Sarfraz Manzoor on how prejudice works both ways in British Muslim communities


Sirin Kale

Sarfraz Manzoor
Sarfraz Manzoor, author of They: What Muslims and Non-Muslims Get Wrong About Each Other … ‘‘I wanted to tell a story of hope that isn’t naive.’ Photograph: Sarfraz Manzoor

The broadcaster and writer believes mutual respect between different cultures and faith groups in the UK is possible – he hopes his book will change views

Sirin Kale

Fri 20 Aug 2021

When the broadcaster, author and journalist Sarfraz Manzoor started his career, he wrote mostly about the British Muslim experience. But doing this soon grew to feel reductive. Editors would shoehorn his Muslim identity into pieces that were not about religion, or ask him to comment on Pakistani politics as if he were an international relations scholar, rather than the son of working-class immigrants who settled in Luton in the 1970s.

“I felt like people like me were given a postage stamp sized space in which to operate,” says Manzoor. Which is why, after the publication of his 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park, subsequently adapted into the 2019 film Blinded By the Light, he moved on to other topics. He presented documentaries for Radio 4 on everything from Little Richard and test cricket to George Harrison.

But now, aged 50, Manzoor is returning to the subject of British Muslims with his book They, a nuanced exploration of the lives of the 3.4 million Muslim people living in Britain today. (They specifically focuses on Muslims of south Asian descent, the community with which Manzoor is most closely connected.)

You can change people’s minds and inspire empathy more through storytelling than by telling them they’re bigoted

“This book could sound like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re just going on about being Muslim again,’” he says, when we meet in a coffee shop near his north London home. “But it’s a different thing … this is a summation of where I’ve got to, rather than something I could ever have written in my early 30s.”

In They, Manzoor interrogates stereotypes about British Muslims: that they follow a violent religion, are homophobic or antisemitic, or oppress women. He also confronts his own preconceptions, about, for example, women who wear the niqab. “When I read about Islamophobic attacks on Muslim women wearing the niqab, I would feel outrage and sympathy, but also wonder whether it might not be better for everyone if the women weren’t wearing the niqab at all,” he writes in the book.

After meeting four independent-minded niqab-wearing women in Leicester, Manzoor realised he had got it wrong. “I … projected an entire set of beliefs on to women who wear the niqab … and made all sorts of assumptions without having ever had a meaningful conversation with any of them.”

They is, at times, deeply personal: Manzoor writes at length about his family’s struggle to accept his wife, Bridget, who is a white non-Muslim. His older siblings stayed away from his wedding and his mother told him: “I’m never going to allow her into my house.”

Manzoor was motivated in part to write his book after the Finsbury Park mosque attack, which took place not far from his home in 2017. He asked himself: “Is there anything I can do to make a difference? Because increasingly this is starting to feel like a hostile environment.”

He describes They as a “contribution to the conversation”. He is critical of the recent trend for books that attempt to educate white readers about their privilege or provide instruction for being allies. He sees this form of publishing industry-driven identity politics as limiting. “I loathe them,” Manzoor says, and is careful to distinguish They from such works.

Manzoor was motivated in part to write his book by the Finsbury Park mosque attack in 2017.
Manzoor was motivated in part to write his book by the Finsbury Park mosque attack in 2017. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

In initial conversations, “there was an assumption or expectation that the book would be more of a manifesto”, he says. “But that’s not what I’m interested in. What I wanted to do was something that was going to feel more rooted in storytelling, because, frankly, I think you can change people’s minds and inspire empathy more through storytelling than by whacking them around the head and telling them they’re bigoted.”

As a result, sections make for uncomfortable reading: Manzoor does not shy away from confronting prejudicial attitudes within his community, whether it is the antisemitic views expressed by some interviewees, or their almost uniform view that homosexuality is a sin. (One otherwise liberal-minded community leader tells a horrified Manzoor that he convinced a young man who was confused about his sexuality that homosexuality was unnatural. The young man is now married to a woman.) By far the worst chapter to write, says Manzoor, was the chapter on child sexual exploitation (CSE) gangs of Pakistani-heritage men.

He considered leaving the topic out entirely. “But then I felt that certain people would say, ‘He thinks he’s being hard-hitting, but when it came down to it, he chickened out.’” Manzoor is careful to point out that the majority of grooming gang members are white men under 30, not men of Pakistani or Muslim heritage, and that child abuse is explicitly condemned under Islam. But he does write about the tiny minority of Pakistani men who have engaged in CSE, and attempts to unpick the misogynist views that fuel such behaviour. “Pakistani abusers are a tiny minority of a tiny minority,” he writes, “[but] my worry is that this still feels like a handy cop-out that prevents some in the Pakistani community from confronting deeply troubling views towards white women, such as the suggestion that white girls are fine for fun but not for marrying.”

Sarfraz Manzoor with his wife, Bridget, and daughters Ezra and Laila.
They is, at times, deeply personal’ … Sarfraz Manzoor with his wife, Bridget, and daughters Ezra, left, and Laila. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

Does Manzoor worry that such writing will give succour to the racist view that Muslim men are inherently predatory? “I don’t feel any guilt,” Manzoor says briskly. “When you come from a background like I come from, when I’m talking to somebody who is of a Muslim background and they are spinning me a lie, I can say to them, ‘I know and you know that’s bollocks.’ They wouldn’t necessarily admit that to other people, and that doesn’t mean I’m being aggressive, I’m just saying, let’s get to the truth.”

He is at pains to point out throughout the book that some Muslim attitudes towards homosexuality or women’s rights are often no different from those of evangelical Christians, or orthodox Jews. “There are certain people,” Manzoor says, “where it just feels like they knew what they wanted to do and they’re being very selective in their quotes, and they’re just bashing the community. I would hope that what I’ve written comes from an honest, sympathetic place, even if the truth it tells is uncomfortable for some people.”Summer reading: the 50 hottest new books everyone should readRead more

I ask Manzoor whether he thinks we live in an Islamophobic country. His response is characteristically thoughtful. “People can say things about Muslims – people do say things about Muslims – that would not be tolerated about virtually any other group,” he says. “The fact that columnists can do it and there are no repercussions implies there are certain things you can get away with in society. But out there in the world, in the country, are people generally hostile towards Muslims? I have a more optimistic view. I don’t believe that social media or newspaper headlines are necessarily what is in the heart of most people.”

One of the most compelling encounters in They takes place when Manzoor meets Gary Jones, editor of the Daily Express, who, when appointed to the role, made the decision to stop running the Islamophobic headlines for which the newspaper had become notorious. (“Muslim Plot to Kill Pope” and “Muslims Tell British: Go to hell!”, to name just two). “I went into my first news conference,” Jones tells Manzoor, “and said, ‘Look, I know none of you in the room are going to say you’re racist, but we’re not going to publish this stuff again because it’s fundamentally wrong.’” Manzoor notes that “something that was so toxic could be changed overnight by one person’s decision-making and the circulation didn’t change at all.”

They is a determinedly hopeful book. “I wanted to see if it was possible to tell a story of hope that isn’t naive,” he says. And Manzoor has good reason to believe that mutual respect between Muslim and non-Muslim communities is possible. His own mother, after that initial refusal to meet his wife, came to welcome her into the family with love. He pulls out his phone and shows me a photograph of them embracing. “My mum and wife together, happy and smiling together,” says Manzoor, “that’s not what I would ever have predicted when I was 16, you know?”Sarfraz Manzoor: My family said they would boycott my weddingRead more

This gesture of affection between a Pakistani grandmother and her son’s white wife is at the heart of They. Manzoor wants his book to encourage Muslims and non-Muslims alike to recognise their commonalities and celebrate their differences. “I need to think these stories are important,” he says. “These stories of positivity and hope. Not in a naive way, but because this stuff matters.”

  • They: What Muslims and Non-Muslims Get Wrong About Each Other by Sarfraz Manzoor is published by Wildfire (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer at Delivery charges may apply.


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