Brexit, Trump’s victory and populism pose an existential threat to westernised Muslims. These are testing, volatile times. Blameless believers are caught between unbending Islam and an extremist political right. We will have to get smarter and more strategic.
Islam was once diverse, flexible, wise, essentially kind and unthreatening. In 1887, William Quilliam, a convert, opened the first Islamic prayer house in Liverpool. Hundreds, including Lord Stanley of Alderley Edge, converted to the faith. Queen Victoria was delighted when a traditional mosque was built in Woking in 1888. Regent’s Park mosque is constructed on crown land which Churchill presented to Muslims, thousands of whom had fought with the allies in both world wars. It was never easy, but early Muslim settlers fought hard to belong, to keep their faith without aggressively pushing it.
Those were the soft old days, before Saudi Arabia and other rich, conservative Arab nations spread their fanatical doctrines. London, the worlds’ most dynamic and mixed city, is the centre of British Salafism and Wahabism. Successive governments have been totally relaxed about this religious takeover. Remember, all the 9/11 attackers were linked to Saudi Arabia, Britain’s good friend. Focus on many years has been on terrorism, less on the ideological base, the punishing, puritan form of Islam which denigrates non-Muslims, Muslims who are seen as deviants, and females. Bewilderingly, millions of women are drawn to this hard core credo. Veils are the visible symbols of obscurantism and segregation.
Like many Muslims worldwide, I get caught up in a vortex of ire and incredulity when I see fully niqabed ( veiled) British Muslim women or little girls whose hair and bodies are already covered up. In Shepherd’s Bush market you can buy stretchy hijabs ( head coverings) for six month olds. Sometimes I ask the ladies why they live as tribes within a nation or where it says in the Qur’an that female children are dangerously carnal. Most refuse to engage. A few do, and say things like: ‘ We must train the girls to be good Muslims’ or ‘You non-hijabis will not go to paradise’. Well, frankly, paradise would be joyless if only hooded, self-righteous sisters are permitted through the gate.
In 2014, I wrote a book Refusing the Veil ( Biteback), in which I described early feminists in Egypt and Iran and my own family who threw off the wretched shrouds. After publication, I had some of the worst hate mail I have ever had from Salafi women. When I appeared on a Channel4 programme on the niqab, angry, noisy bats cornered me and physically pushed me around. You cannot question them, because they are, like cult members, unquestioning.
In Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, females are forced to cover up completely; in Iran, they cannot go out without a headscarf. Savage punishments are meted out to those who accidentally or purposely reveal a bit of flesh or lock of hair. Meanwhile ultra-purist females in free countries follow these oppressive dress codes. Why? This is the burning question.
A new study, The Making of a Salafi Woman, by Anabel Inge, a white academic, tries to find some answers. This is an under-researched subject and so any credible information is very welcome. Inge clearly gained the trust of these usually reticent and wary women. Many are troubled and find solace in rules and certainties. One young interviewee, raised by her relatives, said: ‘ Instead of asking my mum or dad I didn’t have, I turned to God from a young age’. For Warda, bad GCSE results felt like punishment from Allah. She had been a ‘bad Muslim’, so she sought religious purification. Some interviewees hold odious views. All of them accept male dominance, express religious supremacy and relinquish pleasures- including birthdays, music and dancing. Inge claims none of them are coerced, but I know there is both soft and brutal coercion pushing the thoughtless ardency.
The new world order will push more Muslims towards Salafism or Wahabism, which will whip up more hatred and right wing nationalism. An all- out culture war looms. This, as Obama told his daughters, is no time to take up a foetal position and hide. Good liberals and progressive Muslims must wake up and together confront the emerging forces of darkness.
Edited version I newspaper 26/11/16