By John O’Mahony
Jack Straw’s article three weeks ago about the wearing of the hijab has unleashed a large and very important public discussion about the relationship of Muslims to the rest of British society.
Ministers including the Prime Minster have taken sides with — in the case of most of those who have spoken — or against, Straw’s position that Muslims are at fault in holding on to social-religious mores and practices which cut them off from others in Britain, behind self-erected and self-sustained cultural walls.
Straw in his article, and Blair in his comments, have been at pains to stress that they are not questioning the right of Muslim citizens to choose to veil themselves, but only the desirability and advisability of that choice.
Connected issues have helped focus the question raised by Straw more sharply. Should a woman who insists on keeping her face veiled be employed as classroom assistant?
Whether socialists would have chosen to start this discussion as Straw did, it is now a fact. The case for what Straw and others have done is a strong one. There is also a case against.
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 Islamic chauvinists 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”.
They are openly discussing Islam and its impact on British life in a way that for a long time was ruled out by both “political correctness” and fear of unleashing chauvinists and racists eager to attack easily identifiable Muslim people with dark skin.
Islam, militant political-religious Islam, has exerted a relentless pressure for others to accommodate to its norms and standards - most dangerous, as Solidarity has argued, their de facto demand for the suppression of the long-accepted standards of free speech, freedom to write and publish novels like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, free criticism of religion etc.
Straw, Blair, Phil Woolas etc are confronting Muslims with the suggestion, if not the demand, that the accommodation on some of these questions should be the other way around.
They may be signalling a break with the long-dominant invertebrate-liberal “cultural relativism” which in its extreme form pretends that one culture, mindset, religion is just as good as another. Thereby the cultural relativists abjured judgement.
Thereby they signalled willingness to abandon for some people — including women in the Islamic communities, or, in the notorious Victoria Climbie case, children in certain African Christian sects — and for some areas of British society, the standards it has taken British people centuries to win.
The assertion by such as Straw that the assumptions of British liberal democracy — day to day secularism, a world where citizenship includes women’s rights as citizens, and that this world is better than that of traditional Islam — can easily be denounced as “chauvinism”, “racism” and “Islamophobia”.
At issue here are matters of judgement, choice, preferment - including the choice to let oneself, or refuse to let oneself, be driven from reasoning, and reasoned discussed, about important issues by the use of such labels.
The case against Straw et al is also strong.
Is it appropriate for a minister or ministers to start a discussion on the hijab which cannot but — initially at least — and indeed has, licenced an open-season on Muslims for those want to target them?
Is it appropriate to have a government minister, Ruth Kelly, a devout member of the vicious Catholic cult Opus Dei, lecturing Muslims about religious self-exclusion? In any case, it is very, very odd. It cannot but give a religion-vs-religion tincture to the criticism of Muslims. One writer has said that Kelly, the would-be Opus Dei member (except that it is too reactionary to let her, a mere woman, join!) observes the necessary distinction, which many Muslims do not, between religion and politics. Things like the hijab are by no means clearly and distinctly political. In any case this claim is somewhat problematic.
Is it appropriate to have a Prime Minister who is himself a crypto-Catholic (and who very likely will openly become a Catholic once he is out of office) and whose government is doing great social harm by encouraging the spread of faith schools (and who sends his children to a selective Catholic school) — is it right to have such a Prime Minister lecture society about religiously-inspired division? In any case it is at least as odd for Blair as for Kelly to do it.
Is it appropriate for Blair and Kelly, who are reportedly fighting a last ditch battle in the cabinet against extending gay rights, to lecture Muslims, or any other religious group, about the separation of politics and religion?
If it can be argued that it is right for the government to start such a discussion, and despite initially stimulating chauvinists and racists, the exertion of social pressure on Islam which it is applying is ultimately good (as now I tend to think) it is simply not true that the division can simply be attributed to Muslim exclusiveness.
It 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 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 hostile to Muslim people .
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.
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.
The secularist fight against Islam, as against all religion, is only 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.