Thanks to the Liberal Democrats there is an attempt to get Britain to emulate France and other European countries in imposing a ban on Muslim women wearing the niqab and the burqa. Liberal Democrat minister Jeremy Browne told the Daily Telegraph, that:
“There is genuine debate about whether girls should feel a compulsion to wear a veil. We should be very cautious about imposing religious conformity on a society which has always valued freedom of expression.”
His party leader leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, then pitched in, starting that he has concerns about Muslim women who wear the full-face veil in classrooms or going through airport security. As he spoke a judge in London ruled that a woman standing trial must remove her veil while giving evidence, but allowed her to wear it for the rest of the proceedings.
That was not enough for former Labour Home secretary, Jack Straw, who wanted it removed throughout. You’ll remember Straw complaining about the visits of veiled women to his constituency office as far back as 2006
Tory MPs were quick to rally round their partners in coalition. One, Philip Hollobone, has proposed a private member’s Bill that would make it an offence for a person to wear “a garment or other object” intended to obscure their face. He won the support of fellow Tory, Dr Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, she described the veil as “deeply offensive”. Her statement will only further alert people who believe that any ban on the burqa or the niqab will be quickly followed by a ban on the veil.
And of course all of this was supplemented by The Sun’s heinous front page ‘Unveiled’, that ’Demanded’ 4 ‘Vital Reforms’:
“BAN veils in schools, courts and hospitals. Ban them in airports, banks and secure areas. LET employer decide if OK in the workplace. BUT freedom to wear them in streets and parks.”
Like a lot of reactionary sloganising, a much more elaborate and defamatory narrative is stored in the few short words than is immediately disclosed. Where are veils dangerous? In schools – Muslims are dangerous to our children. In airports – they want to blow us up. In ‘secure areas’ – Muslims are a security risk. The bizarre last minute concession for the ‘freedom’ to wear the veil in streets and parks – so presumably it is admitted that the paper is campaigning to restrict Muslim’s freedoms.
Last week we saw a ban on students at Birmingham Metropolitan College, where 35,000 students study in the midst of one of Britain’s most multi-racial and multi-cultural cities, from wearing the niqab or burqa, lifted after a successful campaign spearheaded by Muslim women students.
Home Office minister Jeremy Browne claimed that we should not be “fearful” of opening a debate on this issue. He was trying to paint himself as a heroic free-thinker who was daring to stand up to the “politically correct” majority who dominate the media and politics.
In reality far from being a lone, heroic voice, he was joining in the constant, daily chorus of Islamophobia which has never been silent in the West since 9/11 and Washington’s declaration of a “war on terror.” Twelve years ago talk of a “clash of civilisations,” between the West and the Islamic world was on the fringe of mainstream discourse, restricted to the neo conservative gutter. Today it has entered the mainstream.
Islamophobia is not restricted to the English Defence League, the British National Party or the far right. Anti-Islamic statements, of a sort which would be regarded as completely unacceptable regarding any other faith, are acceptable within liberal, and even left wing, circles.
So liberal commentators parrot things such as Islam approves domestic violence or that it has acted to prevent the development of science and much else because it is a “feudal” religion. Let’s leave behind the fact that Islam rescued and developed science and so much knowledge when Christian Europe was mired in the feudal age. Lets ignore things written in the Old Testament regarding family violence and pass on so much else.
The point is that there is a campaign which has won official sanction across Europe to say that Islam is not part of European civilisation and is incompatible with it. We are supposed to forget that Islam has been part of European society from within a few short years of its birth.
When the French and other governments ban the veil and the Swiss vote in a referendum to ban the building of minarets they are saying that Muslims are not part of our society. That is the politics of exclusion and it is the starting point for the sort of politics which led to genocide.
We are nowhere near the horrors of Auschwitz but we are seeing attacks on mosques, Islamic schools and on Muslims identified by their dress or their beards which carry strong echoes of the anti-semitism which characterised inter-war Europe, not just in Germany. Anti-semitism was after all another of those “gifts” of European civilisation. Jews physically removed from Spain and Portugal were given refuge in Muslim lands.
The motor force of today’s Islamophobia is the constant “war on terror,” which underscores the need to combat this permanent war. Capitalism brings us together, in huge cities and in large workplaces, but it is brilliant at finding ways to divide us. That means there are always two competing elements.
Officially sanctioned Islamophobia can, and does, come up against the daily reality of working people living, working and studying together. We can build on that to fight racism and the policies of our government. The victory at Birmingham Metropolitan College demonstrates that.
For those campaigning for a Yes vote in Scotland there’s no need to pretend Islamophobia is not an issue north of the border, but it is clearly at a higher pitch down south. The latest attacks on the burqa and the niqab by Lib-Dem and Tory MPs are yet one more reason to ditch the link to Westminster.
In opposing the latest attack on Muslim women wearing the burqa or niqab saying “it’s a woman’s right to choose” is a good starting point. Personally, I’m not going to follow that up by explaining that I’m against women covering their faces or that I abhor Sharia law.
It is dangerous to allow this debate to be framed by the Islamophobic discourse. This campaign of slander and discrimination is about sowing division, erecting scapegoats and excusing war. It is not about the non-existent Muslim threat. Rather I’d want to say Muslim women, and Muslims in general, are taking pride in their religion and their identity, because it is under relentless attack. In their situation I might well do the same.