Don't blame the victims

20th October 2006 at 01:00
The role of combating racism is our collective responsibility, says Henry Maitles

Three events, involving three different groups of people, should be a warning against the kinds of statements about Muslim women and the veil coming from Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons, and his supporters.

First, in Glasgow in September, it was reported that Jewish kids aged 12 to 13, identified by the skullcap, have been abused on their way home, a feature of an increase in anti-Semitism identified by the recent report of the all-party committee of the House of Commons.

Second, in June, a primary school pupil in Edinburgh was physically assaulted for wearing an English football top.

And, third, in August, two Asian men were ejected at gunpoint from a plane going from Malaga to Manchester, as they were wearing clothes deemed inappropriate by fellow passengers and speaking in a "strange" language (Punjabi).

Clearly, all of them could have done something about it - stop wearing the skullcap, take off the English top, wear shorts and flip flops when returning to Britain from a hot country.

But this is completely to miss the point; these people are the victims of racism, not the cause. And it's in this context that Jack Straw's recent comments become dangerous. There are so few women wearing the veil - although I wouldn't be surprised if Straw's comments make more do so - that to see this as a problem is to magnify it out of all proportion.

Indeed, to blame one of the most oppressed sections of our society - veiled Muslim women - for problems relating to racism is as odious as the cases I've outlined at the start of this article.

It is also dangerous for a government minister to make these statements; it takes the opposition to the veil out of the lunatic racist fringe and makes it mainstream. This is not to deny Straw his right to say whatever he wants but, as any teacher involved in RME, social subjects, English, PSE and citizenship will tell you, one of the first things that we encourage in pupils is to understand how what they see as their rights can impinge on other people's rights; that rights are not absolute, and with rights come responsibilities.

In November 2004, I wrote in The TESS that the French government had made a dreadful mistake in concentrating on the headscarf worn by some Islamic pupils as the problem in French high schools. The problem is racism, not any religious symbol. Indeed, Karl Marx's oft-used phrase about religion being the "opium of the masses" was preceded by his observation that religion was the "heart of a heartless world", in times of dislocation, uncertainty and racism. It is in these circumstances that we should view the wearing of religious symbols.

Schools have a major role to play here. Research by myself and Paula Cowan for the Scottish Executive Education Department suggests that pupils learning about the Holocaust have a better understanding and disposition towards ethnic minorities than before they studied it and compared with their peers who didn't study it.

We concluded that the methodology of its learning was central. What might we make of a methodology in this area that suggested, however tenuously, that the culture, dress, ringlets and customs of the ultra-religious Hasidic Jews were, even a little, responsible for the racism that developed in the Nazi state? We see it as patent nonsense; we would argue that it blames the victims for the racism.

The role of combating racism - Islamophobia, anti-Semitism or any other pernicious and dangerous form it might take - should not be left to the ethnic minority; it is our collective responsibility. Highlighting dress or religious symbols does not help; indeed, it makes it harder. It is here that lies Jack Straw's (to give him the benefit of the doubt) dangerous folly.

Henry Maitles is head of the department of curricular studies in Strathclyde University's faculty of education

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