Ramadan 1427 provided enough evidence of the truth in Allah’s words for any Muslim to solidify his or her faith. Almost daily for about three weeks, minister after minister, newspaper after newspaper, commentator after commentator voiced opinions about the “Muslim problem” and how to solve it. Leader of the Commons Jack Straw’s calculated comments about the niqab drew support from a wide array of politicians, including the prime minister, the chancellor and ministers responsible for education, culture and race relations: all supposed to be responsible for harmonizing community relations, all now calling for a complete ban on niqab. Culture secretary Tessa Jowell labelled it a “symbol of women’s subjugation to men”. Race relations minister Phil Woolas was not to be outdone, declaring it “frightening and intimidating” and something which should be completely banned. Even traditional friends of the Muslim community, such as Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, said that he would like to see a niqab-free society, although he did add that it was something that the community should do itself, rather than its being imposed.
Whereas previously the niqab was exploited by Western politicians to debate the alleged oppression of women in Islam, this time round politicians and commentators have been compelled to step down from this position, as it has emerged that many of these ‘oppressed’ women wear the veil out of choice, often against the wishes of their families. Consequently, a new accusation has emerged: that veiled Muslim women impose a “self-apartheid” upon themselves within British society and thereby express their support for “extremism”. To accept the niqab as a symbol of modesty, even one that is not widely practised, is apparently simply not an option in Britain.
Other ministers lined up to point accusatory fingers at the Muslim community for a number of other failures including not monitoring their children, not ‘integrating’ adequately, and not rooting out ‘extremists’ within the community. Suddenly, a discussion about women’s dress developed into a debate about extremism and the Muslim community’s role in fighting it.
In addition to poisonous columns calling on veiled Muslims to leave Britain, newspapers competed with one another to publish the most irrelevant stories, only given credibility because of their being about Muslims. A London cab driver who refused to allow a blind man to bring his guide dog into his taxi became front-page news because the driver was a Muslim. A Muslim police officer who was given leave from protecting the Israeli embassy, in what the police has stated is standard procedure, was vilified as the enemy within. Even the marital problems of an ex-BBC News presenter became headline news for the Daily Mail as his wife felt reluctant to move to Qatar, where he is to take up a new job with al-Jazeera, with him. The headline ‘Our marriage is in crisis because I won’t go with Darren to live in a Muslim country’ says it all. The Daily Telegraph couldn’t decide where to publish all these stories, and so began a new section of the newspaper, Muslims in Britain. Last week Channel 4 aired a Dispatches Debate on whether Muslims themselves were a threat to free speech. It seems that Muslims can do no right.
While this debate took place at relatively higher levels, Islamophobes and racists, empowered by ministerial comments which legitimized their own prejudices, decided to enter the discussion at a societal level. Muslims throughout Britain have become targets of hate crimes ranging from verbal abuse to physical assaults. Mosques and Muslim-owned properties continue to be vandalized and firebombed. Muslims arriving for Ramadan prayers were stoned with bricks and rocks. Imams have been attacked within their own mosques. A Bosnian Muslim family were even shot at in a carpark in West London. Muslim women in hijab and niqab are sworn at, sexually harassed, spat upon and even physically attacked almost daily. At least one Muslim woman in niqab, Aishah Azmi, has been dismissed from her job as a teaching assistant for refusing to remove her niqab before male colleagues. Most worrying has been the lack of assistance forthcoming from the eyewitnesses of violence and brutality, reminiscent of the wave of anti-Semitism that spread through Europe during the 1930s, when to be a Jew was to be tolerated at best and exterminated at worst.
This image of history repeating itself and of laying the cause of every social problem at the door of Muslims has not been lost on some commentators, such as Jonathan Freedland, who wrote in the Guardian that if this onslaught were against Jews he would be reaching for his passport. India Knight was even more blatant with an article in the Times entitled ‘Muslims are the new Jews’, a comparison later also drawn by Ken Livingstone, mayor of London.
The reactions of various parties indicate the way in which the world is turning. More and more commentators and columnists have come out with more and more daring comments each day, each trying to outdo one another in their racism and xenophobia. Calls for Muslims to leave Britain do not come only from the British National Party, which has accused the government of treading on its toes in what it sees as an attempt to win back white working-class voters. The small differences between political parties in Britain have become even more difficult to detect. Legitimate Muslim complaints of Islamophobia and victimisation are mocked and ridiculed as further Muslim “whining”. Internationally, the issue of Muslim integration and the banning of the veil and hijab have become topical in countries such as Italy, Tunisia and Morocco. Every countries politicians, media and society is now debating how to solve the “Muslim problem”.
So Muslims are realising that they have become the twenty-first century’s target of choice for harassment and worse. This growing awareness is shown by well-integrated and established figures such as Lord Nazir Ahmad and Dr Muhammad Abdul-Bari of the Muslim Council of Britain openly accusing the government of supporting “a constant theme of demonisation” andfostering a “bigoted anti-Muslim climate” respectively. The Muslims’ mood is also echoing similar sentiments.
But this climate of fear is slowly giving way to a spirit of defiance. Muslims of all walks are recognising that the greater their effort to integrate has been, the bigger the stick to beat the community has been used. A reversal is taking place now, with the community beginning to find strength in its Islamic identity. Muslim clothes-stores in south London have reportedly sold out of niqabs. More Muslims are returning to their deen and turning to protect one another, in the knowledge that an attack on one Muslim is an attack on the community. Today’s Muslims are unafraid to raise their voices against what they see as a clear onslaught on Islam. As this polarization of communities increases, and with the depressing possibility of another Holocaust in mind, the prevailing thought among the Muslim community seems to be one of resilience: that the Muslims of Britain will not go down without a fight.