Why Jack Straw is wrong about the veil

The current Government speaks with forked tongue on matters of faith. On the one hand some of its Departments have encouraged greater involvement of faith communities in public life, such as Local Strategic Partenerships (I am a faith representative on one of these myself), but on the other hand it has promoted a bland secularist agenda which basically regards all faiths as the same and wants to contain them within its own agenda. Recently Guy Wilkinson, interfaith advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury was reported as claiming that the Government had mishandled its attempts to promote relations between faith communities by being “schizophrenic” in its approach and favouring Muslims over the churches. Other commentators, such as Jonathan Bartley of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia acknowledge there is a growing feeling amongst Christian churches that they are being sidelined in public life in favour of other faiths. But Bartley argues that these feelings are misguided and reflect Christians’ sense of the loss of the priveleges of the Christendom era.

The statements of Jack Straw about the full-face veil worn by some Muslim women and his defence by other leading government ministers like Harriet Harman reflect the strong vein of secularist authoritarianism that runs through the bedrock of New Labour. This vein has surfaced time and again during this administration’s period of office in draconian legislation to curb the freedoms and legal protections afforded ordinary people going about their daily business, and to increase the powers of the police and the State to invade our homes and our privacy, (not to mention other peoples’ countries), in the name of security and stability.

Ziauddin Sardar writes in this week’s New Stateman with compelling arguments as to why Jack Straw’s frank admission of his feelings towards the niqab, the full-face veil worn by some Muslim women, and his requests that it be removed in meetings with him, betrays both an astonishing ignorance and a readiness to force his views on others. ( See link in title)

Why is this of interest to me in Anglican terms? I do believe that in a free society our assumption must be that people may wear what they choose in public, subject only to the laws of obscenity and public nuisance. It is the role of politicians to defend that right, and not to undermine it by asserting, without strong evidence and purely on the basis of personal feelings, that certain forms of dress are subversive of good order in society. But all those who belong to communities of faith, whether or not we agree with the veiling of women’s faces in public, should be very worried when government ministers use their public role and voice to criticise the practices of a faith community simply on the basis that it is different from what the majority do and makes the majority feel uncomfortable.

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