A social experiment

It’s not easy to be a Muslim in the west these days.

Right-wing fanaticism is at an all-time high. Xenophobia and bigotry against Muslims – even those who are second or even third generation immigrants – are rampant. A wave of Islamophobia is sweeping across the occident. Large parts of Europe, the cradle of modern civilization, seem to be engulfed by a frenzy of ethno-centrism and anti-Muslim hysteria.

My cousin, who lives in Italy, emailed me a link to a story reported by The Independent newspaper. The story featured Hamdy Mahisen, an Italian-Egyptian student, who conducted a social experiment: basically, he dressed in what the newspaper described as “traditional Arabic clothing” and walked around Milan for five hours, while holding the Holy Quran in one hand and Muslim prayer beads in the other. The experiment, which was caught on video, showed how rampant Islamophobia is in a supposedly cosmopolitan city. The young man was shouted at and subjected to a string of derogatory comments, ranging from “Shit! Have you seen The ISIS” to “Look, he has got the Koran. Think he’s got a gun under his tunic?”

I couldn’t finish reading the article. I felt pain radiating from my heart. True, palpable, physical pain. How could these people be so inconsiderate? Since when is a man’s clothing an indicator of what lies beneath?

“Now hold on just a second” I thought. “This will never happen here in Sweden”.
Will it?

I looked up from my computer screen and scanned my semi-dark room with eyes still reeling from the shocking article I’ve just read. A few inches away lies my prayer rug, and a copy of the Holy Quran on top of it. My white Jalabiya (a traditional long robe worn by men in Arab countries) hangs from a coat hanger I hastily stuffed in an overly-cramped, distressed-looking closet.

And then it hit me.

“I should re-produce Hamdy’s social experiment here in Stockholm”

An ephemeral moment of excitement, followed by long hours of apprehension and doubt. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a staunch fan of Sweden and everything it stands for. People say “never meet your heroes”, but I have, and it’s been fantastic. But what if my “hero” – Sweden – had a hidden, ugly side that I don’t know about? What If people sneer at me, much like the Milanese did to Hamdy? Will I be able to go on with my life here as if nothing has happened?

Nevertheless, I was adamant.

Fast forward fifteen hours… There I was, enveloped in ‘traditional Arab clothing’ from head to toe, with the Quran on one hand and ‘borrowed’ prayer beads on the other. “I certainly look the part” I thought. And, despite everything, I couldn’t help but feel a rush of excitement and an adrenaline-induced tingling in my extremities.

The plan was simple: I’ll take the subway to T-Centralen (the central subway station in Stockholm) in rush hour, and just walk around the station for a while. Then, I’ll walk a few hundred meters to Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s picturesque old town which is almost always busy, and just wander aimlessly for an hour or so, and then end the day at Stockholm’s large (and popular) King’s park (kungstradgarden). I chose those places because, as far as I know, they’re among the busiest in Stockholm. I reckoned thousands of people will probably see me in my rather unique attire. This can yield statistically significant results.

Being the center of attention of a large group of people isn’t really a good place for an introvert, but I was set out to do it.

***

There were some looks, definitely. Very subtle, very “Swedish” looks. No sneering, no shouting, and no Islamophobic comments, just pure curiosity. Whenever my eyes meet with someone’s who just couldn’t resist the temptation of looking for just a couple more seconds, he or she would greet me with an awkward smile and look away with an almost apologetic expression on their face.

Gamla Stan, my most favorite place in all of Sweden, was looking pretty ravishing that day. There weren’t as many people as I hoped, but there were many police officers. Thirteen, I counted. I walked towards them with a stern expression and a slightly defiant look in my eyes. “Will they ask me to step aside for a ‘random search’? Will they ask for my residence permit?” I wondered, as I was getting closer to the group. My heart raced as I was walking past them. “They’re law enforcement, it’s OK to feel a bit shaky” I murmured assuredly to myself.
They looked at me, and two of them smiled.

***

I closed my eyes for a while in the subway train. I was tired, cold and happy. I walked for hours in an exceedingly low temperature, wearing something primarily designed to cool down those who live in a desert, and yet I was viscerally satisfied. In my semi-trance state, my mind was comparing the barbaric treatment the man in the video was subjected to, to Stockholm’s adorably awkward reaction to my outfit.

I heaved a sigh of relief and opened my eyes. The man right in front of me was staring at me.

“That’s not a subtle, curious look” I thought. “That’s an accusing look”
I closed my eyes again for a minute or so, and then opened them suddenly. The man was still intensely staring.
“Here we go”, I thought.

For the next four stops, our non-verbal conflict intensified. I gave him my nastiest look, and clutched my fists subconsciously. I wasn’t going to tolerate any verbal abuse. He seemed to want to say something, but my stern look – which I’ve been practicing for some time – seemed to deter him.

When I reached my subway station, and as I was about to get off the train, he finally managed to mutter a few words in Swedish.
“Pardon?” I said. The drums of war were beating loudly in my head.
“Sorry. Your hat is fabulous. Where did you get it?”

(All thanks to my friends Nada and Ibrahim for the beads, the advice and the photo 🙂

Ayman avatar

40 Comments

  • احمد • 17 Apr 2015 at 10.59 am Reply

    انا احمد من مصر اريد التحدث اليك

  • Fer • 9 Apr 2015 at 2.47 pm Reply

    I am sorry, but I did not understand your attempt to explain that most believers of islam do not interpret the Quran as containing calls to violence. You say “Quranic exegesis […] offers different interpretations that emphasizes the context ‘historical and otherwise’ of the verses […].” Without asking for an explanation or interpretation of it, please, consider the verse below, to take one of the many times the Quran calls its followers to violence:
    Quran (2:191-193) – “And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief or unrest] is worse than killing…”
    You mean to tell me that it is wrong to interpret 2:191 and the many other similar verses as calls to violence? That there is some deeper meaning that will be unearthed by studying this thousand-year-old Quranic exegesis? So, if someone wanted to study the Quran by itself, without exegesis, they would not understand that this verse and the many others are not calling for violence? That does not make any sense to me. Why does it simply not have that verse and all the other verses calling for violence? Why the need for a convoluted one-thousand-year-old-and-counting “science” of interpretation? What happens if someone does not believe exegesis or, simply, is ignorant of it? Why not remove those verses if they are no longer valid in our current historical and cultural context? Finally, aren’t fundamentalists like ISIS simply and naturally interpreting these verses in their very clear and unambiguous literal meaning? Aren’t they simply doing what the Quran clearly tells them to do? Would you say they have not understood it? Would you say they limited their reading to the pages between the covers of the Quran and had no time, inclination, or literary skill to study exegesis? Are you telling me that the Quran, by itself, without exegesis or other apologetic or conciliatory efforts, is incomplete? Is is not dangerous without these interpretative or conciliatory efforts? Thus, my first question stands. Would it not be wise to be wary of someone who visually externalized with great clarity these fundamental believes amidst a population of mainly non-believers of islam?

  • Huda Mohammed • 2 Apr 2015 at 12.56 pm Reply

    Thank you for doing this and sharing Ayman. Being a person who wear the hijab (typical Islamic head coverings of a muslim female) all the time, I would say, I’ve never seen any discriminatory acts in Uppsala. That is our “hero” Sweden hasn’t failed us (at least so far) 😀
    Much love and respect for the country and the people of Sweden

  • Anonymous • 2 Apr 2015 at 12.06 am Reply

    I think it was brave of you to conduct this social experiment; however I think the social experiment only showed one side of Stockholm. Swedish people in general are tolerant and respectful, however that doesn’t mean there aren’t discrimination. Being born and raised in Sweden myself but being of Chinese descent I have experienced a lot of racism while I grew up here. I have been called “ching chong” since kindergarten and can still hear some yell at me on the streets even though now that I’m an adult. There is a term which we in Sweden call “vardagsrasism”, stereotypical things people blurt out about another ethnicities’ culture and background. I’m struggling regularly to tear those stereotypical images up. I want to share with you some experiences Swedish people, whose origin lies in another ethnicity, have had.
    For example on this webpage http://sverigesradio.se/sida/gruppsida.aspx?programid=4657&grupp=21240&artikel=5893051 (sorry they are all in Swedish) there are pupils who share their experiences of racism in their own school from teachers and fellow pupils. All ethnicities have experienced some sort of racism, there seems to be a wave of Islamophobia has reached Sweden too. Some of the stories involve pupils making fun of muslim girls wearing whole body covered clothing and call them easter witches (it’s a tradition of children dress up during easter and ask for candies, much like Halloween) but no one defended them, one pupil was called n-word by another pupil and the teacher just replied “Oh he is not that dark”, the teacher never defended the student who was bullied.
    Another story about involving hate crime against people of other ethnicity in Sweden. It happened just two years ago. http://www.dn.se/sthlm/sju-nazister-doms-for-karrtorpupplopp/ There was a friendly demonstration against racism when it suddenly was disturbed by members of Nazi group. Several people in the demonstration were injured.
    And this story about a muslim woman, who was pregnant and suddenly attacked by, to her, an unknown man. She got her head smacked against a nearby car and lost consciousness. It is suspected that it was a hate crime. http://www.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/article17312925.ab
    Conclusion is, Sweden is a tolerant country, but we still have a lot of things to improve.

  • Anonomys • 2 Apr 2015 at 12.04 am Reply

    I think it was brave of you to conduct this social experiment; however I think the social experiment only showed one side of Stockholm. Swedish people in general are tolerant and respectful, however that doesn’t mean there aren’t discrimination. Being born and raised in Sweden myself but being of Chinese descent I have experienced a lot of racism while I grew up here. I have been called “ching chong” since kindergarten and can still hear some yell at me on the streets even though now I’m an adult. There is a term which we in Sweden call “vardagsrasism”, stereotypical things people blurt out about another ethnicities’ culture and background. I’m struggling regularly to tear those stereotypical images up. I want to share with you some experiences Swedish people, whose origin lies in another ethnicity, have had.

    For example on this webpage http://sverigesradio.se/sida/gruppsida.aspx?programid=4657&grupp=21240&artikel=5893051 (sorry they are all in Swedish) there are pupils who share their experiences of racism in their own school from teachers and fellow pupils. All ethnicities have experienced some sort of racism, there seems to be a wave of Islamophobia has reached Sweden too. Some of the stories involve pupils making fun of muslim girls wearing whole body covered clothing and call them easter witches (it’s a tradition of children dress up during easter and ask for candies, much like Halloween) but no one defended them, one pupil was called n-word by another pupil and the teacher just replied “Oh he is not that dark”, the teacher never defended the student who was bullied.

    Another story about involving hate crime against people of other ethnicity in Sweden. It happened just two years ago. http://www.dn.se/sthlm/sju-nazister-doms-for-karrtorpupplopp/ There was a friendly demonstration against racism when it suddenly was disturbed by members of Nazi group. Several people in the demonstration were injured.

    And this story about a muslim woman, who was pregnant and suddenly attacked by, to her, an unknown man. She got her head smacked against a nearby car and lost consciousness. It is suspected that it was a hate crime. http://www.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/article17312925.ab

    Conclusion is, Sweden is a tolerant country, but we still have a lot of things to improve.

  • Mutasim Billah • 1 Apr 2015 at 11.40 pm Reply

    MashaAllah!
    Quite a story. I have fallen in love with Sweden the moment my eyes scanned through the green around Arlanda while my plane was landing, and the love only grew since then. It feels like home now. Now that I have gone through your experiences, I must say I am breathing a sigh of huge relief (and happiness). I haven’t seen anyone dressed like this in the busy areas in Uppsala (can’t say any different from other areas either).
    I come from Dhaka, Bangladesh (we call it The City of Mosques), and frankly, an attire like this is loudly stereotyped there too once in a while. Given that, I’m only grateful to see results of your experiment. No doubt about the statistical significance given the places you walked through 🙂

  • Ibrahim Adam • 1 Apr 2015 at 4.49 am Reply

    Ayman Idris,
    That experience was showed how great are the Swedish, but I’m sure that will not the case in other places within the same Europe. Nevertheless, I don’t agree with the way you did. I would argue that if a Muslim really loves Islam and he want to show non-Muslims that he is really proud of Islam, or he wanted to test how European react toward what is seems as a radical Muslim (Normally Muslims don’t wear Jalabiya and taking Quran in one hand and Sibha in the other one, unless he want to emphasize that he is somehow a radicalist), then he should be ready to tolerate sneering. Simply if you chosed to live in Sweden, which is non-Islamic state, then he would understand what might result of showing that you are proud Muslim, because simply if you are proud about Islam, then you should live in Saudia Arabia or stay at your home Muslim country.

    • Ayman Idris • 1 Apr 2015 at 7.52 am Reply

      Sweden embraces people of all backgrounds. You can be a devout, proud Muslim and still be an active contributing member to society. Your unique background and religious convictions can enrich the country’s cultural fabric 🙂 Islam isn’t a property of Saudia Arabia 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by

  • Amine • 1 Apr 2015 at 12.43 am Reply

    A friend of mine who studied during a semester in KTH just forwarded me this blog. I really enjoyed your article Ayman, I spent a few days in Stockholm last year and really enjoyed this city and its people ! And now I just want to live there !

  • Michael • 31 Mar 2015 at 1.43 pm Reply

    Stockholm people are extremely tolerant of ones culture, religion or sexual preference. That doesn’t mean that we are not terrorised about the crimes of ISIS.

  • Fer • 31 Mar 2015 at 1.13 pm Reply

    I admire your courage and acknowledge your message. Thank you. I have a simple comment and an honest question. Your attire had a purposeful statement. You wanted to convey the very visual message that you have islamic faith. Whether or not you do, and whether or not it is a literal fundamental believe is irrelevant. Your experiment depended on people interpreting that you have deep islamic faith. Naturally, it would be logical to assume that anyone in that attire would have a purposeful statement as well. In fact, the statement would most naturally be the same. Next, consider Sweden, a place where a third of the population do not believe in any form of god and only 5% declare themselves of islamic faith. Now, if you read the Quran, it clearly says many times to kill the infidels, the nonbelievers, the idolaters. There is very little interpretation or unambiguity about it. Question: would it not be wise to be wary of someone who held those beliefs as a fundamental truth in the midst of a majority who do not believe in islam?

    • Ayman Idris • 31 Mar 2015 at 1.48 pm Reply

      Thank you for sparing the time to read the article and comment on it 🙂

      you mentioned “There is very little interpretation or ambiguity about it”, in reference to what you perceived as harsh statements in the Quran against particular groups. This is not true. In fact, Quranic exegesis (Interpretation or commentary, tafsir or tafseer in Arabic) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tafsir – a full-fledged science dating back to more than a thousand years- offers different interpretations that emphasizes the context ‘historical and otherwise’ of the verses many Islam-haters misquote. The absolute majority of Muslims adopt a calm, tolerant and conciliatory interpretation of our religious scripture. we don’t believe that we must ‘kill the infidels and the non-believers’. In fact, it is stated in the Quran that “And say the truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve”, soorat al Kahf-29.

      My point is, there’s no contradiction between being a devout Muslim who firmly believes in the Quran and tries to adhere to its teachings on the one hand, and loving your fellow man or woman and wishing him or her peace and joy and happiness on the other. We’re not blood-thirsty warmongers who want to “bring down the west and wage a holy war” as the media tries so hard to portray us. The absolute majority of Muslims, much like everybody else on this planet, want peace. We love to have fun, we worry about jobs and economic turmoil, and we dream of a better future for our children. We are, believe it or not, normal people like you.

  • Khaled • 31 Mar 2015 at 12.30 pm Reply

    Well done ayman. I’m really happy that you had the courage to conduct this experiment here in Stockholm

  • Islam Alam • 31 Mar 2015 at 12.29 pm Reply

    بصراحة انا منبهر عمري ما فكرت ان المعاملة ممكن تكون كدا و كنت متخوف أني بعد ما اخلص دراستي في اسطنبول و اسافر للماستر السويد هلاقي المعاملة بالشكل ده

    • Ayman Idris • 31 Mar 2015 at 12.31 pm Reply

      هتحب السويد جدا يا اسلام ان شاء الله 🙂 مستنينك

  • Mowafak • 31 Mar 2015 at 12.14 pm Reply

    Waw !! I’ve always found it here very welcoming, but would never expect these great results. Thanks for daring and trying

  • waleed bahar • 31 Mar 2015 at 4.05 am Reply

    Thats really an impressive experiment. I believe that you won’t get the same results even in some middle eastern countries. Now the question is : Is Sweden a country of Islam ?

  • Osman Abdalla • 31 Mar 2015 at 3.45 am Reply

    Brave enough!!! I wouldnt dare actually to do so here in north italy .. the immigration and islam are not topics to joke about ..

  • Hafiz • 31 Mar 2015 at 1.26 am Reply

    That was a treat, I truely enjoyed the article and admire your bravery!!

  • Taha Merghani • 29 Mar 2015 at 9.53 pm Reply

    I am really happy to see a Sudanese youth conducting such an audacious, yet much needed, social experiment.
    مبسوط منك والله

  • Frank Anderwood • 29 Mar 2015 at 10.22 am Reply

    يا مان انا قلت ليك عرس ليك سويدية واقعد قبلك

    • Ayman Idris • 29 Mar 2015 at 10.41 am Reply

      ههههههههههه فرانك اندروود دي جامدة 😀 😀 😀 😀 مفكر في الموضوع

  • Mohamad Akra • 28 Mar 2015 at 7.01 pm Reply

    I can only express my pride of you…

  • Sagda Kabashi • 28 Mar 2015 at 2.02 pm Reply

    I just like the way you share your experiences, attracting, fabulous and interesting, it won’t let you leave the page unless you finish the story. And of course I am glad to know that Muslims can live in Sweden without being abused; physically or verbally.. Thanks for sharing!

  • Ahmed Elmahi • 28 Mar 2015 at 7.29 am Reply

    Nice & wonderful experiment you have done brother Ayman
    You have told us its details as I am walking a side to you 🙂

  • Ahmed Al-Askalany • 27 Mar 2015 at 11.07 pm Reply

    I really like your writing. I am now more in love with Sweden, thanks to your experiment.

    • Ayman Idris • 27 Mar 2015 at 11.26 pm Reply

      glad you liked it, Ahmed 🙂

  • Abdelrahman Karrar • 27 Mar 2015 at 10.59 pm Reply

    Well, considering that Sweden was the first major European country to recognize Palestine last year says a lot on the difference between it and other less egalitarian countries such as Italy. I would of thought the UK would beat the other Europeans to this, given my impression of their fair-mindedness, but it seems that after all, Sweden emerges as the most progressive country in humanitarian values.
    A well written, vivid and informative account. I salute you on your bravery and innovative spirit. Very inspiring. Keep up the good work.

  • Yahia • 27 Mar 2015 at 7.30 pm Reply

    Looks like the people out there In Sweden are nice & objective people. I would love to visit that country someday.

  • Neda • 27 Mar 2015 at 7.16 pm Reply

    Ayman, what a release 🙂 You should publish this at the same The Independent or DN in here.

  • Tricia • 27 Mar 2015 at 5.40 pm Reply

    What a curious experiment with some uplifting results! Well-written post Ayman 🙂

  • Tricia • 27 Mar 2015 at 5.37 pm Reply

    What a curious experiment with some uplifting results 🙂 Well-written post Ayman!

  • Robert • 27 Mar 2015 at 5.20 pm Reply

    Great article! And I loved that you took action and actually repeated did the experiment!

  • Mazin • 27 Mar 2015 at 3.55 pm Reply

    Awesome bro.

  • Abraham • 27 Mar 2015 at 3.25 pm Reply

    You should’ve recorded it and let us experience it as well, but nonetheless cool story bro!

  • Abdalwhab • 27 Mar 2015 at 3.15 pm Reply

    Waw, I am both happy and impressed by the way they reacted. Nice experiment and nice article.

  • Ali • 27 Mar 2015 at 1.29 pm Reply

    Brilliant post Ayman!

    • Ayman Idris • 27 Mar 2015 at 1.38 pm Reply

      Thanks buddy 🙂

  • Alba • 26 Mar 2015 at 7.02 pm Reply

    Wonderful. Thanks for making me smile on a gloomy Thursday afternoon! I like to think that these sentiments are the general attitude in Sweden 🙂

    • Ayman Idris • 26 Mar 2015 at 9.27 pm Reply

      Thanks Alba:)

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