Fury Down Under
The Economist/October 26, 2006
AUSTRALIA has become the latest democracy to witness an angry row over the terms on which Islam—or, at least, certain readings of Islam—can co-exist with Western liberal values. Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali, the most senior Muslim cleric in Australia, prompted outrage by suggesting that female victims of sexual assault have themselves to blame if they dress in ways that Muslims consider immodest.
On Thursday October 26th, as his remarks were generating headlines all over the world, Sheikh Hilali apologised to “any woman who is offended by my comments” and insisted that he intended only to “protect women’s honour” and condemn licentious behaviour. But his choice of metaphor—in a sermon delivered in Sydney last month—was peculiar and offensive. “If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside…and the cats come and eat it…whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat?” he asked 500 worshippers. “If she was in her room…in her hijab, no problem would have occurred”, he added, referring to a putative victim of sexual assault.
John Howard, Australia’s prime minister, called the sheik’s words “appalling” and added: “The idea that women are to blame for rapes is preposterous.” Perhaps more encouraging, for those who fear a general breakdown of relations with Muslims within Western societies, was the fact that many Muslims also denounced the sheikh’s words. The Lebanese Muslim Association, which owns the mosque in Sydney where he preached, said it reserved the right to ban him from teaching.
The story strikes a chord in Western countries, including Britain, where the compatibility of Muslim and liberal lifestyles has become a bitterly contested topic. Until recently, Britain was seen as a country where the authorities were careful to accommodate cultural and religious difference. While many Muslims deplored Britain’s foreign policy, especially in Iraq and over the recent Lebanon conflict, they at least gave Britain credit for its policy of tolerating social diversity.
But the atmosphere in Britain has changed palpably since August 10th, when the authorities said they had foiled a plot to blow up transatlantic flights. Leading Muslims reacted defensively, saying they had done as much they could to restrain extremism. Whereas the July 2005 bombings in London had led to senior British Muslims pledging to fight extremism, the climate in the past two months has grown tense and polarised.
Against that background the issue of Muslim women wearing the niqab—a form of dress in which most of the face is covered—has been grabbing headlines. Jack Straw, a leading politician, said he was troubled by the number of constituents who wore the niqab when they visited him. He said he was in the habit of asking them to uncover their faces. Tony Blair joined the fray on October 17th, calling full-face veils a “mark of separation” which made some outside the community “feel uncomfortable”. The prime minister also supported a local council which laid off a Muslim classroom assistant who had refused to remove her veil while at school. José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, this week said it was a matter of common sense that a teacher who wants to communicate “can’t present herself to students with a veil that covers her entire face.”
It seems that Britain’s leaders and British Islam increasingly distrust each other. On the Muslim side, there is a strong sense that ministers hope to make political capital out of Islam-bashing. “They seem to have written off the Muslim vote and they are openly appealing to anti-Muslim sentiment,” said one prominent figure in British Islam. The government, on the other hand, has hinted that it expected its erstwhile Muslim friends to “deliver” social peace and moderation, but that this hope has been disappointed.
The experiences of America, Britain and other countries that have suffered terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists suggest that Western societies are generally robust enough to maintain domestic peace and social cohesion even in dire circumstances. But that assumes all “decent people” are seen to be working against extremism, whether of the violent or merely the rhetorical kind. What happens when that assumption can no longer be made? Britain has come dangerously close to finding out.