Monthly Archives: October 2006

The veil and social capital

The niqab makes social solidarity harder to achieve. Is that a bad thing?

Robert “Bowling Alone” Putnam would say that the veil is a source of ‘bonding capital’ – the kind of social capital that strengthens connections within a community – but that it erodes ‘bridging capital’ – the kind that hooks communities together. So the veil benefits the community of observant Muslims who wear and advocate it but, probably, limits solidarity with other groups. Social Capital fans (among whom we should count the New Labour bigwigs who’ve waded in on veils lately) would probably suggest we draw up a balance sheet, setting off the benefit to one community of its bonding capital against the damage done to wider social solidarity by its resistance to integration.

This kind of thinking says we need to develop and strengthen bridging institutions in order to counter the damage social apartness can do. Including Muslim women (veiled or otherwise) in existing institutions is a given. What we’re doing now, though, is stengthening the walls between communities – both rhetorically and literally, reducing the likelihood of compromise. The long term task must be to reassert connection between communities, to find the solidarity we’ve lost. Who has the key to this solidarity? Is it shared institutions like schools and hospitals? Volunteer groups and charities? Or is it membership bodies like Trade Unions and housing co-ops whose historic mission is collective empowerment?

Although I think Straw et al are trying to advance an explicit Social Capital agenda by getting us talking, the effect, on the ground, of their increasingly beligerent interventions is to put the boot in to already isolated and vulnerable young women from (mostly) poor neighbourhoods. That can’t be a good thing.

Here’s an excellent half hour from Muslim journalist Fareena Alam on Radio 4 about Straw and the veil and an interview with Robert Putnam from the Today Programme last week.


The young women adopting the niqab in Britain may be religious fanatics but they’re more like punks than nuns or hermits.

What Jack Straw did, one way or the other, was move the debate on – get the debate started, in fact. I think that’s interesting. We really can’t be afraid to talk about the behaviour of one community relative to others. There’s no doubt that in Britain, we’ve developed a reluctance, collectively, to talk about important intercommunal issues like this but it really is important. Can we comfortably approach and talk to our neighbours, customers, colleagues? Can we live with difference at the heart of our communities? Can we understand, even identify with, the unease our traditions cause in others? Can we be open to sharply different worldviews up close? Can we work with people whose faces we cannot see?

One thing I find interesting is that the debate turns on clothing. Are these orthodox Muslim women like punks – their veils like the mohicans and bondage trousers that wound the old gits up thirty years ago? Or are they like out gay men, promenading in Soho in their finery? Something the uptight part of the population feels uncomfortable with but will probably get used to? Or are these observant young women making a different kind of statement? Are they rejecting the modern? Embracing the ancient and revered? Are they defying the deathly conformism of their parents and contemporaries – the ones who go round in suits and ties and jeans and nice dresses?

Are they standing against the cowardice and compromise of their elders or simply professing their faith? Or are they telling the rest of the world to fuck off and leave them alone?

Intelligent, just not very interesting

Is it just me or is there something paralysingly boring about these ‘cars of the future‘ presented at this week’s grandly titled but presumably equally boring World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems and Services in London? They can… er… park themselves and… well… follow the car in front. Oh, and one of them will wake you up if you fall asleep. No wonder the biggest car manufacturers are in such trouble. A marked absence of the big idea, if you ask me.

If you have no policies are you still a political party?

Political parties are developing an aversion to policy. David Cameron’s refusal to provide anything more than mood music in Bournemouth is only the latest tock in the unstoppable tick tock that’s moving politics into line with the other branches of marketing. Don’t mention the product, focus on the brand, communicate the feeling. Mars Bars became – unbelievably – ‘Believe’ for the duration of the World Cup, mobile phone companies talk about dreams and intimacy and not about call quality or coverage.

Political parties won’t ‘bang on’ about Europe any more. They won’t bang on about anything at all in fact. They’ll invest their time and money in telling us what kind of ‘guys’ they are, where there heads are at, what their hopes and dreams are. We’ll be invited to identify with them. We’ll be encouraged to act on our feelings about a party or a candidate without exploring their relative positions.

All of this will only work in the new, post-ideological political marketplace that all the new-age pols aspire to. The clever young people steering the major parties (or brands) are certain – collectively and across the left-right divide – that the old, differentiated politics is history and I guess, in a way, they’re right. There’s something very last Century – very iron curtain, clash-of-ideologies, Winter-of-discontent, Z-Cars, Sunday Night at the Palladium, Harold Macmillan – about the stunted bipolar politics we grew up with isn’t there?

Shouldn’t we rush at this new stuff? Embrace the funky flow of freestyle Twenty-first Century politics with all the parties arbitrarily arranged on the political centre ground where comparison on fundamentals is difficult and essentially pointless?

The old politics is obviously doomed. The question is, can the political parties survive the demise of political culture?

Excellent New Scientist podcast

If you’re interested in this evolutionary biology stuff you’re going to want to get over to New Scientist and subscribe to their excellent podcast. This week’s double issue is devoted to a brilliant interview (by podcast anchor Ivan Semeniuk) with E.O. Wilson who’s got a new book out. In The Creation he bravely reaches out to American evangelicals to save the planet’s natural diversity. Wilson’s range is awesome and his humanity obvious. Inspiring.