I always love it when Americans learn about Britain, because the more of you who realize that London is not the name of the whole country and that we do not actually all live in hobbit holes, the better.
Today, though, I was sorely disappointed to see an example of an American failing abysmally to understand Britain. In the Wall Street Journal today, Quillette editor Andy Ngo wrote a truly awful op-ed on his visit to “Islamic England,” in which he describes visiting a few predominantly Muslim areas of London and Luton. Ngo apparently found it quite disturbing, and as the lede of his article illustrates, he was clearly already primed to be very, very afraid:
Other tourists may remember London for its spectacular sights and history, but I remember it for Islam. When I was visiting the U.K. as a teenager in 2006, I got lost in an East London market. There I saw a group of women wearing head-to-toe black cloaks. I froze, confused and intimidated by the faceless figures. It was my first encounter with the niqab, which covers everything but a woman’s eyes.
What... The fuck? FROZEN with fear? He was at least 13, and he was scared of someone wearing a niqab? This is presented as a normal reaction, not worthy of any introspection: of course this impressionable young lad would be afraid of an unfamiliar item of clothing. He continued on by recounting a more recent trip he took over the summer:
My first visit was to Tower Hamlets, an East London borough that is about 38% Muslim, among the highest in the U.K. As I walked down Whitechapel Road, the adhan, or call to prayer, echoed through the neighborhood. Muslims walked in one direction for jumu’ah, Friday prayer, while non-Muslims went the opposite way. Each group kept its distance and avoided eye contact with the other. A sign was posted on a pole: “Alcohol restricted zone.”
This is perhaps the biggest lie in the piece: implying that alcohol was restricted on Whitechapel Road because of its Muslim population. In the UK, unlike most of the U.S., you can drink on most streets, because we’re cool and fun and you guys are weird Puritans. (Just kidding, please don’t email me.) The exceptions to this rule are designated areas where alcohol is banned, which has nothing to do with Islam but are usually targeted at areas where lads and louts gather to drink warm piss beer. (Also, no one makes eye contact in any part of London. Are you mental?) His harrowing ordeal went on:
Women and girls were dressed in hijabs, niqabs and abayas (robes). Some of the males wore skullcaps and thawbs, Arabic tunics, with their trousers tailored just above the ankles as per Muhammad’s example. The scene could have been lifted out of Riyadh, a testament to the Arabization of Britain’s South Asian Muslims. At the barbershop, women waited outside under the hot sun while their sons and husbands were groomed.
Here, Ngo tries to present a scene of deeply un-English horror, the threatening, creeping “Arabization” of not just British Muslims but London itself. But Whitechapel Road also contains, for example, a Starbucks and a fucking Argos, a retailer selling crap furniture and children’s toys which is just about as British (naff, crowded, full of rude people) as you can get.
Inside the East London Mosque, visitors were expected to dress “modestly.” Headscarves were provided at reception for any woman who showed up without one. A kind man on staff showed me around the men’s quarters. He gave me a bag filled with booklets about Islam. In one, Muslims are encouraged to “re-establish the Shari’ah,” or Islamic law. Those who ignore this mandate are “of little worth to any society.”
Inside the East London Mosque—as you can see from the map above, it’s next to a budget hotel and conveniently just around the corner from a Tesco—there was a kind man. Call the bobbies at once. But let’s address his sly maligning of Islam—once again, not explicitly saying what he means, because then he’d have to defend it. The booklet says Muslims should “re-establish Shari’ah,” which signals to racists and morons that these Muslims are determined to force all women to wear headscarves and stop them from driving. That isn’t what Shari’ah is, as Asifa Quraishi-Landes wrote for the Washington Post in 2016:
But sharia isn’t even “law” in the sense that we in the West understand it. And most devout Muslims who embrace sharia conceptually don’t think of it as a substitute for civil law. Sharia is not a book of statutes or judicial precedent imposed by a government, and it’s not a set of regulations adjudicated in court. Rather, it is a body of Koran-based guidance that points Muslims toward living an Islamic life. It doesn’t come from the state, and it doesn’t even come in one book or a single collection of rules. Sharia is divine and philosophical.
But perhaps my favorite bit of this psychotic Wall Street Journal piece happened outside of London:
But I was unprepared for what I would see next in Luton, a small town 30 miles north of London and the birthplace of the English Defense League, which has held unruly anti-Muslim demonstrations. At the Central Mosque, I met a friendly group of Punjabi-speaking young men. “You’ve come to see Luton?” one struggled to ask me in English. The young men asked me to follow them through the town center.
First of all, yes, it’s no wonder that the Punjabi-speaking man was surprised Ngo had come to Luton, which is like a British version of traveling on purpose to Gary, IN. Ngo also seems to have located the one percent of people in Britain who would not only talk to a stranger, but offer to show them around the town; if you did that in Banbury, my hometown, you’d probably have the cops called on you. One time I tried to get a taxi in Banbury after coming home from the US, and a woman shoved my Mum and me out of the way, saying, “We was ‘ere first!”—a much more typical British welcome you can expect.
Within minutes, we walked by three other mosques, which were vibrant and filled with young men coming and going. We passed a church, which was closed and decrepit, with a window that had been vandalized with eggs. We squeezed by hundreds of residents busy preparing for the Eid al-Adha holiday. Girls in hijabs gathered around tables to paint henna designs on their hands. All the businesses had a religious flair: The eateries were halal, the fitness center was sex-segregated, and the boutiques displayed “modest” outfits on mannequins. Pakistani flags flew high and proud. I never saw a Union Jack.
Again, the number of mosques is implied, though not explicitly stated, to be frightening. Girls were painting their hands with henna; how dare they? The area with a lot of Muslims had halal eateries; how DARE they? Not seeing a Union Jack, by the way, is perfectly normal; though I’ve definitely noticed an uptick in UKIPy flag-flying in the past few years, Brits have never flown the flag as much as Americans do. That’s just a cultural difference. It is not frightening, nor is it frightening to see immigrants fly the flag of their home country.
Ngo is yet another Free Speech Guy bizarrely fixated on proving that Islam is inherently bad and violent under the guise of searching for the “truth” while successfully gaining fame for doing so. In fact, he mentions the crusade on his Patreon page, which rakes in $521 a month.
Here are some things that have recently happened in Britain that were not mentioned in Ngo’s piece:
- The distribution of “Punish a Muslim Day” leaflets
- Darren Osborne, a man who police said was “brainwashed” by anti-Muslim propaganda, drove a van into a crowd of Muslim worshippers at a mosque, killing one and injuring 12.
- A record number of anti-Muslim hate crimes being reported in the UK last year, with a 40 percent spike in London
- The survey showing 42 percent of Brits think Islam is “fundamentally incompatible” with British values
As New York’s Max Read pointed out, the Ngo op-ed is playing into a popular trope on the far right, wherein some skinny, under-socialized moron goes to a European country supposedly overrun with Muslims, claims they felt unsafe, and considers that a point proved.
The concept of British “no-go zones” has thrilled and terrified right wingers for years, and anti-Islam figures like UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson have become popular figures among the American right. American conservatives have also developed a bizarre fixation with “saving” Britain specifically from Islam—maybe because of our close relationship and general American Anglophilia, maybe just because we share a language.
Unfortunately, I’m not authorized to speak to America on behalf of the United Kingdom, but on my own behalf: Piss off, Andy.