Tuesday, July 19, 2005

It takes two

Mark Steyn:
It was Prime Minister's wife [Cherie Blair], you'll recall, who last year won a famous court victory for Shabina Begum, as a result of which schools across the land must now permit students to wear the full "jilbab" - ie, Muslim garb that covers the entire body except the eyes and hands. Ms Booth hailed this as "a victory for all Muslims who wish to preserve their identity and values despite prejudice and bigotry". It seems almost too banal to observe that such an extreme preservation of Miss Begum's Muslim identity must perforce be at the expense of any British identity. Nor, incidentally, is Miss Begum "preserving" any identity: she's of Bangladeshi origin, and her adolescent adoption of the jilbab is a symbol of the Arabisation of South Asian (and African and European) Islam that's at the root of so many problems. It's no more part of her inherited identity than my five-year- old dressing up in his head-to-toe Darth Vader costume, to which at a casual glance it's not dissimilar. Is it "bigoted" to argue that the jilbab is a barrier to acquiring the common culture necessary to any functioning society? Is it "prejudiced" to suggest that in Britain a Muslim woman ought to reach the same sartorial compromise as, say, a female doctor in Bahrain? Apparently so...
Sad but interesting, isn't it, how some of the more extreme arguments for multi culturalism are so banal, with little of no thought about what identity is. The argument is all surface and all based on the present, not history. It seems Cherie's argument has more to do with satisfying the needs of those British enraptured by the altar of difference, and who think that the more visible that difference the better. The meat and the grisle of the issue is below the surface, in ideas, but that just won't make the papers in quite the same way. A text story on A12 can't compare to an emotion laden photo on the cover, can it? Note that I'm not commenting on any particular Cherie Blair story or event here, I'm just saying that when we think about issues related to mixing cultures, we ought to do more thinking than public posturing. I'm a child of immigrants and in my experience, the question of identity is not a simple one. We want to allow a free flow of people and ideas, but not so much that anything goes. The liberal idea of free borders sounds fine on paper but does not seem to me to be adequate in dealing with real people, who survive not as identical replacable parts, but as individuals reliant on a web of social connections and conventions. These webs can change and accomodate new things, yes, but not indefinately. Analogies can be found in economics - the law of diminishing returns - and in biology - too much change in an ecosystem can create the conditions for collapse. It seems to me that a culture ought to be able to discuss the issue openly, without fear. The idea that a culture willing to take in strangers does not abjure the right to act in it's own interests should not be dismissed out of hand. In this issue as in so many others, it takes time for prudent compromises to be hit upon. What's wrong with a jilbab? As I understand it, some versions cover the face, and that is not something a free society can admit without some careful consideration. I'm less concerned with the isolation Steyn discusses. I do think newcomers should be encouraged to mingle with their neighbors, and to learn about them and their values. I'm less certain that it should be a legal issue. I'm inclined to think it is one that communities can look after themselves. Personally, I do not see why a private school can't uphold a dress code. Students who don't like it can try to find another school that will accomodate them. The ruling, supposedly in favour of religious freedom, is in fact no such thing. It is another encroachment of the state into private affairs in which it has no business, and it tramples on the rights of those who do wish to uphold the school's dress code.

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