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Thursday, October 19, 2006



Unless you have managed to avoid the news entirely for the past week or so, you will know that the most pressing political issue in Britain is whether a tiny minority of a minority group – a population of a few hundred – should be able to wear veils. This in itself is an absurd arrangement of political priorities.

This story does not exist in isolation, but comes on the back of a series of news stories highlighting the special wickedness of Muslims. Even when they are the victims of mob-handed attack, Muslims are still the instigators, corrupters of the morals of the usually tolerant ‘white’, ‘English’, ‘British’ or ‘host’ (delete depending on your preferred brand of othering) population, prompting them into spasms of verbal abuse and sometimes even violence. This approach to understanding modern British society is given weight and legitimacy by the opinions of the great and good. Muslims, it seems, want to live in ghettos and are responsible for their alleged estrangement from the rest of society.

This analysis must be true. After all, I have heard it used before, to great effect. As I understand it there once was another minority group in Europe that was especially wicked, unEuropean, pre-modern, anti-democratic, a group who were uniquely responsible for they own discrimination and persecution and gathered together in alien ghettos that needed to be ‘broken up’. Yes, we have heard this all before.

But this most recent round of demonisation combines three great selling points of the tabloid press. First, a spot of reader-pleasing xenophobia, second a threat to children, and third, wrap it all up in an individualised human interest story. The first two, presumably, are why we do not know the names of the women who have been sworn at, spat at and attacked in the name of integration, tolerance and, well, women’s rights. The first, especially. It does little to engender a feeling of satisfying own group-superiority when the xenophobia in the story is not the listing of the failings of the other.

I am writing, of course of the popular and much commented upon story of Aishah Azmi, the twenty-four year old teaching assistant who has become the symbol of the evil in our midst. Over at Osama Saeed’s blog I left a comment on this subject. Here is an edited version.

The most disgusting thing about the whole, manufactured Azmi affair is that this story is being understood in an entirely arse-backward fashion. This was the case of a young woman integrating into society. Azmi was working at a school of a different faith to her own, teaching English to bilingual children. She is, or rather was, the very model of an integrated – as I have said before, assimilation is an entirely different, and much more dangerous, word - young person.

With authorities leaping on the back of a wave of ignorance and xenophobic disgust of the other, she is suspended. A Labour - Labour! mark you, the party of working people, the party that ought oppose sackings, never mind those inspired by popular prejudice - minister announces that she ought to be sacked. Aishah Azmi, a twenty-four year old woman, integrated into British society, has been transformed by journalistic sleight-of-word into a villain, a symbol of segregation and apart-ness, a process of Wonderland-logic that would be fascinating if it were not so appalling.

So integration and cross-faith education are segregation, to be condemned by members of this government, even to the point when the words used verge on a breach of employment law - and remember this is Labour! – all the while this same government welcomes proposals for semi-privatised single-faith schools government policy? If a government minister wants to condemn anything, if such a person wanted to call for sackings in the name of integration, that person should be calling for the entire journalistic and editorial staffs of the mass market papers to be made redundant.

I am no fan of the veil, and do think that it objectively works to prevent the equality of the sexes. But I am no brute. I do not think that the course of action to be taken upon coming to this conclusion is to destroy the lives of women who have chosen to wear the veil. To do so seems to be the practice of some kind of pseudo-feminism, and the question is; what lies behind this 'liberal' front?

After trading blows with some at Harry's Place, I decided that there is a category of thought that we ought to call national feminism. Five Chinese Crackers has a good post exposing Melanie Phillips madness, while The F-Word discusses how to approach the ‘problem’ posed by the veil.

Just excellent.
excellent post, going to check out the rest of your blog now (i came here via a link on 5cc). just one point i'd like to add: why is it that when foreign people come to Britain they are called "immigrants" and they live in "ghettos," but when Brits move abroad they are called "ex-pats" and they live in "ex-pat communities"? why are "immigrant ghettos" bad and need to be destroyed, but "ex-pat communities" are OK? as far as i can tell they're the same things, just differently named.
I can't agree here, Andrew. You appear to be conflating two (at least partly) separate points. It's obviously the case that the foaming loons of the right-wing press are creating a very unpleasant environment for Muslims and Islam right now. Agreed. That this is leading to vicious racist attacks on Muslims is clear. That Labour politicians are stoking this shit up is apparent.

But what exactly is controversial in saying that a woman wearing a veil can't teach language to primary school children in a mixed-gender environment? That's "can't" in the real sense; you won't find an Amish lifeguard, or a JW working in a blood-bank, or a Christian working in a sex shop. Some people's beliefs exclude them from participation in certain roles. The "solution" isn't then to deamnd that the role be changed.§ion=0&article=84216&d=21&m=10&y=2006
Jarndyce, I appreciate the simple 'fulfillment of employment duties' point.

But that is not the point made by the Labour politicians. It was not the way this whole row started, which was with claims that the veil is a symbol and motor of separateness. While some have raised the straightforward employment issue, it is then followed by wider claims that the veil equals voluntary apartheid, that it is a sign of 'ghettoisation'.

Which in this case is nonsense. The veiled woman in this case is most definately not separating herself from interfaith, cross-cultural life. Aishah Azmi refutes the general points made about the veil, and despite this, these form the well of popular rhetoric on which commentators and Labour politicians are drawing. There is a terrible injustice - an injustice aggravated by the tenor of self-rightous disgust of the other - in the way Azmi is being represented, regardless of her competency as a TA.
As I said, I agree with your general points, just not their specific application to this case. I wouldn't associate myself with anyone expressing disgust with the veil. But at the same time, I can't see an alternative to sacking her if she refuses to remove it in class. I doubt there are many single-sex schools without male teachers locally to her.

_the veil is a symbol and motor of separateness_

Well, it is, isn't it. Even in societies populated almost exclusively by Muslims. I spent some time a while ago in a couple of Gulf states, and it's virtually impossible to start a conversation or have any interaction with a woman in a veil. That's the purpose of a veil. It's a barrier, a mask to ward off public discourse.

However, moving from there to bitching because someone wants to wear one is the point at which you step outside "liberalism".
You make an interesting point about the woman seemingly trying to fit in.

What disturbed me about the whole business is that she went for interview without her veil even thugh she was being interviewed by a man.

Can this be construed as gaining a job under false pretences?

Furthermore, in the light of this might this whole thing be a set up designed to test the boundaries between muslims and the rest of us and gain an increment of power and precedence for the muslims?
"might this whole thing be a set up designed to test the boundaries between muslims and the rest of us and gain an increment of power and precedence for the muslims?"

Err, no. That sounds like some sort of mutated version of the anti-Semitic understanding of history as a ethno-religious conspiracy.
Err, no. That sounds like some sort of mutated version of the anti-Semitic understanding of history as a ethno-religious conspiracy.

But then again it could mean one more step on the road to a worldwide caliphate.
I refer you to my previous comment.
"But at the same time, I can't see an alternative to sacking her if she refuses to remove it in class".

That's not actually true. She removed the veil whilst teaching. She just asked to wear it if a man were to come in the room.
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