Britain’s national threat level was raised to “critical” after three attempted car bombings last week in London and Glasgow. Police and intelligence officers confirmed that there was a direct link between the attack on Glasgow airport last Saturday and two attempted car bombings in London last Friday. This confirmed the reality of a renewed UK offensive by Islamist extremists. Prime Minister Gordon Brown summoned intelligence chiefs and ministers to the Cobra emergency committee in Whitehall to discuss the security situation. It was agreed to raise the threat level to the highest degree possible, a decision that confirmed another attack was expected soon. The first two “Iraqi-style” car bombs had been found in London by chance in the early hours of Friday morning.
By RUTH LA FERLA FOR Aysha Hussain, getting dressed each day is a fraught negotiation. Ms. Hussain, a 24-year-old magazine writer in New York, is devoted to her pipe-stem Levi’s and determined to incorporate their brash modernity into her wardrobe while adhering to the tenets of her Muslim faith. ”It’s still a struggle,” Ms. Hussain, a Pakistani-American, confided. ”But I don’t think it’s impossible.” Ms. Hussain has worked out an artful compromise, concealing her curves under a mustard-tone cropped jacket and a tank top that is long enough to cover her hips. Some of her Muslim sisters follow a more conservative path. Leena al-Arian, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, joined a women’s worship group last Saturday night. Her companions, who sat cross-legged on prayer mats in a cramped apartment in the Hyde Park neighborhood, were variously garbed in beaded tunics, harem-style trousers, gauzy veils and colorful pashminas. Ms. Arian herself wore a loose-fitting turquoise tunic over fluid jeans. She covered her hair, neck and shoulders with a brightly patterned hijab, the head scarf that is emblematic of the Islamic call to modesty. Like many of her contemporaries who come from diverse social and cultural backgrounds and nations, Ms. Arian has devised a strategy to reconcile her faith with the dictates of fashion — a challenge by turns stimulating and frustrating and, for some of her peers, a constant point of tension. Injecting fashion into a traditional Muslim wardrobe is ”walking a fine line,” said Dilshad D. Ali, the Islam editor of Beliefnet.com, a Web site for spiritual seekers. A flash point for controversy is the hijab, which is viewed by some as a politically charged symbol of radical Islam and of female subjugation that invites reactions from curiosity to outright hostility. In purely aesthetic terms, the devout must work to evolve a style that is attractive but not provocative, demure but not dour — friendly to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. ”Some young women follow the letter of the rule,” Ms. Ali observed. Others are more flexible. ”Maybe their shirts are tight. Maybe the scarf is not really covering their chest, and older Muslim women’s tongues will wag.” The search for balance makes getting dressed ”a really intentional, mindful event in our lives every day,” said Asra Nomani, the outspoken author of ”Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam” (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). Clothing is all the more significant, Ms. Nomani said, because what a Muslim woman chooses to wear ”is a critical part of her identity.” Many younger women seek proactively to shape that identity, adopting the hijab without pressure from family or friends, or from the Koran, which does not mandate covering the head. ”Family pressure is the exception, not the rule,” said Ausma Khan, the editor of Muslim Girl, a new magazine aimed at young women who, when it come to dress, ”make their own personal choice.” The decision can be difficult. Today few retailers cater to a growing American Muslim population that is variously estimated to be in the range of three to seven million. ”Looking for clothes that are covering can be a real challenge when you go to a typical store,” Ms. Khan said. Only a couple of years ago, Nordstrom conducted a fashion seminar at the Tysons Corner Center mall in McLean, Va., a magnet for affluent Muslim women in suburban Washington. The store sought to entice them with a profusion of head scarves, patterned blouses and subdued tailored pieces, but for the most part missed the nuances, said shoppers who attended the event. They were shown calf-length skirts and short-sleeve jackets of a type prohibited for the orthodox, who cover their legs and arms entirely. ”For me the biggest struggle is to find clothes in the department stores,” said Ms. Arian, who has worn the hijab since she was 13. She scours the Web and stores like Bebe, Zara, Express and H & M for skirts long enough to meet her standards. The majority, gathered through the hips, are ”not very flattering on women with curves,” she said, chuckling ruefully, ”and a lot of Middle Eastern women have curves.” Maryah Qureshi, a graduate student in Chicago, has a similarly tricky time navigating conventional stores. ”When we do find a sister-friendly item,” she said, ”we tend to buy it in every color.” Tam Naveed, a young freelance writer in New York, has devised an urbane uniform, tweed pants, a long-sleeve shirt and a snugly fastened scarf that dramatically sets off her features. Ms. Nomani, the author, improvises her own head covering by wearing a hoodie or a baseball cap to mosque. ”I call it ghetto hijab,” she said tartly. For everyday, she buys shirtdresses at the Gap. ”They cover your backside, but they’re still the Gap. That kind of gives you a visa between the two worlds.” In its fashion pages, Muslim Girl addresses concerns about fashion by encouraging young readers to mix and match current designs from a variety of sources, and reinforces the message that religion and fashion need not be mutually exclusive. ”We are trying to keep our finger on the pulse of what women want,” Ms. Khan said. Fashion pages, shown alongside columns offering romantic advice and articles on saving the environment, are among the more popular for the magazine’s teenage readers, she said, adding that the magazine’s circulation of 50,000 is expected to double next year. Aspiring style-setters also find inspiration on retail Web sites like Artizara.com, which offers a high-neck white lace shirtdress and a sleeveless wrap jumper; and thehijabshop.com, with its elasticized hijabs, which can be slipped over the head. Some women seek out fashions from a handful of designers who cater to them. ”I think people like me are starting to see that Muslim women make up a significant market and are expressing their entrepreneurial spirit,” said Brooke Samad, a 28-year-old Muslim woman who designs kimono-sleeve wrap coats and floor-length interpretations of the pencil skirt out of a guest room in her home in Highland Hills, N.J. ”We follow trends, but we do keep to our guidelines,” said Ms. Samad, whose label is called Marabo. ”And we’re careful with the fabrics to make sure they aren’t too clingy.” Today fashion itself is more in tune with the values of Islam, revealing styles having given way to a relatively modest layered look. Elena Kovyrzina, the creative director of Muslim Girl, pointed to of-the-moment runway designs, any one of which might be appropriate for the magazine’s fashion pages: a voluminous Ungaro blouse with a high neck and full, flowing sleeves; a billowing Marni coat discreetly belted at the waist; and a Prada satin turban. Among the more free-spirited looks Ms. Kovyrzina singled out was a DKNY long-sleeve shirt and man-tailored trousers, topped with a hair-concealing baseball cap. There are Muslim women who choose to cover as part of a journey of self-discovery. In ”Infidel” (Free Press, 2007), her memoir of rebellion, Ayaan Hirsi Ali recalls as a girl wearing a concealing long black robe. ”It had a thrill to it,” Ms. Hirsi Ali writes, ”a sensuous feeling. It made me feel powerful: underneath this screen lay a previously unsuspected but potentially lethal femininity. I was unique.” But adopting the hijab also invites adversity. A survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations last year found that nearly half of Americans believe that Islam encourages the oppression of women. Referring to that survey, Ms. Hussain, the New York journalist, observed, ”Many of these people think, ‘Oh, if a woman is covered, she must be oppressed.’ ” Still, after 9/11, Ms. Hussain made a point of wearing the hijab. ”Politically,” she said, ”it lets people know you’re not trying to hide from them.” Among the young, Ms. Nomani said, ”there is a pressure to show your colors.” ”Young people aren’t empowered enough to change foreign policy,” she said, so they adopt a hybrid of modern and Muslim garb, which is ”their way to say, ‘I’m Muslim and I’m proud.’ ” Such bravado has its perils.
Jenan Mohajir, a member of the prayer group near the University of Chicago, spoke with some bitterness about being waylaid as she traveled. Ms. Mohajir, who works with the Interfaith Youth Core, which promotes cooperation among religions, recalled an official at airport security telling her: ”You might as well step aside. You have too many clothes on.” What was she wearing? ”Jeans, a tunic, sandals and a scarf.” Ms. Hussain no longer covers her head but has adopted a look meant to play down misconceptions without compromising her piety. ”Living in New York,” she said, ”has made me want to experiment more with colors and in general to be more bold. I don’t want to scare people. I want them to say, ‘Wow!’ ” She has noticed a like-minded tendency among her peers. ”In the way that we present ourselves to the rest of the world, we are definitely lightening up.”
British police arrested nine people Wednesday in a large counterterrorism sweep reported to involve an alleged Iraq-style plot to kidnap, torture and kill a Muslim soldier serving in the British army and post video of his execution on the Internet. Such a plot would represent a dramatic turn in tactics by Islamic extremists in Britain — a single murder rather than a bomb plot designed to kill large numbers of people. It would also be the first known case of radicals in Britain targeting a fellow Muslim for serving in the British army.
By Dominic Casciani The organisers insist it is a coincidence, but the fact that IslamExpo fell on the first anniversary of the London bombings was the powerful symbol British Muslims needed to say very publicly what they stand for. The $1.8m show at London’s Alexandra Palace could have been just another event where Muslims talks to Muslims about being Muslim. But instead the organisers found a simple formula of exhibitions, market stalls, and robust debate that very successfully managed to bring in a healthy proportion of white, non-Muslim people and, critically, create some dialogue. And so, while the two-minute silence came and went, and Britain reflected on how we find, in simplest terms, a way to all get on, the many different people at IslamExpo just got on with it. For Ihtisham Hibatullah, co-ordinator of the massive enterprise, this was what it was all about. Taking his guests through the entrance hall of a Bedouin-style tent, and a very lavish interactive history of Islam, he said the show’s mission was to give confidence to Britain’s Muslim communities.
Black in the Union Jack Stopping at a gallery of work by British Muslim artists, he said the images were a perfect way of understanding the reality of the modern world. “Islam is not just part of the East anymore,” said Mr Hibatullah. “It began there, but is now very much part of Europe, part of Britain. “Look at these pictures. Here is one of the Union Jack in the style of Islamic calligraphy. I don’t think the flag is the trade mark of the British National Party anymore, is it? “We are trying to give people a sense off Islamic history, of identity but, crucially, we are trying to provide means through which British Muslims can show how they have contributed to our society.” Among the thousands trooping through the doors of Ally Pally were an estimated 4,000 school children from all over the UK.
History comes alive In the marquee of Exhibition Islam, a touring organisation that takes historic artefacts into schools, children of all backgrounds crowded around Imtiaz Alam as he showed them a 16th century Koran. “It has been fantastic to be here and see the non-Muslim kids taking an interest,” said Imtiaz, who has received invitations from American and Australian organisations. “I am really glad that so many people have taken the time to listen and learn. “Every time we do our show, and we must have taken it to 250,000 people by now, we find a good reception. People want to learn and understand and appreciate what Islam means to Muslims.” And this was key for the diverse audience. While the tough lectures and deep thinking went on in some of the marquees, the biggest attraction for the children were workshops with a lighter touch. Khayaal Theatre Group was among those holding music and dance shows for the kids, drawing on traditional Islamic stories from around the Muslim world. Luqman Ali, founder of Khayall, has long campaigned among Muslim communities for them to use the arts to both understand themselves and forge links with wider society. “It is through story-telling and the universal values that they contain we can improve inter-cultural understanding and start dealing with issues like alienation, isolation and segregation,” said Luqman. “It’s through stories that people and civilisations better understand each other, rather than through dogma and doctrine.” Luqman said however that he had mixed feelings a year on from the bombings. “The consequences were not uniform – in some parts of society it’s been a catalyst for much more dialogue and for individuals to bridge the gap of understanding. “In other ways it has increased anxieties – I have times when I am optimistic and times when I am very pessimistic.”
New generation Intissar Khreeji-Ghannouchi shared Luqman Ali’s mixed feelings, saying the past few years had been an “emotional rollercoaster”. A recent Cambridge law graduate, Intissar is representative of a new emerging generation of confident Muslim women determined to take on prejudices stereotypes. “I think there is a lot of optimism created by this event – it shows how we can all overcome the actions of individuals [the bombers] who want to break the Muslim community away from the rest of society. “We need to find ways of having a genuine dialogue with each other and I feel IslamExpo is a very important step. Look at what you have here today – you have an opportunity to properly introduce people to Muslim culture. The public perception is very negative but if we are open, we can combat it.” Intissar said that she had personally found it frustrating to sometimes explain to non-Muslims why she wears a headscarf. “Then I started reminding myself that while it is a normal part of me, I should put myself in their shoes – they are curious and may not understand. I would be naturally curious about another culture and what it means. “I think since 9/11 we [the British] have had to think more deeply about identity. “This has been an invigorating experience but also one of urgency because Muslims now recognise that it is not enough to be passive.” And the pro-active stance taken by people such as Intissar was one that went down well with the non-Muslim visitors who had come to learn and talk. South London A-level students Laura Burtonshaw, Lucie Robathan and Katie Carpenter were among the significant number of non-Muslim visitors. They said they had been enormously enthused by the experience which had helped them understand the relationships between Islam and Christianity. “We really think it has been brilliant,” said Katie. “It is really what we all need to see and hear. I just can’t get over how friendly everyone has been.” Laura said the trio had been studying the roots of religion at school but the show had given them a real opportunity to really understand the daily lived-in culture of Islam. “The most important thing is that we find a way to learn and understand each other,” she said.
SON EN BREUGEL, THE NETHERLANDS – In 1999, while seeking a graduate project idea at the Design Academy of Eindhoven, Cindy van den Bremen found a problem-solving opportunity. The Dutch Commission of Equal Treatment had recently ruled that high schools could prohibit Muslim girls from wearing head coverings in gym class. Girls were advised to wear turtlenecks teamed with swim caps. But some were ignoring the sartorial advice, preferring instead to skip gym all together. At about that time, the Dutch were beginning to become disillusioned with multiculturalism – a trend that was to intensify in the next few years with the death of maverick anti-immigrant politician Pim Fortuyn and the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a radical Dutch Islamist. For Ms. van den Bremen, the phys-ed class controversy offered a means to marry her political sense of injustice with her professional expertise. “I realized that if the hijabs did not look traditional, but hip and trendy, they could possibly change prejudice into some sort of admiration,” says the young Dutch designer. Within months, the “capster” was born, and quickly blossomed into a business. In four styles designed for tennis, skating, aerobics, and outdoor sports, van den Bremen’s head coverings were sleek, safe, and – in the words of a local Islamic cleric – “Islamically correct.” Even an elderly man at her graduation show who told her he didn’t like the hijab at all, said he did like her designs. “This made me realize even more that the social problem with the acceptance of the hijab was not about the girls being covered, but the way they are covered,” says van den Bremen. Initially, she expected that she’d be done with the capsters after graduation. But the capsters’ popularity has grown steadily, and grateful feedback she receives and the clamor for more such products has encouraged her to expand her small business operation. For Farah Azwai, an athletic undergraduate at the American Intercontinental University in London, who started wearing the hijab at age 16, the capster was a relief. “Before I had the capsters, I tried a number of things – I used to wear a bandanna and tried fixing my hijab in different ways but it wasn’t very practical and I always had problems,” says Ms. Azwai, who bought the “skate” and “outdoors” models online. “The fabric and style is very modern, it totally suits my style – it goes well with my sports clothes, with brands like Nike, Adidas and Pineapple.” Van den Bremen’s business expansion plans include increasing production of the four current lines to keep up with demand as well as new lines of “breathable” capsters for tropical climates. She also has designs on promoting intercultural dialogue. She recently teamed with Dutch Iranian photographer Giti Entezami to produce Sharing Motives, a book featuring 25 Dutch women in a variety of hijabs. The duo has since expanded their project to an exhibition – currently on display at the University of Utrecht – accompanied by a series of lectures and debates. More than a year after Van Gogh’s killing sparked a violent anti-Muslim backlash, experts say a pressing need for intercultural dialogue remains in the Netherlands. A recent Pew Global Attitudes study found the Netherlands to be the only Western country where a majority of the population – 51 percent – views Muslims unfavorably. Amid a recent slew of immigration tightening measures, beefed-up citizenship tests and controversial antiterrorism programs inviting citizens to report “suspect people,” Muslim community leaders say a proposed ban on the burqa – an all-enveloping Islamic covering for women – is yet another shot in the Netherlands’ rising Islamophobia. “There are two sets of standards in this country,” says Famille Arslan, a prominent Dutch Muslim lawyer. “One is for Muslims and another for non-Muslims. This law not only discriminates against religion and gender, it also threatens to further polarize the people.” In December, the Dutch parliament approved a ban on the burqa and other Islamic veils that cover the face in all public places. The measure – which was introduced by conservative politician Geert Wilders – is currently awaiting approval from a commission examining the legality of such a ban under European human rights laws. If passed, it would be one of the most restrictive responses to Islamic clothing in Europe. Defenders of the ban note that the measure does not apply to the head scarf (or capster), merely to Islamic garments that cover the face such as the burqa and the niqab, a facial veil with an opening for the eyes. Experts estimate that only about 50 to 100 women among Holland’s 1 million Muslims currently don such extensive veiling. Despite widespread criticism, Mr. Wilders is determined to push his initiative through the legal process. “I hope to succeed with my motion because I believe I have broad popular support,” he says in a phone interview. “Parliament has followed public opinion, but the government can act differently for political reasons.” Van den Bremen bemoans the lack of intercultural dialogue. “It seems like no one is discussing things with the girls. They always talk about the girls,” she says. “I was struck by how emancipated they were. They were demanding to be judged by their capacity, not their looks.”
The word “ethnic” is misused in the article below. We talk about metropolitan districts with large “ethnic communities”. The Guardian style guide says: “Neversay ethnic when you mean ethnic minority. It leads to such nonsense as the constituency has a small ethnic population.” Tony Blair’s hopes of patching up relations with the Muslim community have been dealt a fresh blow by a leading Islamic organisation which is urging its members not to vote Labour at next week’s European elections.