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The Constitutional Aspect of the Veil Controversy in Britain and Elsewhere - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The recent uproar over the veil started when leader of the British House of Commons Jack Straw revealed that during meetings between him and female Muslim voters in his Blackburn Constituency in northwestern England, he asked them politely and without insistence to think of the veil from a broader perspective as a barrier between them and their male and female British compatriots and a hindrance to face-to-face interaction between individuals.

The uproar raised constitutional issues including a demand to the democratically elected government to fulfill the constitutional contract between it and the voters, who are actually its employers and pay the ministers’ and government employees’ salaries from their own taxes. It also raised the question of the government being responsible for social cohesiveness by protecting the accepted cultural norms and modes of behavior, balancing this against the individuals’ sacred right to freedom of expression and freedom of choice and the extent to which legal and circumstantial conditions are present to guarantee that an individual’s choice, be it man or woman, is free. Add to this the question of whether “freedom of choice” is a catchphrase behind which authoritarian powers hide that do not, in their basic creed, recognize an individual’s right to free choice to begin with.

By following the media coverage of this issue and also during my participation in a live BBC program to respond to viewers’ questions on the matter; I noticed that the vast majority of the anti-Straw chorus consisted of men although the issue is a female issue. None of the respondents were Muslim women from Blackburn Constituency. Those who attacked Jack Straw call themselves, with the approval of Tony Blair’s Labor government, the leaders of the Muslim community.

Most of them are real experts at making rowdy objections, raising an uproar, and condemning every artist, writer, or academic whom they judge, according to their own religious edicts (fatwa) or edicts that are handed down to them, as a person who attacks Islam. In such cases they wage an inquisition tribunal against the individual in question to abort his idea or artistic creation before it is even complete. In most cases they do not even read or view the substance of his creative expression. They simply want to confiscate his right to make that expression.

The “Muslim leaders” condemned Straw because he proposed a review of the veil from the “wrong pulpit.” In their own words the pulpit that they accept must be a local mosque or an Islamic institution or center far from parliament and the electoral constituencies. This is an example of a double standard because these “Muslim leaders” are not elected and represent only themselves. The local mosques in question are under the control of imams who do not speak the country’s language and whose entire reference library consists of the books used in Pakistan’s junior Koranic schools. Most of the so-called Islamic cultural centers submit to the political agendas of the people who supply them with money and who live outside Britain far from any oversight by the British voters.

The second dialogue between the veil wearers and the deputy whom they freely elected to represent them in parliament has been going on for years. Had Straw not published the story in a local newspaper, the truth would not have become public. Following an old democratic tradition, the MP uses his office as a constituency surgery (preceding two words in English as published) one day a week where he receives his voters, listens to their grievances, deals with their problems, and on their behalf submits questions to the Commons. In Straw’s case a third of his constituency voters are Muslims.

I ask you earnestly, which of the two pulpits is more legitimate and representative when it comes to discussing issues that interest the voters? Is it the office of the MP who is democratically elected to represent the citizens, including the Muslims, or Islamic centers that only God knows who finances them and that are managed by unelected persons?

Straw is a shrewd politician who knows that criticizing Islam means political suicide and the loss of his seat in parliament. Hence his raising of the issue was a calculated step that enjoyed the support of the Muslims in his constituency. The female voters whom Straw asked to think again about the face veil as a barrier to a free face-to-face discussion removed their veils willingly. Some of them later said that revealing their faces might “embarrass” a man like Straw as if a woman’s face is a private part of the body, according to the misleading explanation given to them by the imams of deception.

Direct parliamentary representation through the constituency system is a legal contract between the government and the voters as individuals. This contract does not include an agreement between the government and ethnic or religious blocs. In contrast, a system of proportional representation like the ones in Israel or Iraq requires giving favors to religious factions and passing laws tailored to please religious blocs. This system hinders the government’s work and prevents it from fulfilling its electoral promises. Hence when Straw listened to the female voters’ wishes, he bypassed the unelected intermediaries and brokers including the Council of British Muslims, or the Islamic parliament, and other bodies that lack any constitutional capacity because they do not represent anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim.

I hope that all MPs will follow Straw’s example and ignore these “Islamic” organizations, councils, and gatherings, especially those that are financed from abroad, because they lack constitutional legitimacy. I hope that they will address themselves to the hundreds of thousands of reasonable and silent British Muslims and discuss issues with them as individuals, just as Straw did, to give them the opportunity to express themselves far from the domination and boisterous shouting of an unelected minority consisting of demagogues who seek a clash between Muslims and non-Muslims, or mercenaries who justify their getting money from abroad by pretending that the funds are meant to support fictitious Islamic cultural centers.

Blair’s government should stop dealing with organizations that represent no one and compensate the citizens for violating the conditions of the electoral contract by removing all ethnic barriers and installing social harmony among the people, beginning with requiring young male and female students to wear the same school uniform, which is the demand of most parents of all religions. This is necessary to restore discipline, just as the situation was a quarter of a century ago when Muslim female students wore the uniform and we never heard about a head covering, a face veil, or a jellaba. Today these former female students are good mothers, professionals, and successful businesswomen. Some of them are members of the House of Lords.

I support a woman’s freedom, Muslim or non-Muslim, to wear whatever she wants provided that the conditions for such freedom exist. Most importantly she should, when adult, be able to choose from several available options.

Does the domestication of girls under five years of age and the effacement of their independent character behind a Taliban-like face veil give them the freedom of choice when they grow up, that is, if they even reach adulthood before being forced into a marriage that has no connection at all with a free choice?

Most of those who raise the slogan “a woman’s right to wear the veil” are salafi fundamentalists who reject the principle of a person’s freedom of choice to begin with. The proof is that they immediately declare a person’s life forfeit because he dares to interpret a Koranic text in a way that contradicts their ideology although Islam rejects the concept of a priesthood or intermediaries between God and human, whether he is a man or a woman. It is a person’s right to make personal mental efforts to interpret Koranic verses. By the way, nothing in the Koran requires a woman to wear a veil. There is no need, therefore, for an intervention or a fatwa by Al-Mahallawi, Al-Qaradawi, or anyone else.

The boisterous minority accuses the West of failing to understand the “Muslim people’s culture.” Have they tried to understand British culture?

My wife, for example, does not dream of recreating herself in a bikini in the gardens of Islamabad. At the same time in British culture it is neither polite nor tactful to have a conversation with another person while wearing sun glasses, let alone hiding the entire face behind a veil. Why do those who choose to come to Britain to live not try to understand certain basic cultural concepts of this country including freedom of expression and thought, personal efforts at interpretation, and equality between the two sexes instead of showing disdain for the country’s culture on the pretext of the right of a minority within a minority?

Adel Darwish

Adel Darwish

Adel Darwish s a veteran Fleet Street foreign reporter and commentator on foreign affairs.

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