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Veiled Threats

The Global War on Fashion

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

"It is circumstance and proper timing that give an action its character and make it either good or bad."

Agesilaus, quoted in Plutarch’s Lives

Timing is important. So, it seems, are clothes

Back in April Joe Ratzinger (or Pope Benedict XVI as he likes to be called now) and some of his buddies thought a time when relations between Muslims and the rest of the world were distressingly low was a good time to rehabilitate the Crusaders. According to those folks the Crusaders had been getting a bum rap for years so in April the Vatican sponsored a conference in Rome to demonstrate that the Crusades had the noble aim of recapturing the Holy Land for Christianity. The conference’s aim was at variance with views of the Crusades held by Pope John Paul II who on the occasion of the 2000-millennium celebrations asked "pardon" for the Crusades.

Later in the year Joe again offended Muslims when he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who claimed that the Prophet Muhammad brought "things only evil and inhuman" to the world.

Whatever his intentions, the remarks greatly upset many in the Muslim world driving really important stuff right off the front page of the newspapers. To prove that Joe isn’t the only one with a great sense of timing, Tony Blair and Jack Straw have now gotten into the act. They don’t like what Muslim women wear.

October 5, 2006, Jack Straw, Britain’s former foreign secretary, wrote a column in the Lancashire Telegraph in which he describes how uncomfortable he feels when he encounters women in his constituency wearing a veil. He is not made uncomfortable by the veil that hangs discretely from the hat of a well turned out socialite but the face-covering veil known as the Niqab worn by Muslim women. He said it is hard to talk with someone whose face cannot be seen and, therefore, he asks Muslim women to remove the veil when visiting with him.

Eager to be heard on the subject Tony Blair, modeling himself after his hero, George Bush, mouthed some mind-numbing phrases such as: "I think the reason why Jack raised this is because these are issues that people do feel quite strongly about and they are trying to say how do we make sense of a different type of society in which we live, how do we make sure people integrate more . . .."

He also observed that the veil was a mark of separation that made non-Muslims uncomfortable. Lest he appear intolerant, however, he added: "No one wants to say that people don’t have the right to do it. That is to take it too far. But I think we need to confront this issue about how we integrate people properly into our society."

Concurrently with the foregoing, Aishah Azmi was told by a British tribunal that she had not been discriminated against when she was told she could not continue teaching unless she removed her veil. Commenting on the ruling she said: "The veil does not cause a barrier. I can teach perfectly well with the veil on" observing further that veiled women were not "aliens".

As the British were lamenting Muslim dress, the tabloid 7DAYS published in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, was lamenting Western dress,. The issue was not the veil. It was skin. More particularly women’s skin. In a front-page editorial, the newspaper said: "Too much flesh on show is wrong in a Muslim country at any time but offense is being felt especially during Ramadan. . . . 7DAYS feels it is only right to dress decently and respect the desire of Muslims for peace and quiet during days of fasting and prayer." Just as Jack Straw finds it hard to talk to someone whose face is veiled, many Muslim men no doubt find it hard to focus on the faces of women wearing extremely short skirts.

Readers writing in to comment on the editorial included one who recalled that the "Sharjah Decency Code" for women proscribes "clothing that exposes the stomach and back, short clothing above the knee and tight and transparent clothing that describes the body". The reader describes them as easy to follow guidelines and laments the fact that people can’t be decent enough to follow them. Just as Jack Straw finds veiled constituents distracting, 7DAYS finds very short skirts and other revealing garments distracting.

Maya Rashi Ghadeer, a columnist in a competing newspaper said that people in Dubai fear that "the expatriate is going to impose his culture on us. Most locals are afraid that they are losing their basic identity forever."

The world would be a happy place indeed if the lesson taught by the foregoing was that the people of the world have arrived at a point where their differences are to be settled in fashion salons rather than on battle fields. Instead, the lesson is that intolerance remains the norm.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at: Brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu. Visit his website: http://hraos.com/