Protecting the Veil

The UK gives female police officers the option to wear the hijab on duty. With the government and British Muslims joining ranks against a ban on the headscarf, Britain prefers integration to assimilation. Tareq Al-Arab reports

photo: Islam for Today
Muslim police force in the UK

​​France's initiative to ban the hijab and other "conspicuous" religious symbols in state schools has sparked strong resistance in the UK. British human rights campaigners and politicians have condemned the ban as immoral.

Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien said the British government supported the right of all people to display religious symbols. "In Britain we are comfortable with the expression of religion."

London's Mayor Ken Livingstone was most outspoken about the issue, going as far as implying that France's political elite is playing into the hands of fascist ideologists. "President Jacques Chirac is playing a terribly, terribly dangerous game in the same way that many politicians felt they could pander to Hitler in the 20s," said Livingstone on a recent protest march against the ban. "It (i.e. the ban) is an anti-Muslim measure and will stir up anti-Muslim pressure."

Mr O'Brien sums the UK government's stance up in a firm statement. "Integration does not require assimilation."

Four different styles of headscarves for the Metropolitan police

This understanding of coexistence at least applies to the Metropolitan police. The newspaper "The Guardian" reports that as part of an initiative called "Protect and Respect: Everybody Benefits", the police has given Muslim women on duty the option of wearing four different styles of the hijab in the colours of the Metropolitan police.

"We know of many Muslim women who had thought of joining the Met, only to be put off when they were told they could not wear the hijab," the newspaper quotes Mahammad Mahroof, of the Association of Muslim Police. "Hopefully, having this option will encourage more to become police officers."

However, Muslim activists leave no doubt about their disapproval of the recent French ban. Anaf Altikriti, president of the Muslim Association, said the French move is fuelling "concern" among Britain's various religious faith groups. "If anything, the banning will create an underground community that are disenfranchised, isolated, angry and depressed," he said. "It will lead to women who do not go to school, who do not get educated and who, in 20 or 30 years' time, will be on the sidelines and not at ease with themselves – that could only cause problems for society."

Fear of attacks on Muslims

Abeer Pharaon, president of the Muslim Women Society, said: "Despite the encouraging statements we have heard from the Government, we remain extremely concerned that the rapid spread of this legislation throughout Europe might encourage extremists and Fascists to attack and insult Muslim women in the UK." The hijab is "our right, our freedom and our choice", she said.

But it is not only the moral quality of the ban that is being considered. UK lawyers call the ban illegal. Barrister Ahmad Thomson, deputy chairman of the Association of Muslim Lawyers (UK) says the French are breaching their own domestic laws. As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, France has vowed to guarantee freedom of religion and freedom to manifest religion in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

Does the hijab pose a threat to democratic society?

"Wearing the hijab is not a threat to anyone and does not violate anyone else's rights and freedoms," said Thomson. "Banning the hijab cannot be viewed as necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals or for the protection of the rights or freedoms of others."

It would also breach ECHR protocols stating that everyone has the right to have their children educated in accordance with their religious beliefs, Thomson argues.

There is no law that bans discrimination against religion

Interestingly enough, there is a UK law against various sorts of discrimination – but it excludes religion. The Race Relations Act 1976 makes certain kinds of discrimination unlawful in employment, education and in the provision of goods and services.

In relation to employment it covers discrimination on the grounds of: race; colour, nationality; ethnic origin; or national origin. However, although the Race Relations Act covers some religious groups, it does not cover religion per se.

Currently England, Wales and Scotland do not have specific legislation outlawing religious discrimination. In Northern Ireland, it has been unlawful to discriminate in employment on religious grounds since 1976. The legislation was brought in specifically to provide protection for Catholics and Protestants against direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of religious beliefs and/or political opinions.

The Race Relations Act 1976 has been used to protect employees and job applicants from some minority religious groupings who have been directly or indirectly discriminated against on the basis of their religion.

It has been established through case law that certain religious groups are also "ethnic" groups for the purposes of the Race Relations Act and are therefore entitled to protection from discrimination, for example Jews and Sikhs. They can bring complaints of racial discrimination if they can show that the less favourable treatment they received was either directly or indirectly discriminatory on account of their membership of that religious group.

Muslims are not a "race" and are therefore not protected

British law has however decided that other religious groupings do not come within the definition of an ethnic or racial group. As a result, Rastafarians and Muslims are not automatically protected by the Race Relations Act.

In June 2003, The House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences published a detailed analysis of the law relating to religious offences. Viscount Colville of Culross who chaired the inquiry, said: "After extensive public consultation we have analysed the merits of all the options, but feel it is up to Parliament as a whole to decide how it wants to proceed."

"Religions play a vital role in our society and there should be a degree of protection equally available to all faiths," Culross continues, "but there is no consensus among us on the precise form that that protection might take. The introduction of a Bill to deal with any, or all of these issues is likely to run into profound controversy, despite the pressure to take action on incitement to religious hatred."

"Your religion is a joke…"

However, a bill might be necessary. Despite of its general distaste of France's initiative, the UK is currently witnessing a possible case of crude forced assimilation. Allegedly, a senior teacher "forcibly" pulled a headscarf from the head of 15-year-old Muslim pupil, then "demonstrated hostility" towards the girl's religion. Hazel Dick, 43, of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, caused the girl to suffer a "two centimetre" pin scratch on her neck, a jury was told.

Ms Dick denies religiously aggravated assault. She told police she did not forcibly pull the scarf from the girl's head and did not say anything offensive about Islam or show hostility towards the religion. Jurors were told the alleged assault occurred in March last year at Bretton Woods Community School after the girl was told to change her scarf – or hijab – because it was not the correct school uniform.

The prosecutor said Ms Dick became annoyed and "pulled the scarf from her head forcibly". The pins became undone and scratched her neck. Although the injury was not serious, it still amounted to assault. He said Ms Dick then used language which was insulting and hostile to the girl's Islamic religion.

According to the prosecutor, one pupil told the police that he saw Ms Dick get angry. She is than supposed to have said: "'Well, your religion is a joke ... the bottom of my shoe is more important than Allah'." The hearing continues.

Tareq Al-Arab ©