Saturday, October 07, 2006

Straw the Man? I don't think so.

Having read my esteemed colleague Denham's piece on the Jack Straw mini-controversy, I must say that I wish I shared his sense of moral certainty about events such as this one. But I don't, and I hope that in this response I'll be able to explain why.

First, let me make it abundantly clear where I'm not coming from. I'm not an advocate of the sort of moronically censorious attitude that some people in SWP circles display, whereby any criticism of any utterance by any Islamic figure (provided, of course, that the figure in question is "anti-imperialist") is simply to be dismissed by yelling "racist" and "islamophobe" at the top of one's voice. Which is not to mention the specific, idiotically clownish statements made by SWP'er Lindsey German and by George Galloway, over this issue. I've been places like that and done stuff like that, it didn't work when I was a teenager, and it looks even more silly now.

Further, I think I should also make it clear that in my view, if someone doesn't like the niqaab, they have the right to say so. Just the same as if they don't like crucifixes, the yarmulke, Scientology e-meters or any kind of religious trapping. And any progressive (let alone "Marxist") who says otherwise, is either an idiot at worst, or badly misinformed at best.

But... for all that, I think there are problems here. They're problems regarding what precisely Straw said, why he said it now, and what effect it is likely to have. Let's take them in order.

Firstly, what he didn't actually do (contrary to what's implied in criticisms on both sides of the argument), was come out with any kind of comprehensive critique of the cultural practice of wearing niqaab. All he did was say that he doesn't like it, and thinks it makes it hard to communicate. Well, similarly I don't like people wearing shades and anonymous suits, but it's part of the world we live in. At the end of the day, Jack Straw is an MP, and his duty is to look after his constituents whether they turn up in a niqaab, a bikini, a chicken suit, or anything else. It isn't a public servant's role to bemoan the dress codes of his constituents.

Secondly, he's been MP for Blackburn since 1979. It may be that the niqaab has become more common in recent years, but I rather doubt he first noticed it last week. If he's so passionate about this, then why has it taken him 27 years to get around to mentioning it in public?

Third, finally and most crucially, there is the issue of consequences. What Jim's missing on this issue, is exactly what he and (the majority of) his AWL comrades missed in the debate about the Danish cartoons. Of course there is the right (as I said above) to talk about this issue. But a right does not equate to an obligation. And that when choosing to say things, we should always bear in mind what effect our words may have.

Let me put this simply. We all do it in daily life, right? You might think your best mate's new haircut is crap, but surely you don't therefore say "Oh my GOD, you look AWFUL", and when s/he expresses hurt at that statement, proceed to sanctimoniously proclaim that it's your "right of free speech" to say what you goddamn well like? Or at least, you don't if you plan to keep your friends for any length of time. So let's not pretend that always saying what's on your mind is a question of moral absolutes.

Now, let's apply this to the current social context. Straw said what he said in a context of steadily flowing "Muslim stories" in the press, mutterings about Muslim police officers being "excused" from protecting the Israeli embassy (and the inital reports there were shown to be gross misrepresentations of what actually happened), simmering discontent among some parts of the UK population about "privileges" given to immigrants and ethnic minorities, and the far-right actively campaigning against the so-called "Islamisation" of Britain. Not to mention a slow but steady flow of racial attacks on people perceived as being Muslim. In that context, for a senior, supposedly progressive politician to single out one of the most vulnerable groups in society for public criticism, is a dangerous gesture.

An anecdote, by way of supporting evidence. I heard about Straw's remarks last Thursday, on the TV news. Later on, I tuned into what must be the ugliest episode of BBC Question Time that I've ever seen. The sight of a horrified panel (including two Tories) trying to rebut some of the bile coming from rabidly reactionary audience members, was quite something to behold. "Muslims" apparently, get special privileges in the workplace, stalk soldiers recovering in NHS hospitals, and hide their nefarious motives behind the veil. The fact that most of it had no bearing on reality whatsoever, was neither here nor there. And such reasonable arguments about the niqaab as were raised, were lost in the general anti-Muslim background noise. Watch the programme here if you want to see for yourself.

And if all that reminds you of racist paranoias about an ethnic group that was vilified in 1930s Europe, then you're not the only one. I was thinking the same thing. Let's hope the consequences aren't the same.

Straw's remarks may have expressed his genuine opinion about the niqaab. But they neither amount to principled critique of the niqaab, nor to a harmless, consequence-free statement of one man's view.

Jim, don't kid yourself otherwise.


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