The Spine

Comfort Level


When Jack Straw, the former foreign minister of Great Britain and now the leader of the Labour Party in the House of Commons, started the ruckus about Muslim women and the niqab, the full-faced veil with tight openings at the eyes, I thought it would soon pass. Now, there's nothing much in America so visually strange to cause such a fuss. Hassidic dress, though a bit strange, doesn't hide the face at all. Neither does Amish garb, nor the variations on Amish. (What's truly uncomfortable is Shaker furniture, but that's another matter entirely. Buying expensive Shaker is your choice. And it's a sign of chic, not alienation and reproach.) Of course, a few Muslim women in the United States do don the niqab, rather than the more common headpiece with the scarf-like extension under the chin that could just as well be a fashion statement. Maybe it already, is, as a few years ago, a few radical young men in the country sported red-checked keffiyehs as a sign of identification with Arafat--which, come to think of it, is not much of a fashion statement at all.

One aspect of Straw's reproach to the wearers of the niqab, which almost no one has noticed, is that historically Straw has been quite sympathetic to Arab issues. He never lost a chance to bash the Israelis. This may be just another matter. Instead of Straw's statement--was it impromptu or calculated?--fading into the din of other issues, it resonated with others on the left. I don't know whether George Galloway, the Labour Party's own tribune for terror-supportive Muslims around the world, has blown his horn on the issue. But others certainly did, following Straw's lead. And now so, too, has Tony Blair. What comes next? The Tories are surely not more open to signs of separation than Labourites. But Labour as the party of the "multi-cultural" left may be the more relevant gauge on the issue. This is not good news for Muslims anywhere in Europe.

We know about what is already happening to the comfort level of separatist Muslims in Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, and France. Now comes another auguring from Italy. Italian socialist Prime Minister Romano Prodi has also weighed in on hiding the face, and it should not be at all comforting to the Muslims and Arabs in Italy. Imagine what Silvio Berlusconi feels about these matters. The veil is not the issue. It veils the real issue, which is that non-believing Christian Europe wants Christianity to define it still. Is that, after all, not the right of the majority?

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