I was watching a programme called The Big Question a few weeks ago. The discussion centred on the wearing of the Niqab and I found my prejudices challenged. I admit I have them. I don’t like the Niqab. It makes me feel uncomfortable. As I listened to the discussion I tried to reason why I should feel that way. I could of course have gone for the high minded route by quoting Wittgenstein, who argued that ‘the face is the soul of the body.’ In fact he said more: “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.”
It’s human nature to want to see as much body and face as modesty allows.
I could have gone the feminist route that sees the wearing of the niqab as a reflection of cultural subjection, though conversely other feminists argue it is a woman’s right to choose.
I could have argued the evolutionary importance of the ‘blink’ factor whereby decisions are made in the space of a blink in the same way we also instinctively fear spiders and snakes. I’m not confusing the woman behind such a garment as a spider or snake. I’m suggesting evolution has probably made us distrust what we can't see.
I wondered whether it was the colour.
Am I a ‘Black-ist’ or perhaps ‘Colour –ist’. Would I feel less uneasy if I saw a woman encased in rainbow silk? Would, deep down, I find it less threatening? For someone educated by nuns swathed in black, this may be the case.
The bottom line is, however, it’s a prejudice I’m sharing rather than acting upon. In a free and stable society prejudice must have its limits. As a highly articulate niqab-wearing woman said on the programme, it was her decision to wear such a garment. I was her right. It is a shame such ‘right’s aren’t reciprocated. On the same programme two students from the LSE recounted how they’d been disciplined for wearing this T shirt
The articulate woman behind the niquab was asked whether this should also be tolerated. The answer was firm. No. Definitely not. It is offensive. I don’t think she saw the irony. Are some rights more important than others? Is free speech only free when it doesn’t offend?
The story takes an interesting spin. On the same programme a Liberal Democrat candidate for Kilburn, also a Moslem, rebutted the woman, saying her view represented only an aspect of Islam, an aspect rejected by many. The candidate, Maajid Nawaz, tweeted the picture of the T shirt because by accident or design the cameras didn’t show it.
The response was immediate. A Muslim body called the MQT made this statement:
Minhaj-ul-Quran International (MQI) has noted the controversy surrounding the tweeting of a cartoon portraying Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them both) by Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation, and the condemnations from various quarters. MQI wishes to make it clear that pictorial representations of any prophets of God (including Moses, Jesus and Muhammad) are prohibited by Islam…“We call on Maajid Nawaz to apologise for his mistake of tweeting the cartoon. We urge people of whatever opinion, creed or religion they hold, to respect the boundaries of civil and respectful dialogue, and we condemn the death threats against Mr Nawaz.
The MQT is avowedly ‘moderate’ and so condemns the death threats, though the menace is still there. Equally chilling is their petition (20,000+signatures) demanding the Liberal Democrat Party de-selects him as their candidate.
Intolerance isn’t the preserve of one particular religion as John Lennon found out in the 1960’s when he made the statement that the Beatles were now bigger than Jesus: a snappy but inaccurate statement. He, too, faced death threats and I doubt he’d ever have been elected for office in Alabama. That particular storm in a tea cup blew itself out. I don’t think this one will for some time to come.
Aggressive creeds and reaction against it are dangerous forces as C16 and C17 Europe taught us long ago.
For anyone ignorant of the Mo Jesus cartoon strip try this link here.
A particularly thoughtful piece on the subject can be found here.
Channel 4 broadcast a debate on the issue, covering Muhammad with a black circle and leaving only a cartoon Jesus on display.
At thirty seconds into the program, the narrator states, "We've taken the decision to cover up the picture of Muhammad so we don't cause offence to some viewers." Define some viewers: all Muslims or a vociferous minority? The National Secularist Society sent this letter to Channel 4. Couldn’t have put it better myself:
"By redacting the picture of 'Mo,' you have contributed to a climate of censorship brought on by the unreasonable and reactionary views of some religious extremists... By taking the decision you did, not only did you betray the fundamental journalistic principle of free speech, but you have become complicit in a trend that seeks to insidiously stereotype all Muslim people as reacting in one uniform way."