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Friday, November 03, 2006 

Straw's speech, and some associated musings.

Jack Straw has slightly clarified his original article which triggered the at times hysterical debate earlier this month on Muslim women who wore the full veil. Speaking at the Three Faiths Forum, as reported by the BBC:
Commons leader Jack Straw says he wants to avoid a situation where "the Muslim community, or any of our communities, feel isolated and defensive".

A "stronger sense of shared British identity" was needed among all ethnic groups and religions, the Blackburn MP told an inter-faith conference.

Some groups have criticised him for saying he asked Muslim women if they would remove their veils in meetings.

But Mr Straw said a "frank debate" on the state of society was needed.

In a speech at University College London, he argued that during the last 50 years, people's "sense of class" had dissolved.

This had led to an "erosion of collective sense of community", he said.

Mr Straw claimed people had come to view themselves "more in terms of their cultural, ethnic, national, gender or religious affiliations".

"Britishness" could provide "common values", such as liberty, tolerance and the rule of law, he added.

This was "not about a nation - there are Scottish, English and Welsh nations".

But people should speak a "common language", as this was essential to communication between religions and ethnic groups, Mr Straw said.

He told the Three Faiths Forum: "Simply breathing the same air as other members of society isn't integration.

"Britishness is thus an identity available to Anglicans, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and those of other religions and none, and a central element of that identity is the principle that everyone has the freedom to practise their faith not as a matter of tolerance but of right."

He added: "There is no inevitability that our communities will splinter and divide.

"Nor is there any inevitability that our attempts to heal divides will succeed. Progress depends on our willingness to engage."

Much of Straw's original article was so uncontroversial, simply an account of his personal decision that he preferred that women who came to see him in his constituency office to remove the full veil if they wore one, that the debate it set off - which ended with the Daily Express using its front page to demand a ban on niqabs, and the Sun continuing its efforts to paint the entire Muslim community as potential collaborators and responsible for the actions of the few extremists in its midst, not to mention the numerous reports of physical and verbal abuse suffered by Muslims in its wake, some tenuously linked, some not, to Straw's article - must have seemed utterly grotesque to him. Straw was right to start the debate, and it's also right that he calls attempts to make him responsible for the attacks on Muslims "absurd" and "ridiculous"; those who deserve the blame are those who carried out such actions, with the reaction of some of the tabloids also deserving of at the very least scrutiny for their potential role.

Straw's most controversial comment was his belief that the wearing of the full veil is a visible sign of separation, a view since supported by both Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the Sun, since it makes positive relations between communities more difficult. While he doesn't repeat this view in his speech, he does say that he'd write the same article again. Straw, saying that he wants to avoid a situation where communities feel isolated and defensive, shows that he has always had the best interests of the country at heart. What rankles though is that he should have realised that his article, written at a time when Muslims were feeling under siege,
following comments by John Reid that extremists in their midst are trying to brainwash their kids (complete nonsense soon showed as such by the concerns of the security services that those who are becoming radicalised are getting the majority of their bile from jihadists on the internet, not extremist imams or individual firebrands) and the Sun's overplaying of a Muslim police officer being excused from guarding the Israeli embassy, would have been used by both the far-right and the likes of Anjem Choudary to further their own intolerance.

Most of the rest of Straw's speech is close to the ideas of Gordon Brown, whose Scottishness has resulted in him trying to be all things to all men, with him deciding on promoting "Britishness" as to try to defend himself from the newspapers picking up on the "West Lothian question." Brown's idea of Britishness, which seems to share the same sort of ideals and principles as David Cameron's views on what teenagers should be aspiring towards, is the mixing of responsibilities and rights that indulges the view of the right that the country is going to hell in a handcart. As this blog has mentioned before, this idea the rights have to be earned rather than automatically acquired is a curious one, considering this is the time of year we remember and honour the men and women who gave their lives so that we could live in freedom. While Straw doesn't mention responsibilities, he's completely right that a common language is essential; it isn't too much to ask at all that English should be easily available to be learned and should be learned, although whether being able to speak the language fluently should be required before citizenship is given is another matter entirely.

He's also correct in stating that integration is not simply breathing the same air - far from it. Where his general thesis starts to crack though is his belief that people's sense of class has dissolved. While class and class
consciousness have certainly broken down since the 1970s, Britain is still undoubtedly a class-ridden society. The difference between now and then is that the working class, or the remnants of it, have next to no voice. The middle and upper classes retain all their networks, their benefits and their voice. You only have to look at the Tory A-list to see the same old snobs that have driven that party for generations. The Daily Mail and Express remain the "voice" of middle class outrage, more interested in class warfare than Labour has ever been. What's changed was the breaking of working class solidarity during the 80s, as Thatcher's individualism started to take root. New Labour did nothing to alter this; instead, despite its first two huge majorities it's continued to concentrate on the whims of a tiny amount of swing middle class voters, only now starting to realise that it's left its core support apathetic and angry, with the middle classes returning to Cameron's caring 'n' kinder Tories. As Straw nearly notes, the almost abolition of the working class influence on politics has left different cultural, ethnic and faith groups to form their own advocacy organisations, which aim to voice their communities' hopes and fears.

This has really what has turned out to be disastrous for Labour in the end. Despite some quiet, almost stealth attempts to be redistributive, in a number of communities the BNP has moved into the vacuum. As has been noted, a degree of their local rhetoric is actually closer to that of the SWP than to a white nationalist party. Their agenda is to bash Labour and further their own racist ideas, while affecting to listen to the worries that Labour has seemingly ignored. Whilst some areas have resisted, such as in the north, the BNP made their first major breakthrough in Dagenham, running a campaign claiming that asylum seekers, "ethnics" and immigrants had been given housing ahead of local people. Instead of Labour reassuring the public and making clear that such propaganda is a bunch of lies, they spent more time in the last local elections fighting Respect in Tower Hamlets. Having apparently seen the error of their ways, the last month's Muslim bashing has been the first wave of an attempt to win back those it seems to have neglected, giving into the BNP agenda that it could have stopped from flourishing. While I don't think Jack Straw's comments were a part of this, John Reid, Phil Woolas and Ruth Kelly's interventions almost certainly were.

The other major objection I have with Straw's analysis is that I don't honestly believe that there is that huge a gaping chasm between the different communities. There's a certain amount of naivety in Straw's claims that the veil is a barrier of separation when over the last month we've seen numerous confident, assertive young Muslim women coming forward to voice their opinion on the matter, showing no signs of wanting to hide themselves away or not have the discussion. As the BBC article goes on:
One veiled woman in the audience said to him afterwards: "I recognise that you feel uncomfortable.

"I sympathise in a way but I don't accept that these women who visited your surgery are less integrated.

"I don't fell any less British or feel any less common value with British society."

Mr Straw replied: "We will both go away from this. If we bumped into each other in the street, I would be able to say hello to you.

"You would not be able to do the same. The obvious reason is that I cannot see your face.

"Chance conversations make society stronger."
Straw doesn't seem to see the flaw in his argument: the simple fact that the woman would be perfectly capable of starting a conversation up. Doesn't it seem rather obvious that these women, despite wearing the veil, which we're told is meant to be a symbol of oppression, are capable of doing anything they want? We're making assumptions about them purely on the way they've decided to dress. Another telling moment was when the teaching assistant suspended for refusing to remove her veil in class said that she felt more integration also had to be carried out on "our" side, to the indignation of the Sun. Once we've got over questioning these women for their apparent level of religious devotion, maybe then we'll realise that we've got just as many potential prejudices which fall apart under investigation as we believe those who refuse to integrate have.

This seems to be the nub of the point. At the moment, the mainstream media seem to believe that Muslim communities need to do more to integrate themselves into society, become "British" as it were. Some appear to be demanding assimilation rather than more understanding and co-operation. At the same time, the Muslim community appears to be doing exactly what Straw doesn't want to it to, becoming isolated and defensive. As ever, there is going to have to be a compromise. When the Express demands that the veil be banned, and David Davis suggests that there's a type of voluntary apartheid occuring, it's little wonder that the community feels under attack. At the same time, there does need to be less general hostility shown towards light criticism, which is what Jack Straw's original article was, until it was taken by the right wing as confirming all their prejudices. The far-left has just as much a role in this as the far-right, with some members of Respect being more offended by Straw's article than many Muslim groups were. Only through greater reasoning and rational debate, which it appears that Straw's speech and the reaction to it was, will the gap that does exist be mended. Straw could help further this new beginning by telling his colleagues to lay off the rhetoric and to listen more. I'm not holding my breath.

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