Veil furore: A false choice between religion and democracy

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Jack Straw knew he was being provocative when he revealed that he asked Muslim women to remove their veil when visiting his surgeries. He said that wearing a veil was “a visible statement of separation and difference” and that many Muslim scholars didn’t think it was obligatory. Writing in his weekly column for the Lancashire Telegraph he said he was concerned “that wearing the full veil was bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult”. Although his comments only concerned a small number of Muslim women, they were immediately seized upon and turned into the next episode of the ‘clash of civilisations’. His remarks come in the wake of comments from the Pope that were taken as denigrating Muslims, the high profile police operation in Forest Gate, and the terror alerts during the summer over suicide bombers on planes.

The debate that has been generated has included scholarly verdicts on how the Qur’an should be interpreted, but has mostly been an exchange of accusations and insults. Straw has been denounced for pandering to racism, stirring up prejudice and for trying to further his political career with a hardline image. He’s been supported by Blair, Brown, Salman Rushdie and the BNP, and denounced by Ken Livingstone (utterly wrong and insensitive”) George Galloway (It is a male politician telling women to wear less) and the SWP.

Deepening divisions

In the campaign round the ‘war on terror’, there has been a barrage of bourgeois propaganda aimed primarily against Muslims. The references to a ‘clash of civilisations’ are supposed to conjure up visions of a conflict between the liberal, secular, democratic traditions of the West with the despotic, fundamentalist and undemocratic traditions of the East, exemplified by the Islamic states in the Middle East. Indeed, for Bush and Blair, one of the reasons given for the war in Iraq, and the broader offensive in the region, was a fight for ‘freedom’ and the rights of women.

In Britain there have been arguments for a greater tolerance of differences, of giving women the ‘right to choose’ whether they wear a veil, of upholding ‘multiculturalism’, while the Straw line says that Muslims should make greater efforts to ‘integrate’ into British culture and society, accepting the ‘British values’ of tolerance, freedom of speech and democracy. The arguments for ‘assimilation’ have been backed up by falsified provocative stories in the papers and numerous well-documented physical attacks against Muslims, both male and female.

In the whole false ‘debate’ everyone is allowed to give their opinion on what direction British society should go. Blair sees the veil as a “mark of separation”, another Labour MP sees it as “frightening and intimidating”, against these there are the accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘bigotry’. The ‘debate’ presents a view of society not divided into conflicting social classes, but along religious, ethnic or gender lines. Straw’s comments also give a false view of the word ‘community’ with its implicit unity of purpose and action. There is no ‘Muslim community’ or wider ‘British community’, there is only capitalist society which is divided into classes, irrespective of racial or religious background. The hysteria of the debate does provide further evidence for Islamic ‘fundamentalists’ to prove that the west is ‘decadent’ and ‘corrupt’, and that the only answer is a holy war for an Islamic caliphate.

The net result of the ‘debate’ has been to heighten tensions and to deepen existing divisions within society. Muslims are portrayed as a ‘fifth column’ within Britain, not wanting to integrate, and more and more concentrated in ghettos, where some schools have more than 90% Asian i.e. Muslim, intakes. The only element of truth in this is that there is a greater fragmentation and atomisation within society, and one tendency of the ruling class is to cause further divisions, for example with Blair’s encouragement of faith schools. But, at the same time that society is becoming more fragmented, there is the campaign for ‘integration’ and ‘embracing Britishness’, behind which is the defence of the British state as an entity which supposedly sits ‘above’ society and acts to balance out the different interests which exist and to which we should all defer. In reality the state wants us to unite behind the ‘war on terrorism’. The ‘fight against fundamentalism’ is just another justification for strengthening of the state’s repressive apparatus.

The ‘debate’ over the veil is also another way of hiding the present and forthcoming attacks against the wages and living standards of the working class that the state is about to undertake. These attacks will fall hard on the backs of the working class and the only response to these is to strengthen the class struggle. Instead of being divided by race or religion the working class has to respond as a class with common interests. The search for solidarity in workers’ struggles is the basis for building a real unity. The struggles of today are laying the basis for a truly human community of the future.   Graham 25/10/06