England is the latest country to deal with a veil controversy. Readers may be most familiar with the French controversy, in which obvious symbols of religion were banned from schools in order to preserve the secular nature of France’s public school system. Now England is discussing the role of the veil, more specifically the full face veil known as the niqab.
Jack Straw, leader of the British House of Commons, has been opining for several weeks that niqabs are harmful to society. Now Tony Blair, the eventually outgoing Prime Minister has more or less agreed, stating that the veil ” is a mark of separation”. While neither Straw or Blair has explicitly stated that veils should be banned, one must wonder what they are so afraid of.
Stating that the veil is a mark of separation ignore the Britain’s history as a multicultural nation. Britain’s diverse population was an accident, the result of a deeply flawed series immigration legislation. However, Britain has still been able to successfully integrate immigrants into British society, so that turban, veil, and dreadlocks wearers are just as British as the WASP at a polo match or a soccer hooligan, or anyone else born in Britain.
In a society that has benefited so much from different cultures, what is wrong with a mark of separation? Why are other groups able to wear clothing and symbols that identify their ethnicity or religious identity?
Islamophobia has been spreading in western Europe in the wake of terrorist attacks and high profile terrorism related arrests. Also, no one wants to relive the rioting and social discord in France’s predominantly Muslim suburbs. The French incidents were blamed on the lack of integration of French Muslims into mainstream French Society. If this is the case, and similar incidents may be in the cards for Britain, then talk of veils being a problem is the exact wrong strategy to improve relations between muslims and mainstream British society.
The British government should open its arms to Muslims, not push them away. If anything, an already alienated minority will feel even more alienated and separate itself even more from mainstream society if certain fundamental parts of their culture are seen as a problem. Muslims will not stop wearing the veil, but may close themselves off from mainstream society so that they can continue their cultural practices without criticism or provocation.
British Muslims may identify more with being Muslim than being British. If they are forced to choose, they will choose their religion. It is far better that they identify both with their religion and their country, even if they identify more with their religion.