BBC’s Muslim Veil Controversy

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Today’s BBC “Doha Debate” was about the choice of British Muslims to wear veils. On the panel, there were four experts – a man and woman for the veil (or at least the unimpaired freedom of wearing it) and a man and woman against the veil (or at least certain that the veil limited the ability to fully integrate.)

Of course, it’s a complex subject. Any kind of a rule or law that governs what we shouldn’t wear leads in a dangerous direction – especially if it limits religious freedom. Fixed certainties aside, the debate centered on whether the veil was a barrier which segregated Muslims and made them easier to target and stereotype.

The arguments in this direction were that Muslims have a hard enough time as it is being misunderstood and prejudiced against. Removing the veil would allow Muslims to ‘fit in’, be accepted, respected, treated fairly, and also give them the opportunity to explain their faith clearly to sympathetic ears. One of the experts explained that the veil was originally meant to keep Muslim women from harassment; since now the veil was the cause of harassment, it was time to remove it. Another argued that explaining to young teenage girls that they had to cover themselves up so that their male teachers wouldn’t look at them as a sexual object, introduces the idea that they are a sexual object to be looked at. Giving up the veil was a “small concession”, a step towards full integration and becoming a contributing member of British society.

Experts from the other perspective claimed that wearing the veil did not limit them in any way from being full, contributing members of their communities. They did not feel that it set up a boundary of any kind. However, if it did set up any kind of boundary, it was only because of the media and the blind, unfair stereotyping of Western culture. The West had been taught to see Arabs and Muslims unfavorably, and so they did. It had nothing to do with the veil itself, they argued.

In my opinion, wearing a veil is a free choice of expression – which should not be limited. You can have green hair, a tattoo on your forehead, wear a pink tuxedo or a veil. However, you will stand out. You will be treated differently. You will be treated better or worse, depending on who you encounter, but you won’t blend in and be unnoticeable. You will also trigger unconscious emotive reactions and prejudices before anyone hears what you have to say. This may not matter for the individual, but if the veil has become a symbol of Islam, then everyone who chooses to wear a veil is making a statement about Islam. It is no longer a personal choice. Many people may see the veil and think “Muslims are different. They don’t assimilate. They want to stand out.”

Most noticeable in the debate was that those who were in favor of wearing the veil, admitted that they only wore it sometimes – sometimes they would feel like wearing it, either to compliment their mood or their environment, and other times they would leave it behind. This refutes their claim that they wear it for religious purposes – if they believe it to be the rule and the law of Islam, then they should wear it religiously. If they think it is something trivial enough that they can make the choice daily, like what shoes to wear or what to have for breakfast, then why insist upon it? It is, after all, not the same as shoes or breakfast. It is a statement which will cause reaction.

At the end of the show, the audience voted. All those in the audience wearing the veil or tradition Muslim clothes, voted that wearing a veil did not limit participation in British culture. All those wearing plain or Western clothes, voted that the veil made it harder to blend in and live a full life of participation. In the end, all the show accomplished was demonstrating that people will always come out of a debate believing what they already believed, only more strongly. No amount of rational argument or logic will deter them, for rational argument and logic can be used effectively on both sides. It is like trying to solve a dispute by giving guns to the disagreeing parties. The only way for controversial debates, especially those regarding religion, can be solved, is when one party kills all of the members of the other party (or at least kills enough that the others cower into submission, afraid for their lives.)

I don’t endorse genocide, war or murder. I’m simply explaining why religions are so often accused of violence. Democracy and voting only work for issues that don’t really matter – at least that don’t matter enough for someone to do whatever it takes to win. Take the environment: The Bush administration has passed several laws that are not good for the environment. A lot of people are very angry about this. So they go home and grumble. They may even petition, make phone calls, and chant around in circles with picket signs shouting. But they don’t blow themselves up on a city bus. Why not? Some things are worth more than the environment – like human life. Is that really true? No. In 100 years, human life will be unsustainable, and we’ll all be dead anyway. Whereas if environmentalists were half as serious as terrorists, maybe changes would happen. (Although…terrorists don’t seem to be winning any battles either. Maybe there is just no way to change things.)

I’m not supporting terrorism, by the way. But I think we need to realize, something is either worth killing and dying for, or it isn’t. If it isn’t (like wearing a veil), it’s pretty much a non-issue. There are bigger, more important things in the world to face. Tens of millions of people are dying every year because they don’t have water. They don’t have food. And citizens of Britain, one of the world’s most powerful countries, are sitting around talking about the religious implications of fashion accessories.