Ali Miraj: Straw's comments raise deeper questions about the place of Muslims in British Society
Jack Straw is no fool. He knew exactly what he was doing when he stated that he had requested Muslim women coming to his surgery to remove the veil. The issue cuts right to the heart of the debate on multiculturalism and the cohesiveness of our society and he was right to raise it. He also understands the Muslim community well and knows that despite any protestations, he has little to fear at the ballot box. He is after all the foreign secretary that led us into the Iraq war and still won a landslide majority in his Blackburn constituency.
Many Muslims have predictably weighed in with the usual claim that his comments will merely exacerbate “Islamaphobia” and that this is a free country, so women can wear what they want. But that is to entirely miss the point. Mr Straw is not arguing that the veil should be banned; he has simply claimed that it hinders communication and increases the separateness of certain Muslims from their neighbours. He is also right to point out that this phenomenon is increasing, particularly amongst young women born and bred here.
Muslims in Britain must realise that there is a difference between what is permissible under the law and what is culturally desirable to bring people together. The feeling that Muslims have been hard done by is dangerous, is feeding a growing victim mentality, and needs to be challenged.
A couple of weeks ago I gave an interview to Ramadan Radio, a station that operates during the Muslim holy month of fasting. The title of the segment was “What legislation do Muslims need”. My initial thought was that this would be an extremely short interview as in my opinion Muslims did not require any. When I put this to the interviewer, the curt response was, “Well what about the fact that Halal meat is not served in schools where the majority of children are Muslim?” My view was that this was surely a matter for the parent/teacher association to resolve and did not require the passing of a new law. I attended a school in North London where over half the students were Jewish. The school never served Kosher food. The kids either had the vegetarian option or brought a packed lunch.
But calls for special treatment of Muslims do not end there. Following the establishment of Ruth Kelly’s new commission on community cohesion, one Muslim leader stated that one way to combat extremism amongst young Muslims would be to give public holidays for Muslim festivals and allow the introduction of Shariah law to govern relations between Muslims. This is ridiculous. This is a secular country in which an overwhelming majority of the inhabitants are Christian. Ministers must stand up and say “this far and no further”. If Muslims are to be accorded special privileges then why not Jews, Sikhs and Hindus?
The roots of the growth of Muslim identity politics can be traced back to the Rushdie affair in the late 1980s. As the commentator Kenan Malik has put it, there was a shift from “the right to be treated the same despite one’s cultural and ethnic differences, to the right to be treated differently because of them.” In other words there has been an abandonment of secular universalism in favour of ethnic/religious particularism. The result has been an emphasis on diversity at the expense of solidarity. This has in large part been due to the failure of the state and British society as a whole to clearly define what it stands for and the boundaries to the politics of identity.
Despite the introduction of citizenship tests and ceremonies and citizenship education in schools I am sceptical as to whether people really know what they are signing up to. Appeasement of Muslim groups by the government will not work. The incitement to religious hatred law, which was defeated earlier this year (pushed by a number of Muslim leaders led by the Muslim Council of Britain) was a clear case of this.
Muslims must also recognise that life in a free society comes with its challenges. Whilst I would never condone any author, cartoonist or playwright simply stirring up anger for the sake of getting kicks – in the final analysis this is a free society and individuals must be free to challenge and criticise each other’s beliefs and cultural norms. That means that whilst one may disagree with the views of Salman Rushdie as espoused in The Satanic Verses, respect for the inalienable right of freedom of speech means that however unpalatable, Muslims must acknowledge his right to express them.
Leading politicians in this country have to have to courage to define what integration means in today’s Britain and where the boundaries should be drawn. A failure to do so will simply lead to further alienation and confrontation.