The great burqa/niqab/hijab debate

To ban or not to ban? And what to ban?

From the Independent:

The parliamentary leader of the ruling French party is to put forward a draft law within two weeks to ban the full-body veil from French streets and all other public places.

Extreme? Right-wing? The article continues:

Some senior figures on the left have supported the idea of a legal ban. So has Fadela Amara, a left-wing campaigner for the rights of Muslim women who entered Mr Sarkozy's government in 2007 as minister for urban development.

Most moderate Islamic leaders have sharply criticised the burqa but suggested that it was such a limited phenomenon in France that legislation was unnecessary and might alienate moderate Muslims.

The burqa, per se, is an Afghan tradition allowing a woman only a narrow gauze-covered eye-opening. It is little found in France. The Arab equivalent, the niqab, which has a narrow opening at eye-level, is only slightly more common.

A study by the French internal security services last year suggested that the total number of women wearing both types of full-body veil in France was around 2,000 -- out of a total French population of adult, Muslim women of about 1,500,000.

Two questions immediately come to mind:

1) In the middle of the worst economic crisis in living memory, how can France's ruling conservative party justify focusing its legislative energies on banning an item of clothing worn by 0.1 per cent of the French population of adult Muslim women (or 0.003 per cent of the French population as a whole)?

2) Why did the "French internal security services" commission a study on the burqa/niqab? Is it now deemed to be a national security risk? Do French intelligence agencies have nothing better to do with their time? No other threats to deal with, apart from 2,000 Muslim women with covered faces?

Then there is the matter of the clothing itself and distinguishing between the various types. I'm no fan of the burqa or the niqab myself, and have yet to be convinced of the Islamic legal reasoning behind either garment, but I do recognise the difference between the burqa and the niqab, on the one hand, and the hijab on the other.

Does Yasmin Alibhai-Brown? In her short comment piece on the Indie's news story, and in support of the French ban, she writes:

The use of the burqa has grown like a virus across the continent. Children as young as four are now dressed in hijab.

I like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I admire her columns and the clarity and passion of her arguments, even if I don't always agree with her. But if even she cannot distinguish between the burqa and the hijab, two very different garments, how then can she criticise journalists and politicians, on other occasions, for misunderstanding Islam and Muslims?

Yasmin says she endorses the French approach:

I don't like the way the French state or its right-wing parties operate but sometimes there are some good unintended consequences.

I would ask her: isn't this exactly what pro-war liberal lefties said when they got into bed with George W Bush over the Iraq war and the removal of Saddam? And we all know how that turned out . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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John McDonnell "will never" stand for Labour leader and has a warning for rebels

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell says a rebel front bench can be replaced. 

Moments after sacked Cabinet minister Hilary Benn called for other MPs to "do the right thing", Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was telling rebel Labour MPs where to go.

McDonnell played down the risk of a coup against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, telling the BBC's Andrew Neil: "Jeremy's not going anywhere."

And he ruled himself out as a replacement candidate for leader: "Let me get this absolutely clear. I will never stand for leadership fo the Labour Party. If Jeremy has to stand again, I will chair his campaign."

He denied rumours his ally Seema Malhotra was phoning round to gather support for his candidacy and added: "Jeremy is not falling on his sword and if he did I wouldn't be standing."

McDonnell also dismissed the rumours of a Shadow Cabinet revolt, despite the news Shadow Health minister Heidi Alexander had resigned and others were expected to do so. If they left, he said, they could be replaced.

Given the growing antipathy of Labour MPs to the Corbyn leadership, this claim is rather questionable. There are only so many Labour MPs.

But McDonnell was on stronger ground when he reminded any listening Shadow Ministers of the electoral victories in by-elections and the London election. 

He said: "Every electoral test Jeremy's faced since becoming leader he's won."

And in a veiled warning to rebels, he warned: "Who is soverign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members.

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

MPs were citing polls, he said. "But who trusts polls?" Hundreds of thousands of members of the public had signed a petition backing Corbyn, he said.

Indeed, with events happening so rapidly, and the choice between party members and voters so stark, Labour MPs will have no time to trust anything but their instincts.