Considering that Muslims are Britain's largest religious minority group – according to census figures they number more than the UK's Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists put together – it makes it all the more perplexing why there are not more Muslim columnists in our national media. Mehdi Hasan, in his column on online Islamophobia, could name only Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and himself.
It seems that, for many of our fellow citizens, the Muslims they would like to see in our public life – if there have to be any – should be those that are voluble in their gratefulness that they have been allowed to live in the UK but are otherwise utterly docile.
Since I started writing on Cif back in 2006, I have regularly seen what can only be described as McCarthy-style online witchhunts against those Muslims who raise their heads publicly to criticise government policies, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Usually, very little attempt is made to engage with the actual arguments. Instead, the focus is often on derailing the discussion with remarks like: "Yeah, but why did your paedophile Prophet marry Aisha?" Or "What do you think about gays being hanged in Iran?"
When, on my blog, I highlighted the story of a drunken man in New York who'd entered a mosque and urinated on prayer mats, one commenter wrote: "If muslims continue their policies of raping and pimping out underage indigenous girls, as well as sheltering, facilitating, and acting as apologists for terrorists upset with the foreign of the British Government. In fact, if the muslim brotherhood and affiliates continue to operate in the UK I suspect Muslims in the British Isles will look back on the days when all the natives did was piss on them as the 'good' olde days."
And when I wrote a positive story of a Pakistan hotel cleaner who'd handed in $50,000 in cash he'd found in a room, "Alexander" wrote: "the true face of pakiland is the cleansing of Hindu and Sikh minorities since 1948, and the on going deceptions practiced by pakistanis, not some fluff peice about an honest man. Exception to the rule... There is a lamppost and noose waiting for every jihadi that comes back to Britain and their scum enablers and sympathizers. If you can't see that coming you're a delusional idiot. Then again, to believe that that lying arab pervert mohammed was a prophet of God you have to be delusional."
The "war on terror" has helped foster an atmosphere where bigotry against Muslims is often seen to be less offensive than that expressed against other minority groups. And in the thuggish (and usually drunken) shape of the English Defence League, we now have a street movement more than intent on exploiting that bigotry.
Huma Qureshi: 'I know I'm going to get it from both sides'
Reading through the comments responding to Mehdi Hasan's piece, I can see why his wife is sometimes reduced to tears. You need a thick skin, and I didn't (sometimes still don't) always have one.
I started writing about being Muslim and female and Asian for the Observer's comment pages when I was young and inexperienced. I didn't know what to expect and copped out pretty early on after some of the comments started saying horrible stuff directed towards my family, whom I'd mentioned in passing a particular piece. Most of those comments were removed, but at the time they unsettled me enough to ask the comment editor not to run my next piece.
Now that I'm older and wiser, I'm more prepared for what might be in store when I throw myself into the lion's den and write something about Islam.
I know I'm going to get it from both sides. There are some Muslim readers who automatically assume I must be some liberal heathen, who have accused me of "Islam bashing", blasphemy and changing Islam to "suit my whims" - when I've done no such thing. I try to be indifferent, but occasionally these sort of comments make me angry, because for all their talk of piety, who are they to judge me on my faith? I'll engage with them on Cif, but mostly it's like talking to a brick wall.
Then I get it from non-Muslims who use any Cif piece about Islam as a chance to point out what an abusive/violent/oppressive/uncivilised religion I belong to, and how much they hate everything about it and everyone who is a part of it. Again, I try not to get involved, but those comments showing such hatred make me sad, because I don't see myself like that. It seems that, although people often ask to hear the "moderate Muslim voice", when they do they still don't listen.
I choose what I write about very carefully, so I've been spared what some Muslim writers receive. (I mostly get harmless "Can't believe you get paid to write this shit" comments.) But the worst, serious abuse I've got was a lengthy email, sent anonymously after I wrote about Muslim marriage contracts, and listing everything they didn't like about me, saying my marriage was "fucked", that I was an "epic failure", and that I "didn't deserve happiness".
I misguidedly read it while on honeymoon and it left me shaking. It was vile. Part of me is worried that this post might be an invitation to another email from whoever it was. But with hindsight I take it as a backhanded compliment that I provoked such irritation in this reader - that's the way I now try to deal with the comments that hit way below the belt.
Simon Woolley: 'Nothing prepares you for the onslaught'
The online intolerance that Mehdi experienced is often unleashed on racial minorities too, regardless of their religion. Nothing quite prepares you for the onslaught. The most common insult I've received is that I am a "black racist" for heading an organisation - Operation Black Vote – that seeks to tackle race inequality by encouraging greater political involvement from black communities.
Online sites such as the Guardian delete the worst abuse, but on other sites, including YouTube, I've had a glimpse of what I'd see. On YouTube I was just talking about the need for black people to engage in local elections. These were some of the responses:
"You dirty black nigger cunt, why don't you and your fucking kind fuck off to where you come from."
"Simon Woolley I'm certain you shall be rallying the filthy white trash, muslim wogapes and nigger swine and nigger beast, to vote against the BNP."
Unbridled online abuse is bad enough; but when they are followed by threats of violence you have to call in the police. At present there are two court orders against individuals who began with online abuse, then escalated to email and telephone threats of violence. For some it's a natural progression. Incidentally, neither was a BNP member.
I keep asking myself: is the abuse symptomatic of what society real feels about black people, or is it just a vocal minority shouting down the rest? If it's the latter, the intolerant minority are trashing any possibility of a grown-up debate. If it's the former, God help us all!
Nadiya Takolia: 'Would I get these comments if I were white?'
No matter how carefully you choose your words it seems that, as a Muslim, a woman and a member of an ethnic minority, it's impossible to write about a political topic without being accused of being an "Islamist", a supporter of "extremists" or a "mouthpiece" for the Muslim Brotherhood. An article I wrote on the hijab from a feminist standpoint received more than a thousand comments, most driven by narrow, commonly held stereotypes. They reduced Islam to its malpractice in Saudi Arabia and Iran, as though these countries have a monopoly on the faith. Readers concluded that I have "stabbed these women in the back", and – no matter how many times I stated my support for freedom of choice – most judged that I cannot call myself a feminist and be a Muslim at the same time. One comment that stood out for me was: "Nothing attracts more attention than a woman wearing a hijab, you keep wondering when will it go bang". Though I expected some of these comments, I was shocked by the volume of them.
Others entirely fabricated my argument – accusing me of "contempt" for "all non-Muslims", or that I am a "burka" apologist. And some were more directly racist: "Sorry you hate our country. Google 'Heathrow', 'Gatwick' etc. You can buy tickets online." Pity that my family have been in England for three generations and I have nowhere else to call home. Would I be subject to these comments if I were white?
The whole lot disgusts me. I sometimes feel as though attempts to defend myself are futile given the sheer numbers of bigoted comments I am likely to be subjected to – though there is the odd person who states their empathy with your viewpoint. I hate to think that I would self-censor in future, but the fact is that, wary of the torrent of abuse that will come, I will think twice now before I write about any topic.
Bim Adewunmi: 'It's made me wary of writing'
In my first big piece for the Guardian, I wrote about what it was like for me being a black woman on a dating site. The standfirst read: "When one writer joined an online dating site, she was horrified to be called everything from 'ugly black girl' to 'Nubian queen'." The piece ran online, with the added 'bonus' of comments. One read: "I don't see the problem – she's a girl, she's black, and she's ugly." It was, to say the least, unexpected, and left me winded. Over the course of my online writing life, it's turned out to be among the tamer comments I've had. Following my encounter with Diane Abbott on Twitter earlier this year, I was called everything from "cunt" to "racist whore". It's been … challenging.
It seems there exists a set of people who cannot respond civilly to any post about certain flashpoint issues: race, gender and feminism, immigration, and religion; Islam in particular. Many don't even seem to read the piece in full. They range from being dismissive – "oh, who cares?" or "what does this matter?" – to requesting ridiculous citations, to personal attacks – "she's only saying that cos she's ugly/fat/a bitch" – to just all-out aggression and abuse. Some follow you on to social networks to continue with their "feedback".
It's made me wary of writing, and less likely to comment below the line. Knowing that people are trolling isn't very helpful when it's you or someone you know who's being attacked. The language deployed is often deliberately designed to hurt and silence. If I had my way I would ban comments – but of course, that's not the world we live in any more.
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