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The U.K.’s Conservative Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion Baroness Sayeeda Warsi was pelted with eggs last week while in Luton to give a talk about the war in Afghanistan. Upon attempting to enter into a debate with a group of men heckling her and claiming that “this woman does not represent Islam”, she was talked over and ignored.
While the egg-throwing is garnering a lot of publicity, the men Warsi attempted to engage in debate deny responsibility, or as the Daily Mail laughably claims, deny ‘mastermind[ing] the attack’. What evidently began as a debate about the validity of Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan, and Warsi’s support of it, soon became a struggle to define what makes a real Muslim, with both Warsi and her detractors attempting to stake their ground and gain authentic ownership of the label.
While many of the attacks made on Warsi are political in nature, drawing on her support for the war in Afghanistan, and her alleged stance against Shariah law, there is clearly a bias against her based on her gender–and because of her gender, her appearance. Sayful Islam, one of the men in question, doggedly denies that Warsi could be called a practicing Muslim, saying that “clearly by looking at her” we can see that “she does not represent Muslims”. It is unlikely that a Muslim man would be so easily denied his status as a fellow Muslim due to his mode of dress.
What does it mean for a woman to “look like a Muslim?” We already face criticism for our choices of dress from so many quarters, we hardly need to add professed fellow Muslims to the count. And we certainly do not need to have our level of faith, and the degree to which we practice it, judged by any person, especially on the grounds of our appearance.
Warsi, for her part, attempts to reclaim the term “Muslim” for herself and her followers (“real British Muslims”), and denies the claim of the men who oppose her. By claiming that these men are “bringing the faith of Islam into huge disrepute”, Baroness Warsi is buying into the popular discourse which allows a few members of a minority group and their opinions and behaviors to stand in for the entire group itself. She compares her Muslim detractors with Nick Griffin, while legitimizing the same tokenism he and his party use to smear the group status to those who do not–to her mind–do credit to Muslims as Islamic faith and its adherents, only countering by assigning out- a whole. Just as those she verbally casts out of her definition of what it is to be a British Muslim perceive her as not belonging within the community, hiding behind the Qur’an and the Sunnah as ultimate justification.
There is a valid stance to be taken against the atrocities caused by the war in Afghanistan and Britain’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. There is a valid political stance to be taken against Conservative ideology. There is also a valid stance to take against Warsi’s conception of the “real” British Muslim, who only engages in political debate on her terms. But throwing eggs or refusing to listen to a woman – a Muslim woman – who is genuinely attempting to engage you in conversation about Islam is no way to prove how devout one is, and neither is denying a person’s self-identification a way to validate one’s faith. “Real Muslims” may be Conservative MPs who support the British government taking military action against majority Muslim countries. “Real Muslims” may wear any and everything they choose. And, like it or not, “real Muslims” can hold views which may be abhorrent to us. Only Allah (swt) may judge what is in our hearts.