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Authoritarian currents swirl in debate on veil


"Historically, the veil has most unnerved the worst despots", says Haroon Siddiqui


Oct. 22, 2006. 01:00 AM



Second of two parts.


The controversy over women's veils is the latest example of Muslim religious/cultural practices being held up to disproportionate scrutiny.


This is a reflection of the fear-driven paranoia about Muslim terrorism and, mistakenly, all Muslims. Or, it is part of a political strategy to divert attention away from the catastrophic failure of the "war on terrorism" in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Israeli Occupied Territories.


It's easier to blame a minority than confronting our complicity in the killing of tens of thousands of civilians abroad and, second, our gnawing panic that rather than curbing terrorism, we are fanning it.


It's also hard to accept that the niqab — the garment that covers the woman's body, including the face — is not a Muslim issue alone but rather one central to democracy.


That a majority of Muslim women do not wear the niqab, or even the hijab, the head scarf, does not nullify the right of those who do.


Otherwise, a democracy ends up emulating either tyrants (Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, or the late Shah of Iran and the late Kemal Ataturk of Turkey) who persecute hijabis, or unforgiving clerics (the Taliban, the mullahs of Iran and Saudi Arabia) who persecute non-hijabis.


The only sound democratic approach is to leave the decision to the sovereignty of the individual woman.


Those who argue that Muslim women may be under male pressure to conform are being as patronizing as the men who assume women are incapable of independent judgment even in free and democratic societies.


Some Muslim women might face social and religious pressures but we can't know that they are subjected to any more of it than women in other religious communities. They may face less, given the lack of a central authority in Islam.


Tony Blair is smart enough to know all that. So, he shifts the argument, unsuccessfully.


"I'm not saying anyone should be forced to do anything. No one wants to say that people don't have the right to do it. But we do need to confront this issue about how we integrate people properly into our society."


A niqab, he said, is "a mark of separation and that's why it makes other people from outside the community feel uncomfortable."


But there are several "marks of separation" that make bigots "feel uncomfortable" in the presence of, say, Orthodox Jews or Sikhs. At one time, Catholics made Protestants "uncomfortable," too. But democracy runs on principles and rules, not people's passing prejudices.


If we want women not to be fully veiled then let's pass a law saying so. If not, leave the women alone.


It's a function of immigration that some newer arrivals, no matter their religion, are more socially conservative than others. Over time, most adjust and their children almost always do.


As for being integrated, it is not just the handful of niqabis who are not. A scandalously high percentage of Britain's 1.6 million Muslims, especially male youth, suffer high unemployment and social and cultural discrimination.


Their alienation does not attest to "the failure of multiculturalism," as right wingers and now even the Blair Labourites would have it. Lack of equality and economic mobility leads, inevitably, to the comfort of ethnic isolation, for which both the mainstream and the marginalized blame each other.


Equally, the hijab/niqab argument has little to do with the proclivity of some young Muslims — British-born or bred — to go and blow up subway trains.


Their radicalization, and that of some others across Europe, is more traceable to the dismay they might feel at the ongoing killing and oppression of Muslims the world over. It is no surprise that Britain's new army commander, Gen. Sir Richard Dannat, has suggested that British troops be pulled out of Iraq.


Most Britons, Canadians and even Americans do recognize this reality, even as their leaders live in denial and find new scapegoats. One of Blair's ministers bemoaned that "global tensions are being reflected in the streets of local communities." Why wouldn't they be? Why is economic/corporate globalization glorious but not the inevitable parallel political or cultural globalization?


Historically, the veil has most unnerved despots, who have either banned it or prescribed it, in the name of liberating the Muslim woman or subjugating her. She has been the battleground on which ruling male elites have waged ideological wars. Now, sadly, some democrats, mostly male and powerful, are joining such authoritarian company.


Haroon Siddiqui appears Thursday and Sunday.



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