SHE may have been covered in black from head to toe, but there was no disguising Aishah Azmi’s mood this week as she denounced those who would dare to challenge her right to wear a veil in the classroom.
At a press conference in a smart Leeds hotel after an employment tribunal’s rejection of her discrimination claim against the junior school that had suspended her, Mrs Azmi, 24, was flanked by a team of lawyers as she faced journalists and cameras.
She spoke confidently and assertively, attacking Tony Blair, pledging to continue her fight for justice and pleading the cause of fellow Muslim women who were being “treated as outcasts” across Britain.
The storm over Mrs Azmi’s veil is merely the latest in a series of incidents during the past 18 months, including suicide bombers and terrorist arrests, that have turned an uncomfortable spotlight on the Muslim community of Dewsbury, West Yorkshire.
It comprises a small number of terraced streets, schools and mosques on the edge of Saville Town, which lies in a loop of the River Calder to the south of the town centre.
Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the July 7 terrorist attack on London, lived here with his wife, Hasina Patel.
The Times has learnt that Ms Patel, 29, worked at the same Church of England junior school, Headfield, as Mrs Azmi.
Khan, 30, had links to the town’s largest mosque, the Markazi, which is the European headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat, a global Islamic missionary movement.
Several of the suspects arrested in August over the alleged plot to blow up transatlantic airliners had attended meetings of Tablighi Jamaat, which French intelligence has labelled an “antechamber of fundamentalism”. The FBI says it is a fertile breeding ground for al-Qaeda.
Mrs Azmi’s father, Dr Muhammed Mulk, was named by Ofsted inspectors as the joint headmaster of an international Islamic seminary that is attached to the mosque. One of its students was Shehzad Tanweer, another of the July 7 bombers. In an unrelated matter, a 16-year-old Muslim schoolboy, who lived a couple of streets from the mosque, was arrested at his school in June and has been charged under the Terrorism Act with conspiracy to murder.
Are these merely a series of unhappy coincidences, or do they point to a small community that is somehow nourishing and nurturing a belief system containing a deep-rooted hostility towards the West? Asians account for 24 per cent of Dewsbury’s 53,500 population. But Saville Town, home to 5,000 people, is 88 per cent Asian, almost all of them Muslims with their roots in Pakistan or Gujarat, in India.
Between 1991 and 2001, the white population of Dewsbury fell by 2 per cent. During the same period, the Indian population rose by 25 per cent and the Pakistani community by 60 per cent. And as each year passes, Saville Town moves closer to becoming an exclusively Islamic enclave. It is possible here for a Muslim child to grow up — in the family home, at school and in the mosque and madrassa — without coming into any contact with Western lifestyles, opinions or values.
Some local imams see this self-imposed apartheid as not merely beneficial, but essential. Only by removing the corrosive and corrupting influence of the kuffar (unbelievers’) culture can young Muslims be shown the purity of true Islam.
One such scholar is the Dewsbury mufti Zubair Dudha. A gentle, polite and softly spoken man, he tells parents that allowing their children to mix with non-Muslims is an evil that is “bringing ruin to the holy moral fabric of Muslim society”.Such views send a message of cultural isolationism and, argue critics, speed the creation of a closed society that turns its back on the host country. It is multiculturalism positioning itself as the polar opposite of integration.
In Dewsbury the mistrust has become mutual. There has been no sign here of the race riots that afflicted other industrial northern towns, but it was in this constituency that the British National Party recorded its highest vote in the country in the general election last year.
The race-haters of the Right are led by Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, who has denounced Islam as “a wicked, vicious faith”. His poisonous words belong to a different country from the hesitant expressions of doubt that are being increasingly voiced by mainstream British politicians about the introverted, isolated direction in which some would wish to take Islam.
Its roots can be traced to the dusty town of Deoband, in northern India, home of a famous Islamic seminary, Darul Uloom, founded in 1866. Its graduates today run thousands of mosques and 30,000 madrassas across the world.
Twenty years ago, the majority of British Muslims and mosques were Barelwi, a brand of Sunni Islam that flourished in rural areas of India and Pakistan. Barelwis have a strong musical and dance tradition, enjoy many festivals, believe in mysticism and the intercession of saints and are traditionally regarded as moderate in their political outlook.
The Deobandis, by contrast, preach an uncompromisingly fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam. They are credited with moving adherents in a direction that is increasingly conservative and intolerant.
Salman Rushdie blames the scholars of Deoband for teaching “the most fundamentalist, narrow, puritan, rigid, oppressive version of Islam that exists anywhere in the world today”. At one extreme, this back-to-basics movement was partly responsible for the Taleban, whose leaders were educated at Deobandi seminaries on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Elsewhere, the Deobandi message tends to focus on individual regeneration. Its leaders, while eager to issue fatwas, are avowedly opposed to violence and terrorism.
Each decade that passes in Britain sees fewer Barelwi mosques and more Deobandi institutions. Deobandis, according to one experienced observer, are now the majority Muslim grouping in Bury, Bolton, Blackburn, Rochdale, Manchester and Glasgow and have a growing presence in Bradford and Birmingham.
In Dewsbury, they — with Zubair Dudha among their number — are the dominant Islamic voice and run most of the town’s mosques. Tablighi Jamaat, nevertheless, was founded in 1926 by a Deoband scholar, Mawlana Muhammed Ilyas, and is seen as an intensified version of the Deobandi commitment to reshaping individual lives by following the example and lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad.
Deobandis and the disciples of Tablighi Jamaat are outraged when Western observers and intelligence agencies link them to terrorism.
Shabbir Daji, a trustee and secretary of both the Markazi mosque and its seminary, the Islamic Institute of Education, pleaded with The Times yesterday to emphasise that Tablighi Jamaat’s aim was “unity among all humanity”.
He insisted that Mrs Azmi’s father no longer taught at the seminary and said that she had been wrong — “that’s not Islam” — to insist on wearing the veil in the classroom. “We are not turning our backs on you. We are trying to live in peace and unity,” he said.
He should perhaps share his views with his Deobandi brother, who believes that “the logical consequences of such evil exposure is moral ruin, scepticism, atheism and delinquency”. From all that has happened in the past 18 months, it ought to be possible for both Muslims and non-Muslims to find common ground on at least one issue.
At first mention, it may sound sinister to suggest an educational link between Mrs Azmi and the wife of the leader of the July 7 atrocities, but Hasina Patel had left Headfield long before Mrs Azmi arrived.
Mrs Patel, a Gujarati, was regarded as moderate in her views and did not wear the veil. The mother of one was four months pregnant when Khan entered a London Underground train and blew himself up. She had a miscarriage within days. Intelligence experts do not believe that Mrs Patel knew what her husband was planning. She and her mother fled to a safe house after the bombings and are still living in hiding.
The Patels deserve to be listed among the victims of 7/7. It would be interesting to learn their views on Mrs Azmi’s strident portrayal of herself as an injured, innocent outcast. They know what that really feels like.