The head of Britain’s race relations watchdog committee warned over the weekend that the “row” over some British women wearing the veil could spill into violence.
In a piece in The Sunday Times entitled “Talk now or reap the whirlwind,” Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), wrote that the debate was becoming polarized between those who want an “auto-de-fe of all Muslims” and the defensiveness of some Muslim communities who turn “the most neutral of comments” into another act of persecution. Mr. Phillips said people “need to chill.”
All the recent evidence shows that we are, as a society, becoming more socially polarized by race and faith. The only place where this may not be true is in our schools and the main reason is that in many of our cities things cannot get any worse. Many of our schools are almost mono-ethnic and white flight is entrenching these damaging patterns.
The real problem that Britain faces is not Muslims’ way of life. Nor is it Islamophobia, poverty or foreign policy, although all these things are contributing to the turmoil. and our failure to find a civilized way of talking about our diversity.
The Telegraph also quotes Muhammad Abdul Bari, the secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, as saying the debate has become “increasingly ugly and shrill.” He said that some Muslim women who wear the veil have had it forcibly torn off, and that some Muslim religious leaders had been beaten up by gangs of thugs. Labor Party MP Shahid Malik, voicing strong support for Phillips’s call for dialogue, warned that extremists on both sides could be taking advantage of the current “crisis.”
In an opinion piece about women and Islam, Cathy Young, a contributing editor for Reason magazine, writes Monday in The Boston Globe that support must be given to Muslim feminists who are struggling to “reform Islam and separate its spiritual message from the human patriarchal baggage.” Young also writes that using the language of tolerance to justify oppressive practices “a grotesque perversion of liberalism.”
The veiling debate is a case in point. No amount of rhetorical sleight of hand can disguise the fact that the full-face veil makes women, literally, faceless. Some Muslim women in the West may choose this garb (which is not mandated in the Koran), but their explanations often reveal an internalized misogynistic view of women as creatures whose very existence is a sexual provocation to men. What’s more, their choice helps legitimize a custom that is imposed on millions of women around the world who have no choice.
But in the Israeli daily Haaretz, columnist and blogger Bradley Burston writes a stinging indictment of the hypocrisy of some attitudes in the West entitled “Targeting Muslims—the new Inquisition.” He writes that, even before 9/11, law-abiding Muslims had been “scorned for their faith, shunned for their piety, falsely condemned for dual-loyalty, blamed for the crimes of terrorists they abhor.” For instance, he says, some critics of Islam say its values are incompatible with those of the West.
And what Western values might these be? Are they the time-honored Western values of intolerance for people of color, suspicion and marginalization of non-Christians, fear and loathing of non-Whites? Exploitation of and contempt for the residents of former imperial possessions and colonies?
At this point, there will be a pause for the springloaded Islamophobes among us to suggest that it is any society’s right and duty to protect itself against elements that may foment terrorism. There will be those who will argue that the veil may both mask and encourage extremism.
Perhaps it is time for us in the Western world to declare that Islam has a right to exist.
Perhaps it is time for us to recognize that non-violent, non-Judeo-Christian religious observance is a right, not an act of war.