November issue 2006

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

Late September, it emerged that the so-called Mufti of Australia, Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali, had made an extraordinary claim in a sermon delivered in a Sydney mosque during Ramadan. “If you take uncovered meat and place it outside,” he said, “and the cats come and eat it … whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat’s? The uncovered meat is the problem.”

If the congregation was paying attention, it couldn’t have been too difficult to guess what he was going on about. His next sentence made it all too clear: “If she was in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.” He went on to condemn women who sway suggestively or wear make-up. “Then,” he added, “you get a judge without mercy … and he gives you 65 years.”

If Hilali’s crude analogy and its perverse implications perturbed any member of the congregation, they decided against speaking out. Needless to say, all hell broke loose when a translation of the sermon, originally delivered in Arabic, finally appeared in print. Not surprisingly, it was taken to be an attempt to blame the victims of rape for their ordeal. Minus the feline imagery, the Sheikh’s words could be interpreted thus: ‘If women refuse to cover up adequately, how can you blame men for sexually assaulting them?’

Inevitably, the controversy brought out the bigots who, on such occasions, are quick to claim that cultural incompatibilities mean Australia is no place for Muslims. At the same time, fortunately, some of the most vociferous criticism against Hilali came from Muslim women, as well as from Islamic organisations that dispute his claim to be the spiritual leader of all Australian Muslims.

In the wake of the reaction, Hilali did not exactly disown his remarks, but he claimed they were taken out of context. And, amid calls for his deportation, he offered an apology of sorts. “I would like to unequivocally confirm that the presentation related to religious teachings on modesty and not to go to extremes in enticements,” he disingenuously pointed out. “This does not condone rape. I condemn rape. Women in our Australian society have the freedom and right to dress as they choose; the duty of man is to avert his glance or walk away.”

The Sheikh chose the latter option by taking a three-month leave of absence, during which he expects to perform Haj, leaving behind the impression that at least some of the Muslims living in Australia are unperturbed by his comparison of women with meat.

It didn’t take long for Hilali’s outrageous comments to reach all parts of the world, including faraway Britain, where a related debate — albeit from a rather different angle — has raged since early October. In the British case, it was sparked not by a mufti or an imam, but by Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary and current leader of the House of Commons.

A substantial proportion of his constituency in Blackburn consists of Muslims. Writing in The Lancashire Telegraph, Straw noted that he found it difficult to interact with constituents who wear the full veil, or niqab. As a result, he had begun requesting visitors who were thus clad to unveil themselves for the duration of their meeting. “I thought it may be hard going when I made my request for face-to-face interviews in these circumstances,” he wrote. “However, I can’t recall a single occasion when the lady concerned refused to lift her veil.”

He recalled debating the matter of the niqab with one particular constituent and asked her to “think hard about what I said — in particular about my concern that wearing the full veil was bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult. It was such a visible statement of separation and difference.” Straw claimed to have given the matter a great deal of thought before raising it. “My concerns could be misplaced,” he concluded. “But I think there is an issue here.”

If he wanted a debate, it wasn’t long before it was unleashed with the force of a tsunami. The airwaves and newspaper pages were inundated within a couple of days by all manner of comments from across the ideological spectrum. Most commentators agreed, however, on at least one thing: Straw’s comments were not motivated solely by a desire to improve relations between Muslims and mainstream Britain.

Tony Blair is believed to have followed American instructions in removing Straw from the Foreign Office: Washington must have been particularly riled by the foreign secretary’s remark that an attack on Iran would be sheer lunacy. Leadership of the Commons is a ceremonial post with little political weight. Now that Blair’s days are numbered, Straw is positioning himself for a return to a more active and influential role in British public life. By instigating the veil debate, he has not only brought himself back into the limelight, he has also ingratiated himself with all those Britons who are uncomfortable with the idea of Muslims in their midst.

As the controversy raged, the issue at hand was highlighted by the case of Aishah Azmi, a 23-year-old teaching assistant, who was suspended in September by a Church of England primary school in Dewsbury for refusing to remove her veil in the presence of male colleagues. Her discrimination test case was dismissed by an employment tribunal. She planned to appeal and, if necessary, to take the issue to the European Court of Justice.

taj-din-2-nov06Interestingly, many of those who lambasted Straw for trying to make a mountain out of what isn’t even a molehill — Muslims, after all, constitute only three per cent of Britain’s population, and only a minuscule proportion among them bother with the niqab — nonetheless conceded that some jobs, including teaching, demand face-to-face contact that is incompatible with a full veil. In an interview with the BBC, Azmi somewhat disingenuously questioned this concern by asking: “What about blind children? They can’t see anything, but they have a brilliant education, so I don’t think my wearing the veil affects children at all.” The obvious riposte is that the children she was teaching weren’t blind: they could see they were being taught by someone who, for reasons they could not be expected to fathom, was prepared to relinquish her job rather than reveal her face.

Overall, the issue is, of course, anything but straightforward, except for outright bigots, be they of the Islamist or the Islamophobic variety. It particularly poses a quandary for liberals, who recognise veils and associated garments as symbols of repression, yet are understandably wary of prescribing dress codes for any community. This led to a number of thought-provoking comments in the pages of newspapers such as The Guardian, which offered a refreshing contrast to the bias-laden invective that filled the likes of The Daily Mail.

Madeleine Bunting, who is director of the think-tank Demos, described the niqab as, “The response of a minority who feel they are living in a hostile climate,” and lamented the fact that Straw’s comments had “unleashed a storm of prejudice that only exacerbates the very tendencies which prompt some Muslims to retreat.”

On the other hand, a contribution from Saira Khan in The Times was headlined, “Why Muslim women should thank Straw.” In her opinion, “It is never right for a woman to hide behind a veil and shut herself off from people in the community. But it is particularly wrong in Britain, where it is alien to the mainstream culture for someone to walk around wearing a mask.” She questions the claim that in most cases it is a matter of choice, citing cases of “girls as young as three or four” being forced to wear the hijab to school. “This,” she says, “is my message to British women: if you want your daughters to take advantage of all the opportunities that Britain has to offer, do not encourage them to wear the veil. We must unite against the radical Muslim men who would love women to be hidden, unseen and unheard.”

The foregoing isn’t necessarily incompatible with the view of Timothy Garton Ash that: “In a free country people should be able to wear what they like, just as they should be able to say what they like, as long as it doesn’t imperil the life or liberty of others.” He goes on: “The most tiresome argument in this whole debate is that the niqab makes white, middle-class English people feel ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘threatened’. Well, I want to say, what a load of whingeing wusses. Threatened by drunken football hooligans or muggers — that I can understand. But threatened by a woman quietly going about her business in a veil?”

Writing from a feminist perspective, Polly Toynbee says, “The veil turns women into things. It was shocking to find on the streets of Kabul that invisible women behind burqas are not treated with special respect. On the contrary, they are pushed and shoved off pavements by men, jostled aside as if almost subhuman, without the face-to-face contact that recognises common humanity…”

“The veil,” in her opinion, “is deeply divisive — and deliberately designed to be so.” She is well aware, however, that discrimination against women is not exclusively an Islamic conceit: “Covering and controlling women has been a near-universal practice in Christian societies and in most cultures and religions the world over … [N]ot long ago, women here were treated as chattels and temptresses, to be owned by men and kept out of men’s way…”

“When it came to opposing the war in Iraq, British Muslims had no shortage of allies,” recalls Jonathan Freedland, “But they face the latest bombardment virtually alone.” He goes on to put himself in their place: “I try to imagine how I would feel if this rainstorm of headlines substituted the word ‘Jew’ for ‘Muslim’: Jews creating apartheid, Jews whose strange customs and costume should be banned. I wouldn’t just feel frightened. I would be looking for my passport.”

There are numerous other aspects to the debate, but there can be little question that Jack Straw errs in failing to recognise the increasing resort to the niqab as the symptom of a much wider problem, which could loosely be termed as Muslim alienation. This isn’t restricted to Britain, of course: the use of various forms of hijab, ranging from the moderate to the extreme, has expanded across the world. Whether or not this is a sign of Muslim regression, fire-and-brimstone preachers with medieval mentalities, in many cases, share the responsibility for exacerbating this trend.

A large proportion of Muslim women clearly do not feel that showing their face to the world interferes in any way with their faith. But pointlessly picking on niqab-wearers can turn that form of attire into a symbol of resistance: the historian Karen Armstrong points to instances in the past where this has happened: in Egypt, in Turkey, in Iran. “When women are forbidden to wear the veil,” she says, “they hasten in ever greater numbers to put it on.” London’s mayor Ken Livingstone decries the niqab, but says the impetus for change must come from within the Muslim community. Straw might have rendered that task more difficult. What’s more, his remarks are believed to have contributed to a surge in violence against Muslim institutions and individuals.

The veil may, for a variety of reasons, be deplorable, but that doesn’t necessarily render it indefensible. Playwright David Edgar neatly sums up the liberal dilemma. “The veil,” he says, “can be alienating to people trying to communicate with the person wearing it; it is sometimes (but not always) worn involuntarily…”

However, in the light of enlightenment values, it isn’t simply enough to say: ‘We disagree with what you wear.’ According to Edgar, “If we want to have a leg to stand on when we stand up for The Satanic Verses or Behzti or Jerry Springer,” — which inspired great rage among Muslim, Sikh and Christian extremists respectively — “We must defend to the death the right to wear it.”

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.