Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Veiled, Again

98% of Daily Express readers believe that the wearing of the full veil should be banned by law in the UK. And in their defence they can point to the fact that several Muslim commentators, both male and female, believe that the tradition of the veil is oppressive to women. On the other hand, there are those Muslim women who choose to wear the veil who claim that they feel much safer on our streets behind it…

So there is internal debate among British Muslims as to the appropriateness or not of wearing the veil. Which is exactly where the debate belongs, as our multiple Muslim communities wrestle with how to be authentically British and Muslim and of another cultural heritage but no longer living in that culture.

Why might a Christian choose to speak out in defence of Muslims? Here’s one historical precedent, from the time when Jews were being persecuted in Nazi Germany:

“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.”

Pastor Martin Niemöller

That might appear to be motivated purely by self-interest, but in fact it goes beyond that. Yes, it recognizes that if I won’t stand for the freedom of others, I should not expect anyone to make a stand for my own freedom. But this also recognizes that we are all connected to each other, in an intricate way: that I am, indeed, my brother’s keeper, and will be held accountable for what I do – or stand by and allow to be done – to them.

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  1. Anonymous9:12 am

    I just don't think it's this simple.
    This is a situation where, if you give rights to one community you take rights from another. The English need to speak to a face is equivalent to the Muslim need to cover up their women.

    Anyway, there are practical problems. At the moment banks will not allow people with crash helmets on to enter their premises. Should they, and possibly all shops and offices refuse to allow veiled people to enter. It is unlikely that many Muslim women rob banks but they shoplift with as much gusto (and with more appropriate clothing) as any non-Muslim person and it is possible that some non-Muslim armed robber, who used to wear a crash helmet to work, might work out that a burka is an even better hider of identity.

    I think the hijab and head scarves are great, especially if colourful. But veils are problematical and likening Jack Straw to a proto-nazi is an exageration that takes away from your argument because of its contextual abuse. Not that I'm against you insulting any m.p. of any political hue - but horses for courses.

    Hoodies? Do you wear your hood up, inside? Do you wear it when it's too hot to wear it?

  2. madpriest - thanks for your comments!

    Agreed, this issue is not a simple one. One of the things I like about blogging as a form is that a post says, "this is how I see the world today" - it is partial, provisional, not claiming to be an exhaustive doctoral thesis or a docrinal statement over which one is prepared to be burnt at the stake rather than recant...

    I don't think that the (I assume white anglo saxon) English 'need' - preference? - to speak to a face is 'equivalent to' the Muslim veil; but I do agree that there needs to be a process of give and take between different cultures living in the same space. But, I think what I see is vocal people on both sides demanding that the other community concedes everything, while they concede nothing - all stirred by the media.

    Agreed, there are practical problems, but the negotiation of everyday life in the real world is full of practical problems and creative or uncreative ways of addressing them.

    I'm not exactly likening Jack Straw to a proto-Nazi, and this ties in with the hoodie comments. I wasn't comparing the hoodie to the veil as an item of clothing, but suggesting that both groups of wearers have been made scapegoats. In the case of the hoodie wearers, by the Prime Minister; in the case of the veil wearers, more the media than Jack Straw. I do feel dis-ease when either political leaders or the media propaganda paint a particular group as a scapegoat; and, without calling Mr Straw a proto-nazi, I believe I have good historical grounds for such dis-ease.

    Anyway, I really appreciated not only what you had to say but also the manner in which you said it. I can't quite tell (through the virtual veil), but I sense that you manage to make articulate comments while keeping your tongue in your cheek ;-)

  3. Hi Andrew,

    I agree that Christians should speak out in defence of Muslims, and I agree with the sentiment of Niemoller. But I don't think you are comparing like with (yet) like. Niemoller's regret wasn't about his actions when the situation was at a comparable state with the current one. He was talking about people being taken away.

    Although there are cases of such abuses taking place against Muslims in the world, which we should be speaking out against, that is not what is happening here. It is important that we guard against such atrocities as occurred under Nazism, but living in a place of freedom necessitates living with the possibility of being offended, and it is important to distinguish between people saying things that are unpalatable to some, and people committing atrocities or even just criminal acts.

    I disagree wholeheartedly with 98% of Daily Express readers, but the fact is that we are all proto-[whatever our choice of superlative historic representation of evil]. We are all sinners, and the severity of the earthly consequences of our sin is all on the same continuum. That does not make all actions equal, but Niemoller's point was that HE was a proto-Nazi.

    You say that the debate should be an internal one in our multiple Muslim communities, but this statement in itself is symptomatic of some of the issues at stake. It expresses the belief that community lines should be drawn according to belief, which to me seems an arbitrary choice. The debate belongs in a wider field because it depends on a necessary recognition from everyone that there are, and need to be, wider definitions and realities of community in our shared country.

  4. Hi Si,

    Good points, well made. Thanks for dropping by!

    You are right, of course, that the debate should not only be an internal one for Muslim communities. Different communities living in proximity must engage with each other, at the level of debate as well as any other. But those who are engaging in the conversation from another perspective must seek to understand the perspectives they are engaging with. It isn't acceptable simply to tell one group they should live like another.

    On a different matter, there are debates going on within the Christian community at present - with media coverage - not least in areas of the role of women, and human sexuality. These are debates that are genuinely painful for many involved in them - on both sides of whichever debate is in question - and that pain simply isn't recognised by the wider community, which just insists that the values of the church be the same as the prevailing values of the wider society. Now, the church - and the mosque - must engage with the wider society; but my contention is that it should not be expected to be undifferentiated from society.

    There is always balance to be negotiated between uniformity and diversity. Too far in either direction is bad for the health of any community or society.