Friday, October 06, 2006

I feel the earth move

Jack Straw seems to have received wide popular support for coming out and saying that faces blotted out by the niqab make him feel ill-at-ease and that he requests (not demands) that the women remove it. The issue is not just a question of personal discomfort on his part, but of the "implications of separateness" that the niqab raises. The force of the positive response to his comments on the part of the non-Muslim majority was matched by the negative response by some Muslims.

On both sides there would seem to be an over-reaction. Yet perhaps it is because we all feel the ground moving under our feet, and this slight tremor is just a fore-taste of what is to come. For what Straw's comments undermine in a very small way is the notion that all cultures are, in every context and in every way, equally valid. This vision of the multi-cultural society that does away with any hierarchy of values has come into question here since the July 7th bombings. In its spiritual home, Holland, the doubts go deeper and the reaction against it is stronger and bitterer. The death of Theo van Gogh and the controversial departure of Ayaan Hirsi Ali are just the two outstanding milestones in the decline of Dutch multi-culturalism. People there are reacting with their feet to this utopian folly gone sour, and getting out.

It could never have worked. But the reaction to it may be worse than the folly itself. A few commentators have reminded us that it is not the 'British way' to tell people how to dress. They're right. While it is necessary that immigrant cultures recognise the primacy of the culture that gives them the freedom to worship as they wish, it would be self-defeating for the 'centre' to impose itelf too heavily. The primacy of the centre must be assumed, rather than continually asserted. It would be too easy to erect an icon of British culture and at first pretend and then insist that it must be maintained as is forever and at all costs. We would all suffer from that.

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