Politics & Policy

Lifting the Veil?

Britain confronts militant Islam.

It was, I feel certain, the first time that an article in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph ever triggered a national debate. In the article, written in October, its author, Jack Straw, the leader of the House of Commons and a former foreign secretary, disclosed that he asked any visitor who came to his office wearing a full Muslim veil to uncover her face when she spoke to him. Naturally, he only made this request if a female member of his staff was present. He’s a gentleman, you know.

Left with Uneasiness

As national debates go, it was, at least on one side, very British, a spectacle of restraint, half-truths, politeness, and denial. Many participants couldn’t bring themselves to say what they meant. Many others couldn’t possibly have meant what they said. Given that the whole controversy (nominally at least) began over the Islamic veil, this was, in a way, appropriate. Designed to cover up, to conceal, and to hide, the veil can, in reality, be profoundly, and disturbingly, revealing, not only of the nature of the women who wear it, but of the society in which they live.

If this wretched garment, in at least its more stringent forms, has more to do with misogyny than piety, so the hostility it provokes owes less to outraged feminism than to the mounting unease felt by many Europeans at the presence of the increasingly assertive and increasingly extremist Islam rising within their midst. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that there is something about the very appearance of the veil (and I am here referring to the burka and the only marginally less appalling nikab, a get-up that generously allows a clear view of the wearer’s eyes) that is alien, dehumanizing, and, in the context of Europe’s current troubles, thoroughly ominous. Little more than walking shrouds, these women seem like the harbingers both of future theocracy and the slaughter that comes in its wake.

And there’s something else that has made the veil the perfect proxy for a debate that has been avoided for far too long: It can easily be attacked in terms that are, on one interpretation, cuddly, progressive, and altogether P.C. That’s why the explanation Straw gave for doing what he did was so teeth-grindingly caring and so touchingly inclusive. The full veil was “a visible statement of separation and difference.” Wearing it “was bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult.” After his customary which-way-will-the-wind-blow, a similar argument was adopted by Tony Blair a few days later when he supported the suspension of one Aishah Azmi, a teacher’s assistant who refused to remove her full-face veil in the classroom. Rather than make the obvious, but dangerously commonsense, point, that it was absurd to try to teach children from behind a mask (a number of pupils had in fact complained that they couldn’t follow what Azmi was saying), the prime minister preferred to stress how the veil was a “mark of separation.” 

But the problem with using the Newspeak of multiculturalism is that those who rallied to support the U.K.’s veiled and aggrieved spoke it more fluently. Straw quickly came under fire from the usual coterie of self-selected “community” spokesmen, idiot parsons, and fellow-travelers in the media. Worse, by focusing on the veil, he made it possible for those polite, hesitant requests of his to be caricatured, however unfairly, as a first stage in the eventual banning of burka and nikab.

Blair’s Unveiling?

Until last week it seemed that the story would rest there, but on Friday Tony Blair made a speech that, for the first time, indicated that his government might be prepared to take more than baby steps away from its earlier multiculturalist orthodoxy. As so often with Blair, the words read well (“Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. Conform to it; or don’t come here. We don’t want the hate-mongers, whatever their race, religion or creed”), and he was even able finally to admit in public that teaching from behind a mask made no sense.

More unusually, it seems that action might actually follow the prime minister’s fine words (we’ll see). “Faith schools” are to be encouraged to teach tolerance of other religions, and, while Blair was on that topic, he took time to note that “there can be no excuse for madrassahs not meeting their legal requirements and they will be enforced vigorously.” Sensibly, and belatedly, English is to be a pre-condition of the grant of British citizenship or permanent residency in the U.K. “Preachers” recruited from abroad (who are, Blair stressed, subject to other pre-entry qualifications) will also have to demonstrate that they can speak English.

Significantly, Blair also signaled that he was going to take a look at the “community” organizations his government had hitherto funded:

we need to use the grants we give to community racial and religious groups to promote integration as well as help distinctive cultural identity. In a sense, very good intentions got the better of us. We wanted to be hospitable to new groups. We wanted, rightly, to extend a welcome and did so by offering public money to entrench their cultural presence. Money was too often freely awarded to groups that were tightly bonded around religious, racial or ethnic identities. In the future, we will assess bids from groups of any ethnicity or any religious denomination, also against a test, where appropriate, of promoting community cohesion and integration.

Well, it’s a start.

To be sure, Blair did defend multiculturalism, but this passage in his speech is well worth noting: “The failure of one part of one community to do so, is not a function of a flawed theory of a multicultural society. It is a function of a particular ideology that arises within one religion at this one time.” While Blair was careful to say that “extremists that threaten violence are not true Muslims in the sense of being true to the proper teaching of Islam,” he added that it would be “daft to deny the fact that they justify their extremism by reference to religious belief.” Indeed it would, but for the most part his government has hitherto been depressingly reluctant to confront the reality of militant Islam. That’s a product of its habitual political correctness and its habitual political opportunism (all those Muslim voters), but something else is also blame: As a result of living in one of Europe’s most secular countries, Britain’s establishment no longer understands quite what religious fundamentalism is, or how dangerous it can be.

To these supposedly worldly folk, religion is quaint, largely benign, and as much a part of the English landscape as a vandalized Victorian church. To be enthusiastic about it is either odd, foreign, or, somewhere between the two, Northern Irish. As Tony Blair may now be conceding, both that view, and the policies it implies, have to change, and so does the idea that all religious traditions are broadly similar. They are not. What the religious believe differs from person to person, and, so, just as importantly, does how they believe.


Militant Islam is a very specific menace. The U.K. needs to deal with it, subtly where possible, and head-on where necessary. And to do this, it will be essential to start taking Muslim fundamentalism, its beliefs, and its very real appeal, seriously. The explanation that the problem is primarily one of poverty will not do either as explanation or excuse, something that Blair now appears to accept. The corollary of this is that relying alone on the remedies of the welfare state will not be enough. Obvious, you might think, but Tony Blair heads the government behind such absurdities as the claim that its “Sure Start” nursery-school program is, as a means of promoting “cohesion within communities,” a useful weapon in the war against Islamic terror.

Even the understanding that the extremists benefit from the widespread feeling of alienation amongst Muslims seen as “immigrants,” one, two, or even three generations after their forbears arrived in Britain is only of limited use in confronting the central issue, the role of Islam in a broadly secular democracy. For all the New Testament’s talk of God and Caesar, putting Christianity in its proper place took long enough. To do the same for Islam in very short order is no small task, and it will take more than the language of psychiatric counseling to do it.

A starting point would be to remove Islam from the protected, sacred space it now occupies within British political discourse. Yes, mankind may be hardwired for religious belief, and, yes, religious identity is often at the core of an individual’s sense of self, but that’s no reason to fence it off from debate. In fact, if anything, that’s the very reason it must be subjected to debate, scrutiny, and criticism. The insanity of hermits aside, no faith operates in a solely spiritual manner. Allegiance to a religion will inevitably bring with it, one way or another, support for a social and political program. This holds good for any creed, but, nowadays at least, for Islam more than most, most strikingly so in societies where (in any meaningful sense) it is a new presence and thus, by definition, a force for change.

In theory, there’s nothing too objectionable about that. Britain’s Muslim voters should, like all other British subjects, be free to pursue their agenda, even if it happens to be a religious agenda, at the ballot box. The essence of democracy, however, is debate. If some citizens want to see all or part of their ideology made law, be it conservatism, socialism, Islam, Christianity, or whatever, they are perfectly entitled to do so, but just because a number of those same voters happen to believe that their particular ideology is the word of God does not mean that they have the right to stop everyone else from commenting upon it, and “comment” in a democracy can be a very rough thing. Some of it may be gentle and dispassionate analysis but be ready too for ridicule, insult, and intellectual assaults that, fairly or unfairly, set out to demonstrate that a set of beliefs is rooted in myth, malevolence, or ignorance. My best guess is that the illogic, cruelty, uselessness, and superstition of Islamic extremism will not fare so well in such open debate, but merely demonstrating that it can be the subject of free and open discussion ought in itself to be a useful educational exercise.

This will be no magic bullet. The debate can, and will, be nasty, divisive, and inflammatory. It may make things worse before it makes them better, but in the end it’s a lot healthier than a mute, castrated democracy of silenced speech, sullen apathy, and ever-increasing resentment. Up until now the Blair government has, by looking to subdue criticism of Islam, appeared intent on offering Britons just that. Its notorious Racial and Religious Hatred Bill included provisions criminalizing “abusive and insulting” language or behavior intended or likely to stir up “religious hatred.” Mercifully, this dangerously subjective wording was watered down as the result of a parliamentary revolt, with the result that the words or behavior in question are now required to be “threatening” and deliberately designed to stir up religious hatred. That was an improvement, but, given that threatening behavior is (quite rightly) already illegal in England, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that government was sending out a signal that, when it comes to debating religion, special rules apply.

Needless to say, even this has not been enough to satisfy Labour’s perennially authoritarian leadership. Last month two leaders of the unlovely British National party prosecuted under racial hatred laws for some highly unpleasant remarks (caught by a hidden BBC camera) that they had made about Islam were acquitted. The first response of Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer and the man most likely to move into 10 Downing Street next year, was to make clear that it was time to take yet another look at the law. Despite Friday’s speech, I still suspect that Tony Blair might well agree.

That’s madness. That’s cowardice. That’s appeasement. And it’s the kind of thinking that, one day, may lead to disaster.


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