Part Two [Part One of this debate can be viewed here]
Although the pseudo-controversy surrounding the niqāb is at the vanguard of the tabloid agenda, we must ask ourselves why it is that in a liberal democracy, wherein religious freedom of its minorities should be protected, there seems to be an attack on these religious symbols of Muslims; whether it is the niqāb or the minarets, these emblems and the rights of the minority communities are being targeted by instituting (in this case a proposal to ban) and passing draconian laws. The feeling of many Muslims is that the niqāb fiasco is a smokescreen for what is actually taking place in Britain: there is a concerted effort from certain sections of the liberal and secular elite, as well as the media, to portray Islam and Muslims as backward, barbaric, outdated, and the niqāb and other such symbols and religious practices to be archaic and outmoded that have no place in modern, British society. In addition, there is a clear effort from certain quarters to demonize Islam and Muslims through these pandemonium-stirring type 'debates'.
The mainstream reaction of Muslims during the media hysteria is always reactive and somewhat emotional. At times it can be very vitriolic and aggressive; making generalizations of everyone in the west and painting them with the same brush – which gives the impression that the entire non-Muslim community is bent on attacking Islam and Muslims even at the cost of their own principles. Indeed there are some who fall into that category, however, there are many who will support the 'Muslim cause'. This aggressive and intellectually crude methodology is also employed when Muslims call for the 'Sharī'ah' and inviting non-Muslims to Islam.
Muslims, like any other minority community endeavouring to make positive contributions to the British society, will encounter many challenges of this nature due to the political and social environment in which we find ourselves. British Muslims have a unique struggle. We try to maintain our Muslim identity and at the same time we strive to make positive contributions and integrate into British society. This has led us to difficult position. There is a debate taking place regarding what it means to be British. Certain discussions that are taking place seem to be marginalizing and targeting Muslims and our religious identity in particular. Unfortunately, we do not have a substantial voice in the public arena nor are we participating in the debate on what 'Britishness' even means. Yet we speak with all guns blazing when the liberal fundamentalists steer and navigate the debates in politics and media how they desire without accommodating or considering the religious imperatives of Muslims.
However, during these instances the Muslim community needs to, in my view, revisit discussions on citizenship, integration, and contribution in British society. Our da'wah must be tailored to resonate with society at large in order to receive the best reception possible; but the question is how? Contribution in our British society does not equate to shouting and screaming slogans at people and reacting to the media hysteria. It does not make sense at all when some call for what they perceive and identify as being from the Sharī'ah in an environment where religion is seen to be suppressive and backward. For many, calling for a revival of religious practice is seen as a call to tyranny and violence.
There needs to be some understanding of how modern, liberal thought and societies perceive religion, particularly Islam: the dominant religion in The United Kingdom has been varying forms of Christianity, the most salient of which was Catholicism. The Catholic Church, however, was infamous for its deterrence of education and critical thought, to the extent that it prevented people from reading even the Bible itself! However, society at large was too profoundly inspired by the tide of education and the light of knowledge that it could no longer allow the Church to suppress thought and persecute thinkers. From this materialized the renaissance and the reformation, transforming the Western perception of science, education, religion, and even transforming Christianity itself. Hence, by and large, the Western paradigm is that:
(i) religion is incompatible with intellectual and scientific progress
(ii) religion should have no say in social, political and educational affairs
(iii) religion should take the back seat and let secularism take the wheel in order for civilization to flourish.
It was not long ago that religious adherence changed from something that was largely 'incorporated' by the state for the people, to being a matter of 'choice'. The main established religion really faded away into background in Europe and UK. Even recently (from the 80s) statistics prove that although people generally believe in God they only use religion when it suits them (i.e. during birth, death). It is more of a cultural phenomenon to them than anything else.
However, things began to change with the influx of Muslims and other minorities in Europe and the UK. Muslims in particular arrived to the UK and began building institutions such as Mosques and Madrasas. They began to demand more rights as British citizens – the right to practice their religion freely. What also emerged was the fear among some sectors of the secular elite that religious 'fundamentalism' was once again creeping into British and European societies. How did the elite secularists combat this perceived shift towards 'fundamentalism'? We witnessed the emergence and growth of 'new atheism', which became stronger and galvanized more support subsequently after the 9/11, and 7/7 attacks.
If we take the example of the Rushdie Affair for instance; many in the UK were shocked because, although they could understand the burning of books and effigies in the streets of Iran, they were scared and alarmed that this religious 'fundamentalism' was taking over in the streets of the UK. Christians too were alarmed by the 'Muslim voice' in public (although there was nothing substantial) and even newspapers like the Mail and the Telegraph appeared to be defending 'Christian' values.
Although there is a significant growth in religiosity among Muslims, our da'wah or contribution to the betterment of the British society remains very weak. Politically, economically, in education and in media our voice is timid. There is no considerable Muslim voice in the decision-making process in society.
I believe the more we defend our religious symbols and practices in the public sphere the more challenges we will encounter, and we will not be able to influence or change them positively if we have not made any grounds on the aforementioned weaknesses that have been highlighted. We need to take responsibility to accurately and positively disseminate what our religion demands of us in this Society while being cognizant of the unique reality we are in.
Unfortunately, some of our actions also exacerbate the media hysteria when Islam and Muslims are discussed. The case, in which Judge Peter Murphy agreed to come to a compromise over a defendant wearing the niqāb while entering a plea at a trial, is one example that comes to mind. In all of the mainstream Islamic schools of jurisprudence there is a clear dispensation given to the woman in court to remove the face veil for identification. Although the defendant at this instance did approve a female for identification, nevertheless a more pragmatic approach to fiqh and its application needs to be observed in these situations especially due to the fact that Islamic Jurisprudence is accommodative of the cultural norms of a society if they are not in conflict with Islam. Just because we may find certain texts to be clear, that clarity should not be confused with the complexities of the context and environment in which the texts are applied.
For many Muslims, on one hand we want the right to practice our religion, which is of course correct. However, if the right to practice our faith in this society is defended in a reactionary manner and by having an isolationist approach (to a certain extent) we will not succeed in anything. If we do not have a positive and comprehensive voice in this society in order to discuss issues of core importance, isolated issues like the niqāb incident will resurface over and over again. Where are our representatives in media, politics and education? Do we have a solid infrastructure like other minorities so that our voice is not only heard but duly considered?
Imagine if someone wrote something negative in the media about how the Jews in Stamford Hill (London) were living and dressing (that's just a basic example btw). There would be uproar in the media and elsewhere. Politicians and leaders would be obliged to defend their right, and rightly so. Jews do not have to react to isolated attempts at restricting their religious freedoms because they have actively exerted more effort to become part of the fabric of their society, hence religious freedom (and their choice of dress) is acknowledged as their right. But will that same courtesy be afforded to Muslims? I would be correct to assume that it will not. Even if some do show this courtesy to Muslims, the powerful and the policy-makers will remain detached from the needs and feelings of Muslims.
This, on the other hand, does not mean that Muslims should abandon or compromise their beliefs, but, it is about being consistent, practical and realistic with our efforts to positively integrate and contribute while being faithful to our unique religious identity. Most, if not all Muslims living in the UK consider Britain to be their home; this is where they were born and Allāh knows best if they will also die here; therefore we must behave and carry ourselves in a manner that is conducive to our faith and our context. We must not have an 'us versus them' mentality. We should want good for the British people and that requires that our khitāb or address is suitable and appropriate – free from aggressive and antithetical rhetoric.
Photo courtesy of The Sun