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Britain’s attitude to religious symbolism is tolerant, with a few exceptions

columns Updated: Oct 28, 2016 01:33 IST
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On the day IPSO published its deliberations on the case, a man randomly attacked a woman who was wearing a hijab on London’s busy Oxford Street in broad daylight, shouting at her, wrenching off her headdress and punching her. He immediately ran off and was lost in the crowds (Representative Photo) (REUTERS)

In July Channel 4 News, one of Britain’s most responsible platforms of reportage, featured the massacre of innocents in Nice, France by a terrorist driving a truck. The reporter appearing on screen was one Fatima Manji, a British Muslim who wore a headscarf while delivering the report.

Her appearance outraged Kelvin McKenzie, veteran columnist of the popular tabloid newspaper The Sun. He said he “couldn’t believe his eyes” when he saw a newsreader in Muslim attire reporting on a terrorist atrocity committed in the name of Islam.

He said Islam was “clearly a violent religion” and Channel 4 was insulting and provoking its viewers by using Manji in her headscarf on screen for this particular report.

Read | British TV anchor slams watchdog’s ruling over hijab article

Though very many readers and other writers of The Sun agreed with him, there was an outcry against his remarks and the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the British media’s watchdog, received hundreds of complaints accusing McKenzie of spreading hatred and of religious discrimination against Manji.

This week IPSO ruled on McKenzie’s remarks and cleared him and The Sun of any breach of the press code. The judgement did recognise that his column could be construed as offensive to Manji and to very many people, but concluded that McKenzie was entitled, under principles of regulated free speech, to express his opinion.

McKenzie was gratified and went on to say that he was relieved that the regulator recognised that he was not attacking Manji, but criticising Channel 4’s editorial judgement which he maintained was an affront to viewers. He provocatively added that the hijab was an imposition on women by men and a symbol of female oppression.

Read | Muslim woman’s clothing set on fire in attack in New York

The remark provoked further outrage. Muslim women took to the media to say they voluntarily covered their hair as their belief enjoined them to be “modest”. Others intervened to say that there was no injunction in Islam which demanded that women cover their heads or faces.

Nevertheless, it is not difficult to trace the connection between covering one’s head and the Islamic injunction to modesty. Neither is this connection exclusive to fundamentalist Islam.

In Sufi poetry from Rumi onwards, and very strongly through Hafiz, the “tresses” of “The Beloved” are central symbols of beauty, allure and temptation.

Read | Hijab no reason for chess boycott: Iran

Hafiz’s ghazals and quatrains contain a hundred examples. Here are some (as translated by Firdous Najaf and myself):

“Your tresses like pure rays of light cascade / upon me. You are moonlit night and shade / The perfume of your presence is the dusk, / Your countenance the pride of dawn’s parade.

The music of your tresses lightly trips / Through my sight. Your faintly parted lips / suggest and promise that elusive kiss / which can release my heart from this eclipse?

No restlessness can excel that of mine / No flagon can fulfil this thirst for wine / Your tresses are my anchor and my cage / This trap of madness – ecstasy divine!

If Hafiz wander a hair’s breath from You / Your remedy is not far from your hand / Just grasp your tresses, separate a strand / And trap him as the cobra-catchers do.

I wander in your street, a vagabond, / And though I’m here, you’re still so far away / The perfume of your tresses is a wand / That conjures up the madness I display”

Read | 15-year-old Saudi girl proposes first headscarf emoji

Of course in Sufi poetic allegory, The Beloved, in the avatar of the lover, is the divine presence, the all-pervasive God. Her “tresses” are, in the Sufi interpretation of the allegory, the attractiveness of God’s grace. The “tress” is also that which conceals the divine essence, just as hair conceals perfume.

If the allegory is taken literally, as fundamentalists of all religions are prone to do, female tresses are projected as a central stimulus to desire — and “modesty” would then demand that hair be covered to dampen temptation. Hence the hijab but not the niqab?

On the day IPSO published its deliberations on the case, a man randomly attacked a woman who was wearing a hijab on London’s busy Oxford Street in broad daylight, shouting at her, wrenching off her headdress and punching her. He immediately ran off and was lost in the crowds.

Read | Woman’s hijab ripped off in suspected hate crime in Britain

The police have published a description of him and will prosecute him for assault and a hate crime when and if he’s caught. Britain’s attitude to religious or semi-religious symbolism remains tolerant. Sikh soldiers guarding Buckingham Palace are permitted to wear uniform turbans instead of the bearskins worn by their Christian colleagues. So also with the law relating to motorcycle helmets which has been relaxed for the benefit of the khalsa. Not so in France, where the police forced an elderly Muslim woman sitting on a beach to take her hijab off.

The IPSO judgement while letting McKenzie off the hook has no impact on Channel 4 News or its editorial judgement. No doubt if the Channel had been reporting on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ it would have no compunction in using a Jewish newsreader in full Hassidic regalia. And why not? As Shakespeare almost said “There’s no art to tell the mind’s construction from the headdress”.

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London

The views expressed are personal