End this Muslim-Mania

The frenzied obsession with veils and all things Islamic looks like a distraction from facing up to some home truths about our society.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Editor-at-large

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Topics Politics

We hear a lot about ‘Islamophobia’ in Britain today. But to judge by events of the past week, the country seems to be more in the grip of Muslim-Mania – a sort of frenzied obsession with all things Islamic.

While New Labour minister Jack Straw’s objections to women wearing the veil dominated the headlines and sparked angry national debate, the news was also filled with stories about everything from a Muslim policeman asking not to guard the Israeli embassy, through reports of religious/race riots in Royal Windsor (see Windsor: A town divided by racial hate?, by Nathalie Rothschild), to a Muslim taxi driver being fined for barring a guide-dog.

Muslims may make up more than a quarter of the electorate in a few places such as Straw’s Blackburn constituency – they number around 15 per cent of the population where I live in north-east London. But in a wider perspective, according to the 2001 Census, Muslims account for just over three per cent of the total population in England (and far less elsewhere in the UK).

So why this growing national obsession with what they wear and how they live? What is behind the furore about the veil and the wider outbreak of Muslim-Mania?

Remove the blindfold from our own eyes, and we might see that all of this fuss about how the rest of society sees Muslims is really about how we see ourselves. The separateness of the Muslim community, and its comparatively strong sense of identity, touches upon our own insecurity about wider society, who we are and what holds us together today.

As a physical symbol of separation, the Muslim veil has become a focus of concern. But it is only the most tangible barrier in an atomised society where people are now separated by all sorts of invisible Berlin Walls, dividing communities and identities from one another and even children from adults. The authorities and politicians like Straw have contrived to reinforce these differences, through promoting everything from the politics of diversity to paranoia about child safety. They should hardly be surprised when people demonstrate an inclination to play the part allotted to them, by donning a veil or taking up some other symbol of separation.

Straw’s remarks about the veil, originally made in a little column in his local paper, have provoked an extraordinary ruckus, with other leading New Labour figures lining up for or, mostly, against him. For years the New Labour leadership has been divided only by personal bickering rather than political debate. Now that they have finally started arguing over a proper issue, what is it about? War, the economy, the health service? No – the etiquette of what Muslim women should wear inside a Lancashire MP’s constituency office.

Meanwhile, outside the Labour Party, there has been a furious reaction from many Muslim groups claiming that the former foreign secretary has insulted Islam or offended his constituents. Some have even demanded he resign as MP (I have not yet seen a placard demanding he be beheaded, but that may only be a matter of time).

This battle of the niqab is a phoney war on all sides. It is perfectly reasonable for anybody to object to women wearing veils in a 21st century society. Equally, women have the personal right to wear one if they so wish (although schools and other public bodies should also be free to bar them). Either way, this is not a big political issue. Nor should it become a substitute for discussing the far deeper problems of multiculturalism.

Coming at the same time as they are running a moral crusade against the supposed menace of ‘Islamophobia’, Straw’s remarks reveal the highly contradictory mess that the authorities are in today. It is a mess largely of their own making. They have promoted multicultural identity politics at every turn – just last month a government report called for more women wearing headscarves or hijabs to be promoted to the frontline of national television.

These sorts of measures have done much to reinforce the sense of Muslims as a race apart. Now Straw has suddenly tried to draw a line, to say that things have gone too far. But against the background of institutionalised separate identities, such a token gesture has stirred predictable resentment.

Those voicing the predictable protests, meanwhile, are equally guilty of phoney posturing. The veil is not, as many who know about these things have pointed out, an integral symbol of the Islamic faith. What has been less commented upon is that it is often not a religious symbol at all. Many of the younger Muslim women who have now begun wearing headscarves and veils have done so without encouragement from their traditionalist parents. For these girls it is more a sign of youthful rebellion and an identity of their own. One outspoken young woman interviewed on BBC Newsnight last Friday in full veil did not mention religion once in her defence of the niqab, but insisted it was all about what shewanted and not being dictated to by fashion magazines. She could have been a Goth or a piercing fanatic defending their lifestyle choices. Similarly, the websites campaigning for the right to wear headscarves and veils talk the language of personal freedom and choice rather than devotion to Islam. This looks more like a Muslim version of the me, me, me culture than an issue of political or religious principle (see A veiled debate, by Josie Appleton).

The veil raises hackles because it is seen as such a tangible symbol of separateness. But easy targets are rarely the right ones. It is high time we started to address the less visible underlying divisions, anxieties and estrangements that run through society, separating us from each other.

What do we as a society want to stand for, rather than simply against? Muslim communities have sometimes been turned into a sort of proxy for measuring what it doesn’t mean to be British today. Thus government ministers have variously announced that ‘we’ are against forced marriages, or female circumcision, and now the veil. But that hardly amounts to a set of universal values or worldview that we might hold in common or conduct a debate about.

Let us stop this Muslim-Mania, whether it involves protesting against aspects of Islamic culture or bending over backwards to accommodate them. Such an obsessive focus on Muslim matters can only make things worse by reinforcing separate identities, and distract from the far bigger issue of sorting out where society as a whole is heading. The frenzied obsession with all things Islamic looks like a diversion from facing up to some home truths.

There are two related and wrong-headed notions of tolerance in circulation today. Either it means any cultural expression must be tolerated without criticism, for fear of giving offence. Or it means cracking down on anything that is deemed intolerant. Genuine tolerance, however, ought to mean a willingness to live with the expression of views and lifestyles which you object to or even abhor. But it also means the freedom ruthlessly to criticise them, regardless of who might take offence. That is the sort of tolerance we need if we are to stand a chance of sorting out the mess left behind by multicultural identity politics. The faces of Muslim women are far from the only things that would be better off out in the open for all to see.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics