When designer Alan Hughes first pitched the cover that you now see on the front of this edition, I went, ‘Oh no...’ This kind of image is often used as a shorthand to pose questions of integration and identity.
So up I got on my high horse, lecturing anyone who would listen about such essentialism. I felt uncomfortable that this woman was being reduced to her burkha, at the conflict of values suggested (‘Islam and the West’ – two grand monoliths!), at the singling out, yet again, of supposed Muslim identities when problems of cultural interaction are deeper and wider. There’s a debate on women’s clothing and choice raging in our Letters page at the moment and this seemed like an unhappy reflection of that, too.
For me, identity and beliefs are about choice, taking on board the things to which I feel an affinity. But when the media goes into overdrive over ‘home-grown terror’ and ‘culture clashes’, I wonder about all those people identified immediately as being members of one group or another, and the limitations of such identity. Choice and reasoning seem to jump right out the window.
But others in the NI co-operative felt differently. They felt the image went to the heart of people’s concerns about culturally diverse societies, concerns to which they might find some answers in the edition you hold in your hands. The provocation of the image, if such it was, could be answered by the nuance of the text. One more tricky decision was how to convey the issues surrounding faith schools. It would have been easy to run yet another piece analyzing and attacking their place in secular democracies. But I hadn’t really heard much from people who had been to such schools and when I interviewed Laura McAllister, she put up a robust defence. Whether I agreed with her was not the point; her personal experience animated the discussion.
Getting to know the ‘Other’ is essential to making cultural diversity work to social advantage. Our Special Feature this month highlights peace initiatives among our most iconic ‘Others’ – Israelis and Palestinians. Despite everything that is stacked against them, civilians are picking up the common thread of their shared humanity. In the end that’s what it ought to be about.
Dinyar Godrej for the New Internationalist co-operative.