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Interview: Khola Hasan, law consultant, writer and broadcaster

02 February 2011

My brother is a scientist who recently gave a lecture in London suggesting that the theory of evolution is compatible with the Qur’anic story of creation. He was expecting outrage, but certainly not a death sentence.

Some extremists here informed some Saudi scholars, who have just issued a fatwa, calling him an apostate who deserves to die. I had to speak with the police regarding his personal safety, as well as issues regarding incitement to violence. It has been a hard week, but I pray that it will get better.

I have a background in human rights and Islamic law, particularly in women’s rights. I run Albatross Consultancy — anyone can call me for legal advice in this area, and I give a lot of lectures in mosques, univer­sities, and community halls.

I studied law, but I didn’t want to be a practising lawyer — I have stayed an academic lawyer. I’ve just had a couple of local councils asking my advice on issues such as preventing ter­ror­ism, forced marriages, and marital issues.

There was a lot of open racism when I was growing up in the ’80s. It was perfectly acceptable to call someone “dirty paki”, “nigger”, and so on. We were viewed as foreigners: our parents were foreigners, but we hoped we’d become seen as British. My parents kept a low profile, feeling that we were guests here, but my generation — we’re not guests.

We thought things could only get better. Some have. The anti-discrim­ination laws are very new. But over the past 20 years, and especially since 9/11, Islam has been connected with violence and backwardness, and Islamophobic comments are perfectly OK.

There are open acts of control: the American priest who burns the Qur’an was not allowed to come here. But there are very subtle mes­sages in the media. Many people compare it to the way anti-Semitism grew up in Germany, subtly, till we can say what we like.

I live in Redbridge, where a BNP councillor was elected last year. Yes, there is a sense of fear, but the BNP is so overtly Islamophobic, stupid, and racist that the threat is much less than from the front page of the Daily Mail. If a Muslim does something bad, it is printed on the front page, written in good language, with a picture of a woman in a veil, and the fact that the person is a Muslim carefully pointed out. There is this sense now that Muslims are unwelcome anywhere you go.

I’m not a fan of faith schools, but huge numbers of Muslim schools are mushrooming, because parents are worried that their children will be treated like second-class citizens in mainstream education.

I am the oldest of six children. It was a very noisy home and a very happy one. We all grew up to do different things — one is a doctor, another a pilot, another a scientist. . . People thought I was very quiet. I had to help my mum a lot (it was before the invention of the dishwasher).

My parents were the greatest influence on my life. My family was originally from India, but my grandfather was a lecturer in Saudi Arabia, where my father was a student. I was born in Kenya, but we moved to north London when I was nine, and London is home.

I was 15 when I gave my first public lecture. My parents were both public speakers — in fact, my father still gives lectures. I could speak English more fluently than them, and people started to ask me my views. I did my first television interview with Joan Bakewell when I was 18 or 19, at the time of the Salman Rushdie affair, and I still do regular Radio 4 work, on things like Beyond Belief.

I always wanted to be writer — that’s what I am at heart. We went to Spain on holiday when I was 17, and I was gobsmacked to discover that Muslims had ruled Spain and Portugal — and not just ruled but civilised them, and the whole of Europe. When I published my book The Crumbling Minarets of Spain, a lot of Muslims started using it as a tour guide for their holidays. I’ve just published The Medical and Social Effects of Consan­guineous Marriages within the British Mirpuri Community, which was my MA thesis for the University of London, and hope they might give it a launch in February.

The spiritual requirements of Islam — praying five times a day, fasting, charity — are equally binding on women as well as men. The only difference is that there’s a huge requirement for men to pray in a mosque as often as possible. There’s never been this demand on women, partly because it’s difficult when you’re looking after children. You’ll see more women packing the mosques on Fridays and festivals.

I have to pray five times a day, but I don’t make a song and dance about it. If I’m in a meeting, I’ll have an eye on my watch, and in the lunch break, I’ll generally find a quiet spot and spend that personal, private time on my own. Often I find four or five other people there.

In terms of theological discussion, women played a great part, from the Prophet’s youngest wife onwards, and there were a great many women think­ers and teachers until more recently. Western society can be very re­pressive to women, and many women prefer to concentrate on family life.

I do wear the hijab. It’s the most obvious way I express my faith. The French government got it totally wrong: it’s not an overt public ex­ample of hostility and aggression, nor a uniform of cloning. In Islam, women must dress more modestly than men — no tight-fitting clothes, no skin showing. It’s to do with beauty — we shouldn’t have to flaunt it — and part of that is our hair. So I will make sure that the skirt and shirt I’m wearing is not see-through, and the sleeves are long, and I cover my hair.

Christians may wear a cross to show their allegiance to Christ, but we don’t wear a veil for the same reason — it’s just clothes. Asking a woman to remove her veil is like asking a man to take off his trousers. It’s about modesty.

Christians, Muslims, and Jews — we all share these rules. Westerners have a different system of modesty. In Victorian England you could dress in one way at home, but you had to wear a hat and gloves when you went out. It does not make you more or less of a good person, and we don’t see it as immodest on your part that you don’t wear a veil, as long as you are good and keep the rules of your own life.

There’s a debate in the Islamic community about whether you can look English. A lot of people think you have to wear Arabic clothes to be modest. I used to be in this camp, but now I’ve completely changed. I will wear skirts or trousers. Of course, with the scarf, I will never look totally European, but it’s not a political statement. France created a mockery out of it, and instead of celebrating the fact that huge numbers of young girls were comfortable with their Is­lamic identity as well as their Euro­pean one, they created resentment.

Free speech? It’s not Islam that needs to grow up — we have a very tolerant history. The Prophet, when he was alive, was often blasphemed, and he never punished anyone for it. It’s partly because people have a huge amount of love for the Prophet. If we make fun of God, he can defend himself; but the Prophet is not here to defend himself: it’s our duty as his followers to do that.

Muslims are tired of being mocked and abused. I saw the Danish cartoon about the Prophet. I didn’t feel particularly offended, but it wasn’t very good, either. I think Muslims feel that we’ve had enough. We don’t insult Moses or Jesus, because they’re our prophets, too. Leave our faith alone.

I’ve really enjoyed scriptural reason­ing at St Ethelburga’s, where we pick a topic and speak on it from the perspective of the three Abrahamic faiths. It’s sharing and learning from each other. I knew a lot about the prophet Abraham, but I learned a lot of Christian and Jewish nuances. I wish we could have more of this going on with our young people.

I have three sons and a daughter. We take it for granted that people will mock us for being Muslim, but it’s also hard to bring children up in a secular society where all religion and values are mocked.

My children used to watch American teenage channels, but I had to ban them because they show a lack of respect for teachers and parents, bad language, lots of encounters with the opposite sex, and a world where designer clothes are more important than working hard. So I spend a lot of time talking with my children — as all parents do.

My husband is a GP, head of a very large practice in east London. His faith is very private, but he shows in his daily interaction with people what Islam is all about, without ever preach­ing a word. He has sheer goodness.

My favourite chapter of the Qur’an is entitled “The Merciful”, in which God talks about what he has done for human beings, and the planet he’s created, and how we deny him. “I’ve taught you the art of speech, writing. . . given you beautiful fruit, trees, wildlife. . .” I just adore that chapter. It’s very rhythmic and makes me weep. We take the world for granted — but these are all miracles. Every blink of an eye is a gift.

I like old places, seeing traditional societies, buying fish freshly caught in the sea. We were so disappointed to go to a remote village in Scotland and find ourselves directed not to a little village shop but to Tesco. Spain is one of my favourite places.

I’m happiest at the weekends when my husband and children are at home, and we do something as a family — perhaps walk in the forest and listen to the birds.

I have a small pond in my garden, and I really enjoy saying my evening prayers there in the summer.

I’d like to be locked in a mosque with Salah ad-Din. He liberated Jerusalem and showed incredible compassion to the women and children, and also the men as well. He was a warrior, not a wimp — a man of great chivalry, and a man of God.

Khola Hasan was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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