Yesterday's NYTs has a interesting article on Prime Minister Tony Blair's description of the full burka as "a mark of separation."
Honestly, I agree and I do find the full burka to be a mark of separation but there are two more important questions to be asked in this controversy.
The first is: Are women being forced to wear the full burkas out of fear of their husbands and their communities?
Second, is Blair only causing more enmity between Muslims and the other 97 percent of the UK that's non-Muslim?
The first question is of ultimate importance in a secular, liberal democracy based on equal rights for all its citizens. Minorities do not have the right to come into a liberal society and violate its norms and oppress and imprison Muslim women while hiding behind their religious beliefs. The rights of women override religious freedom in this case.
But the UK needs to remember that many Muslim women desire to wear the full burka to demonstrate their religious identity. This isn't hard to understand. Muslims in the UK are divorced from the disciplinary force of the mosque and the traditional society from which they or their parents came. Sometimes, the burka is nostalgia for their religious tradition and evidence of their personal religiosity. Think the yarmulke or the cross displayed publicly by adherents of these religions.
The hard part in this situation is how do you tell those woman that wear the burka willingly and those that are coerced or terrorized into it?
I believe the solution is simply enough though. The UK should take strength from its tolerance and liberal beliefs and know the more exposed Muslims are to Western ideals, most will come to cherish them like any good English person. Many Muslim immigrants are only first or second generation so their attempts to stay true to their homeland's religious and cultural norms is understandable. Time should heal these divisions if the British government doesn't do anything stupid by creating an either/or situation.
But it seems like this is what Blair has done. UK officials need to be more nuanced -- what we usually associate with the British -- and less blunt. The Iraq War and the cartoon fiasco should have taught Downing Street the impressive propaganda skills of Islamists in Londonistan. You give them a thread of rope and they'll hang you with it.
Sometimes it's incredible to think how Blair has become the more sophisticated version of President Bush. Is this Blair's "crusader" moment? Britain may be lucky Blair will be bowing out soon. Hopefully something more reactionary doesn't park itself on Downing Street and create even more problems with Britain's Muslim minority, which is overwhelmingly law-abiding and looking for a new start in the UK.