Sunday, October 15, 2006
The strategy of New Labour and the Tories for dealing with this is to seek to manufacture racist hysteria about Muslims. Straw's complaint that wearing a veil is a "a visible statement of separation and difference" has galvanised the racist right as well as racist liberals and befuddled some people who ought to know better. David Cameron's barely noticed promise to crack down on "Muslim ghettos", and David Davis's clamouring about voluntary apartheid was a sop to the same racism, as was Harriet Harman's intervention. This has had the effect of producing a number of racist attacks, and has also created the climate in which teaching assistant Aishah Azmi can be sent home for wearing a full veil. There are bizarre tributaries of this. I was at the Respect conference on Islamophobia yesterday, and it was announced that a Christian woman named Nadia Eweida, employed by British Airways, was sent home for wearing a little cross, a disgusting attack on an employee's rights, and yet a logical extension of the anti-Muslim crusade. For if a niqab can be targetted as "a visible symbol of separation and difference", so can a crucifix. Next it will be the Jewish skullcap, and then it will be anything that might distinguish one as a believer in or enthusiast for anything at all, since someone else might be made uncomfortable by it.
"But," a presenter on the PM programme asked George Galloway, "surely Mr Straw has a point? Seeing the face is vital to human communication, isn't it?" "This," he sighed, "from a radio presenter. 'In which case, what's the point of this interview? I can't see you, you can't see me, and the audience can't see either of us!'" Galloway doubted, somehow, that this was all rooted in a sudden epiphany about the semiotics of visual communication. He added, citing Pastor Nimoeller's famous dictim, that "we have an interest in this", since if this racism is allowed to pass, Britain will be a more difficult and unpleasant place for all of us to live: "If you tolerate this, then your children will be next." (I knew he was a Dylan fan, but I would have thought that the Manics were out of his range.) Salma Yaqoob read from Straw's article. "What was Straw's problem? He describes a Muslim woman coming to his surgery in the full niqab. Her husband, who was much quieter than she was, sat next to her. She explained her problem, and he agreed to try and do something about it. This is a woman - evidently not oppressed by her quieter husband - taking part in the democratic process, and Straw's reponse is not to see this as a positive instance of integration, but as a problem with the Muslim community. This meeting occurred in Mr Straw's surgery last year - but he only remembered it in time for the contest for the leadership of the Deputy Secretary this year." She added that "this is not to say there are not patriarchical and cultural pressures within the Muslim community. Indeed, I myself have challenged them. But I argue for a women's right to wear it or not wear it, as she chooses. And when I see Muslim women in my surgery, the problems I hear about are usually not to do with this, but to do with poor housing, education and the lack of decent healthcare." What is more, "your being made uncomfortable by a Muslim woman's choice of dress isn't that Muslim woman's fault. Some people are made uncomfortable by the sight of gay men holding hands in public, but it's none of their business." John Rees remarked on the incongruity of posh Tory leaders talking about monoculturalism and separation - why not, he suggested, start with Eton, and with Mayfair, and with the upper echelons of the Conservative Party? If political leaders don't want Muslims in "ghettos", why not allow them to swap houses with rich Tories in the suburbs? "There is not," he added, "a socialist-only solution to this. There is not a trade union-only solution to this. And there is not a Muslim-only solution to this. We can only fight this together. Any community under pressure will have three reactions - we saw it with the Jewish community, we even saw it with the miners in the 1980s. Some people will respond by thinking that if they kiss the hand that beats it, the beating will stop. But it won't: they will only beat you more. Some will respond by becoming so angry that they lash out, without thought, without strategy. But we have to argue for a strategy that advocates unity, in a mass movement, to challenge this."
The thing about this is that it isn't the problem of Muslims: it is the obsession of Western liberals. It is their problem, and it is rooted in their failure to comprehend the nature of the 'war on terror' and their acceptance of the racist attacks on Islam resulting from it. The volume of paranoid, hostile verbiage being issued on the topic of Islam is in no way commensurate with anything that inheres in Islam. The insistent, fearful clinging to the security blanket of reified 'Enlightenment values' bears no relationship to any actual threat to those, whatever you take them to be. In fact, the invocation of such 'values' as a protective against various ills attributed to Islam is curious in light of the history of the Enlightenment and the 18th Century revolutions puffed by the Euston Manifesto.
If the issue is women's rights, we had better remember that the mainstream of the French Revolution was opposed to extending political rights to women, because its core activists were artisans whose reproduction relied upon the family unit. It was also feared that women were more inclined to be influenced by the Church (a curiously resonant argument). The Jacobins closed down womens' clubs and forbade them from taking part in political affairs. Gracchus Babeuf, whose base was among unskilled workers, was a notable (and much maligned) exception to this trend. He argued for the emancipation of women in the context of a communist society, for the right to vote and the right of divorce. (I draw here from Ian Birchall's discussion of a little-known letter written by Babeuf in June 1786 to Dubois de Fosseux, in 'Babeuf and the Oppression of Women', originally published in the British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 20/1, 1997). Although Babeuf was not the first French feminist, his support for womens' rights took the form of a critical engagement with, and radicalisation of, the revolution. The Popular Front government in France didn't even give the vote to women, although Blum appointed two female ministers, because of the same fear that women would vote how the Church told them. Actually, if you want to get serious about it, it was not liberals, but the fascist Vichy constitution that first gave women the right to vote in France (never used, of course, because they didn't have elections). In the United States, women who wanted to vote had to fight throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries, first as abolitionists, then as working class militants (through the Knights of Labor, for instance), against a constitution and against states that banned it. The Enlightened British ruling class had to be terrified by the Russian revolution before allowing women the right to vote.
If the issue is free speech (invariably, free speech for racists, pace the March for Free Expression, and David Davis's complaint that Muslims are "excessively sensitive" to criticism), then first of all you can cease quoting Voltaire. Contary to popular mythology, he never did say ‘I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ The sentiment was attributed to him by an English author, Beatrice Hall, writing under a male pseudonym. Voltaire's attitude to free speech was a little more complex than this - for instance, he defended the Emperor of China’s decision to exclude Jesuit missionaries on the grounds that they were intolerant. Neither the Enlightenment nor the 18th century revolutions contain an unmixed blessing of the putative 'Enlightenment value' of free expression. I suppose it isn't coincidental that the racist right and their liberal cohorts are usually wholly in favour of restricting free expression for a Muslim woman who expresses her faith - for instance, the French hijab ban, the Belgian niqab ban, Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, supporting universities who wish to ban the niqab, all in the name of secularism and 'Enlightenment values'.
The Catholic extremist Ruth Kelly won plaudits from many liberals for surreptitiously suggesting that legislation on what may be worn at schools is on the cards, and for ordering British Muslims to support "non-negotiable values" of the kind that New Labour are happy to legislate away whenever it suits them. She has indicated that the government will now "rebalance" its relationship with Muslim community organisations as part of a war on "extremism", (which means that the government is going to cosy up to and heavily subsidise the neoconservative, pro-Bush Sufi Muslim Council). Well, if you want to talk about religious extremism, look no further than Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly, holding up gay rights legislation to appease their Catholic beliefs and constituencies.
All of which is to indicate that there is a logical necessary connection between the 'war on terror' and the pursuit of a 'clash of civilisations' in which 'Enlightenment values' are paraded as the sign and symbol of Western superiority. It is also to say that glittering generalities are no substitute for analysis, critique and struggle.
Update: you can watch all the speeches at the Respect conference on Islamophobia here.