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VEILED THREAT October 18, 2006

Posted by wmmbb in Multiculturalism.
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for-your-eyes-only.jpg

Photo via ABC (Reuters)

The Koran apparently requires both men and women to dress modestly, which in the latter case is variously interpreted as requiring the wearing of veils. The dress requirements have varied according to country, culture and social class. For example in Turkey with the modernization of Ataturk, and in Iran under the Shah women were not permitted to wear veils in public.

Recently in Britain, some women have taken to wearing the niqah – the full veil that leaves only the eyes exposed. Jack Straw, former foreign secretary and now leader of the House of Commons declared he would not talk with women wearing the niqah. Then a young women assistant teacher was suspended from teaching at an Anglican School in Yorkshire for wearing the full head gear. The school authorities and the local government educational authorities claimed this attire showing only her eyes prevented her from doing her job. The matter is now before the court.

Then it seems, after beat ups in the newspapers, including a headline including the expression “veiled terrorists”, the prime minister, Blair go into the act with a sequence of Yes, But statements, which we are so pleasantly familiar with coming from the eloquent mouth of John Howard. For example, The Independent reported:

Tony Blair has said that the veil worn by many Muslim women in Britain is a “mark of separation” that makes people from other backgrounds feel uncomfortable.

The Prime Minister came off the fence in the heated debate over Muslim customs by urging them to integrate more fully into British society. His remarks confirmed a significant shift in the Government’s thinking amid fears that its support for multiculturalism may have encouraged the growth of “parallel lives” that never meet.

Al Jazeera quotes Blair as saying:

People want to know the Muslim community in particular, but actually all the minority communities, have got the balance right between integration and multi-culturalism. We need to conduct this debate in a sensitive way, but it needs to be conducted.

The lawyer representing Aishad Azmi, the teaching assistant, declared that the prime minister had through his comments interfered in the case and demanded retractions.

According to The Independent, a candidate for deputy leader of the Labor Party, Jim Cruddles argues that Ministers are playing “fast and loose” with religious tensions. He said:

“The solution does not lie in an ever more muscular bidding war among politicians to demonstrate who can be tougher on migrants, asylum-seekers and minorities. Nor is it in using racial or religious symbols to create controversy. That only makes the situation worse.

“It is not the role of politicians to play fast and loose with symbols of difference, especially when they drive the political centre of gravity to the right as a consequence.”

Jonathan Freedland, commentating in The Guardian observes:

The veil, for example, has found feminists among both its champions and critics, proving that it’s no straightforward matter. There should be nothing automatically anti-Muslim about raising the subject, not least since many Muslim women question the niqab themselves.

Similarly, Ruth Kelly was hardly out of line in suggesting, as she did last week, that the government needs to be careful about which Muslim groups it funds and with whom it engages, ensuring it leans towards those who are actively “tackling extremism”. Other things being equal, that was a perfectly sensible thing to say.

Except other things are not equal. Each one of these perfectly rational subjects, taken together, has created a perfectly irrational mood: a kind of drumbeat of hysteria in which both politicians and media have turned again and again on a single, small minority, first prodding them, then pounding them as if they represented the single biggest problem in national life.

And, of course, these matters, despite the pretense are not being considered in the cool light of day, for as Jonathan Freedland also observes:

In fact, the courageous politician would refuse to join this open season on Muslims and seek to cool things down – beginning with an explanation of how we got here. The elements include many of those that feature in any build-up of hostility to a single, derided group, here or across the world.

The foundation is fear. Many Britons have since 9/11, and especially since July 7, come to fear their Muslim neighbours: they worry that the young man next to them on the train might have more than an extra sweater in his backpack. Next comes ignorance, a simple lack of knowledge about Muslim life which leaves non-Muslims open to all kinds of misconceptions. That feeds into a simple discomfort, personified, in its most extreme form, by a woman whose face we cannot see.

From across the Atlantic, The New York Times takes a broader view including developments in other European countries, the reappraisal of British society following the London Bombings last year, the commitment to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The reason I find this issue relevant and important is that, I suspect that liberal democracy holds a distinction between the private regime and the public stage, where in my opinion Australia has demonstrated success in tolerance and acceptance of people with different backgrounds, which seems to be undermined by the insistence of the private symbolized by the niqah.

Update: 20 October 2006

The ABC reports that Mrs Azmi won her case for victimization, but lost her case for religious discrimination, which suggests that the court upheld the school’s contention that she could not teach with the niqah. Her statement presents a different side to the issue:

“Muslim women who wear the veil are not aliens and politicians need to recognise that what they say can have a very dangerous impact on the lives of the minorities they treat as outcasts,” she said.

“Integration requires people like me to be in the workplace so that people can see that we are not to be feared or mistrusted.

“Sadly, the intervention of ministers in my case … makes me fearful of the consequences for Muslim women in this country who want to work.”

The BBC report is here, in which it is claimed that children in the class could not hear what was said because of the veil.

Update: 25 October 2006

The LA Times carries this personal report of wearing the niqah in London.

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