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The Myth of the Sword and the Veil

Terror and the Veil are two recurrent symbols that appear in Western discourse about Islam and Muslims. But these were just myths created to serve one political view. Why do these potent historical symbols still haunt us today?

The Occidental view of Islam has been characterised by two vivid symbols – the sword and the veil. The West built up an image of an Islam that was “spread by the sword”, that forced violent conversion on non-Muslims as the Muslim dominion spread outwards from its origins in Mecca and Medina. The Muslim empire grew quickly geographically and politically as its armies spread both east and westward. Instead of using the sword, the faith of Islam grew more organically, through marriage and trade.

The West’s Myth of the Sword crystallised into its definition of the Muslim world, and it was hailed as the rallying cry against what was demonised as a violent and barbaric religion. The myth was nothing but political smoke and mirrors, as early as the time of the Crusades.

The Church and the kingdoms of Europe cleverly counterpoised the newly created idea of the ’sword’ against the “love thy neighbour” and “turn the other cheek” proclaimed ethos of Christianity, failing to notice the irony of the Crusader hordes that rushed towards the Muslim heartlands to recapture the Holy Land. The conquests and counter-conquests of Christian Europe were not for religious or humanitarian reasons, we should note, but to secure trade and control through the Middle East and to the Far East as well. The irony is not lost till today when the last 500 years have been dominated by ‘Western conquest’ and massive military superiority. Today, the ’sword’ is wielded by the military hyperpower of the Western United States that uses it to spread and enforce its notions of democracy and enlightenment values.

The sword was a simple yet powerful symbol that Christian Europe projected from its own lexicon onto a Muslim world that it did not try to understand, and could not fathom from within the prism of its own ideology.

When Orientalists spoke of the ‘exotic’ lands of the Middle East, they conjured up evocative images of harems and mysterious women with dark eyes hidden behind translucent black veils. The Occident was enthralled by the paradox of how women were covered, often hidden in women’s quarters, or at least behind their modest dress. But what was once a healthy, Islamic yet palpable sexuality of the Muslim world was an incomprehensible contrast to the prudish values first of Puritanism and then of the Victorian Age.

Again, by interpreting through its own prism of understanding, the Occident turned the veil into a symbolic issue that defined a ‘barbaric’ and ‘oppressive’ personality of Islam. Again, it was the simplicity of the symbol of the veil that raised it to define everything that the West saw as wrong with Islam and the Muslim world.

These two symbols have come back to haunt us today and still define the West’s view of the Muslim world. Today’s sword has been replaced by its modern counterpart – terrorist attacks. The veil, the small simple piece of cloth that is so rarely worn, still holds its own.

If the veil did not hold such symbolic and historic weight, why has it ignited such a whirlwind? Muslims reacted passionately not because most Muslim women wish to wear the veil – quite the contrary, only about five per cent of Muslim women in the UK wear a veil – but because where ‘veil’ was written, there was a caveat which said “for veil, read Islam”.

The same applies to the rhetoric about terrorist attacks, and foreign policies that take Western forces into Muslim countries to ‘help’, but end up creating more strife and destruction to meet their own ends. Indeed, we all agree that there are terrorists out there and their actions are vehemently rejected by Muslims round the world. But Western terminology around terror attacks and the War on Terror, has the same resonance to it as the Myth of the Veil. The same caveat applied “for terror (or sword), read Islam”.

The Sword and the Veil are once again at the centre of polemics. They uncover the simplistic view that the West holds buried deep inside itself of Islam’s supposedly inherent violence, oppression and barbarism. But they are myths created from icons that have been misrepresented and conveniently fitted to meet a political narrative.

The Sword and the Veil are symbols that lie deep within the European narrative, and are therefore easy to hook onto. They were myths on which to build a political vision when they were first created. But the power they hold over Europe is only because they draw on Europe’s own heritage. The myth of the sword can only be meaningful in Europe because Europe understands what it means to use force and violence to further its cause. The majority of Muslims are confused by this myth of expansion of faith through violence. ‘Jihad’ for them is simply a spiritual struggle, military force is for defence. “There is no compulsion in religion” is the clear Islamic edict, so faith cannot be induced by bloody means.

The veil too is only potent because of Europe’s uneasy history of social values regarding women and their status. The issues of oppression and sexuality of women that the Muslim world is accused of, are simply a mirror of the schizophrenic nature of western society with regards to the rights of women and how they should be treated. The West at first could not understand these mysterious women of the Orient who supposedly came from a heritage of liberation, passion and social participation. But this was all hidden behind a veil, behind modest coverings. And this seemingly paradoxical combination, and its contrast with the status quo in Europe where women had no rights till the 20th century, created fear and misunderstanding. The Myth of the Veil was embodied with this recoiling and incomprehension and came to symbolise oppression and mediaeval values.

Alas, where once the Muslim world led the world in providing a blueprint for the equality of women through the statements of the Qur’an, the Muslim world today also has little to be proud of with regards to the status of women. The veil was clearly a myth because Islam offered a framework that worked towards rights, status and equality. But now it has become paralysed by the same gender relations and sexual guilt, and the oppression of women that it claims to reject and which it accuses the West of. More worrying, is the fact that the Muslim world is in denial. The Myth of the Veil in the West has created a Counter-Myth in the Muslim world – that because the basic laws of Islam liberate woman, give her rights and status – then it follows that the Muslim world is de facto implementing these values. The sad fact is that Muslims have a long way to go before the rights they trumpet about Islam with regards to women become social reality.

If you watch the media and political rhetoric unfold, you will see the discussions about Muslims and Islam punctuated by the leitmotifs of the Sword and the Veil. It seems that the West can only understand Islam and Muslims through these very simplistic and mythical symbols that evoke such deep-seated and irrational emotion. Talking about “markers of separation” and ‘wars’ only entrenches these myths in an historical and irrelevant narrative, instead of allowing new connections to be built and instead of shattering misconceptions and building an honest and open reality.

This article was recently published in The Muslim News


Niqabs become the scapegoat again

Mustafa Jamma, one of the men who the police want for questioning for the murder of PC Sharon Beshinivsky, has escaped. Some of the media, including newspapers like the Express, Sun and Mirror have created a theory that he left the country disguised as a Muslim woman wearing a full veil. There is of course no evidence of this, it is just a possibility. What it does though is plant another negative seed against Muslims.

The Police clearly saw the stupidity of this theory and how totally unhelpful it is. When asked about whether the man had escaped behind the niqab, a spokesman for West Yorkshire police said: “It’s a possibility. He could have been wearing a pantomime horse outfit as well. But until we get him, we won’t know for sure.”


What’s Christmas all about?

Only 44% of children aged 7 to 11 believe that Christmas is about Christ, according to a survey carried out by Childwise for the BBC. One in six youngsters felt sad, nervous or left out during the festive season. Youngsters spoke about feeling “cold”, “tired” and “worried” and made comments like: “Scared in case I get a rubbish present.” One in 10 children said that their parents were hard to buy for because they were fussy, awkward or did not use previous presents.



Hijabs, niqabs and hoodies

As a wearer of the headscarf, I’m always on the lookout for new ones to update my collection. Out in Marrakech I kept my eye out to see what I could pick up. I was amazed. When I first started wearing the headscarf, you had two choices: a square scarf that you folded into a triangle, or one that was already a triangle. Now, I stood in awe at the scarf stand in the Djemaa al Fna at the enormous range and cleverness of the new styles.

There were still the square ones and triangular ones. But also long ones in all manner of fabrics – silk, cotton, chiffon, crinkled variants, with sparkles and without, made of lycra and in any colour you like. Dulux colour matching would be put to shame. You also have ones which are a cross between a triangle and a long one, with the bit that goes round your face already made up, and a long floating trailing bit to make it look elegant.

Then there is a choice of what, if anything, to wear under the scarf. You can wear a sort of alice band thing for both practicality (covers those wispy bits that float out from under the front of the scarf) and aesthetics (matching or contrasting with the scarf itself and your clothes). Or go for a sort of French maid’s lycra hat type of thing that you slip over your head and it covers your hair from forehead down to the nape of your neck. The scarf then goes over the top to cover your ears, neck and chest and provide some elegance. Or a sort band that is a cross between an alice band and the hat i.e. the bottom of the hat has a whole, presumably to allow your head to ‘breathe’.

Most striking to me in Marrakech was the fact that the women wore extremely colourful headscarves and niqabs. Unlike the ubiquitous black in the UK and other regions like the Gulf, the long jilbabs (long cloaks) and the headscarves and even the niqabs were of light shades and often quite colourful. Certainly we saw creams, whites, bright greens and cute pinks. Whilst retaining the modesty and tradition of the style of dress, the Marrakshi ladies injected colour, style and personality into their dress. Even the niqabs came in all sorts of (quite surprising) colours.

All these women in their choices of colours seemed very much at ease with their dress. They weren’t hiding, they weren’t shy and they weren’t separating themselves. They looked me and my husband in the eye, were quite happy to jostle in the busy streets, and they certainly engaged in conversation with the shopkeepers and those they met. They felt easy and comfortable in their dress. There certainly wasn’t any sense of anger or aggression. And it felt easy to move around with them.

And then there was the whole hoodie thing. Both the men and women wore “jallabas”, sort of long cloaks that have a hood on the back, and in the evenings as the temperature dropped, these hoods were whipped forward to cover the heads of their wearers. They struck me as ‘hoodies’, but they were just a bit longer, that’s all. Nobody made a fuss about them, nobody ran screaming from the hoodie wearers.

All these forms of dress exist in the UK, but somehow the way the Marrakshis were wearing them showed a sense of ease and peace from those who wore them, and all the people round them.

Perhaps we need to ask, why do these same forms of dress cause such consternation in the UK? It’s clear that hijabs, niqabs and hoodies can be a form of grace, elegance and ease, as well as a context of social interaction.


The Non-Existent War Against Christmas

Why suddenly all the conspiracy theories that there is a “war against Christmas”? Was it instigated by our friends at Fox News? In which case, of course, it must be true. It’s all nonsense.

Who on earth is offended by a good celebration which brings the community together? It seems that this has been created out of nowhere and designed to stir up a fuss. Nobody is against people celebrating Christmas. It’s a shame though that there is so much pressure to spend huge amounts of money, buy the most expensive presents, to look glamorous, and to go out and “party party party” just to be seen to be doing it. It would be nice too, to see Christmas really reclaimed for its true Christian meaning, and a communal thought paid to love and goodwill to all human beings rather than just being a huge shopping-eating-partying-drunken-fest.

Looks like the War on Christmas is yet another made-up War…

And here’s the Daily Show coverage of the War against Christmas:


Democratic prices, undemocratic language in Morocco

One of the great pleasures for me of travelling round the Middle East, is the bargaining that takes place in the souq. The human connection, the gentle role-playing and the subtle humour make it a charming, if time-consuming past time. In my recent journey to Marrakech, I came across a new phrase from the shopkeepers to further their cause. They claimed that the price they were offering was a “democratic price”. Now since English is most likely their third or even fourth language (after North African Arabic, French and Berber) I’m sure the provenance of this word comes from somewhere much more sensical, although we couldn’t work out what it was meant to mean. Nonetheless we were tickled by the idea of a democratic price – one for all?

More intriguing for an “Arab” country was our experience of communication. I speak conversational (if rather inaccurate) French as well as standard Arabic (a sort of like the Arabic equivalent of neutral BBC English). I noticed the locals found great difficulty in responding in Standard Arabic. They could often begin sentences, but would switch into French quite rapidly. Of course, they could chatter away in the local dialect. Does this mean that “Fus-ha”, the clean pure standard Arabic which is supposed to be the jewel in the crown of the Arab world, and one of its uniting factors, is dying out in Morocco? I’ve noticed a similar trend in other countries where children of middle and upper class families are sent to English medium schools, who speak local dialect at home, and then fail to learn Fus-ha.

In all the lovely restaurants and hotels we visited, I also noticed that the menus and information were in French. Again, in other Arab countries I’ve noticed that they will usually have Arabic and then another European language such as English or French, but here it seemed that Arabic was totally excluded from anywhere “expensive”. In fact, I saw surprisingly little evidence of Arabic writing anywhere.

Does this mean that in order to “get ahead” and be part of the rich set, that French language is the way forward, and Arabic is abandoned? What does this mean for the cohesion of the “Arab” nations? What then binds them together?


Greetings from Marrakech

You have probably noticed that it has been a bit quiet for a few days. Its because I have whisked hubby off on a surprise holiday to Marrakech to escape the winter and bask in a few days of glorious bright sunshine.

I came here about ten years ago and whilst the locals are as nice as ever, it certainly feels like the increase in tourism has taken its toll. English is much more prevalent, gone is the slow charm of the locals (although it still exists, but you need to dig a bit deeper), and for the souq addict like me, gone are the amazing prices. You can almost get to them, but it takes far more effort and persistence.

Typing a blog on a French layout keyboard is excrutiatingly painful as all the letters are jumbled up, so I will stick to my favourite moments only. In the Djemaa al Fna which is the main square which inludes shops, storytellers, cafes, henna artists and so on, we were approached by the guys trying to persuade us to patronise their cafes. The food is “bloody good” said one. “Asda price” said the others, both quite serious in their Moroccan/French accents.

On the other hand, Ive been overwhelmed by the colourfulness of the niqabs that women have been wearing here, and the personality that shines through the modest coverings. I particularly liked one woman who sped past on a motorbike, face covered, but she looked us both right in the eye with the cheekiest look. Now I call that wearing your niqab with pride and personality.