Saturday, October 07, 2006

Jack Straw moves slightly Franceward

As you know, France has a codified policy of secularism, which is what allows the French government to issue diktats along the lines of "no religious symbols may be displayed on your person while in public school"-- a policy that has caused perennial controversy among veil-wearing Muslim Frenchwomen, but which has also been problematic for skullcap-wearing Jews and cross-wearing Christians.

Jack Straw, a senior British Cabinet minister, recently said that Muslim women might want to consider removing the veil in order to make community relations less difficult. Straw underlined that he felt that Muslims have every legal right to wear the veil, and that he wasn't proposing a change in the law. His feeling was simply that the veil creates discomfort and emphasizes difference, which is unhelpful in building community.

Straw did about the best he could do, given the volatile circumstances in his country. Will Muslims be offended by his remarks? Of course they will: some already are. But Straw was merely calling it as he sees it.

I think Straw's remark has a strategic dimension, however: his ulterior purpose is to stir things up, to provoke discussion. He knows full well that a direct move to propose a law on veil-wearing will never go over with the public now. But he also knows that, by placing the topic in the public consciousness, it might be possible to influence mass opinion and, eventually, to have an actual debate about religious garb and community.

But such a debate is doomed: where can it lead? Who seriously wants government intrusion at that level? I've never agreed with France's stance on religious wear, and I don't think it's advisable for Britain to move in France's direction. If Britain decides to make laws regarding personal displays of faith, they will have to apply not only to Muslims but to other religious adherents as well. Are people of all traditions ready for such a law?

At the same time, angry Muslim reaction to Straw's remarks is uncalled for. Straw has merely commented on community relations and isolated something he considers a problem. I agree with the assimilationist subtext of what Straw is saying, but I also think this is one of those cases where respect for diversity trumps the need for unity. There are other battlefronts where the assimilationist attitude will prove more useful: school curricula, for example.

So, as always, the best advice is: relax, listen, talk, and then act. And don't let the government too far inside your clothing.


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