Veiled prejudice

Veiled prejudice

By Jamil Hussain

Morning Star, 23 October 2006

LET’S face it, Muslim-bashing is newsworthy. Politicians now feel that it’s a sure-fire way of getting noticed

In the last month, MPs have pumped out timely and much-publicised polemics about Muslims, packaged as a “new and honest debate” about multiculturalism.

Jack Straw kicked off the latest furore with his veil comments, the timing and subject of which seemed opportune.

He could have talked of other pressing issues, such as the report by the equal opportunities commission which found that Muslim girls have fewer job opportunities, despite overtaking white boys at GCSE level.

Instead, Straw picked on the minuscule number of Muslim women wearing the veil, attacking an iconic Islamic image to gain maximum exposure.

He has reason to distance himself from Muslim opinion, especially if he wants to become the new deputy Labour leader.

Four weeks after Condoleezza Rice’s visit to his Blackburn constituency, which was overshadowed by protests by Muslims against the US Secretary of State, Straw was dismissed as foreign secretary. Rumours suggest that President Bush put pressure on Tony Blair because of Straw’s perceived reliance on Muslim opinion and votes.

Straw’s comments were also backed by other Cabinet colleagues, including Harriet Harman, another candidate vying for the deputy leadership role.

As a feminist, Harman would, presumably, abhor Muslim men dictating what women should wear, but she saw no irony in backing a non-Muslim man doing the same. Had Straw asked a woman to cover up, would Harman have given him the same support?

She voiced regret that women “whose mothers fought against the veil now see their daughters taking it up as a symbol of commitment to their religion.”

But she failed to acknowledge that those daughters, certainly in Britain, tend to be more educated than their mothers. Unlike their mothers, they are making decisions for themselves and are choosing to wear the veil.

But Harman’s feminist cohorts have tried to undermine that rationale, saying that women may be doing it by choice but have been influenced by men.

Not only is that an insulting explanation – that Muslim women are too obtuse to comprehend they are being controlled by men – but that simplistic reasoning can also be true of the overly sexualised image of women in the West.

Not to be outdone, the Conservatives also got involved, with shadow home secretary David Davis criticising Muslims for “encouraging a kind of voluntary apartheid.”

He makes no mention of the phenomenon known as “white flight,” where white communities move away from areas that become racially mixed, as evident in areas of east London where schools are wholly Asian because white children have been removed by their parents.

What of the areas in London which are almost exclusively orthodox Jewish, Chinese, Black, Indian or Polish? Are these people also creating a “voluntary apartheid?”

It seems that people from all sides don’t want to be forced into assimilation – and that’s not necessarily a negative thing, as long as there is understanding and tolerance between the communities.

A study by Lancaster University, which interviewed 15-year-olds in Burnley, found that Muslim youngsters were more tolerant than their white counterparts. Nearly a third of white teenagers believed that one race was superior, compared with 10 per cent of Muslims.

Almost 30 per cent of white youngsters were in favour of different faith communities working together to create a better society, compared with 76 per cent of Muslim youngsters.

Almost half of the white pupils felt that respecting others regardless of religion was not important, versus 14 per cent of Muslims.

Davis also criticised Muslims for being “excessively sensitive.” Which community wouldn’t feel sensitive if negative and, sometimes, insignificant stories about them are published in the media every day?

A Muslim cab driver who does not pick up a blind woman because of her dog becomes front-page news, but the arrest of a BNP election candidate in Lancashire for possessing the largest haul of chemical explosives ever found at a house in Britain only gets a mention in the local newspaper. Had it been Muslims, the story would have had national exposure for weeks.

Whenever the media or politicians take it upon themselves to raise an issue, Muslims bear the brunt on the streets. Immediately after Straw’s comments, Islamophobic attacks soared, resulting in Muslim women being assaulted, Muslim businesses and mosques being firebombed and elders being attacked.

No major Cabinet member has made a comment denouncing the Islamophobic activities.

Instead, the victims are blamed for their plight. Communities and Local Government Minister Phil Woolas claims that Muslims risk provoking “fear and resentment among non-Muslims,” which he says leads to discrimination and benefits the BNP.

Had Woolas said that women who wear short skirts risk getting sexually assaulted, there would have been an outcry.

It’s obvious that the government is trying to row back on the notion of multiculturalism and is, instead, pedalling the doomed European philosophy of assimilation.

It seems that’s what Tony Blair meant when he waded into the veil issue, adding that the debate about how Islam fits in with the modern world was already happening in other European countries.

Presumably, he means countries such as France, where women are not allowed to wear the hijab in schools.

It mirrors the actions of the Taliban, dictating what women should wear, against their wishes, which, ultimately, affects their education and development.

Historically, Britain has managed cultural diversity better than its neighbours. In countries like Denmark, Italy and France, forced assimilation has made discrimination of ethnic minorities worse.

Far-right political parties have become major electoral forces due to media hysteria and the bigoted discourse undertaken by mainstream politicians.

The same trend is becoming evident in Britain. The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust found in April that 25 per cent of the white population in Britain were considering voting for the racist BNP.

Before May’s local elections, Margaret Hodge said that eight out of 10 white people in her Barking constituency were thinking of voting for the extremist party. Hodge empathised with them, saying that they were deprived and concerned about immigration, unemployment and housing.

She added that the white population sees “black and ethnic minority communities moving in and they are angry,” fearing the “gobsmacking change” that it will bring.

Had 25 per cent of Muslims voiced similar views, would the media or politicians empathise with their underlying problems – even though Muslims in Britain are even more destitute – or would they just be brandished as extremists?

A “new and honest debate” may need to be had about multiculturalism. But the 3 per cent of the population who are Muslims are not the only ones to blame for the lack of integration in Britain.

Debate should also include the 92 per cent of the indigenous white population who seem to be exempt from any blame for the failures of multiculturalism.

• Jamil Hussein is political editor of the bimonthly Muslim lifestyle magazine The Link.