Taking on the Veil: West Looks to Assimilation

October 20, 2006

Author: Mark Rice-Oxley

Source: The Christian Science Monitor


Until recently, Rahmanara Chowdhury turned few heads on the street. Shrouded under a full-face Islamic veil, or niqab, she went about her business untroubled. "Occasionally, you get called 'ninja,' but I got used to that," she says.

But in recent weeks, she has noticed a change. "In public, I'm a lot more self-conscious, even intimidated," the native British Muslim adds. Some of her fellow niqabis, a growing sisterhood in Britain, have been threatened or abused. "All the feedback," she says, "seems to be really negative."

That shift has sprung from a broad debate about whether the niqab - and by extension, a multiculturalism that many see as supporting isolation from mainstream culture - fits in modern Britain.

It's a discussion moving to the fore in wealthy nations, from the Netherlands, Denmark, France, and Germany in Europe to Australia and elsewhere. The longer the cultural dissonance generated by 9/11, the "war on terror," and suicide attacks ensues, the harder it is getting to ignore the semidetached status of Muslim communities.

The big question is how best to propel Muslims toward the mainstream. Carrots are appealing, but don't always work. Sticks risk alienating the very people the authorities are trying to appeal to.