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Muslim apartheid: getting behind the veil.

The issue of Muslim women wearing veils in public that has ignited an unprecedented national debate in the United Kingdom, and that has already led to bans in a number of European countries, is destined to become an issue in Canada, too. Partially because the debate runs deeper than one of culture only; it touches on issues of security, identity and multiculturalism generally. Even so, when Ontario leaders Premier Dalton McGuinty and opposition leader John Tory commented to the Toronto Sun on the subject recently, both appeared to deny the importance of the issue and passed it off as a purely private matter.

McGuinty told the Sun, "One of the strengths of this society that we're building together is that we respect one another's traditions and faiths, as long as we understand that we're building here on common ground and respecting the law of the land." John Tory said, "I think what we should be doing here is spending our time trying to find ways to bring people together and to understand each other better, rather than giving them instructions on how they can dress or how they can live their lives."

Sadly, both responses reflect a naive attitude to what has become in many European countries a deeply separatist issue on the part of Muslims that actually denies the reality of the social "togetherness" and integration both leaders are speaking about. Nor does it appear they have even thought through the serious identity and security problems which the non-integrating controversies implied by issues like the veil.

Jack Straw

When former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made plain his views on asking Muslim women to remove the veil in his constituency consultations, he must have known the furore he risked. But it appears to have been an issue troubling Straw for some time. And his comments have clearly laid bare a wider public concern.

When Straw stated his belief that full-face veils were "a visible statement of separation," both Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown backed his raising of the issue. The British Islamic Human Rights Commission has, though, accused Straw of "selectively discriminating."

The ensuing national debate has been fed by a clutch of very pragmatic test situations. They include that of a 24-year old Muslim teaching assistant who is taking legal action against her Church of England school in West Yorkshire for suspending her after she refused to remove her veil when teaching the children. Leaving aside the absurdity of how a Muslim came to be working at a Church of England school, she additionally refused to work with men. At an Islamic school in Leicester, non-Muslim girls have been ordered to wear headscarves. Add to this the recent public anger expressed over a Muslim police officer excused duties at the Israeli Embassy, and the violent street protests in Windsor, a London borough, over plans to build a mosque in the area, and one gets some idea of the mounting public resentment against the cultural 'encroachment' of distinctly un-British or Western democratic values.

Muslim reaction

The reaction of Muslim leaders and Muslims on the streets of Jack Straw's constituency at Blackburn has been the highly predictable one whenever Western and Muslim values clash: that of claiming they are "offended" and being "victimized" by Straw's remarks. Dr. Reefat Drabu of the Muslim Council of Britain said, "We seem to be all the time defending ourselves and we haven't got the opportunity to evolve within the culture we're in."

This in fact has been the standard Muslim line over cultural issues for some time, and mostly British values have given way allowing Muslims to receive special status treatment. But the remorseless erosion of the values of British society appears finally to have set off a backlash focused on the debate over the veil. But the subtext to even that debate is the whole thorny issue of multiculturalism generally. Some have referred to multiculturalism-the concept that there is no national prevailing culture and thus 'values'--as a social 'ticking time-bomb.' It seems that strong national support for Straw's remarks now suggests that many Britons, including many British Muslims, have had enough of the erosion of British public values and the constant calls for special treatment. At a recent press briefing Tony Blair even indicated that his government has now all but abandoned the former policy of multiculturalism altogether.

Harriet Harman, a candidate for Labour's deputy leadership, said: "If you want equality you have to be in society, not hidden away from it. The veil is an obstacle to women's participation on equal terms." What would Ontario NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo who told the Sun, "If they choose to wear a veil then so be it--this is a woman's right" make of that? If DiNovo is correct, then by what overruling right will she be able to challenge a prospective terrorist to take it off?

U.K. race relations minister Phil Woolas was bullish concerning the suspended teaching assistant, "She should be sacked. She has put herself in a position where she can't do her job." Such a strong reaction from Labour government ministers, who have in the past been apt to take the line of appeasement and capitulation to religious/cultural Muslim demands, reflects a change in the national mood.

U.K. Conservative deputy leader, David Davis, has also gone on record in a Sunday Telegraph editorial warning that Muslims themselves were "creating apartheid by shutting themselves off." Davis' line echoed strongly the observation recently made by Australian Prime Minister, John Howard. After suggesting that Muslim immigrants, like any other, should make the effort to "fit in" to Australian society, Howard was roundly condemned by Muslim leaders, who warned of "blood on the streets" at the remarks. In Britain, a recent ICM poll showed that 57 per cent of voters also want Muslims to do more to "fit in," and 53 percent agree with Straw that full veils create a barrier between Muslims and everyone else.

David Davis observed more generally: "There is a growing feeling that the Muslim community is excessively sensitive to criticism and unwilling to engage in substantive debate." He added, "Much worse is the feeling of some Muslim leaders that as a community they should be protected from criticism, argument, parody, satire and all other challenges in a society that has free speech as its highest value." Davis added, "It is straightforward: I respect your religion, you respect mine and we all respect our laws. No special treatment." Davis believes "the very unity of our nation" is at stake. And therein lies the rub on all such cross-cultural issues as the veil for all Western nations.

In Britain's case, Government minister, Dennis MacShane, was blunt, citing the current debate as "a fightback ... to reclaim Britain from the grip of those who refuse to acknowledge the centrality of British values of tolerance, fair play and parliamentary democratic freedoms." Constant Muslim claims to having been "offended" by this or that in British culture and the demand to be exempt from cultural norms is a clear message that far from "evolving in the culture we're in," as Dr. Drabu claims, some Muslims are working for a cultural apartheid.

The reality is that though Islam is a religion, Islamism is a socio-political movement. Thus, what is often formulated as 'religious rights' issues, turn out to be dubious theology (nowhere is the veil taught as obligatory in the Koran) and blatantly subverting of national traditions and values, leading, ultimately, to a 'state within a state' situation. In such circumstances integration not only becomes a nonstarter, but the very fabric of Western democratic cohesive society becomes threatened. These are the questions then that all Western nations, including Canada, with burgeoning Muslim populations are going to have to wrestle with.

In the U.K., even Trevor Philips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, has moved to back Jack Straw's remarks, expressing the view that the veil is "not a matter of public policy, it's a question of social etiquette and manners." And David Davis appears to agree, indicating that he would not however back a vote that formally banned veils. But, in the post-9/11 world of global Islamic extremism where the issue of identity and body searches are hot security considerations, I think they may well yet be forced to reconsider the banning-of-veils issue, given that many European countries have already done so.

France banned headscarves at its state schools in 2004. It also banned all "conspicuous" symbols, including the crucifix. Given the enshrined separation of state and religion the measure had overwhelming public support. The law on religious symbols and scarves does not apply to Muslim schools and universities, however.

In July 2005 the Italian parliament approved anti-terrorist laws that made it an offence to hide one's features from the public, including by the wearing of the burqa.

Though the German Federal Constitutional Court ruled in favour of a teacher wanting to wear a headscarf to school, it allowed four local states to legislate as they saw fit. Four German states subsequently banned teachers for wearing headscarves and in the state of Hesse the ban applies to all civil servants.

In Belgium, the city of Maaseik, on the Dutch border, has banned the niqab, which covers the whole body except for the eyes. Even in the strongly Muslim 'secular' state of Turkey headscarves are banned in civic places--state or private--and official buildings.


McGuinty, Tory and DiNovo might be appalled at such a thought, but when exceptionally pro-Muslim societies like France have taken such measures to prevent cultural apartheid creep by stealth, there may need to be a realistic understanding that failing to do so almost inevitably leads to what David Davis described as "a series of closed societies within our open society." The ludicrous corollary of which could easily mean that if Osama Bin Laden himself were to 'veil up' he could pass from one end of Ottawa to the other escaping detection, effectively unidentifiable and unchallengeable under present rules.

Though the issue of the veil is an iconic one it is clearly representative of a much more important issue: that of ultimate authority and who wields power. Do national Western civilization values, rooted as they are in the Judeo-Christian tradition that bequeathed them, really count? Or should the religio-politico cultural and values of a global ideology that, if the British and European experience reveals anything, strongly resists social integration and promotes cultural apartheid, take precedence? The malaise for Canada, like all Western nations, is that there doesn't appear in reality to be a middle ground because Muslims do not allow for one. The values of one or the other must ultimately, it seems, prevail.

Peter C. Glover is a writer on political, cultural and faith matters. More of his writing can be found at
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Author:Glover, Peter C.
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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