April 24, 2015
Three thousand miles from the fighting in Syria I was sat with Pakistanis who definitely wouldn’t be giving up their lives here in London for Raqqa. They fit somewhere inside the label of Muslim. Muslim can mean what you want it to. I bristle when I’m called one but that’s because I don’t believe, and I don’t think any religion more special than the next. If you’re right, why isn’t the Jew? The Christian? The atheist? So leave me out of your fight. And here right now with these Pakistanis, being Muslim meant trying to get on in the West, working in law and finance, drinking in Mayfair, calling Mum and telling her that yes, you were fasting during Ramadan but what you didn’t tell her was that, more than being a Muslim, you were just trying to live. We talked about the boys and girls going off to join ISIS, and we could only conclude having come from the same background that it was them, not the West. And that their Caliphate is making life harder for Muslims over here as they play out their childish fantasies of empire. Their reasoning is weak. Are Muslims (Pakistanis amongst them) being sidelined? No. They’re like any other population. Some take opportunity, some don’t. Do areas become deprived? Yes. But we have plenty of ways to move. There’s a romantic notion of an Islamic brotherhood, but Islam isn’t going to take over the world, China is. Every empire has had its day and the world is always in flux, who knows who’s next? Who cares?
My parents did not move here because it was worse than where they were. Animals move for opportunity. I feel fortunate for the chance I’ve been given, and without any exaggeration I’m one step removed from being a farmer in Pakistan. My dad ran a corner shop. I joined the military. It’s about iterations. I’m doing better than Dad, my kids (none as yet) will do better than me. But only because we moved. To this country. I never had to join the military but that I did has propelled me. But has this country not been welcoming? Of course it has. The Muslim doesn’t fear for his religion in the West, we can all point to a mosque. Men can be mostly made to fight, they may need a reason but any excuse will seduce. I know where I am, here in the West. I’ve felt the opportunity – when I got my war medal, when I got my degree, when I acted at the National Theatre, when I won a literary prize. And nobody stopped me. Soldiers embarrassed me with their acceptance, directors encouraged me and teachers pushed me. None of this was easy, but each time I’ve fallen I’ve always found a hand. Maybe it’s not the West. Maybe it’s you, maybe you’re not good enough, maybe you’re not trying enough, maybe it’s you.
So here we were, not those Pakistanis over there in Raqqa, but the other Pakistanis. The ones who know they’re in the West and want to get on with life. We tried for a while to stay on the important subjects, we’d met to talk about ISIS, but it got boring. We’ve grown up with these people and seen them. Be a little bit Muslim, be a little bit White, read the Quran on a Friday afternoon and drink on a Friday night. So drink, drink. I won’t blame you, stop blaming yourself. It doesn’t matter how far you’ve gotten into the trench you can just stop. I’ve also felt the surge in me, when life becomes a little too quiet and lies down like an old man in the road, I’ve felt there’s a fight to be had, that there was something else for me, then in the rush and the crush of this life I’ve found someone to hold, and it’s made me wonder what I’m fighting for. So we bored of talking about them, then we moved on to Pakistan, Sayeeda Warsi, Salman Taseer and we tried to stay talking our serious talk but then the conversation landed on Zayn Malik. Now here was a young boy (it doesn’t matter if he’s a Pakistani) making it. I want to be a citizen of the world but I smiled when I saw him on the cover of GQ. Was proud, I don’t know him but yet, I smiled. I wish the West would stop apologising for itself. You can walk into any restaurant in London and see people from all over the world, being given a chance. Some will make it because they’re smart enough or good enough or try enough. Some of them won’t, that’s life. We’re not equal. I’ve worked in restaurants, I’ve cleaned toilets, I’ve been sworn at and had fights in the street. I could play the victim but I wouldn’t have a reason, just an excuse. There is more than being angry at something that doesn’t exist, there is something else than a weak conspiracy theory. And that’s to live. Here in the West you can live, you can get on. There are too many Pakistanis who have made it and are making it for you to use this as an excuse. And that’s what most of the Pakistanis in the UK are doing. Just getting on. We ordered another drink and carried on.