City Weekend

Founder of Muslim Council of Hong Kong: ‘I would’ve voted for Donald Trump ... he is a blessing in disguise’

Hongkonger Adeel Malik gives his views on the anti-Muslim US President, Islamophobia in Hong Kong, and the threat posed by ISIS

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 March, 2017, 2:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 March, 2017, 2:38pm

Adeel Malik is a Pakistani British Chinese teacher, born and bred in Hong Kong.

The 32-year-old father-of-one left the city aged 15 to study and later work in Scotland. In 2008, he returned to Hong Kong after he and his family became disillusioned by the rising levels of Islamophobia.

In 2015, after taking up a position at public Christian school in the city, he set up the Muslim Council of Hong Kong as an independent body, separate from the Incorporated Trustees of the Islamic Community Fund of Hong Kong, which is an umbrella group for the city’s six mosques.

Following the Paris attacks in 2015, he handed out “letters of peace” in Tsim Sha Tsui, calling on people of all faiths to stand strong against ISIS, but emphasising that Muslim groups should not be expected to condemn every terror attack carried out in the name of Islam.

He spoke to City Weekend about US President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, the problem of Islamophobia in Hong Kong and the threat ISIS poses to the city and mainland China.

What were your experiences as a young Muslim growing up here?

At my kindergarten and primary school, it was mainly non-Chinese, so it was quite multicultural. I didn’t feel like I was out of place. Most of my network was the Pakistani, Indian, Nepali community; it was basically anyone who could speak English or Urdu. I didn’t feel any type of discrimination. For secondary school I went to a Chinese school, Diocesan Boys’ School, in that school I was the only Pakistani. There were 30 other Indians, but I didn’t feel like I was being marginalised. If I felt I was being unfavoured, I didn’t think it was because of my race or religion. Outside of school, I was too young to feel any type of animosity or racism. This topic of Islamophobia was not such a thing 15 or 20 years ago. It is more to do with globalisation, which has come to this part of the world as well.

Now I can relate back and think maybe I was discriminated against, but what I feel in Hong Kong there is more of a passive discrimination. What my mum would always say is that if she sat on the MTR, people would get up or put their hand over their face. But it wasn’t like they were saying something. These days I’ve grown a thick skin and the more practising I’ve become as a Muslim, if they are doing bad then I shouldn’t do bad as well.

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And how would you characterise life for yourself and for other Muslims here now?

It’s natural to get some weird looks. I’m used to it now. But it’s just become part of the parcel, so I just smile and walk past now. In my schools where I teach, I’m teaching in a Chinese Christian school at the moment, I’m the only Muslim, and the first thing people ask about is my beard.

In my last school, the students did an interview with me entitled ‘The Curious Case of Mr Malik’. But for people like myself we actually look for these opportunities to let them know what our beliefs are. They also ask about the dark mark on my forehead, which develops from praying so often.

When you overcome that awkwardness, they become more easy to ask me anything. I have built that friend type relationship, in a professional way. Whether you want to be or not, you are an ambassador for Islam. I once explained to a 15-year-old student what it meant to be a Muslim, and he responded; “But you’re a good guy”. I just smiled and said: “So Muslims can’t be good?” He said “no I didn’t mean that”, but I said “don’t worry, that’s what you’re fed from the television.” Sometimes I feel a bit out of place here until I speak Cantonese with people.

You studied in the UK for a while when you turned 15 but said you returned to Hong Kong in 2008 partly due to Britain experiencing a rise in Islamophobia. What racist encounters did you or your friends and family experience during that period and how did they make you feel?

Living in the UK taught me to be open-minded and creative. I always say the UK is my role model for how Muslims have integrated. But when I lived in Scotland for 10 years; what we felt was that [Islamophobia] wasn’t just something that happened once.

There were a series of events. You want to forget it but you can’t. People would shout “get out of our country” and “you don’t belong here” at the bus stop. Once I was attacked, but I don’t think that was for my appearance necessarily. I got off the bus and these drunkards hit me called me a “Paki”. I didn’t report it to the police, I didn’t think of it as a big thing. It was a short time after the failed Glasgow Airport terrorist attack in 2007 [five people were injured, one terrorist died from burns while the other is serving life in prison]. After that it heated up a bit. We were living in an area called Cambuslang, a suburban town on the outskirts of Glasgow. We thought “let’s let time heal itself and people can calm down”, so we came back to Hong Kong.

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And what differences did you notice in the way that Muslims were treated in Hong Kong when you returned?

In the UK it was more direct Islamophobia. It was in your face, using your mouth or even physical attacks. Here in Hong Kong, it is more passive, a poison of the mind type thing. I even had one student here say to me; “Mr Malik, if I see a woman wearing a headscarf, I walk the other way, because I think she has a bomb in her head.” I asked him why he felt like that, but he said he wasn’t joking, he was serious. I said to him you can’t think like that, there are bad people everywhere, just be positive. I said I am a bearded man who practises Islam how it should be. I always give the example of the Mong Kok riot last year and say if I were to judge every Chinese person by that riot, I wouldn’t speak to any Chinese people.

You have to turn the tables on people, to stop them putting the pressure on you; as Muslims we feel we need to have that skill. Every community out there is doing something bad; there is no angelic community. When I do street Dawah [speaking to passers-by about Islam], people will come up to me and ask if I agree with ISIS, and I say no, do you agree with them?

They say it’s just because there is the word “Islam” in the name. So I say to them, to make them think, “if I call myself a zebra, does that make me a zebra?” I say to them, on the other side, there are Muslims being oppressed around the world the most, and they are being demonised too.

US President Donald Trump has attracted a lot of criticism for what many have termed a “Muslim ban” on citizens from certain nations entering the US. What are your thoughts on this?

When the election race was going on, Muslims heard about the policies of Trump and Clinton and they were divided. For me, it was like choosing the lesser evil. I thought, I would rather choose someone who was in my face, whatever he is in the heart, rather than have someone who is a deceiver. With that mentality, I said “let’s have Trump”. We felt, at least he is telling us what he’s going to do and we can plan accordingly. We felt Hilary was a woman standing behind a curtain and you just don’t know what she was going to do; we felt that was more dangerous. With that mindset in play, whatever Trump is throwing at us, we are reacting back to it. The ban is not nice, it is marginalising people and it is xenophobic.

But for us, what we hold is that there is a verse in the Quran which says “they plan and plot, and God plans too, and verily he is the best of planners”.

As Muslims we do get upset, and that is natural, but we feel this is a decree of God, that Trump is there. But we need to fight it of course, the mirror of the community is the leader. Sometimes you need a bad carrot to bring people together; he is like a blessing in disguise.

How do you think the Hong Kong government could improve life for ethnic minorities here? And specifically for Muslims?

In Hong Kong, they have bigger fish [to fry], like the mainland China/Hong Kong animosity. They have got so many things in their pipeline, that ethnic minorities are at the bottom. You have mainland China, property prices, riots, expenses going up, education, student suicide rates; there is so much happening right now, which is putting us on the back burner. But you do hear about domestic helpers being abused, in that sense ethnic minority rights are being spoken about.

Free Cantonese language classes for non-Chinese people do help, and the government could be giving more jobs to non-Chinese speakers, promoting diversity in the workforce. My six-year-old son, when he was at kindergarten, he struggled with the Chinese curriculum. But now he is at a school in Kwun Tong, and there are two curriculums, one for Chinese and the other is for non-Chinese. And he is finding that better, it is more accommodating. That is what we need to do.

They also need to get more ethnic minorities involved in things like adverts, on television, on the side of buses. You need to send this message and make people think: “Oh, that’s interesting”. At the moment, the ethnic minorities here feel they are either construction workers, in guest houses, or import/export. In universities, you will find more Muslims now, but it is difficult for Muslims to get there because of the language factor. As an ethnic minority here, you feel like you are walking on one leg. But people are still striving; I have ethnic minority friends who are still working here and they are successful.

Through the Muslim Council of Hong Kong (MCHK), what contact do you have with other religious groups in the city and how do you collaborate?

When I set up the organisation, my friends and I thought we are young and we have different way of tackling these issues. We have a modern way of presenting Islam, and that’s what is needed here. We looked around and thought who are representing the Muslims in Hong Kong? And sadly it was just mainly people from Pakistan or India that were not educated in the academic field. They were educated in an Islamic field, but not in academia with international awareness; the mindset was not there. Because they hadn’t lived in a non-Muslim country before; it was the first generation. So that is how MCHK came about.

We had three mottos in mind, number one education, number two fundraising and number three collaborating.

We are open to collaborating with any organisations, Muslim or non-Muslim, as long as we are fulfilling those two other objectives.

On a lighter note

What is your favourite food in Hong Kong and where do you go to get it?

Chungking Mansions is my favourite place to eat. You can never go wrong with roast chicken and naan bread. Snack wise, I sometimes have samosas and pakoras. I do like Western food too, like Subway. I do enjoy a doner kebab at Ebeneezer’s. I like spicy and flavoursome food, nothing bland. At Wan Chai mosque, I like the halal chicken fried rice. And in terms of Chinese food I enjoy fishballs.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live and why?

Two years ago I would’ve said Malaysia. They have halal food, it is quite modern and it feels quite inclusive. We went last year and my wife loved it, my son loved it. But I consider Hong Kong my home; I am Pakistani British Chinese. I try to take that as a positive thing rather than questioning “Who Am I?”

What was your favourite television show as a child?

The Japanese anime cartoon Dragon Ball Z. I liked the kung fu. It was dubbed with English. My cousin, my brother and I would gather round and watch it on a Friday night. It was a boys thing. For me it was like the Marvel comics for youngsters these days.

What is your worst habit?

My inability to stay away from good food; that’s my weakness. My wife would say staying away from my mobile phone. Because of my activism and trying to run everything on social media, it does take up the majority of my time. But I see the results and I want to keep it going. In Hong Kong, we don’t have a lot of platforms to go and do that. A lot of the good things I’ve achieved have been through social media, particularly charity projects.