Many years ago, while I still worked in a school in India, a Muslim leader I followed, told us to use “Islamic English.” We went into a spin because we had no idea what this meant or what we were supposed to do, but it was the directive, so we did the best we could, and pretty much just about wound up putting “halal” and our favourite bits of vocabulary in our dictionary.
It’s been 20 years since then, and now I have my own little school in Manchester and mainly Muslim adults come to school (and pay) to learn English. Not that this is a Muslim establishment. I have the occasional Chinese person and an international student group – but for the most part, they are all part of, the now, Muslim diaspora.
TESOL trained, I have all the standard course books on my shelf – that bunch from Longman, Pearson, Cambridge, Oxford, what-have-you publishers – I bet it’s been a long time since any of those guys stepped into a classroom in England or have any idea of who their students are. Actually, maybe they do, and this, as with so much other stuff, is part of the – aha! conspiracy.
So the books begin in Chapter 1 with conversations in a hotel lobby. Most of my students have never stepped into a hotel lobby bombed out as they were from the beautiful Swat valley straight into Manchester. Chapter 2 will introduce what various people eat, and never has there been a curry in a book. Chapter 3 will be something to do with famous people and not one of them will be an Islamic leader. Not one. Okay, you don’t like Middle East politics – but surely Pakistan's most beloved Mohammedali Jinnah can find a place for the sake of the people he represents. Chapter 4 – Music! For the life of my students, they don’t care, and who does, about some weird drugged out cannabis infected narcisstic unwashed teenage dropout singing in thinly veiled and self-inflicted isolation about the evil world. They are grateful to England. They are grateful for the NHS and for being able to step out into the street without threat of death. For food, for shelter, for homes. There is no vocabulary for these emotions. Gratitude is not a word in modern democracy. They bring it from their repertoire of selfhood. Their citizenship is not about entitlement.
Nor is there any talk of an identity crisis. Nor of women at home.
“I love my home,” a student tells me.
I want to teach her past tense. “What did you do, last weekend?”
“I cleaned my home. I looked after my grandmother.”
“Okay, good. Now what will you do next weekend?” Eye on the future. Will she use will?
“I will clean my house. I will look after grandmother.”
She sees nothing wrong with that. “Don’t you want to go and work in a factory one day, like Nargis, here?”
“Who will look after my grandmother?” she asks in bewilderment.
“Next week, when you give your exam,” I advise her, “And if the examiner asks you, “What will you do next weekend?” or something like that – tell him, “I will go to the museum.”"
As a matter of fact, we did go to the museum. Much of the machinery there, carefully preserved, was stuff we had seen in our industrial neighbourhoods back home. They didn’t know what all the fuss was about. This old beautiful railway station, converted, quite perversely into a warehouse for a couple of textile machines and painted in gaudy colours, all the outrage of the era coloured away. People in fancy dress were quaintly spinning candy floss. “Let’s not get our samosas out,” she whispered to me. “We’ll eat them in the car.” And we did.
We have our wall of heroes in my schoolroom. And some of them are British. Diana. John Lennon. Tim Berners Lee. The people you associate with your freedom. We want them and we cherish them, because yes, ESOL classes are not about anger but bewilderment.
And now I know what it means to have Islamic English. It is an English in which these experiences have a voice. It is yet, unknown and unheard. And if you believe in the power of literature, you know that until it finds a voice it will burst out in acts of outrage, because the civilising power of language, the civilising power of discourse is denied to its people.
What we need is a policy that will bring it to flower. Not in the twisted words of a Farage or Rushdie (conspiracy! conspiracy!) or western Islamic writers who only serve the western conspiracy agenda or perhaps are desperate to earn a living from a handful of silver - but from language that is still waiting to be forged, that is full of the beauties of Islam and universal human values, from people whose experiences are deep and rich and varied and learnt over migration and identity loss and now, it must be, a rediscovery of that identity.