The Legend of Wooley Swamp

What ever happened to nuance? Jabberwocky is being spewed up by the left and right as they try to drag us into their Wonderlands. This blog charts a path out of this swamp of simple truths and false certainties. And from time to time, it'll be a place for more light-hearted musings.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006


It’s been three weeks since Jack Straw, Britain’s former Foreign Secretary – now demoted to the position of Leader of the House of Commons – revealed himself to be ever so uncomfortable when his female constituents came to his office wearing a full-faced veil, the niqab. Those three weeks have been so filled with bluster and hype that I lost count long ago. Part of my daytime job has been collecting and analyzing various op-eds and articles on this subject. It’s been mostly disheartening reading, with occasional glimpses of enlightenment.

In general, there appears to be an amazing reservoir of fear to tap into. Having lived in London for two years, I have often raved how comfortable people there are with diversity compared to other places. A ride in the London Tube is always pleasant since the tension present elsewhere in Europe is simply absent.

(c) REUTERS, Phil Noble

Yes, London is not Britain nor is it Northern Ireland, but still the visciousness of the debate has been a little too telling. And it is surprising. The question "why now?" pops up. Has anything changed recently? As much as I’d like to blame the politicians for cynically unleashing the mob for the sake of political gain (Straw and others are in the running to replace Tony Blair) and setting up smokescreens (to distract from society’s real problems like racism, discrimination and segregation), I can’t really give them too much credit. They could not have fathomed the goldmine they hacked their way into.

Anyway, here are some thoughts and quotes from some of the articles I’ve been reading. Many of the more poignant comments have come from the Canadian press. Not so surprising since most Canadians have come to accept the niqab as one symbol among many and are thus more capable of seeing it for what it is: one tree in a forest. Folks over in Europe seem blind to individual trees and can only see an imaginary forest, the forest of radical Islam. Beards, veils, all spells doom to them.

Without further ado, some pearls of wisdom from three Canucks.

1. James Laxer, a political science at the University of Toronto, cuts through the veneer of liberalism with consummate ease. That’s what’s bothered me all along, the fact that Straw claims to be encouraging reasonable debate when he is actually spewing out prejudice. In his piece, “Veiling Intolerance in Liberal Discourse”, Laxer writes:

“What is noteworthy is the spectacle of very powerful male politicians publicly criticizing a small number of women - who are hardly members of their countries' elites - for what they choose to wear. The criticism is made palatable because it is veiled (pun intended) in liberal discourse. These leaders are inviting the women wearing the niqab to abandon this mark of separation from the rest of society….In all dialogues of this sort, it is crucial to keep in mind the power relations among those who are doing the talking. What I see is something far from benign. A great deal of pressure is being brought to bear on a few women for reasons that extend well beyond the niqab….

What gives the narrative about the niqab its traction in the media is that it is the thin edge of the wedge in a critique of Muslims in general, not just those who wear the niqab. The question that is being asked, in a highly coded way to be sure, is whether Muslims constitute an alien presence in our society. Can they be relied upon to fit in as immigrants, to assimilate and become members of our society? Or will they be a dangerous, separate people, and even a source of terrorist recruits for attacks on us, with repeats of attacks like the suicide bombings in London in the summer of 2005?.....

When the powerful within a society begin a narrative of the kind we have seen about the niqab, however, that is not what is going on. Muslims are being set apart as the "other." Though we may pride ourselves on our liberalism, in our civilization when people are set apart and critiqued as not really belonging in our midst, the consequences can be terrible.”

Of course it's about Muslims in general and not about the possibility of communication when someone is wearing a veil. The shrillness of the debate proves that beyond a doubt. Surely no one disputes that....and that raises the specter of Islamophobia.

2. Janet Bagnall draws a parallel between the treatment the Amish community receives, (especially in the wake of the recent tragedy when the media went into a feeding frenzy) and that accorded to Muslims:

“What was so remarkable, in the view of the outside world, was the community's ability to forgive. The Amish, about whom no one from outside the community seemed to have spent any time thinking prior to Oct. 2, were not singled out for their rejection of state schooling beyond Grade 8 or modern conveniences. Nor was there any comment on their very modest attire, including long dresses and bonnets for the women. They were simply allowed to be who they are.

It would be nice if the same easy-going acceptance could be extended to observant Muslims and whatever they choose to wear, be it headscarves or veils or loose cloaks. But after the terrorist attacks of
Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States and in Britain on July 7 last year, it seems to be too much to ask”

3. Finally Sheema Khan shares her own experience with the niqab and has a wonderful description of the absurdity of it all:

“I respect women who wear the niqab. At Harvard, after much spiritual reflection, I donned the hijab (headscarf) and also tried the niqab - for all of one hour. I found it stifling and unnatural. Yet others don't. And their choice should be respected. In some places, women are forced by the state to cover up. In other places, some have exercised their own choice to do so. At a recent scientific conference in Dubai, I met intelligent, assertive niqabis who discussed current research with both genders. What is the big deal?....

In a Monty Pythonesque scenario, the British political establishment demands that a particular minority (Muslims) integrate into British society, by coercing a minority within that minority to change its appearance. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and House of Commons leader Jack Straw have appropriated the veil as a symbol of "separateness" and an impediment to integration.

Integration is a complex issue. It is disingenuous to think that discarding the niqab will engender a new path toward integration - especially into a society as hierarchical as that of the British. In a recent study by the Home Office, Muslim students were found to be far more tolerant than their non-Muslim counterparts. By placing full onus on the Muslim community, the government has abdicated its responsibility in the integration impasse. It also has embarked on a dangerously divisive path.”

I can only concur. Read her entire piece for it compares Britain's behavior now to how it acted as a colonial master in Egypt. Back then the Governor Lord Cromer made comments eeriely similar to those of Straw's. These folks have understood nothing about assimilation. How it flows both ways, how the onus on the powerful, i.e. the host society, will always be greater.

I cannot fathom how anyone can believe that the niqab is the problem, or in fact even a problem at all. In fact, I’m quite sure that Jack Straw and company don’t believe their own hype. As the Washington Post editorial said a few days ago:

“It's hard to believe that veils are the biggest obstacle to communication between British politicians and the country's Muslims; and it's even harder to imagine Mr. Straw raising similar objections about Sikh turbans or Orthodox Jewish dress. True, the Labor Party MP was reflecting -- or maybe pandering to -- the concern of many in Britain about the self-segregation of some Muslims. But veils -- which are also under government attack in France and Italy -- are not the cause of that segregation, much less of terrorism. Attacks on Muslim custom by public officials are more likely to reinforce than to ease the community's alienation.”

(c) AFP, John D. McHugh

In the meantime, Britiain’s Deputy PM, John “Bruiser” Prescott, is in Malaysia learning about how that country has managed its diversity. To his great credit - Bruiser came out swinging on this issue, “respectfully disagreeing” with the Strawman. I wrote a paper in college about how the West could perhaps learn a thing or two from the multiculturalism practiced in e.g. Malaysia or Singapore. But I didn’t believe then that in the year 2006, the former colonial overlord Britain would be off to the former subjects in Kuala Lumpur for advice. One thing's for sure, Prescott won't be advised to ban niqabs. Could not have written a more fitting script myself.

Next time in the Swamp, you’ll meet Sweden’s new minister for integration, who also has a glitch with the niqab.


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