Simon Barrow

The veils governing our own thinking by Simon Barrow

By Simon Barrow
October 12, 2006

Jack StrawMany people will argue that House of Commons leader Jack Straw has been brave in his recent pronouncements about the full public veiling of Muslim women – arguing that this is an impediment to positive community relations in plural Britain.

His concerns have been backed, in varying degrees, by the odd combination of Salman Rushdie, Labour chancellor Gordon Brown, Tory MP Gerald Howarth, the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, the far-right British National Party, some women’s groups, the National Secular Society, the Bishop of London, and writers or editorials in The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Star, The Sunday Telegraph, The Sunday Times and The Independent.

Many others have deplored what they see as Mr Straw’s insensitivity or have suggested that the issue is rather more complex than he suggests. But irrespective of the view one takes about the specific matter of coverings, the MP for Blackburn’s approach reveals, yet again, a subterranean negativity in the authorities’ relations with diverse Muslim communities. What is being promoted is the policing of boundaries, rather than the positive building of bridges.

In considering the purpose and impact of Mr Straw’s remarks, and in highlighting constructive alternatives to the government’s ‘boundary management’ strategy, it is important to see this spat as part of a wider pattern.

In recent months, there has been more and more talk in the media about ‘the problems of multi-culturalism’, suggesting that they are contributing to ‘lack of community cohesion’. That mindset seems to underlie Mr Straw’s decision to ‘speak out’ on a practice which, by his own admission, is a distinctly minority one.

Before the appalling 7/7 bombings, which sent shockwaves through Whitehall when it was revealed that ‘home grown’ militants had been behind them, Commission for Racial Equality chief (and leading Labour confidante) Trevor Phillips had already said Britain was “sleepwalking into segregation”.

He was referring to phenomena like those in Jack Straw’s own parliamentary constituency, now 30 per cent Muslim, where some schools are almost entirely composed of children from one kind of cultural or religious background. In The Blackburn Citizen (4 October 2006), Canon Chris Chivers declared: “Education is very segregated, it’s the impact of parental choice. I don’t think that’s what the government intended… But what are we actually doing about it?”

Communal divisions in multi-ethnic urban areas have undoubtedly been exacerbated through economic inequality, racism, social decay, cultural incomprehension, tabloid (and government) scaremongering about ‘immigrants’, and a policy on schools – not least faith schools – which is in danger of creating separation not cohesion.

But to talk about such delicate political matters, and to add in the unsettling domestic impact of Britain’s military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, is to raise the spectre of severe weaknesses in government policy which advisers around Number 10 are simply not prepared to contemplate.

However the truth is that, in spite of its commitment to fairness and many positive social programmes, New Labour has allowed income and outcome inequality to grow overall – something that has hit minority communities disproportionately.

It has also pandered to popular prejudice and fear on migration, leading to increased suspicion towards Muslims and others. It has accommodated religious (and therefore communal and social) selection in publicly-funded schools. It has pushed a clumsy ‘British identity’ debate which has sewn more suspicion than hope. It has seen cries of ‘political correctness’ confuse the equalities agenda. And it has identified fully with a disastrous US-led military policy in the Middle East – while failing to acknowledge what the US intelligence services universally admit, namely the link between the discontent this has caused and the growth of terror tactics.

If these difficult questions are raised, PM Tony Blair’s response, as in his recent Labour conference speech in Manchester, has been to suggest that they amount to “blaming ourselves” (he obviously wasn’t thinking of Muslims as part of that ‘we’) for the problems of hatred and violence which have resulted in inexcusable acts of terror in Britain and elsewhere. This is unfair and simplistic.

Instead, the drift of governing culture has been towards a “plague on multi-culturalism” agenda: the idea –buttressed by a fringe paranoia about ‘Londonistan’ – that the allowance of difference in social and cultural life is a major cause of the undoubted gulf that has grown between different ethnic and religious communities, not least in hard-pressed areas.

The government’s approach has therefore been what it thinks of as ‘tough love’. Strong rhetoric against “extremists” (of a kind which makes many Muslims sense that devout religious observance is in itself seen as a sign of violent militancy), calls for “vigilance and responsibility” (in a way that leaves many feeling infantilised), targeted security measures (which leave many Muslims feeling victimised), and a continued adherence to the highly questionable “war on terror” ideology.

This leads to a governing culture of lecturing rather than listening, of dividing Muslims into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and of filtering out awkward perspectives or voices which do not suit the government’s own interests and ways of looking at things.

Take Home Secretary John Reid’s speech to Muslim parents telling them to watch out for signs of radicalisation among their children. It played well to the gallery of those who want to see “firm action”. But it looked arrogant, out-of-touch and patronising towards many it was ‘aimed’ at. Not even a well-known militant’s hijacking of Mr Reid’s press conference – theoretically a propaganda godsend – could spare him that judgement.

Quite rightly, people enquired when the last time was that a Home Secretary asked ‘white’ or ‘Christian’ parents to look out for signs of their kids being seduced by BNP ideas, lured or ‘groomed’ into hatred towards Muslims, or schooled in the techniques of racial violence – which for many minority communities in the UK is a daily reality.

Indeed, given the proven link between distorted Christian theology and the justification of war and violence (look at the rhetoric of the religious right in the United States, and even of figures in the White House and Pentagon), when is the government going to ask the churches, as well as the mosques, to ensure that much-vaunted virtues of tolerance and peaceableness are thoroughly inculcated, especially in the young? That might include attitudes to women and gays, too.

The point here is not to deny the fact that there is a deep and destructive problem within some sections of Islam around issues of religiously-legitimated violence, rejectionist Wahabbi ideology, and a version of caliphate theology which suggests that a particular religious viewpoint should dominate the social order. These are big challenges. But they are ones which, in the final analysis, Muslims have to handle themselves. External prescriptions and fulminations are mostly likely to strengthen resistance to this.

A distrustful, negative and hectoring approach from the government and the media is not going to help, either. Indeed the evidence is that – along with the concrete experience of prejudice – it is further entrenching dangerous feelings of victimhood, isolation and resentment among Muslims. As with the invasion of Iraq and the war on terror, the supposed solutions become so much a part of the problem (rather than its ‘answer’) that they actually inflame it further.

Jack Straw’s comment about the veiling of Muslim women – a disputed matter in Islamic cultures – also seems to fit this negative approach of the authorities. Muslims are divided into ‘moderate’ and ‘extreme’. They need to be told how to behave. Their communities are separatist. Their identity and difference is somehow ‘not British’. The reality, of course, is much more complicated.

For some women (Muslim and non-Muslim) the niqab is an oppressive, restrictive, patriarchal and imposed practice. For others, it is a liberation from the stereotypes and controlling gaze of a hostile, degrading form of Western culture - and a specific identification with Palestinian women. For many, it is simply part of their upbringing. Or not, as the case may be.

The arguments about veiling will continue to flow. The question is, does an intervention like Mr Straw’s help? It is hard to see that it does, though there may be some collateral benefits from surfacing the issues.

One unavoidable question is, ‘who speaks for whom?’ As Halima Hussain asked on BBC News 24 (5 October 2006): “Who is Jack Straw to comment on so-called negative symbols within a religion that is not his own?”

Equally, why should “deliberately separatist” dressing be considered a Muslim issue alone? Youth culture, from hippy to punk to goth, has been based on it for years. So has Orthodox Judaism. Many nuns and monks travel in civvies these days, but others do not. Are we to go down the French route of prescribing religious (but not non-religious) symbols? Or Rotterdam’s in outlawing mosque designs as “too Islamic”? Isn’t plurality precisely based on a celebration of varied iconography and appearance?

This is, indeed, a “can of worms” that Mr Straw has opened, as the acute Asian website Pickled Politics has observed. It is, they have suggested, “the right debate at the wrong time”. Secularist playwright David Edgar has gone further, questioning the niqab but describing those who would see it prohibited as “deeply illiberal” and “contradictory” in their selective advocacy of freedom.

Then again, what is the public danger or difficulty of veiling? On the radio and TV some people have said they are threatened by women in coverings, that they pose a security threat. This seem an exaggerated and fearful response with little evidence to back it. There are many women who wish to see covering reduced or even eliminated, but who would be unhappy with a ban, believing that women need to be positively encouraged into varied expressions of their Islamic identity – not cajoled.

Of course Mr Straw has made it crystal clear that he does not support prescription. He is expressing wishes for voluntary change. But in communicating like this (‘from on high’) is he doing something which promotes or harms community and interpersonal understanding and action? If he had been invited to be part of a public Muslim conversation, it might have been different. But no matter how sensitive he tried to be (and he did), there is no escaping the sense for many of being told-off from the outside.

Similarly, while it may be true that Muslim women are prepared to unveil their faces in Mr Straw’s constituency office, he seems to have little sense of the considerable power differential involved. For some, showing their face might be comfortable. For others, fearful but unavoidable. And a number may simply decide not to see him at all. Not much of a gain for ‘inclusion’ there.

Even more worryingly, Jack Straw’s words have rapidly been co-opted by those who wish to peddle simplistic (and self-fulfilling) ‘clash of civilisations’ stereotypes. They have left Muslims who have sympathy with Mr Straw’s concern feeling that their community has been singled out for criticism yet again. They have created a polarisation between the media (who BBC Radio 4 pronounced as being “overwhelmingly in favour” of the leader of the Commons) and many in the mosques. A Muslim woman's veil was even snatched from her by a man shouting racist abuse at a bus stop in Liverpool. A number of attacks have been reported.

Similar divisions have been created around the news story of a Muslim police officer who cited personal reasons (including a fear for his safety) for wishing not to be deployed in policing the Israeli Embassy during the recent Lebanon conflict. The papers fulminated, commentators tutted about ‘special treatment’, the Police Commissioner announced an investigation. Yet the man concerned was actually worried about (wait for it) Islamist violence, and many serving officers have pointed out that such operational decisions are not uncommon, and do not have to do with what one critic misleadingly labelled “multicultural exceptionalism”.

What is needed instead of fearful and reactive ‘boundary managing’ tactics by the governing authorities, is pro-active strategies of bridge-building, conflict transformation and learning. Everybody can play a role in this.

Those involved in government need to listen to (and be seen to be listening to) a much wider range of voices in the Muslim, Asian and Black communities bout the challenges and difficulties they face. London Mayor Ken Livingstone has been traduced for his willingness to engage with radical Muslim figures, but he rightly points out that change can only come when we talk face-to-face with those with whom we disagree – sometimes profoundly. Young people, in particular, need a much bigger say. And civic and community groups can play a role in facilitating cultural and political exchange at a more than token, polite level.

On education, there needs to be a major re-examination of policy on faith schools, which are supposed to be part of a social cohesion agenda, but which actually participate in division through selection on the grounds of religion. Here the Church of England bears a heavy responsibility. By rigorously pursuing church schools as part of its mission strategy to maintain a decaying institution, it is creating an agenda which makes the idea of all-embracing community schools (without regard to religious difference) more rather than less difficult to realise.

Understandably, other communities, seeing the growing weight of Anglican and Catholic schools, want a share of ‘the action’ too. But instead of going down the road of sectional education we should be looking to truly cohesive schooling – with equal education about citizenship, religion and different life stances – as a hallmark of the mutuality engendered by all the great faith traditions, by positive humanism and by a plural notion of secularity.

In relation to the media, reporting tends to go for divisions and extremes. Different perspectives and contributions are needed to reshape tired confrontations and debates. The fearful should not always get the first call. The growing range of younger, progressive Asians who have different thoughts on culture, politics, identity, society, ‘Britishness’ and globalisation need to be heard. For part of the ‘community relations’ question is about how to handle differences within traditions, not just across too-readily homogenized groups (in fact, social constructs).

In a global environment, the impact of foreign policy – and the unpopularity of the current one across the spectrum in Britain, but especially among disaffected critics of Western hegemony – needs to be openly acknowledged and discussed. Government denial will not do. Mr Blair may wish to insist that he is right, but he needs to take genuine political account of the many who say he is not – and of the impact of that. Even David Cameron, leader of the most traditionally Atlanticist UK party, has said that the relationship between Britain and the US needs to be more critical on issues which are supposed to be about security but which may actually be increasing our insecurity.

Social policy needs to move away from over-dependence on a contract culture which often ties up deprived communities (including, not least, ones with large concentrations of Muslims) in exhausting pitch wars to compete for regeneration resources. Policing has to be rooted in participation and community involvement, difficult and expensive though that is. Urban decay and economic migration (people denied justice by a system which privileges the rich) are a warning that markets need to be built around people, community needs and the environment – not the other way around.

A different approach to immigration and to the reception and treatment of transient and new communities is therefore required. This should be one which does not constantly treat people on the move as “a problem” – which recognises instead the realities of a globalising world, which seeks the positive contribution of incomers to the changing identity of ‘our country’, and which makes the celebration of hospitality and mutual enrichment major cultural, religious, social and political features of our lives.

As far as education goes, lip service to life-long learning will no longer do. The world is changing so fast that we struggle to keep up, but we have the facility to do so in the increased capacity to meet through travel and the internet. Yet the impoverished nature of much public debate betrays huge ignorance of the various ideas, cultures, faiths and practices which have made the world what it is – and which are now remaking it.

This is exemplified by the struggle in talking meaningfully about different beliefs. Many people live in their own boxes, and emerge only for tea or to throw verbal bombs at each other, it seems. The aggressive talk of some Muslims is matched by aggression among some Christians (over cultural and moral issues) and the contempt of some secularists. Muslims have identified major issues to do with mosque education and recruiting inculturated immams. There is a difficulty with the churches, too. They are often self-regarding and out-of-touch. But there are good examples across the board, too. They need to be publicised and built on.

Two key issues in the area of current societal (and global) relations are plurality and violence. All communities need to discover the deep resources within their own traditions which will enable them to live alongside others – and offer their ‘testimony’ to the other about the distinctive goods they bring. One way of putting this would be to say that we need to witness out of the development of our different moral communities – rather than trying to impose our control mechanisms on others. This may be more of a challenge to some than to others, but it is raised by Ekklesia’s attempts to describe the onset in Europe of ‘post-Christendom’ and the challenge of ‘redeeming religion in the public square’.

As far as violence is concerned, it must be acknowledged as a major problem for religions. Both Christianity and Islam have difficult histories in this regard. Rather than trying to develop an account-sheet of wrongs, however, a positive approach would be to find ways of meeting together to share the wounds, and to seek the deep sources of peace and non-violence in our traditions.

We do not have to wait for each other over this. Behind the scenes, faith and civic groups are doing a huge amount. Christians in Britain are already in a position to reject the ‘warrior god’ deployed by some in the USA – and to follow instead the ‘wounded healer’ who is Jesus. Refusing to kill should become a core Christian identity-marker in the C21st among those baptised into one Body, and seeking (in biblical language) “the welfare of the city”. As part of the restoring of relationships between Muslims and those of other backgrounds, the churches have an opportunity to make it clear that the language and practice of ‘the crusade’ is something they utterly repent of, right down to condemning its modern manifestations.

They also need greater clarity in rejecting the imposition of ‘a Christian society’. On that basis (what might be called ‘disarmed truthfulness') there rests the opportunity and moral necessity for asking others – including Muslims – who would use coercion or violence to achieve a world in their image to lay down their arms; for solidly theological, rational and ethical reasons. This may be a major component of the future of inter-faith dialogue. Such difficult conversation is not a ‘soft option’, and it is not just for the benefit of the people involved, it is about the flourishing of humanity. It must therefore seriously engage people of ‘good faith’ but no religion.

That is partly so because, as theologian Walter Wink has pointed out, the ‘myth of redemptive violence’ (the seductive idea that killing is a way to ‘solve things’) may have distinctly ancient and religious origins, but it is now no respecter of belief boundaries – religious or secular. We all live in societies where from the cradle to the grave we are trained by our culture and our politics to believe that violence and domination is ‘natural’. It is not. It is a habit. And it is one we can best challenge by developing a shared commitment to doing things differently.

No less ‘natural’ is the negative approach to building community relations which, to judge from the approach of the UK and other governments, has become ingrained in our way of looking at the world. This negativity is not the answer to terror, but a capitulation to it in civilian clothes. Jack Straw may be right or he may be wrong in wanting to raise the issue of veiling. But even if he is right, his way of going about it is certainly unhelpful. We needs bridges far more than we need restraining barriers right now, not least because they are harder to construct and easier to knock down.

This is a modified and edited version of a comment piece which first appeared on Ekklesia’s new service.

Simon Barrow ( is co-director of Ekklesia. His background is in journalism, adult education, politics and theology, and his weblog is

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