We don't need another Muslim hero to tell us we are equal members of society
People like Mohammed Rafiq, who tackled the Oslo attacker, are bulwarks against a tide of hatred
If you spotted him walking along your street, you might not have given pensioner Mohammed Rafiq a second glance. With a white bushy beard, traditional southeast Asian attire, complete with a black waistcoat and a craggy, weathered complexion, topped with a white turban, he looks like any other community elder, a face that would blend into the crowd in a Muslim congregation. But you should remember this name, and this face. The man is a superhero.
When an alleged attacker turned up at his mosque, the Al Noor Islamic Centre in Baerum, on the outskirts of Oslo, wearing body armour and carrying several weapons, Mr Rafiq did not hesitate or spare a thought for his own safety before leaping into action.
The retired Pakistani Air Force officer tackled the suspect, pinning him down and wrestling his weapons away from him. He held on, despite the attacker plunging his finger into his eye, “up to the knuckle”, as Mr Rafiq later said. The 65-year-old was one of just three people at the mosque at the time, preparing the venue for celebrations for Eid Al Adha. Had he not acted swiftly, the consequences could have been dire.
Not all superheroes wear capes. Yet his courage is not atypical of others like him.
Think of Abdul Aziz Wahabzadah, who threw a card payment machine at the gunman behind the Christchurch mosque attacks in New Zealand, which claimed 51 lives. As terrified worshippers cowered, he confronted the alleged culprit. “I don't feel like a hero,” he said at the time. “A human being will do what I did." Or think of Farid Ahmed, whose wife Hosne was shot dead as she ran into his section of the mosque to rescue her wheelchair-bound husband. He says he forgives her killer and prays for him.
People like Mr Rafiq are not just Muslim heroes, they are heroes for everyone and bulwarks against a tide of hatred
Then there was Mohammed Mahmoud, the imam of Finsbury Park mosque in London, who held an angry mob at bay and protected terrorist Darren Osborne in 2017 after he rammed pedestrians with his vehicle, killing one man and injuring several others in the crowd. And there were the Muslims waking for suhoor during Ramadan two years ago, who spotted flames tearing through Grenfell tower in London and ran from door to door to alert its residents.
This is what we should conjure in our minds when we think of the word “Muslim”, not the tropes influenced by a white nationalist agenda. We should all – Muslims and non-Muslims alike - admire their bravery and aspire to their high moral standards. The challenge for all of us is how do we rewire our collective cognitive dissonance?
First we must acknowledge that incidents such as the one in Oslo are not just attacks on Muslims, they are attacks on the whole of society. People like Mr Rafiq are not just Muslim heroes, they are heroes for everyone and bulwarks against a tide of hatred.
A recent study by Georgia State University showed that terror attacks carried out by Muslims receive, on average, more than three times as much media coverage in the US than those committed by other groups. Over a decade, Muslims carried out 12.5 per cent of attacks in America but received more than half the domestic news coverage. This is not helped by a US president in denial about the threat from white supremacy, who said there are “very fine people on both sides” after a Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In everyday life, ordinary Muslims emerge time and again to be heroes. They might not always make the headlines. They might simply be helping neighbours with their grocery shopping, or contributing towards their neighbourhoods or communities. But highlighting these examples challenges the stereotypes, the kind that feed hate and terrorist crimes. It’s only when Muslims are accepted as being just like everyone else – whether acting heroically or going about their everyday business – that the battle will be won.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World
Updated: August 15, 2019 11:48 AM