Veil of Isolation: Britain Tackles the Niqab Debate

Article excerpt

Relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain have recently undergone severe strain because of a call to ban the public wearing of niqabs, or full-face veils. The niqab controversy, instigated by comments from British politicians, demonstrates how long-standing practices of separation and isolation have allowed diverse religious and cultural traditions to coexist in Britain in mutual isolation. The anger generated over this issue is a reminder that multiculturalism at the cost of isolation has not worked in Britain and that a new discussion and solution to the country's minority issue is needed.

Following the subway bombings of 2005, schools and universities across the country instituted dress codes banning the niqab. The ban has been justified as a security measure, especially since a woman who wears a niqab in public cannot have her face matched to a picture ID. The controversy deepened in October 2006 when Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons and a member of Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, admitted in early October that he requested Muslim women remove their niqabs when meeting with him. Blair, an advocate of secularization in the public sphere, has supported Straw's comments, publicly referring to the niqab as "a mark of separation" that makes non-Muslims uncomfortable. There are also Muslims, such as MP Shahid Malik, who recognize the importance of the niqab debate and the need for increased cross-cultural understanding.

These bold statements have unsurprisingly angered many Muslim groups, including the Islamic Human Rights Commission and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee; both Muslims and non-Muslims have severely criticized the government and its supporters. Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the former head of the Muslim Council of Britain, accused supporters of a ban to be "Islamophobes." London mayor Ken Livingstone compared the treatment of Muslims today to that of Jews in the 1930s.

The anger that is present on both sides of the debate is not just over the niqab itself; it is also over tensions that are symbolized by the niqab. The heart of the problem is that the niqab represents both a proud culture and a cultural divide. The same object stands for both the piety of British Muslims and their isolation from other groups. This isolation is particularly problematic in Britain, where the Muslim community is one of the least integrated groups. Britain's government has followed a policy of multiculturalism through isolation, whereby distinct cultures are allowed to flourish at the expense of incomplete integration into mainstream society. …