“I am not an extremist. I never meant it as a threat”

British Muslim student Saiqa Riaz swamped with hate mail through Geenstijl.nl

17-09-2009

In May, the law faculty's student association Ouranos organised a debate about the limits of free speech and the role that the PVV leader Geert Wilders had in that. The poster that was used by Ouranos to announce the event was found to be offensive by a young Muslim student. The poster showed the well-known Danish cartoon of a bearded Muslim head with a turban which transforms into a bomb with a lit fuse. Written across there is a verse from the Koran, in Arabic. The student wrote a letter, published it in Observant and was subsequently verbally abused by many through the Geenstijl.nl website. “But I’m not an extremist.”

 

She has returned to England, Stoke-on-Trent to be precise, near Manchester. Saiqa Riaz (22) studies law at the University of Huddersfield and is now in her third year of her bachelor's study. She spent some time in Maastricht as an exchange student at the European Law School last year. Who is Saiqa Riaz?

“My parents are from Pakistan, a lot of my family still live there, but I myself was born and grew up in England. Good family, never any problems. We are Muslims, but my family does not practise it. That is the case with most Muslims, for them it is more a culture than a religion. So no praying in our home, no headscarves or anything like that, I always dressed just like any other English girl, jeans, my hair uncovered. I went to study law because I wanted to work for the Foreign Office, in the diplomatic service. Once I became a student, I therefore put my name down for the Erasmus exchange student programme. If you want to become a diplomat, it is good to go abroad, learn about cultures and adapt.

“During my first year, I had personal problems. I felt very lonely at the university, I was not happy. That is when I started to look at Islam a little closer and at a certain point decided to pray regularly and wear a headscarf. It felt like the right thing to do. I was not forced by anyone, it was my choice. On the contrary, my parents and the rest of the family were shocked, my friends too, but once they saw that I was doing well it was okay, they were happy for me. No, they were not afraid for radicalisation or extremism, I am not aggressive, and I am actually a friendly, social girl.”

 

Praying

Even though she had not been to the university for some time, her results were good enough to be accepted to go abroad for a year within the framework of the Erasmus programme. She ended up in Maastricht; she did not have much choice because Huddersfield only has a few partner universities. “And I have family and friends in Amsterdam, which felt quite close by.”

She arrived on August 29 in 2008; she got a room in the Guesthouse, made friends in Maastricht. “It is a lovely small city, very beautiful; you don’t see many like that in the United Kingdom.”

Right from the start, there was a practical problem. Where could she pray? The Faculty of Law building on the Bouillonstraat is large but also overcrowded, and there is certainly not a room to pray in. “We must pray five times a day. It does not take long, five minutes, or rather, three minutes to be precise. I prefer to so by myself, not in public, with people passing by wondering what you are doing on the ground, I don’t feel comfortable with that.”

She approached the dean’s administration. Secretary Hilde Krul still remembers. : “She was very persistent; I did my best but our building is bursting at the seams. Eventually there was a possibility at Tafelstraat 13, I was really glad that I had managed to arrange something for her. I never heard anything about it after that.”

But Riaz was not satisfied: “Tafelstraat 13 was only open a few hours each day, so not enough. I even tried at the university library, but there were always other people present. You need privacy, and certainly not people of the opposite sex.”

On top of everything, Ramadan started on 1 September, which means no food or drink for up to fifteen or sixteen hours a day at this time of the year. So she did not have much energy, anything that she needed to do outside the building was really too much.

All in all, Riaz felt that the faculty was not very helpful. “In Huddersfield there are two rooms for prayer. I expected something similar here; it is after all an international university, isn’t it? They could have given me a key to a room, I would be done within five minutes and then I would return the key.”

 

Satiric cartoon

The 2008-’09 academic year passed by without much fuss, she passed everything except one block, but that did not deter her from embarking on her third year once she had returned to Huddersfield.

Without much trouble, except for that one incident, last May. That was when she saw the Ouranos posters announcing the debate about Geert Wilders and the limits of freedom of speech. Showing the well-known Danish satiric cartoon.

“I noticed the posters mainly because of the verses from the Koran on that head, with the bomb in the turban. A Muslim head with a long beard and an aggressive face. At the time of that Danish cartoon affair, I avoided looking at it, I knew it would offend me and bring hatred into my heart and I didn’t want that. Even now I tried to ignore it, but they were everywhere around the faculty. Even in the tutorial rooms. During the block of European human rights there was one behind the tutor, you could not help seeing it. When we were finished, I told him that it offended me, 'this upsets me' I said, and he was very understanding and felt that posters should not offend people. Send an e-mail to Ouranos, he suggested. Which was what I did, as it happens I was a member, but when I had not received an answer five days later, I delivered a copy of the letter to the dean. When I did not receive an answer from him either, I sent it to Observant.”

 

Offended

Observant published the letter on May 28 (see www.observantonline.nl). She explained that she was a devout Muslim student and that she and her religion were insulted by this poster, and that Ouranos could have used something else to attract people to the debate, and that these very cartoons had been removed (banned) everywhere, even from Wilders’ Fitna film. Towards the end she wrote: “... if there were more Muslim students here, I am sure they would also complain, and some would maybe even become violent.”

She says now that she was very emotional. “Angry and disappointed, I felt very alone, as if someone had insulted me personally,” and that was clear in the letter: “It was full of spelling mistakes, I do not usually write like that.”

She eventually got an answer from both Ouranos and dean Aalt Willem Heringa. In particular the latter's reaction aggrieved her. Heringa clarified that the posters have been removed because the debate had been held, that he understood her concerns but that this was about a discussion of the freedom of speech, and that it had not been wise to even suggest that people could become violent, or to accuse Ouranos of attacking someone’s religion. He concluded that the role of the academy is to drive the discussion on relevant social issues.

Riaz: “I was disappointed. He was not objective and he proved himself to be ignorant on Islam. He could also have invited me for a debate.”

When Observant asked Heringa, he said that he had no idea how Riaz had taken his letter; he never received a reaction.

 

Violence

But what possessed Saiqa Riaz to hint at Muslim violence? “I didn’t, I never meant it as a threat, and it surprised me that it was interpreted as such. I wanted to point out that violence was used in the past as a result of these cartoons, that was all. I am not an extremist, extremism is wrong, like everyone else I feel it should be fought. It is just that you should not judge a religion by its followers, but by its teachings. There will always be black sheep.”

Still, would she have formulated her letter the same way now? “No, I would write it differently now.”

Riaz received reactions from within the faculty as well. “Some were friendly, but not all, someone just laughed in my face when I seriously tried to explain what I meant.”

 

Geenstijl

But all that was nothing compared to what happened on the Internet. Shortly after publication of Riaz's letter, Observant received a strange phone call from an frenzied UM student who said that she had sent the story on to Geenstijl.nl, drawing nation-wide attention to it. The result was impressive. Whereas Observant articles on the Internet generally get 100 to 200 hits, with peaks up to 500, Riaz's letter was clicked 34,550 times. Within two days Geenstijl.nl overflowed with reactions, 927 to be precise.

The first was a long contribution in English from someone named Brusselmans, who told Riaz in no uncertain terms that she should stop whining about being offended, that it is part and parcel of living in a free world, that she was narrow-minded and ignorant and had no sense of humour. The writer then fulminated against the passage containing the threat of violence: “We are not impressed by it. So we just keep on making up stupid jokes about your stupid religion. By all means. That's what we do. Just for the laugh. And that's what your religion, like any religion, deserves: To be ridiculed with funny pictures.”

Brusselmans’ contribution unleashed a torrent of reactions. All under pseudonym (of the type F. von Zeikhoven; Teun van het Tuinpad; RaerWijf) and the large majority in various degrees of rudeness. There were more than a few PVV supporters among them, including students from the UM. Not that they were always well-informed. There was one ‘Sir Galahad The Pure’ who studies psychology at the UM and continued to proclaim that this university was increasingly teeming with “intolerant hate beards and headscarves”, all brought in by “Rector Jo Ritzen”.  

Another (assuming, like many others did, that Saiqa Riaz is a man) wrote: “Great isn’t it, Muslims at your university? You know for sure that there will be whining and threats. Why don't you go back to your sand land, man?”

Occasionally, there is a more subtle note: “That’s a pity Brusselmans. The guy is just asking politely. Go and shout at terrorists, not at the one Muslim who does show ambition and is studying.”

 

Bombardment

Saiqa Riaz was shocked by the reactions, as far as she could follow them of course, because she cannot read Dutch. After the summer, she wrote another letter to Observant, to explain again. “It was a bombardment of hatred. It showed that people know very little about Islam. An open mind and respect for other people’s feelings, where have they gone? And what about my freedom of speech?”

Indignantly she rejects the suggestion that she does not understand western culture very well. “How could that be? I am a British Muslim; I grew up in the west.”

She has given up her ambition of becoming a diplomat. “I am now focusing on Islamic law.”

 

 

Wammes Bos

“I am not an extremist. I never meant it as a threat”
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archive Saiqa Riaz

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