The Veil and the Limits of English Tolerance

Unveiling the Democratic ProcessThe Leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw, has kick-started a national debate about the veil (more precisely the face-veil or niqab in Arabic) by suggesting that it has held back the integration of some British Muslims. As the MP for Blackburn, a constituency with a large Muslim population (having a significant Gujarati Deobandi component which is more likely to promote the niqab), Mr Straw does not deny the right to wear it but sees it as ‘bound to make better relations between the two communities [Muslim and non-Muslim] more difficult’ because it is ‘such a visible statement of separation and difference’. Having felt uncomfortable about dealing with veiled Muslim constituents in his Blackburn office, Mr Straw decided a year ago that he would request these women to remove their niqabs, in the presence of an additional female member of staff, so that face-to-face interviews had more value, and so that he could ‘see what the other person means, and not just hear what they say’. [1]

The lesser point at issue here is one of propriety. For a citizen to access the services of the state and to engage in the democratic process should not entail additional cultural barriers if they are not breaking any law. This is implied in any professional relationship based on need and equal access, and would be similarly pertinent if one were dealing with a solicitor or a policeman. Other experienced constituency MPs with large Muslim populations have opined that the veil presented no problem to them at all, such as Mike Gapes, Roger Godsiff, Patricia Hewitt and Sir Peter Soulsby. It is entirely the wrong context in which to raise such an issue because there is an implicit pressure to comply with Mr Straw’s request if it is thought a refusal might entail a less sympathetic hearing of the personal or political issue the niqabi constituent is bringing to his attention. It is simply unprofessional to add extra conditions to ensure conservative Muslims get fair and equal access to their elected representatives, and in a broader sense, to the institutions of the state. (This consideration would not apply however, even in the minds of the most conservative Muslim jurists, to mandatory documentation requiring a portrait photograph, or in the overriding interests of security and policing where necessary, or in the necessities of medical examination.)

The larger point at issue here is that the dress preferences of some Muslim women are seen as a bar to integration. If the majority find the dress code of a minority discomfiting, where does the onus for understanding lie? I would suggest that it lies with the majority, who ought to accept that society may contain within it widely differing views of what modesty entails, and who need not assume that the veil implies an unacceptable judgement about wider society’s codes of modesty. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with the veil or the rationales for wearing it, but that the reaction to the veil must not impose additional penalties to integration.

An entirely separate issue is the diversity of views about modesty among Muslims and the wisdom or otherwise of wearing the veil in Britain, because the state through its officials and elected politicians ought to manifest a sense of secular impartiality rather than attempt to intervene in this debate. The centre ground does not lie with the presumption that veiled women are necessarily accomplices in their own patriarchal oppression, suffering in the process from a form of false self-consciousness. Rather, any workable consensus lies upon the principle of informed consent, or upon ‘a woman’s right to choose’. This implies a significant concession — one that is not often noted — in shifting the rationale of Muslim piety from a language of legal obligation to one of rights and individual choice. Whether this personalisation of religion is rhetorical or substantive is normally gauged by whether deciding not to wear the headscarf (or hijab in Arabic) or the veil is also seen as part of a woman’s right to choose.

In general, this episode reveals how tolerance may slip quite quickly into intolerance. Mr Straw’s rather careful, lawyerly prose gets instantly translated into screaming headlines like ‘Take off your veils, says Straw’, which ups the ante, the stakes and the atmosphere immediately. [2] Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has gone even further than the French did with their banning of the headscarf in public schools in calling for ‘state institutions as well as private companies … [to] have the right to stipulate that a person whose face cannot be seen should not be served’. [3] Thus carefully-phrased ‘requests’ from powerful politicians quickly degenerate into calls for the application of discriminatory measures in the name of liberal ‘tolerance’ itself.

Bernard Williams once described tolerance as a necessary but impossible liberal virtue. Often invoked too as a classic English virtue, tolerance’s chief merit is immediately obvious: it is better than intolerance. Yet this ‘impossibility’ arises because tolerance is closer to polite, veiled intolerance than it is to the active promotion of mutual understanding and recognition across divides of various sorts.

To tolerate something is to have the power to exercise tolerance or to withhold it. Tolerance is paraded as a personal virtue, but it veils asymmetries of power and status, and, as history suggests, it is a febrile, fragile value, a mask that falls away quite easily in times of social tension and change to reveal the face of intolerance underneath. While the veil of tolerance is still in place, the population that is to be tolerated is not kept safe from public scrutiny. Rather tolerance characterises that population as a problem to be solved, rather than a fact on the ground, or, dare one say it, as fellow human beings to be recognised and respected.

Those who are tolerated have to show that they are deserving of the honour. Those who have the power to tolerate – e.g. the English middle classes – look for enough signs of similarity to themselves, in those who show enough potential and ambition to be saved from their ethno-religious background to display proper English comportment and temperament. Tolerance thus appears to be closer to prejudice than one might think, e.g. I am able and willing to tolerate someone who I morally do not like. Conversely those who are to be tolerated have no equivalent power.

Tolerance, it is suggested, has a threshold, a limit. That limit is anything that appears to threaten or contravene the straightforward maintenance of national tradition, and so intolerant measures are required to protect that tradition without disturbing the self-image of virtuous tolerance. Mere tolerance is better than intolerance, but it is much less desirable than creating a society based on ‘solidarity, respect, mutually engaging comprehension and sensitivity’. [4] This latter approach suggests a proactive, progressive tolerance that is morally committed to fostering a society based on mutual respect, which Muslims, as much as anyone else, have a duty to promote.

As Mr Straw’s intervention shows, the veil has not just fallen from the faces of Muslim women, but from the cultural disdain and intolerance that toleration itself politely masks.


The Independent has reported that attacks on Muslims have increased since this debate was started over the veil. Muslim women have been particularly targetted with incidents of headscarves and veils being pulled off or receiving verbal abuse in London, Blackburn, Canterbury, Gloucestershire and Liverpool. In one incident, ‘a young Muslim girl wearing a veil in Mr Straw’s Blackburn constituency was confronted by three youths last Friday night. One allegedly threw a newspaper at her and shouted: “Jack has told you to take off your veil.”‘ [5]


[1] Jack Straw, ‘I want to unveil my views on an important issue’, Daily Telegraph, 6th October 2006, 4.
[2] Daily Telegraph, 6th October 2006, 1.
[3] Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, ‘Nothing to Hide’, Time, 16th October 2006, 64.
[4] David Theo Goldberg, ‘The Power of Tolerance’ in Tony Kushner and Nadia Valman (eds.) Philosemitism, Antisemitism and ‘the Jews’: Perspectives from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 31-48 (40). Much of the foregoing discussion on tolerance was inspired by this same brilliant and insightful paper.
[5] Jason Bennetto, Ian Herbert and Jeremy Clarke, ‘Attacks on Muslims rise after veils row’, Independent, 14 October 2006, accessible at


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