More on “segregation” pseudo-controversy

Following my entry on the fake controversy over “segregation” (i.e. separate seating for men and women) at Islamic society events in London, Channel 4 News covered the issue this evening, featuring interviews with Maryam Namazie, who they called a “human rights activist”, footage of a demonstration by “One Law for All” and an interview with both Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Omar Ali from the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS). I have also seen people peddling falsehoods on both social media and on mainstream media websites. Also, Andrew Browne on the Guardian’s blogs has tried to re-ignite the controversy about creationism and the expulsion of Usama Hasan from the Leyton mosque, in which he blamed the whole thing on “Wahhabi Islam”. That is an entirely misplaced assumption.

There have been a number of specific lies told about this issue, among them that the separation of men and women is a recent phenomenon by “Islamist” students. The fact is that separate seating has been used in Islamic society events for decades — probably as long as there have been Islamic societies. The ban on casual contact between unrelated men and women is part of mainstream Islam, and exists in all four traditional schools of Islamic law. I have seen some Muslim scholars saying that even the arrangement found in many Islamic societies is unacceptable because the men and women can see each other, and it was not an “Islamist” or a “Wahhabi” who said that. So, it’s not an “increasing problem”; it is one that caused at most a few grumbles until about last year, when various troublemakers decided to make an issue of it. Islamic societies are meant to facilitate the practice of Islam, which includes setting up and running a prayer room and a library, organising lectures on religious topics (and sometimes political ones of interest to Muslims) and organising iftar during Ramadan, if iftar falls within the college day (which it does not, while Ramadan is in the summer). The whole point of them is that they are run for and by religious, practising Muslims, not merely those from a Muslim background, and this is why they implement the separation of men and women in the gatherings: because it’s a Muslim norm, strongly based on mainstream Islamic teachings.

A second is that this is “forced segregation”. It isn’t; nobody is forced to attend the lecture in the first place. These are not lectures that anyone has to attend as part of being a student. Furthermore, “forced” implies that violence is used to make sure it happens; there is no evidence that there has ever been any violence used.

Channel 4 News made a misleading reference to Maryam Namazie as a “human rights activist”. She is in fact an anti-Islamic agitator of long standing and is also associated with the Worker-Communist Party of Iran. “One Law for All”, which she is associated with and which was featured in the C4 News feature, includes a number of WCPI activists. Of course, there are some communists in the UK who have been helpful to Muslims over the years, but the majority have an inbuilt hostility to religion in general and Islam in particular. The fact is that these are a group of activists who have been picking one excuse after another to have a go at Muslims for decades.

After a brief clip of the OLFA demonstration, they cut to an interview with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Omar Ali from FOSIS, the latter of whom sounded quite reasonable while Alibi-Brain repeatedly shouted over him. Initially putting on a sad, solemn tone, she claimed,

“In fact, I think our society and our institutions have been under-reacting to the growth of something, as was said by someone in your package, a rise of Islamicism which is nothing to do with Islam. Let me tell your viewers: there are only five fundamental absolutes in my religion. Beyond that, it is all additions, accretions, things added on, but usually by men and by supplicant women, and a variety of beliefs, and I think that universities in particular, but also other institutions have been under-reacting and falling over.”

The “five fundamental absolutes” no doubt refers to the Five Pillars of Islam, but in fact these are not, and never have been, the sum total of Islam, or of religious obligation. To put this into perspective, the prohibition of murder is not one of them. This is a hugely misleading statement intended to deceive viewers into thinking that Islam can be a religion whose sole manifestation is faith and ritual worship. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When Omar Ali was asked to speak, he made the point that his organisation represented tens of thousands of Muslims and that the term “segregation” was “quite an emotional use of language anyway”, at which point Alibi-Brain started whimpering and the camera cut to her in the studio shaking her head while Omar was still talking. He then said that it was not just Islamic societies but other religious societies which were “democratically elected” and which choose to have separate seating for men and women which was “simply an extension of faith”. Alibhai-Brown interrupted him on two further occasions, on both of which the host gave in to her, at one point exclaiming that it was a university, not a mosque or temple (does she not realise that universities teach Christian theology?). The host put the point to Omar Ali that the British public do not support segregation, as if this were a plebiscitary democracy in which every small detail of public life is subject to a vote. As with other publicly funded (or, in the case of universities, partially publicly funded) bodies, the public do not get a say on such minutiae as whether a student society can separate men and women in its events.

Omar Ali was rather intimidated by Alibhai-Brown’s forcefulness, and was rather waffly in his defence of normative Islamic practice. He did say that they were democratically elected and were there to serve a particular group of Muslim students in a particular context, but was again shouted down by Alibhai-Brown. Further on, she again shouted out in the middle of Omar Ali’s sentence,

“Why don’t you set up your own universities? I’ll tell you what: don’t use our taxes to impose these Saudi Arabian practices. Open your own universities with your own money, do what you like. Do not change our institutions.”

I don’t know if Alibi-Brain has noticed, but Muslims also pay taxes, much as the members of her sect do and as other British residents do. In addition, students are not living high on the hog on taxpayers’ money anymore; students are charged up to £9,000 annually in tuition fees, and that is either their money or their parents’ money. And who is the “we” she talks about? British citizens, or British people of longer standing, or western civilisation, whatever that means? The last I checked Alibi-Brain’s life story, she arrived in this country as an immigrant from Uganda in the 1970s, so she has no more right to speak for the British or western civilisation than the Muslims she despises, many of whom were actually born here.

The ‘story’ is a good reflection on how the British media have become a conduit for PR material, as noted by Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News among other places: much of journalism consists of “churnalism”, rewriting wire copy and press releases from various organisations. In this case a bit of agitation from a small group which has a history of close relations with the media and with media-friendly intellectuals (e.g., AC Grayling) has been made into more of a news story than it is. Yes, it’s true that some people have never liked the practice, but the numbers are considerably fewer than those who approve or who are not interested, and the latter, by definition, do not demonstrate.

The piece by Andrew Brown on the Guardian’s website last Thursday sought to link “Wahhabism” to the campaign to get Usama Hasan out of the Leyton mosque where he was an imam until he openly espoused evolutionist ideas and was driven out by his congregation. Brown claimed that a “visiting imam” (who is not named) at Green Lane mosque in Birmingham had issued a fatwa that Usama Hasan was worthy of the death penalty for both espousing evolution and for supporting women’s right to go out without hijab. He proclaims:

Since these judgments were circulated in jihadi circles, Hasan and his family were in real danger as a result and were granted police protection for a while.

This is shocking enough as an example of what Saudi influence on British Islam can lead to. I’d like to believe that visiting preachers are now rather more careful about what they say in public. But in the absence of hard evidence either way I will maintain an attitude of suspicion. Wahhabi Islam really is a loathsome and dangerous ideology.

Wahhabism is a sect, not an “ideology”, a term people seem to use nowadays to de-legitimise religions they find threatening or distasteful. I’ve written about it quite a lot here in the past and mostly negatively, but these particular positions (if anyone actually took them, and Usama Hasan isn’t just making it up) are typical of extremist elements in many groups within Islam, not just Wahhabism. Wahhabism is distinguished by two particular theological positions: the rejection of figurative readings of the Qur’an and Hadeeth, and the rejection of intercession by the deceased, other than by the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and then only on the Day of Judgement. More recently two other positions have been added: the rejection of Sufism and of following the Four Schools. None of these make someone a violent extremist; the largest groups of Wahhabis shun political activism of all kinds. For someone who prides himself on his rationalism, this cliche about “Wahhabism” shows remarkable ignorance.

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