Taking on the veil: West looks to assimilation
From Britain to Australia, unease grows over the separateness of many of the West's Muslim communities.
Until recently, Rahmanara Chowdhury turned few heads on the street. Shrouded under a full-face Islamic veil, or niqab, she went about her business untroubled. "Occasionally, you get called 'ninja,' but I got used to that," she says.Skip to next paragraph
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But in recent weeks, she has noticed a change. "In public, I'm a lot more self-conscious, even intimidated," the native British Muslim adds. Some of her fellow niqabis, a growing sisterhood in Britain, have been threatened or abused. "All the feedback," she says, "seems to be really negative."
That shift has sprung from a broad debate about whether the niqab – and by extension, a multiculturalism that many see as supporting isolation from mainstream culture – fits in modern Britain.
It's a discussion moving to the fore in wealthy nations, from the Netherlands, Denmark, France, and Germany in Europe to Australia and elsewhere. The longer the cultural dissonance generated by 9/11, the "war on terror," and suicide attacks ensues, the harder it is getting to ignore the semidetached status of Muslim communities.
The big question is how best to propel Muslims toward the mainstream. Carrots are appealing, but don't always work. Sticks risk alienating the very people the authorities are trying to appeal to.
"If you want to get someone involved, don't attack them," says Asghar Bukhari, a leader of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, which campaigns for greater representation of Britain's 1.8 million Muslims in political life. "That's not going to make them feel ... there's a place for them in society."
Half the world away, Australia is also tending toward the stick to better integrate its 360,000 Muslims, most from the Middle East, who make up 1.5 percent of the population. Almost 1 in 4 Australians was born overseas, yet multiculturalism is seen in an increasingly negative light. Prime Minister John Howard, has spoken of moving away from "zealous multiculturalism" toward a reassertion of Australia's national identity.
"Multiculturalism and what it means has been caught up in the uncertain environment we live in," says Sharon Ride, director of the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia. "People have a fear of terrorism, and multiculturalism has got mixed up in all that."
Last month, the government warned Muslims that, to be accepted, they must denounce terrorism and learn English. Islamist leaders should embrace tolerance and freedom of speech, while men should treat women with greater respect, ministers said. "Fully integrating means accepting Australian values," said Howard.
But Australian Muslims caution that such hauteur could fuel resentment and a repeat of the race riots that broke out in a Sydney suburb last December, when gangs of white youths draped in Australian flags attacked people of Middle Eastern appearance, prompting revenge attacks from young Lebanese-born men.
"I don't want these scenes to be repeated because when you antagonize the younger generation ... they are bound to react," says Ameer Ali, head of the government's Muslim advisory committee.
The government is considering introducing a tougher citizenship test under which immigrants would have to take an exam assessing their English skills and knowledge of Australian history, values, and culture. Until now, prospective citizens have simply had to memorize a list of rights and responsibilities as citizens.
The proposal has divided Australians, with some welcoming it as a means of filtering out Islamic extremists and others dismissing it as embarrassing jingoism unfairly targeting Muslims.
Citizenship tests are becoming popular as a means of projecting the mores of the adopted country onto minority cultures. The Netherlands and Britain have already introduced their own; German chancellor Angela Merkel has backed a similar exam.
But Germany is also taking steps to use the carrot. Three weeks ago, the government staged the first "Islam conference" bringing together Muslim organizations and individuals with state and federal officials in an attempt to build bridges with Germany's 3.2 million Muslims.
The forum will remain active for two years, addressing issues such as the role of women, religious education in schools, training of imams, and discrimination.