Irene Zempi, University of Leicester
In February 2011, UK Prime Minister David Cameron argued that ‘state multiculturalism has failed’ in his speech at the Munich Security conference. According to this viewpoint, the social/community cohesion agenda is based exclusively upon the obligation of Muslim minorities for integration and thus the problem of non-integration (as Cameron understands it) rests with British Muslims themselves. In essence, Cameron positioned himself as an ally of the German chancellor Angela Merkel as well as the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whom have attacked multiculturalism in recent months.
It appears that multiculturalism is a ‘threat’ to British values and the Islamic veil is a key visual sign of that ‘threat’. As such, the veil is rejected on the grounds that it is non-British in inception and adoption. This is premised upon the assumption that British identity and examples of Muslim ‘difference’ are mutually exclusive. To complicate matters further, the concept of ‘Britishness’ does not allow much room for its contestation or revision.
In this thinking, the multiple meanings of the veil get subsumed in rhetoric that concentrates on veiling as an oppressive and subordinating practice. Within popular discourse, the veil is read as an oppressive practice which erases women’s physical and sexual identity and is symbolic of the subjugation of women in Islam. The construction of Muslim women exclusively through the lens of oppression and violence provides the justification of the ‘Otherisation’ of the female Muslim body which often triggers manifestations of anti-Muslim hostility in the public sphere.
The gradual mutation of the veil from a symbol of religious identity to a contentious marker of difference paves the way for further contamination of the veil as a symbol of gender inequality, hostility to a democratic society and Islamist extremism. The ubiquitous assumption that the veil accentuates Muslim ‘Otherness’ vis-à-vis Britishness paints the veil as ‘dangerous’ whilst ignoring the multiplicity of meanings attached to it; as a symbol of religious commitment, modesty, political statement, ethnic background and fashion accessory.
Understandings of the veil ‘out of context’ imply that Muslim women’s identity is then never more than the experience of their oppression or acting on behalf of a ‘terrorist religion’. The effect of this is the polarisation between Islam and the West, thereby adding strength to the proposition of an imminent ‘class of civilisations’. Popular discourse about the relationship between the veil and integration lends itself to a generic, anti-Muslim sentiment. Ultimately, the ‘real’ integration can only be achieved through greater public conformity, in sharp contrast to a multicultural integration that sustains ‘difference’.
It appears that whilst Cameron reasserts the values of ‘Britishness’, the ‘British’ culture is reshaped through an attack on multiculturalism.
Irene Zempi is a Tutor & PhD Student in the Department of Criminology at the University of Leicester. Irene holds a Master’s degree in Criminology (with Distinction) from University of Leicester and a BA in Sociology from Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens. Her research interests lie in the intersections between hate crime, victimisation and religion.