The right to dress. 
Twice today news items surfaced whose import was to allow Muslims (and anyone else) to dress how they please. Birmingham Metropolitan College ended their ban on hoodies, hats, caps and veils after "more than 9,000 people signed an online petition set up by NUS Black Students' Campaign calling on the college's principal, Dr Christine Braddock, to remove the ban. ... Aaron Kiely, NUS Black Students' officer, said: 'This ban is a complete infringement on the rights to religious freedom and cultural expression and is a clear violation of a woman's right to choose.' He added: 'We call on Birmingham Metropolitan College to reverse its decision and respect the fundamental rights of its diverse student population to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and cultural expression.'

Also today, "A Muslim woman has been allowed to make a plea in court while wearing a face-covering niqab after a judge agreed a compromise in which she was identified in private by a female police officer who then attested to her identity." This was after the judge had previously adjourned the trial when she had refused to remove her veil.

In both cases the institutions had claimed the need for facial identification. In college, is it really the case that wherever any student goes, he or she is tracked in order to be identified? Obviously not in any meaningful sense, unless each and every door has a barrier and a pass checker and a means of matching the pass to its bearer - that argument, the argument cited over and again, is specious. In practical terms, in this society whose institutions are utterly addicted to total video surveillance, it is completely straightforward to track and analyse each and every individual as they move from place to place, without any of the increasingly high resolution imaging technology ever needing to see anyone's actual face. Furthermore only the most obtuse among us will claim to fail to be able to distinguish between one woman (or man) and another - human vanity alone is sufficient to ensure that one woman's abaya, burqa, raincoat, labcoat, chador, hijab, niqab, hoodie or crash hat is distinct from another's, without even considering height, build, gait, mannerisms, baggage, boots or bodymist. On the contrary, there is little that is more conspicuous in public than a heavily veiled woman. (Or man ... the 21st July 2005 bomber who fled dressed in a Somali-style burqa was captured on video at Birmingham coach station. The onlookers didn't know they were staring embarrasedly at a bomber, they just thought it was a big and clumsy man in bad drag looking for a discreet Ladies to change out of his frock.)

There are very few occasions when anyone requires to make a positive identification between someone's ID card and his or her face, and Muslim women in niqab are perfectly capable of meeting those requirements when they arise, just as the less obtuse among us are perfectly capable of making reasonable adjustments to make this simple. Biometric technologies make this less and less of a problem anyway. The other argument is about access to justice and the court hearing process. Here again, common sense easily demonstrates that the judge or court officials have no consistent reason to require anyone to remove their niqab if they choose to appear in court with it. Court appearance is theatre even when it has the highest moral purpose. The streetwise thug presents himself in the dock in the sharpest creased, slick new grey suit with impeccable haircut, his act is intended to distance himself as far as possible up the social scale from the character he played in his alleged drunken brawl. If the argument about face is about the ability of court participants to judge facial expression as communication, then that right extends to the right to remove screens from witnesses so dramatically presented in court that they cannot even look in the mirror without breaching the Official Secrets Act. The dramatic tension is enhanced further by the inability to put a name to the secret face behind the screen, 'Officer X' is the name to the face of official obscurity when the requirements of justice are subservient to the requirements to preserve official enigma. Even so, if justice requires a person's facial expression to be on display, justice will not be served for the numbers of people who endure visual impairment. If it is acceptable for them to be denied sight of facial expression, then there is no difficulty for the rest of us to be denied the same. In this particular case the issue arose at the point when the defendant was required to take an oath that she was herself. Aside from the vanishingly faint prospect that someone would actually choose to appear in court as someone else, to have the other person's indictment heaped upon them, we are all, in public, precisely who we present ourselves as. It is her own choice to present herself with niqab veiling her face; she is well aware of the hostility and prejudice this engenders from a society intolerant of personal expression by anyone deemed to be alien, and she puts herself at the mercy of the court to set aside such prejudice; she certainly achieves no material benefit from it, so there is no rational reason why she should not be permitted to wear exactly what she pleases in court, any more than that she should be permitted to say exactly what she wishes to when it comes to giving evidence or defending herself.

These two cases contrast sharply with another case of Muslims and dress. The tables are turned and we find Muslims apparently railing against the mode of dress adopted by others. This was brought to my attention in a message sent to the MuslimsInBritain.org website a few weeks ago. At first I took it to be a racist, Islamophobic rant, but reading more closely I realised the sender had a very valid point. The sender kicks off with the statement, "I have written on many Muslim pages on face-book about ANTI WHITE RACISM, about the blatant racism shown to the indigenous WHITE people of this country." He goes on, apparently confirming my intent to dismiss his diatribe, "Of course I’m a racist, I TRADITIONALLY hate the English and despise the Catholics, Irrespective of colour or wealth." The capitals are his own. His concluding lines would have hastened the missive into the bin, but I followed up his link, in the Daily Mail. Now the Daily Mail is one of the prime sources of Islamophobic mythology and fiction, as Peter Oborne investigated in depth, in 2010. But if what the Mail reported was true on this occasion, it was Muslim community arrogance beyond belief. Two men, for charity, demeaned themselves utterly by dressing in Borat-kinis and walking, for charity I must repeat, around the streets of Solihull to Birmingham. All they did was to walk through Sparkbrook during Ramadhaan, and received sufficient abuse from onlookers that the police escorted them away. Now there is a case to answer for the level of depravity that popular culture can sink to, but that case lies with Sacha Baron Cohen and his lime-green jock strap couture, not with his imitators. The Daily Mail quoted, "Local butcher Irshad Armani, 22, said: 'It was disrespectful for the men to come here half-naked. This is a Muslim area and we don't want to see that.' ... 'People were fasting and we do not want to see anything considered impure or dirty during such an important month. That is why people were so upset by it.'"
Pausing to cringe for a moment, I resume. "disrespectful", "half-naked"? I don't think the byelaws of Sparkbrook include stipulation of 'black tie' for guests! "Muslim area"? Most certainly not - there are no preconditions to qualify for residence in Sparkbrook. "People were fasting ..."? So get on with fasting and stop minding other people's business.

Let's explore this point for a moment. Ramadhaan is about one thing above all else, it is a celebration of the Qur'an. Fasting is mandated on Muslims and the disruption that fasting causes to one's daily routine, is perfect for dedicating the newfound time it creates, to burying oneself in the Qur'an. Beyond that, Muslims, Muslims mind, not others, are prevailed upon to hold themselves back, act with patience, and avoid the sins that they would think nothing of at other times. There is nothing about Ramadhaan that requires Muslims to be mollycoddled or treated any differently then as any other time. If you don't want to see anything dirty or impure, very simple, don't look. That is what the Sunnah expects, and that applies 24 hours a day, every day of the year. But then, who are you, Muslim, to say that some activity of a non-Muslim is dirty? It would be facile to list the range of sins, dirty and impure, that the average Muslim is content with in his everyday life, but arrogance certainly seems to be one of them. Meanwhile, Muslims do not need any special considerations during Ramadhaan, except, when appropriate, the opportunity to break the fast at the specified time, which takes perhaps five minutes and need be nothing more elaborate than the Sunnah, i.e. a very few dates and some water. You either take the time out and dedicate it to the Qur'an, not to worldly matters, or you get on with the same daily routine minus the meals. Anyone who has not learnt patience during Ramadhaan, has not completed his Ramadhaan.

Back to the question of dress. The Daily Mail article quotes, "Iqbal Khan, 25, a carpet shop owner, added: 'They came here saying it was for charity, but what they were wearing barely covered their private parts. ... We see people come and go doing charity around here - black, white, Asian - but it is not appropriate to do it in a bad way, dressed as they were, especially when this is mainly an Asian and Pakistani area.'" This is complete tosh: The only thing a Muslim has any right to be concerned about regarding a non-Muslim is the possibility of him entering the faith of Islam. Other than that, the Shari'ah duty of a Muslim is to safeguard his neighbours and see to their welfare, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. So we Muslims have no business in paying the slightest concern to any non-Muslim's dress, appearance, personal habits, diet, lifestyle, career or character. If you don't like it, just look away. Meanwhile as a Muslim you are commanded in the Qur'an: "Obey Allah and obey His Messenger!" Obedience to the Messenger of Allah (S) is unequivocally to live according to his Sunnah. If you want to fulfil your religious obligations as a Muslim in a non-Muslim land, it is very easy: live, dress, behave in the manner of the Sunnah and take the Sunnah to wherever the people are - on the street, in the workplace, on the beach. Let them see you, and never, ever judge them for what they do who are not Muslims.

Insha'Allah this discussion points out the hypocrisy of those of us who demand special consideration for ourselves in manner of dress and appearance, yet who claim the privilege of telling others how they must behave in their own neighbourhood. We can and should dress as Muslims - the shame is on the Muslim men who mislead themselves into thinking they can dress as non-Muslims and still expect Muslim women to hold fast to the Sunnah that they despise for themselves. When the same people then think they can tell non-Muslims how to behave, they should look to see their arrogance leave them in loss.

Further developments

Jeremy Browne, Liberal Democrat minister in the under-age (or at least unrepresentative) but consenting, marriage between his party and the Tories that passes for government, courts favour with the populist press by saying that the government should consider legislation to prevent young Muslim women being forced to wear niqab. Facts were ever the enemy of policy debates in this government, but the fact is that in the UK there is not a single case, not one, of any person being forced to veil their face. No one - and I challenge you to do so - can provide a single instance of such an occurrence in the UK, and were anyone to try to coerce veiling, the practicalities of achieving this would be monstrously absurd.

The facts are that every single Muslim who wears niqab, face veil, does so by her own choice, and very often flying in the face, so to speak, of most of those around her. Motives for veiling do vary, some do so through pure religious piety wishing to adhere to the Sunnah of the wives of the Messenger of Allah. Others season their piety with assertion of identity - no Muslim is ashamed of her or his faith, and the heaping of calumny on the faith by all manner of populist bigotry only makes them more determined to stand up and be counted for their beliefs. Others, similarly, spice their niqabs with defiance, more often than not, of their own parents and the culture that led the latter to throw away everything that got in the way of making money out of their time in the UK. The bottom line is simple nevertheless, wearing the niqab is a conscious and deliberate choice, exercising the basic woman's right to choose to dress how she wishes.

Britain is not France, we do not suffer under the burden of religious and racial bigotry and do not need to window-dress racism in hypocritical claims of "Laïcité" by chaining our society's principles to a fragment of late 18th century political philosophy. Britain should not be afraid of tolerance and is not afraid of difference and diversity, and is certainly not afraid of freedom of expression. Britons should be very afraid of a weak government that chooses to whip up populist prejudice in defiance of facts - that is the path to authoritarianism. The right to self expression, the right to dress just as much as the right to write and speak, are fundamental human rights, and to undermine any one of these is a doorway into darkness.

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Should EDL have been permitted to march where Moseley's Blackshirts marched? 
Last Saturday saw the EDL march over the River past the Tower, past its Traitor's Gate and then around the bankers' palaces of EC3, up to a stand-off with police outside Aldgate East Tube station, only to find the latter closed with no services stopping there (much like the routine experience of a multitude of London's commuters faced with the wrong kind of snow - perhaps they were the wrong kind of demonstrator for London' flaunted diverse demographics). This was to be the EDL's biggest march ever ... it totalled 500 to 600 overweight wannabe-patriots in need of some exercise. There was every reason to expect trouble, so soon and so close to the outrageous murder of Lee Rigby, and provoked by a succession of foul activities by a handful of hothead Muslims in the East London Mosque's neighbourhood.

Should the march have been permitted? In hindsight the answer may have been a resounding 'No' if the police lines had not held and street violence ensued - instead the whole affair served to show that the EDL's weight of support lies in its grossed up Body Mass Index rather than its collective IQ. The stock answer from the Muslims in the local community, and from the local community as a whole should certainly have been 'No' - they are the ones whose lives and property were put under threat and whose weekend was disrupted, and they are the ones who will bear the cost of the massive police presence at a time when local poverty causes them to bear the brunt of the government's swingeing cuts in vital services.

The stock answer from the Muslim establishment is also an unsurprising 'No'. But with the sagacity of hindsight, now that the EDL are safely back in their bars, my answer is definitely 'Yes', notwithstanding their associates' propensity for arson, one of the most lethally dangerous of civil crimes (and which should not be distinguished from terrorism, since that is very often its intent). Yes, because ironically the EDL chose to march in an area that is iconic for its stand off against Moseley's Blackshirts in 1936, thus indelibly associating themselves with the one unquestionably fascist movement that Britain has spawned, and also with the moment of its popular defeat.

You could almost superimpose pictures of the EDL on top of pictures of the BUF, even though it was difficult to see the ranks of redneck beerguts and rippling tattoos, because the view was obstructed by three lines deep of police hemming them in. You certainly couldn't have called it a march of progress since the European fascist movements of the 30s. And you could certainly draw parallels between the normalisation of anti-Jewish caricatures and scaremongering, and the equivalent scaremongering of today's weak political parties grasping at cheap populist jibes against Muslims. If you do, you have good reason to be fearful for democracy, freedom of expression and freedom from the autocratic instruments of state control.

Furthermore, by choosing to march, the EDL foisted upon the public their wish to indulge themselves in the public purse for a substantial bill of police overtime at a time when their own childrens' health services and schools are in desperate straits. (It would be valuable for the cost of the policing to be published.) That's not an argument against them marching, it's an argument that says to society that to have organisations such as the EDL at large carries a high price, economic and social. By demonstrating in such a sensitive area, EDL demonstrates that they are such as don't care for the people they claim to represent.

There is another, more subtle reason why they should have been allowed to march, if only as far as the tube station. The EDL seeks to map their protests and campaigns explicitly to the Muslim communities. It believes that it can draw on popular anger with some Muslims' behaviour, the stupidity of young Muslim 'activists' hassling people on the street over their manner of dress or sexuality, the snide conceits about parts of Tower Hamlets being a 'Muslim area', and the revolting murder of Lee Rigby. In this respect the EDL is right, it can garner support from popular anger. It most certainly will do for as long as the Muslim community's own response is inept. In turn, the Muslim community's response will remain inept for as long as it fails to get a hold on, respectively, the arrogant young men that claim the right to enforce fragments of a nursery school level of interpretation of Islamic conduct, the self-centred way in which after dominating the area, the local Bangladeshi Muslim community treats others, including other Muslims, as invisible (more on this below). The wider community is right to be angry that the Muslim community was given two young, impressionable converts to Islam, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Oluwatobi Adebowale, Nigerians by birth, and discarded them to be dropped into an extremist pit, from which they emerged to be accused of the murder Lee Rigby. For reasons I will attempt to explore in depth later, these two found nothing and no one to welcome them into the mainstream of the Muslim community, just the racism, sectarianism and insularity of a community that puts its selfish interests first, and the welfare of a pair of converts to the religion from an alien culture and alien community, very much last.

So if the public perception is that the EDL have a point, and that it really is a counterpoint to the Muslim community's interests, then the public will equate banning the former with rolling back on the latter. The Muslim community fosters within it many enclaves of hate-speech and exclusivity. Beware of what you ask for when you ask to ban the EDL.

To my mind however, allowing the EDL to march is allowing them to stand in their own stocks and pillories, open to ridicule by the whole world.

Now back to that comment about the local Bangladeshi Muslim community treating others as invisible. Many times when I have walked down Whitechapel Road, every bit the archetype Muslim with imamah, beard, white qamees and sirwaal, I have naively expected every step of the way to be punctuated with salaams with everyone I pass. Instead, and disconcertingly, every single pious-looking old man in cotton cap, stringy beard and kurta walks straight past me without a murmur or even a flicker of eye contact. It's not about being Muslim, it's about me not being Sylheti. In their eyes, I don't belong, any more than the next non-Sylheti. The corollary of this is in south London, where in the same day, I am served with deferential apologies for queue-jumping by an Asian Muslim man, yet I don't understand a word of his Punjabi; and again I am accosted by a man outside his newly opened corner shop, again in Punjabi that is unintelligible to me, but whose body language tells me to come and browse his new shop. The conceited assumption that allows these two both to assume that I as a visible Muslim will inevitably understand their sub-continental dialects, is as offensively racist as the Bangladeshis' collective tribal separatism in Tower Hamlets and in its own way as racist as the Chav bawling anti-Muslim abuse from the window of his mate's white van. Pursuing this theme of the same implied racism: the main, UK-based 'mainstream' Bareilvi and Deobandi imam-training institutions use Urdu as the teaching medium for religious subjects; the majority of masjids render their Friday 'wyaaz', speeches, in Punjabi, Urdu, Sylheti or Bangla (not the Khutbah itself, which has strict rules about its content and presentation in Qur'anic Arabic). Most of those who include English, do so with cringingly poor knowledge of the language. Together these make up an attitude towards the indigenous culture that is high-handed and dismissive, essentially racist in its assumption that the indigenous community has little relevance to them.

Thus Muslim readers, you have a taste of the deep unease felt by many non-Muslims in neighbourhoods where Muslims and Muslim tribes high-handedly assume they have no social obligations to anyone but their own. None of that attitude chimes with EDL asserting that Tower Hamlets is "subject to sharia law", but it has everything to do with degradation of the community to the point where "Muslim patrols" act as "vigilantes implementing Islam upon your own necks". It also has a lot to do with why two Muslim converts both named Michael, never had a snowball's chance of settling into the mainstream of Islam.

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Why one in every five UK Muslim families uses this website. 
In 2013 it is now eight years since the MuslimsInBritain.org website was launched in the summer of 2006. In Ramadhaan of 2013 the site had 165,000 visitors at the start of the fast and 165,000 again at the end of the fasting month, an astonishing performance. While many of you will have come back repeatedly to the directory, it would not be unreasonable to claim that one in ten of all UK Muslims use the site, or one in every five Muslim families. (As a professional statistician among other things, I am well aware that you can cut these numbers in lots of ways, but the gross numbers are still impressive and form an uninterrupted linear increase every year, with bigger peaks every year at Ramadhaan and the Eids.)

I get a steady stream of emails to the website, mostly around the masjid directory and its Google Maps feature, variously submitting corrections, asking for more information or assistance of one kind or another, so I have started this blog, the MiB-blog, as a place in which I can respond to these requests publicly, passing on requests to the community, or explaining the directory's rationale. But most importantly for me, it provides a place where I can remind everyone what I set out to achieve on the MiB.org website as a whole. There are many things wrong with the Muslim community in Britain, and especially with its mosques, its masjids. I wrote the Muslims In Britain Guide in 2005 to help make the community, warts and all, more understandable to outsiders. I have written and spoken extensively about extremism, militancy and disaffected youth, and some of this work is published on the website too. Even though my work in these areas has been going on for three decades, in almost every masjid I still see exactly the same complacency and inability to engage as I discovered when I myself first came into Islam, way back in 1982.

Meanwhile the consequences of the failings of our masjids, their imams and especially their managements, continues to be the main factor driving away Muslims on the edge of the community, driving them away into militancy, violence and disaster after disaster, the consequnces of which we all have to endure. How many masjids in the UK feature an indigenous imam or management committee member? Basically none whatsoever. How many incidents of 'terrorist' violence or its threat in the UK have featured a convert Muslim? Almost every single one. Every mosque in the UK rightly claims after every such incident, "we knew nothing of this, they took no part in our mosque", yet what kind of excuse is that? Who else has also been so ignored, so overlooked that you still no nothing of it?

The principles of Islam are so simple, so easy to explain, that even the least educated Muslim family can tell you of how they have shared their knowledge with their non-Muslim neighbours. Yet when you come across Muslims who choose a different masjid to you because they disagree with the imam or the practices of the masjid you prefer, have you ever tried to get a clear, sensible explanation from a Muslim scholar? How is it that no imam, no Muslim scholar, is able explain to his own congregation and to newcomers as well, what other Muslims believe, without descending into acrimonious bile? Do they seriously expect us to trust them (never mind respect them) when they claim that intelligent Muslims in rival masjids openly practice obvious polytheism, or have the canon of Islam so fundamentally wrong that they manifestly disbelieve in the contents of the Qur'an?

The MiB.org website has continually sought to challenge the masjids, their imams and their managements on these issues. It highlights the absurdity of masjids denying their own sectaranism and communalism while slandering that of others. By emphasising the extent to which this happens, by quantifying it and showing it graphically, we seek to force the problem out into the open. We demand that Muslims, imams, masjid managements, advocates of factions, all cease their shameful exclusivity and learn to speak of each other with mutual respect, discover tolerance of differences (the very same attribute that you demand wider society grants towards you!), and make space for each other and each others' practices inside your masjids. Islam is not denominational, but you have made it thus for all to see, and then you have the insolence to claim that you are not sectarian, that "everyone is welcome in our mosque". Yes, everyone is welcome, just so long as they sit on their hands and stay silent and do nothing except what you permit in 'your' masjid.

Unlike other websites and directories, several of which have sprung up recently with copies of MiB.org data, MiB.org does not exist to promote its author's professional business or advertising space, even less to earn money from the service. Nor has it any interest in currying favour with masjids and their managements, we will remain vigorously independent and report what we see and what we are told in good faith by masjid users in preference to what masjid managements want us to say, and yes, among that will be unpleasant criticism: respect where it is due, but we do not submit to complacency, especially not the sort of complacency that is disguised as deferential ettiquette. The stakes are too high, many lives have been lost and others ruined by long prison sentences, and in every case there are masjid managers, imams and advocates of factions who could have stepped in instead of freezing out, long before any legal boundary had been crossed by the dissenters. It is true that very few Muslims are capable of tackling extremism effectively, but everyone can work to create a healthier environment so that you don't need to get to the point of freezing them out. Insha Allah this blog will supplement the main MiB website by highlighting examples of good and bad practice, with the aim of educating its users so that you can go back to your local masjids and suggest to them how they could do things better. It is your masjid, your community and your own future at stake.

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