Overzealous reactions to Islamophobia do more harm than good
The controversy over what former UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson this month wrote in a column in the Daily Telegraph about the cover-all garment worn by Muslim women continues between those who consider it offensive and racist and those who defend it as freedom of expression and somewhat funny. If it was stated at a different time and place, perhaps it would not have raised as much debate and reaction at the official and public level. However, considering the current state of Islamophobic tension, the rise of far-right parties and anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies in the UK and Europe in general, it was bound to be explosive.
Johnson, who is known for his outrageous comments, described the face veil worn by Muslim women as “weird” and “oppressive,” mocked their choice to cover their face as “ridiculous” and compared them to “looking like letterboxes” and “bank robbers.” Whether he was seeking attention and a return to the limelight after quitting as foreign secretary last month, or to position himself for a run for the leadership of the Conservatives, he has put his party in an awkward position. It launched an investigation into his comments for allegedly breaching the party’s code of conduct, meaning he could face suspension or even expulsion, but his allies backed him for speaking his mind and refusing to apologize. Meanwhile, Britain’s most senior police officer has said that, according to hate crime specialists, Johnson had not broken the law with his comments, even if they were offensive.
If we look at the issue of the face veil on its own, it is a subject of debate even among Muslims. Some consider it a must and part of Islam’s principles in terms of modesty of dress by women, while others do not think it is obligatory and rather believe it is oppressive and makes the woman invisible, identity-less. Having said that, the point here is not the wearing or otherwise of a piece of cloth — a burqa, niqab or hijab — it is about respecting the right of women to choose to wear what they want, especially if it is religious or cultural attire. It is the same as respecting what Scottish men wear, or Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs or Aborigines, without mocking them, as long as they are not causing harm or breaking the law.
If we behave as Islam instructs us to behave, we would not give the opportunity to ignorant, racist people to portray us as terrorists and extremists.
Unfortunately, some European countries have gone so far as to ban the face veil under the claim of secularism and protecting European values, or for security reasons, which can be understood due to terrorist incidents, although a ban would not be the best or most effective tactic in countering terrorism. In fact, it could contribute to increasing the feelings among Muslims of being targeted, discriminated against and rejected, which in turn could lead to hatred and violence. At least Johnson said that he is against a total ban of the veil, but only because it would inevitably be construed as being intended to make some point about Islam.
On the other hand, the overboard reaction of some Muslims against such bans and anti- Muslim policies — or even the Prophet Muhammad cartoon competition planned by the infamous Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders — with violent protests and attacks to the extent of murder cannot be justified. Such zealous acts do more harm than good in presenting the views and stands of Islam and Muslims on these issues.
There are legal means, international human rights resolutions, peaceful expressions and demonstrations as well as interreligious dialogue platforms for engagement and discussion, in addition to civil society petitions and boycotts that would yield better and more effective outcomes. Resorting to acts of hooliganism would only tarnish the peaceful image of Islam and reinforce the perception that Muslims are uncivilized and barbaric.
The Prophet faced numerous incidents of insult and defeat but did not retaliate with vengeance or violence when he had the chance. If we follow the lead of our beloved Prophet in his patience, humility, strength, kindness, tolerance and benevolence, we would not expose him to insult. If we behave as Islam instructs us to behave, we would not give the opportunity to ignorant, racist people to portray us as terrorists and extremists.
Just as far-right Western politicians use and abuse freedom of expression to rally support for their racist agendas, far-right Muslim groups use and abuse the sentiments of simple-minded Muslims to fuel outrage for their political agendas. We know that demanding that the Netherlands and other Western countries stop the organizing of such cartoon competitions or the publishing of cartoons and words that we deem blasphemous would be rejected because, for them, freedom of expression is sacrosanct. The most that the authorities could do is to advise and speak up against it.
On the other hand, Wilders and other similar-minded bigots know that organizing such competitions and publishing such distasteful cartoons are meant to provoke and incite hatred and violence, which would then be used to attack Islam and Muslims more — so why fall into that trap? As for the veil ban, freedom of religion is also supposedly protected in the West, so why bring up the issue and impose restrictions that contradict these principles and are counterproductive?
- Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer. She is based in Jeddah.Twitter: @MahaAkeel1