Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
NASEER MUHAMMAD (# 03)
Naseer Muhammad (with his pet dog Brie)
Born in London, England
Father & Mother both born in British India (Pakistan)
Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Punjabi
The 2011 Census indicated that Islam is London’s largest and, without any doubt, most significant minority religion, with over 1 million people claiming to be Muslim. Over 40% of Muslims in England now live in London. The Islamic position on homosexuality is one of the most sensitive issues for Muslims living in the West, and is seen as a major obstacle in the way of greater Muslim integration in Europe.
Naseer attended what he calls a “bog standard” comprehensive school in South East London and went on to a local college to study for his A Levels. Tragically, half way through his course, his younger brother died. Completely disheartened by this turn of events, Naseer quit college and worked for a while in the Civil Service. Based in the Treasury, he soon realised that without higher education, he would be consigned to doing mundane work forever. Spurred on by this realisation, he took a degree in Business Management and then decided to go on to take a post-graduate teaching qualification. Following this, Naseer taught Economics to adults but found his students’ lack of interest and passion for the subject demoralising.
Returning to his studies, he undertook an IT qualification and, on the strength of that, worked for a number of years in major companies in the City. With this experience under his belt, he returned once more to study and pursued a Master’s Degree in research methodology. His thesis explored the rise of Islamophobia in the West, pre- and post-9/11. “The findings were not encouraging,” Naseer says, “as Islamophobia had been widespread before 9/11; afterwards, it almost became respectable.” On completing his Master’s Degree, Naseer had something of a mid-life crisis and decided to give teaching another go. He taught in primary schools, mainly in the East and South-East of London but always felt like a square peg in a round hole ....
Naseer passionately believes that diversity is a cause for celebration not condemnation or persecution. “Thankfully,” says Naseer, “I live in the UK where I am not persecuted for being gay. Growing up here, I was grateful for being tolerated but it is no longer enough, I want to be celebrated as a gay Muslim and a British Pakistani.”
Naseer believes Islamophobia, xenophobia and homophobia have been both his friend and foe. The inability of other people to accept him for being true to himself has had far-reaching consequences. Naseer was encouraged to look beyond his superimposed identity, an identity that had been largely moulded by religious and cultural dogma. “Prejudice and bigotry helped me to muster the strength and resilience to enable me to reject marriage. Sadly, marriage is the reluctant choice many gay and bi-sexual British Pakistani men make, due to the entrenched homophobia in Muslim communities.”
Naseer has been concerned for a long time about the widespread bigotry and ignorance that is still prevalent in many parts of the world, especially the Islamic world. “I lived a privileged, cosmopolitan lifestyle and had cocooned myself from all forms of bigotry. Life had other plans: my work and love-life fell apart in Spring 2012.” During this dark time, Naseer found solace in writing. He began to write about Islamophobia, xenophobia and homophobia based on his personal experiences. Some 60,000 words later and unsure of what to do with this material, a good friend suggested a blog and helped Naseer to create his own, ‘www. bigotryhasnofriends.org’. He is also writing his first book entitled, The Only Dishwasher in the Village.
‘British Pakistani Muslim and Gay’ (BRAKI) has allowed Naseer to embrace and celebrate who he really is. Being born into a conservative Muslim household presented many challenges and possibilities. At the heart of the Islamic faith is the belief that all of creation is equal in the eyes of God and only God alone can judge. However, the picture of Islam which the western media portrays (especially post-9/11) was not the Islam Naseer recognised. “We all know that Islam was hijacked by fundamentalist fanatics,” says Naseer, “I am not a practising Muslim in terms of ritual, but I do hold my faith in high regard.”
One disadvantage of being an outsider, Naseer perceives, is that one is often pre-judged. With a name like Muhammad, one is often assumed to be a fanatical Muslim, perhaps even a potential terrorist. While Naseer has learned to deal with overt racism, Islamophobia and homophobia, they can be very subtle but just as damaging in polite middle class circles. Naseer explains that he lost a well-paid job just because he was British Pakistani, Muslim and gay; though this was never disclosed explicitly, he was in no doubt about the real reasons for his dismissal.
Naseer also mentions the disadvantages he has felt of being “the other” in his own family. While they were very decent and mature about it, his being gay and being diagnosed as HIV-positive did not go down very well, as one might imagine. He was offered all kinds of ill-conceived advice, like: “Get married and carry on with your dirty ways, if you have to,” but after a while, they reconciled themselves to the fact that Naseer was not going to live a lie. Naseer still wonders if they are entirely comfortable. Probably not. Naseer explains: “I came out to my youngest sister at the age of 16; I’m now 43; it has been a long time but I suppose evolution is a slow process.” Naseer tells an amusing story: his first boyfriend was Scottish and when he broke the news to his youngest sister, her response left him bemused. She was not happy that he was called Stewart: “Is he WHITE?”, she demanded to know. “If you HAVE to do it, why don’t you at least find a nice Muslim boy? And I bet you he is not even circumcised!”
A major advantage of being an outsider, Naseer feels, is that he was compelled to confront his own bigotry more quickly and thoroughly than he would probably have done if he had not been an outsider himself. “I believe passionately that ‘bigotry has no friends’; it taught me that what unites us is greater than what divides us. It is only possible for us to respect each person as another individual when we are true to ourselves.” Being an outsider has given Naseer both strength and wisdom but, above all, he believes it has allowed him to know himself.
If given the choice not to be an outsider, Naseer says he would refuse; having reached this stage of his life, he says he feels happy as a outsider: “Belonging for me is defined by cultural and religious norms that can enslave you. They stop you from discovering and celebrating who you really are.”
Interview Date: 26th April 2013
Updated: 26th November 2014
The aim of Naseer’s blog is to confront misinformation and misunderstanding about homosexuality, Britain, Pakistan, Islam and the West; it can be accessed at: http://bigotryhasnofriends.org
The Islamic position on homosexuality is one of the most sensitive issues for Muslims living in the West, a major obstacle in the way of greater Muslim integration in Europe. Naseer is British, Pakistani, Muslim and Gay. Being born into a conservative Muslim household presented many challenges and possibilities but Naseer knew that at the heart of the Islamic faith is the belief that all of creation is equal in the eyes of God and that God alone can judge. He believes passionately that diversity is a cause for celebration not condemnation or persecution; his blog, http://bigotryhasnofriends.org, has allowed him to embrace and celebrate who he really is; and for him, being tolerated is no longer enough, he wants to be celebrated as a gay Muslim and British Pakistani.
Photography: London 26th April 2013