Beyond The Veil

The Dutch government just announced that it's seeking to ban the Muslim veil in public places. The Vatican has declared that veiling shows disrespect for local cultures and sensibilities. German officials in North Rhine-Westphalia say they will discipline Muslim teachers who wear headscarves in defiance of a ban imposed in May. In Britain, Jack Straw recently threw fuel on the fire by suggesting that this bit of traditional Muslim garb "separates people" and hinders integration. "Communication requires that both sides see each other's face," said Britain's former foreign minister, displaying a mastery of cross-cultural sen-sitivity. "You not only hear what people say, but you also see what they mean." British Muslims immediately wondered how Straw's former cabinet colleague, ex-Home secretary David Blunkett--blind since birth--ever did his job.

Perhaps Straw did not intend to wound. But it had been a bad week already. Conservative leader David Cameron was taking jabs at what he called "Muslim ghettos." British tabloids railed about a Muslim cabby who allegedly refused to drive a blind woman because having her dog in the car offended his religious beliefs. Even Prime Minister Tony Blair couldn't hold his peace and called the veil a "mark of separation."

Who would have thought such a fracas could erupt over a bit of cloth, no bigger than 20 square centimeters, that a tiny number of Western Muslim women use to cover their faces? To be sure, this wasn't the first time that Muslim wom-en's dress had caused a crisis, and it won't be the last. But why does the veil strike such a chord, fueling suspicions that Muslims are an indigestible minority, at odds with the European way of life, and a security threat as well?

First, let's get on the same page in this debate, beginning with who I am: a young, professional, well-educated and "well integrated" British woman who chooses to wear her faith--in my case, the headscarf--on her sleeve. Though born in London, I grew up in Singapore; no women in my family wore the headscarf, and open displays of religiosity were tut-tutted about as being out of step with the times. Driven by a strong sense of social justice and wanting to reconnect with my spirituality, I "found" Islam at university, where I was a campus activist. My decision to wear the headscarf, the higab, at first had more to do with defining identity and a brash confidence about who I was and what values guided me. In time, it came to express my devotion as well. I will probably never wear a face veil, the nijab ; frankly, it makes me uncomfortable. But in the best Voltairean spirit, I will fight and defend the right of Muslim women to wear what they want to wear.

Nor am I alone, as I found on a recent reporting trip to Blackburn, Jack Straw's constituency in Britain's much-maligned Muslim heartland, where an increasing number of young, educated, articulate women are choosing to wear the veil. Typical is Faatema Mayat, a college lecturer in psychology and physics, who told me that she adopted the veil because she feels it's the religious dress closest to the Islamic ideal. But, she emphasizes, that's not a choice she would impose on anyone else. "The veil is just part of the wonderful diversity we have in this country," she explains. Friendly and outgoing, she falls almost daily into conversations with (non-Muslim) neighbors, explaining why she wears the veil and rarely encounters hostility. Contrast that to a trip she and a sister took to Morocco, where people shouted "Hizbullah!" at them on the street. As a symbol of integration, or the lack of it, her nijab is irrelevant, at least as she sees it. A better measure is social engagement.

Almost invariably, Muslim women who wear the veil are considered disengaged, powerless, pawns of their men and of a

backward culture. Yet consider the veiled women who made Straw so uncomfortable. They were concerned enough about their communities (and had enough acquaintance with the democratic process) to go to see their M.P. How many Britons (or French or Germans) even know the names of their representatives, let alone stake them out at their public meetings? And what of organizations like the An-Nisa Society in Wembley, which has pioneered unique programs addressing the mental and sexual health of Muslim women? This week it will hold the first national conference on encouraging better support for Muslim fathers. A few of those attending will wear the veil, others the higab, others no head covering at all. It makes little difference. Again, the point is engagement--gab, not garb.

Britain's veil debate, like the ongoing controversy over headscarves in France or the furor over the killing of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands, has more to do with Europe's own identity crisis than with the presence of some "dangerous other." At a time when post-communist, secular, democratic Europe was supposed to have been ascendant, playing its decisive role at the end of history, Islam came and spoiled the party. The presence of energetic and robust Muslim communities for whom religion matters is changing the Euro-pean public square. Demographic trends--immigration coupled with Muslim fertility rates--will see the Islamic population of a country like Austria grow from 4 percent to as much as 26 percent by 2050, according to Eric Kaufmann in the latest issue of Prospect. As a result, it's getting more and more difficult to think of people (or countries) in strictly racial or ethnic terms without reference to their religious identity. Turning a blind eye to demographic diversity, as the French do, is self-defeating.

For many europeans, theveil represents a civilizational challenge, a threat to their "Christian club." Those who think this way have lately found some unwitting allies. The head of Britain's Commission on Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, recently warned that the ugly tone of the current debate over the veil, and the more general bullying of British Muslims, could spark race riots of the sort seen in the north of England in 2001. Coming a year after similar riots in Paris, Phillips's warning reinforced a widespread impression that Britain's Muslim communities are pressure cookers waiting to explode, that they are somehow incapable of participating peacefully in democracy and therefore require special rules.

All this has weakened British faith in the ideal of "multiculturalism," believes Humera Khan, cofounder of the An-Nisa Society. "One of the achievements of multiculturalism was that, as a nation, we became more tolerant of people's outward appearances." Now, having learned to relish that freedom of expression, is it to be taken away from women who choose to wear the veil? "We need to have a big discussion about what we understand about living in a diverse society," says Khan.

Muslims are not necessarily helping themselves, either. Instead of focusing on the powerful theological message of Islam and its relevance to modern Europe, some critics say, Muslims spend too much energy defending the outward symbols of their faith. "Crises like this expose a spiritual vacuum," says Navid Akhtar, a British documentary filmmaker. "We are becoming a religion that is obsessed by icons. We forget that we worship God, not our headscarves or our beards." Muslims indeed have a duty not to alarm their neighbors, he adds, much as Straw and Blair imply. "If your neighbor is frightened of you, it's not all his fault," Akhtar says. "You have a responsibility to meet him halfway, to try and calm him down."

These internal struggles are not new. Almost 15 years ago, a few years after the publication of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses," the founding editor of Q-News, Fuad Nahdi, asked poignantly, "Beyond beards, scarves and halal meat, what is Muslim identity in the 21st century?" We are still struggling to answer that question today.

Yet sooner or later, it is almost inevita-ble that a European Islam will emerge--inspired by 1,400 years of heritage, but authentic and culturally relevant to us in Europe today. Many British Muslims, especially, are like me: young, politicized and socially active, angry about the Iraq debacle and the so-called war on terror. Yet we are eager for rigorous debate. We are the most globalized generation in European history, connected to the countries of our parents or grandparents as well as to the broader spiritual community, umma, of world Islam. Above all we are British citizens with a stake in a shared future, whatever face we might present to the world.

Those who have sounded the alarm over the veil might ask another question: what is it, exactly, that Europe's Muslims are being asked to integrate into? There are more pressing causes for segregation than veils, among them poverty, housing and lack of equal job and education opportunities. And a final point, in case it isn't obvious: we're not foreigners anymore. We live here. Most of us have already integrated, veil or no veil.