Anglican Archbishop Attacks Veil
JEDDAH, 14 November 2006 — The Archbishop of York, the second-highest figure in the Church of England, waded into the row over Muslim veils yesterday saying they did not conform to “norms of decency.”
In an interview published in the British Daily Mail newspaper, John Sentamu questioned whether British Muslim women should expect public acceptance for wearing the veil. “Muslim scholars would say three things. First, does it conform to norms of decency? Secondly, does it render you more secure? And thirdly, what kind of Islam are you projecting by wearing it?” he said, adding, “On the first question I don’t think it does conform.”
The Ugandan-born 57-year-old archbishop said he removed his cross when visiting a mosque or a synagogue and covered his head in Sikh temples “because I am going into someone else’s home.”
“And I can’t simply say: ‘Take me as I am, whether you like it or not.’ I think the thing is in British society you can wear what you want, but you can’t expect British society to be reconfigured around you. No minority can expect to impose this on the public or civic life,” he continued.
Sentamu’s comments are seen to be in stark contrast to the view of the head of the Church of England, Archbishop Rowan Williams, who has publicly defended the right to wear veils.
Women in Saudi Arabia and the UK — those who wear and don’t wear the niqab and hijab — criticized Sentamu’s comments. “What is this fixation with what we wear or don’t wear,” said Wafa Ahmad, a Jeddah-based teacher, who does not wear the niqab or hijab outside the Kingdom.
“Why doesn’t the world take off the veil inside their head and stop this obsession with what is worn over the head... why does the West feel so threatened by women covering or not covering their faces or heads? I don’t get it.”
A professor at the King Saud University’s Women’s Section, said: “What norm of decency is the archbishop talking about? Modesty or head covering was there in Christianity and is there in Judaism. Why all the focus on Muslim covering?”
A faculty member at the Imam Mohammad ibn Saud University in Riyadh said, “I say to the Western society, isn’t it they who preach to us, on and on about personal freedom? About open-mindedness and acceptance of differences?”
However, a local Saudi businessman said that when in Rome do as the Romans do. “One of my daughters practices hijab but I believe that the whole purpose of it is to not attract attention. So she dresses to blend in, occasionally using a bandana or hat... People know she’s Muslim because her head is always covered,” he said.
In the UK, Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, said it was terribly sad that a Christian leader would seek to stoke the fires of Islamophobia. “To say a veil is not ‘decent’ is nonsensical. Why should everyone conform to the same dress code? Nobody prevents Dr. Sentamu from dressing in a frock as a cleric. He should mind his own business.”
London-based journalist Isla Rosser-Owen, wondered whether Archbishop Sentamu would apply the same logic to Catholic nuns. “In the more traditional orders, many of their headdresses cover not just their hair but also quite a lot of the face. Would he ask them the same questions?”
Niqab-clad British university student Ayesha Mohammed described some of Sentamu’s comments as political correctness gone mad.
“He would take his cross off to go to a mosque. Fair enough, but he isn’t expected to and no Muslim would be offended if he didn’t. That’s political correctness gone mad.”
She added, “Muslims are not asking to change the country. Maybe a small minority wants Shariah law, but the vast majority just wants to be able to lead their lives as Muslims.”
Describing the debate on the veil as a “witch-hunt,” Michael Lavalette, lecturer at a university in Liverpool and member of the Respect party, said: “Hardly a day goes by without another series of attacks on Britain’s Muslim community... the debate is not really about the veil, it’s about the media, politicians and establishment spokespeople lashing out against a vulnerable minority.”
Political activist Sufia Makkan said: “In a society where short mini skirts and skimpy tops are accepted as the ‘norm,’ it is unfathomable that someone in the position of Archbishop of York should make comments about a piece of material across the face as not conforming to ‘norms of decency.”
Vinay J., a Manchester-based journalist for the Asian Leader said: “The veil issue has been done to death. So much has been written, discussed and argued about it that I’ve lost interest in a healthy debate all together.”
Sunny Hundal, the editor of the online magazine Asians in Media, felt that the bishop was contradicting himself. “We have freedom of expression in Britain and the veil is part of that expression — people may not agree with it but they should be allowed to wear what they want, except when it directly interferes with their work or at school where open identification is needed,” he said.
Ismail Patel, chair of the Leicester-based Friends of Al-Aqsa lobby group, applauded Sentamu for taking the initiative in understanding Islamic reflections on issues such as the niqab but said he was misjudged. “The veil is not about obscurity of the individual wearing it; but rather it is about an individual’s own conviction in God and their belief that it is a religious requirement,” he said.
He added: “I do not believe that Muslim women who wear the niqab are saying ‘take me as I am whether you like it or not’. They are saying ‘respect me for my personal choices’, and most people in Britain would.”
Last month, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw began a debate on Muslim veils when he revealed that he asked women visiting his clinic to remove their veils.
Many political commentators see the British Labour Party’s fixation with the face veil as a way of attracting votes in the run-up to elections next year.
Meanwhile, advice was issued by immigration tribunals chief, Lord Chief Justice Hodge, that legal advisers and solicitors may wear the veil in court unless it interferes with the “interests of justice.”
The advice comes after a judge recently stopped a hearing after ordering legal adviser, Shabnam Mughal, who has been wearing the veil for two years, to remove her veil during an immigration tribunal in Stoke-on-Trent. The case resumed again yesterday with Mughal being taken off the case by her firm and a different judge appointed to preside over it.
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