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«With the hijab Islamists are marking their territory»

| Helene Aecherli | Blog
«With the hijab Islamists are marking their territory»

«Wherever Islamists become active, they start by targeting women», says renowned Yemeni-Swiss political scientist Elham Manea. In her new book, she asks societies and policy makers to remain focused and address the challenges of non-violent Islamism. We discussed the dangers of non-violent Islamism, the burqa ban, the failings of Western feminists and how Sweden was infiltrated by Islamist ideology.

Elham Manea, let me quote a statement from your book. You say that looking only at ISIS, Al Qaeda or Boko Haram is like taking a snapshot through the eye of a needle, while the rest of the picture is safely ignored. That is confusing: We invest billions in the fight against these terrorist groups and you say they aren’t even the main problem. Why not?
Elham Manea: Because if we focus on the terror we tend to overlook the entire spectrum of radicalisation that might lead to violence. Violence here is the end product, but not the main issue. We are very comfortable with the idea of a lone attacker, of someone who was radicalised on the Internet - and with that we are avoiding thinking about the ideological context that lies beneath the process of radicalisation.

This ideological context is determined by the teachings of non-violent Islamism, as you call it. What exactly is «non-violent» Islamism?
If we look at Islamism we talk about two forms. One is the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, Salafism, for example, or the South Asian Deobandi. The other is a political ideology which is based on this fundamentalist interpretation. Here we see the Muslim Brotherhood come into play, or the Turkish Milli Görus or the South Asian Jamaat-e-Islami. Islamism is a far-right religious movement that is shaped to the core by fundamentalist religious arguments.

How much is Islam part of the problem?
We have to be careful: Islam as a religion is not synonymous with Islamism. But I cannot say that religion is not part of the problem. Because there is a fundamentalist interpretation of that religion that is being used to justify and legitimise a worldview and at the same time to strive for worldwide domination, including violence. Islamism aims at establishing an Islamic State that is only based on the rules of God. 

This is basically identical with what ISIS aimed for with its utopia of a caliphate. 
Of course. The idea of the Caliphate wasn’t invented by ISIS, it’s deeply rooted in the Islamist worldview.

But let’s get the complete picture here: How strong are Islamists really?
This is a very good question. In countries where they were allowed to participate in elections, like in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey or Malaysia, they reach up to 50 percent of the vote. However, if you look more closely, you realise that the real success of the Islamists is the mainstreaming of their ideas. Their concept of Shari’a and their world view of victimhood have been firmly established in the West. During my research in Muslim communities in Britain I saw how Islamists worked systematically with youth till they got to a point where they were able to get rid of all the other different readings of religion and world views of Islam. A similar pattern I saw in Belgium as well. They make sure that these kids are reading the works of Islamist ideologists, nothing else. And with that they are changing a generation. According to surveys in British Muslim communities young people of Muslim descent are actually more fundamentalist than their parents. 

The political elites, being very much interested in their political survival, rely on Islamists to provide them with legitimacy

You say that Islamism as a political ideology is spreading like a virus - be it in South Asia, South Africa, in Arabic countries as well as in Europe. Why is it so successful? 
Well, any virus needs a hospitable environment.  First of all, Islamists have a transnational network and an incredible amount of financial resources. Qatar and Kuwait are the main carriers when it comes to financing Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi activities worldwide. Saudi Arabia still is an important player, but contrary to Qatar, where government as well as private donors are involved in sponsoring Islamist activities, there are mainly private donors in Saudi Arabia. Apart from that, in Arab and Islamic states like Malaysia and Indonesia you see a kind of marriage between political elites and Islamists. Islamists know how to play the political game. And the political elites, being very much interested in their political survival, rely on Islamists to provide them with legitimacy. In return, the political elites will open to them the media, the mosques, the madrassas, organisations working with kids—and most importantly, the curricula at schools. This all gives them the infrastructure to spread their teaching of Islam. And the Islamists are spreading their teaching systematically; you get pulled into their ideology step by step without noticing it. They work like a sect.

Shops that sell various kinds of chadors in Isfahan, Iran.  
Photo: Helene Aecherli

You were radicalised yourself at the age of sixteen in your hometown Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, even though you excelled at school, came from a liberal family and enjoyed personal freedom. How did that happen?
At that time there were a lot of Islamist groups in the Yemeni capital doing missionary work at schools, also at the high school where I was studying. One day a charismatic young woman asked me to join their meetings, and I went and listened to them. I did that because I was curious, and at the same time I was looking for my identity, wanted to belong somewhere. At first the group embraced me, their message was beautiful. It was about how God loves me and would erase all of my sins - if I became a real Muslim. I was told that this far I had practised a corrupt form of Islam, and they would show me the right way. I was required to live according to a fixed set of rituals: I got up in the middle of the night to pray, I entered the bathroom starting with my left foot; I read booklets and short stories about what I had to do in my life as a born-again Muslim. Everything was controlled. And then I started to wear the veil. I had never covered in my life, but then I complied and wore the veil.

You never questioned anything?
I had my doubts. They started when I was told that it was okay to kill unbelievers, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, because they live in ignorance. And it was disturbing to realize that music, philosophy, poetry and watching TV were forbidden. But I thought, this is what God wants and for a while I loved my new life. I had a structure, the group was like a family to me. It was as if I had fallen into a trance. All of that happened within six months. 

When I left the group that day, I knew I would never come back. And I took the veil off

What triggered your disillusionment?
When the leaders of the group started to use the Sira, the history of the life of Prophet Mohammed, to send their political messages. Among other things I was deeply disturbed by the way they emphasized how the companions of Mohammed were ready to renounce their parents, brothers, sisters and wives, even to kill them on the battlefield for their belief. In this was also a message to me about my father, because they realised that he was the one who was trying hard to convince me that they were a fundamentalist group.
The next red light came when I had a meeting with a female leader. She told us that we could enter heaven if we performed our religious duties and at the same time obeyed our husbands. To illustrate that, she also used a story from the Sira: A woman wanted to visit her sick father, but her husband said no. When she went anyway she was cursed by the angels. I was listening to that and asked myself: «What kind of a God are you talking about? Who is the monster here: A woman, who wants to visit her sick father, or the husband who wants to prevent her from doing that? And what kind of angels are there, who curse her and not him?» Something in me snapped. When I left the group that day, I knew I would never come back. And I took the veil off.

How far has your own belief been shaped by these experiences?
They have made me aware of the fight that is going on to win the heart and soul of Islam. They made me aware of the mainstreaming of Islamism which has radicalised Islam in many countries, with devastating consequences for its people, above all for women. Wherever Islamists become active they start by aiming at women. They strive for control over their bodies, their sexuality, their social behaviour.

But this, per se, isn’t exclusive to Islamists. The control over women and their bodies is fundamental to any patriarchal society.
That’s correct. But with fundamentalism you have a religious legitimation for it.  A striking example is the religiously-based justification for female genital mutilation, FGM. The Irish Muslim Brotherhood (IMB) has started to argue that a form of FGM is similar to male circumcision. They base it on religious arguments by fundamentalist Sunni groups, even though FGM is prohibited worldwide and mainstream Muslim theologians take a clear stand against all forms of FGM. Just recently the Islamische Zentralrat Schweiz (IZRS) came up with the same line of argumentation as the IMB in favour of FGM. This propaganda is dangerous as a religious legitimation could exert pressure on religious believers. The easiest, most visible and most successful means of control, however, is the hijab, the Islamic veil. With this Islamists are marking their territory.

Young women on the Nile in Cairo.
Photo: Helene Aecherli

The hijab started to be mainstreamed by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood about 40 years ago. How did they do it?
They actually used a very smart marketing strategy: At the beginning of the 70s a high official of the Muslim Brotherhood visited the medical school of the University of Cairo and saw that only few women were covering their hair. What to do? The Muslim Brothers made a deal with textile factories to produce hijabs at a very low price. Then they distributed booklets that tell women what happens to them if they don’t cover: They will end up burning in hell as their bodies are the source of all sin. Interestingly enough the Koran never mentions any dress code for women; nevertheless the Islamists successfully implanted fear and feelings of religious guilt in women. Five years later one third of the female students were covered.

The niqab, the face veil, surfaced just a few years later. Is there a similar marketing strategy behind it?
You could put it that way. At the end of the 70s the Arab world was shattered by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the occupation of Mecca by Salafi preacher Juhayman al-Otaybi. The Saudi authorities, insecure in the face of the upheavals around them, decided to spread their own brand of Salafi Islam, the one that was married with the Muslim Brotherhood ideology. This is called Sahwa, religious awakening. It underlined Saudi Arabia’s status as the real representative of Islam and was instrumental in supporting Afghanistan and combating Khomeini, who called the Saudis «cronies of the West». As a symbol of this religious awakening they started to use the niqab. The niqab had been part of the clothing tradition in Najdi, a central region of Saudi Arabia, but never in the whole country. Now it had become a political tool.

The Muslim Brothers made a deal with textile factories to produce hijabs at a very low price. Then they distributed booklets that tell women what happens to them if they don’t cover: They will end up burning in hell as their bodies are the source of all sin

Just recently, the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, stated that niqab and abaya, the long black gown women had to wear, are no longer mandatory. How much will this change the symbolism of the niqab as a political tool?
I think the most important message that one can take from the Crown Prince is his clear acknowledgment that the type of Islam they have been exporting to the world is a fundamentalist and extremist reading of religion. These social liberalization measures, including the end of the driving ban for women, were necessary for the kingdom to survive economically, now that all can see that the religious patriarchal order is not sustainable. To ensure these measures would succeed, the government turned its back, yet again, on the politicized form of Salafi Wahhabi Islam, which clearly challenged its ability to implement the new liberalisation measures. Still, this shift does not mean an end to Saudi support for its Salafi jihadi allies globally; just think of the Salafi militias the kingdom supports in Syria. 

There has been a wave of arrests of women’s rights activists and Saudi blogger Raif Badawi as well as other prisoners of conscience are still in prison. This almost cynically contradicts these social reforms. What's the bigger picture here?
Well, these social reforms do not mean that the kingdom will do away with its alliance with its trusted quietist and apolitical Wahhabi traditional establishment. In fact, this part of the Wahhabi establishment has yet again provided the fatwas necessary to smooth the way for the government’s social measures. For example, in September 2017, when the government announced the end of the driving ban, the very same Council of Senior Scholars that always said that women should be prohibited from driving cars, miraculously changed its position and issued a religious edict endorsing the government’s decision. In other words, the changes taking place in the kingdom will be limited in scope. Liberalization does not mean real social and religious reforms that will allow freedom of expression and religion, the end of male guardianship of women or meaningful political reforms that lead to good governance or accountability.

You define hijab and niqab as the current expression of a totalitarian, fundamentalist worldview. This however, doesn’t mean that all women who wear the veil today adhere to this world view.
Right. And this is exactly the reason why the discussion is so complex. There are a lot of different reasons why women are wearing the headscarf: In Egypt I know women who wear the headscarf because it saves them money at the hairdresser. Then there are women who think that this is part of their religious identity. Others wear it as a form of political protest. But the majority of women and girls are forced by their clan or family to wear it and are often harassed and face psychological and physical abuse when they decide to take it off. Many of these girls suffer silently because of that. In many places the peer pressure at school is immense. Girls are told that they should not follow the example of ‘non-believers’ and those who don’t wear hijab aren’t good Muslims. 

In Switzerland there are discussions about a ban on the headscarf at kindergarten and schools; Austria recently introduced such as ban. What do you think of that?
I support such a ban. Schools should be safe and neutral zones. Actually, I would even support a law that bans the veil at schools till the girls have reached full legal maturity. 

But what if a girl wants to wear the headscarf?
I am not ignoring the fact that there are women and girls who tell you they are wearing the headscarf out of their own choice. I respect that. But I have asked several young women:  «Would you have covered if you had been told that you would be loved and would not burn in hell, if you don’t wear the veil?» And the answer was always: No. A ban on the headscarf at schools would give young women the time and space they need to build their personality and to gain enough knowledge to resist the pressure of having to cover.

I am not ignoring the fact that there are women and girls who tell you they are wearing the headscarf out of their own choice. I respect that

Some people argue that focusing on the Islamic headscarf is one-sided, as orthodox Jewish women also cover their hair. What is your take on that?
Well, any religious fundamentalism aims at constraining women’s rights. However, unlike orthodox Judaism and also unlike Christian sects, political Islam is an ideology that strives for global power. And within this claim for global dominance the control of women is one of its main strategies. We have to keep this in mind.

Western feminists tend to defend the right of a woman to wear the headscarf, but turn against those women who insist on their right to take the veil off or not to cover at all. This seems to be a paradox. How do you explain that?
I guess it’s a combination of a protective instinct and a reduced concept of humankind. It’s an essentialist prism that is shaped by cultural relativism, by the inability to look at these women as individuals rather than as members of a religious group. In this view people would first see me solely as a Muslim woman, and then, maybe, as an academic and a human rights activist. And as a Muslim woman I have to be religious, and pray and wear a headscarf. This view is actually similar to that of the far right that might see me, as a Muslim, as a potential terrorist. But while the far right is motivated by hate and fear, these feminists are driven by an urge to protect.

The «white man’s burden» is the urge for redemption, which motivates people to be especially tolerant towards those they see as having been exploited and disadvantaged by the West

Where does this urge to protect stem from?
From a strong sense of responsibility and justice towards minorities. These people feel guilty and responsible because of the colonial past of the West and its policies that they view as imperialistic. I frame this as the «white man’s burden»: It’s the urge for redemption, which motivates people to be especially tolerant towards those they see as having been exploited and disadvantaged by the West.

Which is actually a noble attitude.
Sure, but only at first. If you look at it more closely you realise that it’s a naïve, and above all, a racist attitude. Because it turns entire groups, in our case «the Muslims», into victims that have to be protected and at the same time denies them any personal responsibility. Not only feminists fall into this trap, but also left-wing intellectuals as well as left-wing and liberal politicians. This makes them incapable of talking about problems that are related to the «protected» group as they are afraid of stigmatising them. I’ll give you an example. When Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud pointedly alluded in a column to the cultural background of the assailants in the Cologne attacks against women, 19 French academics attempted to silence him. They had the audacity to call him islamophobic - fitting, he put it, in «their Western capitals and their café terraces, where comfort and security reign». The crucial issue here is that in doing so leftist intellectuals actually help far-right groups that don’t shy away from voicing such subjects in society.

You argue in your book that their urge to protect led both left-wing politicians and feminists to risk unwillingly aligning with Islamists. Why is that? 
Because they think that Islamists are the authentic voices of Muslim communities. Islamists know exactly how to nurse the concepts of what a Muslim must be: devout, hijab-wearing, stigmatised by the West, demonised by right-wing parties. That’s why leftists tend to support what Islamists ask for - religious curricula at schools, gender-segregated classes or places to pray in public spaces - even though religion is considered a private matter in the West. In doing so they claim they live up to the demands of ALL Muslims. We have seen what happened with Social Democrats and Greens in Sweden who were working hand in hand with Islamists. And these are the parties that were supposed to be for the separation of the state and religion, for humanist values, for freedom of religion and gender rights.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

As your research shows, Sweden has been heavily infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. What were the circumstances that allowed that to happen?
Well, as I always say: «The road to hell is paved with good intentions.» It started in the 90s with the political crisis of the Socialist Party. The Social Democrats had lost huge numbers of members because the automatic membership of the unions was ended. They wanted a new pool of voters, so they aimed at migrants. But instead of attracting them on the basis of their status as migrants and citizens of their own countries they aimed at religion as they saw religious groups as the new proletariat. A Christian group within the socialist party was assigned the mission to start a dialogue with Muslims in Sweden. So, what’s the bigger picture here? You have a party that is looking for new voters and you have Islamists who are the most vocal and the best organised groups in the country. They had actually contacted the socialists and the Green Party to start a dialogue. And the socialists jumped on that wagon.

Why didn’t the Muslim Brotherhood, as a deeply conservative movement, aim at right-wing parties?
I assume that the Social Democrats and the Green Party were more open to foreigners. Actually, one person, who was a member of the Christian Group but was not among those who initiated that dialogue, told me that at that time they thought they were engaging with representatives of the Muslim civil society. They didn’t see them as extremists. They believed this is Islam and that’s what Muslims want, so they supported their demands. But most importantly: They trained members of the Muslim Brotherhood how to integrate into the political system. While researching this issue I found an article in Arabic that talked about the story of the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the elections in Sweden. 

The Social Democrats in Sweden trained members of the Muslim Brotherhood how to integrate into the political system

So, the Muslim Brothers in Sweden became Social Democrats? This sounds almost ironic.
Yes.  And they became members of the Greens. What happened then was that when their demands were approved - for gender-segregated classes at schools, religious curriculums and private schools, so called «friskolor» - it eventually led to closed communities, which has drastic consequences. A member of the Swedish parliament told me that she tried to organise discussions about women’s issues within Muslim communities. But she found out that such meetings had to be organised and controlled by representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood in the area; if not, they would come and disrupt the meetings. She even had to call the police once to stop the disruptions.

What happened then?
My Interviewee went to the leadership of the Social Democrats and said, «We have a problem! We can’t let this happen.» The Islamists immediately started a campaign against her, calling her islamophobic. She got death threats, had to hide and in the end she had to leave the party. But she said the hardest part was the silence from those within the Socialist Party who knew that she wasn’t inventing what she was talking about but were afraid to speak up. Even today people in Sweden are afraid to address these problems and the control of Islamists because of the machinery that leads to accusations of islamophobia and the compliance of a certain part of the political elite. 

But now Sweden has woken up.
To an extent, yes. The Social Democrats had to get rid of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who had used the party as a Trojan Horse. But still it isn’t really clear how to deal with it.

What do you suggest that policy makers have to do to avoid falling into the trap of aligning with Islamist groups?
They need to have the courage to take the necessary policies to address non-violent Islamism. They should work with citizens, not with members of religious groups. There is a huge diversity within the communities. This source has to be tapped and used.

The women in Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are an inspiration. They are at the forefront of defying fundamentalism in their societies

You say that societies have to deal with Islamic fundamentalism as they have to deal with any kind of fundamentalism. And to be able to do that they need a language that tackles the issue in a differentiated way.
Yes. We need a language across political boundaries that is frank but differentiated, a language that stops reducing people to their religious identity, a language that doesn’t shy away from articulating problems. This would first of all need to make sure that we don’t end up in a «we-against-Muslims»-kind of discourse. If you do that you not only raise suspicion against the entire Muslim community, lumping them into one group, ignoring their diversity in the process. In fact, labelling someone in a certain way might also tempt this person to search for a religious identity. This is dangerous because often the ones who are now in control of the religious discourse belong to a segment of religious preachers who are spreading a radicalised form of Islam.

In a lot of countries the so called burqa ban is a political priority. What do you think of that?
Well, for me a ban on the burqa is a political symbol. France has banned it. Did it solve the problems in the banlieus? No. Focussing on the burqa distracts from dealing with the ideology that lies beyond it. Thus I would prefer to see a national regulation that states that seeing the face of a human being is part of the communication process in our societies, that this is a humanist, universal kind of perspective, not just Western values.

On a scale from zero to ten, how optimistic are you when you look at the world?
Let’s say six. I don’t look at Western feminists for inspiration any longer. They can offer me none. But those who are leading the way are women in Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They are an inspiration. They are at the forefront of defying fundamentalism in their societies. They resist the most horrible type of control that is religiously sanctioned and has the whole state apparatus fixed on breaking their wings. And nevertheless they try to fly.

On the Nile in Cairo.

On the Nile in Cairo.
Photo: Helene Aecherli

This interview was first published in a shorter form under the title Das Kopftuch ist Marketing der Islamisten in the magazine annabelle and on

The English text was edited by Helen Snively, Boston.

Elham Manea (52) is associate professor of politics at the University of Zürich, writer, human rights activist and one of the most renowned critics of political and fundamentalist Islam. 

– Elham Manea: Der alltägliche Islamismus. Terror beginnt, wo wir ihn zulassen. Kösel-Verlag, München 2018, 288 S., ca. 28 Fr.