Saturday, 31 July 2010

On banning the burqa

"Tolerance has its limits. They don't like our culture or our identity, and the burqa makes that obvious. It's a barrier."

I listened while my friend put his case clearly, and it would seem, quite reasonably, in favour of banning the burqa in Britain.

He added: "If I went to an Arab country I'd abide by their laws. I may not like their laws, but I'd do it. And when I've been to Asia I've always dressed more conservatively than in England, to fit in. That's me being tolerant, and when people from other cultures come here they should do the same".

I had no argument at the time because I couldn't think of one. It's an understandable viewpoint and one that's felt by many across Britain. In fact, in a recent poll 57% of Britons agreed with him. But now, with the benefit hindsight I do have an argument. 

He's wrong, and I think I know why he's wrong.

It's the classic, age-old dilemma: do we protect our values of tolerance by stopping those who we feel threaten those values and who refuse to live by them, or do we protect our values of tolerance by being, well… tolerant?

In France, where a total ban has strong public support, they have no such dilemma. The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, said the burqa was "a sign of debasement". The Immigration Minister, Eric Besson, described it as a "walking coffin". The National Assembly have already approved a ban, and it didn't exactly go to the wire: 335 votes to 1. It now moves to the Senate and if it's passed there, it will become illegal in France to wear the full veil anywhere in public. Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands are also considering such a move.

Three reasons are given in defence of a ban: security, sexual equality and secularism.

Security is probably the strongest reason, although I'm pretty sure full-face coverings can be removed for security reasons anyway, and must be removed for teaching and in the courts. On the second point, would fining a woman for wearing clothes that she has freely chosen to wear really be furthering the cause of sexual equality? And if she is being forced to cover her face when she leaves the house, would a fine, which may force her to stay at home with a dominating father or husband also be furthering the cause of sexual equality, not to mention liberty and fraternity? And on secularism, I'm pretty sure the veil is a matter either of conscience or tradition rather than any Islamic law.

But there's a fourth reason. The wearing of burqas and niqabs equates in many Western eyes to 'hardline' Islam. This is seen as a threat, not just to certain European republican ideals of (hardline) secularism, but also as a threat to our Western culture, identity and values.

Britain too seems to be spending a lot of time debating its values and identity. Our politicians have been doing most of the talking. They may think they know what it is to be British, but like us they struggle to define it, often sending out confusing and contradictory statements. But like us, they don't really know either because there are no neat, conclusive answers about British identity, and historically there never have been.

The question of values is a complex one, but perhaps it is easier to answer. I don't know enough about the rest of Europe, but at the heart of British values - the cornerstone if you like - is our tolerance. Our British sense of fairness and tolerance does really exist. It's the thing that fundamentally shapes our society; the DNA in our continuing cultural evolution.

British Muslims too are changing. And they are changing because they are here. There are fundamentalists whose views and actions are horrifying, but I hope that the next generation will see fewer extremists. Maybe over time, living in a tolerant country that doesn't ban items of clothing, it might just eventually influence even the fundamentalists to change for the better. A Muslim woman, of course, may well continue to wear a burqa or a niqab however moderate her views may become, but it's no business of the State if she does or why she does.

We can only hope that Britain's increasingly tolerant society will eventually help to break down perceived barriers. But it won't happen if we allow the State to decide what clothes an individual can or cannot wear. It would set a bad precedent.

My friend was right. If he went to another country he would respect their customs and traditions. But he would do it because he grew up in a comparatively liberal, tolerant country. It's something he should be proud of, not angry about. And if he sees a woman wearing a burqa, even if it annoys the hell out of him, the tolerance which he claims to have requires him to put up with it. It's not about being weak. It's about being strong.


  1. These are precisely my thoughts. People want change to come NOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW. Of course immigrants don't make a total cultural break when they move to another country. However, succeeding generations will drop those aspects that don't fit with the new culture and/or lack significance when time and distance is applied. What's beneficial and special will endure, and these are things that will greatly benefit us, as the host culture, be it cuisine, literary or arts movements, or simply ways of being.