Scaremongering about the threat of “Islamification” facing the east London borough of Tower Hamlets has been popular in the right-wing press since Andrew Gilligan’s witch-hunting Channel 4 documentary Britain’s Islamic Republic was broadcast last year. Several papers this week have published articles on that theme.
In a Sunday Times article headlined “London Taliban tell women to cover up” (see below) Dipesh Gadher reported: “The extremists appear to have taken the law into their own hands in Tower Hamlets, east London, one of the poorest areas of Britain, where native white people are in a minority.” The article centres on the case of “an Asian shop assistant who claims to have received death threats for refusing to wear a veil even though she is not a practising Muslim”.
Monday’s Daily Mail repeated the story, claiming that in Tower Hamlets “women who do not wear head scarves are being threatened with violence and even death by Islamic extremists”. The article carried the headline “‘Wear a headscarf or we will kill you’: How the ‘London Taliban’ is threatening women and trying to ban gays in bid to impose sharia law”. The article was reproduced in its entirety by the EDL at the Casuals United blog under the heading “London Taliban terrorise Britains [sic] first Islamic enclave, Tower Hamlets”.
The Daily Express featured the headline “‘Wear scarf or we’ll kill you’, Muslims told woman”, while the Evening Standard went with “Extremists threatened to kill me over headscarf”, reporting: “Police in east London have vowed to tackle Islamist extremists suspected of threatening violence against Asian women for not wearing headscarves, with one victim claiming she received a death threat.” The Sun for its part preferred the more succinct headline “Wear hijab or die”. Its article began: “Islamic extremists bent on establishing Sharia law in Britain have threatened to kill women who do not cover their heads.”
The question more sceptical readers might be inclined to ask is – exactly how many women in Tower Hamlets have been issued with death threats for refusing to wear a headscarf? The Sun identified just one case, taken from the Sunday Times report: “A non-Muslim Asian pharmacist in Whitechapel who wears western clothes said she was told to cover up with a hijab headscarf or face a boycott. Later she claimed a second man told her: ‘If you keep doing these things we will kill you’. Police are investigating.”
However, the Sunday Times version offers a rather different account of the motive behind the threat: “When the woman approached the media about her case, there was a further backlash. She says another Asian man – this time younger – came into the pharmacy and started shouting at her. ‘He said, “If you keep doing these things, we are going to kill you.” It is the Muslim jihad,’ said the woman.”
Of course, such a threat is despicable. If the anonymous victim’s account is accurate – and we should perhaps note that someone who comes out with the phrase “it is the Muslim jihad” might just possibly have an axe to grind here – then hopefully the individual responsible for the threat will be identified, arrested and charged. But we are talking about a single incident in which one woman claims to have been threatened by one man – and the threat seems to have been provoked by her decision to talk to the media about the proposed boycott of the shop rather than by her refusal to wear a headscarf.
The Sun does also cite a case from earlier this year when “a man got community service for threatening to kill his cousin if she didn’t cover her head”. That would be a reference to Munir Al-Hakim, who also received a six-month suspended prison sentence, although the Sun omits to mention that fact. Al-Hakim lives in west London, in Hammersmith & Fulham, but the Sun doesn’t mention that either, possibly because it is difficult to whip up fears about the “Islamification” of a borough where census figures show that Muslims make up less than 7% of the population
In short, the answer to our question – how many women in Tower Hamlets have been issued with death threats for refusing to wear a headscarf? – would appear to be: none.
It also worth examining the Sunday Times‘ claim that “native white people are in a minority” in Tower Hamlets, which suggests to the reader that Muslims outnumber non-Muslims in the borough. Now, it is true that in the figures for ethnic groups in Tower Hamlets, based on the last census, show that people defining themselves as “White: British” came to just under 43% (the figures for “White: Irish” and “White: Other White” added another 8.5% to the white population). However, a look at the statistics for religion reveals that only 36.4% of the borough’s population was Muslim.
In other words, nearly two-thirds of the people living in Tower Hamlets are non-Muslim. If there are indeed “extremists” intent on “Islamifying” this area of east London, then clearly they have a lot of work to do converting the population to their faith before they can even think about building Andrew Gilligan’s fantasy “Islamic republic” there.
Gilligan himself has a piece on Tower Hamlets in the Sunday Telegraph based on vox pop interviews with women who wear the niqab. No doubt to his surprise he discovered: “Most were not stereotypically repressed or un-Westernised, but young and articulate. From behind the black cloth came, for the most part, accents indistinguishable from those of any other Londoner. Above all, they passionately insisted, nobody had forced them to wear the veil. It was their choice.”
Still, Gilligan has no difficulty identifying the sinister influence behind the increase in niqabis in the borough:
“Tower Hamlets is headquarters to a particularly pernicious form of Islamic radicalism. Over us in the Whitechapel Road towered the East London Mosque, funded by Saudi Arabia and controlled by the hardline Islamic Forum of Europe, accused by the local Labour MP of infiltrating his party to further its declared goal of a sharia state in Europe. One of the IFE’s secondary objectives, as a Sunday Telegraph investigation last year established, is to ‘Islamicise’ its area. And though I believed the niqabi women I met when they said they weren’t forced, there is no doubt that some others locally do feel strong pressure to conform.”
Not that Gilligan offers any actual evidence to connect the IFE with this alleged pressure to wear the niqab. Indeed, we challenge him to identify a single statement by the IFE that veiling is an Islamic requirement for women. If he had bothered to check the IFE blog Between the Lines, he would have found one article putting the view that the niqab is “not an obligation” and another arguing that “‘Niqabi’ Muslim women should voluntarily stop covering their faces”, while a third opinion piece states:
“I believe we should stay away from having ‘a policy’ on this matter that we seek to ‘impose’ on others, whether this policy be in a secular state like France or from an Islamic point of view or state level. Yes this does mean that if we did have a Caliphate – the Caliph will not and should not have the right to impose the Niqab or oppose it. The Islamic state has no say in this ‘right’ of individuals and how they use it to fulfil their obligations to Allah.”
Rather than succumbing to non-existent “pressure” from the IFE, those women in Tower Hamlets who have concluded that their faith requires them to cover their faces would most likely have been influenced by socially conservative and generally non-political Salafi trends within Islam.
Gilligan goes on to make the equally baseless claim that the MCB insists women should wear the veil. He writes: “During the last niqab controversy the Muslim Council of Britain, also dominated by the IFE [sic], endorsed a chilling statement, unreported until now, warning Muslim women that not wearing the veil was a ‘shortcoming’ which may lead to apostasy. It was, they said, an ‘Islamic practice’ which was ‘not open to debate’.” Gilligan has an accompanying piece devoted to the issue, headlined “Muslim Council: women cannot debate wearing veil”.
Understandably, Gilligan does not provide a link to the MCB’s statement, which can be consulted here. Addressed to the Muslim community, it was issued in October 2006 in response to the situation following Jack Straw’s comments on the veil and was a call for solidarity in the face of a hysterical media campaign which had resulted in banner headlines screaming “Ban the Veil“. The letter’s statement that there can be no question that the veil is an “Islamic practice” did not involve the claim that it is anything other than a minority practice within Islam, still less that Muslim women are required to wear it.
Yet Haras Rafiq of the now thankfully defunct Sufi Muslim Council is prepared to endorse Gilligan’s charge that the MCB was “effectively suggesting that the veil is an obligation”. Rafiq of course knows enough about the Muslim community to realise that the MCB does not hold that position, that the large majority of its affiliates do not believe the veil is a religious obligation, and that most of the signatories to the 2006 letter do not hold that view either. But he is happy to provide backing for Gilligan’s ignorant attack on the MCB and by association on the IFE that he claims “dominates” it.
London Taliban tell women to cover up
Islamic extremists in Britain are ordering women to cover up and threatening gays as they seek to impose Taliban-style sharia law
Sunday Times, 17 April 2011
By Dipesh Gadher
Islamic extremists in Britain are ordering women to cover up and issuing threats to gays as they seek to impose Taliban-style sharia law.
Police are investigating a series of religiously motivated incidents, including the case of an Asian shop assistant who claims to have received death threats for refusing to wear a veil even though she is not a practising Muslim.
The pharmacy where she works has been told it will be boycotted unless she is forced to dress more modestly or sacked. Zealots have also daubed black paint on posters for the H&M fashion chain, which feature women in bikinis.
The extremists appear to have taken the law into their own hands in Tower Hamlets, east London, one of the poorest areas of Britain, where native white people are in a minority.
Details of the incidents were obtained by The Sunday Times in the same week that David Cameron said mass immigration had led to “discomfort and disjointedness” in some neighbourhoods because migrants had been unwilling to integrate.
The disclosures coincide with France’s controversial decision to ban women from wearing the burqa and other full-face veils in public. They come three years after Michael Nazir-Ali, then Bishop of Rochester, caused an outcry when he claimed parts of Britain had become “no-go” areas for non-Muslims.
“If we keep going this way, England will be more like Afghanistan,” said the shop assistant who has been targeted by fundamentalists. “This is supposed to be the land of freedom. Yet I now fear for my security.”
The woman, 31, a mother of one who does not want to be identified, has worked at the pharmacy in Whitechapel for four years. Although she came to Britain from Bangladesh in 2006, she is an atheist and is married to a Christian human-rights worker. She dresses in western clothes.
Three weeks ago, an Asian man in his forties approached her boss and told him that she ought to cover her head and wear longer robes. “If she keeps working here and continues to dress like that, then we will boycott you because this is a Muslim area,” the chemist’s owner was told.
When the woman approached the media about her case, there was a further backlash. She says another Asian man — this time younger — came into the pharmacy and started shouting at her.
“He said, ‘If you keep doing these things, we are going to kill you.’ It is the Muslim jihad [holy war],” said the woman. Her employer — a Hindu — told her to go on “holiday” for a few days and she now fears she will lose her job or be moved to another branch of the chemist.
The woman was interviewed by police last Thursday and her case has been taken up by Rushanara Ali, the Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow. “Why should I have to wear a hijab [headscarf] or burqa? I haven’t done anything wrong,” said the woman.
Homophobic stickers have also sprung up in the borough. They state: “Arise and warn. Gay free zone. Verily Allah is severe in punishment.”
The campaign follows the defacing of posters at bus shelters in the area. Adverts featuring female models for H&M were daubed with black paint. Posters for a Bollywood film called Kites, which showed its stars in a passionate embrace, were also targeted. Police have charged three men with religiously aggravated criminal damage. Similar acts of crude censorship are believed to have been carried out in parts of Birmingham.
Paul Rickett, Metropolitan police borough commander for Tower Hamlets, said there was nothing to link all the incidents. “I am saddened that there are a small minority of people who do not wish to respect the lifestyle choices of others,” he said.
Ghaffar Hussain, head of outreach and training at the Quilliam Foundation, an antiextremism think tank, described the intimidation as the work of “Talibanesque thugs”. “This minority believe they have the right to enforce their fringe interpretation of Islam on others.”