Much of Europe is still reeling from comments made by the Blackburn MP and Leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw, concerning the veil (niqāb) furore, written in October. When the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was initially quizzed about the damaging column published in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, it was seen to be a gilt-edged opportunity to condemn the remarks, in an attempt to mend an already fragile relationship with the Muslim community.
Instead, Tony Blair opted to endorse his colleague’s view by stating the niqāb is a "mark of separation", and believing it to be the reason for the country’s integration problems.
The Tony Blair-Jack Straw ‘axis of deceit’, proved to be the catalyst for an unrelenting media campaign, demonising women who wear the niqāb, even questioning the need for such a dress code in the west.
The floodgates opened for Islam-hating preachers in the press, such as the Times, David Aaronovitch, who proclaimed, ‘they enjoy being a victim’, to, Suzanne Moore, of the Mail on Sunday, who wrote an article with the headline: ‘The veil has no place…in Kabul or Blackburn’, to gleefully peddle a message of religious hatred.
This was only part of the story. It is widely believed Tony Blair needed to create a diversion after coming under intense scrutiny in his handling of events in Iraq and Afghanistan, so chose to create a catastrophic rift within the community.
The Prime Minister moved to lend his backing to the Kirklees Council, in suspending the teaching assistant, Ms. Azmi, for refusing to remove her niqāb at Headfield Church of England Junior School in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. This was met with fierce criticism from Ms. Azmi’s lawyer, as the tribunal was yet to deliver a verdict at the time.
Worse was to follow. The Government minister, Phil Woolas, fuelled the issue further by even calling for the 23-year-old teaching assistant to be sacked. Not to be outdone, Jack Straw wasn’t quite finished. Tensions deepened in the Muslim community, following his appearance on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. The MP firmly stood by his comments, but added he would rather see the niqāb not being worn at all.
The remarks didn’t have the desired effect of taking a step towards segregating communities, but merely strengthened it. A joint statement, soon followed, signed by nearly 30 leading Islamic groups, telling Muslims to "remain united, regardless of their differences of opinion in the wearing of the veil … and to defend the veil with all their ability."
Jack Straw’s racial discrimination slur, hiding behind his ‘integration’ argument, also received a stinging response from the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), in its Press release, stating:
"Muslims, particularly Muslim women, are persistently being preached at to engage in the political system and to gain a voice for themselves. Yet, here are Muslim women who are willing to actively engage in the system only to be told that they must compromise their religious beliefs and practices if they want to be heard."
But support for the niqāb was not just limited to the religiously inclined. Solidarity came from, perhaps, a most unlikely source – the progressives.
Ms. Pari Esfandiari, is one such supporter. She is the founder and Editor in Chief of IranDokht.com, an American based Iranian women’s lifestyle magazine. As an Iranian, she has witnessed both worlds of the miniskirt age of the Shah to the conservatism of the Khomeni era.
"What are missing from this political debate are the voices of women and the very personal nature of each woman’s decision to cover–or bare–her hair and the emotional and complex consequences that she has to face once she has made a choice ", she remarks.
" I also wish to see an eclectic mix of men and women wearing what truly reflects their own choice of outfit supporting women’s basic human right to decide and choose what they wear for themselves. By doing so no matter what their faith, gender or political belief — they support a woman’s freedom to choose how, whether and when she veils."
But Madeline Bunting, Director of the thinktank Demos, believes something more sinister is at hand.
" The point that intrigues me is how Straw is elevating this question as one of primary national concern. In an article on Tony Crosland in the New Statesman last month, Straw cited the Labour thinker’s belief that class was the great divide in society, and added that, now, "religion" was the great divide.
"Obviously, Straw meant Islam. No one is too worried about a shrinking number of Anglicans or Catholics. It’s a magnificent convenience for New Labour to let the divides of class slip from view as they prove intractable and social mobility grinds to a halt
"The job of a political leader is to open our eyes to recognising how much we have in common; how much of Islam we non-Muslims can appreciate and admire. How much Islam can contribute to the far greater problems we all face? We shouldn’t be hounding those nervous or pious women in their niqabs. Their choice of clothing is as irrelevant as that of Goths ."
The issue has taken a nasty turn in the Netherlands, a country no stranger to controversy in its support of the inflammatorily religiously inciting film, Submission. The government is on the verge of backing a landmark proposal submitted by the Immigration Minister, Rita Verdonk, to invoke a public ban of the burqa.
An estimated 1 million Muslims live in the Netherlands, out of a population of 16 million. The guardian believes only a few hundred women regularly wear the burqa, however, the BBC quoted no fewer than 100 women.
This poses a very serious question. Why are a marginal number of Muslim women wearing the burqa, being targeted for possible legal precedents?
"The existing laws are sufficient for dealing with the problems. It’s over the top, a law for a dozen people!" said Ayhan Tonca, chairman of the Dutch Muslim organization, (CMO), an umbrella group of an alliance of Dutch Muslim organisations.
This is racism in its simplest form. Such a ruling will undoubtedly have a domino effect across Europe, with Italy eagerly waiting in the wings. Although France and Turkey are infamous for curtailing religious freedoms, other European nations have not gone unnoticed.
Since the collapse of the Berlin wall, Germany has re-invented itself as a dynamic and vibrant multicultural society, shaking off its segregated past in the process. But the ‘new’ Germany conveniently forgets to tell the world it has a law in place, banning teachers from wearing head scarves, (the hijab), in public schools. Belgium is also another State seeking to emulate its neighbours. The city of Maaseik, on the Dutch border, already enforces the niqāb ban, but wants to impose a nationwide ban.
But recent polls, undertaken by Ipsos Mori on behalf of the Greater London Authority, suggest Tony Blair, Jack Straw and the rest of the supporting cast, (including the media), have failed in their plans to create a segregated utopia.
In its findings, 75% of those polled in the city, supported the right of Muslims, and those of other faiths, to dress "in accordance with their religious beliefs"; 76% balked at the idea of the government dictating how people should live their lives; and a resounding 94%, shared similar sentiments, by disagreeing with the media having a right to dictate lives.
Buzz terms such as ‘assimilation’, ‘integration’ and the barrier to social ‘cohesion’ are constantly being flouted to mask the media’s true motives of injecting the fabricated war of ‘us against them’ to the public, reminiscent of the George Bush school of thought.
This has led the widely supported socialist block to strongly defend the Muslim community.
On the 18th November, a people’s assembly was organised by The Stop the War Coalition lobby in Camden Centre, north London. The panel showcased renowned speakers from differing religious and political beliefs, in a display of strength and unity against the government’s continual witch hunt against Muslims.
It’s ironic the Netherlands, once seen as a successful, tolerant, multi-cultural community, is taking such despotic measures. Even more alarming is the government and the national media’s refusal to debate the findings of a parliamentary report published in 2004, before reaching its final decision on the public burqa ban. The report, embarrassingly, mirrors secular France by describing Dutch society as increasingly polarised, with a huge ethnic ghetto divide and subcultures tearing the country apart. The report blamed successive Dutch governments for failing to create a truly integrated multiethnic society.
Is the rest of Europe heading towards a downward spiral of community and religious segregation? Only if governments repeatedly persist in ‘ghettoising’ communities by dividing, isolating and alienating them, for the sake of fulfilling repressive political legislation.
Ridwan Sheikh is a freelance writer. Articles published in dissidentvoice.org, al-jazeera.info and Muslim weekly to name but a few. Photo from wikipedia.org