Oh dear. This week Jack Straw decided to add his two penn'orth to the amorphous debate about the Muslim 'community' and its relationship with the rest of society. Unfortunately, the relationship between the government and the Muslim community is increasingly resembling that between an earnest but clueless teacher and 'problem' teenagers - lots of well-meaning words that have little to do with anyone's actual life.
In an interview with a local paper in his Blackburn constituency, Straw, currently leader of the Commons, said that better relations between Muslims and the rest of society were made 'more difficult' by Muslim women who wear the veil, and that covering their faces was 'a visible statement of separation and of difference'. Apparently he now asks women who have meetings with him to remove their veils so they can talk, literally, 'face-to-face'. (If required, another woman can be present, presumably to ward off the Russell Brand-like insatiable womanising that Jack Straw is so famous for.)
Straw went on: 'My concerns could be misplaced, but I think there is an issue here... The value of a meeting, as opposed to a letter or phone call, is so that you can - almost literally - see what the other person means, and not just hear what they say. My point to these ladies and to the community is that this is an issue that needs to be discussed. Because in our society, we are able to relate to particular strangers, by being able to read their faces and if you can't read their faces that does provide some separation.'
On one level Straw is actually quite brave to stick his head above the parapet and raise this issue; it's been troubling liberals for some time, and, sure enough, he immediately faced knee-jerk criticism from various Muslim groups for daring to have an opinion on Islamic stuff. But at the same time, Straw's comments are yet another clumsy attempt to 'engage' with Muslims. The obvious problem is that Straw's comments are quite clearly prompted not by some wider project of addressing big issues like personal rights and freedoms or the future of multiculturalism, but bombs. Before the various events that - in the Western mind at least - began with September 11 and have included the London bombings and the ongoing threat of extremist Muslim attacks, the activities of the Muslim community were really only of interest to Muslims, sociologists, racists and feminists opposed to the veil in its various forms.
But suddenly what Muslims do is now of interest to the government, and we've seen all sorts of attempts to liaise with Muslims (who, as everyone knows, are a homogenous body with completely shared interests and a common goal, like the Cylons) at various levels of government, whether it's John Reid doing his firm-but-fair schtick, or Ruth Kelly's recent meetings with representatives of the Muslim 'community'.
For most Muslims this must be a bit irksome, basically because it's patronising. One minute Muslims are of little interest to the powers-that-be, except for a few 'community outreach' or race relations initiatives, suddenly they're in the spotlight because a tiny minority have planted bombs, and a bigger-but-not-much-bigger minority is preaching jihad. We can't seem to recall anyone ever starting a dialogue with 'the Irish community' after various IRA attacks, and it's not a ridiculous comparison: while IRA terrorists obviously depended on support from wider 'communities' in Northern Ireland and, to some extent, the mainland, it was treated as a security issue, not a social problem.
It's as though the government has suddenly woken up to a problem, but is so hopelessly uninformed about it, it doesn't know where to begin. It's reminiscent of anti-drug initiatives obviously run by people who don't know the first thing about drugs, resulting in utterly off-beam advice that is ignored by everyone, e.g. 'FACT: Ecstasy will make your brain *literally* boil!' And so veils have become a way for Straw to make a tentative prod at a bigger issue, presumably that there is a danger of more Muslims becoming radicalised. But if that's what he means, then just say so.
As for Straw's actual comments, well, he's right. Veils obviously make it harder to communicate. But not much. And veils are indeed 'a visible statement of separation and of difference' - isn't that the whole point? Although it means different things to different people, the veil broadly means 'I have Muslim beliefs'.
The issue is further muddied by the fact that the reasons for wearing the veil are varied. For many people, the veil shows that Islam oppresses women, and there's some truth in this, although Muslims appear to be in denial about it: if your religion demands strict dress codes including covering most of your body and face, it is, by definition, removing some personal freedom. And the fact that these strict dress codes are selectively applied to women is sexist. Sorry, but it just is.
But at the same time many Muslim women choose to wear the veil, either to show that they embrace their religion and culture, or as a more assertive, almost political, statement that they believe in Islam and reject secular society. There's a debate to be had here, but Straw's fumbled attempt to 'engage' is bound to prompt (justified) thoughts of 'Why has he said this now? It's 'cos of Iraq/terrorism/September 11, isn't it?'
Most of all, Straw's comments are a bit condescending. In many ways he may as well have just said: 'If helping these poor Muslim women means saying "Take off that veil!" then by golly I'm going to say it and be damned!' Unfortunately the whole issue is a lot more complicated than that, and saying there's a communication problem with women wearing veils is a weasel-worded way of saying 'Some Muslims have a dangerously separatist agenda'.
As for whether the veil is oppressive, there's a simple way of addressing that issue. Straw would have been a lot braver if he'd said 'I, and many other people, think the veil is oppressive. Someone explain why it isn't.'