For the past two weeks Britain has been transfixed by l'affair niqab. It began with an article by the former Home Secretary Jack Straw, whose Blackburn constituency contains a high proportion of Muslims. Writing in his local newspaper, Straw suggested the full Muslim veil, or niqab, was 'a visible statement of separateness or difference' detrimental to establishing good community relations. He revealed that he now asks any veiled constituents who came to his office if they could remove their niqab. He does not insist on it but, wrote Straw, most are happy to comply.
Not, you might think, particularly controversial comments. Yet they kicked off an extraordinary ruckus that has dominated headlines and comment pages, and drawn into the fray such figures as Salman Rushdie and playwright David Edgar. For many Muslims, the attack on the veil is an expression of growing Islamophobia and intolerance of Islam. For many non-Muslims, the refusal by Muslims to take seriously the concerns of the rest of society illustrates the threat posed by Islam to social cohesion.
In fact both sides are wrong. The issues raised by the debate are clearly important - the fragmentation of society, the rights of women, the role of Islam in the modern world. Yet it has also been a phoney debate and one that has avoided the real issues. There is nothing racist in expressing one's loathing for the sight of fully veiled women. At the same time, though, the veil is not responsible for creating a divided society. Muslims make up less than three percent of the British population. Fewer the five per cent of Muslim women wear the veil. Whatever the significance of the veil, it is hardly responsible for creating a sense of separation in British society.
Yet it is undeniable that the veil is a potent physical symbol of separation. It cuts off the individual from everyone else and it confirms the seeming desire of a community to be different. And it is for this very reason that many Muslim women in the West are drawn to wearing it.
When women are forced to wear the veil in Iran, Pakistan or the Gulf states, it is a physical representation of the inferior status that women enjoy within those societies and within Islam. But in Britain, and in the West more generally, many Muslim women choose to wear the niqab as an affectation of identity. They are often young, middle class, highly articulate professionals, far removed from the usual stereotype of the cowed, oppressed Muslim woman. So why wear the niqab? To make a statement. 'Look at me, I am different', they are saying, 'and I want to be seen as different. I have my own values and beliefs and I want to have nothing to do with the values and beliefs of the rest of you.'
The irony is that such attitudes have been encouraged not just by Islamic leaders, with their often hostile message towards the West, but by the very politicians who over the past two weeks have been lambasting women for wearing the veil. The veil is only the most potent symbol of the fragmented nature of British society, a society in which people increasingly retreat into their own particular communities and identities and shun the possibility of shared values and common struggles. And in large part such ghettoes of identity have been fostered by the relentless promotion over the past twenty years of multicultural policies.
Multiculturalism has come to mean two different things. As lived experience, it has enriched our lives. Britain is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan than it was half a century ago and better for it. As a political process, however, multiculturalism has helped create a tribal society with no political or moral centre. Multiculturalism in a political sense has come to mean not simply the creation of a more cosmopolitan society but one in which cultural differences are given public affirmation, and in which social justice requires not just that individuals are treated as political equals, but that their cultural beliefs are also treated as equally valid. The result has been the creation of a myriad of groups that now assert their separate identities and define themselves through a sense of victimhood and grievance. But it's with Muslims, of course, that the assertion of separateness creates the greatest sense of fear in society at large.
In the past few years, particularly in response to 9/11 and the rise of Islamic radicalism, politicians have come to be increasingly critical of multiculturalism. But the fundamental problems raised by a fragmented society are rarely addressed. What do we as a society stand for? How do we overcome the divisions and estrangements that cut through society? On these questions most politicians remain silent. Instead they prefer to grandstand on easy targets such as the veil. But easy targets are not necessarily the right ones. The same politicians that have been so critical of the veil have also been promoting the creation of state-funded faith schools and continue to encourage multicultural ideas – just last month a government minister called for more women wearing hijabs to be seen on national television.
Over the past decade, many Muslims have come to see Islamophobia as a one-stop explanation for all their problems and Islam as a one-stop solution to them. Ironically, non-Muslims are now beginning to mirror these arguments, increasingly viewing Islam as a one-stop explanation for everything, from the failure of multiculturalism to the problems faced by women. We certainly need to challenge the iniquities of Islam and refuse to bow to Muslim blackmail that certain debates are off-limits. But equally we need to keep the problem of Islam in perspective and not pretend that it is the root cause of every social ill. Otherwise we will end up with a society in which an obsession with Islam distorts the lives of both Muslims and non-Muslims.