Letters: Politicians and democracy

Parochial politicians are blind to the threats to democracy itself
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Sir: Our third party conference in a row reinforces the sense of irrelevance generated by the other two. All our politicians seem blind to the fact that the serious challenges we face are not crises of party, but of democracy itself.

Scientific opinion agrees that the pace of effective political action on greenhouse gases increasingly falls behind that necessary to render global warming a solvable problem. Illiberal, anti-democratic, repressive responses to terrorist groups around the world lead us to sacrifice the very democratic values we are trying, unsuccessfully it seems, to defend. You can't defend freedom abroad by denying it at home. Concerted intervention by the UN on humanitarian grounds in places like Darfur is blocked by narrow national self-interest. In its contempt for the UN, international law and rejection of co-operation and statesmanship, the United States is becoming a global vigilante, not policeman.

On global warming, on BBC radio this week I heard the most dangerous words of all - "Democracy doesn't work".

The majority of British people find themselves reluctantly embroiled in two bloody, unwinnable wars, one of which started on a lie and continues based upon irrational denial of transparent but unpalatable facts. Tens of millions of Americans are contemptuous of the holder of their highest office and increasingly critical of his actions taken in their name.

So while Mr Brown polishes his ambitions, and Mr Reid sharpens his back-stabbing knife; while Ming changes his shirts to pink and Mr Cameron hedges his policy bets, the biggest, most challenging issue of all - belief in the effectiveness of the democratic process itself - is going by default. Our parochial politicians, obsessed with the minutiae of personal and party ambitions, need to wake up. In its present fragile state, it is hard to see our democratic system being robust enough to cope, for example, with any serious downturn in the world economy. History tells us where that led to last time.



Why veiled women cause such unease

Sir: As a white journalist working in the Asian media, for several years I have been trying to come to terms with the issue of Muslim women wearing the niqab in the UK ("Straw: I feel uncomfortable with women wearing veils", 6 October).

While I unstintingly support the rights of religious expression I cannot deny how unsettling I find it when I meet women wearing the niqab. This distrust upsets my basically liberal sensibilities; I try to tell myself I should not feel this way, but it is undeniable that I do. I have come to realise it is not a question of the veil as a form of repression and whether the women who wear them do so through choice - that is another debate. The reason why I do have a problem is because the wearing of the niqab conflicts with a fundamental basis of the European mentality. We have no history of anyone covering their face in our society unless it is for negative reasons - criminals, assassins, rioters, even the Ku Klux Klan. Our instinct tells us not to trust people when you cannot see their faces.

And the face is vital to our communication. When we talk to someone we do not just listen to their voice: we assess their expressions all the time, judging their feelings and responses to us. Strip this away and it immediately puts people on edge and makes them uncomfortable.

Because of this, the niqab should not be equated with other forms of religious or cultural dress such as the hijab, and the turban. It is a barrier between two cultures and I would ask Muslims to understand how it is seen by the wider community and have some sympathy and respect for that view. When Europeans go to Muslim countries, we are advised to respect the culture of the local people and to dress appropriately. And in the same way Muslims here should dress in a way that has consideration for the people around them.

At a time when there seems to be a widening gulf between Muslims and the white population, the veil only goes to increase the sense of otherness and alienation.



Sir: While many Muslim women feel that it is enough to cover their hair and body with a hijab and leave their face uncovered, some women like to cover their face with a niqab in order to further guard their modesty and prevent unwanted attention.

I do not wear the hijab or niqab, but I have great respect and admiration for the courage of those Muslim women who do. As a Muslim woman I am disappointed with the patronising and insensitive comments of Jack Straw. Mr Straw may be entitled to his opinion about whether the veil is a "visual statement of separation and difference" but what right does he have to ask any women to remove her veil from her face? A woman should be able to put on as many layers of clothing as she likes. Surely, that is her human right. Mr Straw is therefore disregarding one of the important rights of women and that is to cover herself with as much clothing as she likes without fear of being judged by other people or causing segregation.

Whatever happened to living in a diverse, tolerant, multicultural and multi-faith society?



Sir: How people dress and behave is entirely a matter for them, as long as it's legal and, preferably, polite. I doubt if Jack Straw has a general dress code for his surgeries or that he refuses to speak to people on the telephone on the basis that he can't see their face. So why the hang-up with veils?

As for your beautifully produced map, may we now expect to see the geographic spread of adherents of Christian denominations and people born in different counties to the ones that they are living in?

Culture, if we must call it that, is extraordinarily diverse, involving thousands of different interests and activities. Most of us do not participate in the vast majority of what is available to us, and do not generally feel the need to comment on either our own non-participation or the participation of others. So why do we need to categorise a few aspects of a few people's lives as not being components of Britishness?

You can only achieve a truly inclusive society by opening its doors and welcoming everyone who wants to be part of it, and to the extent that they wish to be part of it, regardless of how they are dressed.



Sir: Looks like the press has been hoodwinked again. A fading and failed politician says something controversial to get some exposure that he doesn't really warrant and the entire media leaps. Really, if this man can't be trusted to tell the truth about another nation's potential threat to this country and its weapons capability, then his opinion on the cultural anthropology of particular religious customs is - like the man himself - irrelevant.



Sir: I find it intimidating to interact with men dressed in the formal garb of suit and tie. I wonder if Jack Straw would be prepared to dress differently in order to accommodate my prejudices?



The future exploits of Cooper Brown

Sir: With each column that he writes, Cooper Brown becomes less Hunter S Thompson, and more Pooper S Cooper, as previous correspondents have pointed out, but this week's, complete with the surreal self-referential nod to the equally made-up Mr Toogood, has convinced me once and for all that he's not for real. Anyone displaying Cooper's attitudes to gays and drug-driving has to be either ironic or fictitious. Since Americans think irony is something you do to wrinkled clothes, I opt for the latter explanation.

This revelation, that he doesn't really exist, opens up exciting possibilities for fantasy Cooper columns, based on ideas suggested by your readers. I'll make a start. Could you ask the person who is in charge of plot development for future episodes of "the Cooper concept" if there's any chance of having him kidnapped by al-Qa'ida while in Marrakesh and chained to a radiator for the next four years? That would be marginally more interesting than his current weekly exploits.



The joys of later-life employment

Sir: I am 65 and happily work a checkout part-time at a Tesco store in Leicester ("The end of ageism", 5 October). Just before my 65th birthday, my section manager asked my intentions. She was most pleased at my wish to stay on. Indeed, many customers of my age and older have said: "It's a pleasure to see someone like us at a checkout, because we can talk to you."

My only "knock-back" came from a customer who, on learning my age, said: "But you're doing women's work." He, fortunately, was in a minority of one - as the ladies waiting behind him made quite clear!



A paperboy recalls the first Independent

Sir: I can remember very clearly delivering the first edition of The Independent as a 15-year-old paperboy in Portsmouth. It had been ordered "out of interest" by one of my Telegraph-reading customers. It was the newspaper-toting eagle logo that made a good impression on me back then, but these days it's the sharp writing, great supplements and Alex James.

I'll admit to wondering how long you would last as issue number one disappeared through that letterbox in 1986 (my customer never ordered another one by the way - more fool him!), but my doubts proved unfounded. You obviously made an impression, because when I began to read a newspaper regularly I found myself strangely drawn to The Indy and I have been an avid reader since 1994, when, as now, your wonderful photographs stood out in the crowd.

Things have now gone full circle: a copy of the finest UK newspaper arrives through my letterbox each morning courtesy of my local paper shop, and my wife is a convert to your cause. Congratulations to all at The Independent on your 20th birthday and here's to the next 20 years; for those with an eye for the finer details, we salute you!



Child seatbelt laws distorted by Boris

Sir: Janet Street-Porter is quite right to draw attention to Boris Johnson's blunders (5 October). There is a tendency to think of Johnson as an amiable buffoon. But a less noticed aspect of his recent diatribe at Conservative Party Conference shows that he does not hesitate to distort the truth when he thinks no one will know enough to contradict him.

At the Conservative Party Conference, Boris described EU legislation requiring the protection of children in cars through booster seats as "utterly demented", having earlier complained in the Telegraph that "British politicians have been given neither the means nor the opportunity to debate it."

Not only have elected British politicians debated this - they actually approved it, including Boris's own Conservative colleagues both in Westminster (at the Commons Committee on Delegated Legislation) and in the European Parliament (its second reading was on 11 March 2003) and, like all European legislation, it required approval of the EU Council of Ministers, including British ministers.

Boris's attack on the EU is based on nothing but falsehoods and to do it slating legislation which will save children's lives and reduce serious injuries is deplorable.



Amish show the way

Sir: Your headline for the article on the Amish (3 October) "A community living in the 19th century" might better have said "a community living in harmony with the 21st century". By living without cars or electricity the Amish are among the few whose lifestyle addresses the current issues of global warming.



Albatross successes

Sir: I was delighted to hear of the RSPB's commitment to funding the safeguarding of albatrosses (report, 5 October) but your article missed the great success story. The Marine Stewardship Council-certified Patagonian Toothfish fishery in Georgia has already cut its by-catch of albatrosses from around 9,000 per year to single figures - an amazing achievement. Indeed, Birdlife International has described this fishery as one of the best-managed long-line fisheries in the world. The reported decline is this amazing species is shocking but we mustn't ignore the region's successes.



What is language for?

Sir: Why do language experts get so upset by "errors" of grammar and spelling, such as those to which "professional editor" Michael Ayton refers (letter, 4 October)? Does it matter? Surely the only requirements for language, whose prime purpose is communication, are that it sounds mellifluous and it imparts unambiguous meaning. Oh, and abolish apostrophes, too. If they're not detectable in spoken language, why are they deemed essential in the written form?



Men who pay for sex

Sir: You announced on 2 October that one in 10 men have paid for sex. This was based on a study reported in a medical journal, which took place in a Glaswegian sexual-health clinic. No bias there then ... or are we to believe that 100 per cent of men have a suspected sexually transmitted disease.



Marmite memories  

Sir: A clue to the pronunciation of Marmite lies in an advertisement from my childhood that went: If Ma might give me Marmite for my breakfast. If Ma might give me Marmite for my tea. If Ma might give me Marmite for my supper. How happy I and Pa and Ma might be.



Sir: Regarding extreme Marmite eaters; 30 years ago I flew a US Army general from Aqualoa to Amman in a light aircraft. During the flight he found my packet of Marmite and peanut butter sandwiches and, uninvited, devoured the lot with huge enjoyment and then demanded their recipe!