Open season on Muslims

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It seems to have been open season on Muslims in the media the last few days, with three inflammatory anti-Muslim stories becoming front page news in either the morning or the evening papers in as many days. First it was the Pc Bashar story, which turns out to have been exaggerated anyway, but nonetheless made the front pages of the tabloids and was the lead story on Vanessa Feltz’s phone-in, with the host branding it “pick-and-mix policing”. Then there was the “Jack Straw on veiling” controversy, and then the petty incident of the Muslim cab driver who refused to carry a blind woman with a guide dog. I’m not suggesting that these stories were co-ordinated to appear in quick succession, but the fact that any petty story involving Muslims makes the front pages, and do so three days running, is starting to distress me somewhat.

The Pc Bashar has already been exposed as an exaggeration, but it still did not stop Vanessa Feltz discussing it on her three-hour phone-in, inviting a former Flying Squad officer to give his opinion, without knowing the full facts of the case. The Telegraph today made a big thing of Bashar’s marriage being conducted by Omar Bakri Muhammad; one has to actually read the article to find out that OBM did not know that Pc Bashar was a policeman; we all know that he was violently opposed to Muslims voting, much less joining the police and enforcing the “kafir law”. It has been made clear that, were there an incident at the Israeli embassy, Bashar would attend if necessary, but as others have pointed out, it would certainly have been controversial to have a Muslim with Lebanese and Syrian connections standing with a gun outside the Israeli embassy.

Jack Straw’s statement that he found it uncomfortable talking to a Muslim woman with her face covered was made in a local newspaper, and would quite possibly have stayed local, but as ever the London tabloids love an excuse to bash so-called radical Muslims, or at least those who look a bit radical or strident. When it became a national “debate”, he upped the ante by saying he’d prefer that women stop wearing the niqab altogether. As regards women who insist on wearing the niqab when actually dealing with men, such as when doing business or, perhaps, when consulting their MP, Islamic scholars - I mean real ones, such as Imam Ahmad Quduri (source: Reliance of the Traveller, section m2.8) - have given the opinion that it is permitted for men to look at women “because of the necessity of her need to deal with men in giving and taking and the like”. He said he only requested that women remove their veils, rather than demanding, although as Rajnaara Akhtar pointed out, these women were in need of his assistance and therefore were unlikely to feel themselves in a position to refuse.

Mike Marqusee, also at Comment is Free, noted that there are many people who make others feel uncomfortable with their appearance: women with bare midriffs and a ring in their navel (personally, I find women who show their cleavage make me more uncomfortable, particularly if they insist on calling me “darling” when I hardly know them), Chassidic Jews with shaved skulls and side-locks, large white men with Union Jack tattoos, none of whom are being asked to change the way they dress. Personally, I find no discomfort in talking to Muslim ladies in niqab whatsoever. The only time I’ve ever found it frustrating was when I was talking to a sister about marriage and she refused to unveil for the whole session (presumably because she had already decided against marrying me).

The Evening Standard showed breathtaking ignorance in its choice of commentators: Jemima Khan (what an authority!), Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and the usual suspect, Patrick Sookhdeo. Sookhdevil, a media darling with a long record of hostility to Islam and of peddling distortions and outright untruths about Islam and Muslims, said that “in addressing the issue of the full veil, the nikkhon (sic), he has shown that pseudo-religious practice must not conflict with the rest of society”. Where on earth is a veil called a “nikkhon”? Certainly not in any Muslim country that I know of - it sounds like a make of camera. The veil is called a niqab, something Sookhdeo, or whoever quoted him, could easily have found out. He continues, “and there is a further discussion of how much men can get away with abusing women and then covering it up”, as if that is in any way relevant to this issue. If a woman wears the niqab of her own accord and has a happy marriage, who is abusing her?

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a regular writer for the Standard and the Independent who is of Ismaili background, gave the opinion that “Muslim women constantly talk about how Western women dress so why shouldn’t society discuss how they dress?”. The answer is that Muslim women generally do not have access to the mass-circulation media; their opinions are expressed in conversation, on internet fora and blogs and, sometimes, in low-circulation magazines. Cricitism of western women’s dressing habits in the mainstream media is very often done by westerners, in fact. She alleges that the veil came out of the desert and was intended to protect people’s faces from sandstorms, an assertion which does not stand up to any scrutiny. In countries where women veil, men don’t, except perhaps by wrapping their turbans across their faces in the event of an actual sandstorm. In one desert region of west Africa, men cover their mouths all the time, and women don’t veil, sandstorm or no sandstorm. The fact is, the niqab is a religiously-motivated modesty garment. End of story.

There are a number of popular misconceptions about niqab. One is that it is connected with radical Islamic politics, which is partly true in that people adhering to such politics often have wives who cover their faces (or do so themselves, if they are female). However, women who veil can be found in just about every mainstream grouping of Muslims - I encountered at least three among Shaikh Nazim’s followers in London. A lot of those who wear it follow what one might call “Saudi export Salafism”, the strand of Wahhabism found in places like Brixton which is very much opposed to political agitation of all kinds; there are others who are entirely mainstream Muslims and wear the veil, sometimes against the wishes of their family, because they think it is the best thing for a Muslim woman, particularly a young woman, to do. The second is that there is a link with abuse of women, alluded to here by Sookhdeo. In fact, abuse of women such as honour killings and domestic tyranny goes on everywhere, not just in places where there are a lot of women who veil their faces and, indeed, not only where Muslims live. There is ample evidence that a lot of women do wear the veil on their own initiative and not under spousal or other family pressure. In fact, some women stop wearing it because of spousal objection.

And it has to be remembered that niqab has never been associated with terrorism in this country; in fact, I can’t think of anywhere where it has been. There are places where it has been used as a disguise by violent criminals, but this country is not one of those places. While a few women have been charged with such offences as concealing information about terrorist attacks they are accused of knowing of in advance, not all of these women have covered their faces anyway. While a lot of people dislike the custom, the fact remains that veiled women are not associated with trouble, which is why they were not included in the anti-hoodie rules introduced at Bluewater a few months ago. Hoodies cause trouble; veiled women don’t. They mind their own business, and in this country we are awfully good at bellyaching and busybodying about things other people do which don’t affect us.

(By the way, a woman wearing a veil was attacked in Liverpool today according to this report; her veil was forcibly removed by a man who shouted racist abuse.)

The last of these stories - so far - was that about the Muslim cab driver fined £1,400 for refusing to carry a blind woman’s guide dog in his minicab. I happen not to be of the school of thought which would make an issue of the dog’s presence (the Shafi’i school, which is mostly found in south-east Asia, east Africa and parts of the Levant and Yemen), but if the cabbie accused in this case is of that school, I can perfectly understand his reasons. There are other reasons why someone might object to being in a confined space with a dog, such as an allergy to them; if such a person had turned up to pick up this lady and had refused, she still would have been just as wet and cold as she was in this case. I would suggest that, in such cases, it is made clear to the cab company which sends out the vehicle (and, by the way, you cannot hail a minicab; by law, they must be arranged, and the drivers cannot solicit hirings, which is intended to cut out cowboy cab drivers who, among other things, pick up women and rape them) that a guide dog - or any dog - is to be carried so that, if possible, a driver is sent out who does not mind. I appreciate that guide dogs are invariably better behaved than pet dogs, but no Muslim who is of a Shafi’i background would, for example, want a wet dog in the back of a normal car.

In this particular case, leaving a woman, especially a blind woman, stranded at night would have exposed her to great danger, and I believe the man should have carried her (perhaps he should take a plastic shield of some sort with him so that the dog does not come into contact with his car’s interior if he is concerned about the impurity issue). However, I don’t think Muslims have such a control over the minicab industry that an arrangement whereby a cab driver can opt out in advance, for whatever reason, of carrying dogs would make it much more difficult for the blind to get a cab.

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