By Sean Matgamna
Do Muslim women in Britain have the right under law to wear the hijab or the niqab (face-covering veil)? Yes, they do.
Has anybody challenged their legal right to dress as they feel their religion demands? Not that I know of.
Is it appropriate for a government minister, Jack Straw, to publicly criticise the religious observances of the Muslim community? No, surely, it is not!
What Straw said, of course, was, in and of itself, reasoned and “balanced”: He added that he “defend[s] absolutely the right of any woman to wear a headscarf. As for the full veil, wearing it breaks no laws…”
His observations about the face-covering veil were, essentially, true and just.
The charge that what Straw said was, ipso facto, “racist” is pernicious nonsense. To believe that is to believe that any criticism of Islam, of Muslims, and of the beliefs, customs and practices of Muslim communities, is, per se, racist! There is more than an echo of the affair of the Danish cartoons in the outcry of the kitsch-left and the chauvinists of Islam against Straw.
Even a Government minister like Jack Straw should be defended against misrepresentation by the Muslim bigots, and their kitsch-left and invertebrate-liberal toadies, who make that charge. We must insist that he has the right to say such things, without being subjected to hysterical accusations of “racism”.
But language, especially political language, is a social activity.
To do what Straw has just done, in the atmosphere in Britain right now, is to light a match in a gas-filled room. It is to pour petrol on a fire.
Inevitably Straw has given the green light to people who want to have a go at Muslims, who are not at all concerned to have a reasonable discussion about Muslim women, or with Muslims...
Worse than that. To do what Straw has done is to radically misrepresent — by way of stark one-sidedness — how things stand between the Muslim communities and the broader British society.
It is not just their religious observances that “distance” and separate the Muslim communities, Muslim women included, but also the social realities of Blair and Straw’s Britain. Unemployment and discrimination, for instance
It may be true that people of a common background and a common distinct religion, will naturally, like Irish immigrants did in Kilburn, Camden or Archway, tend to come together. For that natural tendency to produce the level of Muslim ghettoisation we have in Britain, requires in addition, the hostile pressures — and not only against their religion — which abound in our society towards dark-skinned foreign people.
Dark-skinned Muslim people are victims in this society. They are easy targets. Straw has shown just how easy a target they are. Shamelessly racist newspapers, like the Express — one of a number of similar headlines: “Muslims pledge to ruin Straw”! — have weighed-in to turn his words into denunciation, blame-mongering, thinly disguised hate-mongering against identifiable Muslims.
The serious left has to combine the fight against racism and bigotry against Muslim people with appropriate hostility to their ideas, and towards the Muslim clerical-fascist political formations. If we cannot combine these things, but must, as the kitsch left insists, in order to fight racism, subordinate ourselves to reactionary Islamic religious and clerical-fascist formations, then we commit political suicide. If we deny ourselves the right to freely criticise Islam, or any other religion, that self-effacement is also a form of political suicide.
Criticising and denouncing Islam, we have nothing in common with those who are hostility to Muslim people .
Whatever Straw intended, the main issue that emerges in this kerfuffle is the freedom of Muslim people to practice what they see as their religious rites and customs, and, within the law, to behave as they think their religion demands they should behave- without having to face denunciation and stigmatisation for it.
The first concern of socialists and secularists in this business must be to the defend the right of Muslims to practice their religion without harassment, bullying, or hate-mongering.
In writing his article, now, Straw was, by all indications, concerned to boost his political visibility in preparation to become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. He wrote his article as a cynical ploy to increase his “profile” and his chances. He has certainly raised his standing with Britain’s foul demagogic, irresponsible bourgeois press!
Of course, it is necessary to continue to defend the right to criticise religion and religious practices — for example the way certain African religious sects treat children — without the critic being automatically labelled and dismissed as a racist. Secularists, socialists and feminists also criticise the hijab as a social institution which is discriminatory against women.
On the left now all critical thought, all critical awareness on such questions, is drowned out by loud choruses of “racist!” One need only read the hysterical reactions of the SWP press. Any criticism or explicit dissent from Islam is “racism” to these increasingly demented people.
Even so, defence of the right of Muslim people to live free of harassment, abuse, denunciation; and to live free from the casual, brutal, self-serving attentions of politicians-on-the-make, like Straw and Reid, is the fundamental issue here.
The secularist fight against Islam, as against all religion, is hindered when rational discussion is contaminated and poisoned by ethnic and national hatreds. When criticism of Islam, or say, Catholicism, the religion of the large recent Polish group of migrants into Britain — is a mere mask for chauvinism and racism.
Straw has not contributed to the cultural struggle against Islam or the political struggle against political Islam. On the contrary he has stoked up a foul conflagration of bigotry and hate.