived many years of my life afraid of the opinions of others. If, when out in public, I encounter a group of people laughing amongst themselves, a little voice from within whispers: “They’re laughing at you”; it is my big nose, my skinny frame, my voice, my slouch or my love of stripy jumpers. It could be any of these, or none of them. It could be something that happened a moment ago, a joke amongst friends, inebriation, happiness or insecurity. In these times, at this age, those are the more magnanimous sentiments with which I reply to those paranoid inner voices. Perhaps nerds, as we are considered, will forever be a laughingstock, but you can’t live your life under that spell. A time comes when you just have to shrug your shoulders and say, not that you don’t care, but that you can’t look into the hearts of others.

Wandering amidst the Muslim community, I see a mirror of that lethargic, nervous paranoia constantly. It comes alive in grand conspiracies, so commonly held that you begin to believe them: the black and white narrative of a binary world of good and evil. It is them against us: the schools inspectorate is conducting a witch hunt; child protection has an agenda; the extremists overseas are a CIA black-op; the worldwide media is controlled by our enemies. There is no nuance: no appreciation of complexities, no ability to see how the world is shaped for others. We are like that glum adolescent, struggling to understand his place in the world.

And so it has all become true: the hateful neighbour has contempt for you because you wear hijab. Your customers look at you suspiciously because you have a beard. That ignorant white man blanks you because he despises Muslims. Some driver cut you up on the motorway because he saw everyone in the car was wearing a headscarf. Your friends have stopped talking to you because you’ve started wearing niqab. Yes, everybody hates you.

Or could it be that you have simply convinced yourself that this is the case? Could it be that the hateful neighbour treats everyone like that: that his unaddressed rage causes him to lash out at everybody? Could it be that your customers are just trying to make eye contact so they can ask you a question? Could it be that the shy white man thinks he should lower his gaze in your company? Could it be that the driver has been cutting people up all afternoon? Could it be that your friends have stopped talking to you because they’re not quite sure how to behave in your presence any more? Could there be another explanation?

Over the past two decades, as a white man not presumed to be Muslim, my lowered gaze in the presence of Muslim women has repeatedly been interpreted as hatred of Muslims. I will be the first to admit that, socially inept as I am, I have trouble striking a balance between acknowledging someone respectfully and ignoring their existence. A lowered gaze, as I understand it, sits somewhere between the two, but it is an imprecise science, broadly interpreted through culture, learning and emotional state of mind. Hence my infamous convoluted detours around Sainsbury’s to avoid a hijab-wearing member of staff in whose presence I may once have played the role of excessively polite, presumably non-Muslim white man, demonstrating that not everybody hates Muslims. Lower your gaze too much and you are a rude, impertinent brute; lower your gaze too little and before you know it, it will be the talk of the town.

Assumptions and presumptions are killing our ability to interact with others. Fostered on a social media which frames the non-Muslim world as universally hostile to Muslims, we wander into public with unfounded fears that cause us to find negative explanations for each and every interaction. On one front we become unsympathetic to the feelings of others: we are oblivious to depression, money problems, marital strife, period pains, stress, grieving, illness or any other of a multitude of factors that could account for the particular reaction we received from a stranger one day. On another front we are feeding our own demise, setting up self-fulfilling prophecies, that will only serve to drag us down.

Instead of bringing to life prophetic sunnahs in our own lives — treat others as you’d wish to be treated, forgive him who wrongs you, answer a bad deed with a good deed — we set up false dichotomies. We answer perceived rudeness with rudeness. We respond to perceived wrongs with retribution. We answer a bad deed with another bad deed. And soon our news feeds brim with a sense of entitlement and victimisation. We cannot see each other as humans, each with our own conditions: we are just two tribes, mutually incomprehensible to the other.

Part of growing up is learning to let go of the self-centred ego. The bitter negativity which characterised my younger days was like superglue, thwarting my ability to move forward. The world had a problem with me, I told myself, judging the entire world around me. But of course it was not like that at all. There were aspects of myself which I needed (and still need) to change. But more than that, I needed to recognise that others were as complicated, compromised, confused and anxious as I was. I had to abandon a part of myself, in order to appreciate others more. As a community we need to do the same. This anxious bitterness which characterises our interactions with each other and the outside world is in fact a disease of the heart.

As men and women, there’s only one heart we have been given the ability to read, and that is our own. As that beloved refrain of mine goes: between my soul and God stand my heart and my deeds; nothing else stands between us. The time must have come to turn away from trying to read the intentions of others, towards purifying our own intentions and to act as ambassadors for all that is good and virtuous. Without a doubt there are some who mean you harm; that might be your ticket to the heights of paradise. Without a doubt, there are some who will not respond to kindness with kindness. But know that the world does not stand against you. Treat everybody you meet as an individual, with their own shortcomings, just like your own. Transact with them in the best of ways. Overlook their shortcomings; make excuses for their state of mind.

For, one day, we will stand before the One who truly reads all hearts, and then all truth will be known.

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