By Aiman Reyaz, New Age Islam
Just hours after he was placed at a Vodafone outlet in southwest London, Shahid Saleem was taken to a backside room and informed by the store manager that he was being fired. Not simply because he was a Muslim, for then he would not have been hired in the first place, but because he was a Muslim with a beard.
For 21-year-old Saleem, this first brush with Islamophobia, actually “beardophobia”, came as a shock. “The whole time [the store manager] was talking to me, he spoke to me condescendingly in public in front of a Vodafone employee, which completely demoralised and upset me as well as causing me distress,” Saleem later told a reporter. “He did not mention anything at all about my clothes; he only stated that he did not want me working with him if I had a beard.”
Of course Saleem is not the first Muslim, nor the last, to face discrimination on account of his beard. It happens across the global West—North America, Europe and Australia—not to mention many parts of the non-Muslim East as well. Most famously, former Australian cricketer Dean Jones blurted out “the terrorist has taken a catch,” referring to South Africa’s Hashim Amla while commentating during a match some years ago.
And it happens in blatant as well as not-so-blatant ways. Saleem was at least told why he was being fired; many Muslims lose jobs or are looked over for promotions without ever realising that their beard came in the way.
What is it about Muslim beard that pricks non-Muslims where it hurts the most? Psychologists call it “conditioning”. People learn from their experiences and behave on that basis. And “Muslims with beards” have, over the past few decades, given some rather rude lessons to non-Muslims.
Virtually every terrorist attack, be it in New York, Bali, Madrid or London, has been carried out by bearded Muslims. The most prominent faces of Islamist extremism, from Osama bin Laden to Omar Bakri Mohammad, sport long, flowing beards. This has “conditioned” non-Muslims to link bearded Muslims, if not all Muslims, with terror.
Of course, this “beardophobia” is as irrational as Islamophobia itself. Shahid Saleem is no more a terrorist than Hashim Amla, or for that matter most other Muslims who grow beards. It’s a tiny minority that engages in terror, and thinking that all bearded Muslims are terrorists is simply preposterous.
Unfortunately, our minds are not as rational as we would like them to be. As Muslims, we should know this very well. For, don’t we ourselves discriminate against non-Muslims, and many Muslim groups too, for equally ridiculous reasons? Not every Westerner, or for that matter every non-Muslim, is an Islamophobe, yet there are many Muslims who taint the entire “non-Muslim” world as “anti-Muslim”.
Within the ummah, Sunnis discriminate against Shias and vice versa, Deobandis against Barelvis and vice versa, Arabs against Farsis and Kurds and vice versa—and the list goes on—depending on who is in majority or in power. Much of these discriminations are over as arcane reasons as the discrimination over a beard. Indeed, many bearded Muslims themselves discriminate against non-bearded Muslims on the same account: the beard, or its lack thereof.
As victims of Islamophobia and beardophobia, it is important for us to remember that just as there is nothing inherently “terrorist” about Islam or beards, so there is nothing inherently “anti-Muslim” about all non-Muslims (or Muslims who look or behave slightly differently from us). Indeed, neither Islamophobia nor beardophobia has any kind of institutional backing anywhere.
The Shahid Saleem incident took place in September. Vodafone has since investigated it and apologised to Saleem, while also publicly stating that he was not fired; rather it was Saleem who “did not accept the position offered.” Whether that’s true or not, the investigation and apology show that Vodafone concedes the bigotry of sacking someone over his beard. Similarly, Dean Jones was barred from officially commentating on matches by the International Cricket Council, while Hashim Amla, his “terrorist”, has since become the captain of the South African squad.
To shave or not to shave, however, remains a dilemma of Shakespearean proportions for Muslims. Thousands face discrimination because a handful have gone astray. The way out, perhaps, is to let the world know that Islam is a faith of peace and harmony, not guns and bombs. But before that kind of “conditioning” can happen among non-Muslims, we Muslims must learn this lesson ourselves.