Maajid Nawaz plays to groundless fears over niqaab

Picture of a woman wearing a black head and face coveringWhy I, as a Muslim, believe the veil must be barred in our schools: A provocative view from Islamic thinker fighting for Glenda Jackson’s seat

Maajid Nawaz, the former member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir who was “turned” by Ed Husain and his friends about five years ago, tells the housewives of Middle England and the wives of Tory MPs what he thinks of “the veil”. In doing so he slips in a few inaccurate assertions about Islam itself (which he assumes his readers will not notice, although every Muslim reader will) and justifies needless, media-driven fears about Muslim women, throwing in some irrelevant details about how his friends and relatives dress so as to deflect Muslim criticism.

First, he mentions a handful of well-publicised incidents in which men disguised themselves in niqaab so as to evade the police or flee the country. At least one of these supposed incidents (Mustaf Jama) is pure speculation; it seems there was no record of him passing through passport control, so it’s assumed that he did so disguised in niqaab, a story which has come to be “fact” through repetition. The fact is that passport control staff employ female agents who can check a woman’s identity in private, so there always was a means for him to be identified if he had used this method. If it had been suspected that someone wearing a niqaab and long coat was in fact male, it would not be necessary to lift their veil to ascertain this; you would just have to go up to them and ask them any question (like the time), and men have different figures - usually taller, bulkier, and lacking bosoms, so they are not hard to spot, which is probably how the Pakistani police were able to identify Abdul Aziz Ghazi. The “cultural sensitivity” surrounding niqaab applies to women who wear it for religious or cultural reasons, not to men who do so for criminal ones.

He claims that he “[looks] with increasing exasperation on the niqab – which covers the face – and the burka – the garment that covers the entire body”. However, women have been wearing the niqaab in public in the UK for decades - there was one in my sixth form college in 1993 - and the vast majority do not cause the slightest problem. At that time, there was no identity check on the way in, even though most students were below 18; you just walked straight in, and the same was true of my university campus (Aberystwyth) and it’s still true of many college buildings today. Many colleges do not require a human identity check, but have automated turnstiles, and the reasons may have nothing to do with safety, crime or terrorism but with the increased availability of security equipment and reduced insurance premiums for installing them.

It’s time we tackled head on the genuine security concerns and social consequences of face-veiling in modern Britain. It is not only reasonable, but our duty to insist individuals remove the veil when they enter identity-sensitive environments such as banks, airports, courts and schools. Legally speaking, there is no basis for any exception to be made, but the sad fact is exceptions are being made because we have become too spineless to do anything about it.

Let me make this clear: it is our duty to adopt a policy barring the wearing of niqabs in these public buildings. Here’s my test: where a balaclava, motorcycle helmet or face mask would be deemed inappropriate, so should a niqab. It’s simple really.

No, it’s not. Organisations make decisions on banning things like motorcycle helmets and balaclavas themselves, based on their own security needs. Helmets are banned because they were the standard disguise of armed robbers; niqaabs are not. If that changed, banks and building societies would change their policy. Similarly, hoodies were banned by the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent because wearers caused trouble and could partly conceal their identity; niqaabs were not, because (however many niqaabis actually went to Bluewater) they just minded their own business and actually bought things rather than stealing them.

Recently there have been a few incidents involving further education colleges banning it, and this started after the negative publicity for niqaab generated by the “Jack Straw incident” of 2006, not after 9/11, the July 2005 bombings or any other violent incident involving Muslims, all of which principally involved men. Before this, women wearing niqaab at college was not an issue, and it is clear that it was not the women’s behaviour that provoked any of this. People who disliked it anyway were emboldened to ban it by a wave of public and press hostility, which is why anti-racism campaigners (the “far left” as he wrongly calls them) fought against it.

He then claims that security concerns are particularly relevant to him as he is a prospective MP and has had death threats supposedly from al-Shabaab in Somalia. We should remember that one of his “anti-extremist” circus previously admitted to inflicting stab wounds on himself so he could pretend that extremists were threatening him and that death threats are easy to fake and those it suits to believe them will not ask for proof, and also that his intended constituency has had a Labour MP for decades so he is unlikely to win in any case given the poor standing of his party right now. However, most Muslims would agree that when security is a genuine issue, it is quite right to expect women to remove their face-coverings. The issue is expecting them to unveil when it’s not, such as in your average further education college.

Being a non-devout Muslim who is relatively conversant with Islamic theology, I am also aware that the ultra-conservative view stating Muslim women must cover their faces applies – even within their own medieval framework of reasoning – only when they are outdoors. It is therefore inconsistent to claim that the niqab applies indoors, such as in a school or office environment. Also, Islam universally allows women to show their faces for the purpose of identification, regardless of sect.

Finally, the medieval Muslim rules on religious attire do not apply to children, in any circumstance. So, schools that enforce the headscarf, face veil and burka on children as a dress code are guilty of encouraging a downward spiral that will only end in fundamentalists being the victors.

The claim that veiling applies only outdoors is simply false: it applies to mixed environments and in any place where veiling of the face is the norm, you will see it being worn in any place where there are likely to be men present. The point is that men don’t see one’s face unless it’s absolutely necessary. His claim about “children” is misleading as Islamic law defines a child as purely someone who has not reached puberty (or a set age, usually 15, whichever comes first), and is not responsible for their actions and has no need to pray, fast etc. For a girl, this ends at menarche, which is why some families prefer to encourage girls to wear hijab before this point, if possible, as most girls would not want everyone knowing about their periods, first or otherwise (as well as so that they are used to wearing it long before it becomes a requirement). Much as children above a certain age are legally responsible for their actions in almost every western legal system, older children are in Islam as well.

Besides which, many schools have requirements about what children wear (and these often disappear in the 6th form), and to some children these are no less oppressive than some might find being required to wear hijab. In an Islamic secondary school it is entirely natural that it be a requirement for girls, whether there is a uniform or not, much as Catholic girls’ schools often have a distinct uniform which conforms to traditional gender norms. This minority of Muslim schools are not behaving significantly differently from mainstream schools, including the most prestigious ones.

But common sense and religious consensus seem to have been thrown out of the window in recent years as many young Muslim women – and their far-Left allies – appear to be defending the niqab as a form of ‘rage against the machine’. The niqab, for some, has become an anti-Establishment symbol around which one can rally and relish in the opportunities for confrontation that it provides.

Another entirely baseless claim. It is somewhat ironic how we sometimes see hijab attacked on the basis of freeing women from oppression, but when it appears that it’s being worn by young people on their own initiative, that becomes “rebellion” which becomes another reason to ban it. Further demonstration that the attacks on hijab are conservative and conformist and not really about liberation. Not all the non-Muslims who oppose bans on niqaab are of the far left; they often include grassroots feminists and anti-racism campaigners, but Maajid has no need of the grassroots when he has access to national tabloids (one often finds that feminism as can be found in national newspapers is quite out of touch with what campaigners on the ground are saying or doing).

Trumped-up accusations of Islamophobia that normally follow any attempt to instigate sensible measures to curb the potential risks associated with face-veiling are often enough to stifle debate.

The decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College to drop their plans to ban students from covering their faces on campus is a case in point. The campaign to challenge the college’s plan to ban the face veil galvanised not only Muslims but many far-Left student activists.

The perception of Islamophobia behind bans on niqaab is only a “trumped-up accusation” if the bans were clearly prompted by problems involving the wearers. In no case was this true, and no attempt has been made to prove that staff or other students are particularly bothered by it (they weren’t at mine). In any case, the motivation may not have been Islamophobia but it still removes a right the women previously had and for a reason that is nothing to do with them, so the women (and their allies) decided to stand up for their rights.

There will be many who believe that as a man – even a Muslim man – I have no right to comment on the religious dress of women. But I will take no lectures from anyone presuming a certain level of ‘piety’ who would judge my mother, my sister, and my female friends by how ‘irreligiously’ dressed they are, while telling me to step out of the debate. Instead, I choose to exercise my right to air this debate in public and point out that it is men – very dangerous men, in fact – who are evading our security services disguised as women in burkas.

I do not generally accept the claim that men have no right to an opinion on what women wear - in Islam there are agreed rules on this matter, there is a judgement on those who do not follow them and whoever states the facts about these things is just stating the facts. However, as a man, Maajid Nawaz will not have to deal with the fall-out from this “debate” whenever it appears, in terms of public hostility and even violence. Women will (but, of course, none that are closely related to him). His reference to the “irreligious” dress of his female relatives is an attempt to personalise the discussion, a Lauren Cooper-style challenge of “you disrespecting my family?”, but just because his relatives do not wear niqaab, it does not mean many others do not want to or do not consider it be part of their religion.

The other reason why Muslims do not appreciate his opinion, of course, is that he has no standing whatsoever in the Muslim community, having wasted much of his youth on a dead-end movement that most of us spent that time opposing and warning other Muslims against (while defending its right to operate) and then turning coat, for reasons unknown, at the same time as a handful of others who were enjoying a wave of publicity. He does not enjoy the trust of anyone in the Muslim community, even those of a moderate and traditional tendency, because he and his friends cause persistent embarrassment for us with their poses in front of the hostile media’s cameras (Usama Hasan’s stance on evolution had much the same effect, and indeed Khola Hasan, another turncoat from the same ex-salafi family business, has publicly slandered niqaabis recently). He is a native informant, nothing more, a publicity-seeker who cares nothing for the community Helen is hired to pronounce on.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we have allowed a form of discrimination to creep in against everyone but those who wear the veil. Yes, women should be free to cover their faces when walking down the street. But in our schools, hospitals, airports, banks and civil institutions, it is not unreasonable – nor contrary to the teachings of Islam – to expect women to show the one thing that allows the rest of us to identify them .  .  . namely their face.

The claim of “discrimination” is a typical whimper of someone threatened with denied privilege or required to start looking where they put their feet. It is the women being threatened with discrimination by being shut out of college for reasons that have nothing to do with them and are, in any case, overstated. There have been a handful of incidents in this country of niqaab being abused by terrorists, all of them men on the run looking over their shoulders, who it’s not difficult to tell apart by a number of obvious signs from a woman wearing female clothing going about her normal business. Nobody objects to women being expected to show their faces where there’s a genuine need to identify them, but in most places it’s not a matter of need but of a latent dislike brought to the surface by the press. And there are lots of things we dislike but have to put up with; it’s not a reason to ban something.

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