Jack Straw has unleashed a storm of prejudice and intensified division

It’s been quite extraordinary: one man’s emotional response to the niqab – the Muslim veil that covers all but the eyes – has snowballed into a perceived titanic clash of cultures in which commentators pompously pronounce on how Muslims are “rejecting the values of liberal democracy”.

Jack Straw feels uncomfortable and within a matter of hours, his discomfort is calibrated on news bulletins and websites in terms of an inquisitorial demand: do Muslims in this country want to integrate? How does Straw’s “I feel …” spin so rapidly into such grandstanding?

The confusions and sleights of hand are legion, and it’s hard to know where to start to unpick this holy mess. Let’s begin with its holiness, because this is an element which has been absent from the furore. There are two distinct patterns of niqab-wearing in this country. One group wears the niqab by cultural tradition. Often they are relatively recent migrants, from Somalia or Yemen for example, and for the record it is not a “symbol of oppression” but a symbol of status.

The second group comprises the small but slightly increasing number of younger women who wear it as a sign of their intense piety. This latter prompted the memory of being taken as a child by my mother to visit the Poor Clares’ convent in York. We gave alms to these impoverished women who had chosen complete segregation from the world as part of their strict spiritual discipline; we talked to the gentle, warm mother superior through the bars of a grille that symbolised their retreat from the world. No one accused these nuns of “rejecting the values of liberal democracy” – yet they were co-religionists of the IRA terrorists of their time.

The point is that within all religious traditions there are trends emphasising the corrupting influences of the world and how one must keep them at a distance. Catholicism and the celibate monastic tradition of Buddhism interpret this in one way. Salafi Islam interprets it in modes of dress and behaviour in public places. Since when has secular Britain become so intolerant that it can’t accommodate (no one is asking them to like) these small minorities of puritanical piety?

But the bigger part of the muddle is why Straw felt entitled to privilege his emotional response without questioning it more deeply. Does it not occur to men opining on their sense of “rejection” at the niqab that it could be equally prompted by separatist lesbians? Or on another even more obvious tack: how comfortable does the woman wearing the niqab feel coming to visit her MP ensconced in his cultural context, at ease with enormous power and authority? Comfort is a disastrous new measure for interactions in a diverse society. I’ve got a long list of discomforts. Does that licence me to make demands of others? I find talking to blind people difficult because I rely on eye contact. Similarly, dark glasses are problematic. And, to my shame, I often give up on conversations with people hard of hearing because I over-rely on chat to kindle warmth.

So forget comfort and accept the starting point for any kind of tolerance: that it’s not easy, that it requires imagination, that it makes demands of us. Learn new forms of communication and your world expands.

This debate about the niqab is the flipside of another, parallel debate (led by women) about the over-sexualisation of another subset of women who dress very provocatively (no men complaining here). One of the impulses for women who choose to take the niqab is how highly sexualised public space in this country has become. How do you signal your rejection – even repulsion – at what you regard as near-pornography blazoned over billboards?

A point worth pondering is that a minority of young women are so repulsed by the offer of femininity in Britain – rapidly rising alcohol abuse, soaring sexually transmitted diseases – that they have sought such a drastic option as the niqab.

And here’s the most damaging aspect of Straw’s self-indulgent intervention: the niqab is a drastic option and one that many Muslim women reject. It is the response of a minority who feel that they are living in a hostile climate. Straw’s comments have unleashed a storm of prejudice that only exacerbates the very tendencies which prompt some Muslims to retreat. They undermine efforts within the Muslim community to build more self-confidence, to encourage tightly knit communities to reach out. They have elevated the situation of a tiny minority of women who are often the most fearful anyway into a national problem – even that they form a barrier to successful integration.

This is dangerous and absurd. There are many far more important barriers to successful integration. Two-thirds of children from families of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin are growing up in poverty. More than 20% of all Muslim youths between 16 and 24 are unemployed. In many areas, the desire of second generation Muslims to integrate is being stymied by “white flight” from residential areas and white families using parental choice in education to avoid schools with large numbers of Asian pupils. Outgoing, confident ethnic communities are built where they find understanding, opportunity and engagement. We need to ask ourselves whether that is what we have provided.

Straw’s comments on the niqab escalated into an utterly false implication that Muslims don’t really want to integrate. Television reports ran over pictures of monocultural playgrounds. Ted Cantle’s identification of “parallel lives” in his report on the Bradford riots of 2001 has morphed into a problem that is being laid entirely at the door of a small minority that is impoverished and marginalised. This is ugly.

And there is another, equally ugly, agenda here. Many Muslims were surprised at Straw’s comments – including close political Muslim allies – given his long relationship with the community in his constituency. There has been speculation on his political ambitions. But the point that intrigues me is how Straw is elevating this question as one of primary national concern. In an article on Tony Crosland in the New Statesman last month, Straw cited the Labour thinker’s belief that class was the great divide in society, and added that, now, “religion” was the great divide.

Obviously, Straw meant Islam. No one is too worried about a shrinking number of Anglicans or Catholics. It’s a magnificent convenience for New Labour to let the divides of class slip from view as they prove intractable and social mobility grinds to a halt. In its place, a divide is drawn between a Muslim minority and the vast majority of non-Muslims. It resonates – as the public response to Straw testifies – but it is profoundly mistaken.

The job of a political leader at this historical juncture is to prod our complacencies and prejudices, to open our eyes to recognising how much we have in common; how much of Islam we non-Muslims can appreciate and admire. How much Islam can contribute to the far greater problems we all face. We shouldn’t be hounding those nervous or pious women in their niqabs. Their choice of clothing is as irrelevant as that of Goths. Beware, said Freud wisely, of the narcissism of small differences.

Madeleine Bunting is director of the thinktank Demos.


* This article was first published in The Guardian, Monday October 9, 2006. Read all articles by Madeleine Bunting.