This week teachers in a Madrid school voted 17-2 to bar a Muslim pupil called Najwa Mahla from wearing her veil in class. School rules prohibit all forms of headgear, and any compromise on the part of the centro's authorities was made that much less likely when almost all the other students started appearing with headscarves in sympathy with their modest sixteen-year-old schoolmate.
Spain is not a secular society: annually the Cathlic church takes a chunk of taxpayers' money and there's nothing that other traditions or indeed non-believers can do about it. The problem of women wandering around in silly outfits as a mark of their faith in supernatural nonsense is also not a problem limited to Muslims, as testified to by the quantity of nuns one spots on the streets over there.
Spain has not had quite the full-on experience of mass immigration that both Britain and France have had, and the very nature of Spanish imperialism has meant that many of those seeking a new life in the Iberian peninsula already speak the local lingo and are, culturally at least, quite a long way down the road to Spanishness. Islamic immigration (to a large extent from North Africa) on the other hand, is perhaps an even thornier matter in Spain than elsewhere in Europe.
This Christian nation has a particular history of confrontation with the old enemy, something to which OBL himself has made repeated allusions to in his nutty video spots, and less tolerant Spanish commentators have made much of the remarks of one 'community leader' who has observed that "This is the territory of our enemy, we are here to recover it for Islam."
The country's extended early contact with oriental ways was noted for periods of mutual tolerance and exchange, and there's no question that the Islamic civilisation left a lasting mark on the local culture, not least on the Spanish variety of Catholicism. All this might help explain the particular unease that unassimilated Muslims generate in the nation which invented the Inquisition as one of the strictest enforcers of assimilation the world has ever seen.
The symbolism of the veil is complex, at once religious, cultural, nationalistic. Whilst I am uncomfortable with the very notion of imposing religious symbols (and observance) on the very young, I don't believe that the cause of secular values is much aided by confrontations such as these, where the right of the child to an education becomes compromised, and which tend to be counter-productive anyway on the political level.
In this instance it strikes me that the Catholic children who adopted the veil in solidarity have demonstrated a far more commendable attitude than the majority of adult contributors to the debate.
My own school was a privileged environment with a stringent set of rules regarding uniform. Yet there were boys there from around the world who were permitted small but significant exceptions, such as the Sikhs. Somehow their turbans never seemed to say to me "I'm your enemy within," but it has been my experience that in Britain at least, members of the elite are often (and perhaps surprsingly) more cosmopolitan and tolerant of otherness than certain small-minded factions of the middling sort.