Blackburn, England, Asharq Al-Awsat- Jack Straw, the leader of the British House of Commons and former Foreign Secretary has recently provoked a controversial debate on the issue of integration of Muslims and members of other religious and ethnic minorities in Britain following his claims that he opposes the Niqab, a veil worn by Muslim women that covers the whole body except the eyes, because it prevents full social integration into British society.
There is the possibility that Straw’s statements could lead to a future debate on legislation to prevent the wearing of the Niqab in government and public places under the pretext of security, safeguarding values or for the development of integration. It was evident that Straw’s comments have sparked strong debate from the 10,000 e mails; equivalent to one email every four seconds that were sent to the BBC website only hours after Straw’s article was published. These messages voiced various opinions and ideas and portrayed a strong interest in the topic from British society. It is worth mentioning that most of the messages supported Straw’s opinion while emphasizing the importance of safeguarding freedom of expression even on issues that may anger some ethnic or religious minorities.
Jack Straw stated that Niqab hinders integration and dialogue and that he does not feel comfortable when he meets Muslim women wearing the Niqab in his Blackburn constituency. In an article written for the Lancashire Telegraph newspaper, Straw said that the Niqab “was such a visible statement of separation and of difference.” He expressed his worries about the social obstacles that the Niqab may impose, saying “my concern is that wearing the full veil was bound to make better relations between the two communities more difficult.” Jack Straw’s article is of great significance as he represents a constituency that is home to a large Muslim community that makes up approximately 30% of the electorate. After Straw’s article, a large number of British officials commented on the subject with some supporting his views and others objecting to it. Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed with Straw and said his remarks are justified. Secretary of State for Communities and Local Affairs, Ruth Kelly agreed with Straw that there needs to be interaction. Others, however, have criticized the House of Commons leader such as Oliver Letwin, chairman of the Policy Review and of the Research Department for the Conservative Party, who described Straw’s remarks as “a dangerous doctrine to instruct people how to dress”. Simon Hughes, the leader of the Liberal Democrats Party, also criticized Straw’s remarks and described them as “insensitive and surprising”. More criticism came from Straw’s Blackburn constituency where Muslim leaders said that many Muslim women consider his comments “humiliating and upsetting”. The Lancashire Council of Mosques said it was deeply concerned about “the rash and totally insensitive” remarks made by the leader of the House of Commons.
Asharq Al Awsat visited Blackburn in northwest England that has a distinct Islamic spirit with thirty mosques and many Islamic clubs and societies. Blackburn has three Muslim areas or “ghettos” with high Asian populations, which are Whalley Range, Audley Range, and Little Harwood. There are also several mosques with towering domes such as Masjid-E-Sajedeen, Masjid-E-Noor, and Masjid-E-Tauheedul Islam. Asharq Al Awsat visited Richmond Terrace where Jack Straw’s offices and a number of law firms are located.
On its first stop in Blackburn, Asharq Al Awsat met Chris, a 42-year old British engineer. Chris talked about the personal freedom of Muslim women who choose to wear the Niqab or the headscarf. He said that although he disagrees with Straw, he feels that he has the right to express his opinions and refuse to receive women wearing the full veil in his office. Chris added that Straw specializes in improving the living conditions of ethnic communities in Blackburn but should deal with people accordingly and not based on what they wear, their religion or the colour of their skin. Chris asked, “Do I really need to see the face of a person to learn about his opinion? Lots of people make friends or even get married over the internet!”
Sarah, an undergraduate studying Sociology at the University of Preston, of Pakistani origin and who does not wear a Niqab or headscarf stated, “I do not see the connection between the Niqab and integration. Does this mean that wearing a swimsuit is the best way to integrate into western society?” She added that Straw should know that the task of an official elected by the people is to represent the interests of the public rather than “to practice selective discrimination based on religion”. She said that though she does not wear the Niqab, she respects women who do. She added that she used to wear a headscarf. Sarah continues, “We thought that someone in his position would be more sensitive and understanding, and, perhaps, more knowledgeable about the correct ways to express his opinions. This however, was not the case”. She believes that the objection to Niqab is part of a public campaign against the Islamic veil that began in France and will not end in Britain.
However, a taxi driver who spoke to Asharq Al Awsat on condition of anonymity en route to the Jaame Masjid, the biggest mosque in the city, was more resilient. Originally from Pakistan, he tells Asharq Al Awsat that has been living in Yorkshire for over 40 years. He said, “Straw is completely correct regarding his view of Niqab. It is not such a big issue but the media inflated it and turned it into a public issue. He said that Muslim women wearing the Niqab go to Straw to solve their personal problems that may be related to immigration, housing, medical welfare or social security. Straw has often succeeded in solving our problems as Muslims and he has the right to see the face of the women who want to talk to him”. He added that his wife and daughter wear headscarves. He continued to say that he opposes wearing the Niqab in the West, “Anyone who wishes to wear the niqab should go to India or Pakistan or to any Muslim country”.
In front of the Jaame Masjid that can hold up to 2000 worshippers, Asharq Al Awsat spoke to a Muslim woman wearing the Niqab. She angrily defended wearing the Niqab and emphasized its importance to Muslim women. She said, “A Muslim woman is free to cover her body and not show her face. This is something that pleases God”. She added, “The Muslim community should encourage women to wear the Niqab. Furthermore, we live in a non-Muslim society and therefore it is essential for a Muslim to adhere to the teachings, rites, and provisions of Islam. These should not be abandoned under the excuse that they are not in harmony with British norms”. She questions, “Why would we turn to the western model instead of looking at the Quran and the Sunnah as sources of legislation even if we live in the West?”
Asharq Al Awsat talked to a number of worshippers and the Imams of the mosque. Surprisingly, one or two of the mosque trustees supported Straw in his election campaigns and are members of the British Labor Party in Blackburn. However, one of these supporters, fifty-year-old Salimallah who is a member of the Blackburn Municipal Council, secretary of the Jaame Masjid in Blackburn and a close associate to Straw said, “Straw has been a representative for Blackburn for 27 years. This time, however, he has caused a lot of controversy due to his opinions of the Niqab. He should have accepted the fait accompli and respected the dress code of Muslim women”. He said that Straw should not have entangled himself in this dispute. He told Asharq Al Awsat that he has two sons and three daughters and that his daughters only wear headscarves. His three nieces, however, wear the Niqab. Salimallah said that Straw should have carefully thought about publicising his opinion. He added, “When he was Foreign Secretary and before that Home Secretary, a position which deals with immigration issues and relations with the communities, Straw was not known to be hostile or racist towards Muslims that form one-third of the electorate in the constituency where he has been winning his seat in parliament since 1979.”
However, Sheikh Ibrahim Ahmad Bin Karawliyah, a trustee of the Jaame Masjid and a supporter of Straw in his past election campaigns, backed Straw’s remarks about interaction by taking off the Niqab. He said that he supports the wearing of the headscarf but not the Niqab. He added that the problem is that Straw’s remarks are being used as an excuse by fundamentalists to fuel the current situation and that they do this by “distributing leaflets in front of mosques in the city but we have stopped them from doing that,” he said. Sheikh Ibrahim explained, “In Lancashire we have to admit that the headscarf and the Niqab have become tools used by extremists to consolidate this phenomenon and that is used as tool of political and religious pressure”. He pointed out that many political statements are taken out of context and are distorted. He added that after the 9/11 attacks, any discussion on Islam or Muslims has become a consumable commodity for the media outlets. He went on to say that it is not in the interest of the Muslim community to inflate the issue.
Abdul Haq Ikram al Haq supports the Niqab and says that his future wife would have to wear it. Abdul Haq studied at Jamiatul Ilm Wal Huda UK School in Blackburn where the students and faculty members are predominantly Asian. The school teaches the Quran, Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), and Hadith (the Prophet’s traditions). Several former students of Jamiatul Ilm Wal Huda have become Imams in Blackburn’s local mosques. In November 2004, the British anti-terrorism unit raided the school and arrested one of its students for terrorism-related offences.
Abdul Haq Ikram is 22 years old and is one of the Imams that lead Taraweeh, the evening prayers that take place during Ramadan, in Blackburn’s mosques. He told Asharq Al Awsat that his sister and mother wear the Niqab. He said, “Non-Muslims should not discuss the Niqab; this is our business”. He added, “The Niqab represents chastity and purity. It protects women and their honour. It endows a woman with more dignity, respect, and forces others to respect her”. He went on to ask, “Do our women have to put on makeup in order to please the British politician? If backwardness in their opinion is our women clinging on to chastity and covering themselves then yes we are backward”.
At the Blackburn Railway Station, Asharq Al Awsat spoke to an Irish university student who said, “If a person chooses to live in Britain, he/she should respect our laws and principles. We welcome anyone who accepts integrating into society. Those who do not want to integrate should think again about wanting to live here instead of trying to change us”.
Straw’s opinion of the Niqab continues to provoke a range of reactions from those in support and those against the Niqab. Many of the individuals who spoke to Asharq Al Awsat in Blackburn stressed that he has a good past record with the Muslims and that he did not intend to cause offence. They also stated that people should think about Jack Straw’s comments carefully and this may help to solve some of the problems related to the integration of Muslims into British society. The issue, they said, is not the Niqab; the issue is that Muslims need to listen to the opinions of others.