Blaming the Victims

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What does a politician do when a war they started goes badly wrong? Pick a fight with those who have opposed it, of course.

George Bush tells us he's disappointed with progress in Iraq. How does he think the rest of us feel? The occupiers have now admitted they cannot control Baghdad or Basra. No wonder generals, former warmongers and even the politicians are now discussing withdrawal from Iraq. This is about much more than the US midterm elections, where Bush looks like he'll get a pasting. It is about a complete failure of strategy in the region, and the sudden realisation that things can only get worse.

What do you do when you have made such a mess and want to cover up for it? Take a leaf out of Jack Straw's book. Straw, last seen swanning round the north west with fellow war criminal and architect of this disastrous war Condoleezza Rice, has been thinking hard about integration and related questions. So he might. After 27 years as Blackburn's MP, perhaps he might take some responsibility for the situation there.

But no. Jack Straw is uncomfortable, not with substandard housing, high unemployment and racially segregated schools, but with Muslim women who wear the face veil, or niqab. His deliberate public statement that he asked women to remove their veils when they visited his surgery has opened up a flood of attacks on Muslims.

Where respectable politicians lead, much worse follows. Racist attacks have grown, the BNP has witnessed a surge of support and it appears to be open season on Muslims. In the nasty, bullying atmosphere we are now experiencing, the quietest and most unassuming Muslim is under the spotlight. You object to attacks on Muslims and you're denying free speech. You get angry and you're denounced for extremism. You keep yourself to yourself and you're allowing extremists to speak for you.

Perhaps a reality check would be in order. British Muslims have not traditionally been known for militancy or separatism. They came to this country in large numbers in the decades following the Second World War to do the jobs that many British born people no longer wanted to do. They settled in some of the poorest parts of Britain, living in housing which was often second rate, subject to racist barriers where they lived and worked.

Their children and grandchildren struggled to get educated and sometimes to enter professions that would have been undreamt of by the first generation. Even so, young Muslims today suffer high unemployment and under-employment, and tend to be educated in less prestigious universities and schools.

Most importantly, they could not escape the racism embedded into our society which means that Bangladeshi and Pakistani boys do worst at school (along with African Caribbean and Turkish boys), and that ethnic minorities, especially those with large working class components, do worst for jobs and housing.

Political statement

This structural racism is now being blamed on its victims. So lack of integration is not blamed on whites who move out of areas or send their children to Christian schools to avoid Asians, but on Asians. When they turn to their religion as a spiritual and cultural support in a hostile world (as Irish Catholics and Jews have done in Britain before them, joined later by Sikhs and Hindus) they are painted as backward fanatics.

The wave of Islamophobia now sweeping Europe, which wants to force uniformity and integration by denying open religious symbols, is not about modernising. Muslims are already part of modern society but want the right to be treated equally while following their religion.

Many young Muslim women have taken the decision to wear the hijab or even the niqab as a political statement. That is their right. Those who deny them this right should reflect that they are pushing such women towards wearing scarves and veils.

When "modern" society brings racism and discrimination, and when people in politicians' suits lecture them about how they dress, no wonder they feel like asserting their right to be different.