There has been a deafening silence from Muslim leaders on the current hysteria surrounding the niqab, in fact, there is a deafening silence on most things these days, and beyond the publicity stunts of handshakes and award presentations, the affectations don’t seem to extend to actually providing a politically and religiously principled direction for Britain’s faithful.
Of course, for a small few, apathy towards the topic stems from a lack of desire to add fuel to media hype. There is no doubt that large swathes of the public find the niqab disconcerting, not least due to speculations that Muslim women are forced to don face veils, and that a sizeable section of the Muslim community are ethnic misogynists instituting archaic cultural practices from backward countries.
Now, one would assume such sentiments to be proclaimed by a media very much controlled by a handful of Islamophobic bigots, but in fact, it has been Muslims, or at least those who style themselves as leading Muslims when it suits them, who have been at the forefront of condemning the observances of their co-religionists. Whilst nobody has requested that they or their partners don the niqab, they seem to have taken it as a personal affront and feel some misplaced urge to proclaim the vulgarity of the niqab inadvertently supporting the growing hostility towards general religious practice, Islamic or otherwise. These pseudo muftis, their scholastic credentials being the positions they’ve made for themselves in the Muslim community (chairman, director, secretary-general etc.), declare their irreligious fatwas based purely on their facile and secular ideas of religion with no inkling of what actually stands as an authoritative basis for religious views. Claiming that the niqab is a mere cultural practice would be fine if they could substantiate such opinions, but rather than establish a religious position with scriptural evidence and cogent scholastic reasoning they demean the cause of God by pontificating their unfounded heterodoxy in the media and to uninformed policy makers, betraying a Muslim populace themselves busied with trivialities oblivious to what is being advocated in their name.
Whilst I’d like to address wider issues around the niqab furore, I think it important to briefly explain the specific position it has occupied for 1400 years in Islamic law. To contextualise, the vast majority of the British Muslim population adhere to the mainstream branch of Islam known as Sunnism which comprises of four schools of legal thought, all of which consider the face veil as either being a general obligation, or at least commendable. Thus, those British Muslim women who veil either believe that the face veil is a religious duty, or adopt the practice as a safeguard against their own objectification, to desexualise a context, and all undoubtedly do so in an attempt to extol virtues of modesty. Given this to be the sunni narrative, a denunciation of the niqab is effectively a rebuff of sunni views. Some feel that the niqab is not conducive to the current situation where Muslims are unduly targeted. Others go further and reason that whilst it may be commendable in an abstract setting, the context dictates against wearing the niqab for the greater good. There are three points to be made here: firstly, those who wish to hold this opinion have the right to do so, but to dictatorially impose such attitudes on others so as to support an encroachment on their freedoms is the essence of the fascism they tend to reject. Secondly, those who aren’t so insidious but maintain a focus on the ‘greater good’ fail to resolve its ambiguity – what exactly is it? If it is the proliferation of the religion then many who make this point aren’t exactly working tirelessly to invite the masses to Abrahamic monotheism with the niqab then undermining their endeavours; in reality the antipathy of many stems from their own need for self-preservation so as to unassumingly maintain their ethnic identities of which Islam is a nominal aspect. Thirdly, it must not be overlooked that the context of anti-niqab discourse does not stem from general cultural aversion but rather a driven agenda to demonise observant Muslims and symbols of faith; the debate has never really existed in the social realm but has always inhabited the political one – the discussion about the niqab manifests as one concerning rights and freedoms instead of being about social cohesion. So where it might have been that the niqab was a bit unusual, we now have growing and contradictory political rhetoric where those who call for a niqab ban exclude from society the very women they claim need to integrate.
For Islamophobes, the niqab is indicative of the growing influence of extremist interpretations in Britain, yet with only a handful of women who actually adorn the face veil, and there being no link between the niqab and attacks on British soil, the facts render such an assertion erroneous and offensive – the only reason a woman would cover an aspect of her face is because she thinks it fine to kill innocent people? Such formulations are to be expected from the right wing, but where politicians from various points on the political spectrum help to amplify the commotion, our intellects necessitate that we question why such a politically irrelevant topic is deemed suitable for national debate.
The current deliberation is really about the role and place of identifiable Muslims in British society, their right to belong, and their effect on wider attitudes. In an environment that worships materialism driven by a corporate capitalist creed that utterly devours the moral essence of humanity, any idea that surmounts the allure of money and all concomitant acquisitions genuinely threatens the power structures of a society drowning in inequalities with the elite utilising all means at their disposal to counteract such threats. These are deemed conspiracies only by those who have never considered giving it a thought – the role of elites and societal power structures are viewed as axiomatic in the study of political theory on any university course. The niqab is one of the most ostensible repudiations of objectifying the female form, especially in a world where everything is a commodity – aptly highlighted by Sinéad O’Connor in an open letter to Miley Cyrus in the Guardian:
‘Nothing but harm will come in the long run, from allowing yourself to be exploited, and it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent… We don’t encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them prey for animals and less than animals…Real empowerment of yourself as a woman would be to in future refuse to exploit your body or your sexuality…’
If political elites were to focus on matters that actually affect citizens, they would be far more concerned with things like criminality, where the proliferation of high class drugs in urban city areas destroy tens of thousands of lives each year and are the cause of thousands of gangland style crimes, from murders and torture, to rape, forced prostitution and extortion. The effect of the niqab on the lives of citizens is nil in comparison to organised crime and other ills.
The niqab has never been the essence of the debate, and accordingly, neither should it be the essence of any of our responses. We must rebuff any infringement on the rights of British Muslims knowing that this is about religious practice in its generality; for Islamophobes to initiate their attacks on the niqab is logical, given the ease with which cultural sensibilities towards the niqab can be exploited and subsequently undermined; inevitably the next item on the agenda shall be the hijab, then beards, prayer in the workplace, prayer space in public institutions and so on. In fact, Dr. Chris Allen, an academic who specialises in Islamophobia, has already documented how the right wing proceed from one religious symbol to the next. Consequently, and as Myriam Francois-Cerrah has frequently and rather commendably asserted on national television, whether or not we personally view the niqab as conducive to British public life is inconsequential. I think it is astounding that we find there to be Muslims who maintain the rights of homosexuals and refuse Muslim women the right to veil simultaneously.
Considering the last few months, we have failed our veiled co-religionists, both as a community and as a leadership. As a community we have expressed apathy, even sometimes venting frustrations at veiled women as if to blame them for the unwarranted focus on the Muslim community. As for the leadership, they have either allowed their language to betray their affirmation of veiled women’s rights through subtle connotations that imply disapproval along with upholding red herrings conjectured by the right wing, or they have co-opted for the wider and more insidious Islamophobic narrative that veiled women have no place in certain public sectors.
Reflecting on the context of the niqab debate and the fact that to any intelligent being this goes far beyond a facecloth, the obnoxious and incompetent responses of such leaders are symptomatic of a far greater and worrying occurrence, that not only is the self proclaimed leadership failing, but that there appears to be an ungodly direction in which they would like to lead the Muslim community – these are not the attitudes of the learned, righteous and judicious but of those who deem revelation irrelevant and narcissistically view as authoritative their own baseless religious interpretations and political ideas belligerently libeling all others. All of this also brings to light the long evident fact that those who truly believe in the Most High with a commitment to what is godly, upright and just, need a scholastic and political elite who are astute and proceed with righteousness and sincerity rather than the growing number of narcissistic businessmen who ‘lead’ the Muslim community falsely legitimised by their financial successes and propped up by their respective ethnic groups.