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The debate over Muslim separatism in the US

November 29, 2006 18:32 IST
Some months ago, I recall a North Indian lady talking about the cultural differences she experienced when in South India. Visiting relatives posted in Kerala, she made a pilgrimage to the famed Shri Krishna shrine in Guruvayur. Upon entering the temple she devoutly covered her head -- only to be sternly reprimanded by a priest who told her that this was against Hindu conventions.

The temple guardians at Guruvayur were quite right. I don't know how many readers would have stepped into the National Museum in Delhi (sadly ignored by most visitors to the capital). The wealth of treasures in the museum is so great that it has actually spilled out into the lobby. One of the first pieces of sculpture you can see -- before coming even to the ticket office -- is a marvellous statue of the goddess Saraswati, from the Chauhan period as I recall.

The goddess of wisdom is portrayed without any covering on her head. So are depictions from thousands of years of Indian history, from the dawn of civilisation on the banks of the Sindhu through the Mauryas, the Guptas, and other dynasties. But as time passes -- and you enter the galleries showing Rajput miniatures from later periods -- the veil makes its appearance, until even Adishakti Parvati has her face partly covered.

It is, literally, a graphic demonstration of West Asian cultural mores replacing those that were native to India. South India, shielded by the arms of everyone from the imperial Chalukyas in the eighth century to Vijayanagara and the Marathas, retained the ancient cultural traditions. And so it was that a Rajput lady found that the act of covering her head, perfectly acceptable in Mathura, was frowned upon in Guruvayur.

It is not my intention to revisit the debate over the wearing of the 'niqab', the face veil that has been identified exclusively with Muslim women. The niqab is not as important in itself as for what it symbolises -- a mark that deliberately, even defiantly, proclaims thatĀ its wearer stands apart from society as a whole.

Several English commentators have come up with the same argument against the veil; if Christian visitors to Islamic nations must observe local traditions why should there be a different standard for Muslims living in Europe? Call it a simplistic argument, even a little crude, but it points to a growing impatience with some of the claims put forward by Muslim immigrants who refuse to integrate.

It is not just a question of a woman wearing a veil. A section of Muslims living in Britain have called for a 'Majlis', a Muslim Parliament of their own to govern themselves. Other Muslims living in the Canadian province of Ontario were caught trying to set up Shariat courts to settle family disputes, effectively ending the common civil code in Canada. And in Australia a Muslim cleric tried to justify the wearing of the veil with ill-considered remarks comparing women with uncovered faces to 'raw meat chased by dogs.'

But it is in that quintessential nation of immigrants, the United States, that the debate over Muslim separatism will resound most loudly. I don't know if the incident was covered in Indian newspapers but a minor issue at the Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport became a darling of conservative talk-shows in the United States.

It turns out that many of the cab drivers at the airport are Muslim immigrants. A section of them started refusing to take passengers who were carrying alcohol (which, of course, is a staple of duty-free shops in every international airport). They tried to justify this by quoting the Koran, which bans the consumption of liquor.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission offered what it thought would be a 'pragmatic' solution, special roof lights for Muslim taxi drivers. This proved to be the last straw, and the Metropolitan Airports Commission was inundated with angry messages, asking why a secular body was giving the green signal (literally so!) to a Shariat ordinance.

One American wrote in asking if the same cab drivers would refuse to take him because he was carrying a hamburger (pig meat being forbidden in Islam). Several women sarcastically demanded whether they would need to cover themselves before sitting in a taxi.

Confronted with such protests, the Metropolitan Airports Commission withdrew its proposal. But the result of the brouhaha was a further deterioration in the image of Islam in the minds of ordinary Americans.

Minnesota, the state in question, has traditionally been a Democratic stronghold. It was, for instance, the only one of the 50 states that Ronald Reagan could not carry in the 1984 presidential election. But a few weeks ago, in the teeth of the anti-Bush wave, Republicans Tim Pawlenty and Carol Molnau were elected as governor and lieutenant governor of liberal Minnesota.

By the way, Minneapolis-St Paul is scheduled to host the Republican National Convention in 2008, the one that will select the party candidate for the presidency of the United States. The attitude of the taxi drivers is thus guaranteed to draw national attention.

At about the same time that the Metropolitan Airports Commission was beating a retreat in America, the head of the British intelligence agency MI5 was delivering a public warning about Muslim immigrants in the United Kingdom. Speaking at Queen Mary College, London, on November 10, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller grimly stated, 'The extremists are motivated by a sense of grievance and injustice driven by their interpretation of the history between the West and the Muslim world. This view is shared, in some degree, by a far wider constituency. If the opinion polls conducted in the UK since July 2005 are only broadly accurate, over 100,000 of our citizens consider that the July 2005 attacks in London were justified.'

This was essentially a repetition of what Peter Clarke, deputy assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard, said back in July, namely that there were roughly 70 ongoing investigations into terror plots and that the majority of these investigations related to 'the activities of British citizens against their fellow countrymen.'

Eliza Manningham-Buller said in the course of her speech that she spoke 'not as a politician but as someone who has been an intelligence professional for 32 years.' That was a clear snub to politicians who have been calling for 'tolerance' and 'multi-culturalism.' What is more, it seems to have struck a chord with the British public -- so much so that Jack Straw was inspired to write an article for the Lancashire Telegraph claiming that he asked Muslim women to raise their niqab if they wanted to talk to him.

Please remember that Jack Straw is not just an ordinary MP in Britain. He is currently leader of the House of Commons and was, until recently, foreign secretary. He knew perfectly well that his writing would raise a storm but he went ahead and did it anyway in the calculation that it would please British voters.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric has a history of over a century-and-a-half even in the United States. You can find anti-Irish speeches from the 1840s, followed by slurs against Italians, then by attacks on immigrants from eastern Europe in the early years of the twentieth century. Each of these receded, then faded entirely, as immigrants adopted the social norms of the host country.

What is worrying the Americans, the Britons, and others across the globe, is that the Muslim immigrants of today are showing absolutely no signs of even wanting to integrate. Worse, in some instances they are regressing, with second generation British Muslims harbouring friendlier feelings to, say, Al Qaeda, than their immigrant parents.

Worst of all, some of them are now trying to insist that the host nations adjust to their desires rather than the other way round, the taxi drivers of Minneapolis being a perfect example. Or, as that priest in Guruvayur might have pointed out, just as the women of northern India adopted the West Asian custom of covering themselves?

Thirteen years ago, many sniggered at Samuel Huntington's thesis on the 'clash of civilisations' (later expanded into a book). Well, Huntington proved to be correct. The political scientist identifies unchecked and unintegrated immigrants as a threat in his latest book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity. Nobody is laughing at him today!

T V R Shenoy