No Problem With the Veil

Must one be more muslim than Mohammed?" It's astonishing how often I am asked this question. Europeans are finally waking up to the fact that it is Islamism, not Islam, that is hostile to everything Europe holds dear. Women's rights. Secular law and education. Tolerance of gays and different faiths.

The very principle of reason as superior to superstition, the science of Galileo and the free speech of Voltaire--all is under threat from a totalitarian politics disguised as religion.

Europe is not about to descend into a new war on belief. But there's no mistaking the change in climate. In Britain, Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons, touched off a storm by suggesting that Muslim women should not wear a full-length veil. It was socially divisive, he explained, "a mark of separation" rather than community. When Prime Minister Tony Blair subsequently agreed, he only reinforced the impression that the country is heading toward even deeper tension between Muslims and non-Muslims. The trend lines are similar elsewhere, whether in France (with its riots) or the Netherlands (with new laws banning the head-to-toe burqa in public) or Belgium (where in recent municipal elections the anti-immigrant Flemish Bloc nearly won control of Antwerp.)

Yet this disheartening evidence of clashing cultures conceals a far more heartening reality. Consider my north England constituency of Rotherham, 15 percent of whom are Muslims, mainly from the poor Mirpur province of Kashmir. The older men are gentle, pious and focused on family; grandmothers wear the clothes of their villages. But their granddaughters? They're in jeans and T-shirts. Some wear the hijab to cover part of their hair. But the body-length burqa they laugh away as a "Batman" outfit. They are not being sacrilegious. You can hunt high and low in the Koran, they tell me, and find no dress code. The devil may wear Prada, but the founder of Islam did not require Muslims to don the burqa or its cousin, the nose and mouth covering veil known as the niquab .

To the contrary, it is ostensibly modern Muslim men, acting chiefly out of ideology, who have decided that "their" women should be as separate as possible from fellow citizens in Europe. Rows over the veil have been taken up by radical Islamists, who seek to present the issue in terms of an atheistic and sexually crude West denying the religious rights of Muslim women. It's bad enough, they say, that Western soldiers occupy Muslim lands. (Never mind that it's mainly Muslim sectarians who are killing other Muslims.) Now the cultural and family traditions of Islam are being trampled by Islamophobic pols.

Tariq ramadan, lately in the news for being denied a visa to visit America, is prominent among these voices. A grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, he quit teaching at a secondary school in Switzerland after supporting creationism--to the consternation of his fellow schoolmasters. He has since become a public face of Muslim Europe, known for his efforts to convince governments that that their partners in relations with native-born Muslims should be local chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim women should not play sports, says Ramadan, lest others see their bodies. Nor is there any higher calling than the submission of women to pious men. The self-appointed task of the Muslim Brotherhood, as for all Islamists, is not to modernize Islam but, rather, to Islamize modernity.

Such attitudes have until recently been tolerated in the name of multiculturalism. British and other European politicians have bent over backward to be as accommodating as possible toward their Muslim citizens, fearing they would feel prey to racism and discrimination. Time and tolerance, it was believed, would bring assimilation and good neighborliness regardless of creed or ethnic origin. The fact that they haven't presents a challenge to this melting-pot thesis of integration. You see the result in rising anti-immigrant, anti-Islamist sentiment across the continent.

Less noticed, but more important however, has been the reaction within Europe's Muslim communities themselves. Once upon a time, in my district, the sons and daughters and grandchildren of first-generation immigrants seldom married into the broader community. Marriages were instead arranged within the family, reproducing patterns of poverty rather than yielding to the gentler and progressively more prosperous co-mingling of faiths and cultures that previous immigrant groups experienced. Today, many beautiful young women choose not to marry at all rather than accept a cousin imported from, say, Pakistan. However much young Muslims love their traditions, they more and more refuse to be told how to live their lives in a modern Britain.

The signs are also encouraging when it comes to what the former German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, calls "the new totalitarianism of jihadi fundamentalism." The endless violence against democracy (virtual or verbal) by groups claiming to be acting on behalf of Islam has begun to change mainstream Muslim attitudes. Every one of my Muslim constituents, as best I can tell, hates terrorism. They shun violence and would willingly denounce terrorist cells to the local police.

To me, the most striking feature of the current debate is the degree to which, for almost the first time, it has been dominated by ordinary Muslim men and women speaking out. While radicals protest their right to teach school wearing a burqa, many others have gone on TV and radio to argue against them. They ask why reason and science cannot co-exist with faith--an argument settled for Christians centuries ago but which Islam has not fully begun. In Parliament, a young generation of elected Muslim lawmakers is taking on its elders and saying what once could not be said: that a modern Muslim community must not seek separation or superiority beyond the laws and customs that other Britons live by. Across Europe, old taboos are being broken. Yes, the likes of Straw and Blair feel free--indeed, compelled--to break with past political correctness. But so, increasingly, do Europe's Muslims.