By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
08 April 2019
The deadly attack which left around fifty Muslims dead in New Zealand was correctly called a terror attack by its premier. Intended, with precision to strike terror within the immigrant population, the target this time were Muslims but it could have been any other group making up the emerging multicultural mosaic of New Zealand society. Amidst the widespread condemnation of the barbaric event, we saw the Prime Minister don the Islamic veil as a show of solidarity with Muslims. Not just the prime minister, but prime time news anchors did the same as did many others who came to show solidarity to Muslims at the first Friday prayer after the attack. However, certain things within these series of events need to be called out. In doing so, one is not arguing that empathy should not be shown to victims of terror attacks but then the symbols that one chooses should not end up misrecognizing the problem.
First Things First: There was certainly an attempt by sections of informed Islamists to use the attack to parade Muslims as the victims of Islamophobia. This is not to deny the existence of Islamophobia in much of the western world today but then we should also not forget that this word has become abused to such an extent that even genuine criticism of Islam and Muslim behaviour is labelled Islamophobic. Thus if one of critical of Islamists’ attempt to enforce gender segregation, then one is conveniently labelled an Islamophobe. This is sinister politics, the object of which is to silence any critique of criticism of Islamists themselves. Post New Zealand, this has found new traction and will most certainly be used no just to curb genuine disapproval of Islamist politics but more importantly will be used to stamp out dissenting voices within Muslim society itself.
Secondly, the choice of the veil as a signifier of Muslim society also needs to be called out. May be the prime minster was genuinely interested in showing empathy with Muslims, but then why chose the veil to do that? The choice of the veil gave legitimacy to the Islamist claim that the veil is an essential element of Muslim religion and tradition and that one cannot be a Muslim without either donning the veil or respecting it. The problem with this understanding is that in large parts of Muslim society, the veil is considered a symbol of oppression by Muslim women and increasingly by organised group of men as well. In Iran and elsewhere, Muslim women are currently challenging the patriarchy enforced veil as the prime symbol of their subordination.
Jacinda Ardern, being a politician on the left, should have been aware of such struggles within the Muslim world. By privileging the veil, she has thrown her weight behind Islamists and traditionalists who think that Muslim society will collapse without the veil being enforced. She has belittled the myriad contributions that Muslim women are making to change the status quo within their respective societies. In short, she has let down the progressive politics within Muslim societies. One is tempted to ask if there was no better way to show solidarity with Muslims? Why is that if she went without the veil, she would become any less empathetic to Muslim suffering?
It must be understood that the veil is not an Islamic requirement according to the Quran. It is first and foremost a political symbol which was first enforced post the Iranian revolution. Following this, the veil was adopted as part of the Sunni Wahhabi ideological drive to extend their hegemony within the Islamic world, mostly funded by petro dollars. The Islamist veil, far from representing Muslim piety, is actually an expression of political Islam. What is worse is that in Jacinda Ardern, we have a woman who is helping in the normalization of patriarchy within Muslim societies. She must have scored brownie points with the Arab Salafists and conservative Iranians, but has utterly failed her Muslim sisters who are engaged in a daily struggle against patriarchal oppression by resisting the veil. She has utterly failed someone like Nasrin Sotoudeh, the brilliant Iranian lawyer who was condemned to 38 years in prison and 148 whip lashes for defending those women who refused to wear the veil.
The veil is not a trivial issue. While it may be a ‘choice’ for a privileged few in the west, for the vast majority of Muslims, it is forced and therefore a garment of subjugation. It is being increasingly felt that the left in the west has been more than willing to accommodate the regressive version of Islam in the name of protecting minority rights. Such an understanding can be counter-productive in the long run. If the left starts defending Islamist practices such as the veil and sex segregation in schools, then it is actually making space for the right wing anti-Muslim agenda in their own societies. By being soft on homophobia which is rampant within Muslim societies and which has theological justification, the left is only digging its own grave as in the long run, voices which are critical of such regressive tendencies within their societies will have no option but to articulate their resentment through a right wing platform.
However, it seems that the left is committed not to learn any lessons. In the name of protection of minority rights, it is currently engaged in ‘outlawing’ Islamophobia in countries such as Canada. Notwithstanding what is meant by such a nebulous term like Islamophobia, one thing is clear that it will have a negative bearing on the voices of dissent and reform within Muslim societies. In the name of protecting Muslims, the left will end up advocating the causes and concerns of those Muslims who actually have been responsible for the mess that Muslim societies find themselves into.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com