We can understand how global conflict provides a model, not just for British Muslims, but for Muslims anywhere. Believing you are the victim of oppressive, prejudicial system makes sense if you accept that you are part of an unjust exercise of force that forms a wider pattern. Some have suspected that the renewal of Muslim identity is the effect rather than the cause of conflict in Britain; there is evidence that forms of allegiance focused on place, nationality, class or profession “can appear to lack an encompassing world-view and are impoverished … Islam [is] clearly the most powerful and reaffirming element,” as the writer Sofia Chanda-Gool puts it.
A college near where I live recently retracted its ban on the niqab, the veil covering all of the face apart from the eyes worn by some Muslim women. The college initially cited security reasons for prohibiting students from wearing the garments, and then reversed its policy. As readers will know, this made national news and reheated the argument over Muslim dress. A great many commentators, including several prominent Muslim women, oppose the wearing of a garment they believe signifies the subordination of women. My view is that women should be able to wear the niqab or even the burkha (the long, loose garment covering the whole body from head to feet) if they wish. They pose no threat to me, or anyone else, and, if a young woman wishes to clothe herself in this manner, that’s her business. In my experience, Muslim women will disclose their faces if the situation demands. I have seen them unveil for airport security officers and in banks, for example. The fact remains: many non-Muslims are hostile, resentful and suspicious of women who wear such clothing. Why?
Call it synchronicity – the simultaneous occurrence of events, which have no discernible causal connection – but the events in Birmingham, by some weird mental alchemy, will appear significantly related to what has happened in Nairobi, Kenya, over the past few days. A militant Islamic group al-Shabaab has killed at least 40 people and held others hostage in a shopping centre. It’s thought Muslims were allowed to leave safely. Some non-Muslims who tried to talk their way past the fighters armed with grenades and AK-47s were told to identify the mother of the Prophet; those who could were released; those who couldn’t were shot on the spot. The attackers are from Somalia, which shares a border with Kenya. At the time of writing, their demands are not known, though it thought the actions are part of the jihad the struggle against the unbelievers on behalf of God and Islam.
The Muslim students at the Birmingham Metropolitan College may have no tangible connections with events in Nairobi – but, whether they like it or not, they are connected. Reactions in Britain and elsewhere in Europe to the wearing of niqabs, and burkhas can’t be understood in isolation. Over the years, the country has witnessed all manner of exotic clothing, many from homegrown youth cultures, others imported. It’s also witnessed flamboyant body ornamentation like tattoos and pierces. The British often look askance at these decorations, but they assimilate them. Niqabs are proving more resistant to assimilation. The reason lies in its associations: the niqab is a symbol as much as an item of clothing. The Daily Telegraph has described it as “a symbol of segregation,” though I think this is a misunderstanding. Others think the niqab is a symbol of women’s oppression. Perhaps. But my feeling is that perceptions such as these would not elicit the kind of ferocious response we’ve seen. Wearing Muslim veils is not a fashion statement, but a visible signifier of a person’s faith and commitment. But global events mean it will be understood by those outside Islam as a sign of association. Islamic renewal may well be, as Chanda-Gool argues, reaffirming, and I still support the right of Muslim women to wear the clothes they wish. Though I fear global events could leave them frighteningly isolated. Islamophobia, the hatred or fear of Islam or Muslims, feeds from global events like the Nairobi massacre. It’s victims are innocently removed from the conflict, but linked by a perceptual thread.