Britain - Labour's veil of hypocrisy

Nov/Dec 2006

It was Jack Straw, former Foreign Secretary to Blair, who took it on himself to start talking about the niqab, or face veil, this Autumn, sparking off yet more Muslim-focussed headlines.

As member of parliament for the old working class mill-town of Blackburn in Lancashire, for some 30 years, Straw has many Muslims in his constituency. In fact voters of Muslim origin make up around 25-30% of Blackburn's electorate. So, when on 5 October he chose to devote his column in The Lancashire Telegraph to the subject of the face-veil, he certainly did not do so innocently. However, the ostensible reason he gave for this, was his personal unease: "I felt uncomfortable speaking "face to face" with someone who I couldn't see".

He then explained that he began to ask veiled women who came to consult him at his local constituency office to remove their veils, so that he could see their faces, which, apparently, they invariably agreed to do. He concluded this article by saying that he felt justified in "raising the veil" since it "was such a visible statement of separation and difference. I thought a lot before raising this matter a year ago and still more before writing this. But if not me, who? My concerns could be misplaced. But I think there is an issue here."

Of course there is an issue. In fact there are several which spring to mind, for example how the 'War on Terror' and invasion of Iraq during which Straw was Blair's number two, fuelled reactionary religious fervour - including the wearing of the hijab. Which is why many people felt that he was the very last person who should be "raising this matter". And of course, as was intended, his comments precipitated a whole spectrum of reaction - from some Muslim organisations, joined by some on the liberal left, who accused him of Muslim-bashing and "Islamophobia", to those who ignored completely the specific context of these remarks and who defended his intervention on purely feminist grounds.

But Straw was deliberately steering clear of any causality. Quite obviously, he wished only to make one point, which is that Muslims - and in this case Muslim women - bear responsibility for distancing themselves from "British society" which makes "better, positive relations between the two communities difficult." And if Muslims, via such logic, are to blame for "bad relations", then the government is less to blame, or perhaps even totally blameless.

The prime minister's office issued a statement, within 24 hours, to the effect that Tony Blair felt it right that "people should be able to have a discussion and express their personal views on issues such as this". And the following week Blair spoke out himself to back Straw, saying it was perfectly sensible to discuss the issue and that while "it's a difficult, tricky debate to enter into, (...) he raised it in a very sensible way". Gordon Brown followed the same line, saying Straw had his support since all he was proposing was a "proper debate". Hazel Blears and a number of other cabinet ministers quickly registered their support as well, although Prescott apparently voiced concern that Straw's comments could lead to "considerable difficulties in community relations". And prospective Labour leadership candidate, Peter Hain wanted to let it be known that he would never ask a woman to remove her veil and that woman had the right to dress as they choose.

However, it was clear that Straw was by no means straying away from Labour's agenda. While it had to be admitted that his comments could play into the hands of racists, the official line was that this "issue" should now be "discussed".

Unveiling hypocrisy

What ensured that the "issue of the veil" not only continued to be "discussed", but generated even more of a furore, was the pending tribunal case of the the niqab-wearing 23-year old primary school teaching assistant, Aishah Azmi - which came to light, conveniently, just a week or two later.

This young woman had been suspended (on pay) by the Headfield Church of England School in Dewsbury, for months already, because she insisted that it was her right to wear the face-veil in the classroom, and all the more so, when male colleagues were present. Actually, she went further than this, claiming that it did not prevent her from teaching the children "perfectly well", and she took her case to tribunal arguing discrimination on a number of counts as well as harassment.

Yet, while the case was still subjudice, Labour ministers, including Tony Blair himself, vigorously and publicly backed the school authorities in their action against the niqab. Indeed, this case provided the most perfect opportunity, after Straw had just "raised the issue" to illustrate their point! Said Blair, "It [the veil] is a mark of separation and that is why it makes people from outside the community uncomfortable... I simply say that I back the handling of the case. I can see the reason why they came to the decision they did."

Phil Woolas, a minister in the new "Department of Communities and Local Government" under ex-education secretary Ruth Kelly went so far as to say that the school should sack Azmi, because she had "put herself in a position where she can't do her job".

It was striking how Labour politicians (in fact politicians across the spectrum) rushed to back the school's actions. And all the more so, because it should be recalled that only last year, the prime minister's barrister wife, Cherie Blair, defended the right (at appeal) of Luton schoolgirl Shabina Begum to wear the jilbab - floor-length overdress - in school, after she had been excluded by the (Muslim) headmistress for refusing to comply with the requirements of the school uniform. In this school, where nearly 80% of the pupils were Muslim, a version of the hijab and shalwar kameez were already incorporated into the uniform, after consultation with the local mosque and parents. But when Shabina Begum won her appeal against the school, almost everyone agreed that this was a shining example of Britain's "religious tolerance"! And how enlightened too was Britain, they said, compared to France, where even the hijab is banned from schools thanks to a long standing tradition of secular education (god forbid!)...

The final outcome of Shabina Begum's case was less publicised, however. In March this year, the House of Lords reversed the Appeal Court's judgement. They said that the school could legitimately interfere with the "right" of Shabina Begum to wear the jilbab in order to protect the rights of other female students at the school who would not want to feel pressurised into adopting a more extreme form of dress.

Of course, it is going a whole lot further than this even, to insist on wearing a niqab while teaching children in a classroom, but just like Shabina Begum, Aisha Azmi was quite obviously making a quasi-political stand in the name of religious reaction. And she no doubt felt able to do so, because of the promotion of religion and of "faith schools" by the government itself. However, she has lost her case for discrimination, although she still intends to appeal. In the meantime, she has been awarded £1,100 for "victimisation".

Behind the veil, women's oppression

There has been one issue - the main one - which has been conspicuously missing from all official comment over the veil, however - whether it has been portrayed as an obstacle to integration, as a cultural or religious right, or simply as the right to be different and wear what you like. Anyone who wishes to see progress in society, let alone those of us who are revolutionary communists, cannot but be shocked at the narrow limits of this so-called "debate", whose starting point should surely have been the fact that the hijab is first and foremost a manifestation of the oppression of women.

Indeed, the hijab in all its forms, is not a mark of "separation". It is a mark of subjection. That is its social meaning.

Yet in discussing the issue, it has been generally accepted that wearing the hijab is a woman's "voluntary choice"! Now even if that was the case for all women who wear the veil here in Britain, which it is not, such an assertion implies an incredibly parochial outlook. It totally ignores the plight of millions of women who have no choice at all about covering themselves up and face beatings, imprisonment, or even execution if they refuse. This is not just the case in Iran and other countries like the Sudan, with established Islamic regimes, but also in poor rural and urban districts of many other countries, including Pakistan, Egypt and Algeria for instance, where the streets in many areas are controlled by fundamentalist gangs. Surely these women should be able to count on the solidarity and help of women and men, from supposedly more "enlightened" British society in their fight to free themselves from this repression? Instead, we have the absurd situation where the "right to wear the hijab" is seen as a cause célèbre!

Actually, women wearing the niqab used to be a rare sight on the streets of Britain. Even the scarf which just covers the hair was not worn all that widely. But in the last 5 to 10 years, against the backdrop of a rightward shift in society and, more recently, the "war on terror", the number of woman covering their heads - and faces - has visibly increased. And this increase is far greater than the recent increase in the number of immigrants from "Islamic" countries would have led one to expect. Is this a symptom of healthy "multiculturalism"? Or rather a sign that not only is society not going forward, but that it is being pulled backwards?

Indeed, the figure which was quoted in the media of "only" 100,000 women wearing the face veil (which invariably goes with full-length jilbab), is probably an underestimate - but anyway, how could there be reliable statistics on what Muslim women are wearing, particularly those who are usually hidden away by their husbands?

Because despite what the Aisha Azmis and Shabina Begums might assert about it being "their" choice, to cover up, the so-called "muslim community" includes a section of the very poorest people in British society - and therefore includes thousands of wives and daughters who have never known the privileges of the British middle classes and who are not given any choice about submitting to a subservient role to their husbands, fathers and brothers.

The number of so-called "honour killings" which occur in Britain bears this out, if nothing else. Of course these can be said emanate from cultural backwardness, rather than religious backwardness, if such a distinction is possible to make. In Britain it is estimated that around 13 women are murdered per year in the name of "family honour". Inaccurate though this figure may be - and it is likely to be an underestimate - it is relatively high when compared with the number of such killings thought to occur in countries like Jordan (15/year) or Egypt (52/year) - and it is generally accepted that in all countries of Europe, the number of these killings is actually increasing. They are the most lethal consequence of the subservient status of women - something which all religions in their most backward, "fundamentalist" forms insist upon.

The meaning of the hijab, as a symbol of the oppression of women, cannot be changed just because a small number of mainly young, Muslim women turn reason and rationality upon its head and assert their "right" to wear it. Especially a right to wear a face-veil where and when this was never even considered a possibility before, like in a classroom!

Harriet Harman, who was first to put her name forward for Labour deputy leader, allowed an interview with herself to be headlined in the New Statesman as: "The veil has no place here; why I want to see the veil gone from Britain".

She declared that she certainly agreed with Jack Straw, but said it would have been better "if he was a Muslim woman" !! Not daring to mention the Iraq war, which she voted for, she said "it is about radicalisation and solidarity with the community. But I don't want people to show solidarity by wearing something that prevents them taking their full role in society."

Sure, one can hardly expect Harman to spell things out - that is, that "people" are displaying "solidarity" against the likes of her and Blair's other cronies, who had no qualms about the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and who have consequently played a far more significant role in "radicalising" a whole generation than any fundamentalist imam or "extremist" from Hizb ut-Tahrir.

In Blackburn some protestors outside Straw's constituency office even brandished placards claiming "the veil is women's liberation"! These women argue vocally for their "right to choose" to wear the veil, in an obscene parody of the demands of generations of women who have fought against every aspect of the subjection of women, against the veil, and for women's "right to choose" abortion!

Whether some young women demonstrably wear a hijab as an act of defiance against "Western values", to show opposition to Bush and Blair, because it has become fashionable in their milieu, or out of their own religious zeal, is neither here nor there. They will remain a privileged few, compared to the vast majority of women to be found inside the burqa, abaya and chador in the Magreb, Far and Middle East, who would give anything to be free of their stifling coverings!

Straw acts the straw man

It was probably no accident that Straw, rather than any other Labour politician, was the one to make this proscriptive point against the Muslim veil. He is probably one of the few Labour MPs with large Muslim electorates, able to weather the storm which such comment was likely to provoke. He has already weathered the loss in the "Muslim vote" which occurred since 2001 chiefly due to the "war on terror" and Iraq war.

It was Straw who was the prime mover (after Tory Michael Howard) in the creation of the Muslim Council of Britain, officially founded in November 1997. Since then, he has consistently championed its merits and its various causes. While at the Foreign Office, Straw established a special "outreach" department called the "Engaging with the Islamic World Group". It was under his regime as Foreign Secretary that rapprochement proceeded with various fundamentalist Islamic groups, some linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, giving them safe and guaranteed asylum in Britain in exchange for information and assurances that they would not organise attacks on British soil.

What is more, while Straw now stands accused of "Muslim-bashing" and "Islamophobia" by all and sundry, including the Muslim Council, it should be remembered that he was one of the main proponents of the law against incitement to religious hatred, which had such a difficult time in its passage through both the Commons and the Lords and finally passed into law, much watered down, in February this year. This was generally seen as an attempt to appease the "Muslim community" which had been alienated by the government's aggressive policy in the Middle East.

One likely interpretation of the reason for the "veil incident" is that the government no longer considers it politically expedient to carry on wooing those elements from the Islamic establishment here in Britain who identify with "radical" or "political" Islam. And anyway, as the "war on terror" and in Afghanistan and Iraq have proceeded even the moderate elements of the Muslim Council have become more and more "radical" in their anti-government rhetoric. Hence the decision to devise opportunities such as Straw's raising of the issue of the veil, to let it be known that the government was making a policy shift away from what used to be one of its pet projects, that is "multiculturalism", to tackle what it terms "extremism", even if it denies the link with its policies.

Lurching from appeasement to attack

Ever since 2001, and the launching of the "war on terror", the government has, in fact, swung somewhat wildly from a policy which it claimed was aimed at improving community relations between Muslims and everyone else, and one which consciously targeted the Muslim population as harbouring extremists. This was the context in which it passed the law against "incitement to religious hatred" which was specifically aimed against so-called "Islamophobia". As part of its kow-towing to the religious right, which suited the general policy to push more schools into the private or "independent" sector, the green light was also given to the setting up of more Islamic "faith schools".

While the launching of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alienated a majority of the whole British population, the Muslim population was naturally more likely to identify with the targeted populations in the Middle East - and it did. Thus began the rapid alienation of their affections and their vote, from the Labour Party.

Of course, the one policy which would have been effective at combatting the immediate cause of this exacerbation of Muslim alienation would have been to pull out of Iraq. But that was not on Blair's agenda.

After the July 2005 bombings, "tackling the extremists in our midst" became an obsession. There followed large-scale police operations against young Muslims, even while the government still lurched from one policy to another. Perhaps it still hoped that it would be able to rally some Muslims back into Labour's electoral fold.

Seven so-called "community-led" working groups were set up for "preventing extremism together" a new Labour catch-phrase, requiring the new acronym, "PET"! The 9 towns with the biggest Muslim populations were visited to consult with local Muslim "leaders" and their results fed back to the 7 groups... 64 recommendations were arrived at. 37 of these were to be implemented by the so-called "communities". But in fact a report on these initiatives earlier this year, found that most of the groups and initiatives were not working. Three of them were being implemented however: including (and the mind boggles) 12 "roadshows" of Islamic scholars touring the country denouncing terrorism as "unIslamic", 7 of which have already taken place; six "Muslim forums against extremism and Islamophobia"," of which 3 have been held already; a Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, which has published a "good practice guide for mosques...

Of course, due to the May 2006 "reshuffle" and Ruth Kelly's accession to the new Department for Communities and Local Government, "PET" has also been reshuffled and it seems its remit will now fall under something called the "Faith Communities Consultative Council", with funding from the taxpayer-financed, "Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund". How did all this come to pass? It certainly was not in any manifesto! And since when did Labour government departments become "faith-led", which is to all intents and purposes what seems to have happened, at least with this one!

Multiculturalism, the war on terror and the promotion of faith

Apparently the official line is now that "multiculturalism" may be failing and that something must be done to try to re-integrate minority groups which have ended up alienated, "outside" and "unBritish". The separate and semi-autonomous (but co-operating) communities conforming to the "multicultural" model are now apparently seen to be a little risky, because "extremism" can flourish outside of the direct control of the government's own authorities. It should be said, of course that this so-called "multicultural model" was mostly just a cover for the neglect, if not outright abandonment of the poorest sections of the immigrant population, anyway.

In some media circles, much was made of the fact that the Muslim Council was not invited when Ruth Kelly gave her speech aimed at Muslim organisations, entitled "Britain: our values, our responsibilities", on 11 October. The MCB has in the meantime had its state funding withdrawn, the official reason being its boycott of Holocaust Memorial Day.

In her speech, Kelly (the devout Catholic), explained: "..the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights will give support to all faith communities in tackling discrimination and building good relations between communities. This respect and recognition of different faiths isn't about government being politically correct. Examples of the sensitivity of British society in supporting religious freedom are everywhere. Whether it is employers with prayer rooms; faith schools; Kosher and Halal food (...) or the provision of financial products that fit with religious beliefs - we should not let short-term headlines swamp the many positives. (...) And let me repeat something that is said privately to me frequently by British Muslims but not often publicly. Britain is a good place to be Muslim. (...) There is no doubt that in this current climate anything that touches on the integration of Muslim communities raises complex issues and will provoke passionate debate. But...trying to sweep disagreements under the carpet will ultimately be more dangerous than discussing them openly. The debate on the veil last week is an example of this. How should we respond when some feel uncomfortable when they see British women wearing Bhurkas or the veil? As I made clear at the weekend, this is ultimately an issue of informed personal choice. No-one is suggesting that in a free and democratic country the state should decide what its citizens can and cannot wear, except in certain settings such as schools."

Having dismissed the wearing of the veil and the burka as an issue of personal choice, she built up to the real point of her speech, which was to say that tackling extremists is a responsibility which must be shared by the "moderate" Muslim communities. And on the way, she of course also dismissed the very idea that government foreign policy could really have anything to do with the evolution of extremism - by which of course, is meant home-grown terrorist bombers, like those who perpetrated the 7 July attacks in London.

This speech was widely reported as Kelly's "wake-up call" to British Muslims and was favourably contrasted with Straw's "opportunism" by erstwhile critics of the government like Martin Bright, editor of the left reformist journal, the New Statesman. Yet it had the same crude purpose, which is to shift responsibility for what has been happening in British society, thanks entirely to government policy, onto, in this case, yet another, apparently more moderate section of the Muslim establishment, with the enticement of government support.

John Reid, at the Home Office, has in the meantime been doing his part in "rooting out extremism". His recent conference in East London for instance, proclaimed that there would be no more "no-go" areas for the authorities when it came to the ever-present "terrorist threat". Parents were to report suspicious activities of their children, or signs that they may be influenced by fundamentalists.

Reid has the task of trying to convince the local population in East London in particular, that it was somehow justifiable to mount the operation in Forest Gate this Summer, when police raided two homes and shot a young Muslim postal worker in the shoulder, only to discover that they were acting on "false information".

This was also the context of the red alert in August which closed down nearly every airport in the country and after which yet more arrests of "terrorist suspects" were made, looking for "liquid bomb" making equipment. The problem is however, that it just is not seen to be credible, even after such an elaborate staging. And all of the suspects in this case also had to be released, because nothing was actually found.

A state-sponsored veil for education

Of course, all of this only adds to the tension! But never mind. Now there are initiatives which are aimed at schools.

So on the one hand, Ruth Kelly, has followed her speech on the great British values "which we all share", with an announcement that hotspots of Islamic extremism will be identified in schools, colleges and universities. She stated that "in major parts of Britain the new extremism we're facing is the single biggest security issue for local communities." An 18-page document will be sent to these institutions by the end of the year highlighting the potential threat posed by certain "Islamic societies and students from 'segregated backgrounds'".

The Department of Education (now under Alan Johnson), has prepared plans to ask university staff to inform police on any Muslim or "Asian-looking" students suspected of involvement in supporting terrorists. Yet in reality, there is little indication that this has suddenly become a problem on campuses. If anything the existence of fundamentalist groups on campuses seems to be on the wane!

On the other hand, Johnson, the ambitious ex-postal workers' union leader, proposed that "faith" schools should open up admissions to children of other religions, supposedly to ease racial tensions and give parents more "choice"! This follows a Church of England announcement that CofE schools would open 25% of their places to children "irrespective of their religious beliefs".

What was really absurd about all of this is that it started up another debate, over whether or not "faith schools" are "divisive"! As if the real problem with faith schools was not, in the first place, the religious brain-washing of children who are not given the "right to choose". Besides, if one wants to speak of "divisiveness", it should not be about the 7 Muslim state-funded schools plus another 5 which have been recommended for state funding, nor even about the 150 private Muslim schools which Blair "hopes" to bring into the state sector, but about the 7,000 mostly Church of England and Catholic schools, which already comprise a third of all state schools!

Under pressure, apparently from the Catholic establishment, Johnson has now back-tracked on his proposals.

Of course, it would be foolish to expect that any minister from Blair's government would somehow address the backward trajectory of society as reflected in the advent of "faith schools" and instead, introduce secularism! Unfortunately, the idea that religion should be a private matter for outside school and outside work has never been established in British society, where there is a "Christian" state and where the Queen is formally the head of the church. Quite the contrary. Of late the practising of religion, even at work is officially encouraged, as Kelly boasted in her 11 October speech. Employers are encouraged to demonstrate their anti-racist credentials (called "diversity") by providing prayer rooms in workplaces for all faiths. So somewhere along the line, race and ethnicity have been merged with religion, even if this makes no sense. Small wonder, therefore, that individuals like Aishah Azmi try to argue that they have a "right" to display outward signs of their religion, at work, to the point of wearing a niqab. And that being refused this "right" amounts to racial discrimination in their view.

Boosting fundamentalism, here and there

Government officials have, up to now, quite consciously parroted the right-wing academic and wholly unscientific characterisation of the "war on terror" as arising out of a "clash of civilisations". How many times has Blair said in the past that the terrorists' aim is to attack "our way of life"? As if one was talking about a fight between equals, rather than a fight between the biggest superpowers in the world today with huge armies at their disposal with every weapon under the sun and small scattered groupings of Third World religious fanatics organised by, an albeit rich, clique of politically ambitious sons of the Middle Eastern comprador bourgeoisie! Of course, the reality is that Western imperialism is simply in the process of tightening its stranglehold on a Middle East which had become unstable again.

However, the "clash of civilisations" argument too, seems to be in the process of reappraisal. Quite obviously such talk can only play into the hands of the very extremists which the government has helped to create.

So Kelly also had the job of incorporating a shift away from such rhetoric in her 11 October speech. She therefore declared that it was now becoming more and more "dangerous" to suggest that government foreign policy is "anti-Muslim" and that this had, after all, been clearly shown not to be the case, through the past record of protecting Muslims from ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, donating money to earthquake victims in Pakistan and supporting Turkey's membership of the European Union!

For those who are convinced that US/British policy in the Middle East is "an attack on Islam", this is a pretty weak counter-argument, given the scale of death and destruction so far perpetrated in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention as a result of Israel's policy against the Palestinians and its latest bombing of Lebanon, with the support of Britain and the US.

But absent too, from the so-called debate about the veil was the consequence for women in Iraq of the British occupation of Basra. By handing over power to local Shiite militias, British policy has been de facto, to oversee the imposition of the hijab once more on the women of the region. They certainly have no "right to choose". There have been a number of violent incidents, most notably at the university campus, where female university students have been beaten up and even shot for "daring" to go out with their heads uncovered.

This, in a nutshell, is the legacy of Blair's "democratisation" of southern Iraq.

The silence of the working class movement

What has been most conspicuous of all by its absence in the whole debate over the veil, let alone during the ascendance of Blair's "faith-led" policies, is the voice of the working class movement.

The Anti-War Coalition has not been able to widen its active support beyond the petit-bourgeoisie, nor has it been particularly concerned with reaching out beyond this cosy milieu. Having a few trade-union officials on its platforms was apparently all the "working class involvement" it wished for. And since it has incorporated the Muslim Association of Britain, it has not even been able to attract other sections of the Asian population, when it has not actually repelled them. And this is despite the fact that the majority of the British population and particularly the working class, has been shown in poll after poll, confirmed by general and local elections, to be against the war and also against the government's anti-working class policies at home.

Neither has the regrouping of some left elements of the Anti-War Coalition, like the Socialist Workers Party, into an electoral coalition under the auspices of George Galloway's Respect Party sought to provided a voice for workers. The choices which all the Respect protagonists have made, right from the start, have led inexorably to it turning into "the party for Muslims" - at least for the duration of elections.

And this has meant that when it comes to issues like the veil, these erstwhile "revolutionary socialists" can only join ranks with the religious Muslims inside their organisation, to demand an end to what they define as "Islamophobia", while defending women's "right to wear the hijab"!

This is no coincidence. The working class is the only social force which has always defined its perspectives so as to include the fight against women's oppression and against ignorance and religious backwardness.

Of course the TUC officials and the various union leaderships have made all kinds of declarations against the Iraq war, in support of Iraqi trade unionists and against "Islamophobia". But none of this has any consequences, since they are inert bodies, which long ago abandoned the tradition of rallying the ranks of the working class.

There is no working class party in existence to break this deafening silence. It is the absence of such a party which is responsible for the unchallenged rise of all sorts of reactionary ideas in society, religious and otherwise. And the hypocritical demagogy of the Blairs, Straws and Kellys of this world can only remind us how urgent and vital is the task to build such a party, if the present reactionary shift in society is to be stopped in its tracks and reversed.