Britain struggles with its portrayal of Muslim citizens

H A Hellyer writes: This week at the conference of Britain’s ruling party, the Conservatives, prime minister David Cameron raised the issues of extremism and integration in Muslim British communities. Last week, the “Britishness” of one of the Muslim contestants in The Great British Bake Off, a television cooking show, was queried, and a Muslim woman who models for H&M found herself at the centre of a similar experience. The Muslim cook in a headscarf, Nadiya Hussain, won the contest to wide acclaim. But in 2015, the issue of “Muslims and Britain” still does not seem to have been resolved, even though it has been discussed for quite some time.

When Mariah Idrissi accepted an offer to model for fashion retailer H&M while wearing her headscarf, she probably expected some opposition from mainstream society. Yet, few could have quite predicted the barrage that came from some quarters. An otherwise reasonable conservative English commentator, Peter Hitchens, took the opportunity to raise the alarm. He suggested that it wouldn’t be long before Britain had “veiled Muslim Cabinet ministers, TV newsreaders and judges” and that this was “all part of a slow but unstoppable adaptation of this country to Islam”. As a result, non-Muslim women would eventually be pressured to “conform” by disappearing “beneath scarves and shrouds”.

It was a rather peculiar claim. Britain is a tolerant democracy, with a special role for the Anglican Church. All of that ensures that faith is generally respected within the confines of the rule of law. Already, there are Muslim women with headscarves who serve the United Kingdom as civil servants and lawyers – why would Cabinet ministers or judges prove to be some kind of dreaded milestone? The excellent journalist Fatima Manji is already a popular face on TV screens via her work on Channel 4. Has that, somehow, led to undue pressure on even her colleagues to wear headscarves, let alone the rest of the British population? Obviously not.

But Hitchens is hitting at a particular issue, as is Mr Cameron, and others, albeit from a variety of angles. The issue remains: is it possible for Muslims to be discussed in public discourse simply as British citizens, rather than problematic in some way? [Continue reading…]

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