Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Niqab… and the Elite | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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According to the British press, the latest opinion polls show that 67 percent of Brits support a law on banning the Niqab in public places, along the lines of the scheme introduced in France, and other European states and cities. No doubt this is what prompted the MP to submit a proposal to parliament, to introduce legislation regarding covering one’s face in public.

There is nothing new in all of this; the controversy surrounding the Niqab in European states has been longstanding, despite the fact that less than 1 percent of Muslim women wear it in these countries. And there are no indicators that suggest this figure is likely to increase either.

The interesting point, from which lessons can be drawn, is the public stance of the British political and cultural elite, which rushed to reject the mere idea of bringing about legislation in parliament, determining what people can and cannot wear. Even the Deputy who introduced the proposal knows that there is not a one in a hundred chance of passing such legislation.

The British Minister for Immigration responded in a press interview by contrasting the public attitude towards such ideas. He said that it is both unlikely and unwanted for the British parliament to attempt to issue laws imposing upon people what they should wear when they are walking down the street. This would be considered non-British, in a society based on tolerance and mutual respect. Along the same lines, another British minister said that while the public stance is still controlled by the political and cultural elite, it will reject the idea of proceeding in this manner (issuing clothing legislation). Subsequently, the dominant opinion in parliament is to reject such legislation.

Certainly the political centrists, including members of parliament, realize that there is a strong tendency amongst the electorate to oppose the Niqab and to ban it, and this is what was reflected in the opinion polls, which showed that two third of voters supported passing legislation to this effect. But those politicians prefer to emphasize the values of coexistence and diversity within British society, and standing against intolerance, instead of employing a provocative style that stimulates public emotions. Some are good at this style in Arab society, and are the first to know that it is harmful.

The elite in any society, if it actually exists, must be capable of leading and not drifting behind public sentiments, giving weight to the theories of the masses. It must be able to exercise a responsible role in protecting society from emotional situations that are usually temporary, and stress the correct opinion, even if it is not met with wholesale public support. When the elite do that, they are exercising a real role in improving society and interacting with it.

In the case of the Niqab in Britain, no one supports the phenomenon, whether from the viewpoint of the elite, or from the main thrust of public opinion. But the prevailing principle is respect for individual freedom in being able to wear what you want. Besides the Niqab issue, the reaction of the British elite to the bill proposed by the Deputy reflects their energy and self confidence, and their capability to lead society.