As I write this, on a beach in Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi coast, a group of five lively Arabic-speaking girls are sunbathing next to our sun beds, sometimes dancing in their bikinis, sipping ice-chilled rosé, and watching Formula 1 racing on a phone. When we get to chat, I tell them that I guess they are from Kuwait. When they say they are from Saudi Arabia, a reproachful voice comes in my head that says: “You thought they were Saudis but because they appeared far removed from stereotypical views of Saudi women, you went with your second best guess. See Donna,” the voice said, “even you, born into an Iranian Muslim family, whose members defy every stereotypical view held about Iranians, give way to your internalised prejudices.”

Ironically, or poignantly, all this happened just as I had finished Mohamed Hassan’s collection of essays, How To Be A Bad Muslim. The book, unlike its title might suggest, is not trying to teach Muslims to ditch their hijabs or take up alcohol, but to encourage them to be true to themselves without worrying about other people’s perceptions or expectations of them.

As Hassan explains, after the events of 9/11, the new “war on terror” language divided Muslims into Good and Bad ones. The Good Muslims were the ones who essentially did not practice their religion in any obvious way and identified closely with Western values (the invisible ones). The rest were the Bad ones who were assumed to be violent by nature, and supposedly held a grudge against the West for encouraging un-Islamic values. This prejudiced view  also demanded all Muslims to apologise and pledge their loyalty to the West every time an act of terrorism was perpetrated by a Muslim individual or a group.

As a practicing young Muslim, Hassan lived and worked through the pressures of this reductionist and paranoid view, and decided he would not camouflage himself in service to its bigoted demands. He writes, “I have to live my life without apologising for it, without negotiating my existence with anyone, there is simply no other alternative. And I guess that makes me one of the Bad ones.”

The fact that Hassan is a well-travelled journalist, with a keen understanding of history and current affairs, gives his writings an extra layer of depth and interest. But the book’s true strength and its emotional punch, are owed entirely to the essence of who Hassan is: a poet with a big capacity to offer and receive love. 

This special quality first became evident to me when I watched Hassan perform his poetry to a live audience at the Christchurch WORD literary festival. I recall thinking to myself that this man had experienced the art of deep loving. As the 13th Century Persian poet, Rumi, puts it, meaningful love is about loving with your heart and soul, not just with your eyes. Islam as a faith (and other religions too) provide opportunities for families and communities to practice the art of selflessness, acceptance, tolerance and devotion. For many Muslims, Islamic institutions and communities act as a cultural anchor and safeguard against feelings of alienation and marginalisation that often lead to extremism.

Hassan writes extensively about his and other Muslims’ experiences of racial profiling and discrimination, both in New Zealand and while traveling abroad.  His essay, “A letter unsent”, about a fictional letter written by a Senior New Zealand Customs Officer, makes for sober reading. It explains how the threat of white supremacy and Islamophobia was ignored at the expense of over-surveillance of Muslims – a policy which essentially provided a shield for the Christchurch mosque terrorist to go undetected, and led to undue targeting and harassment of Muslims by New Zealand intelligence officers.   

Of course there are serious problems with the way Islam is interpreted or practiced by some Muslims or Islamic groups. Groups like ISIS and Taliban are obvious examples. Sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia are rife among many Islamic communities (just as they are among other communities).  If Hassan doesn’t mention this, it’s maybe because the prevailing worldview of Muslims already paints them as backwards and intolerant. The reality is that the majority of 1.8 billion Muslims are peaceful, and believe in a live-and-let-live way of being.

And there are a great many Muslims whose connection with Islam is not through practice or knowledge, but through tradition, art and culture, and the rituals at important events such as weddings and funerals. This is very much the case for my family and majority of my Muslim friends. But we often don’t feature in writings about Muslims – and Hassan’s book is no exception.

The book’s opening essay, “Subscribe to PewDiePie”, put me to shame. When my son was about 10 or 11, he became enamoured of the Swedish YouTuber, Felix Kjellberg (alias PewDiePie). I even arranged for his birthday cake to have PewDiePie’s picture on it. At the time, I thought my son’s fascination with PewDiePie was because of his hilarious commentary on various gaming videos.  I had no idea that his humour was laced with sexism and racism. The YouTuber knew he had a young audience. He referred to them as my “nine-year-old army”. Hassan writes that he openly used the n-word and included anti-Semitic jokes and Nazi imagery in his videos. It was particularly shocking to me to read that the Christchurch mosque shooter was a big fan of PewDiePie’s. 

The debate around whether some digital content should be regulated has been underway for some time now. Hassan does not offer any kind of analysis. In fact, none of his essays offer much analysis. It would have been good to read about a young Muslim’s opinion of how the right to free speech should be balanced with the right of minorities to live in safety and without fear.

How to be a Bad Muslim is more concerned with the realities of Hassan’s life, and the world that shapes it. He writes openly about his struggles with identity, belonging, trauma and mental health.  “I felt confined by the clashing definitions of Islam, Kiwiness and masculinity,” he writes. It’s up to Muslims to choose how much prominence they wish to assign to their Muslim identity but in the West, as Hassan makes clear, they’re not always in control of how much prominence others assign to their identity.

Hassan writes,” I don’t want to think of my identity as a virus. It would break my mother’s heart.” His parents moved to New Zealand because they were not allowed to practice their religion freely in their home country of Egypt. By asserting his identity, as Hassan says, he is also paving the path for a more tolerant and plural society for his young Kiwi nephews to live and thrive in. 

There is a lot in the book for displaced people (such as myself). Hassan’s description of the nostalgia Egyptians feel for their country’s golden past ignited my sense of longing for the pre-revolutionary secular Iran.

He provides grim anecdotal statistics on increased Islamophobia abuse in the aftermath of March 15. And yet I am hopeful the attacks have led to an important shift in attitudes and tolerance towards Muslims in New Zealand. “The police have refused to implement a hate registry”, Hassan writes. I’m not sure what timeline this comment refers to but it’s certainly the case that after the mosque attacks, the police have moved to log hate crimes. It’s a step in the right direction.

Hassan quotes Sara Qasem, a woman who spoke beautifully at the March 15 sentencing hearing, and what she said holds true about the impact of March 15 on our collective consciousness: “The events of March 15 have woven us a thread that is far more integral in the fabric of New Zealand society than ever before.”

We still have a long way to go to eliminate racism and Islamophobia in New Zealand. It’s why Hassan’s book is an essential read in a country where Muslims are consistently surveyed to be the least liked minority group. His collection of essays paves a path for non-Muslim Kiwis to better understand the humanity and experiences of Muslim Kiwis. Just as importantly, the book gives Muslims a language to better express their agonies, while encouraging them not to give in to hopelessness and despair.

How to be a Bad Muslim and Other Essays by Mohamed Hassan (Penguin, $35) is available in bookstores nationwide.

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