Rise above the veil of misinformation about Muslims

When it comes to Muslim-related issues we, in Britain, do things differently. We do not ban the face veil which is worn by some Muslim women, like they do in France and Belgium, and we do not ban mosque minarets like they do in Switzerland.


However, we sometimes have a nasty habit of ‘over-cooking the egg’ when it comes to dealing with Muslim-related issues. Sections of our media and political elites can initiate free-fall discussions that focus disproportionately on our Muslim citizens and their lifestyles; they often create a national hype and debate it on and on until something else comes up. One of the issues is the face veil.

In recent years, the first debate on this issue was initiated by none other than Labour’s senior ‘Muslim-friendly’ politician, Jack Straw, in October 2006, when he wrote in his local newspaper, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, that he would prefer Muslim women not to wear veils at his Blackburn constituency surgeries. His comments got widespread national publicity. In 2010, Jack Straw publicly apologised over his 2006 comments.

Very recently, the face veil issue has again gripped our national media. It started last week when the Birmingham Metropolitan College decided to ban Muslim veils on its campus. Students accused the college of racial and religious discrimination; the NUS Black Students’ Campaign came up with 9,000 online signatures protesting against the college decision and, ultimately, the college backed down. With this and a continuing court case involving a veiled Muslim woman, the debate has now gone viral in the media world.

Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne felt it necessary to call for a national debate on veils. He probably got more than what he wanted, but not in Parliament. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg came out strongly against banning veils in public places, calling it “un-British”. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, waded in by suggesting that it was not the role of the state to tell women what to wear; “wearing niqab should be the woman’s choice”, she said. The latest heavyweight joining the debate was Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt who suggested, “NHS patients have the right to demand their doctor or nurse does not wear a veil;” however, he also insisted that it is a “professional and not political” issue.
Creative and sensational headlines in the tabloids, matched by equally creative and lively discussions in the broadsheets, have been feeding the diet of publicity. The primetime BBC show, “Question Time”, also had quite an interesting discussion on this subject on September 19.

Questions definitely arise – who are these women who, by wearing a piece of cloth on their face, have created such a feverish marathon discussion in the country? How many are there in Britain and why do they wear the veil? Should this be so important an issue deserving such national attention?

The fact that most people would not disagree with is that face veils are worn by only a tiny fraction of British Muslim women and as to why they wear this is anybody’s guess.

What we have heard so far from some of those women who cover their faces is that they do this for religious reasons. But the overwhelming majority of practicing Muslim women do not wear the face veil. This makes the issue religious interpretation which may be linked to culture. Religion and culture are not easy areas in life. Do some of these women wear this because “misogynist men in a male dominated culture” force this on them? It may be the case for a few, but how do we know without talking to them?

Yet some in our media and political world are hell-bent on proving how uncultured or backward Muslims are. This is sheer politicisation of the issue and it does not help the debate. However, on balance, I am generally heartened by the fact that the debate on this issue is gradually getting nuanced, informative and dispassionate – from both Muslims and non-Muslims. Where Muslims are known to differ on everything nowadays, they seem to have come up with smarter and more consistent views on the face veil.

This has been articulated by the Muslim umbrella body, the Muslim Council of Britain, in a statement, “We recognise that there are different theological approaches to the niqab. Some consider this to be an essential part of their faith, while others do not … but Islamic practices allow for certain exceptions, and in the spirit of being reasonable. That debate will continue, but it must be done and led by Muslim women, who freely decide to wear, or not wear the niqab or hijab.”

Personally, I do not want to add anything new to this debate; none within my extended or immediate family wears the face veil. My own view is that it is a woman’s choice according to her understanding of religion, public modesty and human dignity. In a choice-based society people need to accommodate others. In the public arena a good understanding is needed among people for better civil interaction – between employees and employers, students and teachers, service providers and recipients. And unlike on other occasions, I agree with our senior politicians that it is a professional issue, it should be a woman’s choice and it is un-British to think of banning it in public.

Dress is our external symbol and in public life one has to care about our collective security; we have to look after our own as well as others’ safety. For a religious person, one’s inner spirituality is as, if not more, important as external manifestation. Now that enough has been said on this, are we in a position to avoid “storms in our tea cups” and rise above the veil issue by slaying the mythical dragons of misinformation about Muslims in our midst?

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is the Chair of East London Mosque Trust and former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). –Aljazeera

SOURCE: http://www.nation.com.pk/pakistan-news-newspaper-daily-english-online/international/25-Sep-2013/rise-above-the-veil-of-misinformation-about-muslims

Categories: Europe, UK

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1 reply

  1. How many of you remember a whole raft of politicians, feminists, liberals and right-wingers standing as one to declare: One of the reasons we should invade Afghanistan is to save Muslim Women from the Taliban. One of key reasons for liberating Afghanistan, we were told, was to ensure Afghan women can be ‘given a voice’.

    Back in 2001 the former Prime Minister’s wife Cherie Blair and Overseas Development Minister Claire Short were the biggest cheer leaders in focusing their attention towards Muslim Women. Thirteen years later and countless lives lost, the Taliban are reemploying their male dominated will on society. In the last few weeks alone the Taliban have assassinated two female security personnel. It begs the question: was the war in Afghanistan really about women’s rights? If so why are they now being abandoned?

    The same is true about the mock outraged debate in regards to the veil or the Niqab. To watch the news, or listen to the radio stations one would think that the foundation of British society is under threat by a few thousand Muslim women who prefer to wear the veil. Horrified shock jocks give over hours of airtime urging their listeners to be as outraged as they are about the ‘affront to our society’ and to women’s liberation in general.

    This ‘national’ debate came about after a small number of women at Birmingham University requested to wear the veil during their lectures and another woman requested to remain veiled during her court case. Birmingham University reviewed its initial decision to ban the veil on security grounds and will now allow it, and the Judge found a compromise in the court case arguing that if the defendant gives evidence then she must remove it.

    So, where’s the national debate? Why do certain politicians and media people want to talk about this issue ad nausea? The answers are simple: by focusing on this extremely narrow issue which only effects a few thousand women, some people can write or talk about what they see as very negative elements of Islam. The fact that it effects so few people is besides the point, they know that all Muslims are tainted by this debate. And that is the sole reason for its disproportionate coverage.

    The detractors would say, ‘but it’s a legitimate debate to be had.’ Others would say, ‘ its about protecting Muslim women from oppressive Muslim men’. Both are just excuses. If this a legitimate debate, why isn’t there a legitimate national debate that Muslim’s numbering many tens of thousands are amongst the poorest, deprived people in the United Kingdom.

    Equally the rates of infant mortality is the highest within British Bangladeshi families; Somali men have the highest rates of unemployment, and Stop and Search for Muslims are three times the national average. Why are these issues not for public debate? If it was about Muslim women, why then are organisations such as the Southall Black Sisters having their funding cut by local and National Government?

    Where’s the outrage when Asian women’s organisations that support women’s rights are closing on a daily basis? And if its about women’s rights in general, why are we not completely outraged by the main stream sexualisation of young girls, by men in powerful media positions? Lastly, in the fairness of seeing all sides of a community, when was the last time you heard a debate about Muslim women or the Muslim Community that was anything but negative?

    If our outraged shock disc jockeys, politicians and feminists really cared about Muslim women, they would be writing articles and holding programmes about the deep inequality gaps which persist in jobs, education and housing. Sadly these very genuine debates do not pander to prejudice like the veil debate does.
    London School of Islamics Trust

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