Muslim groups slam new call for UK burka ban

Imam’s proposal to ban full face veils is ‘dangerous’ and will feed Islamophobia, groups say

Ben Flanagan
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Muslim groups across the UK have hit out against a campaign to ban burkas, saying the “dangerous” move would fuel Islamophobia at a time of increasing racial tensions in Britain.

Dr Taj Hargey, an imam and head of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford on Thursday launched a campaign to ban full face coverings, including the niqab, from being worn in public.

“We want to make a burka-free Britain,” he told Al Arabiya News. “We should follow what France and Belgium have done.”

The European Court of Human Rights this month upheld a ban on full face veils in France. Following the ruling, Austria, Norway and Denmark may also ban the burka. Belgium adopted a ban in 2011, as has the Spanish city of Barcelona, and the autonomous Catalonia region plans a similar move.

Groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) – and even the UK’s Secular Society – today criticised Hargey’s call for a ban in Britain.

“Firstly, he is a man. He should not really be articulating a view on what women should or should not do,” said Talha Ahmad, chair of the membership committee at the MCB.

“If I went around telling people to put their veil on, that would be equally wrong,” he added. “Positions like his are very dangerous. He clearly doesn’t understand the British values of freedom… His arguments feed into the whole Islamophobic narrative.”

Security risk?

Hargey argues that permitting full face coverings poses a security risk, among other objections. The UK public seem to agree with him: 90 percent say burkas should not be allowed in environments such as airport check-ins, according to a YouGov survey in September. The same poll found that overall, 61 percent of British adults think burkas should be banned.

Hargey cited examples of burkas being worn by men to commit robberies in central London. Yet Smina Akhtar, director of the Glasgow-based Amina – The Muslim Women’s Resource Centre, dismissed this.

“I’m not sure there’s any evidence to show that it is a security risk,” she said. “It’s not going to reduce crime. Crime will continue. If those men had not worn a burka, they would have found something else.”

Akhtar says that she chooses not to cover her face, but a minority of women in her community do. She dismissed the ban proposed by Hargey.

“Women have a choice what they wear,” she said. “I’m not sure if he’s even read the Quran… He’s being Islamophobic.”

It’s currently open season on attacking Muslims in the UK, Akhtar said, with Islamophobia – especially hate crimes against women – on the rise.

With that in mind, she does not dismiss the notion that the UK could become less tolerant towards the burka in future. “It could change. There is definitely a move to the right in Europe and in Britain as well,” she said.


Social ‘apartheid’

Hargey argues that the full face veil fuels “social segregation and community apartheid.”

But Akhtar dismissed that claim too. “It only creates a division if you want to create a division,” she said. Some doctors and teachers do not wear the garment while at work, she added. “Women who wear the burka can choose when to wear it.”

Hargey told Al Arabiya News that the practice of wearing the full face veils is “totally ridiculous,” and a key aim of his campaign is to get 100,000 signatures on an official petition, which would then oblige the UK Parliament to debate the issue.

“No one – including women – has an unqualified right to dress how they like in public,” he said. “You or I could not walk down the street naked, or wearing just socks.”

He pointed out that Muslim women are prohibited from covering their faces during the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. “If there’s no obligation to cover their faces in the holiest places of Islam, why do they feel the need to cover their faces in the UK?”

He said there is nothing in the Quran that requires people to mask their faces, and that face veils promotes “gender disparity” and can cause health complains due to a lack of vitamin D. His campaign extends to other apparel that obscures the face, such as balaclavas and ski masks – saying no one has a right to anonymity in public.

The practice of Muslims covering their face is a “fad,” he added. “How come their mothers or grandmothers never wore it? Were they bad Muslims? No, of course not,” he said.
Omer El-Hamdoon, president of the Muslim Association of Britain, said he disagreed with a ban on the burka, saying women should be allowed to “wear whatever they want.”

Credentials questioned

But he agreed with Hargey on certain points, such as women never being forced to wear a veil, and that it can have an impact on communication.

Several UK Muslim groups questioned Hargey’s credentials as an Islamic scholar.

“He personally doesn’t strike me as a scholar – in either the traditional or contemporary sense – of Islamic theology,” said Ahmad.

Dr. Sheikh Ramzy, director of the Oxford Islamic Information Centre, said he totally disagreed with Hargey’s viewpoint.

“This man Taj Hargey calls himself an imam. But he’s not an imam and he’s not an Islamic scholar,” Ramzy said.

“He does not understand anything about Islam. I would like to leave it to the sisters to choose what they would like to wear… It is an un-Islamic thing he is trying to do.”

Hargey reacted angrily to his critics when contacted by Al Arabiya News. “I have a pHD in Islamic Studies from Oxford University, so who’s to say I’m not an Islamic scholar?,” he said. “Why don’t you ask them what qualifications they have?”

No secular support

Yet Hargey did not receive fully fledged support from even the UK’s National Secular Society, which campaigns for the separation of religion and state.

Stephen Evans, campaigns manager at the society, said that – while the issue is a complex one – a general ban would not be favorable.

“There are understandable and legitimate concerns about the wearing of the burka or niqab, particularly regarding what it symbolises, its role in the subjugation of women and its potential to hinder a woman's ability to communicate and integrate within civil society,” he said.

“There are however compelling reasons, both practical and on principle, to oppose attempts to introduce a general ban on the veil - not least a woman's right to choose what she wears and her right to religious freedom.”

Despite that, Evans said he would support some public institutions to implement their own polices restricting face coverings. It is “appropriate to protect young girls from being compelled to wear the burka or niqab by prohibiting it in our schools,” he said.

Yet despite the crackdown in Europe, Muslim women in Britain are currently free to wear what they want.

Anything else would amount to harassment, said Ramzy. “As an Islamic scholar, I do not recommend a face cover. But I do encourage freedom of choice,” he said. “If you don’t want to see a woman in a burka, then turn your face”

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