Most of our politicians are missing the point in the debate about Islamic dress codes. As more and more prominent figures jump on an (apparently) anti-Islamic bandwagon, more and more seem to be taking a mistaken and possibly dangerous view. By refusing to put the debate into a proper historical context, leaders are mis-leading the British public, of Christian, Muslim or other faiths.
What's missing? Any analysis of Muslim integration into society must take into account the experiences of previous generations of immigrants. This is not being done. A useful contrast would be Afro-Caribbean immigration in the 1950's and 60's. Blacks who came to do the jobs whites wouldn't in the 60's soon ended up in ghettos. They replaced the earlier immigrants (Jews, Eastern Europeans) as the residents of our inner cities. Those original immigrants kept their colourful language, their culture and their sense of being outsiders. Their children and their children's children have not. Young black people in Britain today have many problems to overcome. They suffer from poor housing, poor educational opportunities and racism. They are still mostly ghetto-ized in our largest cities. They have, quite rightly, kept some of the elements of their native culture.
Yet, there is no debate regarding black hoodies. Are they a separatist movement? Should schools ban black idioms in speech? Should young blacks be forced into accepting main-steam British culture and be made to abandon their cultural heritage? Emphatically no!
There is no real debate on the above. Quite rightly. Because, most sensible people recognise that it is quite possible to integrate into society while retaining and celebrating elements of your original culture. Quite right. Young blacks in Britain may be of a different skin colour, have different speech patterns and noisily celebrate their cultural differences – what they don't do is retreat into a facsimile of their parents culture and refuse to interact with the rest of us.
Some young Muslims, apparently, do. Instead of looking for areas of common heritage, some young Muslims (who, by now, should be fully integrated into society) are going out of their way to emphasize their differences – instead of celebrating their common values.
This is very dangerous. At a time when differences should be becoming less important, some Muslims seem intent on making sure they remain. The outward, and very visible sign, of this is the “retreat” into Muslim dress by second or third generation Muslim Britons. At the very time you would expect young Muslims to be celebrating their integration into main-steam British society and values, the very opposite seems to be happening.
The debate is not about the right to dress however you wish. That is not the question. The debate should be about why you would want to dress in a way that sets yourself apart from the rest of the citizens. I expect to see white, British, non-Muslim women (say TV reporters) dressing appropriately if they are reporting from a Muslim country. This shows respect for the Muslim culture.
We could use some reciprocal respect from Muslim women in the UK. They have a perfect right to dress as they wish. They should wish to dress as others in their country do. If they don't – we should find out why? Fast.