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The stereotyping can start early. Growing up Muslim in a Parisian banlieue, Najett Kaddouri was at the top of her school class every year. When she told teachers she wanted to be a doctor, they'd respond: "Najett, that's just a dream. Think about something you could realistically do." She recalls: "I thought, 'I'm better than the white people in my class. I can do it.'" Eventually she did, but faced hurdles when she donned the hijab. Kaddouri had wanted to wear it since she was 15, but knew that French law meant she had to choose between covering her head and getting an education. "It wasn't just ambition that made me feel education was more important than wearing it, but my religion," she says. "The first word that God said to our Prophet was 'Read.' God gave me intelligence, and I didn't want to waste it."
By 25, Kaddouri was doing well enough at work that she dared to start wearing a head scarf. Her parents, Moroccan migrants, were alarmed. Their brilliant daughter would risk her job over the hijab? Couldn't she just wear it at home? "Don't worry, I know what I'm doing," Kaddouri told them. In some hospitals, nobody minded. But at one, she was asked to remove her scarf. "It's personal," she insisted, mindful that she couldn't say it was religious. She began wearing a surgery cap, until the hospital passed a rule "designed for me," claims Kaddouri banning head coverings of any kind. Suspended for five weeks for breaking the rule, she took the hospital to court for discrimination. Jean-Pierre Burnier, the hospital's chief administrator, defends the decision to suspend her. "[Under laïcité], public services like hospitals have a responsibility to respect [religious] neutrality," he says. "This wasn't just a boss's whim." Two years on, the tribunal's decision is pending, and Kaddouri works as a doctor in other hospitals, wearing a hijab.
Bridging the Divides
Muslims in Britain don't face laïcité, but they must cope with a local tradition held perhaps just as dearly: drinking. "The pub is an important place for bonding and networking in British culture," says Asim Siddiqui, a London accountant. "If you're a Muslim who doesn't drink, it can make it harder to climb up the professional ladder." Looking for an alternative to after-work beers, Siddiqui founded the City Circle, a lecture and charity group aimed at Muslim professionals. On Friday nights, well-heeled Muslims come straight from their offices to nurse cups of tea and catch, say, a Muslim comic doing stand-up, or a lecture on Sufi poetry. Go to a City Circle talk and you won't see a defensive minority turning inward, but educated Britons with the confidence to be self-critical. The week after the July 7, 2005 bombings in London, the weekly panel discussion was boldly topical: "The criminal distortion of Islamic texts."
In the current climate, speaking freely can provoke attacks. Riazat Butt, the religious affairs correspondent at the Guardian newspaper in London, says her major career hurdles came from her own Muslim community: "I've experienced more prejudice and hostility from Muslims than from non-Muslims. Sometimes they get really hostile, saying, 'You're working for the enemy.'" While reporting articles, she's been called a whore, a traitor and a disgrace to Islam.
Such comments reveal a bitter dilemma. Many Muslims, particularly in Britain, feel caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Criticize the radicals, and they're turncoats; criticize the government, and they're unpatriotic. Last year, a group of prominent Muslims sent a soberly worded open letter to then Prime Minister Tony Blair, arguing that British foreign policy fueled extremism. Government ministers denounced the letter, one calling it "dangerous and foolish." The reaction showed that "well-adjusted, contented and successful British Muslims are considered the biggest traitors of all by the powerful in the British state," wrote columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent newspaper. "A new abominable social contract is being offered to us. If you Muslims want to be accepted here, you must ... be prepared for an endless conflict or a life in the shadowy margins where you will be kept confined and contained."
Yet though British Islam is known as a religion of protest for alienated youths, it has also been the catalyst of a powerful work ethic. Islam in Britain, writes sociologist Tariq Modood, has been "finely poised between a religion of the ghetto and a religion of social mobility." For Farhan Qureshi, it was watching Woody Allen's films that inspired him to become a movie director. But Islam provided practical and spiritual spurs to success. Waking up on cold English winter mornings to perform Fajr, the dawn prayer, gave him an extra half-hour to write before setting off for his job as an engineer. Islam, he says, also reassured him that his screenwriting efforts were worthwhile: "It teaches you that good work that one does from the heart won't be wasted."