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And still the row rumbles on...Jack Straw set the ball rolling with his claim that he always asks Muslim women wearing the full veil to "unmask" when they visit his constiuencysurgery, but on this site a Birmingham MP said his comments were helping the far right. Dr Mike Drayton offers a psycholigist's insight.

Jack Straw's recent remarks have lifted the veil on an issue that has been ignored or avoided for too long. Prejudice. Straw's comments and much of the recent discourse in the media about Islam really boil down to a discussion of what prejudice is and what it isn't. Is it a sign of some form of conscious or unconscious racism to ask a Muslim woman to remove her veil in order to ease communication. Should the Muslim community be more integrated?

I think that there are a number of factors that are pertinent. Firstly, there is the idea that to be able to communicate with someone properly one needs to see his or her face. I think that this, on the whole, is true. The ability to be able to empathise, to be able to guess how another person is feeling and see the world from their perspective, is one of the most important human attributes. It enables social relationships, communication and is the basis for our moral code and the inhibition of aggression.

Empathy is important to maintain a cohesive society. How then do we empathise with another person? How do we know what they are feeling? How can we tell if they like or dislike us? The most important indicator is body language,with facial expressions being the most easily understood. Words can be unreliable. People, as we know, do lie occasionally. However, it is much harder to lie with the face than it is with words. Even when someone is silent his or her fingers often chatter. So, the Hjiab - effectively a scarf- does not interfere with communicationbut the Niqab and the Burqa - which both cover most or all of the face -provide a major obstacle to empathy.

When empathy fails then there is the danger of the person being objectified, being seen not as an individual person but a representative of a group: radical Muslim, suicide bomber? Another process that contributes to prejudice is seeing people as typical members of a larger grouping, and not individual human beings. All Muslims are the same, aren't they?

Well ‘course there're not. Birmingham's only Muslim MP Khalid Mahmood said in an interview with the Stirrer, “Less than 2% of Muslim women in the UK wear the full frontal hijab, and those who do so, do it of their own free will". Well I never.

I do wonder how many people, especially people who don't meet many Muslims regularly, think most Muslim women wear the veil. Thereforefor some people the majority of Muslim women, who might be socialist, liberal or conservative or passionate about the environment, or whatever, have become defined and objectified by the 2% minority of fundamentalist Muslim women.

The real danger of this process is that because a tiny minority of radical Muslims are also terrorists, a whole sub-conscious process takes place by which your average decent Muslim person gets lumped in with the emotionally and psychologically damaged individuals who commit mass murder.

What about the issue of integration verses separation?

In the 1960s there was a great deal of research done in America on the psychology of prejudice and what helps to reduce prejudice. This research concluded that when people are separated and segregated, the stage is set for ignorance of others and a failure to understand the reasons for their actions; lack of contact means there is no ‘reality testing' against which to check one's perceptions of others behaviour. This produces a phenomenon whereby each ‘side' see themselves as being decent and in the right whilst the other side is seen as threatening and wrong. Sound familiar?

What's the answer then?

Two factors seem to be important in trying to reduce inter-group conflict and racial and cultural prejudice: increased contact between people and shared goals. In other words; friendships between Muslims and non-Muslims and making explicit the notion that most average Muslims and non-Muslims want the same things in life.

Contact is important because it allows the "out-group" to become less strange and different. People are seen as individuals again rather than ‘Muslims'. Equal status is important. If this research is right, and I think it is, then faith schools would increase prejudice and racism. This was the experience of Northern Ireland. For equal status contact to happen, people on both sides need to be able to communicate; a process that requires verbal and body language. So, generally speaking the psychological research suggests Jack Straw is right.

The second factor that minimizes prejudice is the idea that both groups should share common over-arching goals. I guess that most British Muslims want broadly the same as me. To be able to raise their family and get along with others in a safe, tolerant society. I expect that like me, most Muslims have no time for fundamentalist religion or terrorism.

The misunderstanding and prejudice arises when the communication is not between average people but between extremist ‘community leaders' and the media, who love a good story. The news report of the ranting Imam who confronted John Reid the other week was dramatic and provocative. An interview with a Muslims who "kind of agreed" with John Reid would have been, in comparison, somewhat boring. This highlighting and reinforcement of unrepresentative views is alarming and distorts reality in a dangerous way. It has the potential to create a reality by fanning the flames of prejudice.


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