New anti-hijab article

The Guardian has posted a comment piece by Simon Jeffries, advocating that the UK adopt the French policy on religion in schools, by abolishing both religious schools, fee-paying schools and allowances for religious dress in schools. He calls himself a “chippy atheist” and suggests that the French model plots “a more hopeful trajectory” than our approach, which has supposedly produced “the slide of this country into non-communicating interest groups”. His whole comment piece is based on a series of factual misunderstandings. First, he alleges that, while our way of integrating religious groups is based on the tolerance-oriented ideas of John Locke and John Stuart Mill, the French base theirs on a revolutionary heritage of “égalité” and “fraternité”. (Liberté is mentioned nowhere in this piece.) This takes a rather biased view of the Revolution and what it led to, ie, the reign of terror and the Napoleonic wars, a restoration of the monarchy and another revolution in 1848. Britain has always prided itself on moderation, and our democracy evolved, rather than being established and disestablished in violent fits and starts. Our society has long rejected absolutist Catholic monarchism and the pretences of Republicanism. (There is also the matter of what pre-revolutionary France really was like, and of what it was like before Louis XVI was in power.) As I’ve pointed out before, the French also have a history of oppressive colonialism which included an attempt to make Algeria part of France. Of course, they didn’t “go native” while colonising that country, which raises the question of how they can expect Algerians to adopt the customs of their former oppressors. He also fails to mention the issue of how much this law is driven by people who have a grudge against Algerians.

Jeffries also advocates abolishing fee-paying schools:

The problem with French égalité is that it doesn’t go far enough. To establish a truly egalitarian society, any schools founded on social division should be abolished. That, of course, would mean the closure of schools that are open only to those whose parents can afford the fees, as well as all faith schools, especially those that fail to teach their children about other religions (or the consolations of faithlessness).

And the problem here is that a lot of non-fee-paying state schools are dumps. You can’t say “well, we’ll improve them, then”, because that will only happen when the damage has been done to thousands of children, and when (and if) enough noise is raised to bring about some sort of improvement. Not everyone expect the authorities to respond to their complaints. Parents send their children to private schools not only because they are rich snobs or whatever, but because they dislike the influences their children are exposed to at the state school, or the bullying, or large classes, or whatever. Yes, some private schools are dumps as well (I speak from personal experience!), but Jeffries apparently wants to deny parents the choice of educating their children as they see fit, not as some politician or bureaucrat sees fit. As a Muslim, I don’t want any child of mine exposed to the corrosive culture of the state schools. They didn’t do me much good.

He makes some passing remarks about the possibility of intermarriage between Muslims and Christians, or even atheists. This is a religious impossibility given that Islam does not allow Muslim women to marry outside the faith. The only way this could happen is if our women were separated from their religion. (There’s no bar, of course, if the man converts. But I don’t suppose that’s what Emmanuel Todd was thinking.)

Finally, he makes the assumption that our Muslim communities are ghettoes, which they are not, at least, not all. The situation in some northern towns may be rather different, but Muslims live in middle-class neighbourhoods, like Tooting and Hounslow, as well as council estates in east London. (There is a big Asian presence in the whole of east London, both its less and more affluent districts on both sides of the Lea river.) You might also look at the number of women in hijab in various British universities if you think it’s a barrier to achievement, or some way of priming girls for early marriage to a goat-herder in the mountains of Pakistan.

I also don’t see why he thinks hijab does cause division, anyway. If the girls are mixing with those of other communities, there is always the possibility of them making friends. You can’t iron out differences when you have a multi-coloured community; the children will figure out why there are some children with English or Anglo-Hebraic names, others with Hindi names and others with Arabic or Persian names. You can’t change the fact that children form groups of friends, and that teenagers form cultural groups often identified by music and fashion (indie kids, metallers, goths and so on - yeah, maybe I am ten years behind the times …), and that there will be some who identify themselves by religion. Allowing hijab removes the distress caused to a girl forced to dress in a way she considers unacceptable; she may also consider it part of “being a woman”, making her feel grown-up, in a society which denies this right to younger teenagers. The French approach represents an attempt to steam-roll different people so that they become “the same”. It also sends a message to repressive régimes in foreign countries that banning Muslim dress in Muslim countries is acceptable. Ours recognises that people are different.

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