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Friday, March 30, 2007

Healthy Debate

It’s an accepted fact in today’s society that any use of the word ‘Muslim’ by government ministers (or indeed by anyone in authority) is ill-advised; whatever you might say, and however justified or factual your comments, people will attack you, and people will accuse you of being at best inflammatory and at worst, an outright bigot.

Problem is, denying people’s rights to discuss the role of faith – any faith – in society is actually potentially very damaging to social relations, not the other way around. Open debate is always the best way forward, and if one can’t observe and comment upon what one sees and hears (as is the case with Patricia Hewitt expressing concern about GP confidentiality in heavily-Muslim communities) for fear of upsetting people, then you run the risk of allowing wrongful practices to continue. Hewitt almost certainly should’ve had something more concrete to hand before going public, yes, but that doesn’t actually negate the fact that women are telling her there is a very real problem for them:

“Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt is embroiled in a row over whether some Muslim GPs are guilty of breaking the confidentiality of their patients. Two medical magazines reported that Ms Hewitt said some Muslim women feared raising sensitive issues with their GP in case it got back to their families.
The Department of Health said she was not accusing GPs of breaking the rules. She told Pulse magazine: "I have had Muslim women give me chapter and verse on very distressing breaches of confidentiality by Muslim GPs. Some women patients feel they cannot trust their own GP, who knows the patient's extended families. If they go and talk to him about a very difficult situation concerning domestic violence or sexual health problems they fear that he will share that with other members of the community. They are very close-knit communities."

By allowing wrongful practices to continue, (everything from the alleged breach of GP confidentiality to domestic violence to female genital mutilation), because you are scared of criticizing those of another faith, ethnic group or political ideology, you are condoning those practices by default. Put simply, it is not Islamaphobic to look critically at the practices of Islam, just as it is not anti-Semitic to look critically at some of the more misogynistic elements of Orthodox Judaism. On a political level, neither is it anti-Semitic to take a critical stance on Israel, nor is it any kind of a betrayal of the anti-war movement to admit that Saddam Hussein and the Baa’thist Party probably weren’t the best people to govern Iraq.
(Incidentally, this is a point that Nick Cohen makes very well in is book about the failures of liberal politics, ‘What’s Left?”)

Bottom line is, if there is a legitimate concern that British women, living in dangerous domestic situations, are being compromised by their health professionals, then this is something that Muslims – and the wider community – needs to address or alternatively to prove unfounded. Would it be right for the health minister to ignore the complaints of women through a dangerously misplaced notion of maintaining religious sensitivities? Of course it wouldn’t.

And now, having actually defended the actions of Patricia Hewitt, I feel a little dizzy and may need a lie down…

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