It is one of the myths of modern day discourse that Muslims are the ones afraid of debate; overly sensitive, frequently inflexible and of course always wrong. With every new criticism aimed at Muslims, the movie becomes so predictable just like a good old fashioned James Bond movie where 007 kills the baddies, saves the world and ends up with the girl. The Muslim movie is just as predictable and it goes something like this. Prominent Non Muslim indulges in a strong criticism of Muslims or Islam, this is then magnified by the media out of all proportion, and the issue is then repeated ubiquitously in newspaper editorials. In response some Muslims react defensively or violently, which is in turn attacked as Muslims being either too sensitive to criticism or at worst philistines who don’t understand the values of the Enlightenment. And before Muslims can catch their breath, another distinct attack raises itself from the ether.
The veil issue currently being debated in the UK epitomises exactly what is wrong with the current ‘debate’ surrounding Islam and the West. Jack Straw a member of the British Cabinet claimed that he wanted to open a debate surrounding the veil. Of course no such thing has actually happened, for a real debate to occur as anyone familiar with any debating society rules knows, are that both sides receive equal time and an equal opportunity to articulate their views. While Jack Straw enjoys the bully pit of the Cabinet, the ability to write columns in national newspapers, extensive opportunities to give live interviews his numerous opponents have to do with scraps via letters pages, brief appearances on twenty four hour news stations and radio phone-ins. What therefore has actually happened is more equivalent to a glorified monologue with Muslims playing the part of optional extras.
The issue around the veil is not as has been articulated a clash between the West and Islam. Rather the deeper insight is that this is another of many incidents that epitomises a clash within Western civilization itself. For Muslims the issue of the veil has long been settled, most Muslims believe that the veil is not a compulsion for women to wear, but recognise that for some the covering of the face does constitute an obligation. A small minority of women wear the veil for purely pragmatic reasons, a vehicle to protect themselves from the challenges of a highly sexualised society. Regardless of the position, the issue of the veil is not a lightning rod that it has become within Western society.
The veil however does create yet another ideological chasm within Western society. Liberalism has been sorely tested since 9-11, and the veil issue demonstrates once again that there are fundamental contradictions between liberal values on the one hand and the challenges of running a modern state. Prior to a post 9-11 world, the veil would never have become an issue, the concepts of freedom of expression and tolerance would have been too strong and too ingrained in western society. Yet as a result of a myriad of distinct reasons, elements of western society are now heading down the road of intolerance and muscular integration. Many Non Muslims accuse Muslims of not respecting western society’s cherished ideals of freedom and tolerance. Yet it isn’t Muslims that have delivered blows to these values, these same Non Muslims have done a pretty good job themselves since 9-11. It wasn’t Muslims that have passed with alacrity draconian anti-terror legislation, it wasn’t Muslims who extended pre-charge detention periods for suspects, it wasn’t Muslims who have criminalised legitimate dissent in the name of preventing the glorification of terrorism, it isn’t Muslims who preside over the abuse of human rights at Guantanomo Bay, it isn’t Muslims who want ID cards, it isn’t Muslims who have introduced mass surveillance and wiretaps. These same Non Muslims argue that Muslims have failed to integrate; indeed only recently one senior Conservative politician accused Muslims of seeking voluntary apartheid. Yet what values do they want Muslims to integrate with, the values that existed a hundred years ago, the ones that existed pre 9-11, the ones in vogue now or the new ones that are inevitably just around the corner . And when did such values become sacrosanct and above criticism. Western societies may claim a superior set of principles but they also promote excessive individualism, an unhealthy materialism, a hedonistic trend which embraces alcohol and sex and which systematically removes any kind of moral or spiritual dimension. These values are not just opposed by the large majority of Muslims but millions of other people in western society. Surely instead of continually demanding in a robotic fashion that Muslims should integrate into a set of values that continually evolve, we should start having an adult debate on what values are fit for purpose for the 21st century. What values can protect our elderly, what values can help to alleviate third world poverty and disease, what values can address the deep problems of social inequality, drugs and chronic racism.
One of the rationales given on why Britain and America went to war in Afghanistan was the need to liberate women who lived in Afghan society. The British Foreign Secretary at the time of the Afghan invasion was especially keen to accentuate the point that the Taliban were oppressing women through dictating to them what they could and could not wear. Who was the then British Foreign Secretary, yes you guessed it, the Rt Hon Jack Straw. You couldn’t make it up.