Saturday, October 07, 2006

Clutching a Straw, with Dirty Des

RICHARD DESMOND. Didn't acquire his assets by encouraging women to cover theirs.

BRITAIN's tabloids have been competing to come up with anti-Muslim stories this week. Maybe its because it's Ramadan.

There was the story about the Muslim policeman, a member of the Diplomatic Protection Group, who had been excused from duty guarding the Israeli embassy during the war in Lebanon, where he had relatives.

Papers that normally won't have a word said against the police were outraged at this discovery that policemen can have human feelings - or rather that a Muslim officer should have his feelings respected.

Then there was the story about white and Asian youth clashing in Windsor, where there has been some local disagreement over whether a dairy owner can obtain planning permission to open a mosque -"on the Queen's doorstep!". We may no longer be a religious country but true suburban English folk will faithfully protect their property values and piously incant fears about parking problems at the thought of members of another religion praying in the vicinity. Their yobbish offspring will sally forth to do battle, secure in the knowledge their vandalism and violence will be excused if it's against the current hate-targets.

The Daily Mail led its front-page with a scoop about a Muslim minicab driver who had refused to take a blind man with his guide dog because he considered the animal "unclean". I can sympathise with the disquiet over this. When I lived in Balham, south London, I regularly experienced difficulty with taxi drivers whose religion apparently forbade them to cross the river after nightfall. I dare say any of them could have faced loss of their license if I'd complained but I doubt whether it would have made front-page. The point of the Mail story is not the rights of blind people, and the difficulties they and the disabled face, it is about blaming Muslims.

But step forward the man who has provided the tabloids with their big story this weekend. Former Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and now leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw. Speaking to Muslim community leaders in his Blackburn constituency who had been expecting to discuss such matters as the war in Iraq and the way it affects attitudes among young people, Straw lost no time in getting on to what for him was apparently a weightier matter. What a woman wore who came to his constituency surgery.

"He said, some of my constituents who have been accepting of the hijab are greatly concerned about the niqab," said one who was there. That is, the face covering which is particularly common to the Gulf states, but has been adopted by some Muslim women in Britain, and is commmonly referred to as "the veil".

The odd things is that this discussion was almost 12 months ago. Straw was warned at the time not to make a public issue of it. (I wonder what the Arabic or Urdu phrase is equivalent to verwarts putz gefahren*?). But a year later, for whatever reasons, he has done. Maybe having been deprived of his Foreign Office job and replaced by Margaret Beckett he is not that bothered.

(* "Forward goes a fool", Yiddish, similar to "fools rush in ...", whenever someone ventures on to a subject best not gone into -cf. "Don't go there". But if someone is determined...)

Straw has been in politics since his student days (he was president of the National Union of Students 1969-72), besides qualifying as a barrister, and going on the world diplomatic stage. He knows the significance of words, and presumably of timing.

So did the editors at the Lancashire Telegraph when they received the MP's column on Wednesday morning. They cleared the front page for the next day and reporters began calling community leaders for comments. By the following days it was national 'news'.

The "veil", or niqab, has been raised as an issue before in some places. Imperial College sought a ban on "security" grounds. Some academics claim not being able to see a student's face makes teaching difficult. According to Jean Seaton, professor of media history at the University of Westminster, "You can't teach somebody if they can't communicate, without seeing the response. Teaching is not like stuffing a goose with corn - its utterly reactive. In a social situation, everybody else's faces are giving away stuff left right and centre."

Just in case we mistook this reaction as purely rational, Professor Seaton added: "I remember the first time I saw a Saudi in Holland Park and being viscerally terrified of this image."

Dangerous attack or fair point? Straw veil row deepens,,1889846,00.html

Some people, particularly women, including Muslim women, say the face covering is unecessary to their religion, and symbolises backwardness and patriarchy. Some politicians complain the wearers are cutting themselves off from society. But if that was the issue why not move on to condemn all distinctive forms of dress, such as turbans (which were an issue many years ago, only then we rightly opposed discrimination against wearers), or skullcaps, or the sheitl (the wig worn by Orthodox Jewish women after they have shaved their heads)? Or dare we say those outsize crosses some people dangle from their necks? France at least cloaked its ban on the veil in schools with a ban on all "conspicuous religious symbols.

If some Muslim women's extreme concern for "modesty" symbolises male oppression, what should we say about those British sisters who go to the opposite extreme, bare-midriffed however inclement the weather, tattooed and pierced by rings in most peculiar places, as though escaped from some fantasy harem? The obvious answer is that whatever we say, it is no business of mere men let alone politicians to tell women what to wear.

As for fear, a lot more is caused by young lads of whatever background who prowl around in hoods, whether to avoid being identified from CCTV or because (though they'd never confess it) they too wish to modestly withdraw their faces from society. I'm sure there's some psychology here, but with the hoodies as with the niqab wearers, telling them to take it off will only make them wear it more stubbornly.

Only, apart from one or two shopping centres, nobody has sought to ban the hoods, whereas they are going for the women in niqab. As the Guardian notes, there seems to be a change in government attitude. Previously they insisted the "war on terror" was not agaist Islam, and stressed good community relations.

" But in August, Ruth Kelly, the communities secretary, called for a 'new and honest debate' on the merits of multiculturalism. At last week's Labour conference the home secretary John Reid said Britain would not be bullied by Muslim fanatics, and he would not tolerate "no-go" neighbourhoods. The government has also appointed Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality and a man who has warned that Britain is "sleepwalking towards segregation", as the chair of the new single equalities body'.

The irony of Ruth Kelly being responsible for integrating communities was noted when she was appointed, as she is a member of the very exclusive Opus Dei, though since the latest row concerns outward religious symbols it won't effect the Catholic society's distinctive style in undergarments.

Could it be the government's turn has anything to do with military setbacks suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan, legal snags to the attack on civil rights, or the disgust felt by the majority of the public - not just Muslims - with Blair's support for the war on Lebanon? What better than to divide people by pretending it is only "Islamic extremists" who oppose you, and then whipping up prejudice against all Muslims while pretending it is the fault of the minority for failing your test of conformity?

Putting the onus on the minority to "integrate" is not new, mind. It was the line taken by David Blunkett after riots in northern towns, and not surrisingly Keighley MP Ann Cryer has been sounding off about the veil on television. It goes with talking about "Our Values" and "Our Society" - as though we all wish to be at one with the values and society this government defends.

Though many Muslims would criticise the veil, they are worried about the way Jack Straw has raised it as an issue. Shahid Malik, the MP for Dewsbury, said: "It's not so much about what he has said as the climate in which he has said it, in which Muslims - and non-Muslims - are getting tired of Muslim stories. The veil isn't the problem; the problem is that people are frightened of it - they've never spoken to someone with a veil. This cannot and must not be about blaming one group, but about saying, we have all got to take collective responsibility. "

But one newspaper, true to the Crusader image in its logo, has leapt in behind Straw with its own rallying cry. "BAN THE VEIL!" said the Tory Daily Express, "CONCERNED Britons gave massive backing last night to calls for Muslim women to ditch the veil. An astonishing 97 per cent of Daily Express readers agreed that a ban would help to safeguard racial harmony." The story was bylined Padraig Flanagan, not the kind of name those Union Jack-waving "Britons" would recognise as one of their own, in other times, but I dare say they will turn a blind eye so long as he is speaking for their idea of "harmony".

As for Express owner Richard Desmond, having worked his way into Blair's good books with a £100,000 donation to Labour coffers five years ago, he has more recently been trying to buy respectability in the world of Jewish charity. But we should not doubt his sincerity in seeking to free Muslim women of their veils, or modesty. Before he moved into newspapers he had made his fortune with such liberating publications as Big Ones, Asian Babes, and Horny Housewives.

The racist yobbos who will take headlines about banning the veil as their encouragement to abuse and attack any Muslim woman, or indeed anyone who looks "different", won't be bothered about that. But any feminists and socialists inclined to give Straw their support should give the company he has attracted a thought. Along with remembering what the government.of which he is part has done.

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