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Europe: The Burka, Islam, and What Lies at the Heart of Jihadism

Europe, apparently concerned by the growth of radical Islam, is increasingly looking for ways to contain it.

In England, for example, Islamists were reported to be openly targeting women and homosexuals in London in an attempt to impose sharia law, and women were being threatened and intimidated into wearing the hijab.

As immigration Minister Damian Green said in a nuanced statement: "Telling people what they can and can't wear, if they're just walking down the street, is a rather un-British thing to do": in a liberal democracy Muslim women have the right to wear the burka when "walking down the street," but the state also has a duty to ensure that they have the right not to wear the burka if they so choose.

rsn_jihadskullofdeathThe problem is, in a family setting, how can this right possibly be enforced with even the slightest degree of fairness to the women?

On its website, the Muslim Council of Britain [MCB], which claims to represent half of Britain's Muslims, states about the burka:

"We advise all Muslims to exercise extreme caution on this issue, since denying any part of Islam may lead to disbelief."

"Not practicing something enjoined by Allah and his Messenger[…] is a shortcoming. Denying it is much more serious."

The statement also includes the following quote from the Koran:

"It is not for a believer, man or woman, that they should have any option in their decision when Allah and his Messenger have decreed a matter."

The MCB's unsurprising position on the burka is hard-line, to say the least. As Andrew Gilligan noted in The Telegraph, since the French burka ban, the MCB issued a statement suggesting that Muslims who speak out against the burka or niqab are guilty of "disbelief" -- and even apostasy, a much more serious charge, that in Islam requires the death penalty.

For years -- and problematically – the MCB had an especially close and visible relationship with Labour Ministers. Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, for instance, broke off communications with the organization only when it refused to relieve deputy director-general Daud Abdullah of his position, after, according to the London Times, "he endorsed a pro-Hamas declaration that appeared to call for violence against Jews and Israel and condone attacks on British troops."

The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has long been outspoken in his condemnation of anti-Semitism, and understands that this hatred lies at the heart of Jihadism. When it came to light recently that anti-Semitic material, from the Saudi-Arabian curriculum, were being used in Muslim schools in Britain, Gove made it clear that it was completely unacceptable. Ministers also need to take the lead in defending the rights of women and homosexuals.

Sufi and Shia Muslim groups, however, say that the MCB is unrepresentative of the majority of British Muslims, and have attacked the organization for its narrow view of Islam and what supposedly authentic Muslims ought to be.

British Muslims for Secular Democracy [BMSD] also issued a statement, "support[ing] the right of men and women to dress how they choose on civil libertarian grounds." The organization also believes, however, that there should be "consistent identification procedures for people who cover their faces only in particular settings such as banks, airports and any place where child protection issues are invoked." Such a measure would not need a special law singling out the burka or niqab, but would apply to any face covering.

Importantly, the BMSD also asserts that anyone "found guilty of coercing others into wearing niqab" should be punished.

The problem, again, is that it is not at all clear where coercion ends and peer pressure begins. If a woman is told that unless she is covered she could be regarded as a prostitute, is that coercion?

It should not be illegal for The Guardian to publish Daud Abdullah's commentary on Israel, or for the BBC to promote Sharia Law and Islamist intolerance towards homosexuals, but Ministers can make clear that in providing anti-democratic political beliefs with a platform, they doing the majority of Muslims, and non-Muslims, a disservice that could easily result in extremely unpleasant consequences for society as a whole.

When the New Labour Government, was in power from 1997-2010, it openly cooperated with many of Britain's most hard-line Islamists, sidelining the country's pro-democratic Muslims. Consequently, not only did Islamism grow to become a considerable force both in the Government and the media, where its voice could always be heard, but also in a large section of the public. Apparently it caused enough trepidation and fear in the public for two thirds to support a ban on the burka.

Although banning the burka might also have been expected in the current coalition Government, Prime Minister David Cameron seems to have decided not to indulge in the sort of amateur theological meanderings that New Labour ministers appeared to love; instead, he is reemphasizing what he, and most British citizens understand: Britain's commitment to liberal democracy. Britain's Immigration Minister, Damian Green, had called banning the burka "un-British" in 2010, and, notably, recently reiterated his opposition to such a ban.

Britain's publicity-seeking, and publicity-savvy, radical cleric, Anjem Choudary, attempted to join one of these. Although he was prevented from entering France, his name, once again, made it into the media.

Choudary knows a thing or two about government proscriptions, not least of all how ineffectual they tend to be. Choudary has been associated with various organizations, such as the now-banned Islam4UK organization -- all of which appear to be reincarnations of the also-banned al-Muhajiroun. Since being prohibited from reestablishing its organization under any other name, a strangely similar group, called Muslims Against Crusades, has suddenly appeared on the streets of London. Choudary is careful, however, to play only cameo roles in its public demonstrations.

If the ban has made Choudary more cautious on the street level, it has also elevated him to the dizzy heights of CNN and Channel 4, among others, who have talked him up from Street Preacher to Go-To Man for anyone wanting the – supposedly official – opinions of al-Qaeda and radical Islam.

Banning the burka seems to have about as much chance of effectively tackling Islamism as banning organizations such as Choudary's: zero. Banning organizations, as well as symbols of them, such as the burka, just seems, as history shows, to lend them a seductive air of intrigue mixed with credibility.

In Germany, Christian Democrats-run, state of Hesse banned the wearing of the burka

in public in January; and in early April, two women were arrested in France, after its ban on the burka went into effect.

In France, its concept of laicite means that banning some religious symbols is not regarded as an affront to national identity. In 2003, a commission, praised by President Jacques Chirac, recommended banning the wearing of the Muslim headscarf, the yarmulke and "large crosses" in schools. Nevertheless, since the country's ban on the burka went into effect in April 2011, Islamist demonstrations have been held in France.

Those arguing for the burka to be prohibited in public believe it would draw a clear line in the sand especially in regard to women's rights. However, banning the burka would not only affect those women who -- for whatever reason -- have chosen to wear the covering, it would target merely one of the symbols of Islamism.

But the ideology behind it would remain unchallenged.

This seems to be something that the British government is beginning to understand. Notably, at the recent Munich Security Conference, Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to criticize the previous government's policy of engaging with organizations known for their hard line interpretations of Islam, and acknowledged that, instead, the UK had to "engage groups that share our aspirations."

In Europe, governments do need to draw a clear line in the sand, not by the empty gesture of banning organizations or symbols, but by taking on the ideas of Islamism, defeating them, and, consequently, pushing those who espouse them to the margins of society. May 9, 2011 at 5:00 am

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