A Point of View: Behind the veil

  • 15 November 2013
  • From the section Magazine
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.

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.

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.

Follow @BBCNewsMagazine on Twitter and on Facebook