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In Britain and Beyond

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Wednesday, 01 November 2006 10 47 26
PORTLAND, Oregon (MindaNews/31 October) -- The niqab controversy in Great Britain is not over. And, it will not be over soon. Apparently, it is just an episode of a growing problem across Europe – the realization of “more people in the political mainstream … that Islam cannot be reconciled with European values. (New York Times, October 11).


At the root of the problem is the sensitiveness of Muslims to criticisms and comments on social and cultural differences or on religious matters. Any such criticism or comment would be interpreted as religious discrimination and intolerance provoking threats of violence.



In Britain


In Britain, the remark of House of Commons majority leader Labor MP Jack Straw that the wearing of “the niqab is a visible statement of separation and of difference” jeopardizing British social harmony sparked the debate on the issue of whether the niqab poses the obstacle to human interaction and smooth integration.



Another issue is limited to Mrs. Aisah Azmi, a teaching assistant who was dismissed for refusing to take off her niqab in class in the presence of male teachers: Did the niqab interfere in her work and relations with her fellow teachers?
On the first issue:



Straw explained that “in our society, we are able to relate, particularly to strangers, by being able to read their faces, and if you can't read peoples' faces, that does provide some separation”. He asked: “Would those people who do wear the veils think about the implication for community relation”.



Home Secretary David Davis wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that Mr. Straw had “touched on the fundamental issue whether, in Britain, we are developing a divided society” and questioned “whether a form of 'voluntary apartheid' was being inadvertently encouraged”.


According to a BBC report, “A survey in the Guardian newspaper suggested 53% of people supported Mr. Straw in thinking that veils create a barrier between Muslims and other people.”

Race Relations Minister Phil Woolas observed: “Most British-born Muslims who wear it (niqab) do so as an assertion of their identity and religion. This can create fear and resentment among non-Muslims and lead to discrimination.”

Woolas recognized the right of Muslim women to cover their faces but appealed that “they must realize that other people who don't understand their culture can find it frightening and intimidating.


While people are free to do what they want, they must realize that their actions often have an impact on others”.

Abeer Pharaon of the London-based Assembly for the Protection of Hijab (Protect-Hijab) took issue with Woolas: “This is completely false. It is the choice of a woman to take on the niqab which is not a way to threat or attack.” And, with Straw: “I myself believe that facial expression are (sic) important, but the heart of the face is the eyes.”

Protest-Niqab criticized Straw: “Mr. Straw's comments seem to have legitimized intolerant views and attitudes against basic religious freedoms and the right for individuals of all faiths to choose how to dress. There is no doubt that if discrimination is allowed to prevail against those observing niqab today, it may well be another aspect of religious practice tomorrow.”

The Islamic Human Rights Commission accused Straw of selective discrimination “on the basis of religion”.

Halima Hussain of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee questioned Straw: “Who is Jack Straw to comment on negative symbols within a religion that is not his own?

The point is these women have chosen to wear the veil and it's their own decision. It's not something that has been forced on them. These are not oppressed women.”



Dr. Daud Abdullah of the Muslim Council of Britain, understanding that niqab “does cause some discomforts to non-Muslims,” leaves it to the individual Muslim women to wear or not to wear it but makes it clear that the “veil over the hair, hijab, is obligatory.”



On the second issue:



Woolas argued that Mrs. Azmi was “denying the right of children to full education…. She has put herself in a position where she can't do her job. If she is saying that she won't work with men, she is taking away the right of men to work in schools. That's sexual discrimination.”



BBC reported Mrs. Azmi as saying that “pupils at Heathfield Church of England Junior School had never complained about her wearing the niqab” -- which had not caused problems with the children, with whom she had “brilliant relationship”.
She said: “The children are aware of my body language, my eye expressions, the way I'm saying things. If people think it is a problem, what about blind children?



They can't see anything but they have a brilliant education, so I don't think my wearing the veil affects the children at all.”


And her lawyers vouched for her: “Mrs. Azmi is very well able to carry out her role as a teaching assistant providing support to pupils who speak English as a second language. She is able to do this effectively while wearing the veil. She has demonstrated in a number of interviews that she can communicate effectively while wearing the veil.”


Labor MP Shahid Malik advised Mrs. Azmi “to just let this thing go”. An employment tribunal rejected her “case for unfair dismissal” but she was awarded damages. It appeared, however, she would not heed Malik's advice, encouraged to take her case to higher court by radical Muslims rallying around her.



Repercussions


The repercussions are unpleasant, to say the least. They must have overturned, to some extent, whatever gains the 40-year policy of multiculturalism that was initially for the benefit of Muslim immigrants from Pakistan.


Authored by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins of Labor Party, multiculturalism states that “immigration should not lead to a 'flattening process of assimilation' but instead should provide 'equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity' – integration, not assimilation.


Straw is being accused of religious discrimination. On the contrary, however, he is warning the Muslims that they are inviting discrimination by the “separation” and “difference” suggested in their wearing of the niqab.



As Woolas observed, British Muslims wear niqab to assert their identity and religion.



When criticized, they “become even more determined to assert their identity, and so it becomes a vicious circle where the only beneficiaries are racists like the British National Party”, thus, leading to discrimination.


Another Labor MP, Khalid Makmood said: “The debate [over veils] has turned Islamophobic. … It plays into the hands of extremists on the far right, such as the BNP, and on the Muslim side.”



As of last week, BBC had received more than 25,000 e-mails, the majority of which were hurting to Muslims. In Free Republic's website, Republicain, the mails are full of hatred, malice and ridicule.


Reports from the Lancaster Telegraph show disaffection and alienation: “Mrs. Azmi's unreasonable demands, coupled with Jack Staw's bold comments about the intimidating aspects of the full-face veil, have forced the British public to think carefully about the presence of Muslim ghettos and Islamic fundamentalists in our society. A clear conclusion emerged. As a nation, we feel that our tolerance is being overstretched to the limit.

“Moreover – and this is something that has gone largely unremarked – the behaviour of Mrs. Azmi and her suspiciously glib supporters has particularly annoyed many British women.

“… If British women feel any sympathy for the teaching assistant, it is because she appears – ironically, given the casus belli – to have been turned into a mouthpiece for male Islamists who genuinely wish women to endure a form of medieval subjection.”

The above partly shows the niqab debate in Britain. What is it beyond – across Europe, in Mindanao? (To be continued.)


(“Comment\" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz\' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Titus Brandsma for his \"commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.\" You may e-mail your comments to patpdiaz@mindanews.comThis email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ).

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