The French attack on the veil

The proposed ban is wrong and disproportionate.

From the BBC website:

France's lower house of parliament has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would ban wearing the Islamic full veil in public.

There were 335 votes for the bill and only one against in the 557-seat National Assembly.

I think the proposed French ban on the face-veil is wrong and disproportionate, not to mention Islamophobic. As I wrote in a New Statesman cover story on this contentious subject a few weeks ago:

Is support for a ban among Europe's political leaders, and the alarmist and vitriolic rhetoric that so often goes with it, really an expression of concern for Muslim women? And why, when confronted with a multitude of social and economic problems, including a debt crisis that could destroy its common currency, are they so obsessed with a small piece of cloth that so few women wear over their face? It is difficult to understand why so much political capital across the continent is being spent passing legislation to ban it, despite its minuscule impact on European societies.

In truth, the moves towards a ban seem primarily driven by a fear of Islam, the fastest-growing faith on the continent, and an inability on the part of Muslims and non-Muslims alike to discuss the future of Islam in Europe calmly. As the hijab-wearing British Muslim writer Fareena Alam pointed out in 2006, the controversy over the veil "has more to do with Europe's own identity crisis than with the presence of some 'dangerous other'. At a time when post-communist, secular, democratic Europe was supposed to have been ascendant, playing its decisive role at the end of history, Islam came and spoiled the party."

Meanwhile, Madeleine Bunting, over on CIF, has posted a brilliant response to the French vote, in which she writes:

The veil debate is making it entirely legitimate to pillory, mock and ridicule a tiny number of women on the basis of what they wear. French politicians described the full veil as a "walking coffin"; on comment threads online there is contempt and sneers for the full veil and those who wear it -- "hiding under a blanket", "going round with a paper bag over your head". In France it is estimated there are only 2,000 women who cover their faces with the burqa or the niqab out of a Muslim population of five million. The response is out of all proportion.

Let's be clear: the niqab and burqa are extreme interpretations of the Islamic requirement for modest dress; few Islamic scholars advocate their use, and many -- including Tariq Ramadan -- have urged women not to use them. They are as alien to many Muslim cultures as they are to the west. And yes, there are instances of patriarchy where some women might be encouraged or even forced to wear a full veil by their husbands or fathers. But generalisations don't fit. Increasingly, young women are choosing to wear the full veil, seeing it as a powerful statement of identity.

Invoking the full weight of the state to police dress codes in public is an extraordinary extension of state powers over an aspect of citizen behaviour which is largely regarded as your own business. Provided you are wearing some clothing, western public space is a free-for-all, and across every capital in Europe that is strikingly self-evident.

I hope it stays that way but I have my fears . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.