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The veil of political Islam

Maruf Khwaja
13 November 2006

Ehsan Masood is one of the more intelligent and serious of British writers, which makes it all the more surprising that in his openDemocracy column "‘British Muslims: ends and beginnings" (31 October 2006) he is in danger of sounding like a closet fundamentalist or a secret salafist sympathiser.

In identifying "one of the more significant turnarounds in recent British political history" in October 2006, when the British government's rhetoric "has become harsher and colder" as it seeks to "put on the agenda the belief that Britain has a ‘Muslim problem'", he has got a number of things upside down. These need to be put right in case his views are taken to reflect those of the mainstream of Muslim opinion in Britain - which they do not.

Maruf Khwaja was born in India, was raised in Pakistan, has travelled and worked around the world, and now lives in England. He has been a journalist for forty years, and is the author of an unpublished autobiography, Being Pakistani

Maruf Khwaja is here responding to the article by Ehsan Masood:

"British Muslims: ends and beginnings"
(31 October 2006)

To begin with, as a secular Muslim citizen of secular Britain, I do not feel at all offended at what Ehsan Masood (elaborating on the views of the journalist Peter Oborne) sees as "an abuse of democratic privilege" that reveals the government's view of Muslims "as subjects rather than citizens".

British Muslims are a disparate, often fractious group of 1.6 million people. Members of the British government have been seeking to address the entire community rather than a particular, restive section of it; if the tone has changed, the shift may be guided by the not unreasonable expectation that the moderate elements in our midst will prevail over the immoderate. In any case, I find even the changed tone to be (on the whole) more conciliatory than aggressive, more appeasing than punitive.

Indeed my grievance is that "tough" ministerial statements on various manifestations of extremist Islamist malpractices by "floating" British Muslims have not been tough enough. They ought to have been made much earlier and more often, to drive home messages that have failed to get through to the pro-fitna (strife) intentions of those bent upon mischief.

It was always a mistake for the government to rely on an impotent and largely unrepresentative organisation of old men like the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) to convey strong and urgent messages. I am glad they have been set aside, though like Masood, I am not sure if their replacement, who may well have links with Sufi commercialisers of Islam, will be any improvement.

Muslim fanatics openly contemptuous of liberal governments and free of any nationalist identities tend to look upon polite admonitions as evidence of wimpishness which they test by going to further extremes. It is these, not the British government, who are bent upon undoing all the good that Masood says has been done in ten years of constructive engagement. As far as I can see, the very purpose of that engagement has been to integrate Muslims into British society and not allow the creation of the irreversible cultural apartheid which is now taking place. It is not only right to be tough, therefore, it is essential.

A mirror-image

The catalyst of the recent debate which Masood (alongside many other commentators) clearly dislikes was an expression of protest against the way that some Muslim women were attempting to privatise public space. In doing so, they were seeking to thrust upon ordinary people - Muslims and non-Muslims alike - discredited, centuries-old symbols of women's subjugation: the burqa, the hijab and assorted disguises.

The British people, including the vast majority of its modern Muslim citizens (many of whom came to this country effectively to escape from Islamist oppression) share the concern and the offence. Though other openDemocracy writers such as Tina Beattie may disagree, many regard the apparently spontaneous penchant for purdah across Britain as yet another attempt (whether those most visibly embodying the practice are aware of this or not) to further the agenda of political Islam within British society and damage the latter's crucial integration process.

As the first government minister to raise the issue in public (in his Lancashire Evening Telegraph article on 5 October 2006, Jack Straw turned out to be speaking for the silent majority. He said nothing unreasonable in requesting that veiled Muslim women visiting his constituency surgery unveil themselves, on the grounds that "the value of a meeting, as opposed to a letter or phone call, is so that you can - almost literally - see what the other person means, and not just hear what they say".

Moreover, Straw made clear that before making the request, he always prefaces it by "(ensuring) that a female member of my staff is with me. I explain that this is a country built on freedoms" and that "I defend absolutely the right of any woman to wear a headscarf." There is nothing here that carries the imputation of indecency so often associated with Straw's action.

Masood goes on to dismiss the general concern that in thrusting purdah on a secular society (though he employs a different terminology), salafists are deliberately provoking a "Muslim problem" in Britain. The inference is that the "problem" is of recent origin and that salafists themselves have no role in creating it. In fact it has far older roots, and the wearing of the burqa in Britain by Muslim women - one of the most durable symbols of women's enslavement in Islamic society - was one of its early signs. Today, the main source of aggravation is the continuing influx of extremists and the spread of perverse ideas from societies they are hell-bent on destroying elsewhere in the Islamic world. Iraq and Afghanistan are all but finished, and they are halfway to success in Pakistan.

When they have gone so far as to achieve their extreme goals, extremists at opposite ends of the scale - salafists and the racist zealots of the British National Party, for example, with their "struggle", "separatism", and "clash of civilisations" agenda - eventually reach the common ground they have always shared.

Among Maruf Khwaja’s writings on openDemocracy:

"The suicide of fundamentalism" (August 2001)

"Becoming Pakistani" (August 2004)

"Terrorism, Islam, reform: thinking the unthinkable"
(July 2005)

"Muslims in Britain: generations, experiences, futures" (August 2005)

A further instance makes the point: the nationless Islamists of the world, now including Britain's own homegrown tribe of potential suicide-bombers, more and more appear to be - in their dogmatism, extremism and imperviousness to reality - the mirror-image of their neo-conservative enemies in the United States. The issues that these adversaries refuse to recognise (climate change and the war in Iraq vs the impossibility of a world purified by conversion to Islam) may differ; but the mindset has so much in common.

Even mainstream Islam has no hope unless it is radically reformed. Its demands on the people it would convert, its rituals and culture-derived practices rooted in antiquity, are too often incompatible with modern life. The salafists and their fellow-travellers have done enormous harm to traditional Islam, and by extension to the world. Even some American evangelicals are showing signs of caring about climate change and its signs of earthly doom. The salafists care only about life in the hereafter, no matter how many innocent victims they may take with them to reach it.

They may be comparatively small in number, but their biggest weapon is that - even now - the threat they pose is not properly recognised by the very people who really need to do so.

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