Islamists are “weaponising” claims of Islamophobia to shut down debate on head scarves and veils, a think tank has found.
A new report by Policy Exchange suggests that freedom and debate to discuss Islamic head scarves and face coverings is being denied by Islamic extremists.
The comments were made in a report by Sir John Jenkins, who spent 35 years in the British Diplomatic Service and was a former Ambassador to Burma, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Saudi Arabia, as well as HM Consul-General in Jerusalem and Special Representative to the National Transitional Council.
Until his departure from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office he was the government’s senior diplomatic Arabist.
Referring to debate surrounding the historical, patriarchal and ideological elements of religious clothing, particularly hijabs and niqabs, he suggested that: “And it is this freedom that Islamists, now using weaponised claims of Islamophobia, too often seek to deny.”
Sir John added: “So what is actually at stake, as public expectations of the acceptable and the tolerable are step by step narrowed down, is the functioning of the liberal order that we take for granted.
“Even so, the primary question is not whether or not to prohibit the veil. It is about whether or not to debate its use, meaning and purpose.
“It is about who is allowed to police the boundaries of this debate. And it is about the consequences of that debate’s conclusions.
“That should matter to all of us – including those millions of non-Islamist Muslims, in Iran and elsewhere – who regard the interpretation of shari’ah [religious Islamic law] not as a set of unquestionably sacred rules but as a debatable product of human agency.”
‘Attempts to shut down debate need to be resisted’
The report, entitled The Symbolic Power of the Veil, comes just days after Iran’s parliament passed a controversial bill that would increase prison terms – to up to 10 years – and fines for women and girls who break its strict dress code and dress “inappropriately”.
The move comes a year after protests erupted over the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, who was held by morality police for her allegedly improper hijab.
Following her death, women burnt their headscarves or waved them in the air at the nationwide demonstrations, during which hundreds of people were reportedly killed in a crackdown by security forces.
Sir John, a senior fellow at Policy Exchange, concluded: “One thing is clear: attempts to close down debate on such matters because of confected outrage about perfectly reasonable – if sometimes clumsily expressed – expressions of opinion need to be resisted at all costs. The women of Iran at least should teach us that.”
The report also recommends the Government should provide clearer guidance to schools regarding dress codes and religious attire, and provide examples.
Under such guidance, the think tank says, schools may accommodate religious headwear such as the hijab, but they should not require it as part of the uniform.
According to the report, the Government should also resist any definition of Islamophobia that restricts criticism of religious practices, including the dress code.
The key findings and recommendations in the report are backed by Labour MP Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr), who said: “A certain proportion of Muslim women may wish to wear a hijab or a niqab to publicly demonstrate their Muslim identity.
“But the wearing of the hijab clearly does not represent all Muslim women. And it is grossly insensitive to those Muslim women in Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere who are compelled against their wishes to wear the hijab to declare that it does.”
The report also recommends that the Government should avoid endorsing or promoting specific religious attire.
It singles out the Foreign Office for celebrating World Hijab Day in 2018, with hijabs being distributed among civil servants.
‘Report is dog-whistle Islamophobia’
Responding to the report, Ahmed Shaheed, Professor of Law at Essex Law School and Director of Religion and Equality Project at the Essex Human Rights Centre, said: “Developing guidelines on dress codes is fine but such codes must respect freedom of religion or belief and must be developed in consultation with the affected stakeholders.
Professor Shaheed, who is also a former UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said: “Dress-code guidance to schools also must not be provided in ways that stigmatise one community. It would be important to approach these issues with sensitivity and participation of those affected rather in ways that could alienate communities.”
Zara Mohammed, the Secretary General from the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “The latest report by the Policy Exchange, is deeply troubling given how it appears to misrepresent the diversity of Muslim women’s experiences and choices regarding the hijab. This approach risks contributing to the stigmatisation and marginalisation of Muslim women and regulating what they wear.
“The irony is stark: Khalid Mahmood, a man, presumptuously makes sweeping generalisations about Muslim women’s clothing, an area where he lacks expertise, inadvertently perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes that we should actively challenge.
“This report seems to be yet another instance of dog-whistle Islamophobia by Policy Exchange, encroaching on the fundamental religious freedoms of Muslims and dangerously steering us toward a slippery slope reminiscent of France’s controversial approach policing what Muslim women wear.”
The Government was contacted for comment.