Paul Sheehan in the Land of the Niqab


Paul Sheehan’s latest contribution on Islam comes from what he calls ‘the land of the niqab,’ a mysterious realm encompassing the metropolis that Melanie Phillips calls ‘Londonistan’. Sheehan writes of his experience as ‘the only White person on the street’ in places such as ‘East London, Bradford, Dewsbury, all bastions of the niqab.’

I am no fan of the niqab, principally because women who cite their ‘freedom of choice’ to wear them are not generally first in line to defend the choices of other women.

It is a measure of the power of wedge politics that Sheehan’s article can make me add a ‘but’ to that statement.

Women who wear the niqab may not always support freedom of choice, but even those who don’t support it are still entitled to it. They are simply not entitled to limit anybody else’s choices, and they have to deal with the fact that their dress choices may not be compatible with their preferred employment.

As I have written previously in New Matilda, over-reacting to the niqab can only help to reinforce its appeal among some young women as a symbol of cultural loyalty on the one hand, and anti-establishment rebellion on the other.

The niqab is very much a minority choice among British Muslim women. Although niqabis tend to be concentrated in the areas Sheehan has visited, even there they are far from ubiquitous. They are, however, highly visible even when in small numbers, which is one reason why even many conservative Muslims don’t believe niqabs should be worn in Europe. They attract rather than deflect attention, thus performing the opposite function of their intended purpose.

And the niqab is hardly the only confronting fashion choice to be found on the streets of Britain. I used to visit relatives (Muslim relatives, at that) who lived not far from the headquarters of the British National Party in South London. Racial attacks were common in the area; Stephen Lawrence had been murdered at a nearby bus stop. So the sight of young White men with skinheads, bovver boots and bomber jackets always sent a chill down my spine, especially as they loitered in front of graffiti reading ‘Kill All Pakis.’

The niqab occupies such a prominent place in Sheehan’s article because it gives visible form to the barrier that he believes separates Muslim communities from the rest of Britain. He raises the issue of reciprocity:

When a society, such as Britain and every society in the developed West, provides freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom from oppression by the State, plus social security benefits and medical care, the implicit social contract is that there is a reciprocity between the community and civil society.

This sounds reasonable enough, but the first problem is that this was not the social contract upon which Britain’s postwar immigration was founded. Rather, the ‘contract’ was intended as a short term convenience. Britain would resolve its labour shortage by importing guest workers from its former colonies; the new arrivals would work hard and live frugally so as to be able to remit money to their families and hopefully save a nest egg, before returning home.

The earliest communities, then, were all-male. My grandfather, whom I never knew, was one such early immigrant. Like many others, he left his wife and children behind. They followed years later, when it became obvious that the financial benefits of the move would be a long time coming, and his children’s future could be better secured by giving them a British education. Even then, it was not yet clear that the journey was one-way. People clung to the identities of their homelands because they wanted their families to be able to fit in when they returned home; or if as once seemed possible they were sent home.

Half a century on, the shallow roots cultivated in those early years still have their legacy. The daydream of ‘saving enough money to go back and build a big house in Pakistan’ lingers among the second and third generations, although today it is mostly a fantasy of escaping astronomical British property prices. And while ‘repatriation’ has faded from British political discourse, there is still residual resentment among some British Whites who retain a sense that the temporary lackeys should never have been allowed to stay on and prosper. The ‘social contract’ between Britain and its migrants was worked out piecemeal, as realisation dawned on both sides that theirs was no fleeting acquaintance.

Sheehan writes as though the basically tolerant British society that exists today was presented as a gift to migrants when they arrived from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent. In fact, they helped to build it. They did not have to struggle for religious freedom (although they still faced a degree of religious intolerance) but they were perceived through their racial rather than their religious identities. They were confronted by boarding houses that displayed signs announcing ‘No Coloureds’, by people for whom Alf Garnett was a national hero rather than a satirical character. And in those days, ‘Pakis’ (which then denoted anyone from the subcontinent) were regarded as soft targets for racial violence; for ‘Paki-bashing’. With young Muslim men now held in such fear, it is instructive to remember the days when Blacks were stereotyped as being able to put up a fight, while ‘Pakis’ were easy pickings.

I do not point this out in order to vilify British society, but rather to highlight the fact that after half a century of residence, Hindus, Sikhs, Afro-Caribbeans and Muslims have done their share to make Britain what it is today. Committed citizens of all communities (including Whites) have used the ‘freedoms’ on offer in Britain to build a society where despite the current tensions, understanding and tolerance prevail to a much greater degree than they did 50 years ago. They have not simply ‘reciprocated’ the goods provided to them by Britain they have participated in maintaining and revitalising them.

Sheehan claims that ‘reciprocity is a problem’ for Islamic communities because of their belief that ‘ there is but one God, Allah, and his teachings dictate every aspect of life and social organisation.’

But Allah is not an exclusivist label for most Muslims it is simply the Arabic word for God. ‘One God’ simply denotes Islam as a monotheist faith, like Judaism and Christianity. Most Muslim immigrants to Britain were used to living in the religious pluralism of the pre-partition Indian subcontinent. They remembered the terrible communal violence of partition (violence that was fanned by Britain’s divide-and-rule colonial policies), but they also remember communities where Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians all celebrated each other’s religious holidays together. If some of their children have forgotten that ethos, it is not because ‘Islam’ is inherently hostile to it.

None of this is not to deny or to understate the dysfunction afflicting many Muslim communities in Britain and elsewhere. I have witnessed this dysfunction for myself and written about it elsewhere. I confess to moments of fear and despair.

Yet despite it all, I love Londonistan. Despite sepa
ratist voices on both sides, it is a site of exhilarating hybridity, joyousness and creativity. It is the ‘land of the niqab’, but it is also the place that draws fashion conscious young women of all ethnicities to shop for peacock-toned fabrics and glass bangles. It has produced religious puritans who believe that music is unIslamic, but it has also bred a religiously hybrid youth culture with its own equally hybrid music. It is the place where Salman Rushdie’s books were burned but not before it had inspired some of his best writing.

And if it has achieved nothing else, it has transformed the British diet.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.