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A Ramadan Veiled in Hostility

By Shaykh Riyad Nadwi, PhD
18th October 2006

The month of Ramadan is revered universally by Muslims who spend it in prayer, fasting, giving charity and seeking forgiveness and spiritual growth. As usual in Britain, Muslims have been allowed to fast and pray the lengthy night prayer in mosques around the country, and some local authorities have decorated small portions of their cities with fairy lights in preparation for the festival of Eid. However, this year's Ramadan will also be remembered for events that are more solemn. Sadly, Ramadan 2006 will be etched into the minds of Muslims for its extraordinary politics and the daily headlines that have targeted the Muslim community with a sustained barrage of psychological hostility. This insensitive and sustained campaign reminds one of quotes from the book that had inspired the strategy of "Shock and Awe" during the initial campaign on Iraq: "Imposing shock and awe through a show of force and indeed through deception, misinformation and disinformation... through the adversary's perception and fear of his vulnerability and our own invincibility" (Ullmam, H., and Wade, J. Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance 1996).

The constant flow of depreciatory statements by officials and the daily sensational reportage from a hostile press have created a storm that has caught everyone off-guard, including those who have been working with the government on tackling issues of extremism in the community. As one interlocutor puts it, "This is completely new. We have no idea where it has come from... it was never raised before in our meetings with the government." Another noted that "we are witnessing a significant shift in attitudes towards Muslims. High profile politicians are queuing up to talk about issues that were previously considered third-rail issues" i.e. issues beyond the limits of free-speech with the potential to end a political career or even land someone with a prison sentence (e.g. British historian, David Irving sentenced for three years for denying the Holocaust, 20.02.06).


For Muslims the timing could not have been worse. In a month when one is trying to achieve spiritual growth through faith, goodwill to others, charity and forgiveness, to be confronted with a daily barrage of depressing headlines vilifying one's faith or practice of it, creates within one a sense of alienation more intense and long lasting than any amount of "veil-wearing" could possibly have managed. For those coordinating this strategy the timing could not have been better. The "nothing-but-evil" debate in the aftermath of the Pope's lecture (12.09.06) had created enough ambivalence to sustain a concerted campaign of vilification and hence the assumption of an "open-season" for hunting out vulnerabilities among Muslims.

The Veil and Communication

Muslim women are an easy target. Their vulnerabilities are compounded by having to fight backward cultural practices on the one hand, whilst being stigmatised for the conspicuousness of their religious choices on the other. When at home they are told "you must liberate yourselves and seek an education" but once they make an effort in that direction, they are warned that "you cannot fully enter our institutions unless you replace your subjective notions of modesty with our superior definitions". So the question poses itself: is there an agreed consensus on modesty? I would suggest not. If modesty is to be determined by reference to communication, as suggested by some, then we need to take a closer look at non-verbal communication and more specifically body-language in inter-gender communication.

The veil is not as alien to Western society or to conceptions of modesty as some would have us believe. For thousands of years it has remained intrinsic to the perception of perfect femininity. Even in today's modern Britain, whilst the colour and texture of the fabric may differ, most women still choose to wear a veil with their wedding dresses on what they perceive to be the happiest day of their life. Had veiling of the face been purely a misogynistic and unnatural degrading tool, as it is being portrayed globally by the Neocons today, veils would not have survived the Western feminists' revolutions and, more remarkably, it would not have survived in the most auspicious of social ceremonies - weddings. For the Muslim woman who wears the veil, in addition to what she considers obedience to God, the veil also plays a role in the perception and perfection of her own sense of femininity i.e. the ability to reveal her beauty, once it has been concealed, to eyes of her choice. To deny her this is not only wrong but borders on cruelty. If only the media were objective in their coverage for a moment, they would find many highly educated female lawyers, doctors, accountants and businesswomen in this country who wear the veil without allowing it to impede their careers, all of which require very good communication skills.

Of course, within Islam there is an age-old and on-going debate about the legal position on veiling of the face among doctors of the religion ('ulama). Most of the prominent jurists have ruled it to be necessary, except in Hajj, on the basis of textual interpretation while others have rendered it optional though variant readings of the text. However, in recent times many so-called "Muslim intellectuals" and "experts on Islam" have sought to dismiss this colossal body of historic jurisprudence either in ignorance of it or in wilful deception. They have claimed, in typical Neocon brazen fashion, that "the veil has nothing to do with Islam", "it is alien to the faith" and that "it is solely an instrument of oppression." This is totally inaccurate and misleading, and it adds to the sense of alienation for people who are trying desperately to find a balance between commitments to their faith and fulfilling their roles in society, which is becoming an increasingly hostile environment. I do not say that anyone should be forced to wear the veil but if they choose to do so voluntarily, their choice cannot be considered invalid in Islam.

As for the question of body-language, I have witnessed a greater degree of literalism in attitudes to this term than that found in some interpretations of sacred texts. Facial expressions excepted, body language does not necessarily require actual visual contact with the body within a person's clothes. It is communication gleaned from a composite of signals, which are observable in a variety of ways. These include hand gestures, body posture, tilting of the head, shrugging of the shoulders, finger pointing, fist clenching, and so on. By comparison, verbal communication is infinitely more informative. We are designed for verbal communication. For instance, our auditory system has a total frequency range of 15Hz to 16kHz (Romer, 1971) which allows us to pick up all sorts of sounds but it is most sensitive between 1kHz and 4kHz. This fits perfectly with voice communication because most articulated speech is within the 600Hz to 4kHz range. Normally we are unable to distinguish ten separate sounds in one second yet we are able to recognise speech at a rate of 20 phonemes per second. We are also able to recognise most words in less than 125 milliseconds after their onset (Marslem-Wilson and Welsh, 1978) which is before the word is fully pronounced. In addition to this, we are able to derive vast amounts of information from a wide variety of complex linguistic cues that are not available through body language. For instance, a facial expression may reveal a person to be upset but to know what has caused them to be upset we need language. In order to know if the person to whom you are speaking is stung by a wasp or upset by your comments you need language rather than a microscope on their face.

If communication were dependent upon seeing people's faces to the extent that some are suggesting at the moment then the use of video phones would have swamped the market. However, recent history has proved this to be a fallacy and phone companies that invested heavily in 3G have lost billions owing to this false assumption.

As for the "merely being able to see you" argument, one can suggest that there is an equal need for debate on the reverse of this concern, i.e. the overload of information men may receive from, for instance, protruding cleavages and legs clad in thin silk stockings dangling from beneath short skirts. Can this overload of information also not influence communication in an adverse manner? If we can theorise that a veil impedes communication might we not also explore the implications to unveiling the female body layer by layer in relation to accuracy of male receptive capabilities? Of course, this is flippant speculation, but were I to propose seriously such a debate I would be branded promptly as an extremist mullah trying talibanise Britain. Yet, the word "debate" seems to have become a magic wand for justifying unbridled rhetoric against Muslims and their practices. In order to justify almost any kind of ridicule, all one need do is present it in the guise of "calling for a debate". This technique has been employed successfully by the Neocons in the USA to attack the Quran. To add insult to the Ramadan injury, in a few days time, by way of an Eid present from Channel Four, the nation will be treated to a yet another "debate", this time on whether "Muslims are a threat to free-speech". I doubt we will ever be treated to a similar debate on whether Jewish sensitivity to the Holocaust is also a threat to free-speech.

Racism and Apartheid

Calling into question the veil (by Jack Straw) and multiculturalism (by Trevor Phillips) are not in themselves a primary concern. People have been wearing the veil for decades and multiculturalism has been a force for community building and social development in this country for many years. We all share the same economic space and cross fertilise each other's cultures though the natural process of voluntary and gradual integration. Taking the example of the British acquired taste for spicy dishes, if members of the host community had been forced to swallow mouthfuls of hot curry in an attempt to foster community cohesion, curry would not have become the national dish.

Concerns about 'parallel lives' should be focused where they are truly deserved. The lines of division based on religion are insignificant compared to the gulf between rich and poor communities. The rich, irrespective of religion, are increasingly locking themselves away in gated communities while the poor are left behind in deprived and crime-ridden ghettoes where drugs and prostitution are rife. Might we consider programmes of social class interaction where the rich visit homes of the poor and the poor are allowed to dine at the tables of the rich? This is what Islam teaches us in regards to neighbourly conduct. Religious exhortations for a Muslim include the advice not to go to bed on a full stomach while your neighbour is hungry, irrespective of their faith. Rights of the neighbour were emphasised to the Prophet (on whom be peace) by the Angel Gabriel to such an extent that he anticipated neighbours being included even in the laws of inheritance. We are not allowed to neglect the rights and needs of the people among whom we live, be they Muslim or not.

In seeking facilities to pray regularly, Muslim dwellings may congregate around mosques in geographical clusters but the racism intrinsic to apartheid alluded to by the Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, is anathema to the very core of our worldview. For Muslims, every human being is a creature of God and there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab nor of red over black and vice versa except in piety (Prophet Muhammad - on whom be peace - Musnad Ahmad). As for piety, only God knows who is truly pious. This is not only in theory but is supported even by the findings of the recent study, funded by the Home Office, which involved four hundred 15-year-olds in this country. The study found that one third of non-Muslim pupils thought that one race was superior to another compared to a tenth of teenagers in a mainly Muslim school (Muslim Students 'more tolerant' - BBC Online, 11.10.06, Dr Andrew Holden, Lancaster University Project). Incidentally, these results did not find their way into any of the evening news programmes.

Looking behind the smoke screens of rhetoric against the veil and multiculturalism and the repeated calls for 'sharing British values', I can see something much more concerning. It is a fear of Islam that transcends the concerns about terrorism. It is a deep-rooted and historical fear that is now being exploited by a small group of influential people who are well-known in the Neocon arena. If these people are allowed to manipulate political agendas and swamp the headlines with anti-Muslim rhetoric day after day, hard-earned progress in community cohesion will be damaged considerably. Having spent £2.2 billion on consultants, the Labour government must question whether it is any longer receiving value for money. Could it be that some of their right wing PR firms have already concluded that the Neocon agenda might be better served by the other party? Could this be the reason behind this sudden and strange advice to embrace third-rail issues? Why is a politician who has a constituency in which one in four people are Muslim being advised to take such a leap?

If this level of daily negative coverage is allowed to continue without any serious challenge from the upright and decent individuals in our society, I fear that suspicion and frustration in the host community, together with a growing sense of alienation among Muslims, will increase to levels reminiscent of the build up to the Kristallnacht. Attacks on our women have already begun. Who will shoulder the responsibility for it if it escalates into a pogrom?

Multiculturalism v Neo-imperialism

We live in an ever shrinking global village with diverse communities and multiple cultures, where the old distinctions of East and West are becoming increasingly blurred. To deny a multiplicity of cultures at home while we demand it in countries abroad, and in some cases impose it by force, does not only smack of gross hypocrisy but it also goes against the grain of modern global realities. To deny multiculturalism space in a diverse, globalised world is to adopt a neo-imperialist posture.

If only people would realise how much those who seek to stigmatise multiculturalism have in common with the fanatical Neocon agenda to dominate the world through religion and coercion. They should reflect on the words of one of the chief architects of the Neocon ideology, Irving Kristol, who wrote: "There is no doubt that today, multiculturalism... is an American tragedy" (Kristol, I., (1995) Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, p.53). This is the same person who wrote in the same book that, as a young man, he did not feel the urge to rebel when the teacher (Rabbi) in his Yeshiva (Jewish madrasa) "taught us to hate the goyin and spit whenever we passed a church" (p.4). In the chapter titled " The Coming Conservative Century" he declares that, "The three pillars of modern conservatism are religion, nationalism and economic growth. Of these, religion is easily the most important..." (p.365) and that, " The U.S. will surely want to, and will need to, remain an active world power, but this activity will not be within the confines prescribed by the United Nations or NATO or whatever" (p.367). In other words, a religious empire not subject to international rules.

If anyone is wondering what Britain has to do with the American Neoconservative movement, then they should know that a contingent of Irving Kristol's disciples in the UK are presently conducting a concerted campaign to implement the Neoconservative ideology in this country. As one of them (Douglas Murray of The Social Affairs Unit) puts it in his 2005 book entitled Neoconservatism: Why we need it, "Multiculturalism and the rule of 'rights' are... demonstrations of our weakness, not our sophistication" (p.191). For him "Neoconservatism is a political viewpoint for dealing with the world" (p.17), it is a "particular creed", a "broad church". He despises politicians who refuse to accept Neocon ideology and laws that prevent from coercive action. The Mayor of London is portrayed in the following words "[Ken] Livingstone, like so many socialists, has throughout his career sided with the terrorists and their masterminds because of his own political persuasions" (p.195). As for the rule of law, he declares "it is time for Britain to withdraw from the European Convention on account of its interference in our laws" (p.195).

More pertinent to recent events in Britain is his call that "nothing should be incapable of being said: the scandal in a society as educated as Britain's, is that so little is even being asked" (p.15) and that "our fight should be prosecuted not only by the army and police forces, but by the general public, intellectuals, politicians and all those with any sense of civic responsibilities" (p.197). Most interesting of all are the similarities between his demands for education in Britain and the current approach to Muslims schools. He writes that "Government-funded state schools should, with the exception of a small number of Jewish schools, be Christian, and of those the great majority should be Anglican" (p.158). Concerning Muslim schools, he is "Kristol" clear: "The attitude towards Muslim schools should be exceptional....if any Muslim academies are allowed to exist, they should be funded entirely privately, with no taxpayer assistance and should be subject to uniquely strict regulation and inspection. If such conditions are considered unbearable, then Muslims will have to try their luck in other countries" (p.106) [my emphasis].

In order for Britain to be a "good place for Muslims to practice their faith", and to celebrate Ramadan and Eid through a genuine sense of integrated solidarity with the host community, Muslims need more than a few fairy lights to convince them that, contrary to the designs of the British Neocons, a pogrom is not a distinct future possibility - especially in the aftermath of Ramadan 2006. Eid Mubarak and may God guide us to his mercy and forgiveness.