Sunday, November 05, 2006


By William Fisher

In 1969, at the end of my first full year of what became a 20-plus-year residence in Britain, I recall jotting down what I found to be the defining characteristics of the UK at that time. They were:

1. Suspicion of people who weren’t “them.”

2. Fear of change.

3. A class-structured society, where the “working class knew its place” and was always reluctant to challenge the old “upper class” power establishment.

What brought this musing back to me was the recent rant by former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw about his Muslim women constituents being covered up. Straw claimed he would be better able to respond to their needs if he could see the expressions on their faces.

Mr. Straw, who is a Labor Party Member of Parliament for Blackburn, where between 25% and 30% of residents are Muslim, explained the impact he thought veils could have in a society where watching facial expressions was important for contact between different people. “Communities are bound together partly by informal chance relations between strangers -- people being able to acknowledge each other in the street or being able pass the time of day," he said. That's made more difficult if people are wearing a veil. That's just a fact of life.”

Mr. Straw added, "What I've been struck by when I've been talking to some of the ladies concerned is that they had not, I think, been fully aware of the potential in terms of community relations."

Could this just be a contemporary version of my 1969 note, “Suspicion of people who weren’t ‘them’?” Which raises the question about just who is being unaware of “the potential in terms of community relations.”

In 1969, Britain had a relatively miniscule Muslim population. Today, its Muslim population is estimated to be 1.3 million, or three per cent of those who said they adhered to any religion.

This is undeniably a different dynamic for Brits, especially given their traditional fear of change and the glacial pace of their ability to accept and absorb it. But it isn’t as if Muslim immigration happened suddenly, all at once. The number of Muslims in the UK has grown gradually over the past generation.

To make the controversy even more heated, the veil controversy landed smack in the middle of the arrest of the gang of (Muslim) men alleged to have plotted to blow up U.S.-bound flights from the U.K. Following the subway bombings of last July, the fear of so-called homegrown terrorists in the UK is now palpable. And made far more scary by Britain’s participation in the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq, which many in Britain – and not only Muslims – see as a reflection of what they see as President Bush’s war on Islam.

But the dis-integration of Muslim minorities didn’t begin with the invasion of Iraq. Its been happening for years. Muslim immigrants and British-born Muslims from various countries have, like most new immigrants to most countries, tended to want to live in the same neighborhoods – a development encouraged by the block-busting and red-lining practices of banks and real estate brokers. Entire cities have become “Muslim Cities.” In the process, they have displaced “regular” Brits. With UK property prices off the charts and a relatively slow renewal of the housing stock, the “regulars” have come to resent the immigrants.

Like most immigrants, children in Muslim communities attend de facto segregated schools, and their parents start their work life at the bottom of the economic ladder. Many have by now climbed a bit up the ladder, most notably opening small shops and other small businesses. But most of these are situated in the ghettos inhabited by their countrymen.

That raises the question of what successive British governments have done over the years to anticipate an oncoming train wreck and what policies it has put in place to avoid it.

The answer, lamentably, is virtually nothing. Predictably, there are all manner of inter-faith organizations, headed by well-known clergy and other senior figures. But few of these effectively reach the rank-and-file of Muslims, Christians, or Jews.

The situation is similar elsewhere in Europe. The recent riots in the public housing projects dedicated largely to immigrants on the outskirts of Paris demonstrate the bankruptcy of current European efforts to help to integrate their Muslim populations into the life of the nation. But France is but one example among many.

In the United States, Muslim population counts are hard to come by. Estimates range from 2 to 8 million. Whatever the number, Muslim-Americans have become well integrated into the fabric of our society. Like traditional immigrants, beginning with the great wave of the mid-19th century, they first gravitated toward living areas where they could be among their own, speak the same language, eat the same foods. But over the years, they have morphed into a community that speaks English, owns prosperous businesses, serves in elected office and in our government, joins our armed forces, and participates more in public life than their counterparts in Europe.

Perhaps one of the reasons is that Americans, unlike Brits and other Europeans, are less fearful of those who are “not like us,” and more optimistic about understanding and accepting change. And perhaps because of our nation’s struggles with black-white racial issues, we have come to be a bit less paranoid – though our current immigration debate presents yet another challenge.

But the strong and sustained Muslim-American identification with the rest of our country is not immutable. It could change. One of the things that might hasten that change is the current government harassment of this segment of our population. Another is the xenophobia that followed 9/11 – in which, sadly, our right-wing religious leaders have been all too willing to participate.

The bottom line is that, despite President Bush’s many statements in support of Muslim-Americans, some in this community are beginning to feel almost as estranged from their country as their European counterparts. The more that feeling grows, the more likely it is that we will find ourselves unwittingly breeding the anger and resentment that ends in homegrown terrorism.

The issue is not whether Muslim women prefer to cover themselves. Personally, I find the practice demeaning to women. But that’s a view through Western eyes. If they don’t mind, why should we? Do we demand that Christian and Jewish women remove the crosses and stars of David from the necklaces they wear? Do we insist that our Amish people behave like most of the rest of us? Do we rant against Hassidic Jews who wear fur hats, prayer shawls, and funny hair-dos?

I have had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time talking with and listening to Muslim women in the Middle East who wore face veils, or niqabs, covered head to toe, except for their eyes and mouths. I can tell you that, once you get used to the absence of body language as a conversational indicator, how a person happens to be dressed quickly gets trumped by what she has to say.

This is something Jack Straw needs to understand. Maybe he needs to spend a bit more time with each of his constituents. My advice to him is to just to learn and get over it.