Terrorism suspect Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed went on the run on Friday, having employed the banal – and not very original – subterfuge of donning a burqa as a disguise. Now the British public is asking [in Parliament and via the popular press] whether this trickery provides demonstrable proof that an anti-burqa law is necessary in the United Kingdom.
My experience of researching both women’s issues among Muslim women in Europe and counter-terrorism laws affecting Muslim communities in Britain tells me that an anti-burqa law would be ineffective and in fact counter-productive. It would go against this country’s usually principled attitude towards human rights and freedom of expression and would contribute to alienating and upsetting parts of the Muslim population, both in this country and abroad. In addition this would play well into the propaganda of terrorist groups arguing that “Muslims are mistreated and discriminated against” and should therefore distance themselves from the “evil infidels”.
On the other hand, increased “stop and search” tactics to find the suspect would probably be appropriate given these particular circumstances. And these searches, alas, will have to include innocent individuals who have chosen to wear burqas and niqabs. Obviously, there is no guarantee that Mohammad Ahmed kept his garb on after fleeing, but with the benefit of doubt the police has to do its job thoroughly and cannot leave paths unchartered.
Search not ban
It is sad and regrettable that decent women wearing integral veils out of religious conviction should bear the brunt of such a search, but it is important that we distinguish between stopping people with a full veil with the simple and harmless purpose asking for self-identification, from a law that is permanent and does the specific job of “banning” the burqa or the niqab.
The logic of the former is not that different from the search for a red car of a particular make if we knew that some criminals had fled into a car with those characteristics. The way of going about such a search can be consistent with normal practices common to law enforcement across the world. What I would recommend to the British police is to do their best to conduct these searches in a tactful and dignified manner in order not to traumatise people. A “burqa ban”, which I deem neither acceptable nor necessary, would result in the needless deprivation of personal freedom and would, frankly, be ineffective in preventing terror suspects from evading the authorities.
Crime stories and horror movies are full of examples of criminals dressing up as police, priests, doctors, old ladies and many other characters. Forbidding the use of burqas or similar dress styles will still leave plenty of alternatives for suspects to disguise themselves and go unnoticed.
What is troubling about this week’s events is the fear that observers and security officials could lose the focus of the problem, wasting time demonising a clothing item and the women that choose to adopt it, instead of addressing the real security issue. What we have seen this week and last December when another terrorism suspect disappeared is that the terror control and electronic tagging systems have many faults. Whether Mohammad Ahmed was wearing a veil or a pair of jeans is irrelevant because he left the mosque untraceable.
As far as I am aware a burqa or a niqab do not possess any magic powers. Whether a suspect is traceable or not depends on whether he or she is kept under close enough surveillance and, in this particular case, whether he was wearing an electronic device – and if so if it was working properly or not.
The question that has to be asked is not whether to ban the burqa – but whether the terrorism prevention and investigation measures (TPIMs), which are known as “control order lite” (and were brought in because the government deemed that control orders were too easily undermined in the courts) are not sufficient to keep these terror suspects properly under surveillance. It has even been suggested that the electronic tags may not be robust enough and too easily removed. But even supposing that they work properly, are the surveillance services in a position to reach promptly enough the location where a suspect disappeared and start a search immediately?
Last month three men were cleared of breaching their TPIMS after after the court found that the G4S-supplied electronic tags were not designed to cope with the Muslim regime of praying (thus kneeling) five times a day. So there is plenty of scope for improvement of the system that doesn’t include banning a form of clothing adopted entirely innocently by women.
It is astonishing how predictable and simple his flight strategy was on this occasion. Let’s not forget, another suspect, Yassin Omar, also put on a full veil when running away from London after his failed bombing attempt in July 2005. How is it possible that nobody anticipated this?