What a furore this morning over Jack Straw’s comments on Muslim women who wear veils. Let’s try and make some sense of this. Islam teaches that women should dress modestly, although Islamic scholars are themselves divided on what constitutes the required level of modesty in a Muslim woman’s dress. For some scholars, and therefore some Muslims, this modesty extends to the face. I understand this. As a tolerant, liberal, christian man my earnest desire is to try to understand and respect the beliefs and views of my neighbour.
It is important, however, that the Muslim community also tries to understand the fact that in the non-Muslim communities of this country, covering the face has historically had a different meaning. That meaning is a more negative one – that the wearer has some desire to hide their face. With the exception of Muslim women, if anyone else walked down the local high street with their face hidden, the western instinct is to feel threatened.
Jack Straw also made another fair point, namely, a conversation between two people usually involves non-verbal cues including gestures and facial expressions. It is therefore uncomfortable, for those unused to it, to conduct a conversation with someone who has their face hidden.
It is therefore vital that we are able to have a dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims about this without anyone getting hysterical. A Muslim woman should consider carefully both viewpoints when deciding whether or not to wear a veil – but ultimately it must be her choice. But some of the more knee jerk reactions we have heard today, from both sides, will do nothing to promote harmony.
Mutual respect and understanding is the only path forward.
Blogging, as I do, from High Wycombe is an interesting perspective at the moment. There’s an air of disbelief at the arrest of bomb plot suspects. There’s still a trickle of pro-BNP comments arriving in my inbox in reply to a post I made a couple of months ago. There’s so many misconceptions and falsehoods among those comments that it leaves me shaking my head in despair. The final comment reads “Rather then calling the BNP racist why don’t you actually look at their policies?”- so I did (not that I didn’t have a good idea anyway). You don’t need to dig very far into their website to find policies like “We also call for preference in the job market to be given to native Britons” and “we, the native British people, will be an ethnic minority in our own country within sixty years”. For the term “native British”, I presume they mean “white”, and whatever way you dress it up, “white supremacy” is racism – or even Naziiism.
I’d be interested to know if the term “native British” refers to “all white Britons”, or just those who are short with red or black hair – since the majority of us “white Britons” will be a genetic mixture of Roman, Viking, Germanic and Norman? Because these islands have been enriched by peoples from futher afield for some two thousand years! The British Isles must be populated by the most culturally and racially diverse mix of peoples on earth. Quite clearly, the most recent immigrants – those of the last 60 years – are still viewed as “different” by some. I suppose the BNP would claim that they are the “least British”. But the fact remains that most of those who attend the mosque at the end of my road were born here, and have just as much right to call themselves “British” as I do.
I am naturally shocked to find that a handful of my neighbours feel so alienated that they could be tempted to support extremists. But whose failure is it? Who built the walls? I contend that we all did. In our democracy, we are lucky enough to elect our representatives and legislators. Every British Citizen has a voice, and every British Citizen can put himself forward to become involved in the political life of his or her country. We have to find ways to reach out to the disaffected and the alienated. We have to build bridges of mutual respect and understanding, and break down the walls of suspicion.
The alternative does not bear thinking about