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Quinn: Hammer of Islam

June 2, 2008

Posted by smiffy in Gender Issues, Irish Labour Party, Islam, Religion, Secularism.

Ruairí Quinn should know better.  According to today’s Irish Independent, he has stated that he opposes the wearing of the Islamic hijab by girls in Irish schools, stating that:

A manifestation of religious beliefs in such a way is unacceptable and draws attention to those involved. I believe in a public school situation they should not wear a headscarf.

Now, this is the kind of flat denunciation is the kind of thing one would expect from Fianna Fáil, or Fine Gael.  Indeed, the latter’s education spokesperson, Brian Hayes, supported Quinn’s position, while throwing in a little show of his knowledge of Islamic religious practice (”The wearing of the hijab is not about religiosity, it is more an example of modesty. It is not a fundamental requirement to be a Muslim”), pint-sized Tariq Ramadan that he is.  However, one would have hoped for a more nuanced response from the Labour Party to the question of how to accommodate different faiths in a multi-faith education system , and it would be interesting to know whether this is official Labour Party policy, or something Quinn blurted out in response to a query from the paper.

Now, if one advocated a real separation of Church and State, and the establishment of a genuinely secular education system, which would necessitate the absolute removal of any and all religious influence from every school in receipt of exchequer funding (my own view, incidentally) then, while it wouldn’t require a ban on the wearing of the hijab by students (any more than a secular state would prohibit the wearing of crosses by passengers on public transport), Quinn’s position might seen principled enough.  However, that’s not the Labour policy.  In fact, the issue of the management of schools (which is central to the question of secularising the system) is barely touched on in Labour’s own education policy, and even then only in the context of the building of new schools.  Not a word about religious control of already existing schools.

As Ruairí Quinn is well aware, or should be, the term ‘public school’ means very little in the Irish context.  He may be talking about community schools (at second level), but these are rather few and far between.  Alternatively, he may be speaking about all schools which are publicly funded.  However, surely the hypocrisy of calling for the prohibition of the hijab in a system which has nuns on the payroll is too much, even for Labour.

Assuming Quinn means community schools, he is de facto arguing for a system of multi-denominational schooling where those of the majority faith on the island have the choice of religious or secular education (wherever you find a community school, there will also be Catholic-controlled schools present), but where those of minority confessions don’t have the same privilege.  Suggesting, for example, that there should be no problem with the hijab in Islamic schools isn’t much use to Muslim students in areas where there are no such schools available (and where it’s unlikely there ever will be).  This is a point raised by Fintan O’Toole  (sub req’d) in a similar context - the question of the Sikh Garda Reservist who wanted to wear a turban.  O’Toole stated:

For my own part, I do not think Sikh officers should be allowed to wear turbans, or Muslim officers allowed to wear hijabs. I entirely agree with Garda spokesman Kevin Donohue when he says that “the person standing in front of you should be representative of the police force - not a Sikh police officer, not a Catholic police officer, not a Jewish police officer”.

Such a stance can be hard on Sikhs and members of other faiths, but it is the only way to avoid a Balkanisation of State services, not just in the Garda or Army, but in schools, hospitals, the Dáil and the courts. The preservation of a public realm that everyone enters equally as a citizen is a value of greater importance than any individual’s right to express a personal identity while performing a State service.

The problem is that this State has absolutely no right to take such a stance. So long as we refuse even to discuss a non-sectarian education system, so long as we evoke a specific religious belief system in every aspect of our system of governance, we have no right to tell anyone that they have to keep their religion separate from their public function. Unless we are to practise naked discrimination, the logic of our current system is that our police officers can wear turbans, hijabs or Jedi light sabres - anything that is required by their faith. We also have to provide a range of religious schools in every community, all paid for by the taxpayer. We have to start Dáil sessions not with one prayer, but with at least 25 - one for each of the main religious groupings in the State - and with an atheist evocation of humanist principles.

Or we could just cop on to ourselves and start creating a public realm in which all religions are respected because none is invoked.

However, aside from the question of the nature of education system in this country, there was another, rather worrying undercurrent to Quinn’s comments, one which suggests that they weren’t just ‘ill-thought’ as Phillip Watt rather generously stated, but point to a rather distasteful foundation to Quinn’s views.  He states, in opposition to the wearing of the hijab, that

If people want to come into a western society that is Christian and secular, they need to conform to the rules and regulations of that countrygoing on to add

Mr Quinn said immigrants should live by Irish laws and conform to Irish norms.

“Nobody is formally asking them to come here. In the interests of integration and assimilation, they should embrace our culture,” he said.

with the piéce de resistance:

Irish girls don’t wear headscarves

Glossing over the cheap laugh at the stupidity of the ‘Christian and secular’ comment, this is moving far beyond the question of the secular state and into the kind of position one would expect to find held by the BNP.  I don’t invoke that organisation lightly, and make no apology for doing so.  While we are all familiar with the argument that criticism of Islam is not necessarily racist.  However, the counterpoint to this is the fact that when groups like the BNP do attack Islam, they do so from an obviously racist standpoint, and precisely on the ground staked out by Quinn in the piece above. 

Quinn is, in fact, saying that Muslims are - by definition - foreign.  The girl at the centre of the current case, Shekina Egan, cannot be Irish (despite the fact that her father is a native of Gorey) because ‘Irish girls don’t wear headscarves’.  He’s pulling every racist trope from the book, suggesting that no one asked ‘them’ to come here and that they should embrace ‘our’ culture.  It would be interesting to see how Ruairí Quinn might go about defining ‘our’ culture, distinguishing it from all others, but I somehow doubt he’s thought that through.

Not only does Quinn’s position betray an, at best, phenomenally insular and ignorant mindset, it’s also incredibly short-sighted.  Even if one accepted the necessary premise of the argument - that the only Irish Muslims are first-generation immigrants and, therefore, not really ‘Irish’ at all - how does he propose to answer the inevitable demand for equality from future generations, those who are born in Ireland, of Irish parents, and who will rightly point out that they are both Irish and Muslim?  All the talk of ‘our culture’ will ring rather hollow then, unless one falls back on the old Gaelic and Catholic definition of what it is to be Irish.  Indeed, it’s this very attitude in other countries which has suceeded in alienating and radicalising many young Muslims, leading them into the arms of fundamentalism and, in some cases, violence.  When Muslims in this country are told by religious radicals of the future, that they will never be accepted as Irish, and that Islam is their true home, statements like Quinn’s could well stand in support of the claims.

Readers will notice that I haven’t touched on the issue of the hijab itself, i.e. whether it is a symbol of oppression and of the inferior status of women in Islam.  That was deliberate, although I acknowledge that it’s a valid and important question to raise.  However, it’s not the ground on which Quinn bases his opposition to this latter-day wearing of the green.  If he did, I might have some sympathy.  Rather he’s chosen to move in the direction of little Ireland, of insular monoculturalism and of the vilification of cultural difference.  Is this really a path down which Labour wishes to follow?



1. Garibaldy - June 2, 2008

I have no problem with the banning of all religious symbols in schools or government workplaces, but Smiffy is total right to demolish Quinn’s assinine comments, which do have racist undertones. I guess this is of a piece to some extent with Rabbite’s attitude to foreign workers - the threat to our jobs, our culture etc. Can’t say I’m surprised, though if this is the left of the Labour leadership, we are in for some lean times ahead.

2. CL - June 3, 2008

“where all religions are respected because none is invoked”-This about sums up the constitutional position in the U.S. Ireland would do well to follow this republican tradition. Not that such rights are automatically granted. The case of the Sikh train driver Kevin Harrington in NYC is instructive.

3. steve white - June 3, 2008

labour’s education policy is bankrupt and cowardly

quinn doesn’t know the meaning of secular

4. Wednesday - June 3, 2008

Excellent piece, Smiffy.


where all religions are respected because none is invoked”-This about sums up the constitutional position in the U.S.

Yes, except that the constitutional position in the US also allows for individual religious expression, which means that there is no problem with schoolchildren wearing hijabs in public schools. There is sufficient precedent for Kevin Harrington to win his case, as well. 

5. Conor McCabe - June 3, 2008

Excellent piece.

6. Damian O'Broin - June 3, 2008

Excellent, if depressing piece Smiffy. I hadn’t read Quinn’s comments prior to reading your post and I have to say I’m profoundly depressed by the line he’s taken.

There is indeed an argument for not allowing the wearing of a hijab in public schools - though I don’t accept it myself - but Quinn’s conflation of muslim with foreign is shocking.

“Christian and secular” - for feck’s sake, he’s an educated man. [image]

7. Dan Sullivan - June 3, 2008

Is Quinn going to demand that we prevent students coming into schools with ash on their foreheads in future? 

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