The Constitutional Aspects of the Veil Controversy in Britain

London- 16 October 2006:

The Leader of the Commons and former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw dropped a bomb shell a few days ago by writing a column in his constituency local paper saying he asked veiled Muslim women to consider removing the Niqab ( full veil) when visiting him in his surgery. The surprise was that many of them obliged, but the attack on him, from self-styled Muslim leaders and from British left came as no surprise.

By Adel Darwish.

London Monday 16 October 2006
The heat of the ongoing debate about the Muslim full-veil ( or Niqab) in Britain today mustn't let us overlook some constitutional, democratic and cultural aspects which the controversy touches.

The debate, or rather the uproar among Muslims, and sections of the British left, began when the leader of the Commons Jack Straw revealed that during his meetings with his female Muslim constituents in his weekly surgery in Blackburn, North West England, he asked them politely (not demanded) to consider the niqab from a broader perspective; and to think whether it was a barrier to their fully communicating with their, male and female, fellow citizens?

Would they think of it as coming in the way of a face-to-face interaction between individuals?
The way the debate has been conducted – especially the noisy objections of radical Islamists – raises some fundamental constitutional questions. The Most important of which concerns the democratically elected government to fulfill its obligations in a constitutional contract it agreed with voter, who is its employer and pay the ministers' and civil servants salaries from his/her taxes.

The debate also raised a question regarding the government own responsibility for social cohesion and its obligation to protect the accepted cultural – by a majority consensus- and the acceptable behavior, and balancing this against the individual's sacred right to freedom of expression and freedom of choice. It is also essential to put on record that there are certain legal conditions and circumstances without which an individual's choice, be it man or woman, cannot be considers as ' free'.

It is equally essential to ask whether "freedom of choice" is a shield for authoritarian forces that do not, in their basic creed, recognise individual's right to free choice.

By following the media coverage of this issue and also during my participation in live BBC debates – with participants from ' Muslim communities', phoning in; I noticed that the vast majority of the anti-Straw chorus of disapproval was males although the subject was essentially a female issue. None of the respondents were Muslim women from
Blackburn (Mr. Straw's constituency.) Those who attacked Mr. Straw call themselves, 'leaders of the Muslim community,' a term, so far, receives the blessing Tony Blair's New Labour government.
Most of them are professional objectors, who have a ready format to raise angrily condemning any artist, author, academic, or a politician whom they judge, apostate/kafir/crusader/enemy of Islam according to the mode of their fatwa of the day- or fatwas handed down to them, to condemn such unfortunate person as ' attacking' Islam.

In almost every case those professional Muslim objectors start a Spanish inquisition style campaign against the individual in question, with the sole aim of forcing him/her to abort their artistic or literary creation before it is has a chance to come out to light. In most cases they do not bother read or view the subject matter of what they have condemned. They simply confiscate his/her to free expression.

The "Muslim leaders" condemned Mr. Straw because he proposed to discuss or review the veil in the "wrong" forum or the "wrong platform" as they said objectionably during their participation in the BBC programme.


The "correct'' - read acceptable-platform or forum, in their own words, was the mosque or an Islamic centre, NOT parliament and or the local MP (Member of Parliament) surgery or election meetings in the constituencies. This is a constitutional trap, since these self-styled "Muslim leaders" are not elected and thus non representative.

Most of the local mosques, or so called Islamic cultural centres favoured by the self-styled leaders as " the correct" forum, are controlled by ignorant imams, most of whom hardly speak English as their simple and basic education stopped in Pakistan's junior Koranic madrasa were most of them come from. Most of the so-called Islamic cultural centres are heavily influenced by the political agenda of their mainly foreign financiers, away from the control and assessments of British voters.

The irony is that this dialogue about the veil between the women who took it and the MP they freely elected to represent them in parliament has been going on for years. It is only when Mr. Straw published the account of the dialogue in the local newspaper in
Blackburn that the issue came to light.

The discussion went, in the line of long established democratic traditions, in the appropriate forum, namely the MP constituency surgery one day a week where he receives his constituents, listens to their grievances, deals with their problems, and raises, on their behalf, questions in the Commons.


In Mr Straw's case a third of his constituency voters are Muslims.
So, which of the two forums is more legitimate and representative when it comes to discussing issues that touch voters' lives? The surgery of an MP who is democratically elected to represent the citizens, Muslims, and others; or Islamic centers God knows who finances them and controlled by unelected, often ignorant mini-tyrants?

Mr. Straw is a shrewd politician who knows that criticising Islam would be a political suicide leading to the loss of his seat in parliament. Hence his raising of the issue was a calculated step that enjoyed the support of the Muslims in his constituency. The female voters whom Mr. Straw asked to think again about the face veil as a barrier to a free face-to-face discussion removed their veils willingly, and with great relief, as some of them told me. Some of them later said they thought exposing their faces might offend a man like Mr. Straw as if a woman's face was an ' offending' part of the body; but they were mislead into this belief by ignorant imams of deception and preachers of hate.

Direct parliamentary representation, like the British system, through constituency representation is a legal contract between the government and the voter as an individual. This contract does not include an agreement between the government and ethnic or religious blocs. In contrast, a system of proportional representation like in Israel or Iraq has the side effects of doing favours, and deals with religious and ethnic blocs and often passing laws tailored to appease those blocs. This system hinders the government's work and prevents it from fulfilling its electoral promises. Hence when Mr. Straw listened to the female voters' wishes, he bypassed the unelected intermediaries and brokers including the Muslim Council of Britain , or the Muslim parliament, and other unelected bodies who represent no one, Muslim or non-Muslim.

I hope that all MPs will follow Mr. Straw's example and ignore these "Islamic" organisations, councils, and gatherings, especially those that are financed from abroad, because they have no constitutional legitimacy. The elected MPs should appeal directly to hundreds of thousands of the silent moderate majority of British Muslims and engage them in a dialogue as individual voters just as Mr. Straw did. This will free the silent majority of British Muslims from the intimidation of the vocal and loud radical minority and give them the opportunity to express themselves freely away from boisterous shouting of an unelected minority consisting of demagogues who seek a clash between Muslims and non-Muslims, or mercenaries getting rich through foreign funds financing fictitious Islamic cultural activities.

Mr. Blair's government should stop dealing with non representative organisations. The government can redress its breech of the conditions of the electoral contract by removing all ethnic barriers and working towards harmony among all sections of British society , beginning with encouraging all schools and local authorities to return to the old fashion school uniform, which is the request of parents of all faiths. This is necessary to restore discipline. Quarter of a century ago when Muslim female students went to schools in uniform and we never heard of a head covering, a face veil, or a jellabia. Today these former female students are good mothers, professionals, and successful businesswomen and even made it to the upper House.
I support a woman's right to put on a bikini or a veil providing that she is truly free to chose, most importantly when she reaches the age of consent, and is able to choose from among several available options.

Dose the indoctrination, mental manipulation and brainwashing of girls under the age of five by cloaking them in a Taliban-style Burqa or Niqab give them the freedom of choice when they reach the age of consent, that is, if they reach it at all before being forced into an arranged marriage?
Most of those who raise the slogan "a woman has the right to wear the veil" are male salafi fundamentalists who reject the principle of a person's freedom of choice to begin with. How many times they issued a fatwa of death against a Muslim who dares to interpret a Koranic text in a way that contradicts their ideology, even though Islam is clear in rejecting the role of a priest as an intermediary between man/woman and God?

Ijtihad ( the personal own interpretation of the text) is the individual's sacred right, while seeking a priest's advice is only optional pending the individual's own wish. And, incidentally, there are no verses in the Koran that specifically obliges a woman to take the veil or cover her face; she is only advised to dress ' modestly'; an advice also extending to men. There is no need, from a pure Islamic view point, for an intervention or a fatwa by characters like sheikh, Al-Qaradawi, or anyone else.

The vocal radical fundamentalist minority, within the Muslim minority, always accuse the West of failing to understand the "Muslims' culture." But have they tried to understand OUR British culture?
My wife, for example, wouldn't dream of sunbathing in her bikini in a park in
Islamabad. Equally, Muslim radicals should understand the basics of British culture. For example it is considered rude to hold a conversation with another person from behind your sun glasses, let alone hiding the entire face behind a veil. Why those who choose to come to Britain to live do not try to understand, let alone respect, the basic cultural concepts of this country like freedom of expression and thought, and equality between the sexes instead of showing disdain for the country's culture on the pretext of the right of a minority within a minority?

Adel Darwish 2006

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