The unveiling of intolerance

I last wrote about veils over three and a half years ago. When I did so, I said that it would hopefully be a while before the subject returned. And it has. Just over three and a half years, to be precise.

France has followed Belgium, parts of Germany, and potentially Holland and Italy in banning the niqab. [for more on the legal status of Muslim dress in Europe, see here]. The niqab is the face veil, and looks a bit like this:

These bans make me uneasy. I’m not a libertarian, but I’ve got a streak of libertarian running through me. I don’t like banning things. Prohibition of minor, trivial items like alcohol, drugs and clothing always seems clunky, counter-productive and illiberal.

Those proposing a ban usually begin by saying that such clothes go against “Western values”. Often the argument goes, “we aren’t able to wear our own clothes in their country”. The Muslim world doesn’t approve of bikinis, therefore we should ban the niqab. Yet this admits that a key Western value is one of tolerance; and another is liberalism – the freedom to do/say/think what we like as long as it causes no harm to others. How does banning the veil fit into these values?

Usually the response is that veils offend people. Apparently, some can feel uncomfortable talking to someone with a face veil. It’s tempting to tell these sort of people to get over themselves. These women might be wearing veils, but they’re hardly monsters, as people would doubtless understand if they actually did talk to them. After all, we can hardly make causing offence a crime, can we?

There is also the feminist argument that the veil is the ultimate symbol of female oppression. This may be the case in other countries, but in a European context the vast majority of women making veils make the choice freely.

An interesting angle on this that I hadn’t considered before came up in the comments on Medhi Hasan’s excellent blog on all this. “8901stephen” said:

Anything that attacks primitive religious superstition [whether Muslim ,Christian or whatever ]should be applauded .Anyway ,instead of wearing the veil these religious nuts can wear T shirts saying“I`m an uneducated peasant with a head full of medieval superstition and a complete ignorance of modern science “.Should give off pretty much the same message … (sic)

I am an atheist. I have no religious convictions whatsoever, and I believe fervently in the separation of church and state. Which is exactly why the state should not be banning religious symbols. It’s why niqabs should not be banned, nurses can wear crosses, and also why certain religious types can say nasty things about homosexuals. They have the right to free speech, just as we have the right to call them idiots for what they’re saying. [As an aside, Henry Porter has said some excellent things on the same topic.]

Banning the veil in France seems like a grotesque over-reaction. It truly represents the tyranny of the majority, when a law can be passed (admittedly with large amounts of public support) which criminalises merely 2,000 of the 5 million Muslim women in France, just for wearing clothes. Policing this new ban will also be difficult. Property tycoon Rachid Nekkaz has started a fund to pay the fines for any woman who is penalised for wearing the niqab in public (the punishment is £125). He’s already put €200,000 into it and is hoping to have €1 million by September. That goal seems realistic – he received €36,000 of donations on the first day of opening his fund.

I’m not sure how anyone who self-defines as a “liberal” could support such a ban. Hopefully no such ban will ever be brought into place in the UK.

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4 Responses to The unveiling of intolerance

  1. Mike Nolan says:

    Maybe this is a prelude to everyone trying to wear clothing to ‘hide’ from Big Brother-if the muslim women cant who can?

  2. Emmi says:

    This is the blog post I’ve been meaning to write ever since I saw the news about the possible new law for the first time. I completely agree with you. We should get together and do interviews of each other and figure out facts of life.

  3. Hannah says:

    This ban violates fundamental rights to freedom of religion or conscience- and it’s not about western values or feminism or anything else, it’s about Europeans’ own demographic anxieties. If European countries want to adopt culturally protectionist policies on immigration then they’re entitled to do that- but if not you have to accept those from other cultures with good grace, without all this nit-picking and, out and out, demonisation.

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