Can We Rise Above the Veil of Misinformation About Muslims?

I agree with our senior politicians that it is a professional issue: it should be a woman's choice and it is un-British to think of banning this in public.

When it comes to Muslim-related issues we, in Britain, do things differently. We do not ban the full-face face veil (niqab) which is worn by some Muslim women - unlike in France and Belgium. And we do not ban mosque minarets unlike in Switzerland.

However, we sometimes have a nasty habit of 'over-cooking the egg' when it comes to dealing with Muslim-related issues. Sections of our media and political elites can initiate free-fall discussions that focus disproportionately on our Muslim citizens and their lifestyles; they often create a national hype and debate that can go on and on until something else comes up.

One of them is the face veil.

The first debate on this in recent years was initiated by none other than Labour's senior 'Muslim-friendly' politician Jack Straw. In October 2006 he wrote in his local newspaper, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, that he would prefer Muslim women not to wear veils at his Blackburn constituency surgeries. His comments got widespread national publicity. In 2010, Jack Straw publicly apologised over his 2006 comments.

Very recently the face veil issue has again gripped our national media. It started last week when the Birmingham Metropolitan College decided to ban Muslim veils in the campus. But students accused the college of racial and religious discrimination; the NUS Black Students' Campaign came up with 9,000 online signatures against the college decision and, ultimately, the college backed down. With this and a continuing court case involving a veiled Muslim woman, the debate has now gone viral in the media world.

The Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne felt it necessary to call for a national debate on veils. He probably got more than what he wanted, but not in the Parliament. The deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg came out strongly against banning veil in public places, calling it 'un-British'. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, waded in by suggesting that it was not the role of the state to tell women what to wear: 'wearing niqab should be the woman's choice', she said. The latest heavyweight joining the debate was Health secretary Jeremy Hunt who suggested 'NHS patients have right to demand their doctor or nurse does not wear a veil'. However, he also insisted that it is a 'professional and not political' issue.

Creative and sensational headlines in the tabloids, matched by equally creative and lively discussions in the broadsheets, have been feeding the diet of publicity. The prime time BBC show, 'Question Time', also had an interesting discussion on this subject recently (19th September).

Questions definitely arise: who are these women who, by wearing a piece of cloth on their face, have created such a feverish marathon discussion in the country? How many are they in Britain and why do they wear this? Should this be so important an issue deserving such national attention?

It is vital there are some bare facts to demystify the myths behind all this. But unfortunately there is none.

The only fact that most people would not disagree with is that face veils are worn by only a tiny fraction of British Muslim women and the ones who are challenging the establishments are quite young.

As to why they wear this is anybody's guess.

What we have heard so far from some of the women themselves is that they wear the veil for religious reasons. But the fact is that the overwhelming majority of practicing Muslim women do not wear a full face covering (they wear the open-faced hijab, typically). This takes the issue to religious interpretation which may be linked with culture. Religion and culture are not easy areas in life. Do some of these women wear this because 'misogynist men in a male dominated culture' force this on them? It may be the case for a few, but how do we know without talking with them?

Yet some in our media and political world are hell-bent on proving how uncultured or backward Muslims are. This is sheer politicisation of the issue and it does not help the debate.

On balance, I am generally heartened by the fact that the debate on this issue is gradually becoming more nuanced, informative and dispassionate - from both Muslims and non-Muslims. While Muslims seem to differ on everything nowadays, they have come up with smarter and more consistent views on face veil. This has been articulated by the main Muslim umbrella body, the Muslim Council of Britain, mentioning in a statement: "We recognise that there are different theological approaches to the niqab. Some consider this to be an essential part of their faith, while others do not... but Islamic practices allow for certain exceptions, and in the spirit of being reasonable. That debate will continue, but it must be done and led by Muslim women, who freely decide to wear, or not wear the niqab or hijab."

None within my extended or immediate family wears the face veil. My own view is that it is a woman's choice according to her understanding of religion, public modesty and human dignity. In a choice-based society people need to accommodate others. In the public space a good understanding is needed among people for better civil interaction - between employees and employers, students and teachers, service providers and recipients. And unlike on other occasions, I agree with our senior politicians that it is a professional issue: it should be a woman's choice and it is un-British to think of banning this in public.

Dress is our external symbol and in public life one has to care about our collective security; we have to look after our own as well as others' safety. For a religious person one's inner spirituality is as, if not more, important as external manifestation.

Now that enough has been said on this, are we in a position to avoid 'storms in our tea cups' and rise above the veil issue by slaying the mythical dragons of misinformation about Muslims in our midst?

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is the Chair of East London Mosque Trust and former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). Follow him on Twitter @MAbdulBari

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