Sunday, 18 December 2016

Banning the Muslim veil to protect Western values

On 29 November, the lower house of the Dutch Parliament voted for a partial ban on the burka, the full-face covering veil worn by a minority of Muslim women. If the vote is confirmed by the upper house, the veil will be banned on public transport, in government buildings and in schools.

On 6 December, Angela Merkel, preparing her run for a fourth term as German Chancellor, told the conference of her party, the Christian Democrats, that she too favoured a partial ban.

“The full veil must be banned,” she declared, “wherever legally possible. Showing your face is part of our way of life. Our laws take precedence over honour codes, tribal customs and sharia.”

Angela Merkel at the CDU Conference
Holland used to enjoy a reputation as one of the most liberal countries on earth and, despite the irruption on the scene of a number of hard right-wing parties and individuals – none more so than Geert Wilders, now leading in opinion polls – it retains much of the structure of a highly liberal nation. Merkel has also emerged in the last few years as one of Europe’s most liberal leaders, most notably with her decision to allow a million refugees to enter the country – a decision, incidentally, which she now says will never be repeated.

France and Belgium have already banned the burka and even the niqab, the form of veil which leaves the eyes exposed. Such veils are, it seems, deeply disturbing to Western societies. We are used to seeing faces (part of our way of life, as Merkel says). A covered face is hostile or even sinister, marking the criminal covering his features to avoid identification and capture. During the Northern Ireland troubles, an icon on both sides was the man in the balaclava, the clothing of choice of killers in either camp. 

Faces hidden from sight make us uncomfortable. Discomfort is never easy to bear. It seems that even liberalism finds it difficult to withstand. The developments in Holland and Germany suggest it has a fatal tendency to give way when made uncomfortable. 

That, however, leads to the heart of the Muslim veil conundrum. If liberalism backs down as soon as it’s faced with a perturbing difficulty, what is liberalism worth? Or, putting it another way, it’s easy to tolerate things we’re comfortable with; it’s when we deal with things that make us uncomfortable that our tolerance is truly tested and we have to prove whether it’s genuine or not.

These matters all became personal to me a few weeks ago at a badminton club where we play most weeks. A new, beginner joined. And she came in a niquab.

She’s covered head to foot. Her sleeves are held in place by loops over her thumbs. Her leggings reach down to her shoes. Her only exposed flesh is on her hands and a strip around her eyes. 

Playing badminton with someone dressed that way was certainly a new experience. I suppose it initially felt odd. But it quickly became commonplace. We were all struck by her speed around the court, by her accuracy, by the strength in her wrists. She plays a great deal better than most people who’ve played as little as she has.

When we shake hands at the end of a game, as is the convention, she won’t shake mine or that of any other male player. So what? She smiles (a smile with the eyes is far more telling than one just with the lips). She repeats the usual compliments we all give each other – “good game”, “well played” (the latter always with the subtext, “not quite well enough for us”).

She is, in fact, one of us. If we feel uncomfortable about her dress, what gives us the right to inflict our feelings on her? Her dress codes does us no harm, and it doesn’t hold back her game. What on earth business is it of ours?

I’d go a step further. If we imposed a Muslim veil ban in Britain, she would no longer feel she could come out and join us. She’d be forced to stay at home and give up on a form of exercise which must do her good and which she evidently enjoys. While she’s with us, incidentally, her husband’s looking after the children. That’s a form of equality between the sexes that we, in the West, generally criticise Islam for not displaying enough.

In fact, banning the veil far from integrating our friend more closely into Western society and into an adoption of its values, would hold back her assimilation. In other words, it would produce precisely the opposite effect of what we claim to seek. I fully understand the need, for security reasons, to be able to demand that burka-clad people show their faces to suitably empowered authorities such as the police; I see no reason why Muslims should be forced to abandon the veil generally in public.

One right no constitution in any country guarantees, is the right not to be made uncomfortable. If learning to overcome some slight discomfort in ourselves protects important rights in others, and helps to assimilate different communities better into our society, why shouldn’t we make that effort?

It’s my feeling, and I have personal experience to back it up, that a Muslim veil ban would be a completely unnecessary, illiberal and intolerant measure that would undermine, rather than upholding, Western values.


Awoogamuffin said...

Couldn't agree more. Banning the veil only plays into the hands of extremists. Our greatest weapon against them is tolerance and openness, which we seem to be running short of.

David Beeson said...

And I couldn't agree more than with that...