I saw a woman in a burqa today, the full on modest experience, everything covered except the eyes. I didn't personally feel threatened: why would I? She was clearly an elderly woman, carrying a couple of bags of shopping, walking with a stooped gait on the other side of the road. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a momentary flash of uncertainty.
I understand that in the Muslim culture, there is nothing negative in the perceptions of women in burqas. But in the West, we have been programmed by our culture to percieve a covered face as a threat.
When do we see people in masks, people that hide their faces? What sort of people are they? Well, generally they're the bad guy. Darth Vader. The Ku Klux Klan. Bank robbers in cowboy and gangster films, a handkerchief around their face or a pair of tights over it. Terrorists in modern day movies, playing with our preconceptions by dressing as clowns or Nixon so we don't know whether to laugh or fear. Psychotic killers with hockey masks and machetes at American teen camps in slasher flicks. Balaclava clad IRA members firing volleys of bullets over a coffin in a backstreet of Belfast.
Even if they are not definitively bad, they are at least sinister. Riot police who hide their faces (and their badge numbers) so they may continue to be above the law they are supposed to uphold. Genocidal Templars and Crusaders, slaughtering anyone who worshipped basically the same god in a different way, a different language. Medieval executioners with very large axes, whose masks are now popular with bondage practitioners (but that's a role of the mask I'd rather not get into). Scientists who wear their anti-contamination suits to sites of nuclear accidents or outbreaks of some infectious disease.
Surgeons wear masks, too, of course, but we never see them. By the time they put on the mask to operate on us, we are already anaesthetised, so they probably don't count. But if I did wake up in a hospital bed, and all the medical professionals were wearing masks, I would be very nervous about why they didn't want to breathe the same air as me. The mask does not really instill confidence.
There are a few masked people on the side of truth and justice, of course. Batman, Robocop, Spiderman, etc. But they tend to be fictional superheroes with secret identities to protect. Generally, if someone is wearing a mask, it is because they have something to hide. Our instinctive response is distrust and suspicion. Yes, people wear masks on Hallowe'en, but that's because the purpose of the exercise is to cause fear. Masks are good at that.
So when we see a person with their face covered, all of our conditioned instincts put us in an alert state. We perceive a threat, become defensive, in some cases become aggressive as well. This is not good for inter-cultural relations.
I don't have any answers. I think it's going to take time until Britain accepts Muslims, just as they came to accept Indians and Afro-Caribbeans. But we'll do it eventually. It might take a generation, but we'll get there. We've done it so many times already, and we're all the stronger for it. As any biogeneticist could tell you, strength comes from diversity.