Niqaab row brings out the ‘Muslimanders’

A woman in niqaab standing next to a red British postboxTwo days after the controversy over Boris Johnson comparing Muslim women who wear the niqaab to letterboxes and bank-robbers became big news, the party is facing calls to demand an apology from him (which he has refused) and to withdraw the whip from him (which the party currently shows no signs of doing). The former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, has said he will leave the party altogether if he becomes leader; it has been suggested that this announcement from a Remainer will increase his popularity among the pro-Leave base. The issue of Brexit is not really related to this; a lot of the districts outside London where there is a strong Muslim population voted to leave the EU, but a lot of white Leave voters are also white provincials and this includes a lot of racists, as well as those who get their views about Islam and Muslims from tabloids rather than from actually knowing any. On BBC London last night, it was Nigel Farage they turned to for a quote, who said that Johnson’s stance would increase his popularity and that “the country” agreed with him — meaning, of course, small-town provincial England. But there’s more to England, let alone Britain, than small-town provincial England. (More: Masked Avenger with reference to Rowan Atkinson’s defence of Johnson.)

A thing that has been quite noticeable this time as always when the issue of Muslim women’s dress is being discussed on the radio and in the newspapers is whose voices are allowed to be raised and whose are not. The voices of those actually affected by the ‘debate’ — Muslim women who wear the veil — are almost absent, and those we hear are, in roughly descending order, non-Muslims, Muslim women who do not wear the veil of any kind, and those who wear the hijab but not niqaab. Worse, some newspapers invariably turn to a kind of self-publicist I like to call the ‘Muslimander’: the person who says “I’m a Muslim and …” followed by a statement which is at complete variance with what Islamic texts actually say on the subject or what Muslims actually believe or do, and which may actually make Muslims’ lives more difficult. Maajid Nawaz has already posted a tweet thread calling the niqaab “the uniform of medieval patriarchal tyranny” complete with a picture of a woman wearing a shapeless all-over garment with a veil that leaves her eyes partially visible, but that’s just on Twitter. On the Times’s front page, there is an interview with Taj Hargey, who they claim is a “leading imam”, alleging that the niqaab has “no Koranic legitimacy” and is “a nefarious component of a trendy gateway theology for religious extremism and militant Islam”.

Taj Hargey is no stranger to readers of this blog; he’s the guy Jeremy Vine wheeled out on Radio 2’s midday chat show a few years ago to tell listeners that Muslims sexually abused young white girls because Muslims in general believe that white women are immodest, pieces of meat and trash. Vine played on the ignorance of both listeners and his other guest (John Brown of the NSPCC) by reminding the latter that Hargey was an imam; the truth is that he is not the imam of an actual mosque but a self-appointed shepherd without a flock who specialises in hostile publicity stunts calculated to embarrass Muslims. His comment about the niqaab having “no Koranic legitimacy” gives him away to any actual Muslim; Islamic practice is based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the words and actions of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), on the practice of the Companions and on the other upright early Muslims, on consensus, on reason; even the details of the ritual prayer are not in the Qur’an. “It’s not in the Qur’an” is just not an argument a Muslim would use. (As it happens, the requirement of covering the hair and neck is in the Qur’an, but the majority of the rulings in the Shari’ah are not.)

An unhelpful argument that keeps being raised in opposition to Johnson (and to people who advocate banning the niqaab altogether) is the supposedly tiny numbers of women in the UK who wear it — the argument goes “let’s focus on something that matters”. To give one example, someone reposted a thread from 2016 in which she said she could walk for two hours from where she lived in London and not see anyone wearing it. My answer was that if she had done the same walk ten years earlier, she would likely have seen at least one or two. In the early 2000s, virtually every Muslim group had a few ladies who wore it, at least for some time, precisely because it was a Sunnah they wanted to fulfil even if they did not wear it all their lives; after that, the numbers declined precipitously. I do not have any statistics but I remember seeing women wearing it around Kingston all the time, particularly students at the university, and after that affair it disappeared from the streets. Some may think that is a good thing, but the only explanation is that it was the result of hostility and even threats and violence. If it weren’t for such intimidation, the number of women wearing it would be a lot higher. Such violence against women who are harming nobody, especially from men, can never be tolerated or justified.

Finally, I dispute the constant suggestion that there has to be “a debate” on whether to ban the niqaab or not. The only debate is about who is harmed by it, and in the vast majority of cases, the answer is nobody; the women who wear it are just going about their day and minding their own business. Generally we ban something because it causes harm; the chief objections to niqaab are flimsy — people say they cannot read a woman’s expression, for example, but the same is true when you talk on the phone. The simple explanation is that people just do not like it, and very many of the people complaining do not know any Muslims and live in areas where there are few Muslims anyway; they regard Muslims as people who live in “foreign” enclaves in big cities. The general trend in official attitudes towards Muslims has been to foster ignorance rather than knowledge; I have been told by white Muslim female converts to Islam, for example, that they have been asked by healthcare professionals if they have undergone FGM, which is a practice confined largely to parts of Africa when they have no African ancestry.

So, it’s heartening that the Tory party has at least been shaken by this attempt to appeal to ignorant provincialism and racism, but they need to understand that this is not a one-off for Boris Johnson. He has a long history of both racist and Islamophobic writing, some of it of a conspiratorial nature that would be condemned outright if it were about certain other minorities. If they want to prove that they are not just a “white people’s party”, they should make sure he can never run as a Tory for any office again, including his present Parliamentary seat.

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