Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Mind Your Head

I notice that while I was away senior Labour politicians have been speaking out against Muslim women wearing the veil. Not so very long ago they did the same in relation to ‘youths’ wearing ‘hoodies’ (I wear a hoodie a lot: as a member of a New Monastic community, I find it symbolically appropriate; given the climate of the British Isles, I also find it extremely practical). Men of Yorkshire, beware: your flat caps may be next in line…

The reason given is that the veil is “a visible statement of separation.” As, indeed, are the turban and the skull cap (the latter worn by Jewish men to show respect for God and as a reminder that there is always something between man and God). From a Christian perspective, we carry the idea of being set apart for God – that is, having been made holy – and of ‘being in the world but not of the world’ (John 17); of becoming “…blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life…” (Philippians 2:14-16). In other words, there is both a sense in which we fully participate in the wider society, and a sense in which we consider ourselves to be separate, in a way that challenges society where we believe it falls short.

From a religious viewpoint – and freedom of religion is enshrined as a human right – visible statements of separation are helpful, both for the person who wears the statement and for those who see the statement. I for one am glad that there are such statements, as they make me think about how I live my life, and compel me to address the plank of wood in my own eye before I speak about the speck of sawdust in someone else’s.

It is often argued that as there is a wide variety of practice among Muslim women – some wear a scarf over the top of their head but not covering their face; or even a scarf tied around the neck – that one can remain a devout Muslim while abandoning the veil. But this misses a significant point: Islam is not an ethnicity or even a culture, but a religion. We do not so much have a Muslim community in the UK as Pakistani and Indian and Bangladeshi and Malaysian and Indonesian and Iranian and Nigerian and Turkish and West Indian and etcetera communities. To consider them culturally identical is bizarre. When European immigrants sailed into New York from Ireland and Italy and Poland – all Catholic nations – they did not consider themselves to be a single community, spoken for by a single voice. Over time they have become Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans and Polish-Americans: that is, they have become integrated into American society while retaining their own heritage. British Muslims are both British and Muslim, and live with the tension of negotiating a way of life that draws on their inheritance with integrity while reapplying it in a particular context – a context in which they are widely misunderstood. As a Christian, I can identify with all that!

It is also argued that wearing “visible statements of separation” is a provocative act, and as such creates unhelpful tension. But surely for an act to be provocative [in a certain way] there must be the intent to provoke [in that way]? That is, yes, I want to provoke people to think about how they live life; but I don’t want to goad people into a fight. Moreover, even if someone does something with the intention of goading me into a fight, I have the choice to walk away: for an act to be truly provocative takes two…

So here is a plea to our politicians, including the man who wants to be our next Prime Minister: please don’t tell the populace what we should or shouldn’t wear. That takes the Nanny State too literally and too far. And far from addressing the problem of tension in our post 9/11 world, it only adds fuel to the fires you hope to put out.

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