Editorial: The veiled conceit of multiculturalism
A misinformed tolerance finally hits its limits in Britain
HOW tolerant must a free society be of those who are intolerant of the values it holds dear? This question is at the heart of a controversy that has flared up in Britain over the past fortnight concerning Muslim women who wear nikabs, burkas and other face coverings that allow little more than the eyes to be seen. Two weeks ago, former British foreign minister Jack Straw, writing in his local newspaper, criticised Muslim women who covered their faces, saying the practice maked "better, positive relations" between communities "more difficult". He added that the veil was a "visible statement of separation and of difference". And although his remarks were sensationalised, in pointing out that the multicultural emperor is wearing not too few clothes but too many Mr Straw largely won applause. Senior Labour politicians rushed to echo his concerns. Newspapers cheered the opening of debate and Tony Blair himself offered his support, calling the veil a "mark of separation". Not long afterwards, a Muslim teaching assistant in a British school was suspended for wearing a veil that allowed only her eyes to be seen, on the grounds that hiding her face hurt her communication with students. In this case as well, reaction to the school's decision has been largely positive. Many Britons are concerned that multicultural policies that have discouraged assimilation have divided their society and created what one commentator called a "voluntary apartheid". In the age of terrorism, this is a worrisome trend, especially considering that a recent survey of British Muslims suggested 100,000 of them felt the 7/7 attacks were justified and that one in five felt little or no loyalty to Britain.
The debate over the veil is not confined to Britain. It is an important one for any Western country with a sizeable community of Islamic immigrants, including Australia - though we have, happily, been far more successful at integrating Muslim newcomers than many other Western European nations and the veil is not the feature of public life here that it is there. But when women wear headcoverings that hide the face, they are committing a powerful act that has political as well as religious overtones and which sends a message that many people find threatening. Many justifications have been offered for the veil. Speaking recently in Sydney, Munira Mirza, a young British Muslim woman, told The Australian that schoolgirls were wearing head coverings as a statement about Western oppression. On the other side of the spectrum, the veil can be worn as a mark of superiority that makes women who dress less modestly by the standards of the veil-wearer seem less moral, or as a way for men to control their wives and other women in their families. At its most dangerous, this thinking can be seen in the Sydney gang-rapes crisis, when Muslim youths felt their victims deserved their fates because of the way they dressed and behaved. It can even be used as a justification for terrorism. The philosophical basis for groups such as al-Qa'ida largely hinges on the idea that non-Muslims must convert or die to hasten the advent of an entire world under Islam, and veils are one way of indicating who is in the elect. Finally, some Muslim women claim that the veil is a liberating force, or that it is an inherent part of their cultural identity. But no matter the justification, the question remains whether a practice with its roots and justification in medieval Arabia has a place in a postmodern secular society such as Australia. Religious beliefs are by definition sacred, and as much as possible they should be a private matter. But when an individual or a community feels that their personal practices should trump widely held values while also setting themselves apart, the question arises as to whether those people would not be more comfortable in a place where such behaviour is the norm.
At its heart is the question of where tolerance should end and the old adage, "When in Rome, do as the Romans", should kick in. While tolerance is certainly a positive virtue that should be strived for, it cannot be a cultural suicide pact. A culture that is tolerant of those who are intolerant of its freedoms is ripe for destruction, and bit by bit will see all it values eroded. And radical Islam knows this. Just as an Australian wouldn't go to Saudi Arabia to wear a bikini on the beach and drink beer in the corner pub, those who see the proper role of women as subservient, anonymous and under cover should not expect a postmodern secular democracy such as Britain or Australia to accommodate these beliefs. Australians, who quite properly want their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers to be able to achieve anything, are right to feel uncomfortable about religiously mandated coverings and the limits they imply. We do not allow practices such as female genital mutilation simply because they are practiced by an immigrant "other". Disappointingly, those who have traditionally been a positive force for the liberation of women against oppression in other spheres have here largely been silent on the question of Islam's beliefs concerning half of humanity.
If it is true that the past is another country, then what confronts the West today is not so much a clash of civilisations as a clash of centuries. The jumbo jets that have enabled the mass immigration from Muslim countries to the West are, in effect, time machines that have brought millions of people from a pre-Enlightenment world - where men are the unquestioned bosses, stoning and forced amputation are punishments rather than crimes, and sectarian differences are worth dying over - to secular, liberal and postmodern democracies such as ours. Integration in such circumstances will be difficult but should not be shied away from, even if it means newcomers will have to adapt. Mainstream British politicians have done a great service by opening a debate on this subject. Government-supported ethnic essentialism ultimately leads to segregation - anathema to an immigrant nation such as ours whose success lies in the adoption of common values rather than the preservation of divisive behaviours. In the debate over values, far better that we appeal to our shared humanity rather than encourage behaviours that seek to demonstrate separateness and superiority.