Aisha Iqbal: We’ve gone from ‘Paki bashing day’ to ‘punish a Muslim day’ - but there’s only one, correct, thoroughly British response to hate

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The first time I heard the phrase ‘Paki bashing day’ I was about 10 years old.

It was at a time when the walls of my dad’s corner shop would also occasionally be daubed with graffiti along the lines of ‘National Front - Pakis Out’.

A few times, that four letter word - and I won’t apologise for using it - was thrown at me in the playground and it did its job, regardless of its careless and perhaps even innocent use.

It took me a long time to reverse the effects of those words and their implications.

I know for thousands of fellow Brits who happen to have a brown skin or non-white heritage, there will be similar stories to be told.

And this week, we have come full circle it seems, with news of a vile ‘Punish a Muslim day’ letter doing the rounds and talk of families pledging not to leave their homes on the day in question for fear of being targeted.#

I wasn’t sure how to take the letter or its contents at first.

Was it a sick joke, the rantings of a pathetic, attention-seeking but cowardly loner, or a plant by someone with sympathies for an extremist ideology who wants to stir up racial hatred? Each of those are plausible explanations, and each is equally abhorrent - and equally sad.

I did wonder if merely talking about the letter was a counterproductive action - feeding the troll as it were.

And so I was in two minds, even as a journalist, about whether the many column inches dedicated to it were justified or appropriate,

But then I read the comments sections of the stories posted online about the letter, and I realised there was, actually, a real need to acknowledge its existence and respond to it.

Many of those comments were, on some level, even worse than the letter itself.

It’s a simplistic analogy, but replace the word ‘Muslim’ with the word ‘gay’ or ‘Jew’ or ‘black’ and remember that feeling of revulsion in your gut. It’s a universal feeling and it applies to all types of hate speech equally.

The letter and its contents have led, rightly, to widespread condemnation, and I was taken by the words of Conservative MP Anna Soubry in Parliament, who said it was time for Islamophobia to have a proper legal definition - and therefore the same consequences - as other hate crimes.

But aside from the material itself, the other upsetting thing is the realisation that history has and is repeating itself.

Imagine groups of young children in playgrounds across Leeds and the rest of the UK, from different backgrounds, playing happily with each other with no reference to skin colour or religion.

Imagine if even one child has heard the hateful words mentioned, even in passing, and repeats them? Words do hurt. And they echo through time.

There is a dialogue vacuum in our society which means we are collectively failing to address the rise of this kind of hate.

In this social media driven world, there is no longer room for nuance of discourse.

But it’s doing us untold collective damage. Surely the mere existence of the letter is proof of that spiritual and social vacuum?

The aforementioned comments sections - some of them on the YEP’s own Facebook pages - really disturb me.

I really want to understand why anyone would think any of the sentiments in the ‘Punish a Muslim’ letter are OK. Let’s talk about this.

But let’s also appreciate the work of people working in our communities to tackle misunderstandings and foster friendship.

They include former West Yorkshire Police inspector Kash Singh, who will today (Friday) launch his OBON (One Britain, One Nation) initiative for 2018, which engages schools to hold a ‘day of pride and unity’.

And a final word for the Leeds man behind the ‘Love A Muslim day’ riposte, which has now gone viral,

It copies the format of the hateful letter word for word but its call to action contains within it terrifying suggestions like throwing flower petals at Muslims and doing good deeds for charity.

It’s everything that the writer of the original letter isn’t - wonderful and witty and thoroughly, all embracingly, best of British.

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