Looking beyond the veil

With ideas of Muslim culture coming under attack from both liberal and right-wing commentators,
speaks to three Muslim women in York about what life is like in Britain today

‘There is no problem of ‘dual loyalty’. Most British Muslims I know don’t spend a great deal of time worrying about where their ‘allegiance’ lies,” says Zahra, a postgraduate student in the Women’s Studies department at York.

Zahra is one of an estimated 14,000 white Briton who have chosen to convert to Islam. She does not think much of suggestions that there is a fundamental conflict between “British culture” and Islam. This puts her at odds with an increasing number of commentators who feel that recent events point to a conflict at the heart of Britain’s Muslim community.

The last time the “clash of civilisations” thesis was so popular was when the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence (fatwa) against the British author Salman Rushdie in 1989.

During that period of controversy, Times journalist Clifford Longley summed up what he thought was at stake. He argued: “Islam does not know how to exist as a minority culture. For it is not just a set of private individual principles and beliefs. Islam is a social creed above all, a radically different way of organising society as a whole.”

Earlier this year, Telegraph writer Mark Steyn invoked Longley’s words, claiming that they are just as applicable now as then. As in 1989, liberals in Europe are now turning against Islam. Fifteen years ago, the liberal feminist Fay Weldon lead the attacks, arguing that Khomeini’s fatwa and the protests against Rushdie’s book by Muslims in Britain showed Islam was "not a religion of kindness but of terror." In an article for the Independent, novelist Anthony Burgess said of Muslims: “If they do not like secular society, they must fly to the arms of the Ayatollah or some other self-righteous guardian of strict Islamic morality.”

The same themes – the supposed conflict between Islam and liberal democracy, the need for Muslims to demonstrate loyalty to their host countries – appear today with increasing frequency. This preoccupation is not limited to seasoned right-wingers like Kilroy-Silk, who recently lost his BBC job for slurring “Arabs”.

Liberal icon Polly Toynbee recently wrote of the “visible threat” that Islam posed to “hard won secularism, tolerance, feminism or social democracy” in an article for the Guardian. Two weeks later the same newspaper allotted four pages over two days to David Goodhart, editor of the liberal journal Prospect, to expound his theory that since “most of us prefer our own kind” we should ensure Britain does not become “too diverse.”

Since the main, but not sole, objects of these discussions about a “culture clash” are Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims, it might be thought reasonable that the opinions of ordinary Muslims be considered. Often, however, British Muslims are simply assumed to have an “enmity towards the society in which they live,” as Theodore Dalrymple claimed in the Telegraph recently. I spoke to Muslim students in York to find out whether it really was a struggle being British and a Muslim.

“Personally, I did feel isolated when I first came to York from Peterborough” admits Raahil, a Second Year History student.

“Even now I don’t really feel I fit in. The Islamic Society has helped though – that’s where I met a lot of my friends.”

Although she has had some problems, Raahil hasn’t found being Muslim and British a problem. “It’s fairly easy. Islam is designed to be a set of values that can be followed wherever you go,” she says.

A greater problem for her has been the attitude of some York students, which she attributes to a lack of exposure to people from ethnic minorities: “I mean lots of people here have never even seen anyone of a different colour.”

Raahil’s friend Nadia, from Bradford, views things differently. “It doesn’t really bother me that York isn’t that diverse, although I know some friends have felt isolated. Coming from a predominantly Asian school, I wanted something a bit different anyway.”

Despite being at ease in York, both women feel that the situation for British Muslims has deteriorated as a result of the Iraq war and the media’s obsession with “Islamic fundamentalism”.

“In one way the war has made people more aware of Muslims in York, but the effect of the media has been damaging. It’s made Muslims seem connected to violence,” says Raahil.

Nadia agrees that the war has made Muslims in York feel more threatened, pointing to the experience of a Muslim friend. “She stayed up here during the holidays when the war was going on, and got so much abuse she was forced to stop wearing her headscarf.”

Headscarves seem to make Muslim women easily identifiable targets for racist abuse. Both women recall occasions when wearing headscarf has made them the target of racist abuse from groups of young men in town.

There were also incidents on campus. “One time in [a campus] bar, me and another Muslim friend were waiting for service for ages and the people serving just ignored us. But when a white lad went to the bar he was served straight away,” says Nadia.

“There could have been other reasons for that but at the time we felt it was because of our religion”.

Both women blame misunderstandings about the meaning of head-coverings for much of the hostility directed at Muslim women. It is often assumed that women are forced to wear the headscarf, and that this symbolises the oppressive nature of Islam toward women.

Although she doesn’t wear headscarf herself, Raahil feels the issue is often misunderstood: “Muslim women might be oppressed sometimes but that’s to do with culture, not religion. Women wear the headscarf through choice – it clearly says in the Qu’ran that you can’t force women to wear a headscarf.”

Zahra converted to Islam having studied the religion as part of her degree, and is now chair of York’s Islamic Society. Far from feeling oppressed by her religion, she argues that Islam can be a path to women’s liberation.

“Contrary to the media’s presentation, Islam grants a number of freedoms to women. For example, women who do domestic work can demand an equal recognition of their role and payment to match,” she says.

It is not necessary to “integrate” Muslims like the three women I talked to; they play as active a part in society as anyone. In fact, well-meaning liberal attempts to overcome the “cultural differences” between Muslims and the “wider society” generally perceive boundaries where none exist. Concentrating on the differences between “our own kind” and “stranger citizens” risks ignoring the things that unite us all.

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