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British Airways Ban on Jewelry Ignites Religious Symbolism Debate

It would seem that a ban on Christians wearing the crucifix is likely to be lot less popular than a ban on Muslim women wearing the veil. A mature belief system is one that does not require that it be worn on the sleeve. As France has asserted, outward religious symbolism is counter-productive and hinders assimilation. However, the banning of religious symbolism ought to be done forthrightly and without exception, as France has done, not by making lame excuses as has been done in the case of Aishah Azmi. Understanding a woman speaking from behind a hijab can't be any harder than listening to the radio, which millions do everyday without a hitch.

Sunday Herald, Scotland, Oct. 15, 2006

Photo: Nadia Eweida

Photo: Aishah Azmi

First was the furore over the Muslim veil, now the Christian crucifix has become embroiled in the debate over freedom of religious expression.

A new front has opened up in Britain's religion-fuelled culture wars. Last week, it was the full-face veil worn by a minority of Muslim women in the U.K. which was in the vanguard of the increasingly heated debate; this weekend, it's Christians and their crucifixes.

Religious symbols have now become the proxies in this battle between hardliners and fundamentalists intent on defending their faiths. Last night, airport check-in worker Nadia Eweida, a Christian, declared that she was to sue her employer, British Airways (B.A.), as the airline had ruled that by showing her crucifix in public she was breaching rules and regulations about uniforms.

The row over religious symbolism has already led to intimidation and violence on the streets of Britain. Last week, a woman was racially abused in Liverpool and had a veil torn from her face. Jack Straw, the leader of the Commons who ignited the controversy in Britain by asking Muslim women to remove the full-face veil, says he 'prays that the perpetrator is caught and punished.'

An attack on a Glasgow imam on Friday has been blamed on Straw's speech. A white man verbally abused Imam Mohammed Samsuddin before punching and kicking the 53-year-old Bangladeshi, and hitting him with a chair and a safe deposit box after prayers at the Dawat ul Islam centre. A mosque in Falkirk was also set ablaze last week.

Khalid Rehman, a friend of the injured imam, said: 'A man came into the mosque holding some stones and asked the imam something along the lines of why Allah permits people to be punished with stones.' The assailant then attacked the cleric.

Solidarity M.S.P. Tommy Sheridan blamed the racially-motivated attack on Straw, saying: 'A concerted effort is under way at the heart of government to isolate and demonise Muslims.'

The Scottish spokesman of the Muslim Association of Britain, Osama Saeed, said: 'We've had a co-ordinated strategy on the part of the government to set an agenda that there are extremists throughout the Muslim community.'

Nadia Eweida's row with B.A. takes the religious war off at a new tangent. She claims that she was 'forced' to take unpaid leave when she refused to take off a small crucifix and chain.

B.A. insists its instruction was simply upholding their rule that all jewellery had to be worn beneath a uniform and the fact that the jewellery in question was a cross was irrelevant. B.A. went on to say that other articles with a religious connotation - such as turbans, hijabs or Sikh bracelets - could all be worn 'as it is not practical for staff to conceal them beneath their uniforms.'

Eweida had asked permission to wear the cross, but none was forthcoming. Last month she met with her line managers and was given a letter instructing her to go home. It read: 'You have been sent home because you have failed to comply with a reasonable request. You were asked to cover up or remove your cross and chain which you refused to do. British Airways uniform standards stipulate that adornments of any kind are not to be worn with the uniform.'

Eweida, who is from an Egyptian background, made it clear that she was ready for a fight to defend her religious freedoms.

Eweida, who attends Pentecostal and Arabic Christian churches, claimed she'd worn her crucifix 'on and off' during her employment with B.A.

'A cross is a cross. When you explain the reason [for wearing it] is your belief in the Lord Jesus Christ, that's the end of it. Muslims wear their hijabs.'

B.A. insisted that Eweida hadn't been suspended from work and claimed she had chosen to take unpaid leave.

The controversy is still being investigated by B.A. and an appeal is to be heard this week. 'British Airways does recognise that uniformed employees may wish to wear jewellery including religious symbols,' an official said. 'Our uniform policy states that these items can be worn underneath the uniform. There is no ban.

'This rule applies for all jewellery and religious symbols on chains and is not specific to the Christian cross. Other items such as turbans, hijabs and bangles can be worn as it is not practical for staff to conceal them under their uniforms.'

Eweida's fight quickly spilled over into the political arena. Vince Cable, the deputy LibDem leader, backed Eweida, who is one of his constituents. Cable wrote to the airline's chief executive, Willie Walsh, asking for the matter to be resolved amicably, but the reply he received was both 'quite forceful' and 'bureaucratic nonsense,' the M.P. said.

Cable described the cross as 'very modest. It is not something you would notice. She was not trying to be provocative at all and she was going through the proper channels . . . I think she probably has no choice but to go to law.' The Transport and General Workers Union is also supporting Eweida.

Tory M.P. Ann Widdecombe weighed into the fight, warning B.A. that it could face a loss of profits over its behaviour. 'We do have a comeback when we're dealing with commercial companies like B.A. because we do not have do deal with them.'

Widdecombe described the situation as 'absolutely crazy,' and said that Christians who were 'suffering' should 'resist,' adding: 'It is we who are being persecuted,' she said.

The cross has also caused controversy over at the B.B.C. where it's been reported that executives are considering banning newsreader Fiona Bruce from wearing a crucifix because of its religious affiliation. Fiona Phillips from G.M.T.V. said: 'Most days this week I wore a cross around my neck when I presented G.M.T.V. No-one complained. And, if they did, I'd tell them where to stick their religious fervour . . . Crosses are on sale in every jewellery shop in the land. I suspect few buy them to express Christianity.'

The cross didn't entirely obscure the row over the veil, however. With Eweida in the Christian corner; Aishah Azmi, a bilingual Muslim teaching assistant at Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, appeared for Islam in a follow-up round in the culture clash.

Azmi was suspended for wearing her veil in class. The school claimed her pupils found it hard to understand her during English language lessons. Azmi, however, claims it was never a problem for her pupils and they never complained. The 24-year-old said she had been willing to take the veil off in class, but not in front of male colleagues. Azmi has been suspended pending the outcome of an employment tribunal, due to make its decision in a few weeks.

She said: 'I prefer [to work] with a female teacher, but if that's not possible I can't take [the veil] off in front of a male colleague.'

Kirklees Council said Azmi had been asked to take off the veil but had refused. A spokesman said it was 'nothing to do with her religion' but an issue to do with her making herself understood.

'Both pupils and teachers raised concerns because they were finding it difficult to make out what she was saying during lessons. We have a lot of pupils who do not speak English as a first language and you have to be able to see people's lips move when you are being taught. We asked this young lady to remove her veil when she was teaching English, but she refused.'

Azmi said she had a 'brilliant' relationship with her pupils and disputed the school's version of events. 'The veil is really important to all Muslim women who choose to wear it,' she said, claiming that the Islamic faith 'compels us to wear it because it is in the Koran.'

There is, however, much dispute amongst Islamic scholars over whether or not the Koran actually does dictate the wearing of the full-face veil. The contentious passage reads: 'Tell the faithful women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their scarf to cover their bosom.' Many liberal muslim women object to the wearing of the niqab - the full-face veil - as a symbol of misogyny.

Dewsbury M.P. Shahid Malik has supported the school's approach to Azmi. 'In schools the top priority has got to be the education of our children. I fully support the decision of the education authority.

'I believe the education authority has bent over backwards to be accommodating and has been extremely reasonable and sensible in its decision. There is no religious obligation whatsoever for Muslim women to cover themselves up in front of primary school children.'

Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, threw his hat into the ring too, saying he'd like to see Muslim women stop wearing the veil. 'Getting Muslim women to give up the veil - which I suspect is something most people would like to see in the long term, including myself - is not going to be done by old white male politicians telling them to do it. It will be change from within. That is why it's important we should engage with the progressive elements and leaders in the Muslim community.'

Livingstone distanced himself from Straw's position: one of asking women in an M.P.'s constituency surgery to remove the veil. Livingstone said: 'Straw’s remarks are, in fact, a situation with elements of coercion - 'you have come to discuss concerns about your safety, would you like to remove your veil?' '

Although Jack Straw was applauded outside Blackburn town hall when he met constituents on Friday for the first time since he ignited the debate, one protester shouted: 'You are a racist, Straw.' Blackburn is 30% Muslim.

Straw, who met with local councillors and mosque representatives, said he was surprised by the controversy whipped up by his comments, adding: 'I stand by my remarks and see no reason to apologise for them. This is a free and democratic country.' Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have both backed Straw's right to raise the debate - as has Trevor Phillips, the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality.

The Islamic Human Rights Commission, however, called Straw 'selectively discriminating,' and yesterday about 60 people demonstrated outside his Blackburn office. Protesters chanted: 'The veil is freedom! The veil is liberation! The veil is choice!'

Straw claims that women in veils have told him 'you're absolutely right to ask the question for the veil to be removed.' The debate sparked by Straw has also focused on whether some Muslim women are forced to wear the veil by conservative male relatives.

One Blackburn woman who wears a veil, Asma Patel, a nursery nurse, said Straw had 'betrayed Muslims.' She added: 'People are now staring at me in the street and making remarks. Last Friday, I was in the market when a man said 'you won't be keeping that veil on for long.' This didn't happen before.'