Veiled Contempt


God bless The Guardian, where opinions that look silly but turn out to be plenty revealing are never in short supply. For example, this column by Naima Bouteldja on anti-Muslim veil legislation in the Netherlands starts out hitting 10 on the Hyperbolemeter.

The Dutch government… in the run-up to tomorrow's general election announced plans to ban the wearing of the burka and face veil in public. By doing so, it has raised what is becoming a Europe-wide campaign to a new level of authoritarianism. Naima Azough, a Dutch Green MP, points out that the ban would apply to fewer than 100 women. "This didn't come from public pressure," she says, "but was initiated by the immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, whose Liberal-Conservative party is scrambling for far-right votes." The result will simply reinforce the perception of Muslims that they will never be accepted in Dutch society.

But Bouteldja has an interesting point I haven't seen in American or European media recently. For all of the ink it commands, the veil issue doesn't actually affect many people.

France provided the political laboratory. In April 2003, the headscarf row came out of nowhere; within a year it had been outlawed in state schools. No serious demands to ban the headscarf had ever come from teaching bodies, students or the public. It simply wasn't seen as a problem before April 2003: of the 10 million students in French state schools, only 1,250 wore the headscarf.

In 2003, three French papers (Le Monde, Libération and Le Figaro) published 1,284 articles on the subject. By contrast, the hotly contested plan to reform social security—a genuine national debate that brought tens of thousands on to the streets—registered only 478 times.

That isn't to say that French-Muslim tensions are a media invention—if you want to believe that, I have a few thousand burned out cars to sell you. But is the "veil issue" a creation of media hype? That would say a lot about European angst about Islam, and impotence in the way their policymakers attempt to confront it.