In FrontPage this morning I discuss the controversy over Jack Straw’s recent remarks. News links in the original:
Jack Straw, the leader of the UK”s House of Commons and one of the most prominent members of the British Labour Party, has enraged British Muslims by saying on a BBC radio program that he would prefer that Muslim women not wear the niqab, or face veil. Replying to a question to that effect, Straw said: “Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but with all the caveats, yes, I would rather.”
Straw explained: “Communities are bound together partly by informal chance relations between strangers — people being able to acknowledge each other in the street or being able pass the time of day. That’s made more difficult if people are wearing a veil. That’s just a fact of life”¦.I come to this out of a profound commitment to equal rights for Muslim communities and an equal concern about adverse development about parallel communities. What I”ve been struck by when I”ve been talking to some of the ladies concerned is that they had not, I think, been fully aware of the potential in terms of community relations.”
About Muslim worries over their religious freedom, he remarked: “I understand the concerns but I hope, however, there can be a mature debate about this.”
No such luck. In Straw’s home constituency of Blackburn, protesters charged that he had betrayed them. Ibrahim Master, a Muslim and a Labour Party leader who worked on Straw’s last reelection campaign, said that Straw’s statements were “like a family member going against us”¦.The Muslim community feels angry and let down.” Muslim protestors declared that they would continue protests until Straw apologized. Yaasmin Mubarak, on of the organizers of the protest, said she wanted Straw’s resignation: “Jack Straw is really in trouble here. We want him to apologise and will keep on protesting until he does. I feel outraged and want him out of his job. The majority of Muslim women want him out.”
Calls for Straw to resign for his relatively mild remarks, especially given his long history of solicitude for Britain’s Muslims, made Madeleine Bunting’s scolding of Straw in The Guardian particularly ironic. “So forget comfort,” she said, “and accept the starting point for any kind of tolerance: that it’s not easy, that it requires imagination, that it makes demands of us. Learn new forms of communication and your world expands.” But apparently the obligation of tolerance was entirely Straw’s responsibility, not that of the Muslim community.
And indeed, that may have been why some members of that community reacted so vehemently to what was from Straw simply an invitation to the assimilation and integration that European governments have been faulted in other contexts for not offering to Muslims. For Straw’s remarks came at a time when the British government (and notably Straw himself) has been particularly solicitous of Muslims in Britain — making Straw’s comments about the veil unexpected both in their content and their source. Recently in Britain, the Sun tabloid revealed that in South London’s Belmarsh prison, Muslim prisoners were given book catalogues containing books exhorting to violent jihad — which they could freely order. Also, a Muslim policeman was excused from duty guarding the Israeli Embassy; although British officials hastened to insist that this decision was not made for reasons of political correctness, during the controversy it came to light that the policeman had been married by longtime British jihad leader Omar Bakri — raising additional questions about the vetting of applicants to the police force. These revelations of a certain softness toward jihad terror activity came at the same time as a Church of England briefing was leaked asserting: “One might argue that disaffection and separation is now greater than ever, with Muslim communities withdrawing further into a sense of victimhood, and other faith communities seriously concerned that the government has given signals that appear to encourage the notion of a privileged relationship with sections of the Muslim community.”
Of course, it may be precisely because of these and other indications of the British government’s race to accommodate jihadists and Muslims in general that Straw felt it necessary to apply the brakes, even slightly. And not all the Muslim reaction was negative. Saira Khan wrote in the Times that “the growing number of women veiling their faces in Britain is a sign of radicalisation”¦.It is an extreme practice. It is never right for a woman to hide behind a veil and shut herself off from people in the community. But it is particularly wrong in Britain, where it alien to the mainstream culture for someone to walk around wearing a mask. The veil restricts women, it stops them achieving their full potential in all areas of their life and it stops them communicating. It sends out a clear message: “˜I do not want to be part of your society.” Some Muslim women say that it is their choice to wear it; I don’t agree. Why would any woman living in a tolerant country freely choose to wear such a restrictive garment? What these women are really saying is that they adopt the veil because they believe that they should have less freedom than men, and that if they did not wear the veil men would not be accountable for their uncontrollable urges “” so women must cover-up so as not to tempt men. What kind of a message does that send to women?”
But Haleema Hussein of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee of the U.K. unwittingly enunciated just how far apart Britain’s Muslim leadership and the British government are when she declared on BBC television that Straw “shouldn’t be allowed to comment on these kind of issues, this is a Muslim issue” (emphasis added). Freedom of speech simply wasn’t part of her calculus. It was one small indication that Britain from the community cohesion and mature debate that Straw was calling for in the first place were quite a long way off.