Tuesday 27 July 2010

Tolerance is surely the right answer

I am married to a Muslim who resolutely refuses to wear a burka, no matter how often I point out that black is terribly slimming.

This should come as no surprise, given that the principal celebration she organised for our son’s first birthday was a hog roast. Or the fact that we share our bed with a Border terrier, in defiance of anything that the Koran might say about the uncleanliness of dogs (on which, let’s be honest, it’s probably not wrong).

As usual, I blame the parents. My Iranian mother-in-law refuses to eat lamb on the irrefutable grounds that it ‘tastes too lamby’ and substitutes pork in her otherwise traditional Persian dishes.

Even making allowances for Mrs Hann’s unconventional upbringing, I am struck by the fact that whenever the latest shock horror story about Muslim intolerance hits the media, it is usually her rather than me who launches into the standard reactionary rant about ‘how dare these people come over here and expect us to change our ways to suit them’.

Most of the recurrent accounts of uniformed servicemen being turned away by Muslim shop staff are, I strongly suspect, urban myths. It would be comforting to believe the same of the tales of dog owners being turfed off buses because their companions offend drivers or passengers. But, since the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association confirms that this is indeed a common problem, I suppose it must be true.

How do sightless Islamists find their way around, I wonder in passing?

Then there is the vexed question of the veil. Is it an instrument of male oppression or a genuine symbol of faith? We have at least one outspoken imam telling us that it is simply an ancient Byzantine or Persian custom, and that there is nothing whatsoever in the Koran that enjoins its wear.

Whenever the media go out to interview burka wearers, they invariably seem to happen upon eloquent, intelligent and happy fans of the garment, keen to explain how much it means to them. (Hint for interviewers: anyone who has been forced to wear the thing probably isn’t going to feel free to tell you all about it).

In encouraging my wife to adopt it, I was mainly hoping to contribute to the family economy drive, but she assures me that beneath those flowing robes there is no skimping whatsoever on expensive make-up or designer labels. I guess my secondary aspiration of creating a new, post-Moat talking point in the shops of Rothbury is destined to come to naught, as usual.

Underlying all discussion of the burka issue is the following serious dilemma. On the one hand it is clearly profoundly unBritish to go around covering your face, but on the other it is equally obviously unBritish to order anyone not to do so. We are a tolerant country, after all.

Our problem is accommodating a tiny minority of people who are profoundly intolerant. As I recall, one group last year threatened to kill anyone who dared to suggest that Islam is a violent religion. Who says it’s just Americans who don’t get irony?

For most of us, faith has become an irrelevance. The last Government was fond of talking about Britain being ‘a secular society’, overlooking the fact that it is in fact an institutionally Christian monarchy whose anointed head of state proclaims on each coin that she reigns ‘Dei Gratia’- by the grace of God.

The behaviour of followers of other religions may occasionally seem like appalling cheek, but the correct Christian response is to turn the other one. Yes, it is a challenge in the face of fanaticism and bigotry, but the right answer surely has to be tolerance. Maybe my wife should offer a master class in it. God knows, the poor woman gets enough practice.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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