For centuries in Britain, each sentence of death was accompanied by a strange ritual. Before handing down the verdict, the judge would first take a piece of black silk cloth and put it on his head. With this rather bizarre and ancient drapery covering his powdered wig – itself a relic, a cultural fossil carried into modern times – he would then render the prisoner into the hangman’s care.
In such a guise, the black cloth once represented the full, dread measure of state power. Today, however, a cloth of similar size, shape and color – worn across the faces of a small number of some of the most vulnerable members of British society – has become a target of that same dread power, after Britain’s high and mighty unleashed a sudden, thunderous sneak attack on the nation’s Muslim minority, centering the campaign around the tabloid-ready symbol of the veil.
But although the carefully orchestrated furor over this seldom-seen scrap of material has been so ludicrously disproportionate that even the Blair-fawning New York Times cried foul in a recent editorial, the campaign – and its disturbing implications – go far beyond the issue of religious vestments. Indeed, the veil row is just a covering for what appears to be a deliberate, wide-ranging program of diversion and division, aimed at creating a scapegoat – “strangers in our midst,” “the enemy within” – to bear the blame for the sins of the Blair government: the fear, repression, guilt, lies and rancor produced by the abomination in Iraq.
The anti-Muslim campaign is not merely rhetorical – although the heated rhetoric from Tony Blair and many of his ministers has certainly been bad enough, giving a patina of respectability to more extremist viewpoints, now seen as a legitimate part of the “national debate. (Much as the button-pushing imbroglio over immigration in the United States has transformed fringe white-power advocates into respectable media figures, lauded by the likes of Lou Dobbs and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and welcomed in the halls of Congress.) No, Blair’s Islamophobia-fest has bite with its bark: not only the on-going evisceration of civil liberties, which has fallen almost entirely on British Muslims, but new measures as well – such as the Stasi-like plan to induce university professors and staff to spy on Muslim students and report all “suspicious” behavior to the security organs.
The plan, uncovered by the Guardian on October 16, has already been sent to “selected official bodies for consultation” and will be foisted on Britain’s universities in December. It acknowledges the fact that the program will make academics feel they are “collaborating with the ‘secret police,’” but still urges university staff to be pro-active in their spying and informing on the activities of “Asian-looking students.” (In British parlance, “Asian” usually denotes someone of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi descent.)
Far from being abashed by this revelation, the Blair government has openly embraced the program. To be sure, Education Minister Ruth Kelly – a member of the zealous religious order, Opus Dei – says it’s not really spying; it’s just “monitoring” the activities of certain students in order to “protect” them from extremists. But for some reason, Kelly’s maternal concern has failed to allay the fears of those captured in the state’s benevolent, all-seeing eye.
The program is “potentially the widest infringement of the rights of Muslim students that there ever has been in this country,” Wakkas Khan, president of a national Islamic student group, told the Guardian. “It is clearly targeting Muslim students and treating them to a higher level of suspicion and scrutiny. It sounds like you’re guilty until you’re proven innocent.”
Here, of course, Khan has defined the organizing principle of the Bush-Blair “War on Terror,” where thousands have disappeared into prisons and torture rooms without charges, without defense, and very often without any evidence whatsoever, beyond perhaps the word of a paid snitch, a bounty hunter, a personal enemy or an over-zealous security op looking to make his bones. Blair, like Bush with his warrantless surveillance program (to cite just one of many tyrannical examples), is simply bringing the Terror War home.
What is surprising, however, is the suddenness of the current campaign, and its blunt, even coarse nature. It exploded out of nowhere with an article in a small regional paper, an October 6 column written by the local MP, Jack Straw – leader of the House of Commons and former foreign secretary. In the latter capacity he was one of the prime enablers of the illegal invasion of Iraq, serving as a key conduit between Blair and Bush as they connived to manipulate their nations into war – a deceitful process well-documented by the Downing Street Memos.
In his column, this paragon of moral rectitude complained about veiled women coming to his office seeking constituent services. The fact that he couldn’t see their faces made him feel all wiggly, Straw said (in so many words), and he found it hard to communicate with them. They should all just stop it. In fact, UK Muslims in general should stop being so strange and separate, and try much harder to assimilate further into British society.
As was no doubt intended, Straw’s comments instantly ricocheted around the national media, where they conveniently knocked the frenzy of violence and chaos in Iraq off the front pages. The article also dovetailed, again most conveniently, with another minor story, about a young teaching assistant who had been fired for refusing to remove her veil in front of male colleagues, although she didn’t wear it in front of students. Another Blair cabinet minister leapt showily into this strictly local matter, backing the school’s action – even as yet another Blair minister publicly denounced British Airways for demanding that a Christian flight attendant remove her cross while on duty. BA actually prohibits the wearing of all jewellery on chains by attendants, not just crosses, but this point of fact was lost in the fine media frothing about the airline’s “religious discrimination” against Christians – jeremiads that appeared alongside angry calls for “banning the veil.”
As the days went by, more Blair ministers joined the fray, which spread from attacks on the veil to stern lectures on the Muslim community’s stubborn refusal to integrate properly and its collective failure to denounce terrorism with sufficient self-abasing rigor. These grievous shortcomings were leading to “dangerous divisions” in British society, the Blairites said, and fuelling the alarming rise of hard-right factions like the British National Party.
Here was an echo of old hate-mongering campaigns. Who was responsible for Germans’ hatred of the Jews, according to the Nazis? Why, the Jews themselves, of course, swanning around with their weird get-ups and strange rituals and their terrorist conspiracies. As Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland noted this week, “I try to imagine how I would feel if this rainstorm of headlines substituted the word ‘Jew’ for ‘Muslim’ – I wouldn’t just feel frightened. I would be looking for my passport.”
Tory leaders – sensing that Blair was, once again, outflanking them from the right – leapt into the breach. David Davis, the shadow home secretary, berated Muslims for fostering an “involuntary apartheid,” adding that their intransigence was breeding national division that “could corrode our society.” The security organs also got in on the act, with a leak to the Times about an unnamed “terrorist suspect” who avoided capture for a few days “by allegedly disguising” himself in a burka.
Meanwhile, Tony Blair – the most ostentatiously Christian prime minister in Britain since William Gladstone prowled the streets in his off-hours looking for prostitutes to save – kept quiet for days as the official furor grew and eventually, inevitably, spilled into the streets. Attacks on Muslims sharply increased, the Independent noted. One mosque was set on fire, another was battered by a brick- throwing mob, who then stabbed a Muslim teenager. Several Muslim women had veils torn from their faces in the street, while verbal assaults and threats escalated.
Finally, Blair broke his silence in order to … calm the storm? call for unity and tolerance? urge the nation to move on to more important matters? No, of course not. Instead, he heaped more coals on the fire, at one point even refusing point-blank to say that a Muslim woman in a veil could make a contribution to society. “That’s a very difficult question,” he said. Having thus segregated these women from the rest of society, relegating them to the status of useless parasites, he went on to denounce the veil as a “mark of separation.”
Blair’s hypocrisy here is compounded by the fact that he is probably more responsible that any other individual for fostering religious divisions in British society today. He has lavished state funding on a vast expansion of “faith-based” schools, each under the rule of single religion – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Greek Orthodox, Seventh Day Adventist – excluding most children of other faiths. Yet it is a 24-year-old teaching assistant in a veil – not Blair – who is fostering religious “separatism.”
At every turn, it seemed, the British Establishment – an overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, closely-knit network drawn almost entirely from a tiny group of elite schools and universities, and ensconced in unassailable sway and privilege, including the full, dread power of the state – was condemning a tiny, overwhelmingly powerless minority for the social and political ills of the nation.
But what is the true context of this asymmetrical “debate?” The numbers tell the story. There are approximately 1.6 Muslims in Britain – 3 percent out of a total population of more than 60 million. And of this miniscule minority, only 5 percent of British Muslim women wear the veil. In other words, this “mark of separation” that is now, suddenly, “corroding” British society is actually rejected by 95 percent of all Muslim women. It plays almost no part in Muslim life in Britain.
Nor does any kind of tolerance for violent extremism. An extensive survey of British Muslims just released – to almost zero notice – by the 1990 Trust shows that the number of those who believe that terrorist attacks are “justifiable” is between 1 and 2 percent. (You could probably find a higher percentage of Americans who believed that terrorism against, say, the “Zionist Occupation Government” or illegal immigrants or abortion clinics – or Muslims – was justified.) Violence and extremism are thus rejected by 98 percent of all British Muslims; but evidently this is not good enough for Blair and his ministers.
Terrorism by Islamic extremists poses a real threat, of course, although in Britain, case after case of ballyhooed terror scares and high-profile SWAT team raids have turned out to be false alarms, in which one innocent man (a no-doubt “Asian-looking” Brazilian) has been killed and two other innocent men have been wounded. But this threat pales in comparison to the decades-long terror campaign waged in Britain by Irish nationalists, which, when added to the government’s “counter-terrorism measures,” killed more than 3,600 people – and was supported by a substantially larger margin than 1 to 2 percent of Britain’s “Irish community.” The assimilation of “Asian” Muslims into British society has in fact been far more successful, more peaceful – and more voluntary – than the centurieslong, still-ongoing struggle to integrate the Irish “minority.”
Moreover, the campaign is clearly counter-productive. If you make the veil a primary symbol of Muslim identity – and then lambaste the Muslim community as a whole – you are thus ensuring that more women will take up the veil, as a symbol of defiance and pride in their community when it is under attack. You will strengthen the hand of the very extremists you profess to be rooting out from society, while fanning the flames of racial hatred among the majority ethnic group: a major strategic mistake.
That’s assuming, of course, that your actual goal is a well-functioning, tolerant, peaceful society. If however, your real aim is to use fear and suspicion in a desperate bid to stay in power, why then, this deadly game of Muslim-bashing is a master stroke.
Thus the launching of this campaign of demonization and diversion is no mystery. As the “War on Terror” loses its effectiveness as a fearmongering political tool for the Bushist-Blairite axis – as it is more and more discounted by the British and American publics who can clearly see that it has been used to justify a horrendously murderous war in Iraq and the destruction of civil liberties at home – the “Coalition” leaders are having to resort to more and more primitive methods to keep accountability at bay.
After all, we are talking about two highly unpopular political factions with the blood of more than half a million Iraqis – and thousands of their own soldiers – on their hands. To sustain themselves in power, they cannot appeal to the truth, which damns them; they cannot appeal to morality, which shames them; they cannot appeal to their national ideals of liberty and openness, which they have trampled and discarded.
They have nothing left to offer but fear – fear of the “other,” fear of the strange, fear of minorities, fear of a woman walking down the street with a black veil over her face.