By attempting to ban the veil, liberal Western European nations are reducing Muslim communities and the role of women in Islam to little more than cultural caricatures, says Faisal Al Yafai
A veil need not come between us
Across western Europe, symbols of religion are being erased. When France's law banning full-face veils goes into effect next year, it will mark a symbolic shift in the liberal societies of western Europe: governments, without reasonable grounds of security or decency, will have begun to proscribe what their citizens can wear.
That precedent may soon be followed in the Netherlands and Belgium. Yet the terms of the debate have spread and have been heard all across the European continent. A region that often invokes the freedom of its citizens is taking backwards steps.
Why is this? The answer is complicated and has its roots in the changing nature of European societies over the past few decades. But the fact that the debate has gained so much traction so swiftly is down in large part to the rise in post-September 11 discussion of Islam.
For most Europeans, "Muslims" are still a category, a label rather than a group they interact with. This is unsurprising, because the communities that are termed "Muslim" are actually a diverse group of people mainly from Asian and African countries, from different social and economic backgrounds.
Nor are they exclusively "Muslim". Although this group increasingly identifies itself by faith, on a micro-level, Muslims in Europe, like all individuals, have differing relationships with their communities, their countries and their faith. These relationships shift over time, moving with both personal and political circumstances. Yet when played out via the media - which, on a continent where Muslims are still a small minority, is the main exposure most people have to the community - such complexities are suppressed and an imagined whole is created from fragments of facts.
Such an imagined community of Muslims becomes something of a caricature, with dramatic fragments - those fragments of violence or extreme views - being taken for an essential whole. Policymakers as much as ordinary people have a difficult task, in trying to understand both these extreme manifestations and the beliefs and behaviour of the much wider whole.
In the charged atmosphere of recent years, the perception of Muslims in Europe, and in North America, as existing outside the mainstream has increased. It has become possible to talk about the community in "them" terms, implicitly creating an "us" category (although no one can define who the "us" are or what "we" stand for). This shared majority community is often invoked but rarely explained.
It is women, however, around whom this debate has crystallised. The imagined status of women in Muslim communities has become a key indicator of difference. Localised issues in specific communities have been merged with issues from other Muslim communities around the world - such as the legal status of women in Saudi Arabia and the wearing of the burqa in Afghanistan, two countries with very different cultures - into an imagined whole, giving the discussion the tenor of a global, interlinked dilemma. A focus on the status of women also appears to make concrete a set of beliefs (both about European identity and about Islam) that in reality are fairly nebulous.
(None of this is to deny that there is something of a religious component. Many of the most difficult challenges facing the Muslim community in Europe - such as growing instances of polygamy and honour violence - are cultural rather than religious, but because they are justified in the name of religion they take on the tenor of a religious issue.)
The wearing of the veil thus becomes a touchstone around which a host of concerns and complaints, relating to immigration, multiculturalism and identity, have coalesced.
As much as it is a minor issue, it has wide resonance: there is nothing like a small issue to ignite passions, especially when those who wear the veil are rarely given space to reply and the issues of women seem suddenly so troubling to so many people.
When I started editing a collection of essays about liberalism, Islam and women last year, the issue of the veil was the one that came up most often. It is an easy way of condensing immensely complicated strands into a singular mental image. Because it reduces debate to dichotomies, it has wide appeal. Across Europe, the image of a veiled woman has been used as a simple and crude way of making a complex point.
Britain has so far resisted this trend, in part because of its different political history and different conception of liberty. As much as Britain has been affected by the traditions of Europe's civilisation and the thinking of the Enlightenment, Britain ultimately practises a peculiarly British sort of liberalism, one that, in modern times, has been severely affected by the European wars of the past century. Freedom for the British tends to mean personal freedom, with the homogenising tendency sometimes seen in Continental Europe largely absent. Personal freedom is the freedom to choose how to think and how to behave: the strength of character to be eccentric, as John Stuart Mill had it.
It is in this context that the question of the veil and how politicians react to it has been asked. In the essay collection, published last month, one of the contributors, Alveena Malik, of the Institute of Community Cohesion in the UK, argues that Britain requires a different, more inclusive, approach to this issue. She writes that the wearing of religious symbols should be a fundamental human right and that "the real test for religious symbols in the public sphere should always, be 'Does the wearing of a symbol (such as the yarmulke, crucifix or veil) hinder a citizen's ability to perform their public civic duties'?" She points out that a lawyer in a turban is no less able to defend his or her client in court.
Focus on religious symbols was a way of expressing concern over the (perceived) values and beliefs of those wearing them: "The point here is that the religious symbols in themselves are not the issue, but it is the attitudes and behaviours."
Malik's approach appalled many readers of The Daily Telegraph, a centre-right broadsheet. Yet her approach is eminently practical, focusing not on abstract questions of identity or belonging, but on methods of organising competing claims in a country of communities.
There is an accompanying duty in this debate and it does not escape Malik; she writes that British women who wear the veil have responsibilities, too. "By the same token, women who choose to adopt the veil and at the same time segregate themselves from mainstream society … must be held responsible in strengthening their civic bond with the state and the British public."
It is this responsibility that women who wear the veil have that, I have argued elsewhere, is the social cost of the garment. This is a hard argument to make, because women who choose to wear the veil do not consider it a choice; they consider it a religious obligation.
But it is important to recognise that, beyond the baseline of civic rights, there are social obligations. And while it seems clear that the full-face veil is a barrier to communication (because those small, human interactions between people, the wry smile, the knowing look, the exaggerated grimace, are rendered harder) it is also clear that it does not form an insurmountable barrier. That distinction is vital.
People have faceless daily interactions on the phone, by e-mail, and in social networking websites without too much trouble. And in those Arab and Islamic countries where veiled women work side by side with European and Arab colleagues, the dictates of business rapidly overtake any initial trepidation.
Now, women who wear the full-face veil do not misunderstand this. They recognise some interactions are harder, but accept that restriction as the price of their devotion, in the way that other religious people accept hardships for their faith.
But it bears saying because so much of the debate has focused on the importance of the majority to accept the choices of a minority. Social interaction is a two-way street, and while all of us have to accept the quirks of minorities, because we are all minorities in some ways, it does not follow that the onus on reaching an equilibrium of social connection must be borne by one side only.
This is where the balance to be struck pivots: between making sure extra barriers and obligations are not placed on minorities simply because they differ from the majority, while at the same time recognising that constant "accommodation" on the side of the majority risks resentment.
Those of us who argue that banning a piece of cloth is a profoundly illiberal political act also need to be clear about the challenges such an act seeks to remedy, especially in a debate with so much emotion. Banning the veil would not be right for Britain. It should be no part of a liberal society to curtail rights without reason - but a society also entails responsibilities and that part has so far been obscured in this debate.
This is an updated version of Faisal al Yafai's introduction to Women, Islam and Western Liberalism, published by Civitas in the UK and available on Amazon