I had dinner with a medical school dean last week. A virologist of distinction, he told me that there recently had been an outbreak of Muslim fundamentalism in his medical school.

Female Muslim medical students had suddenly started to appear at classes clad in a full veil, with only a narrow slit for the eyes. Alarmed, the medical school authorities consulted the General Medical Council, the official body that supervises medical education in Britain. Fortunately, a pre-existing rule that the whole of a student’s or doctor’s face must be visible to patients undergoing examination allowed the school authorities to tell the veiled students that they must remove their veils or cease to study medicine.

They complied; and it subsequently emerged that they had never wanted to veil themselves in the first place but were pressured—or blackmailed—into adopting the custom by male Muslim medical students, among whom was a cleric. They were susceptible to blackmail because, just as intellectuals were once afraid to appear insufficiently left-wing (pas d’ennemis sur la gauche), so Muslims now fear appearing insufficiently rigorous and orthodox in their observance. The woman who does not comply with the most rigid interpretation of the rules easily can find herself depicted as someone of loose morals, virtually a whore. Given such pressures, who knows what passions might be found beneath the burkas and veils of Muslim women, not just in the West but across the Middle East? There may be a ferocious pent-up yearning for freedom.

At the same time as the epidemic of veils broke out, Muslim medical students met with the dean to request that the school set aside a prayer room for the use of Muslim students. An outright refusal would, of course, have ignited claims of prejudice and condemnation by the the liberal press, ever on the lookout for a stick to beat established institutions.

The dean answered, yes, they could have a prayer room, provided that they shared it with students of other faiths, such as Christians and Jews. This was the last he heard of the request for a prayer room in the medical school, which has thus remained secular, whatever the private religious views of its staff and students. The Muslims did not wish to share with others: so much for their participation in our glorious new multiculturalism.


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