Next for the weekend papers is an actual interview of Shabina Begum with Jasper Gerard in the Times, in which we actually get to hear what the girl in question actually has to say for herself. Gasp!
It's still not very good though. It's a bit long, includes quite a lot of stuff and it would take too long to dismantle everything in it, so I'll stick to the main bits that struck me.
Gerard opens his piece with the 'poor victim' version of Shabina Begum. She's being used, apparently - but by 'her white guards' rather than 'the “regressive” forces of Islam'. This is a really important distinction, so here's the full quote.
"As the mineral water flows I begin to wonder if it is less the “regressive” forces of Islam leading Shabina astray than the progressive forces of legal aid. Actually, her brother, 23, comes across as her meekest minder and certainly the most charming. It is her white guards who are the real frights."This quote reveals quite a lot about the underlying assumptions that have been made in the commentary about this case. The first and most obvious point is that it simply cannot be Begum's own decision to wear the jilbab. She must be a victim of manipulation. Next, because there were no shadowy evil bad guys around, and because her brother is clearly not behaving as the hothead he's been portrayed as, Gerard has to choose someone else to be the manipulators. In this case, it's the only other people around - her 'white guards'. This formation slots in quite nicely with the right's idea that there is a liberal elite who field do-gooders to interfere on behalf of ethnic minorities, bothering the actual minorities in the process.
But the most important thing to note here is the opposition created by '"regressive" forces of Islam' and 'white guards'. We're told all over the place, by the right and the decent left that to attack Islam is not racism, because Islam is not a race. If that's true, why are the non-Muslims in this situation described by their race? Why assume that the 'white guards'are not regressive Muslims in the first place? Is it impossible for them to be because they're white? If not, why contrast the two groups in this way?
Later in the article (past the bit where I could have done the 'any colour you like' schtick again):
"Curiously, the jilbab is worn mainly by Arab Muslims. Muslims of Asian origin — like this family from Bangladesh — tend to wear the shalwar kameez which satisfies Koranic demands of modest dress. So what is this dispute really about?"Curiously, Catholics tend to come from the Latin countries and Ireland. English people tend to be Protestants, so why are there English people claiming to be Catholic? What's their dispute really about?
Then, we finally get to the bit where we hear what Begum actually has to say. Interestingly, she talks about her brother. We've already seen that he doesn't act in the way he's been depicted as acting previously. Now we find this:
"People say my brother forced me, but my sister is not orthodox: how come she has not been ‘forced’?"She has a point. She could say she hadn't been coerced, and we could doubt that. Indeed, if she had been coerced, she'd hardly admit it. But her non-orthodox sister is evidence that she's telling the truth. It's funny that this non-orthodox sister doesn't get a mention anywhere else. Couldn't be because she makes the idea that Begum's been coerced look unlikey, could it? Surely not!
The other great point about her brother is that he 'denies being part of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the extremist group'. So it's possible he's not even part of the group he's been accused of being a part of, and the group isn't responsible for forcing Begum to do anything. Note also that the way this is worded makes him look like he's lying. If you read a headline that said 'Celebrity X Denies Accusations of Paedophilia', what would you think about Celebrity X?
What about if you read that a person was a 'silky debater'? Would you think they were entirely honest and straightforward, or would you suspect something a little too clever and slippery? This leads to the next bit I love, which comes when Gerard tries to catch out Begum by asking whether Rastafarians should be able to smoke skunk at school. Begum shoots down this crap slippery slope fallacy agrument by pointing out that smoking drugs is illegal, and Gerard's response is this (written down in the article, mind - not out loud) "Hmm: a silky debater." So when Begum herself shoots down a really crap, fallacious argument, she's described as a 'silky debater', rather than just 'right'. Gerard goes on to make the point he was going to make anyway, even though it's just been exposed as being a bit shit. Nowhere has Begum argued that 'anything goes' for religion. This is an argument he's put in her mouth. She's even given a reason why some alleged religious behaviour should be disallowed.
"Tony Blair realised a Shabina victory would mean the end of uniforms." No it wouldn't. Turbans didn't. The shalwar-kameez didn't. I already mentioned the slippery-slope fallacy, didn't I? Here it is again if you missed it. "If Muslims are granted exemptions then the Vicky Pollards could argue for nose studs:" and they'd be told to fuck off. And Muslims already are granted exceptions. Did he forget his argument that Begum was allowed to express her religion because the shalwar-kameez were allowed? "At what point could a school say “enough”?" at the point where what's being asked for isn't a genuine form of religious expression. And in those cases where it is - where there's a sensible reason why what's being asked for would cause problems in themselves at that point in time - not at some indefinable point in the future when someone asks for something else.
Then we have arguments we've seen before - lunch counters and jobs up the road and so on. We should pressure girls to wear what they might not want so they're not pressured to wear what they might not want. That kind of funky stuff.
That's the first page. The second involves dumb questions like 'do you have non-Muslim friends?' Er, yes. 'How does she feel about arranged marriages?' What is this, an episode of Eastenders from 1986? Here again, we see the facade of non-racism slipping. Lots of religions have arranged marriages, why is it important here, if not to draw some sort of parallel between a common practice in Asian (and other) cultures and 'extremism'?
The closing paragraphs reveal quite a lot. Firstly:
"One realises the gulf in understanding when her brother quietly, patiently, lists all the compromises that he suggested to the school. One, it transpires, was that Shabina be taught in solitary confinement."Why only disclose that one option out of a list? It couldn't possibly be because it was the most extreme, could it?
"So here is the authentic voice of the extremist: prepared for his bright, giggly sister who loves medicine and handbags to be shut away from life, just so she remains theologically pure."No. She wears the jilbab to be 'theologically pure'. She'd be shutting herself away to get an education that would be denied to her otherwise.
The last paragraph is possibly the most revealing. It goes:
"There you have the dilemma for British Asian youth: the veil of Islam versus the exposure of BBC1. Some radical young Muslims may consider the West the devil in disguise — but at heart even they, it seems, accept that it has the better clothes."Remember - attacking Islam is not racism because Islam is not a race. Why then is this the dilemma for British Asian youth rather than British Muslim youth?
Gerard doesn't argue that the choice is between "regressive" Muslim or non-Muslim, or even "regressive" Muslim or "non-regressive" Muslim - it's "regressive" Muslim or white. He argues that whether or not to wear Islamic dress is a dilemma for British Asians, not British Muslims. In doing this, he unwittingly reveals the true face of his argument.