Monday, October 30, 2006

Unveiling Blackburn

Arab News
by Ismaeel Nakhuda

JEDDAH - "It was done out of respect for Islam - out of affection for the Muslim community...but of concern too, especially about their future in our society," said Blackburn MP and former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently while speaking to his local newspaper the Lancashire Evening Telegraph.

As some one born and bred in Preston (a 15-minute drive from Straw's constituency), I've always considered Blackburn to be like a second home; after all my in-laws live there. In my opinion, Blackburn isn't exactly an absolutely attractive place to live, but I have to say the Whalley Range area of the old textile town has some fantastic mouth-watering kebab houses and my in-laws have a tendency to give me a warm welcoming whenever I go down. Not to mention the fine food they cook at their home.

My wife - a Blackburn lass - wears the niqab and loves Blackburn. It was after all she who inculcated in me a deep love for the town. A total Blackburn-maniac, my wife and I have regular amusing and animated discussions of whether living in Blackburn is better or Preston. In fact, over the years I've ended up making a lot of friends in the town, many of them Muslims who, being diehard Blackburn Rovers supporters, love the town and consider it home.

So when Blackburn MP Jack Straw constructs a simple and also heavily loaded "us" versus "them" sentence in which he refers to Blackburn Muslims as them (their future) and the white majority as us (our) while describing Blackburn as "our society," in other words exclusively non-Muslim, then I begin to wonder whether Straw is Enoch Powell reincarnate. In fact, at times I feel New Blairite Labour has done a total shift from left of the political spectrum to the right. Come on Straw, you know as well as I do that the Muslims living in your constituency have considered hilly Blackburn home long before you arrived there in the late 1970s on the invitation of former Blackburn MP Barbara Castle.

As the veil issue kicked off a couple of weeks ago, it was interesting and also alarming to read and hear people describing the veil as a "cultural" piece of clothing. Such people should avoid speculating and rather allow the doctors of religion to have their say based on sound Islamic proofs. At this moment in time, I have yet to come across an authentically trained scholar - from the broad spectrum of understanding of Islamic jurisprudence - who says the veil is cultural and un-Islamic. Yes, there are differences on whether it is necessary but none has considered it alien or contrary to Islam. Fundamentally, is this not a matter of choice and freedom - the hallmark of living in the West? Or are Muslim women incapable of asserting their choice? The fact that veiled Muslim women with broad Lancashire accents take the time out to meet their elected MP is in itself a sign of integration, not separation.

So has this so-called "honest debate" instigated droves of Blackburn Muslim beauties to free themselves from the veil in the way Afghan women were supposed to do so in 2001? Not really. Speaking to my friends in Preston and Blackburn, veiled women are even more resilient in the face of this new hardship.

Has life changed? Yes, the British government's fixation with the attire of Muslim women and British Muslims in general has done nothing except to embolden racist and Islamaphobic elements within society. Racists are cowards who target the weak and sadly, according to friends back home and some media reports coming from the UK, it is women who are being subjected to racist taunts, intimidation, threatening behavior and even physical abuse - most of this never even gets reported. Mosques are being attacked and it would be more than safe to conclude that politicians in my country have only served to worsen race relations. We have a situation now where, in a worrying trend, Islamaphobia is becoming the norm across Europe. It is no wonder then that Trevor Phillips from the Commission for Racial Equality last week expressed concern that the current "debate" could even trigger race riots, heaven forbid.

There are around 1.6 million Muslims in Britain, out of which a small minority are women and out of whom a fringe and teeny number wear the veil. All of a sudden Jack Straw and countless others get their knickers in a twist and blurt out ridiculous and outlandish claims. Drive down Whalley Range in Blackburn and you'll definitely find white British people driving through this predominantly Asian area. You'll also see them enjoying the Indian food there unhindered and allowed to go on their own business. However, drive into the working-class Shadsworth Council estate on the other side of Blackburn and if you're not white then expect to have a brick thrown at your car.

It was a rainy winter's night a couple of years ago. I'd only recently got married and hardly knew Blackburn. I had driven from Preston to meet my wife who had spent the day at her mother's home. Instead of taking a left I took a right and somehow ended up in a working class council estate only to quickly make a sharp exit after seeing some scruffy white kids throw bottles and bricks at my car shouting "Paki go home." Come on Jack, there's an enormous problem with alienated working class white youths across Blackburn and Britain. Isn't it a fact that many are prone to joining extremist right-wing organizations?

Would it be correct to say your selective criticism of Muslims was merely done (for want of a better word) to curry favor with right-wing elements in your constituency? In fact, a report published by Lancaster University and which was sent to the Home Office in September showed that "white youths are more likely to believe they are superior to those from other races, and their attitudes are more of a barrier to integration than those of Muslims," as reported in the British Guardian.

Sadly, it seems to be Paki-bashing season in Britain with you and others exclusively pointing fingers at European Muslims - the new vulnerable Jews of Europe. On the backdrop of Bush and Blair's war on terror, which you supported and continue to do so, your motives are nothing but suspect.


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