THE Muslim teacher who insisted on wearing a veil in class has been following a fatwa issued personally to her by a Islamic cleric belonging to a hardline sect.
Aishah Azmi found herself in the middle of a national row about integration when she took her school to an employment tribunal after it suspended her for refusing to remove the veil in class.
Tony Blair joined the debate about the wearing of veils — opened by Jack Straw, the Commons leader — and supported the school’s actions.
Azmi, 24, has maintained that her decision to wear the veil was driven entirely by her personal beliefs, rather than the advice or instruction of a third party. But this weekend it emerged that she refused to take the veil off at school after receiving a fatwa, or religious ruling, from Mufti Yusuf Sacha, a Muslim cleric in West Yorkshire.
Her legal team revealed that the advice Sacha issued to Azmi ruled that it was obligatory for women to wear the niqab (face-veil) in the presence of men who were not their blood relatives.
Sacha is one of several hundred Islamic clerics in Britain with the status of mufti, entitling him to issue fatwas based on Islamic law. Although Muslims are expected to follow fatwas, they are not obliged to do so, particularly if they live in a non-Muslim state.
Nick Whittingham, manager at the Kirklees law centre, which defended Azmi, said she went to seek Sacha’s advice before starting a job as classroom assistant at Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in September 2005.
Whittingham said that Azmi, who had been wearing the niqab since the age of 15, asked Sacha whether women had a choice whether or not to wear the niqab. She was told it was obligatory, Whittingham said.
Azmi, who was employed as a bilingual support worker helping British Pakistani children learn English, was told to remove the veil because pupils found it difficult to understand her as they could not see her lips move.
In November 2005 the school sent her home on sick leave on the grounds that the strain of the dispute was causing her stress and depression. When Azmi returned to the school in February, she insisted on wearing the veil, prompting the school to suspend her on full pay.
During Azmi’s employment tribunal, Sacha was asked to give a written statement. He set out his reasons for insisting that the niqab was obligatory for women.
Whittingham said: “I know she went to Sacha for advice before starting the job. And at the tribunal Sacha also set out the religious position, which was accepted by both sides. It said that she is required to wear it in the presence of men who are not her blood relatives, or whom she can potentially marry.”
The tribunal ruled that Kirklees council — which runs the school — was within its rights to suspend her from work. But Azmi was awarded £1,100 on the grounds of victimisation.
Her legal team is planning to lodge an appeal against the tribunal decision, and is considering taking the case to the European Court of Justice.
This weekend Azmi declined to answer questions at her home in Dewsbury. Sacha, who lives in nearby Batley, also refused to comment on the extent of the influence he had on Azmi.
Sacha follows the teachings of the Tablighi Jamaat, a hardline Muslim group, elements of which are suspected by western intelligence agencies of having links with terrorism. The majority of Tablighis are, however, regarded as moderate.
A colleague of Sacha, who did not want to be named, said that the cleric teaches at the Tablighi mosque in Dewsbury, which has become the organisation’s European headquarters.
Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, two of the London bombers, are said to have been regular worshippers there.
Sacha’s ruling on the veil is disputed. Mufti Abdul Kadir Barkatullah, who is affiliated to the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “I am 100% sure that wearing the niqab is not obligatory on Muslim women — it is a matter of choice. It’s more about habit than religion. The Tablighis observe the niqab very strictly.”
Banned extremists regroup
TWO Muslim extremist groups banned after last year’s July 7 bombings have re-formed under a new name, writes Abul Taher.
Al Ghurabaa and the Saved Sect, splinter groups of the disbanded Al-Muhajiroun, now operate as Followers of Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah.
The group runs most of its activities through an internet forum, where one of the main contributors is Anjem Choudhury, the former British head of Al-Muhajiroun, who uses the pseudonym Abou Luqman. He often gives his mobile phone numbers to other members.
New users are allowed onto the website only if they are introduced by a member. A reporter who infiltrated the site found calls for violent holy war, declarations that the Queen is an enemy and recordings from Osama Bin Laden; Ayman al-Zawahiri, his deputy; and terrorists from Iraq.
It also contains dozens of voice recordings by Omar Bakri Mohammed, founder of Al-Muhajiroun, who was barred from returning to Britain after going to Lebanon on holiday last year. Bakri’s teachings are widely discussed in the forum.
Scotland Yard declined to comment.