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.

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."

Australia: English and women's rights

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.

It will also broach common values such as freedom of speech and tolerance. Earlier this year, newspapers published, in the name of free speech, cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that inflamed Muslim opinion; yet it was also here that a performance of a Mozart opera was canceled because of a scene that might offend Muslims.

"One of the main problems is that Muslims and non-Muslims know so little of each other," says Ali Kizilkaya, president of the Islamic Council for Germany. "For too long, Muslim migrants were regarded by politicians – and migrants themselves – as guest workers, who have come here to ultimately go home again."

Now, he says, Germany is realizing that migrants are here to stay – and that it will have to address inconsistencies that, for example, do not allow Muslims the same rights as Christians when it comes to religious education in schools. The conference is cause for hope, he says. "Ultimately, we hope that Muslims in Germany will be given the same status as other religious groups in Germany."

German minorities struggle to find jobs

Economics is another matter. In most countries with sizable Muslim majorities, economic segregation is endemic, regardless of whether the country has tried to assimilate its minorities (France) or pursued multiculturalism (Britain).

In Germany, says Mounir Azzaoui, suspicion generated by 9/11 has made matters worse. "Many Muslims do have problems finding work or a place to live," he says. "They do not feel like equal citizens any more and as a result find it difficult to identify with Germany."

In France, which has the biggest Muslim minority (5 million) of any European country, the state has insisted on assimilation into, ideally, a bias-free and secular public space. Two years ago, head scarves were banned from schools – as were ostentatious crosses, turbans, and yarmulkes.

But such égalité doesn't extend to jobs. In the grim suburbs ringing Paris and other cities, where Algerian immigrants moved during the first big wave of immigration in the 1950s, a 40-percent unemployment rate is more than triple the national average.

There are only a few Muslim success stories near the top of the political, corporate, or media worlds. The same goes for French blacks of African origin..

"My parents never wanted to believe there was discrimination," says Hamid Senni, the 31-year-old son of Moroccan immigrants. "They believed ... if you're educated you will find a job. Now, seeing what happens with my sisters and cousins, they are realizing we were extremely naive."

Senni, who runs his own diversity awareness consulting firm, has spoken to parliamentarians and corporate presidents about shaking up the system so that minorities get a leg up. But, he says, the French establishment fears multicultural policy: "They say, look at the UK: All this legislation is creating communities and everyone then fights for their community and that breaks the principle of fraternity."

British summer camps, urban renewal

In Britain, the government has created a communities secretary to try to bridge divides from decades of segregation. The Commission for Racial Equality runs outreach programs from summer camps to urban-regeneration projects involving Christians and Muslims working side by side. "It's really early stages and the government is bound to make mistakes," says the CRE's Faz Hakim. But segregation, she says, results in less empathy and explosive situations. Better to aim for "a combination of fitting into the country where you live but keeping some of your own ethnic identity."

Behind her niqab, Ms. Chowdhury is perplexed at the latest onslaught, sparked by top officials expressing deep reservations about the veil. She feels it is ironic, given that her job as a university development officer working with young Muslim women helps build bridges.

"I think to myself, 'I am contributing to society a lot more than some who don't wear the veil,' " she says. "I've always tried to ... give back to society and do what I can for young people. It's not fair to single us out."

For her, banning the niqab would eviscerate Britain's great traditions of tolerance, freedom, and a cultural glasnost that enriches society. "There are things that are different about us, but there are things that are different about every community," she says. "Until now, it's been respected – and that has made the country what it is."

"I consider myself very British. But I'm a Muslim as well."

Nick Squires in Sydney, Ranty Islam in Berlin, and Susan Sachs in Paris contributed to this report

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