Britain’s ex-foreign secretary’s recent commentary on the Muslim niqab, or full veil, as a “visible statement of separation and of difference that “makes it more difficult for people “to acknowledge each other signifies the latest in Europe’s embarrassing blunders. Following the Pope’s political impropriety, Jack Straw’s cavalier declaration on what constitutes effective deliberation was inappropriate and painfully inept.
If Straw was attempting to stake out parameters for behavioral freedoms that are either conducive or constrictive vis-à-vis dialogue, he missed a few. For example, why Straw failed to recommend restraints on persistent mobile phone users or iPod-obsessed youth is unclear as such behaviors are equally culpable for obfuscating dialogic opportunities in the town common.
It appears, rather, that the ex-foreign secretary, who now represents Blackburn, Lancashire’s constituency, was merely masking prejudice in a cloak of superficial pro-discourse rhetoric.
Prejudice may be a strong indictment but Straw’s actions certainly warrant it. Straw essentially requested that Muslim women remove their niqab when visiting his constituency office, so that “face-to-face conversations could enable him to see what the other person means, and not just hear what they say .
The irony of a prominent UK government official placing limitations on personal freedoms in one of the most developed, democratic, and freedom-loving nation-states was not lost on the Muslim community. How free is Britain if its 1.6 million Muslims are prevented from dressing in a manner of their choosing?
While Straw is correct in understanding that 65-93 percent of communicated meaning occurs through nonverbal mechanisms, his inordinate emphasis on the niqab is disconcerting. When did it become protocol for the leaders of rich and self-proclaimed free nations to dictate the specific dress code of its citizenry?
When did Britain’s Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, both of whom voiced unequivocal support for Straw’s niqab comments, decide to define based upon their white-male-Christian upbringing what religious freedoms are suitable? It would be painfully ironic for “free Britain to begin placing restraints on benign freedoms like a Muslim woman’s choice to wear the niqab – ironic and overtly value-laden.
What Straw considers as discourse appropriate clothing would fail to find consensus in other cultures or other religions.
But in an age when it’s apparently acceptable to discriminate against Muslims, it is not surprising that their personal freedoms are getting shortchanged. The US and UK share a plagued history in this regard as Muslims are merely the current favorite in a lengthy record of discrimination that has included Latinos, blacks, Africans, Asians, Jews, females, and native segments of society.
Throughout the 20th century, limitations on personal freedoms were placed on women, blacks, and Jews, most notably, and only now are these populations catching up with the white-male-Christians as they acquire the full rights and freedoms afforded every citizen under law.
In stark contrast, however, stands the Muslim community who, like the oppressed populations before it, is demanding the full freedoms so proudly promoted by the US and UK.
Much like anti-black or anti-Jewish sentiment that was socially acceptable by the ruling elite in the mid-to-latter half of the 20th century, anti-Muslim sentiment is not only permitted but is perpetually propagated by politicos in the US and the UK. In essence, Muslims have become the prejudiced-du-jour.
That Muslims are the prejudiced-du-jour is not particularly noteworthy from a historical perspective since Muslims merely take their place as marginalized recipients after the innumerable prejudiced-du-jour before them. What is particularly noteworthy, deeply troubling, and morally inexcusable, however, is that in an era where anti-discrimination leagues prevail, the world has managed to implicitly condone a surge of anti-Muslim sentiment.
This is wrong and must be remedied immediately. In a world where personal freedoms are given primary import, Jack Straw’s careless remarks about the niqab, unless couched with consistent analysis of all that might impede nonverbal communication, appears prejudiced.
The real “visible statement of separation and of difference, therefore, that “makes it more difficult for people “to acknowledge each other is Britain’s proclivity for a Muslim prejudiced-du-jour. Not the niqab.
Michael Shank is a PhD student at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.