Saturday, October 07, 2006
Straw's Request on Veil Legitimate
Jack Straw's initiative on Muslim veils can be viewed from a number of perspectives:
1. It was a bid for Middle England credibility with a view to his candidature for his party's Deputy Leadership. Several commentators discount this as not Jack's style, but the same observers tell us Jack seldom does or says anything without exhaustive planning and consideration. As with all politicians at this level, he is unlikely to have discounted the possible good his article in the Lancashire Telegraph might do for his career.
2. He is merely making a personal point. At one level this must be the case. He states a preference for Muslim women, who come to see him, not to wear the veil as it impedes effective communication. He does not state this as a condition of seeing them and he couches his request in the mildest and most polite of terms. Few would be deterred, should they wish it, from wearing the veil by such a mild mannered man. With over a quarter of Muslims in his Blackburn constituency, he would have been foolish to express himself in any other way; and his popularity with them was evidenced by his only slightly reduced majority in May 2005 despite the best efforts of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK to play on his close involvement with the war in Iraq. Given all these considerations such a motive is clearly legitimate in my view.Those who say he wouldn't ask orthodox Jews to eschew their yarmulkes or black attire miss the point; such things do not impede face to face communication.
3. He is also making, at least implicitly, a wider point about integration and separation of cultures. It is this third possibility which has excited criticism, some of which, a Martin Kettle points out, has sounded far less reasonable than Straw's own measured tone. This is a delicate matter, of course. Incoming cultures are entitled to retain their autonomy but they are also expected, as in the USA and many other countries, to make efforts to assimilate, to fit in. This means, at minimum it seems to me, making an effort to learn the language, acquiring some familiarity with the institutions and procedures of their new hosts as well as respecting their laws. I would never support a prescriptive approach on the wearing of veils(though we learn, incidentally from Kettle, that the Qur'an does not require a woman to wear the full veil), but if it was a question merely of desirability, I'd prefer this barrier to communication and understanding not to be there.
I wrote about this sometime ago on my blog but the issue of multiculturalism revolves around understanding exactly what's meant by the word itself. In so far as it refers to the actual experience of living in a society with people from a range of cultural backgrounds then it's unquestionably a good thing. Less homogeneity, more vibrancy and diversity, huge positive impacts on the arts - only those on the far-right would question this.
However, there is another strand to multiculturalism and that's one that exists as an active political ideology. It's proponents look to affirm the validity of all cultures as equal and embed the recognition of all cultural differences in the workings of the state. This relativistic viewpoint holds that all cultures are equal and anything which implies judgement on other cultures is essentially discriminatory and racist. This is dangerous nonsense.
Civic life in the UK has certain irreducible precepts - the sovereignty of the individual, freedom of speech, equality of the sexes / sexuality, the rule of law etc. Across the world there are other cultures which don't accept this - when people from such cultures settle in the UK we either accept their rejection of these norms as a valid cultural choice or we insist on their acceptance as part of the 'price' of being a UK citizen. To portray the latter route as racist or cultural imperialism is cr*p - if a West African family is demanding the right to perform genital mutilation on their teenage daughter that's not a 'valid cultural choice' - it's abuse. In short we can either value all people as equal or all cultures as equal - we cannot do both.
To be fair Jack Straw's comments on the niqab relate to far less lofty themes than these but they do touch on the question 'to what extent should immigrant communities try to fit it'? I'm with you Skipper in the sense that I'd be strongly opposed to any sort of compulsion but I'd much rather the niqab was a less common sight than it is.
That this country shows such restraint, against such a silly religion, says a lot for our tolerance.
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