Moral Maze fails to rebut Mel’s misrepresentations

This week the BBC’s panel discussion programme The Moral Maze discussed the issue of religious symbols, in a week following not only the infamous niqab debate but also an incident where a flight attendant was banned from wearing a crucifix while at work, which as the host Michael Buerk suggested, would lead to accusations of “political correctness gone mental”. The programme featured (as usual) Melanie Phillips, Clifford Longley, Ian Hargreaves and Steven Rose. Among the witnesses appearing this week was Na’ima B. Robert, author of From My Sisters’ Lips, a book about women in the UK who wear the veil.

Stephen Rose, a biologist who describes himself as a secularist with no time for religious symbols, called the actions of those who raised the controversy “totally hypocritical” at a time when the government was moving to enhance the faith schools which he regards as causing the division. Melanie Phillips then opined that people are worried that the UK’s cultural and religious identity is under threat, given that the symbol of the established religion is banned while it’s argued that “it’s fine for children to be taught by someone whose expression they can’t see, or they can’t even hear her properly, in the interests of multiculturalism”. (Note: it was British Airways who prevented the woman, actually a Coptic Christian from Egypt, from wearing the crucifix, so these are none of the same people involved in the controversy over the teaching assistant.)

Na’ima Robert was asked why she wore the veil, and explained that she had started wearing the niqab after a few months of being Muslim, and that it had been a growth in her Islamic awareness and faith; for her, the niqab was an act of worship, something she does “not as a statement, not as a symbol, not as a mark of differentiation per se, but it is literally like praying more often than five times a day”. Wearing hijab is obligatory, while the niqab is something she chooses to do on the basis that it is an extra act of worship. Asked by Michael Buerk if there was a reason for it beyond her own religiosity, she explained that it was to do with modesty, and that if one dresses and behaves modestly, then this has a good effect on society. At a certain stage of her spiritiual development, she decided that her face, besides her “ornaments”, was something she wished to keep private and to share only with those she chose to share it with, rather than being judged by others on the basis of her appearance.

Melanie Phillips then put it to her that the niqab “is not an act of worship, is not a religious expression at all, but a political statement”, “that there is considerable debate among Islamic authorities about how to interpret the injunction on female modesty, and the widespread use of the niqab is actually very recent”. Note that Mel flatly contradicted Na’ima’s own account of why women, including herself, wear the niqab, in effect flatly accusing her of lying. Na’ima Robert acknowledged that there was a difference of opinion amongst Muslim scholars, but that “the two opinions that are based on the proofs are that it is either obligatory or recommended”. She said it was interesting that people were saying to Muslims why they were wearing the niqab, and that surely it is for the woman to say why she wears it, and that for herself and the other women she interviewed for her book, it certainly was not a political statement or a display of affiliation to any group.

Phillips then argued that the most orthodox interpretation of Islam makes no distinction between private and public or between religion and politics and that the niqab was associated with the most politicised which holds that Islamic values hold precedence over all others, including those of the secular state. Ms Robert replied that among more spiritually-oriented Muslims as well as those with political or jihadist tendencies are women who wear niqab, and that the “salafi” Muslims she identified as orthodox were not into politics but only the worship of God. Phillips reiterated the point about Islamic values taking precedence over the secular state, which she said is why both the niqab and the hijab is banned in Turkey and Tunisia, “because those countries recognise that it is a call to holy war; it is not just a symbol, it is a means of spreading holy war, because the more it is worn, the more other women are intimidated or even persuaded; either way, they will wear it, and the intention to wage holy war and overturn the values of a secular state are thus accelerated”.

Ms Robert replied that it is “very necessary to stick with the facts of people’s lives, not with the theories of academics”. Phillips replied, “it’s not theory, these are banned”, and as for why it is banned, Robert said that Phillips would have to ask the leaders, but she suggested that these leaders don’t want Islam in their countries because they have their own way of doing things. Michael Buerk asked Na’ima what her views were on the issue of Aishah Azmi, the teaching assistant dismissed for insisting on wearing the niqab in class when a male teacher was present; she replied that anyone who takes a principled position on anything does so at a cost. “I wear the niqab and I cannot be Miss Britain; I know that,” she said to general amusement.

Phillips blogged the encounter at her site here; Ms Robert has yet to do so (her blog is here). Phillips also declared her support for the persecution of women who wear the veil here:

[The veil] is a political statement of cultural and religious hostility to British society and western values. As I have said before, it is not a symbol of piety — for which the theology is, in any event, highly dubious — but a political weapon of the jihad. It symbolises the belief that Islamic values must take precedence over the secular state. The wearer thus effectively declares her support for Islamising the society. The more prominent the veil becomes on the streets, the more women wear it, either because they are forced or intimidated into doing so or because the enthusiasm spreads itself. Either way it strengthens the forces of the jihad, intimidates and demoralises the host community and helps spread extremism still more widely. It is the veil, and not the criticism of it, that pushes more Muslims into extremism.

Phillips’s mind is clearly closed to the idea that the veil is a religious choice made by individual women; it is merely a symbol of religious-political movements like, perhaps, the Muslim Brotherhood. She practically accused Na’ima Roberts of lying when she said that her own wearing of the veil was a personal and religious choice with no political statement attached. Never mind the fact that shaikhs who have no association with these movements advocate that women wear the hijab because it is compulsory in Islam; never mind the fact that the veil is in fact not banned in most Muslim countries. It has only ever been banned in countries which have fallen victim to alien secularising ideologies such as nationalism and communism. Communism, al hamdu lillah, has been banished from the Muslim world today, but in several countries old totalitarian élites from that era (the likes of Karimov and Niyazov) remain in power, and are known to be brutal in their behaviour towards anyone who dissents. Similarly, Tunisia is not a democracy, but is a dictatorship ruled by acolytes of the late dictator Habib Bourguiba. It has always pretended to be a democracy, as a lot of African dictatorships have, but its legislature is stacked with cronies of the present dictator, Zayn al-Abideen bin Ali.

Turkey, on the other hand, is a “guided democracy” in which political parties with substantial popular support have been banned and even governments dismissed by committees dominated by the military, which has also staged several coups within living memory. It is, thus, a treacherous institution like many third world militaries, which has no real loyalty to the Turkish people, but only to an invented ideology of Turkish nationhood. It is these people who prohibited Muslim women from wearing veils in the country’s state universities as recently as the mid-1990s. Is it “holy war” these people fear? In countries where the head or face veil is commonplace, and which permit normal religious practice, there has been no “holy war”, at least not that could be related to it: Egypt, Morocco, much of sub-Saharan Africa, the Arabian peninsula, Malaysia. If one looks at the numerous religiously-motivated wars and other upheavals which have afflicted the Muslim world, the veil has little or no significance in most of them, even if a feature of it is women being attacked for not wearing it, or for wearing it. In Turkey, the country’s Islamists have (so far) not resorted to force to defeat the alien secular-nationalist ideology; they have used the ballot box, and won, time after time. No: their fear is the fear of the oppressive dictators and the parasitic élites surrounding them throughout the ages, that of losing their power and privilege.

And this is what neither Na’ima Roberts nor anyone else on that Moral Maze programme failed to take Phillips up on: the fact that she was citing a tin-pot dictatorship and a pseudo-democracy, both of which have seen terrible cultural vandalism (such as the sabotaging of a historic Islamic university, the Zaituna in Tunis), as examples of why the secular state should see observant Muslims wearing the required dress as a threat. Does she not see the irony in the fact that the situation of the airline attendant’s banned cross and the teaching assistant’s supposedly permitted niqab is mirrored in Tunisia, where foreign women are permitted to display themselves on the country’s beaches while native women are banned from wearing religious dress, of the sort which was common in the country up until the start of the Bourguiba dictatorship, yet she approves of the latter and condemns the former? The Bourguiba-Ben Ali régime is, incidentally, far from the first oppressive dictatorship in living memory to intrude on its country’s womenfolk - other 20th century dictatorships dictated, for example, how many children women should have or could not have.

In any case, I fail to see why Melanie Phillips cares so much for the “secular state”; the country she lives in is not a secular state, Israel is not a secular state, while the United States is theoretically a secular state but one in which the influence of religion is very clear. What all these countries are, as far as their own populations are concerned, is free countries. Perhaps she thinks the Israeli police should be arresting men for wearing skullcaps or top hats on the streets of Jerusalem, lest they hasten the end of Israeli democracy and the return of the old Kingdom; perhaps the Americans should round up all the homeschool moms to guard against the return of Puritanism. It is only in the Muslim world that she advocates state harrassment of people practising a country’s main religion, which suggests that she spoke from enmity to Muslims rather than from any enthusiasm for secularism.

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