Behind the Veil

Posted on November 5, 2006


Reactions to Leader of the House Jack Straw’s recent comments about the communicative barrier raised by the niqāb (“a visible statement of separation and of difference”) have prompted thoughts about the extent to which this case raises the communication vs. recognition problem.

On the one hand, we could argue, covering the face works against any idea of unfettered or ideal communication. This is certainly Straw’s view. He does introduce the slightly odd idea that “face-to-face” conversations with constituents, enable him to “see what the other person means, and not just hear what they say” as if meaning were somehow distinct (perhaps he means to refer to emotional content or sincerity). Straw argued that being able to see someone’s face is important for communication. While it is certainly true that a significant part of communication is non-verbal, one would also have to say that as such it is non-cognitive and hence not ‘meaningful’ in any straightforward sense.

This might highlight a deficiency in Habermas’s theory of meaning. While there is room in his theory for non-verbal communication, it focuses heavily on linguistic communication. The kind of non-verbal communication involved in properly seeing a person’s face typically supports claims to sincerity or authentic expression. These claims have ‘meaning’ in only a limited sense: a claim to sincerity.

This does not appear to be the kind of meaning Mr. Straw has in mind. One might, however, recast his approach in a more explicitly Habermasian direction – without being unfair – and suggest that before we can discuss and decide the way people of different (or no) faiths can live together we have to appeal to the shared value of clear and meaningful communication.


Jack Straw clarifies his position

This is markedly different to the tradition of liberalism that has traditionally provided the ‘ground zero’ of debates about tolerance in the UK. Much is often made of the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’ and the purported inability of Western notions of tolerance to accommodate traditional Islam (Derrida’s rethinking of ‘hospitality‘ is most relevant).

One of the central problems arises from the way in which liberalism ascribes a certain set of individualistic rights and responsibilities in an undiscriminatory and universalistic way. Since in the West we understand these as a conceptually and normatively prior to any other beliefs (such as religion) people tend to be rather suprised when a Muslim woman expresses her preference (or fulfills her religious duty) by wearing the niqāb. The Habermasian regulative ideal of unfettered communication offers an alternative (and universalistic) normative foundation that is understood to transcend cultural boundaries.


Dr Nazreen Nawaz responds to Straw’s comments

This brings me to the second aspect of the problem. We might well say that even if we take Habermas’s notion of ‘reaching mutual understanding’ as the correct model for productive debate – the one thing all but the most radically subjective on any side of the argument can agree on – the question remains as to how whether the idea of undistorted communication is the most useful way of approaching the problem.

Where Habermas advocates the communicative paradigm of rational consensus, Honneth widens the criteria for common understanding so that the ‘conditions of recognition’ (i.e. the intersubjective presuppositions of human identity development) become the requirement for reaching common understanding free from domination. In this way, one might establish common ground through the experience of social conflict. Instead of taking Habermas’s formalism as a starting point, we begin from the everyday moral experience and identification with a cause (in this case, either liberalism or Islamism). For Honneth, the question of social justice cannot be divorced from the question of identity. Honneth wants to argue that recognition contains a grammar or logic that makes it possible to critically differentiate social and political systems and explain social development in terms of collective moral consciousness, rather than rationality.

It is worth noting that, as a normative paradigm, recognition refers directly to political claims raised in the public sphere, and as such is based on a broadly Habermasian notion of transferring the emancipatory potential of critique from the paradigm of labour to the paradigm of linguistically-mediated interaction. However, for Honneth, the problem with this idea as Habermas has developed it is that “it is not entirely clear whether the transcending potential is to reside in the normative presuppositions of human language or in social interaction”. Honneth’s response is to treat recognition as the fundamental, overarching moral category – a form of ‘normative monism’ – that provides an alternative basis for critique which is based in the experience of moral injustice in place of systematically distorted communication.

The potential benefit of this approach is that it might get us past the impasse of faith/reason or liberalism/theologism that seems to be the sticking point. It should be clear that I refer only to that degree of recognition that we need to establish a point of agreement which can serve as the beginning of a meaningful debate without being fractious in the way that calls for ‘integration’ or ‘tolerance’ might be. After all, recognition is necessarily an intersubjective process.

The particularly British concept of multiculturalism informing the present debate stands in stark contrast to that of France, where the outcome after a similar series of debates was to ban the veil outright in public places.

One interesting aspect in this respect is the preponderance of younger, British-born Muslim women who are choosing to wear the veil in far greater numbers than in previous generations. It is tempting to speculate on two things here. Firstly, we might note that the radicalisation of these issues might attract rebellious young women. Secondly – and more interestingly – one common feature of the adolescent mindset is the desire not to be seen, to be invisible to others, at least in one’s own specificity. It is tempting to understand the adoption of the veil by young women as an extention of this logic of anomymity. Who doesn’t want to cease to have a public identity, to ‘become invisible’, from time to time?

Straw’s comments have been widely understood to be devisive, but they have brought one thing to light: the generally agreed need for an improved framework for debating these issues.

Straw defends veil comments (Guardian Unlimited)

Muslim writer Zaiba Malik describes her experience of the hiqab (Guardian Unlimited)

Sultana Freeman sues Florida State after having her driving licence revoked for refusing to take off her veil for the licence photograph (BBC News)

Protect-Hijab calls for public debate with Straw (Muslim Weekly)


A BBC debate on the issues with Rod Liddle and Salma Yacoob (Respect)