Explaining the Absence of a Veil Debate: The Mediating Role of Ethno-nationalism and Public Religion in the Irish Context

in Muslims at the Margins of Europe
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Using public discourse on the Islamic veil, this paper explores the causes for the restricted development of the veil debate in Ireland. This paper argues that the particular confluence of a masculinized ethno-nationalism and the historical role of public religion in Ireland, a product of the colonial and post-colonial experience, has resulted in conditions whereby the debate on the right of Muslim women to wear a headscarf in public schools or indeed public institutions is unlikely to manifest in a significant way as it has in neighbouring European countries, such as the UK, France or Belgium. Nevertheless, the paper also suggests that these same factors deny Muslims in Ireland the possibility of substantively belonging to the dominant group and thus to the full range of rights and responsibilities of citizenship in Irish society, thus posing considerable barriers to genuine multicultural and multifaith equality. Indeed, the virtual invisibility of a substantive veil debate in Ireland may point towards the exclusion of Muslim women from belonging to the Irish nation, rather than benign religious tolerance.

This chapter assesses public discourse in relation to the Islamic veil debate in Ireland. In particular it questions why the Islamic veil did not emerge as a serious point of contention or an issue requiring legislative action, as it did in other European states including the UK and France. Using opinion pieces and readers’ letters, the chapter assesses the confluence of Irish perceptions of gender roles, religious expression and national identity to deepen understanding of reactions (or lack thereof) to the Islamic veil. Such an approach permits consideration of the ways in which factors such as gender norms, ethno-nationalism and the historical context of public religion may at once moderate attitudes towards the wearing of the veil while also intensifying exclusionary attitudes and practices. This chapter thus uses the particular case of Ireland – a small, post-colonial state on the geographical margins of Europe with a very small Muslim population (1%) – to better understand the emergence of alliances in the state-faith nexus that at once perceive the right to wear the veil as a religious freedom requiring protection, and yet an othering symbol that signifies Islamic subjectivity as outside the boundaries of possible Irish identity.

1 The Emergence of a Veil Debate in Ireland

While debates surrounding the Muslim headscarf have been evident in Europe for a decade or more1 and have been ‘embedded in discussions on national identity, secularization and modernity,’2 Ireland’s engagement with this issue was marginal and generally reactive to events occurring in other states prior to 2008. Indeed, even the events of 9/11, which galvanized negative reactions towards Muslims in much of Western Europe,3 elicited little attention towards Muslim women in Ireland. Newspaper reviews of this period indicated only a minor increase on reportage of the Islamic veil and while the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Integration did report an increase in racist assaults against Muslims in the months following 9/11 they were of a limited nature, uncoordinated and isolated,4 while the 7/7 bombings in London did not elicit a noticeably increase in racist assaults against Muslims in Ireland.5

Muslims in Ireland make up just over 1% of the population. In stark contrast, Catholics account for 84% of the population. Between 2006 and 2011, Islam was a moderately growing religion, growing by 51%. Although this is a considerably faster growth rate compared to Catholicism, which grew by 5%, it is much less than the growth rate of Orthodox (117%), Hindu (75%), Apostolic (73%) or of the growth of Atheists (320%) and Agnostics (132%).6 Muslims in Ireland are therefore considerably in the minority. However, the presence of Islam in Ireland is not a new phenomenon; a small Muslim population having been evident in Ireland from the 1950s.7 By 1991, Muslims appear on the Irish Census for the first time.8 Although in small number, Muslim women wore the veil in Ireland for numerous decades without attracting public attention and Irish public schools have generally accommodated girls who wished to wear the veil with the common clause of requiring the veil to be in the same colour as the school uniform.9 The constitution provides formal recognition, legitimacy and respect to all religions and specifically does not endow any one religion above others.10 There has been relatively little public concern in Ireland regarding Muslim immigrants, particularly in comparison to non-Muslim eastern European and African immigrants who have been common targets of anti-immigration rhetoric.11 What is known is that prior to 2008 concerns over veiling were limited and polls suggest that Muslims generally felt accepted within Ireland.12

However, events in 2008 brought forth a wide range of opinion regarding the veil, Muslim women, immigration and citizenship. Shekinah Egan was a 14 year-old, hockey-playing school girl living in the small town of Gorey, Co. Wexford, in the east of Ireland, when in 2008 she became the centre of nation-wide attention. The daughter of Liam Egan, an Irish-born convert to Islam, and Beverly Egan, a British-born immigrant to Ireland, Shekinah had already been wearing a headscarf at school for a year when her parents wrote to the secondary school she was due to attend the following September to ensure that Shekinah would be welcomed while wearing the hijab. The School Board, tasked with the management of the school on behalf of the patron (usually a Catholic order) confirmed that Shekinah would be allowed to wear a veil; however, the principal of the School, Nicholas Sweetman, wrote to the Minister of Education to ask for clarification on regulations regarding such attire. Explaining his decision, Sweetman argued, the government

should be offering guidance so that we don’t have a situation where in this school the child is allowed to wear the hijab, and another school down the road will say, we don’t allow that’ and further that, ‘it’s fine for me to say as principal of this school that it’s grand for a girl to wear a hijab, but supposing a child comes wanting to wear the full veil. Do I say yes or do I say no? And why do I say yes or no?’13

The government declined to offer guidance or legislate on the issue, referring the decision back to individual school boards. Shekinah continued to wear her veil to school and schools around Ireland continued to issue their own policies regarding religious attire. Within one year, the veil debate that surfaced through the case of Shekinah Egan had largely evaporated. Yet, in the months that followed the circulation of this story, a public debate about the wearing of the Islamic veil in Ireland’s public institutions, that intersected with wider debates on gender rights, immigration and religion, appeared in the news media. Such debates provide a method for analysing Ireland’s relationship to gender norms, national identity and the dominant Catholic religion, while also shedding light on why Ireland has had such a muted reaction to the Islamic veil in comparison with other Western European states.

2 Researching the Veil through News Media and Public Opinion

How the veil is perceived is shaped by the cultural context in which it is worn, ideological traditions and the prevailing perceptions, not only or even mostly of Islam, but also of women, of ‘foreigners’ and of religion generally. Implicit within the opinions expressed in Ireland are also nationalized notions of gender and the nature of Ireland, Irishness and Irish values. Using opinion pieces and reader letters from popular, quality newspapers, this chapter examines the various themes that have emerged through this debate including those of protection, preservation and contestation and has teased out existing and changing attitudes towards gendered constructions of Irish nationality and citizenship.

The Irish Times is considered to be the ‘newspaper of record’ for Ireland and has a reputation for being balanced, authoritative and socially, if not economically, liberal. The Irish Independent is Ireland’s largest selling daily newspaper and its sister paper, the Sunday Times is the top-selling paper in Ireland. These newspapers are considered to be ‘opinion leaders’ in Irish public and political life and are well positioned within the Irish media market.14 Furthermore, it is ‘also assumed that they are regularly read by other media and elites in Ireland’ and thus, act to establish the broad contours of public opinion.15 These papers were thus used in this paper to analyse public opinion. While research has intensively examined the ability of the news media to influence public discourse, it is also important to recognize that the public is not a passive spectator in this process. Opinion pages and reader letters offer an outlet for the public to engage with public debate and influence which topics are represented in the paper and what aspects of such topics receive attention. It was thus deemed important to examine such publications within the quality broadsheets considered in order to gain an appropriate sample of public attitudes towards the Islamic veil.

This chapter uses thematic content analysis to reveal dominant themes in relation to the wearing of the Islamic veil in Ireland. Analysing opinion pieces, editorials and reader letters provides an opportunity to gain insight into attitudes and perceptions of the Islamic veil in Ireland, and how they reflect gendered perceptions of nationhood, identity and citizenship and the role of religion in the public sphere. Common themes emerged in which discourses of protection of women, preservation of the national identity and contestation over religious control infused the debate on the veil. Critical discourse analysis provided the method through which to examine variations within the themes and an intertextual approach, described by Kristeva as ‘the insertion of history (society) into a text and of the text into history,’16

allowed for consideration of how the construction of the signifiers of gender, nation, and ethnicity in Ireland within this debate relate to social organization, including tolerance for multiculturalism. This approach thus aims to ‘render social phenomena intelligible’17 and connect such phenomena to the construction and reproduction of gendered and nationalized power-relations in Ireland.

3 Nation as Protector: Debating the Meaning of Rights

Nira Yuval-Davis has argued that ‘women’s citizenship … is usually of a dual nature: on the one hand they are included in the general body of citizens; on the other hand there are always rules, regulations and policies which are specific to them.’18 The veil debates are but one aspect of such regulations and prohibitions that are unique to women and act to define notions of national identity and citizenship. Perceptions of citizenship are influenced by concepts of national identity: in an ideological sense, citizenship refers to the capacity of the individual to belong to the state by embodying the national identity. In a practical sense, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are not equally distributed amongst all those who formally hold citizenship: as Yuval-Davis has explained, rules, regulations, policies and importantly practices are directed differently towards different groups of people and thus delimit the extent to which some groups and individuals can access the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship. How such ‘rights’ are understood and conferred also has the potential of articulating the ‘dominant’ group, defined as capable of protecting the rights of others, and the minority group who are construed as dependent on the protection of the majority group: in other words, who are tolerated by the dominant group while never being fully part of the dominant group.19

This notion of the dominant Irish granting and protecting the rights of ‘Others’ was a significant theme within the hijab debate of 2008. ‘Rights’ were frequently mentioned in reader letters and opinion pieces within the Irish newspapers that were examined to defend or reject the wearing of the hijab in public schools in Ireland. Although the notion of ‘protecting’ Muslim women has been used by both those who support the veil in public schools and those who oppose its presence, it was more often used to pose the veil as oppressive to women. To understand this discourse of protection as it is enacted within Ireland, one must consider Ireland’s colonial legacy and the discursive construction of national identity that linked masculinized ideals such as strength and independence to ‘Irishness’ and thus full, substantive citizenship.

The vociferousness of Ireland’s nationalist discourse is not out of keeping with that of other post-colonial nations. Amrita Basu has argued that ‘nationalism that seeks inspiration from an imaginary past usually advocates re-domesticating women and gaining control over their sexuality.’20 This is a particularly accurate comment in relation to Ireland, where

Colonial powers identif[ied] their subject people as passive, in need of guidance, incapable of self-government, romantic, passionate, unruly, barbarous – all those things for which the Irish and women have been traditionally praised and scorned.21

Stevens et al. describe how Ireland was visualized within English discourse as ‘a weak, ineffectual woman that needed to be controlled by a strong, resolute man (Britain).’22

To reclaim autonomy, in both a political and symbolic sense, Irish nationalists needed to re-conceptualize the Irish as strong, capable, independent and fierce – all characteristics associated with the masculine. The nation-building project in Ireland relied upon a mythical and masculinized ‘Celtic’ past in which the Irish people could locate glory, prestige and power. When Ireland’s autonomy was realized, with the considerable help of women revolutionaries and revolutionary groups, women as political actors and social agents were largely written out of history and the Irish nation became one of acting men and symbolic women. In the Republic of Ireland, women were given few opportunities for self-expression or agency within this rewritten past but were rather relegated to ‘hearth and home.’23

Thus, while Ireland is constituted as essentially feminine, the Irish nationalist discourse also constitutes the Irish people as masculine, as the sons of Mother Ireland, whose love and sense of duty requires her defence. In this way Irish nationalism of the late 19th and 20th century articulated an alternative history that contested the colonial perceptions of the Irish identity, and constructed a new, invigorated, but masculine identity for the Irish nation. While this identity did provide a basis for unity it also disenfranchised half the population from full citizenship. Irish women, as active political agents, were sacrificed to the new ideal of the assertive, independent (and male) Irish citizen. To be an active Irish citizen in the new Republic thus required taking on these ‘masculine’ traits. This history continues to influence understandings of Irishness and Irish identity, as can be identified in the veil debate that emerged in Ireland in 2008, by structuring the relationship between the ‘Irish,’ defined along these masculinized ethnic lines and ‘Others’ conceived in opposition as dependent, feminized and in need of protection. The veiled woman becomes the example par excellence of such a view.

Irish Independent columnist Martina Devlin asserts that the veil is inherently oppressive and argues that ‘if we accept [the hijab] in schools, we open the door to other practices in the Muslim world even more repressive to women, among them arranged marriages and female circumcision.’24 Similarly, Eilis O’Hanlon wrote in a more moderate piece in the Irish Independent three days later that Muslim girls whose parents do not wish them to cover, ‘can frequently be bullied and made to feel inferior and ashamed by those who wear the hijab.’25 Emer O’Kelly, writing in 2006 noted the increasing presence of veiled women (including those wearing the niqāb) in Ireland and states that ‘I do not welcome the veil, and I do not believe it is racist to say so. Rather, I believe that to talk about embracing and welcoming what it stands for is to deny equality to women, even when the wearing is merely symbolic.’26

Such arguments invoke the image of the veiled Muslim girl/woman as oppressed by a patriarchal religion and/or culture. Letter writer Ruth Dudley Edwards, for instance, argues that allowing the hijab denies the possibility of Muslim girls to contest paternal authority and equates the hijab with child abuse.27 Within this discourse of protection it is perceived as Ireland’s duty, as an enlightened and liberal nation, to counter such tendencies by, for instance, banning the veil from schools. Indeed, Irish Independent columnist Sinead Ryan argues that ‘we simply cannot have liberal equality laws and continue to pander to repressive minority customs.’28 Thus the discourse of protection is equated here with the promotion of gender equality through the protection of Islamic girls and women from oppressive and patriarchal foreign cultural practices.

This discourse of protection undermines the veiled woman as a valid, autonomous political agent and relegates her to a special category of woman in need of the state’s protection. Her own personal desires and aspirations are discounted as they become connected to an oppressive structure that is seen as limiting her thought. This argument has been expressed within numerous settings, including the European Court of Human Rights where it was asserted that the headscarf appears ‘to be imposed on women by a religious precept that is hard to reconcile with the principle of gender equality.’29 Rottman and Ferree argue that support for Government intervention in women’s personal decisions ‘can be framed as necessary … [only] because “Muslim culture” is framed as oppressive’ to an extent that European culture is not.30 The perception that Muslim women require the protection of the state from patriarchal authority figures with antiquated and misogynistic attitudes within the Muslim community poses the debate as a conflict between opposing value systems,31 reifying an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ scenario that undermines the possibility for both peaceful, equal, co-existence and for the development of an inclusive, equal conception of citizenship and identity.

In a state where the national identity is connected to masculine traits including strength, offering ‘protection’ to women defines relations of power. Protecting the ‘weak,’ deemed to be Muslim women at the mercy of religious and cultural oppression, strengthens the discursive connection between those offering protection and the masculine, dominant, Irish identity. Lister explains that ‘the greater or lesser ability of certain groups to act as citizens and the degree to which they can enjoy both formal and substantive rights as citizens depends on where they stand on a continuum of inclusion and exclusion.’32 The fact that Irish women embrace the role of protector, offering protection to the weak resituates the Irish woman opposing the veil as the powerful member capable of offering protection to the weaker, illegitimately Irish, Muslim woman while also reinforcing the boundaries of belonging to the nation. Indeed, veiled Muslim women are excluded from full belonging through the discursive separation of those who offer protection, ‘the Irish,’ and those deemed in need of protection.

Although the discourse of protection can also be directed towards the protection of rights including the ‘freedom to believe and express a belief and the principle of gender equality,’33 this view was expressed by a minority of letter writers and opinion pieces within the examined newspapers. Breda O’Brien of The Irish Times, for instance, regards the demand to wear the veil in Irish schools as an indication of Muslim women’s autonomy, stating ‘a girl who makes the request to wear [the hijab] in school is likely to have thought about it and be clear about what it means to her. She is doing something brave and counter-cultural’ and questions why society should be so concerned ‘with young girls from a different background asserting their right to dress modestly.’34 However, this view was distinctly in the minority and does not appear to have been highly influential in directing the terms of the debate. Rather, the government’s refusal to make definitive judgements in relation to wearing the veil in public schools appears as one of the most significant factors in abating this debate. This decision in fact preserves the concept of autonomy – both in relation to individual schools and for individual women; the absence of legislation ensures that the decision on whether to veil is not foreclosed and thus remains a legitimate choice. Such a stance creates difference and debate and contributes to the ‘vibrant clash of political positions and an open conflict of interests’ that is essential for a thriving democracy.35

4 Preserving the Nation: Diversity, Assimilation and the Irish Way

Diversity, accommodation, integration and assimilation have become increasingly important notions in European states in recent years. However, recent trends have shifted towards an assimilationist stance in multicultural policy.36 Khiabany and Williamson assert that in the UK, ‘it has now become a new orthodoxy to insist that cultural diversity is a threat to national cohesion and British values, and the veil has become a key visual sign of that “threat.”’37 While Ireland has over the past decades professed a spirit of integration through accommodation and tolerance, the perception of multiculturalism as a threat to the Irish way of life was expressed by Ruairi Quinn, then Labour Party Spokesman on Education and Science, and Brian Hayes, his Fine Gael counterpart, during the summer of 2008 in relation to the Islamic headscarf. Quinn asserted that ‘if people want to come into a western society that is Christian and secular, they need to conform to the rules and regulations of that country’38 and added that ‘nobody is formally asking them to come here. In the interests of integration and assimilation, they should embrace our culture.’39 Brian Hayes backed Ruairi Quinn’s views and gave his support for the banning of the veil in public schools.

The assimilationist approach does however pose particular problems within a state that is largely defined through reference to a shared ethnicity and history. Assimilation occurs in reference to a stable identity, or as Schneider and Crul explain, ‘[t]he term assimilation linguistically implies a referent to which immigrants and/or their offspring can become similar.’40 In contrast to states such as France where assimilation is proposed through the adoption of the national language and adherence to the ideals of the nation, the possibility of assimilation is a factual impossibility in Ireland where the nation is defined by ethnic belonging. The assimilationist position then effectively ensures the exclusion of incomers who are visually different from the majority Irish, due to their skin colour or the wearing of culturally and/or religiously distinct garb. Such a position maintains a continued distinction between the Irish nation and ‘Others’ living within the state, regardless of their official citizenship status. In the short term such a differentiation may in fact help to quell disquiet over immigration – rather than fearing for the loss of authentic Irish identity, the existence of Others within Ireland actually strengthens Irish ethnic identity. Indeed, reader letters and opinion columns in the foremost newspapers in Ireland expose the separation of veiled Muslim women from the larger Irish polity, as will be examined shortly. Perceiving those who wear the veil as ‘outsiders’ and even ‘visitors’ to Ireland, permits their tolerance by Irish society while never granting them the status of belonging.

The shift from multicultural tolerance and accommodation towards assimilation has been justified, in Ireland as elsewhere, by the dual threat of Islamist terrorism and Islamist colonization. The perception of an unwillingness to integrate and the potential danger of a religiously divided society (a danger that Ireland knows well) is represented within the veil debates, indicating the existence of Powellian/Thatcherite ‘new racism’41 in Ireland, in which “culture” and “tradition” become essentialized and bioligized42 into notions of genealogical “difference” and lie at the heart of the ‘fear of being swamped by immigrants.’43In Austria, which demonstrates a comparatively tolerant approach towards religious expression and practice, an absence of legal restrictions or regulations on the veil is contrasted by the development of restrictive immigration and integration policies and anti-immigration right wing parties,44 indicating that the absence of regulation on this issue does not denote a multicultural or culturally tolerant approach but may be, rather, the result of the acceptance of religion generally within the public sphere. Ireland has similarly displayed a growing resentment towards immigrants, as practised through the removal of ‘jus soli’ constitutional rights to citizenship and the restriction of welfare and entitlement rights to EU migrants,45 while formally defending the right to religious conviction and expression. This suggests that in Ireland the primary concern is the loss of ‘Irishness’ through the dilution of Irish culture and its perceived ethnic purity. Yet, the very difference expressed by the veil acts to dilute the fear of such acculturation by maintaining the distinct separation between those identified as ‘Irish’ and those who are not.

One letter writer to the Irish Independent expressed a concern that ‘non-ethnic Irish women who have citizenship by birth or naturalisation will take up positions in the public service. I do not want, as a woman, to see religion or symbols of religion as the face of public service.’46 Malone concludes that ‘once one leaves or escapes the land of one’s birth and enters a new society with a different culture and beliefs, one must adapt to existing values inherent in the new nation.’47 Although this letter is an oversimplified representation of such views, it nonetheless lays bare a number of issues that go to the heart of the accommodation/assimilation debate.

There is an evident conflation between the notions of ‘ethnic’ Irish and Christian expressed in the above view. ‘Ethnic’ Irish may also be Muslim, as indeed was the father of Shekinah Egan, the Irish Muslim school girl whose headscarf sparked the debate in the summer of 2008. Within the discourse of preservation of the nation, the veil is clearly related to ethnicity and ‘foreignness.’ In an Ireland that used the imagined Celtic past as a foundation for the construction of Irish identity, the production of an ethno-nationalist discourse is standard ideological fare. The utilization of binary divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ not only disadvantages ‘them’ ensuring that Muslim women are divorced from legitimate citizenship, but also solidifies the Irish identity – proposing it as under attack and requiring defence. Tohidi and Bayes note that ‘in both Catholic and Muslim postcolonial contexts, women are blamed for failing to preserve the native culture and old traditional orders.’48 Here, the conflation between imagined ethnic nation and religiosity construes the veiled Muslim woman as symbolic of the (potential) loss of ‘Irishness’ and Irish values – displayed by the letter above, as fear of a foreign face in a familiar, Irish context. This potential, however, as will be seen, is offset by another factor, namely that the very ‘Otherness’ of veiled women negates a serious challenge to Irish national identity.

Furthermore, there is an assumption that there is a unitary and unique Irish Nation and cultural values that are accessible and imitable. This is by no means unproblematic. As Ging and Malcolm argue, a myth of Irish homogeneity has been consolidated that is ‘central to the ideology of the nation-state [and] denies the ethnic and religious diversity that has existed in Ireland for many years.’49 This un-problematized notion of the Irish is expressed by one letter writer who collapses the Irish Christian way of life into a normative view of ‘humans.’ He writes ‘immigrants to this country who accept the western way and may I say so the Christian way of life and who contribute positively to our society are welcome … the Irish nation has the ways and means to maintain our ethos and show Muslims that we want integration, absorption, and not separation. People who wear Islamic dress in Ireland (or elsewhere) are seen as Muslims. We should see people as humans first.’50 This view clearly indicates the myth of neutrality: the majority ethnic group (and their practices, beliefs and attitudes) are universalized and perceived as the ‘one shared by everyone.’51 In the letter, ‘others’ are clearly defined as non-Christians and their presence is permitted on the condition that they behave and dress according to the standards of the Western Christian nation of Ireland and ‘contribute positively,’ revealing a boundary to acceptance in line with Yuval-Davis’ argument that ‘multi-culturalism always has limits set by the hegemonic collectivity.’52 Again, this argument limits full belonging to Christian Irish with non-Christians being accorded limited ideological citizenship ‘on-condition’ that they ‘integrate.’ Difference is thus accorded only formal tolerance, which is confined to the private sphere and certainly kept from the ‘public.’53 Thus for non-conforming groups to achieve even partial acceptance requires the denial of a fundamental aspect of one’s identity; as An-Naʿim persuasively argues, for genuine integration to occur ‘it is necessary to respect the cultural and religious right to self-determination, for example, to avoid requiring Muslims (or other immigrants) to abandon or renounce their own identity in order to be accepted as citizens or non-citizen residents of the country.’54 This argument is doubly resonant where it concerns veiled Muslim women who face discrimination on multiple fronts within Ireland.

Finally, the desire to avoid ‘religion, and symbols of religion, in the public services’ would construct a public service that is un-representative of the people that it serves. However, this view is echoed within other contexts. Hans Werdmolder, for instance, has argued that ‘the freedom of wearing a headscarf can be considered or imply an infraction of the freedom of other involved persons’ and further asserts that ‘the State has a special responsibility to demonstrate its impartiality by adopting and enforcing a neutral, and sometimes uniform, dress code for all civil servants in its public education institutions.’55 This view has been contested by others where it is argued that ‘a general prohibition of religious attire is not only difficult to reconcile with the core values of a democratic society, but is neither necessarily favourable for gender equality or the promotion of other rights.’56 Indeed, not only would such a position exclude a growing number of women from a major employment sector, but it provides a false picture of who the ‘Irish’ are. Furthermore, as argued above, Ireland is not a neutral state. Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, has been integrated into the fabric of Irish society resulting in the disavowal of the religious nature of many of the practices and expressions common in Ireland, which entails that denying the right to religious expression impacts Muslim women unequally and indefensibly.

The arguments examined above, while also implicitly reproducing an ethnic- and gender-specific Irish identity, provide some evidence of why the veil debate in Ireland was limited in both duration and intensity: the ethno-nationalist nature of Irish identity permits tolerance of ‘Others’ so long as they do not challenge membership within the nation. As a constructed emblem of Otherness, the veil demarcates the limitations of Irish identity and thus does not provide a significant challenge to Irishness. In its visibility, it renders Irish Muslim women invisible. Thus, arguments that present the veiled woman as a threat to Irish national cohesion are untenable. So long as identity is constructed along ethnic lines, visibly ‘foreign’ women pose little threat to national identity.

5 Contesting the Religious: Secularism vs. Faith in the Islamic Veil Debate in Ireland

As this chapter has detailed, the veil debate is not just about religion, since a nuanced analysis of the debate must consider the social, cultural and political aspects of the debate. However, it is also about religion, about faith and about how religious convictions are expressed. Unlike France or Turkey where the state has consciously been constructed as secular, Ireland has always enjoyed a close relationship with religious institutions, notably the Catholic Church, resulting in a ‘close identification between loyalty to the nation and loyalty to the church.’57 This special history has resulted in rather unique arguments both for and against the veil, as secular and faith-based interest groups use the veil debate to negotiate rights of and limitations on religion in the public sphere.

Philip Watt of the now-defunct National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism argued that those who advocate ‘a ban on the hijab might or might not have fully considered the consequences of such a ban in respect of all religious symbols and obligations in the schools,’58 indicating that banning the icons of Christianity may not be the desired outcome of many who oppose the veil in public schools. It is likely that he is correct. Brian Hayes, then opposition spokesman for Education and Science, is reported as stating that ‘parents are entitled to send their children to religious schools but those who opt for state education should expect that there won’t be “any huge, demonstrable evidence of religiosity.”’59 This apparently overlooks the fact that 92% of state sponsored primary schools are Catholic and devote a considerable period of time to Catholic activities, particularly first communion, confirmation and religious holiday celebrations such as the Christmas pageants (rte, 2009). As Catholicism is the hegemonic belief system in Ireland it is perceived as the normal way of life and associated with secularism. This view posits Islam as the opposite, as ideological and backward and thus ‘divisive’ and ‘exclusionary.’ There is a strong suggestion within this opinion that it is not a religion under attack by those who demand the veil be banned from schools to limit the presence of religious symbolism, but rather the presence of cultural and ethnic ‘Others.’ Such initiatives would support the continued domination of the normative, Catholic culture in Ireland by delineating what religious symbolism and expression is normal and acceptable to the nation.

Nevertheless, other letter writers have used this debate to make exactly this criticism: that Ireland is a Christian nation and cannot make a pretence of secularism by denying other religions while maintaining its Christian heritage. The authors conclude that schools should actually be secular and ban all religious symbolism. Irish Times letter writer Sarah Groarke argues that ‘in a post-modern, multicultural Ireland, the time has come to remove religious teaching from our state education system’60 and explicitly includes Catholicism within this argument. Similarly, a recent Irish Times article argues that Ireland’s system of Catholic state schools could force government to accept other religious schools that may undermine democratic principles. The author advocates that ‘the State … realise that the publicly funded education system is no place for the promotion of particular religions. Only a religiously neutral State education system can protect the education system from becoming a vehicle through which democratic values are undermined.’61 The shift in the debate from one about the right to veil to a debate around the role of religion within public life more generally does not denote growing recognition of minority rights; rather, such an appropriation of the veil debate which emerged in 2008 denotes an internal contest of differing opinions within the dominant Irish cultural majority. In fact, within this shift, the interests of the minority ethnic and religious groups are excluded and made invisible as the debate becomes colonized, that is, taken over by the dominant group, who redefine it in their own terms, and the significant role of gender in structuring the debate on the veil is lost.

The argument that religion has no place in the public sphere further discounts the reality for many women that their faith is an essential and indivisible aspect of their identity.62 Banning religious symbolism and education from schools has little effect for Christian students, whose identity as Christians is enshrined in every aspect of Irish life, while for non-Christians such a ban forces a visible separation between internal values, beliefs and convictions, and external affiliation as citizens or residents of a Western, Christian nation. Such a proposal is unlikely to ease religious and cultural tensions (if they exist) within schools or other public institutions, but rather to simply exclude those who occupy non-normative identities from full civic acceptance, as they are taught through such policies that only some aspects of their identity are compatible with being Irish.

The special role of Catholicism in Ireland may provide more insight as to why the debate on the veil never flourished in Ireland. Herbert and Fras have argued that in Western Europe religion has largely been privatized, relegated to the private sphere and perceived as an aspect of individual choice and individual belief.63 In comparison, in Communist Eastern Europe, religion was not privatized but excluded, leading to a process of re-publicization whereby ‘religion emerges in shared social life’ in the present.64 In Ireland religion was never denied and never privatized, but has been part of the everyday fabric of daily life and routine, performed and celebrated collectively within public institutions such as state education. While the dominance of Catholicism has witnessed a decline, particularly in relation to Mass attendance, faith and religious belief remain important in Ireland.65 Rather than being more tolerant of difference, it may be that the Irish simply see less difference in the presence of the veil in public spheres than do other European States that have been through a more thorough process of secularization. This suggests that Muslim women may be seen as ‘Other’ because of the discursive association between Islam and ‘foreignness’ rather than because of their religious identity.

6 Ireland in the European Context: Equal or Exclusive?

Through an examination of the veil debate that emerged in Ireland in the summer of 2008, several factors are revealed that have restricted the development of a more vigorous debate on the veil and related multicultural conflicts. The refusal of the Irish government (through the Department of Education) to issue guidelines or legislate on the wearing of the veil within public schools leaves the issue open to personal and institutional choice. This allows both schools and girls who veil a variety of options and the possibility of negotiation, thus preserving a sense of autonomy that averts direct confrontation between individual rights and institutional and national norms. This decision largely reflects disinterested public attitudes towards the veil debate in Ireland and shows that the issue of the veil has simply not gathered the momentum in Ireland that it has elsewhere. This chapter has identified two primary reasons why the veil debate in Ireland never flourished. Firstly, the construction of national identity along masculinized ethno-nationalist lines forecloses the possibility of a threat to Irish identity by veiled women. The ‘difference’ and ‘foreignness’ associated with the veil in fact reinforces exclusive Irish identity, thus averting (for now) multicultural conflict. Secondly, the public nature of religion in Ireland has meant that the veil is seen less as an intrusion than a continuation of the normalized practice of religion in Ireland.

These conditions establish a very different context from the one seen in France, the UK, Germany or Belgium where multicultural conflict has been much more significant and the veil debate has been one of the most visible loci for such conflict. Rather, the case of Ireland contributes to the view expressed by Sevgi Kiliç66 that state-church relations have a significant impact on the development and direction of debates around the veil. The Irish case is rather more similar to that of Austria whereby an ethno-cultural understanding of identity is mediated by religious pluralism resulting in an absence of a veil debate despite restrictive policies towards immigration.67 This chapter argues that in Ireland, the historical acceptance of religion in the public sphere acts in collusion with ethno-nationalist ideals of citizenship and identity to produce, on the one hand, a tolerance of ‘Others’ that offsets multicultural conflict in the short term, but, on the other hand, leads to a refusal to recognize such ‘Others’ as full members of the nation by the dominant group, rendering them invisible, and thus powerless to disrupt the discursive construction of the Irish nation.

This analysis does not, however, contrast states, such as Germany, France and the UK which exhibit greater public and political contention around the issue of the veil, with a tolerant, equitable Ireland. Rather, the debates that played out over the summer of 2008 reveal discourses that are highly exclusive and unequal and have the potential to result in significant multicultural conflict and gender inequality. Indeed, if Ireland is to avoid the kind of multicultural conflict that has characterized much of Western Europe in recent years and yet recognize the rights of all women, it is necessary and pressing for conceptualizations of the Irish, Irishness and Irish values to be more inclusive and built on the foundations of equality, autonomy and justice.

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52Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation, 56.
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61Ronan McCrea, ‘State-funded Schools must be Separate from Religions,’ The Irish Times, December 17, 2009, http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2009/1217/1224260833016.html.
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64Herbert and Fras, ‘European Enlargement, Secularisation and Religious Re-publicisation in Central and Eastern Europe.’
65Tom Inglis, ‘Catholic Identity in Contemporary Ireland: Belief and Belonging to Tradition,’ Journal of Contemporary Religion 22/2 (2007).
66Kiliç, ‘The British Veil Wars,’ 401–402.
67Gresch et al., ‘Tu felix Austria?,’ 426.

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Muslims at the Margins of Europe

Finland, Greece, Ireland and Portugal


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