This month’s Birmingham Post column (published on Thursday 7th February) draws upon some of the thinking from previous entries to this blog so don’t be surprised if some of it is familiar. What’s really good about this is that when I submitted it to the Post, the editor responded:

“I think this is a really good piece, thought-provoking and challenging. I don’t agree with it all – but isn’t that the point?”

Brilliant…!!! Well done to the Post for publishing it with no changes whatsoever…

You’ll remember how in 2006 Jack Straw declared how uncomfortable he felt speaking to Muslim women wore the full-face veil or niqab. For him, it was ‘a visible statement of separation and of difference’. Rumour has it that when Mr Straw returned to Blackburn after his announcement, he was confronted by a mob of angry niqabis one of whom shouted, “How dare you show your face round here…!!!”.

That is of course a (bad) joke and one I’ve told many times over the past year or so. I joke because it feels as though we’re in a bit of a ‘silly season’ when it comes to news about Muslims. And so recently we’ve had stories such as: Dudley Council banning toy pigs that offend Muslims; Muslim shop assistants allegedly refusing to handle books of children’s bible stories; and a re-telling of the traditional three pigs story being rejected as it would not sell to a Muslim audience.

Whether these stories are true remains open to debate. A report I worked on entitled “The Search for Common Ground” for the Greater London Authority proved how inaccurate similar stories about the ‘banning’ of Christmas and Jesus were despite being covered in the national tabloids.

Alongside these, Gordon Brown has recently launched the Muslim Women’s Advisory Group, David Cameron’s jaunt to Davos was about how ‘the West’ must stop and reverse the radicalisation of Muslim youth, and the Home Office has issued a phrasebook to police officers on how to speak about terrorism and radicalism without causing Muslim offence. As one respondent on the Times website wrote about this latter story, “Maybe they should also issue special shoes to PCs where the soles are replaced with egg shells?”. Give it a week and this will be front-page news no doubt.

In last week’s annual British Social Attitudes Survey, evidence suggested that ‘racial’ prejudice is on the increase. In 2001, 25% of Britons described themselves as being prejudiced. Today, the figure is 30% or 1 in 3 of the population. The reason for this increase has been linked to the fallout from 9/11 and 7/7, a period within which the newsworthiness of Muslims and Islam has rocketed. In some ways then, maybe ‘racial’ prejudice has become equitable with ‘Muslim’ prejudice. Ironically, the Home Office suggests that the term ‘Islamophobia’ should no longer be employed.

The Post itself has had two front pages in the past week relating to Muslims: the first, the Birmingham-based terror-plot to behead a British Muslim soldier; the second, the growing incidence of ‘honour killings’ in the region.

All well and good because if Muslims – or indeed anybody else – commit a crime or are involved in something newsworthy, then I have no problem with it being reported or covered. More worrying for me was the closely cropped photo of a Muslim woman’s eyes peering out from behind a niqab that accompanied the ‘honour killing’ story.

Since the Jack Straw incident, this immediate and unmistakeable image has acquired a symbolic and iconic status. Without reading the article, any reader picking up the newspaper would have known straight away what the story was about. And so despite ‘honour killing’ being a cultural rather than a religious abhorrence, the reader would probably have identified it as a Muslim ‘problem’.

The image of a pair of the eyes behind a niqab has in the past 18 months been used completely indiscriminately, ranging from the hideously offensive and superficial (the ‘Big Burqa Debate’ and ‘Burqa Babes’ that some tabloids ran back in 2006) to the harrowing and truly tragic (as with Bekhal Mahmod who, as the Post reported, was living in fear of her life). Unfortunately for the reader, it is unlikely that they would have made – initially at least – any distinction between tragedy and farce: between threat of death and a dislike of squidgy toy pigs due to the ‘one size all’ approach whereby the same photographs indiscriminately accompany a myriad selection of different stories, settings and contexts.

To paraphrase Jack Straw, maybe now it is the photographic image of a Muslim woman wearing the niqab rather more so than the niqab itself that is ‘a visible statement of separation and of difference’.

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