Them and us, the West and the Muslim world, and the question of who owns the truth

  • Published in The National today

    In 2006, a news story hit the front pages of UK newspapers about a 12 year old Muslim girl – Misbah – who had been “kidnapped” by her Scottish Muslim father and taken back to his family’s home in Pakistan. His marriage to Scottish Muslim convert Louise had broken down after 15 years and four children.

    Misbah, also known as Molly, asserted in front of the world’s media at a global press conference convened in her Pakistani home that she had willingly moved to Pakistan to be with her father and three older siblings and was in no way being forced.

    Alongside having her father painted as a bearded fundamentalist, her mother was portrayed as a deranged drug addict who was an unfit mother after a nervous breakdown.

    Misbah’s story symbolised the war between “us” and “them”, caught between an apparently decadent, broken West and an apparently fundamentalist woman-hating Muslim world. Trapped between these two caricatures, Molly/Misbah’s story was baffling to the West – why would she escape away from the “modern” West towards “backwards” Pakistan, supposed land of forced marriages and female misery?

    What the global media furore showed us beyond the heartache of the family in question was something far more fundamental: depending on who we define as “us” and “them” alters our perception of which version is the truth, and whose story gets to be the final say.

    This week a play My Name is … has opened based on the verbatim accounts recorded by a playwright who spoke to mother, father and daughter. The reality of their stories – their human personal struggles – are of course more complicated than the clash of civilisations narratives that hijacked their story of a painful family breakdown complicated by culture, geography, religion and self-imposed compromises.

    The play is sufficiently removed from the family and media events to prompt us to ask: who gets to tell the story? Who owns the truth? And most importantly, how hard is it for us to accept something that is not how we ourselves accept the “truth”?

    In this case, the Western media could not accept a Muslim girl asserting herself against the grain, and when she did, was baffled how she could leave the “liberated” West?

    When news articles about individual stories start to dominate global discussions, Molly’s tale should prompt us to ask why such a story is being told, and why is it being told in this particular way?

    The story of Boko Haram’s abduction of 200 schoolgirls has gone global, and horrific a story though it is, its effect is heightened because it resonates with a seemingly accepted truth that this is obviously Islamism and Islamists are supposedly violent. But the presumptions of this truth ought to be tested.

    The same presumptions underlie the feting of Malala Yousufzai. The horror of the abduction, and the awesomeness of Yousufzai’s courage are not in question. Rather, how does their global fame reinforce certain truths of “us” and “them”?

    We like the kind of truth that is black and white, and fits with our pre-existing view of the world. While the media can fall foul of this gross simplification, today’s globalised reporting, if ever there was the chance, gives us the opportunity to see other truths, to be both Molly and Misbah.

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