Friday, 23 July 2010

Would you ban the Burqa?

First Belgium did it, then came France, and now even Syria have done it,
Spain decided not to and a British Government minister declared that to
do so would be un-British. Some segments of the less literary press
questioned when our Government would stand up to the PC brigade and
a Member of Parliament is fighting a one man campaign over it.

Welcome to the great Burqa debate. Over the past few months a series of
countries have discussed and are now passing measures to ban
the wearing of some Islamic headdresses in public places.  Belgium 
became the first country in Europe to put such a ban in place earlier this 
year and last week France followed suit.  After Syria announced a ban
in all public and private universities, Spain on Tuesday rejected a
proposal that would ban coverings showing only the eyes. It seems 
to be the done thing right now, at least, to think about banning
the Burqa. 

Although I am inclined to agree with Damian Green, the Minister 
for Immigration, when he made clear that the Government would 
not be supporting a ban, his reasoning is slightly worrying.  
After all, who would decide what is and what isn't 'British'? And is 
’Britishness’ the correct determinate for whether something should
or shouldn't be done? Many would argue that the Burqa
is 'unBritish' and an opinion poll suggests such a ban would
be popular.I guess in a technical sense the burqa itself isn't British, 
as it is an idea that has been imported from another culture and 
is deeply unfamiliar, and often uncomfortable. It is almost as
though we want to guarantee an external conformity to a western
style of appearance that speaks of freedom.

The Burqa is often seen as a sign of male domination over women, 
and that sticks in the throat of a society doing all things possible to
promote gender equality. There are certainly also some security 
concerns that need to be acknowledged, highlighted by the
suspected terrorist who fled the country under a veil. And there is
the effect it has on relationships, because
communication is about a lot more than speech. In contexts such 
as schools and hospitals a full face covering is harder to defend – 
in fact case law has established that a teaching assistant was 
not allowed to insist on wearing the Niqab.

The covering up of a gender also grates against the perpetual quest 
for liberty that we seem to be engaged in. But surely liberty falls apart 
if we are illiberal in forcing people to be liberal.

This also highlights a tendency for the state to intercede as a 
quasi-theological arbiter of what is and isn't essential to the practice
of religion. If this was in relation to an area of Christian doctrine, we 
would protest against the Government telling the church what the 
outworking of their faith should look like. It is not the domain of the 
state to decide what is and isn't acceptable, just as it cannot decide 
what is and isn’t ‘British’. 

One other objection I feel it is essential to quash is that Christians 
don't receive the same level of freedom in predominantly Muslim 
countries. 1 Peter 2 tells us clearly that we do not defend the cause of 
Christ by complaining at our treatment. Tom Wright comments in 
Virtue Reborn (c.f. pp109-114) that it is in this regard that we should 
most closely look to Jesus as a model for our behaviour, doing 
what had not been done before, modelling forgiveness to those who 
would revile and torture.  

Christianity is a faith based on grace. It is not about obligation and 
therefore how people choose to ex press their beliefs will vary. Some 
will want to wear a cross and some may not.  Christianity does not rely 
on how we appear, or what we do, but it is about where our heart is,
and the heart cannot be compelled to believe. If we want to defend our
liberty to live out our beliefs, then surely we must accept that others will 
live out their beliefs in ways that may leave us profoundly uncomfortable. 

Danny Webster - Parliamentary Officer

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