TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Veil: Behind the Times

Today’s NYT editorializes against the European discussion of the use of the veil by Muslim women. First Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons, and then both Tony Blair and Romano Prodi have made statements, critical of the veil as a hindrance to assimilation. The Times knows better.

First, the editorial marginalizes the question of the veil with the transparent rhetorical ploy of minimization: ” . . . one has to wonder how many [veiled women] are regularly encountered by Jack Straw . . . or any other Briton.” If it’s not widespread, we need not be concerned? Alright, let’s apply the same standard to the Times: one has to wonder how many veiled women participate in the editorial board discussions. So few? Well then what do these people know about it?

In a second move, the NYT runs away from the veil and expands the topic: “The issue in need of serious discussion is not the niqab—the veil that covers all but a woman’s eyes—but the larger question of the place of Europe’s Muslim minority.” This is no doubt the case: context matters, but the expansion of the topic is a rhetorical strategy to avoid the matter at hand. Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner. Any specific issue can disappear by putting a frame around it: this is liberalism, after all. Still, just because the NYT makes a claim does not mean that it’s wrong. There is indeed a discussion underway about the place of Europe’s Muslim minority—Europe does not need the sages of the Times to be informed of this necessity—and the thematization of the veil is part of that process. None of the cited politicians would argue that the veil is the only issue. Women opt for the veil for a variety of reasons. However, there have been enough instances in which women opting out of the veil—choosing to westernize—have faced violent retribution in the form of honor killings. The NYT has chosen not to report many, even though these issues are regularly discussed in the mainstream European press. This is not just about Jack Straw: it’s also about women killed in the streets of European cities.

Third, bait and switch: the Times starts with the veil and then says it’s really about jihadism: not however the threat of violence by extremists (how silly to worry about that) but the response, the public anxieties about the threat. Let us leave aside the grotesque suggestion by the editorial that even a concern about a terrorist threat might be considered discriminatory. What the logic of the Times does is to shift from a legitimate concern with the texture of public life, the status of immigrant women, and dynamics of integration: and turn it all into terror and anti-terror. We can call this the “security reduction”: the complexity of lived life is replaced by metal-detector thinking. It is akin to a topic touched on here previously: world opinion (aka the Times editorial board and its kissing cousins in other papers) disregard the conditions of life in Iran and North Korea—the stonings, the starvation, the sadism—and view these dictatorships only in terms of their weapons systems. Human experience disappears in the shadow of missile counting. Similarly, with regard to the veil: instead of a textured treatment of the status of immigrant women and the repressive strictures some may face, the Times, ever the drama queen, rushes into the arms of the terror question. The problem, for the Times, is not the veil; it’s those silly Europeans worrying about being blown up in a train. Fools.

Finally in a moment of expected inconsistency, the editorial concludes that there is really something else behind the veil:

The real debate should be about the failure of European governments to address the sources of immigrant discontent—which include high unemployment and discrimination—and about the failure of Muslim leaders in the West to counter the rise of extremism in their communities.

These are of course two different “real debates”—and the Times gets the second half right. The argument against unemployment rings hollow since it could only mean the sort deregulation which the Times otherwise opposes. It is also the standard platform of Times politics and is really coined for the US election: but with low unemployment here, NYT has to export its argument to Europe.

But it is the beginning of the sentence that is most revealing: “The real debate should be about the failure of European governments. . . . ” For the liberalism of the Times, there is no problem in the human condition which is the result of a failure of government, because government should solve them all. And if (exceptionally) guilt cannot be ascribed to the American government, Europeans will do in a pinch: there is only western guilt. No one else can be responsible. (It is a kind of inverse imperialism: it is the West, and the West alone that is the source of all, especially all evil.)

No doubt, such larger economic and sociological issues impact on immigration and assimilation. That however is no reason to dismiss the veil discussion. The Times is engaging in more blind multiculturalism, directed toward Europe where the mulitkulti agenda has come to an end. Today, Europeans are worried about the coherence of public life and the texture of national identity: that is why the process of European unification came to an abrupt end when the French and the Dutch rejected the proposed constitution, and this surprise has led in turn to discussions about what it means to be Dutch, or British, or French. Some of the values at stake are exactly those which the Times otherwise supports: rights for women, rights for gays, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of opinion. Yet precisely these values face opposition from parts—certainly not all—of the immigrant communities: remember the Danish cartoons. The veil as a sign of the status of women is a flashpoint in this debate. It is a complex sign that needs nuanced thinking, but there can hardly be a doubt that the veil has at times been used as a mechanism of oppression. It is not only that—but it does no good to trivialize its deleterious aspects.

The Times is caught in an objective dilemma of the moment. It wants to advocate for the integration of immigrants and oppose discrimination—and that is right and proper—but it wants to avoid facing the fact that the resistance to immigration is not only on the side of the host societies. The veil discussion is crucial here, not merely a pretext. The editorial flaunts a combination of an obsolete multiculturalism and a statist social agenda which, increasingly irrelevant to today’s Europe, is very much behind the times.

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