Almost precisely seven years ago, Britain was having this same discussion. A public official, Jack Straw, the then Leader of the House of Commons of the British Parliament, decided that it was appropriate for him to bring up the issue of Muslim British women wearing the face-veil/niqab in a commentary for a local newspaper in the north of England. The consequences of that discussion notwithstanding then, seven years later, we seem to be having it – yet again. It is not clear if we’ve actually learned very much – if anything, it seems as though we’ve learned very little indeed.
At the time, Straw insisted that he wanted to open a public debate on the subject, not because of imminent elections within his Labour Party – although, of course, the two motivations might not be mutually exclusive. At the time, in the UK as well as Europe, the political centre was shifting to the right – and the right then, as it does now, is still energised by fears of “Eurarabia,” where our Western civilizational mores are being brought down by a “Muslim fifth element.”
This discussion is primarily about Muslim women, and it ought to be Muslim women who are the strongest and most influential within that public discussion.H.A. Hellyer
Straw claimed he did not want to be prescriptive – but he did not need to be. He was a powerful, senior, and very influential, public official – and as such, when he wrote anything on such an issue, it meant that public discourse was immediately energised. As a result of his intervention, there were calls from politicians and media outlets that called for the niqab to be banned in the UK. The public discussion, then, described Muslim women who wore the niqab as “frightening and intimidating,” with politicians suggesting Muslims were responsible for “white flight,” and declaring Islam “forbade” Muslims from conforming to British society.
Straw eventually apologised for his comments in 2010, claiming (four years later) that had he realised there would be such publicity as a result of them, he would not have made them. One wonders why he waited so long to make such a declaration, particularly as many immediately and deeply criticised the manner and method in which the public discussion was advanced. His original reason for raising it – vis-à-vis the need for transparent communication – was somewhat peculiar, considering his own fellow Labour Party, David Blunkett, will never have that same problem, it just wouldn’t occur to him.
Seven years later, some things have changed – and not for the better. The political center has drifted further right, and the far right has become more powerful within European society. In terms of direct political influence, elements of the discourse of the far right has become normalised – and the more radical fringe has become more active. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the eruption of far-right violence in 2011, with the Breivik killings in Norway – a product of the most radical form of that discourse. Other societies have been spared that sort of travesty – but that is not to say that they are immune to any form of bigotry.
This new episode in the UK began with a different type of intervention – a judge, very reasonably, demanded that a woman wearing the face-veil, remove it for identifications purposes. He later came to a compromise, where she could keep it on generally speaking, but remove it when giving evidence. The judge frankly showed a great deal of sensitivity – far more than could be reasonably expected in many (if not most) Muslim countries. In any situation where there exists a need to establish someone’s identity, there ought not to be the need for much debate – the niqab should be removed. The same might be said for banks, or airports, for example – such discussions have been had on the local level for many years, in the UK as in elsewhere. It’s unclear what any benefit a national conversation, or indeed, national legislation may have.
British or not?
The main problem is what comes with that reasonable discussion vis-à-vis identification and security and is stimulated by it: really this is about who and what “we” are. Moreover, what also accompanies that discussion are actually threats of physical intimidation, and the risk of violence. “We” cannot allow the niqab to be in “our” Britain – “they” must learn “our” rules. Otherwise, why are “those” people trying to live among “us”? Never mind that “they” are actually British citizens. It seems that we ought to forget that “they” are actually “us” – that many of “them” have been born in the UK, or that they can trace their ancestry in the UK for generations. This is, less about “their” identity, as Muslim Britons who choose to wear the niqab – but about our identity, and the lack of confidence we feel. Our own psychological insecurities about identity are probably not the best point from which to engage this debate.
Generally speaking is the niqab something that Muslim British women ought to be wearing in the UK? Frankly, that conversation ought to be one where non-Muslim males (who are the ones who are commenting the most about it) should probably be banned from participating. This discussion is primarily about Muslim women, and it ought to be Muslim women who are the strongest and most influential within that public discussion. Somehow, however, one suspects that Muslim British women have far more interesting topics than to (yet again) talk about a piece of cloth that so few out of their number actually wear. Last time this discussion arose in the UK, it actually hurt proponents within the Muslim British community who argued that the niqab was counter-productive in their community – because the public mood turned the discussion into one where the Muslim community felt under threat.
The discussion is not one that is without consequences. Already, as a result of this public discourse, one Muslim Briton has already been assaulted for wearing the niqab. Radical right-wingers are using the issue to expand the discussion beyond issues of security and identification, and take it into the realm of “British-ness.” The last time that happened, back in 2006, the eventual conclusion provided little closure, and instead, simply made right wing and far-right wing discourse more prevalent and acceptable in the public arena. It did not invigorate a discussion within the Muslim community (which, one assumes, was the main point?), except to encourage a more insular attitude towards the issue.
There are going to be security concerns around identification – in that regard, the law does have a role to play, and it ought to play it rigorously. Beyond that, it’s always a slippery slope when a government intervenes in defining what is and what is not socially “British.” Indeed, one might argue, it’s not terribly British to even allow a government to do so.
Dr H.A. Hellyer is Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (London), and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution (Washington DC). The author of “Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans” (Edinburgh University Press), he is Europe Fellow for ISPU and tweets at @hahellyer
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