On its surface, the debate in Europe, and to a lesser extent in Canada, about Muslim women wearing the veil appears to be a relatively harmless affair. Please take off the veil, Jack Straw, the former British foreign minister, urges the few women in his constituency who wear it, when they visit his office. That will allow for a more successful conversation, and there will be another woman present. Then British Prime Minister Tony Blair weighs in, calling the niqab a "mark of separation" that makes non-Muslims "uncomfortable." Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi says similar things.
What is noteworthy is the spectacle of very powerful male politicians publicly criticizing a small number of women -- who are hardly members of their countries' elites -- for what they choose to wear. The criticism is made palatable because it is veiled (pun intended) in liberal discourse. These leaders are inviting the women wearing the niqab to abandon this mark of separation from the rest of society.
After all, we are reminded by many of those who have written on the issue, the niqab is a symbol of the repression of women in highly intolerant societies.
What could be more benign than the invitation of oppressed women to stride into liberal enlightenment through the removal of a strip of cloth?
In all dialogues of this sort, it is crucial to keep in mind the power relations among those who are doing the talking. What I see is something far from benign. A great deal of pressure is being brought to bear on a few women for reasons that extend well beyond the niqab.
After all, if politicians and journalists in the West wanted to draw critical attention to groups of people wearing costumes that set them apart, that convey a message of separateness, they could point out Old Order Mennonites, Sikhs, Orthodox Jews, or maybe even the outfits worn by the Pope and Dalai Lama. What gives the narrative about the niqab its traction in the media is that it is the thin edge of the wedge in a critique of Muslims in general, not just those who wear the niqab. The question that is being asked, in a highly coded way to be sure, is whether Muslims constitute an alien presence in our society. Can they be relied upon to fit in as immigrants, to assimilate and become members of our society? Or will they be a dangerous, separate people, and even a source of terrorist recruits for attacks on us, with repeats of attacks like the suicide bombings in London in the summer of 2005?
As a society largely made up of immigrants, more or less recent, Canadians have been down this road before. In Ontario, in the 1850s and 1860s, following a wave of Irish Catholic immigrants in the wake of the Irish famine, people questioned whether the Irish would be unruly, un-British, a mass that could never adopt our ways. Would they join with the Fenian terrorists who were plotting to attack Canada (and actually did attack) in a campaign to liberate Ireland from British rule?
In the early 20th century, people wondered whether Russian, Ukrainian, and Jewish migrants to Winnipeg would assimilate or try to plot a Bolshevik revolution, as some thought they had in the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919. In recent decades, Chinese immigrants have been similarly subjected to suspicion and doubt. Were the Chinese residents of Richmond, B.C., who shopped at malls where the signs were almost all in Chinese, going to become real Canadians? Or had we encountered the mass that would never be like us?
With tragic consequences, Europeans have been down this road before. When Russian and Polish Jews, many in costumes that made them appear alien to Europeans, emigrated in large numbers to Vienna, Berlin and other centres, there was an outcry against them. Much of the dialogue bore a resemblance to the present one about the niqab. Were these newcomers representatives of a primitive past that enlightened Europeans had put behind them? Not surprisingly, some of the highly assimilated Jews in Germany and Austria found the newcomers something of an embarrassment and feared that their appearance could stoke the flames of prejudice against all Jews. We have seen a similar, and understandable, response among some Muslims in the West to the wearing of the niqab.
People have a perfect right, of course, to subject the streams of thought within particular religions to scrutiny and to critique their social implications. When the powerful within a society begin a narrative of the kind we have seen about the niqab, however, that is not what is going on. Muslims are being set apart as the "other." Though we may pride ourselves on our liberalism, in our civilization when people are set apart and critiqued as not really belonging in our midst, the consequences can be terrible.
James Laxer is a professor of political science at York University in Toronto.