The Independent – United Kingdom; Feb 16, 2004

Maybe they are right, my Islamicist detractors. I don’t have what it takes to be an orthodox Muslim. When I read about “S”, a British Muslim girl aged 15 who has chosen to stay at home since 2002 because her school refused to let her wear the jilbab (a long flowing gown), songs of praise did not rise to my lips.

Instead I was horrified that this child and her parents are so misguided that they believe a garment is more important than an education for an obviously bright girl, who says: “I loved science and wanted to study to be a doctor. But my life has come to a full stop. I worry now that I will end up with no job and living on benefits.”

If she doesn’t shape up, she will indeed be joining other no-hopers. Professor Tariq Modood who co-wrote the major report, Ethnic Minorities in Britain, concluded that Muslim Pakistani and Muslim Bangladeshi women were among the least qualified, least upwardly mobile and most impoverished citizens in our country. This schoolgirl’s father was a head teacher in Bangladesh, so her gesture cannot be said to come out of ignorance.

Apparently “S” was previously fine wearing shalwar khameez and a hijab at the Denbigh High School in Luton. She was top in maths and expected to do very well in her GCSEs. Then she went to local mosques where she went “deeper” into her faith and decided to use the jilbab. She now languishes at home, self-excluded and wilfully de-educated.

I have no sympathy for this family and their contorted arguments that the school is Islamophobic and is violating their human rights. Within reason a uniform has to apply equally to all pupils otherwise it is not a uniform. Why should special allowances be made for religious groups when others – including the poor who find it hard to buy some items – are meant to conform?

Let me predict. This latest farce will lead to more copycat “protests” by Muslim families. The crass official response to the hijab in France has created a new mood of defiance among traditional and radical Muslims. Banning the headscarf with autocratic disdain violated the fundamental values of democratic and free societies. The French government came across as unforgivably authoritarian, not that unlike the Taliban which forced schoolgirls to don the burkha.

How dispiriting that so many Muslims took to the streets to defend the hijab when there are such pressing matters which need our attention. Not nearly as many enraged Muslims have demonstrated about the horrific treatment of the inmates in Guantanamo Bay. (I have just re-watched the extraordinary Panorama programme about the camp. For that alone the BBC can have my licence fee.) When are we going to see protests about the hundreds of honour killings of women and girls in Muslim countries? Do we really think that a scarf is more important than the murder of female Muslims?

The French have got their ban, but the repercussions will wash in for many years. Policy makers will be tested in Britain as religious groups increasingly demand to be allowed to opt out of basic rules and principles, a very bad thing indeed for our complicated and often fraught nation which is trying to hold together without falling into the French model of assimilation. More state funding for separate education will be claimed by religious communities and they will be satisfied.

How bizarre that the Government is boldly pushing integrated education in Northern Ireland, while on the mainland, it upholds separatist education. Tony Blair and co are worryingly confused on this. On the one hand you get the idiotic demands of Denis MacShane et al who want Muslims to endlessly prove that they are “British” and on the other they eagerly support new religious schools and shy away from a positive secularist position. Now we have draft plans from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for the teaching of humanism and atheism in schools. Fine. But do religious schools have to do this too?

There will now be deliberately ignited controversies within integrated schools to make the country accept that some groups must have the right to do what they want. The hijab was always only the beginning. There are already state-funded Muslim schools where the uniform is a full burkha. (I wonder what would happen if a pupil decided that she wanted to wear trousers and a top and nothing else. Would the school accept this? Like hell it would.)

I discussed this with the School Standards minister David Miliband in Belfast recently. He said that the Government was not going to go the way of France. Good. But are we really saying that there are no limits to what the state will accept? Tolerating all demands is itself discriminatory. Corporal punishment is used in British madarasas where many Muslim children go to learn the Koran. These children are getting less protection than other British children if the state does not impose the same conditions that it does on other schools.

The debates over the hijab and now burkha have been over-simplified into a battle between Muslims and Westerners. Millions of Muslims are against these garments. If my mother was writing this column she would take no prisoners on this. She and her friends fear and loathe the pressures on young women to cover themselves beyond ordinary modesty.

There are health problems when the body gets no sun; evidence of domestic violence, happily for perpetrators, remain hidden. Ah, but what about choice? More Muslim women are choosing the hijab and many may go on to proudly graduate to the shroud even though the Koran does not tell us to hide our faces so that a baby cannot see our smiles. But just because some girls and women make a choice does not mean that we should assume that others have not been coerced.

As the passionate secularist, the British Iranian Maryam Namazie writes: “If you remove all forms of intimidation by Islamicists, Islamic laws, racism, cultural relativism and ghettoisation by Western governments, the norms that women are not equal to men, very few women would choose the veil.”

An even more serious consequence is that the furore could seriously disable the many Muslim thinkers who are seeking an Islamic Reformation, the only hope we all have if we don’t want an ideological civil war in the West. The European scholar, Professor Bassam Tibi, for example, writes compellingly about the need for a new international morality based on Islamic practice and European political values of pluralism, tolerance and separation of state and faith. Such thinkers – and there are many more – have travelled beyond multiculturalism, beyond assimilation, beyond minority rights. Their important ideas have, for now, been blown away by the storm over the hijab.

The dangerous vortex created by the French government’s intransigence is a gift to Islamic demagogues who can pull in impressionable girls like “S” and persuade them that a cloak is worth a worthless life of no education and no prospects.

And they can always blame this outcome then on Islamophobia. What happened to the injunctions from Allah to seek an education and to live as productive citizens in the real world?

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