For Multiculturalist Britain, Uncomfortable New Clothes

October 22, 2006


Source: The New York Times

RARELY has Britain’s struggle to define its relationship with a disaffected and diverse Muslim minority seemed so fraught as it was last week, with the debate fixated on where a woman can wear a flimsy, kerchief-size item of Islamic dress called the niqab, the full-face veil.

The discussion, intensified by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s calling the veil “a mark of separation,’’ is not simply about dress. It seems to signal a broader shift as non-Muslim Britons set new limits of tolerance, not just for recent immigrants but for a younger, home-grown generation of more assertive British Muslims.

Among some of those who have long favored tolerance for individual choice, there is a ginger step toward the notion that the right of the group might trump the right of the individual under more circumstances, even as they are hard-pressed to say exactly why they are drawing the line at the niqab, beyond its being a matter of “communication.”

For 40 years, Britain has nurtured a policy of multiculturalism celebrating ethnic diversity and its emblems. That policy evolved in the 1960’s, at a time when Muslim immigrants, largely from Pakistan, arrived to take menial jobs. Now, Britons are confronted with the sometimes alienated descendants of that first generation -- like three of the four London bombers last year -- people born in the country, raised in its schools and newly drawn to a re-examination of their ancestors’ faith.