A Point of View: Behind the veil

Woman in hijab

Why do some people fear the veil, asks Will Self.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself - so said Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his inaugural speech as US President. These words sound down through the years, a tocsin awakening us to that most grievous of failures - the loss of nerve. Roosevelt was alerting Americans to the necessity of that unprecedented expansion of the range and extent of the federal government that became known as the New Deal. What Americans feared was that such measures would usher in to the feasting upon their tax dollars an unwelcome guest - the spectre of communism. It was this fear - groundless in Roosevelt's view - that would keep America trapped in its paralysis of economic depression.

I wonder whether Roosevelt, or his speechwriters, were aware of the provenance of this resonant line. It is in fact a reconfiguration of a sentiment expressed by Francis Bacon in one of his essays: "The only thing that is terrible is fear itself." Bacon's thought lacks the rhetorical flourish furnished by repetition, but in essence it's the same. I only draw this out, because it might be the case that an American politician would feel a degree of anxiety about the cultural influence involved in adapting the words of an English natural philosopher. Personally, I have no such anxieties, so let me return the compliment by reiterating: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself - and specifically our fear of cultural influence.

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Will Self
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on BBC Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays, 08:50 GMT
  • Will Self is a novelist and journalist

This is a fear that is seldom openly admitted to - or, rather, no sooner is it acknowledged than it is countered by an appeal to some incontrovertibly estimable aspect of what we take to be our own cultural heritage. There are manifold examples of this strange and neurotic dialectic, but let me concentrate on just one - the recent furore surrounding the admissibility of Muslim women giving evidence in British courts while veiled. I say furore, rather than controversy, because I don't think that many people - except hard-line adherents of political Islam - actually believe there's anything at issue here at all, and these same people don't believe in the jurisdiction of British courts anyway. For those of us who do accept this the assumption that truth-telling is best expressed by a steady gaze and an open face is so ingrained that it has never needed to be articulated - or, rather, no witness or defendant in a trial who wished to be convincing has heretofore considered it a good idea to stand up in court with their features obscured, whether by wearing the niqab or a joke-shop horror mask.

There may indeed be cases in which the indubitable piety and overweening modesty of some individuals requires a certain bending of convention, but on the whole I think we can afford to keep our nerve and look the truth about our cultural values full in the face. It is not that we need to worry that jurors and judges won't be able to assay the veracity of evidence given from behind the veil - after all, serving police, military personnel and members of the intelligence agencies are often allowed to do just this - it's that they may well be inclined to take it at its literal face value, which is obscured and therefore, ipso facto, dubious.

So, a very British storm in a teacup, but one that is really an excuse to indulge in a lot of grandstanding about all of the following - the splendid impartiality of our legal system, the ineffable tolerance of our society, the truly democratic character of our political system. All of which may to a greater or lesser extent be true, but that doesn't stop it from sounding suspiciously like the fearful whistling in the dark of a culture that isn't altogether secure in itself. Still, to admit the cultural influence of an Irishman, Laurence Sterne, they order these matters worse in France, where the wearing of the Muslim headscarf or hijab (let alone the full veil) is banned in all state contexts, whether legal, educational, or medical.

French Muslim protest their right to wear headscarves French Muslim women protest for their right to wear the hijab

The fearful defendants of British values may look longingly to the centralised and relentlessly panoptic policing of the French state, perceiving it as evidence of a healthy self-confidence, but I'm not so sure. It seems to me that French cultural anxiety is simply more strident, and its whistlers so unnerved that they're resorting to the practice in the full light of day. But what I wish I could do with all these confused dialecticians, forever antsy and antithetical, is take them into a context where the influence of our native culture is indisputable and indisputably positive, then I think they'd calm down, and more importantly, shut up.

Baruch Spinoza 1632-1677

Baruch Spinoza
  • Dutch philosopher, whose posthumous work, Ethics, is considered key work of philosophy
  • Opposed the idea of "mind-body duality" popularised by his contemporary Rene Descartes
  • "The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free"

I teach at Brunel University on the outskirts of London. We have one of the highest proportions of British Asian and Afro-Caribbean students of any British university - in excess of half the total. Many of our students cleave to the Islamic faith that so many others imagine is a threat to our institutions and our liberties. I teach classes in which heads are covered with hijabs, but I'm not particularly taken by those. What does detain me is the expressions on the faces underneath the headscarves. Introducing these young people to the Western philosophic tradition I am colour-, faith- and gender-blind. What I look for is whether they're paying attention. Attention to (for example) Baruch Spinoza's monist metaphysics, and its dependence on St Thomas Aquinas's ontological proof of the existence of God. The arguments can be complex, and I'm making no great claims for my exposition, but time and again I am struck by this reality - that there is absolutely no correlation between the ostensible cultural allegiance of a student and her interest or engagement with the matter at hand.

To be blunt, do I think it likely that someone who shows evidence of a deep engagement with Western philosophy is likely to end up standing idly by while her daughters' genitals are mutilated, or her sons are inculcated with a violent and apocalyptic religious ideology? No, I do not. On the contrary, I think that thousands of teachers are engaged in schools and universities the length and breadth of the country, on a daily basis, in the business of promoting not an anxious and self-lacerating kulturkampf, but a culture of confidently evolving and genuine enquiry. It is this that the students - whether in hijabs or hoodies - hearken to. For me, the argument about whether British society should respond to its multicultural reality by becoming a super-heated melting pot or an un-tossed salad bowl is based on a false opposition. Both positions bespeak an attitude to culture that is inherently ossified.

Children in hoodies, 2007

Of course British culture will be changed by the cultures of our recent immigrants, but surely our greatest desideratum is precisely this - to be the heirs, possessors and transmitters of a legacy that is ready and able to adapt. Spinoza would undoubtedly have understood this, but then he was a child of the Jewish flight from the Spain of the Inquisition, who in Amsterdam suffered excommunication by his own co-religionists for a philosophical position itself vitally informed by the founding father of modern Catholic theology, who in turn was crucially influenced by the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who in turn imbibed the thought of Aristotle, as transmitted to him, in Arabic, by the great Muslim philosopher Averroes.

To paraphrase FDR then, the only thing we have to fear is indeed fear itself - but running a close second to this corrosive cultural timorousness is another windy nag of the apocalypse, and its name is rank ignorance.

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Here is a selection of your comments

"The only thing to fear is fear itself". A well-known and thought-provoking quote as stated in the article. Unfortunately, fear is completely irrelevant to the issue of Muslim women wearing a veil in court and so is the issue of being taken seriously in court. The problem with anyone wearing a veil or other face-covering device in court is the inability to identify the person giving testimony. If the testimony giver cannot be identified, the testimony itself is worthless.

Adam Harding, Tokyo, Japan

I think what most people fear about the veil is the mindset of the person underneath it. It's a mindset implying strong belief of one religion and resistance to the universal principals of human values (the most essential element in any multicultural society). Non-Muslims see these as defiance and distrust of the society at large in the name of religion. And therefore, in a way, for most people it's a long term unsustainable structure of the society. It's also a form of taking religion out of the personal realm into the public one.

Mayank Asthana, Sydney, Australia

I don't believe we have any such fear, what we do have is a distinct dislike or even hatred of the religion that spawns this worn statement. If any of the other monotheistic religions made the same statement in this way, then I suggest, they too would receive the same disdain.

Ron Davis, Chepstow UK

We can only exist as a unified country if we share broad cultural values. Wearing scarves and masks tell people that the wearers have no wish or aim to integrate. It says that the wearer wants to live in an Islamic state. Scotland wants a vote on independence. When the Islamic population reaches its maximum in this country will they demand independence. Parts of Birmingham are already majority Islamic.

Martin Fowkes,

Although niqab-clad women are an unusual sight in my country, partly due to a 1970s anti-terrorism law which makes it illegal to disguise one`s identity in public, hijab is very common among first and second generation immigrants from north Africa. Most Italians, including the so-called Sunday feminists, like to believe that Muslim women and girls are being forced into veiling by oppressive and/or abusive male relatives, but this is contradicted by two major facts: first, the vast majority of hijabis and niqabis say they regard veiling as choice and a matter of personal freedom. Second, the Quran explicitly states that Muslim women should don a veil in obedience to God and not to please their male relatives. As a non-Muslim, I personally support the choice of veiling because it constitutes a refusal of western-born consumerism and addiction to fashion.

Emanuele Bertolani, Borzano, Italy

When Men say they are defending women's purity/virtue/chastity - it's always to justify keep them as chattel. And when Women do it, it's either because they have been forced to - or because they have been indoctrinated to.

John Kantor, Tampa, FL USA

You are not in tune with the reason for the objection to the veil. First, it obscures the face in which we all look to understand the character and emotion of the person with whom we are talking. Why does someone want to obscure her face? Those who do are the ones in fear, fear of their fellow Muslims, fear of being seen as a complete feminine person? One doesn't know what these covered individuals do fear, nor how deeply they fear. But an unafraid person does not hide behind a bit of material. As a woman, I find this cultural

Nancy M, Columbia, Maryland, USA

The west have developed a negative perception about the veil. It is the freedom of expression of Muslims. why west want to magnified veil in media as a negative perception. if west want to protect human rights they should change their attitude towards muslim community in west and other parts of the world.

Hassan Shah, Peshawar, Pakistan

Would you think the same way if the discussion was about a KKK hood? I think not. In at least 10 States have laws making it illegal to hid your face in public, probably as a result of groups like the KKK or illegal activity. Only one or two States had exceptions for religious practice.

Don, Virginia, USA

There was a time (that may not have completely passed) when a Black face was presumed less trustworthy in a court of law, because it was difficult to know whether they were blushing, but since a black man cannot change his skin an impartial justice is compelled to look beyond visual clues and focus solely on the evidence.. it should be the same with a scarf or any other fashion decision.

Stephen Channell, London, England, Britain, Europe

This is very thought provoking write-up. Being a Shia Muslim myself, I'm glad that at least there a some people in this world (doesn't matter Western or not) who are trying to understand the Muslim community and be fair. This comes as a little ray of hope to everyone who is trying to portray the real and humanitarian side of the religion.

Anjum, Mumbai, India

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