How To Be A Bad Muslim by Mohamed Hassan
I first encountered Mohamed Hassan at the Word Festival in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2020. He spoke at the launch of a book called “Ko Aotearoa Tātou: We Are New Zealand” an anthology in response to the Christchurch terror attack on the Al Noor Mosque on 15th March 2019. He didn’t read his poem like everyone else, he recited it from memory. From deep in his heart. The room went quiet, we all collectively held our breath.
Later that night he performed more poems, read this time from his poetry collection “National Anthem’. His rendition of “(un)Learning my name” was beautiful and the tears ran down my cheeks and I didn’t care who saw them. It is a poem about being taught to say your own name in an acceptable Western way:
“it takes me nineteen years
to learn / how to pronounce
my own name
/ in public
the first time I say it
the way my mother
did when she named me
it feels like I have
He has so much to say that is worth listening to that I was ready for his essays. And I was not disappointed. The first in this collection, ‘Subscribe to PewDiePie’ was so powerful that I stopped reading for a few days, gave it a chance to roll around my head. Then read it again. It is as frightening as it is powerful. It surprises you and, as a parent, it also introduces an element of dread about what is happening in the world.
Everything starts innocently enough, talking about the Swedish YouTuber Felix Kjellberg and his massive following. Online gaming and his off-colour commentary that appeals to youngsters. Each time he got into trouble his pubescent army of followers sprang to his defence. The more he did wrong the more followers he gained. Soon there were sixty million and he was earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. He began to compete with T-Series in India. The #SubscribetoPewDiePie slogan went wild and although eventually the Bollywood T-Series hits grew larger, Felix ended up with 110 million subscribers. But:
“Hidden in the forgiving shade of this circus tent of impertinence were those with more complex intentions…crawling under the skin of the forum community were a group of people who could conveniently mask their real hatred and misogyny in edgy memes. They made racist and sexist jokes and no on batted an eye, because no one really meant what they said. Not on the internet.”
YouTube was just desperate to capitalise on the exponential growth of content. But a trend started to emerge where ‘once seemingly harmless meme politics of the internet had left the keyboards and entered the Real World’ of shootings and mass protests. And then the essay produced its first icy shiver. At home in all this mayhem was Brenton Tarrant. The Christchurch gunman who killed 51 and attempted to kill another 40 Muslims at Friday prayers. As he live streamed his attack for the world to watch, he had one message for those watching “Remember, lads, subscribe to PewDiePie.”
The essay from which the book title is taken is also confronting. In 2014 Mohamed was working as a reporter at TVNZ. It was the time of the ‘Sydney Siege’ when an Iranian-born Australian gunman took eighteen hostages in the Lindt Chocolate Café in Martin Place, central Sydney. As he arrived for work, Mohamed sees every television screen across the open workplace tuned to the siege. He walked across the room towards his desk:
“And that’s when the atmosphere in the room shifted, rupturing along the seams.
One by one, they all looked up from their screens to see me. One by one, their faces went white. First the producers of the evening news desk, then the reporters, then the cameramen, then the shift manager. A blanket fell over the newsroom and no one spoke.
The moment I walked through the door, they had looked up from an image of a Muslim man committing an act of extreme violence to see another Muslim man enter their space. Their space. And they were caught off guard, defenceless and vulnerable. In that moment, even if just for a second, they believed I was the same as the man in Martin Place.”
The gunman had a violent past, multiple counts of sexual assault, banned from most local mosques, and a diagnosed schizophrenic. Eighteen people had alerted the police to his radical online behaviour, including Muslims, but the police had done nothing. The Australian Prime Minister accused the Muslim community of failing to prove they stood for Australian values.
Mohamed goes on to dissect some of the words we see used when talking about Muslims on the news. From Sharia law to jihad or jihadis. What we seem to have missed is that jihad “simply means ‘struggle’ in Arabic, and is used to describe everything from fighting to fasting to financially supporting your parents when they get old.” He talks about his sister Basma who said that wearing the hijab in New Zealand had become exhausting.
“As long as she wore it around her face, she would be judged for all of her actions by both Muslims and non-Muslims. Was she Muslim enough? Good or Bad? The answer depended on who you were talking to.
‘I’m tired of always having to smile and be happy so that people don’t think I’m a terrorist.’”
Being a good or a bad Muslim in the eyes of others is the theme, and I love the way it shines the light right back at us, the ‘Westerners’, and our own prejudice and bias. The same thing recurs in ‘The Last Sober Driver’, an essay that deals with the fact he has never drunk alcohol. Difficult in New Zealand society, where even poetry nights are full of booze. But Christmas parties were worst.
“Everyone was drunk enough to not pay attention
Except this guy.
I would remember every messy awkward thing that happened, every racist thing that was said, each awkward romantic gesture left unrequited on the office floor. I was the silent witness to all of it, and as a result no one trusted me.”
‘How to be a Bad Muslim’ is full of broad ranging essays. It would be wrong to leave you thinking they are all about terror attacks. Within some you can travel far and wide through the world and through time. For example ‘My Country My Country’ begins with a Nigerian born boxer entering a ring to fight under the flag of his birth, when not long before he had accepted national accolades in New Zealand as a New Zealander. We move to the referendum that attempted to change our national flag and potentially remove the Union Jack from the top corner, to attempts to change flags in various Arab nations where arbitrary lines had once been drawn on maps to divide lands and people who belonged to the same ethnic groups. We see Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and his motorcade bringing the streets of Cairo to a halt and finally we see Narcissus and his infatuation. All in the same story; what a selection.
In the essay called ‘A Stranger in No-Man’s Land’ Mohamed tell us what it is like to travel the world as a Muslim. The interrogation, intense search of bags, belongings, phones and laptop, the delays and detentions. Being a journalist as well as a Muslim has made the burden even harder in some places:
“I’m not sure who to blame for all of this – my colleagues in the media and their lust for hyperbole; the politicians lullabyed into the arms of dog-whistle populism; or the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks that have irreversibly changed international travel forever.”
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson