By Nesrine Malik
12 May 2014
In Britain, there is now a cycle of Islamic scare stories so regular that it is almost comforting, like the changing of the seasons. Sadly, this rotation is not as natural, or as benign, although it is beginning to feel just as inevitable. We had the Niqab winter last year, as the country lurched into the Niqab debate for the second time in three years. Now we are in the spring of Halal slaughter.
Add to this schedule the routine reports about gender segregation in UK universities and Muslim schools (as if the concept of gender segregation was somehow exotic to non-faith schools in the UK), claims of grand plans and you have a steady flow of creeping Sharia messages, stoking a fear of a stealthy, incremental Islamicisation.
Channel 4's Ramadan coverage last year drew 2,011 complaints, the majority objecting to the broadcast of the call to prayer, a two-minute transmission. This reflects an increasing nationwide umbrage towards visible British Muslims, informed by repetitive stories that inaccurately amplify their religiously motivated activity.
Underpinning it is a common theme: that there is an ever more muscular and intimidating Muslim minority demanding special rights from a cowed and pandering, lily-livered body politic muzzled by "multicultural Britain" – rather than simply attempting to adapt and integrate, as immigrants of all religions have been doing in the UK for centuries. It's not hard to see how this constant blurring of facts generates the mood music of anti-immigration right-wingers and establishes common misconceptions about Muslims.
But the threat of a creeping Sharia never seems to materialise. It seems to be more of a crawling Sharia, so slowly has the Islamist takeover of Britain been, in contrast to the constant media warnings of its imminent arrival.
The focus far outstrips the size and political activity of the minority, which number 2.7 million (less than 5% of the population), not all of whom are practising Muslims. The Islamic scare story plays to a nexus of easy media sensationalism, a portion of the public primed and ready to believe the worst, and an interested rightwing element for whom it is a convenient vehicle for their anti-immigration views, xenophobia, or just Islamophobia.
But with each reincarnation of a creeping Islamic threat, the gulf between the facts and what is reported widens. The following are some of the most popular examples – and the facts that discredit them.
One of the most helpful exercises is to present some estimation of how many women actually wear the Niqab, the face veil, in any given European country in which there is controversy about it. The estimates are so small that they cool a usually heated debate. In France, which banned them in public in 2011, it is estimated as between 400 and 2,000, i.e not even 0.1% of the population. In the UK, approximations suggest that the numbers are "extremely low". Among practising Muslim women, Niqab wearers are more of a minority than women who do not even wear the Hijab, the head scarf. You are far more likely in the UK to meet a Muslim woman in jeans and a T-shirt than you are to meet one in a Niqab. It seems embarrassing that politicians and media professional should dedicate so much time to agonising over the issue.
Politicians are the worst culprits for recycling the Niqab debate. Philip Hollobone, a member of parliament, was so moved by the plight of women in Niqabs that he proposed to ban them from his constituency office. Security concerns over ID and testifying in court are utterly unfounded: women are required to take off their Niqabs for identification purposes – for drivers' licences etc – and they overwhelmingly comply. Once the security concerns are dispensed with, the last retreat of the Niqab botherers is that the debate is out of anxiety for these women. But there has not yet been a single incident where the Niqab debate was instigated by Muslim women themselves.
Muslim Grooming Gangs
In 2012, nine men were convicted of child exploitation and grooming of vulnerable young girls in Rochdale. Similar grooming gangs were identified in Derby, Rotherham and Oxford. Rather than the colour or religion of the assailant being incidental to the crime – which is taken for granted when they are white or Christian – the fact that these grooming gangs were Asian and Muslim, and their victims white, became central to their offences in public discourse and media coverage. How was this done? Newspaper articles, radio shows and discussions adopted, discussed and repeated the claim of Muslim grooming and abuse. By popularising a notion that their crimes were somehow mandated by a Sharia law that condoned sexual exploitation of non-Muslims. That is, not only is their religion relevant, it is blessing their crimes, or at least informing their culture. This was simply not true but it was repeated and sublimated into fact. Spectator approached this pivotal point, the purported reasoning for the entire grooming phenomenon, by saying: "Is there something within the religion or ideology of Islam which somehow encourages, or merely facilitates, extremist Muslim maniacs to maim or kill non-Muslims? I think there probably is. But you can't say that."
There you have it. He thinks there probably is. Never mind reports that Muslim girls were abused as well. Conveniently, this worldview chimes with the politically correct liberal somewhere out there who would rather your daughters were sexually groomed than dare call something out as related to religion.
Since Operation Yewtree started, there has been a healthy debate about sexism in the UK – the impunity of male celebrities, the cultural tolerance of sexual activity with minors and so on. But this nuance was not applied to the "Muslim grooming gangs", a description about as unhelpful as the "Christian paedophile Jimmy Savile". It was a scenario in which a factually erroneous religious justification was used to explain an anomalous episode.
There have been two recent flare-ups of the Sharia courts and "parallel Islamic law" scare story. In 2011, a bill was tabled in parliament to address concerns over Sharia arbitration, and in early 2014 solicitors were allowed to draw up Sharia-compliant wills, leading the Sunday Telegraph to pronounce that "Islamic law is adopted by British legal chiefs".
Since 2009, there have been Sharia court investigations by the Independent, the Telegraph and the BBC. The political momentum against these courts is primarily from Baroness Cox, a crossbench member of the House of Lords and self-proclaimed "voice of the voiceless" Muslim women, who she claims are being victimised.
Of all the Muslim threats, this seems the most potent. It actually has "Sharia" in the name. UK law has some scope to acknowledge the customary. But going by the coverage, it would seem it is only Muslims that have both demanded and been granted exception. On closer inspection, it is clear Sharia courts only have jurisdiction on civil matters and everyone must opt in to a Sharia court. They only have an advisory capacity and address mainly property and financial matters, and rulings are then only enforceable by civil courts. In many cases, they are understaffed affairs, where one official settles petty disputes and draws up rudimentary documents.
The creeping Sharia courts' "astonishing spread" was first reported by the Daily Mail in 2009. At the time, there were reportedly "no fewer than 85". In the most recent Daily Mail report on the issue in 2014, the number was, despite the warning about the pace of change whereby Islamic law was cannibalising British secular law, still "no fewer than 85".
The most recent episode of this was a report that Lloyds TSB in the UK had reduced or eliminated overdraft fees on its Islamic bank accounts. This apparently "special treatment" might suggest that banks are overturning their commercial interests to keep customers happy. This alone should be a clear alert that the story is bunkum. When have you known a bank to do that? The reality is that Islamic bank accounts are, in fact, on average more costly for customers. Interest rates (yes, they are charged on Islamic bank accounts, under different mechanisms, usually fixed transaction fees) are often higher than the secular high street. More crucially, as Lloyds itself has explained, Islamic accounts "do not offer credit interest or other features that are available on our other products. A comparison with the overdraft charging structure on other accounts is meaningless." The question shouldn't have been, "Want to avoid overdraft fees? Open an Islamic bank account", but: "Want to avoid overdraft fees? Open an Islamic bank account where you will not receive any interest on savings or deposits." Again, this is a recycled story from 2009, so it is not an exposé.
According to recent tabloid newspaper "revelations", Halal meat is being slipped into food at major supermarkets, and Pizza Express has been "exposed" for stealthily replacing its chicken supply with Halal poultry. Halal meat must come from animals that were killed with a cut to the throat, allowing all the blood to drain from the carcass. In the past four years, the UK media has broken the story to the British public at least a dozen times, warning about the widespread use of Halal meat, yet somehow every new headline presents it as a new finding. In the latest Pizza Express episode, where the claim was that the chain was surreptitiously slipping Halal chicken on to its menu, there was no secrecy at all: the chain's website clearly states it uses Halal chicken.
The "secret" element, a popular angle in the Halal story, serves to support the alarm that people are being hoodwinked by Muslims sneaking their way of life into the mainstream.
The supposed objection is that Halal slaughter is a less humane method of terminating an animal than the supposedly more palatable methods of stunning, electrocution and gassing. But according to a 2012 Food Standards Agency report cited by the RSPCA, 97% of cattle, 96% of poultry and 90% of sheep slaughtered using the Halal method in UK abattoirs are stunned first, desensitising the animal to pain. If the objection were really about the distress of slaughter, it would therefore apply to only a tiny proportion of Halal meat.
The most recycled of stories, the Halal debate began in earnest in 2003, with a Farm Animal Welfare Council report that recommended stunning for Halal and kosher slaughter. Since then, every time the issue of religiously compliant slaughter has been resurrected, the kosher element has been less and less prominent, rendering it less an animal rights issue, and more an irrational rejection of Halal slaughter as something tainted with something intangibly Muslim. In a nation that has been enjoying Halal meat for years in curries, kebabs and shawarmas, the Halal debate has distorted and hijacked the welfare dimension, in order to channel nasty resentment that a minority you don't like is being accommodated.