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For a recent show about religion on Channel 4, journalist Mehdi Hasan interviewed Prof Richard Dawkins, in a lengthy back-and-forth on religion and evil. Knowing that Hasan is a devout Muslim, Dawkins thought he’d be clever and ask if he believed that Muhammad really flew to heaven on a winged horse. Hasan didn’t really have a comeback. The audience laughed, I think at Dawks in a dismissive way.

Later on Twitter, for some reason not ‘@’ing Hasan, he complained:

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Mehdi Hasan presents on Al Jazeera and writes for New Statesman and Huffington Post. He has a lot to say about being a Muslim in the UK, yet, there isn’t one instance in his work where the belief about a winged horse has jeopardised his journalistic integrity, directly led to irrationality or revisionism, or forced him to make a factual error. Outside of mere matters of the specifics religious belief, and any parabolic moral implications, it is probably a non-factor.

Obviously there are occasions when a personal belief can conflict with a profession. Someone who believes certain sex acts deserve capital punishment is not in the best position to be a human rights lawyer or ethics professor. A medical doctor won’t be taken seriously if they think that the MMR vaccine leads to autism. This specific miraculous belief says nothing about one’s skill as a journalist.

Mehdi Hasan’s regularly updated Huffpo blog

and his writing for the New Statesman

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Hatred of Islam and various Islamic cultures can be easily justified by claiming that the veil or headscarf is representative of the religion’s sexist nature – the logical conclusion being that by being anti-Islam one is on the side of women’s liberation. British newspapers not only agree with this stance, but are probably to blame for such a perspective. Between 1998-2009, three of the five most commonly associated adjectives with the veil were: obligatory, undesirable, compulsory. This portrays Muslim women as passive, their only hope being the liberation of Western liberal democracy. The topless protesters of Femen have gained a lot of mainstream attention lately, strongly believing that they are coming to the rescue of downtrodden veiled women everywhere.

ImageWith this kind of sentiment, we forget to listen to the voices of the people whose opinion should matter most: Muslim women. Muslims in this country of course do face discrimination daily, being much more likely to be stopped and searched or denied work. But the argument over the veil totally excludes those who are imagined to be the victims. Unsurprisingly, many Muslim women view their headscarf to be personally liberating.

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As well they might: veiling is as much a part of the freedom to express religion as wearing a crucifix or a Jewish cap. The popular Facebook group Muslim Women Against Femen, with the aim to “expose Femen for the Islamophobes and imperialists they are” gives a voice for empowered Muslim women that the papers tend to deny. With Islam having such diversity, it features women of different skin colours and languages, and various styles of headscarf, including those who choose not to wear one. Still, the broader aim of Femen is an important one. It is absurd that men can usually wander around topless on a hot day, but a bare-breasted woman is seen as grotesque and necessarily sexualised. For some, being topless is liberating. If someone feels freer for wearing their niqab, then that is just as valuable.

Further reading:

Next I will answer the idea that Islam is anti-democratic. Really, I am quite ignorant about Islam but would love to learn more, so tell me if I should correct something or if you can think of a book or article I need to read. I’ve just started Adam J. Silverstein’s Islamic History: A Very Short Introduction.

For the next few days I will be responding to some widely accepted lies about Islam. They are all used to justify bigotry, making it sound concerned and respectable. It is a very common bigotry, with 61% of Britons not believing Islam is compatible with British culture*, but I have noticed how popular this kind of thinking is in atheist or secularist communities.

The issues are:

  1. The veil/burqa/niqab/hijab is misogynistic and oppressive
  2. Islam is anti-democratic
  3. Islam is violent
  4. Islam is un-British/Muslims can’t integrate

Comparisons to Nazism and antisemitism usually fall flat, but in Kevin Passmore’s A Very Short Introduction to Fascism**, he points out how, for national-populists, “the figure of the Muslim has taken over from that of the Jew as the embodiment of evil” (not to suggest that antisemitism no longer exists). The far-right may have led hatred against Muslims, but they aren’t the only ones buying into it, asking for this fear-based ideology to be treated with ‘serious debate.’ Essentially I only want to persuade you of one idea: that the about the supposed threat of Islam is fashioned out of media portrayals, and not the other way round.

*according to a 2009 Gallop poll

**pp120-121