Raising the Veil

We’re now into the last week of teaching term here in Cardiff, and I’m feeling like I’m running the final stages of a marathon. I like the idea of fitting all the second semester’s teaching in before the Easter break but I have to admit I’m struggling to make the distance, especially because so many things have to be done this week before we finish. Next week I’m off to the National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno too. For all these reasons (and a few others) I won’t have much blogging time for a bit, so my posts may be a bit thin on the ground (or whatever it is that the blogosphere rests on).

However, I couldn’t resist using this blog to express my opinion about one of the big news items of the day, the introduction, today, in France, of a ban on women  wearing of the veil in public. I think it’s particularly interesting timing after the discussion of religion and science that arose after I reblogged a post by Andy Lawrence about the Templeton Prize.

Frankly, I think the new French law is monstrous. I’m not a Muslim, but it is  abhorrent to me that the state should seek to prevent individuals expressing their religious beliefs. I obviously don’t think anyone should be forced to wear the veil against their will, but in an open society those who choose to wear it  should be allowed to do so.    And I don’t buy the argument that it’s some sort of identification issue, either. What’s next, a ban on sunglasses and balaclavas? No. In any case there are only about 2,000 women in France who regularly wear the veil. Let’s make no bones about it, this law is specifically intended to pander to anti-Muslim sentiments. It stinks. I like to think we’d never allow such a thing in this country.

But here’s the flip side. I read at the weekend of the case of a candidate for the forthcoming Welsh Assembly Elections. Sion Owens is on the South Wales West Regional List for the British National Party (BNP). At the weekend he was arrested under the Public Order Act after a video emerged in which he was seen to be burning a copy of the Qur’an. Apparently the original charge was dropped today when Mr Owens appeared before the Magistrates Court in Swansea, but investigations are still continuing.

I haven’t seen the video so can’t comment further on what precisely Mr Owens is alleged to have done. I’m not an expert on the Public Order Act(s)  either- or at least not the parts that deal with religiously motivated offences – but some sections are open to extremely broad interpretations, and that’s really what the problem is.

I would say though that I’m the last person to want to support the BNP,  which as far as I’m concerned is an extremist organisation run by right-wing thugs for the benefit of other right-wing thugs.  It seems possible, therefore, and perhaps even likely, that this person did set alight to the Qur’an with the specific intention of  provoking religious tension. If that were the case then it would clearly fall within the law as defined by the Public Order Act.

However, even if that were the case I have to say I do not think that what he did should be a criminal offence. It might be  abusive, uncivilised, and reprehensible – words not infrequently applied to the BNP, I might add – but I don’t think it should be illegal. If we’re going to have a truly  free society we have to get used to the idea that people have the right to do and say things we wouldn’t do or say ourselves. And if people even want to vote for creatures like Mr Owens, they should be allowed to do so….

..although I’ll be hoping he loses his deposit.


Share/Bookmark

58 Responses to “Raising the Veil”

  1. Completely agree. Monstrous indeed. Although, your “2000 women in France who regularly wear the veil” seams a bit on the low side?

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    In the cases of both women wearing the (full) veil in France and the qur’an-burning in England I go with the statement attributed to Voltaire: I do not agree with what you do but I support your freedom to do it.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    There is actually a further issue in the Owens case. The BBC report does not state that the video porporting to show Mr Owens burning the qur’an was in the public domain, and apparently the recording reached the police via The Guardian. If you can be charged under the Public Order Act with doing something in private rather than in public then the Act needs amending immediately. Perhaps this is why the police dropped the case this afternoon.

    • telescoper Says:

      Agreed. However, he may have done it in public and the video was merely evidence of him having done it. In any case I think it’s bad law, as it is open to such wide interpretation.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Agreed in turn. I followed quite closely the debates in parliament that preceded the passing of some of these laws, and frequently people said “Do you realise that people could be arrested for XXXX under this legislation” and were met with the bland reply “That is not what this law is for; don’t worry.” To which the correct reply was: “Phrase it more specifically then.” But a parliamentary majority and a whipping system saw those laws through. I don’t want to sound too conspiratorial but enough warnings were given for me to believe that the vagueness of these laws was a deliberate ploy by the politically correct, to enact exactly the abuses of freedom that are now being enacted.

      If I support the legality of qur’an-burning then I must also support the freedom to burn my own sacred text, the Bible. But if Richard Dawkins or an Imam were to do that, who believes he would be arrested like Owen? Do we really have a level playing field today?

  4. I am in mixed minds about this. Suppose it were my religion to strut around naked. Our society deems this inappropriate hence laws exist outlawing it. Many people find the full veil offensive, intimidating and see it as fuel added to the fire of social segregation. I agree that freedom of speech is a good thing, and an outright ban is in some sense a violation of this, but the full veil was always a symbol of the subjugation of women, something that no longer exists (in such a form) in this country.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think people should be allowed to walk around naked if they want to, i.e. it should not be a criminal offence to be naked. I think it’s specious to say that the veil represents the subjugation of women in light of your above comment. The peer pressure that makes many women walk around half-naked on their nights out is at least as insidious.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      And I had thought that women only began walking around half-naked on Saturday nights since they were ‘liberated’ from cultural pressure…

    • telescoper Says:

      I’ve got nothing against people dressing however they like, actually. As long as they feel comfortable about it. I’m not entirely convinced, however, that that’s always the case. Sometimes one form of pressure is simply replaced by another…

    • To my knowledge it’s not illegal to appear naked, both under the laws of England and Wales, and Scottish law.

      It’s illegal to appear naked in order to cause distress (I believe this is classified as a form of sexual assault), and appearing indecently can constitute disturbing the peace. But nudity itself is not illegal, hence why nudist beaches can exist.

      If people really did find Muslim traditional dress as threatening, intimidating, or any of these other terms that might warrant police consideration, our laws are already equipped to deal with them. That’s why the idea that ‘I can claim -anything- is under my religion and get away with it!’ line is false.

      Freedom of speech shouldn’t (and doesn’t) allow the yelling of ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, but the French law is far beyond that – it’s a disgustingly racist move that I’m ashamed and horrified to see happen.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Brendan: It’s not racist. It’s aimed at a religion, not a race. I don’t approve of the French law but this distinction remains important, becaues you can’t choose your race but you can choose your religion.

    • “Suppose it were my religion to strut around naked.”

      Why, o why, is it always “strut” or “cavort”?

    • “To my knowledge it’s not illegal to appear naked, both under the laws of England and Wales, and Scottish law.”

      First, I don’t know enough about UK law to comment. Second, there might be differences between Scotland on the one hand and England and Wales on the other. Third, again I don’t know enough to comment, but the case(s) of Steve Gough might shed some light on this.

      “It’s illegal to appear naked in order to cause distress (I believe this is classified as a form of sexual assault), and appearing indecently can constitute disturbing the peace.

      In practice, this qualification can be used to prosecute public nudity whenever it is desired, so even if it is technically legal, in practice it is not. In some countries, distress is explicitly defined as “someone made a complaint”, which makes this particular freedom rather useless in practice. Note that the complaint itself is sufficient; it doesn’t have to be proved.

      But nudity itself is not illegal, hence why nudist beaches can exist.”

      Of course, in many countries they are illegal, even on private property. Until relatively recently, there was a law in Belgium which forbade parents from being nude in the presence of their own children, even within their own home. In many countries, they are legal, but public nudity is allowed only there, not on any beach. (As far as I know, Denmark is the only country which specifically explicitly allows nudity on (almost) every beach (there are a couple of miles of textile beach in the far west of the country).) Other countries have various degrees of tolerance.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      “To my knowledge it’s not illegal to appear naked, both under the laws of England and Wales, and Scottish law.”

      “…there might be differences between Scotland on the one hand and England and Wales on the other.”

      Yes. it’s a lot colder in Scotland.

      • telescoper Says:

        Interesting story on this point…

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-29800016

      • I mentioned Steve Gough above. While he has been arrested for contempt of court and other follow-on offences, the fact remains, as he has amply demonstrated, that, at least in practice (which is what matters when one is in jail), even “simple nudity” is not possible in the UK.

      • From the article:

        “However, the applicant’s imprisonment is the consequence of his repeated violation of the criminal law in full knowledge of the consequences, through conduct which he knew full well not only goes against the standards of accepted public behaviour in any modern democratic society but also is liable to be alarming and morally and otherwise offensive to other, un-warned members of the public going about their ordinary business.”

        It continued: “Article 10 does not go so far as to enable individuals, even those sincerely convinced of the virtue of their own beliefs, to repeatedly impose their antisocial conduct on other, unwilling members of society and then to claim a disproportionate interference with the exercise of their freedom of expression when the state, in the performance of its duty to protect the public from public nuisances, enforces the law in respect of such deliberately repetitive antisocial conduct.” (My emphasis.)

        Would someone in a country where obviously religiously motivated laws regarding clothing etc need to change the quote above in order to justify the laws of the land? (Maybe “democratic” wouldn’t be appropriate, but this is actually a red herring since most inhabitants of such countries are in favour of such laws.) Hence the fear on the part of many people who are not xenophobic at all that, once such immigrants are able to exercise some sort of influence (it doesn’t even have to be the right to vote—with respect to pornography, for example, many laws mention “community standards” which must be respected even for stuff done in private), we could be subjected to much stricter clothing laws than is now the case. Hence the different reaction to someone wearing, say, traditional Japanese clothing: I can visit Japan and not wear such clothing (and, indeed, most Japanese don’t) and have nothing to fear. However, one cannot visit a country with strict Islamic dress laws and not conform to them oneself. (This in itself is OK; laws of course apply to visitors as well. The point is that such laws tend to be more strict: even in communities where the majority are Japanese immigrants, one would have no reason to fear that they would want laws to force Japanese behaviour, since this isn’t the case in Japan. But there is nothing wrong with the default assumption, which is probably true, that many immigrants from Islamic countries would, if they could, enact laws similar to those in their country of origin. (Not all, of course; in fact, for some this is the reason for immigration. But such people do not wear Islamic clothing here.))

        The bold portions in the quote could equally well apply to, say, homosexuals. Progress consists of realizing that the majority is not always right or, rather, that democratic decisions (where of course the majority should have the say) should be made only when a decision has to be made at all. Individual freedom should be more important than the right of others not to be “offended” (a concept at the same time very vague and also tautological; merely saying “I am offended” is proof of such offence).

        As long as Gough is regarded as a joke and his quest as somebody else’s problem, a precedent is made for other types of intolerance. Even if one wouldn’t walk nude from Land’s End to John o’Groats oneself, and even if one thinks Gough is daft for doing so, one should still, in the sentiment of Voltaire, support his right to do it.

        Those who cite “tolerance” and “freedom” in support of their right to wear the Burka in France or whatever almost always mean something else, as their reaction shows when one asks if one can take part in their demonstration for tolerance and freedom but be nude while doing so.

        They came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I was not a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me… and by that time no one was left to speak up.

        — Martin Niemöller

  5. Dave Carter Says:

    It isn’t though, is it Chris? I must say, I don’t find the niqab intimidating. I don’t find a Sikh wearing a turban intimidating (especially not Monty Panesar) nor a rasta with dreadlocks. I don’t go around wearing a cross, but I hope than nobody would be intimidated if I did. However someone walking around naked, that would be intimidating because they would not be doing so out of any deeply held religious belief, but because they wanted to inflict views of their unpleasant bits on me. So it would be aimed at me rather than a manifestation of what they believe.

    • telescoper Says:

      You don’t have to look! And anyway not everyone’s bits are unpleasant 🙂

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I think it’s dangerous territory to suupose that you can infer *why* somebody is wearing what they are (or aren’t), regardless of whether they are religous or secular.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      On a lighter note, I saw Monty Panesar on Saturday. He was bowling for Sussex vs Lancashire at Liverpool, where Lancs are playing their home games while rebuilding goes on at Old Trafford. (Lancs subsequently won the match by an innings, to my delight.) I doubt that I shall see cricket in weather so fine for another 2 months.

    • telescoper Says:

      Anton,

      If Sikh cricketers can wear helmets when batting, why can’t Sikhs wear crash helmets when on motorbikes?

      Peter

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Gpood

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Good question Peter; I suggest you ask them that.

      Bishen Bedi used to bowl in full turban, but Monty (short for Mudhsuden not Montague!) appears to wear a skullcap a bit larger than a Jewish one, although presumably kept on in the same way by hairgrips. It’s hard to tell because it’s the same colour as his hair. I don’t know if some Sikhs regard these skullcaps as compromised, but they are obviously compatible with crash helmets and batting helmets.

      “Batsmen wearing ‘elmets? Whatever next? In my day…” – G. Boycott

    • Dave Carter Says:

      Geoffrey would be in no position to say such a thing:

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Magnificent bowling. I can’t wait to see the feature-length documentary “Fire in Babylon” about the great West Indian team of 1975-95 next month.

    • telescoper Says:

      I doubt if anyone would have been able to lay a bat on Michael Holding’s deliveries in that first over…

  6. First, let’s agree that the argument “there are only 2000 in the whole country” isn’t useful. If something is considered to be a problem, then this statement, even if true, cannot be used to prove that it is not a problem. Say there are only 2000 violent hooligans, or violent neonazis, or violent punks, or Islamic terrorists, or serial killers, or child-abusing priests in the country. Anyone who said “what’s the fuss; there are only 2000” would rightfully be criticised for trying to belittle the problem. No, I’m not comparing any of these to each other, merely pointing out that if something is considered to be a problem, then the observation, even if true, that only a small number of people are responsible for it is neither here nor there. One can debate about whether or not it should be a problem, but the small-numbers argument is logically not valid, as would be obvious to everyone in the case of other problems. I notice that it is usually used by people who don’t see the burka etc as a problem. One can debate whether or not it should be a problem, but not essentially assume that that which one hopes to prove is true, which is really what the small-numbers argument is about.

    Second, in all societies, the majority decides what is acceptable in terms of dress and what isn’t. I know of no exceptions. The majority doesn’t even have to justify it. There is a law which says that one should not be disadvantaged, discriminated against etc due to one’s origin, religion, skin coulour, sexual orientation etc. I completely agree with that. By the same token, however, one should not attempt to claim special privileges on the grounds of one’s religion, ethnic background etc (in this case, exemption from the “majority determines what is acceptable dress” rule). So, it’s enough if the majority says they don’t want the burka etc. It really is no different than the question why public nudity is not possible. (Whether it is technically illegal (which varies from country to country) is a red herring. It is not possible in practice. Even if there are no laws against it, they will be enacted when it becomes a problem, as long as the majority wishes this, just as in the case of the burka. If something is not a problem, then one doesn’t need a law against it. Interestingly, the arguments as to why public nudity is unacceptable are essentially the same ones used to justify the custom (or, in many country, the laws, which apply to all people, whatever their religion) of wearing head scarves, veils, burkas etc. The differences are quantitative, but not qualitative.)

    Would I support a law stating that everyone has the right to decide what he or she wants to wear, at any time and at any place? Yes. (That would include the right to public nudity, which most wearers of burkas won’t be happy with. They want it banned since it offends them, but cry discrimination when someone wants the burka banned because someone else is offended.) Do I think that not banning the burka is a step in that direction? No. It is one more exception made on the grounds of religion, along with tax breaks for organised religion etc etc. One shouldn’t fight one injustice by introducing a greater injustice. I will gladly attend a demonstration for the right to wear the burka, as long as I can be nude at that demonstration and know for a fact that I will suffer no legal consequences as a result nor have to fear for my safety.

    Note that most freedoms are restricted, as the classic example of crying “fire” in a crowded theatre demonstrates. Should freedom of religion be restricted if this religion proscribes FGM? (The argument “it isn’t really part of the religion” is wrong on two grounds. First, it implies that we can criticise it because it isn’t really part of the religion, which by the same token means that we shouldn’t criticise it if it were. Second, who determines what is “really part of a religion”? If the entire Roman Catholic faith were defined by the Bible, why would anyone care what the Pope has to say? The fact is that leading Islamic clerics have spoken out in favour of FGM, which probably carries a lot more weight for many who practice it, especially the ones who can’t read and so can’t tell for themselves whether it is in the Koran anyway.) If we accept that religious freedom should be restricted if there is good reason to do so, the debate then becomes not one of principle, but rather the question whether the burka causes enough problems that it should be banned.

    My own view is that it should, for two main reasons. First, it is of course a portable prison and a symbol (and much more than that) of the lower status of women in the minds of those who think women should wear the burka, including many of these women themselves. This is not compatible with a society which believes in equal rights for men and women. (Whether it is worn voluntarily is not the most important question, though it is naive to think that all women who wear the burka do so voluntarily.) Second, in our society the main reason for hiding one’s face is shame, so wearing the burka—at least in our society—implies shame, which might be OK in some cases but not as a permanent state. (This is perhaps a reformulation of the first argument.) Of course, our own society has a similar idea regarding public nudity, but as mentioned above, the differences are not qualitative, just quantitative (not to say that quantitative differences are not important). (One should not completely discount the practical concern that if wearing burkas is accepted, women (or men—who can tell?) could use them as a convenient means of disguise, making it easier to perpetrate all manner of crimes.)

    I don’t see anything wrong with a society introducing laws to protect itself against what it sees as a threat. Many of the same people who think it is wrong to ban the burka would stand up for the right of an Indian tribe in South America to be protected against the destruction of its culture by outside influences, even if that culture includes many things which we personally don’t like. Of course, one could argue that the burka doesn’t threaten our society, but one needs to prove this, not simply state that it is fact.

    In general, societies which wish to ban the burka (or enact similar legislation) are not xenophobic per se. Rather, they want to be able to choose which aspects of what cultures they wish to have in their own society, and which they would rather keep out, often for the reason that keeping them out is necessary in order for their society to continue to exist.

    I don’t think it’s fair to say “no more mosques here until one can build churches there” etc, since this brings one down to the level of one’s opponent. However, one should recognise the fact that each country makes its own laws, which apply to everyone, whether or not they are of the same background, religion, culture etc as the majority of the people in the country and/or those who made the laws. Anyone protesting banning the burqa in France should be campaigning for the right to public nudity in Saudi Arabia, or at least the freedom to dress like a Spice Girl or Freddy Mercury.

    • Sorry, Freddie Mercury.

    • telescoper Says:

      Philip,

      Are you serious?

      There’s a very big difference between a democracy and a dictatorship by majority. Democracies have laws that protect minorities, rather than oppressing them.

      I maintain my view that the new French law is incompatible with the tenets of a free democracy. That’s why I think it’s abhorrent that it should have been introduced in a country that purports to be a democracy.

      Saudia Arabia is not a democracy, and many lamentable things happen there, but its relevance to this argument is nil.

      If a burka is a threat because it’s a means of disguise, why shouldn’t we ban sunglasses or balaclavas? Why should anyone be forced the identify themselves in a public place? It’s a different matter when one enters a private building, of course, but that argument simply doesn’t wash.

      Peter

    • “Are you serious?”

      Yes. I’ve obviously thought a lot about this. I can assure you that I have met several enlightened people who share my opinion (as well as several who don’t). But if two admirers of George Ellis and J.S. Bach (using that as a proxy for intellectual proximity) can’t agree, is there any hope for a consensus in society?

      “There’s a very big difference between a democracy and a dictatorship by majority. Democracies have laws that protect minorities, rather than oppressing them.”

      I agree, hence my remark that I would support a law stating that everyone can choose what they want to wear anywhere and anytime. But that is not what is at issue here. I’m not saying it’s good, I am merely stating the obvious that we do indeed have a dictatorship by majority with respect to many things, one of which is dress (or lack of it) in public. I don’t see why one should be exempt from that simply because one belongs to some religion, though I think it would be OK (or even preferable) if everyone were exempt. My motto is: no special dispensation for religion, but that is what the issue is here: wearers of the veil (shorthand: there are various types of Islamic dress designed to cover most of the body) want to be exempt from what applies to everyone else, namely that the majority decides what is acceptable and what is not in public in terms of dress.

      Perhaps we can agree that in a society which is democratic and tolerant and not a dictatorship (by majority or minority) polygamy shouldn’t be frowned upon, certainly not banned (whether or not it is supported by the religion of the people involved).

      “I maintain my view that the new French law is incompatible with the tenets of a free democracy. That’s why I think it’s abhorrent that it should have been introduced in a country that purports to be a democracy.”

      It’s not the clothing per se, it is the symbolism involved. Why was Prince Harry criticised for wearing a Nazi uniform (even if it was a joke)? Does the hood of the clansman in Mississippi deserve protection since anyone should be able to wear whatever he wants?

      Saudia Arabia is not a democracy, and many lamentable things happen there, but its relevance to this argument is nil.”

      If anything, it should be criticised even more. In France, at least it is the majority who want this law. As a US Supreme Court Justice once said, “We’re not final because we are definitive; we are definitive because we are final”; bv the same token, if one doesn’t accept laws made by a democracy, then one is losing more than one gains. The whole point of laws, of course, is that some people don’t agree with them; if there were universal agreement, there would be no need for a law. Of course, one should be free to debate those laws; fortunately, that is the case for us (though not everywhere in the world).

      “If a burka is a threat because it’s a means of disguise, why shouldn’t we ban sunglasses or balaclavas? Why should anyone be forced the identify themselves in a public place? It’s a different matter when one enters a private building, of course, but that argument simply doesn’t wash.”

      Actually, the law in France doesn’t mention any religious clothing at all, but is a general ban on hiding one’s identity in public, with special exceptions for firefighters, motorcyclists etc. Yes, it was motivated by concerns over the burka, but can be applied to someone disguising himself in public by any means.

      One should also think of girls and young women who might want to conform more to the society in which they live, not as a matter of principle, but because they prefer to do so. It is simply a fact (talk with any lawyer who represents victims of so-called “honour killings”) that many young women are forced to wear such dress whether they want to or not (and it can be difficult for an outsider to determine what they really want). Banning the burka makes it easier for them to dress differently should they so desire. (Note that there is no problem in wearing the burka at home, or on private property or wherever.)

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      At risk of touching the elephant in the room, it is worth noting that the
      belief system in question is explicitly politico-religious, in that its scriptures unequivocally command takeover – by force if necessary – of all lands; and its followers are unique in that a considerable proportion of those who migrate to the West deliberately avoid integrating. Furthermore the present spate of mosque-building is mainly funded by Saudi Arabia, not by the local mosque-desiring community.

      I don’t wish to do more here than raise this question: What is the appropriate response?

    • “I don’t wish to do more here than raise this question: What is the appropriate response?”

      It would be naive not to take this into account. It is also simply not true that the majority of those in favour of banning the burka are xenophobic. In fact, many are themselves immigrants from countries where wearing the burka is required by law.

    • telescoper Says:

      Philip,

      I honestly thought your comment was meant ironically. But anyway I think you’re missing my point(s) Sure, some forms of dress or behaviour are socially unacceptable in certain circumstances. We’re all bound by social conventions. But I don’t think these are matters for the law.

      My point about Saudi Arabia not being a democracy is that if we honestly think democracy is better then we shouldn’t be enacting laws that are incompatible with its deepest principles. Of course French laws are for the French to decide. But I live in a democracy and I’m entitled to say that I believe they have done something very wrong.

      And finally you mention – correctly – that the new law doesn’t specifically mention the burka or the hijab. In fact it technically covers ski masks, balaclavas and even fancy dress. I don’t believe the law will ever be applied to these other forms of face covering, and that it’s deliberately pandering to anti-Muslim prejudice. In my eyes that makes it cowardly as well as wrong.

      Peter

      P.S. Until relatively recently there also used to be a tradition of widows wearing veils at funerals. That wasn’t motivated by shame either, but by modesty and/or to hide tears.

    • “I honestly thought your comment was meant ironically.”

      I am rarely ironic but if so, then not in that many words! 🙂

      “But anyway I think you’re missing my point(s) Sure, some forms of dress or behaviour are socially unacceptable in certain circumstances. We’re all bound by social conventions. But I don’t think these are matters for the law.”

      My point is that it is a matter for the law in every country in the world. If one disagrees with this, then one should take the stance to remove all laws regarding dress, full stop. Why protest the banning of the burka but not other laws involving the majority forcing the minority to wear what it deems appropriate? My principle objection is that certain groups want more privileges than other citizens have, such as the right to dress in a fashion the majority deems unacceptable.

      “My point about Saudi Arabia not being a democracy is that if we honestly think democracy is better then we shouldn’t be enacting laws that are incompatible with its deepest principles. Of course French laws are for the French to decide. But I live in a democracy and I’m entitled to say that I believe they have done something very wrong.”

      Of course the matter should be discussed, and it is. However, there is room for interpretation as to what the deepest principles of democracy are—otherwise democratic countries wouldn’t have courts which can overrule democratically enacted laws.

      Basically, one has to weigh up the advantage of allowing more choice (assuming it is choice, which I think is at least dubious) against the disadvantage of the offense (for want of a better word) created by the burka. There are many cities outside of Japan which have a large ex-pat Japanese population. I’ve never heard of traditional Japanese dress being banned. Why not? Because it was not a problem. Again, if something is not a problem, no law is needed. But if it is a problem, the question is how to react.

      “And finally you mention – correctly – that the new law doesn’t specifically mention the burka or the hijab. In fact it technically covers ski masks, balaclavas and even fancy dress. I don’t believe the law will ever be applied to these other forms of face covering,”

      Probably not, unless and until these become a problem.

      “and that it’s deliberately pandering to anti-Muslim prejudice.”

      It is certainly a reaction to militant religious fundamentalism. I wouldn’t call that prejudice; perhaps postjudice.

      “P.S. Until relatively recently there also used to be a tradition of widows wearing veils at funerals. That wasn’t motivated by shame either, but by modesty and/or to hide tears.”

      Granted. However, this was not a problem. The swastika was a positive symbol (and still is in many parts of the world) but it’s probably good that it is banned from being used in some countries today; it’s the symbol, not the thing itself which is the problem.

    • telescoper Says:

      If one disagrees with this, then one should take the stance to remove all laws regarding dress, full stop.

      Yes! That’s exactly my point. Trivial matters such as how one chooses to dress are not matters for the law. De minimis non curat lex .

      One obviously should not dress or act in such a way as is likely to cause offence, but should every transgression of this sort be a criminal offence? I don’t think so. The law only needs to intervene if it goes beyond mere discomfort and enters the domain of harassment or intimidation. Likewise freedom of speech should only be restricted when specifically intended to threaten or cause distress, such as in the examples you give above.

      I’m not condoning other forms of abusive unpleasant or boorish conduct, but I really don’t think the law has to be involved in such cases.

    • “Yes! That’s exactly my point. Trivial matters such as how one chooses to dress are not matters for the law. De minimis non curat lex.”

      Then we agree here. What bothers me is that many people protest the banning of the burka on the grounds that the state is forbidding too much, but similar cases, such as the ban on public nudity, don’t get the same coverage (no pun intended), even though the number of people who would at least occasionally be nude in public is in most countries probably far larger than the number who would wear a burka. Again, I haven’t followed his case closely, but my perception is that most pundits consider Gough a kook and not a campaigner for human rights.

      “One obviously should not dress or act in such a way as is likely to cause offence, but should every transgression of this sort be a criminal offence? I don’t think so. The law only needs to intervene if it goes beyond mere discomfort and enters the domain of harassment or intimidation. Likewise freedom of speech should only be restricted when specifically intended to threaten or cause distress, such as in the examples you give above.”

      Again, we agree. However, not just beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but distress as well. In practice, if someone claims distress (at least in regard to public nudity), then distress it is. If someone claims distress when seeing someone dressed in a burka, my guess is that most policemen would dismiss his complaint and the complainer might even have to fear charges of anti-religious propaganda or whatever.

      Again, I’ll gladly join a demonstration for the freedom to wear a burka as long as I can be nude while doing so and not have to fear for my safety. If there is a demonstration for the right to public nudity, I doubt many burka wearers will join, even if invited, though they should if their goal really is lack of discrimination in general rather than special pleading for their own case.

    • telescoper Says:

      Well, OK, except that there is no legal ban on public nudity (even in France), which is the reason people aren’t protesting about it.

    • In many places, while it might not be technically illegal, it is de facto illegal. If you don’t believe me, just give it a try! Someone will complain, claim distress, and so one can be prosecuted for disturbing the peace, indecency etc. Were more people to attempt it, it would be made illegal in most places.

      I think this example shows up a lot of hypocrisy in the debate. Most people who see the burka ban as some sort of discrimination aren’t prepared to campaign to lift all discrimination regarding states of (un)dress, so I think it is fair to wonder what their real motivation is.

      It works the other way as well. There is a group called the Top-Free Rights Association which campaigns for women’s right to be top-free (they object to “topless” as being too sexualised) based on the argument that women should be allowed to be top-free wherever men are. Regardless of whether one agrees with this position or not, the reason for the restriction is not discrimination, so trying to combat it legally on the grounds that it is seems rather dubious to me. (It often happens in debate—where obviously two sides don’t agree—that one side ascribes motivations to the beliefs of the other side when there is no evidence that these motivations exist. Usually, the hope is to pin these beliefs on something which is easy to combat legally, such as discrimination.)

    • telescoper Says:

      I’m not going to campaign or even complain about non-existent laws. This is the only law that I’m aware of about a particular form of clothing. It’s abhorrent to me because it’s pure religious intolerance. That’s my motivation for commenting. Question it if you want to, but that’s what it is.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Peter: To be against ‘religious intolerance’ is a lot better than the converse, but I think it may be a bit too ‘blanket’. Let me suggest why. In general, laws should prohibit only *behaviour* of kinds that impinge unacceptably on other people (something which one’s garb scarcely does); and should not prohibit beliefs. Nevertheless the behaviour of people is correlated, albeit imperfectly, with their belief system; and I do believe, for example, that it was right to make the thuggee cult in India, whose adherents strangled millions, a proscribed organisation.

      I am not saying that the same should be done here; I am trying to establish principles for a proper discussion of the issue. Clothing is not the real issue; the rise of qur’anic Islam in the West is. I have views on how to respond but I don’t think that your blog is the place for them, except to assure you that I do not approve of maltreatment of Muslims.

      Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      Anton,

      I certainly agree that one’s religious beliefs are not an excuse for actions that involve breaking the law. But behind all this is my belief that we have far too many laws. I believe the law should be a secular instrument which intrudes as little as possible into religious matters. Since religions are all different, it seems to me impossible for laws to treat them all equally. The result of meddling is often to leave one religious community feeling discriminated against.

      For example, take the laws on blasphemy. I think these should be scrapped entirely, thus treating Christians Muslims and everyone else on the same footing. The best way to deal with freedom of choice of clothing is to have no laws about that either. It should be a criminal offence to threaten another with violence in any case, whether this is religiously motivated or not, so the addition of extra laws recently for this seems to me to be unnecessary…

      ..which brings me to the problem(s). The proliferation of new laws about minor matters is making it more difficult for the important things to be policed and the law is increasingly being seen by many as being used to change social attitudes. Attempts to protect minorities often cause resentment amongs those who feel a privileged status has been granted. I think changes in law of this nature have achieved some good things but there’s a limit to what can be done this way and sometimes it has been done so badly it has been entirely counterproductive.

      Peter

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Peter: Regarding your own main point about excessive lawmaking I agree wtih you totally, including the examples you give.
      Anton

  7. Dave Carter Says:

    Philip,

    We don’t make the laws in Saudi Arabia, nor in France, but the laws in the UK we do have a small part in making. I would be very much against banning the niqab, as it would be a restriction on freedom of expression of religion. I would also be against making Sikhs wearing turbans also wear motorcycle helmets (at the moment they don’t have to). But mostly I simply don’t understand your equating the right to wear a niqab (note that I think it is the niqab, or veil which is the issue here, not the burqa which is usually the body clothing) with the right to public nudity. The niqab is part of the tradition of many people in certain parts of the world, public nudity is not our tradition unless you go back millenia, and then it was because we didn’t know how to make clothes.

    Also, I do not agree that covering the face as an expression of shame. I have lived in our culture for over half a century now, and I have never regarded it as such. If you cover your face its because you want to cover your face, no other reason. Sometimes its because its cold. If its because you want to rob a bank thats not good, but it is the robbing which is wrong, not the covering of your face while you are doing it.

    So I can see your point about wanting to choose your own culture, I just don’t think that exposing your face is any part of it.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Anybody, Sikhs included, should be permitted not to wear motorbike crash helmets if (and only if) they sign a statement that they will accept the bill for all head surgery necessary in the case of an accident.

      It’s worth remembering that most women who worked in factories wore headscarves no different from the milder Islamic ones within living memory…

    • “We don’t make the laws in Saudi Arabia, nor in France”

      Right—so why the criticism of France, when Saudia Arabia is much worse and doesn’t get the criticism? Only because the law is new?

      “I would be very much against banning the niqab, as it would be a restriction on freedom of expression of religion.”

      Would you be against banning FGM, if it is done for religious reasons? Where do you draw the line?

      “But mostly I simply don’t understand your equating the right to wear a niqab (note that I think it is the niqab, or veil which is the issue here, not the burqa which is usually the body clothing) with the right to public nudity.”

      The point is that the majority (correctly or not) doesn’t approve of public nudity, so it is not possible, and I see this as the same thing as not approving of the veil. Why criticise the latter and not the former?

      “The niqab is part of the tradition of many people in certain parts of the world”

      Many things are part of the tradition of many people in many parts of the world. That doesn’t mean that we should accept them in our society. What about burning widows? Child labour? FGM? Slavery? Gay-bashing?

      “public nudity is not our tradition”

      So only things which have a tradition have a right to exist? I thought that democracy was about protecting minorities, not oppressing them.

      “unless you go back millenia, and then it was because we didn’t know how to make clothes.”

      Until quite recently, public nudity was acceptable in many parts of Africa. The decline is due mainly to Christian missionaries (which, as Neil Peart notes in his book The Masked Rider even extends to requiring men and women to wear long trousers no matter how hot it is; cycling through Africa in knee-length cyclist trousers was pushing the limits of the acceptable). I mention this since it is comparatively recent and well documented. The situation was probably much the same elsewhere. Even people who knew how to make clothes didn’t always wear them when it was hot, when in water etc. It was mainly the influence of the Church which led to this extreme prudishness, culminating in Victorian bathing machines.

    • “It’s worth remembering that most women who worked in factories wore headscarves no different from the milder Islamic ones within living memory…”

      Right, but the difference is that they weren’t called sluts when they took them off. Again, it is not the clothing, it is the symbolism involved. Anyone who says “but it is just a piece of cloth” is in my view missing the point; that would be like reading Peter’s account of being called a faggot and then saying “it’s only a word”.

  8. Dave Carter Says:

    Sorry Philip, there is a world of difference between permanent mutilation and dress codes, and more to the point I doubt that anyone who undergoes genital mutilation does so voluntarily, really, whereas I really suspect that most women who wear a niqab do so because they want to, not because they are coerced. Coercion would be another matter of course, but the law in France is not against coercion it is against choice.

    And Saudi Arabia gets plenty of criticism.

    • “there is a world of difference between permanent mutilation and dress codes”

      Yes. But one has to draw the line somewhere. The question is where. Dress codes which are not required and which aren’t symbols of totalitarianism are OK.

      “I really suspect that most women who wear a niqab do so because they want to”

      Do you have any evidence for this view?

      “Coercion would be another matter of course, but the law in France is not against coercion it is against choice.”

      In practice, coercion or the lack of it is difficult to prove. In this sense, the law is like a “statutory rape” law.

  9. Dave Carter Says:

    Perhaps the evidence that women are prepared to demonstrate outside Notre Dame, risking arrest in protest against this infringement of their liberty.

  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    Today an Englishman was jailed for 70 days for burning some paper, upon which was printed the verses of the qur’an. He did no harm to any human being nor called for anybody to perpetrate violence on anybody else. I call for him to be freed and I am ashamed of a ‘justice’ system that has imprisoned him. For me this act has tipped an increasingly fine balance and I now regard the police as enemies of legitimate freedom. Much as I disagree peacably with the qur’an I had never considered burning it. I still disapprove of the discourtesy to Muslims involved in doing so. But is it now worth doing in order to make a point about freedom? (And do you think that they would jail a Muslim who burned the Bible?)
    Anton

    • Presumably due to some sort of blasphemy law? I don’t think it’s illegal to burn just any old book.

      This might be one of the few cases where the majority of the population agrees with you and disagrees with the laws and where a large demonstration might actually cause a rethinking of those laws. I wouldn’t suggest book burning, but perhaps some other sort of public blasphemy would be appropriate. It would also be a good idea to get as many different religions as possible involved, and blaspheme as many as possible.

      This is really a case of “I disagree with what you say, but support your right to say it” or whatever. In my favourite scene from The People vs. Larry Flynt, (a film by director Miloš Forman), Flynt’s brother interrupts him while he is watching a photo shoot, explaining that someone down in Georgia has been charged with obscenity for selling his magazine. In one of the all-time great one-liners, Flynt says “Fuel the jet!”, flies down to Georgia, rents the store for a token sum for a short time and gets himself arrested. After the trial, he was shot, resulting in life-long paralysis and pain. The assassin has never stood trial for the shooting, even though he admitted to it (he is on death row for other charges). That’s putting one’s money (and health, and risk of life) where one’s mouth is.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      No Phillip, it’s not a blasphemy law but something iniquitous called the “Public Order Act” under which it is enough to cause offence. Theoretically there are one or two safeguards but they too are vaguely phrased. I am confident that this vague and wide phrasing was to give the authorities power to act against whoever they wished and turn a blind eye to whom they wished. Shame on its drafters. Shame on the MPs who voted for it knowing what it contained, acting as lobby fodder to maintain their careers. Shame on the police chiefs who, obviously unable to police every law on our vast statute book, prioritise laws of this sort. Shame on the police who arrested him, probably in the face of their consciences. And shame, in particular, on district judge Gerald Chalk who, with a wide discretion available to him under this Act, chose to gaol the man, thereby ensuring himself a minor place in English history as a stooge paralleling the judiciary during the rise of Hitler and Stalin.
      Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      Sorry I missed this case on my travels. I don’t know the details of what was done, but based on what I’ve read I don’t think it should have been a criminal offence, let alone one with a custodial sentence. I believe the person, Andrew Ryan, had a criminal record already however which probably contributed to the sentence. I believe the Public Order Act should only have a role when what is being done is likely to cause an immediate outbreak of violence or is immediately threatening, which does not seem to have been the case.

      Let me add that in saying this I am in no way supporting his action, which seems to me to have been disrespectful in the extreme.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      It is proving frustratingly difficult to find from the internet exactly under what law he was charged and gaoled. Carlisle’s “News and Star” newspaper reports it online as “racially aggravated harassment” but I suspect that this is a typo for “religiously aggravated harassment” under which the same article (and other internet commentary) reports that the case had previously been adjourned.

      In that case I know enough law to be confident that it is not the Public Order Act. It must be yet another law which the State has passed and then enforces selectively (the man involved was a former soldier responding to a small fine being levied on a Muslim who burned poppies, the symbol of the Royal British Legion).

      If “racially aggravated” then this is a disgrace because Islam is a religion that proselytises all races. If “religiously aggravated” then why? There is a dangerous failure to distinguish between hatred of people and hatred of belief systems in so-called “hate crime” (itself a phrase evoking Orwell’s “Thought Police”). Hatred of some belief systems is the appropriate response, eg Nazism – and a good case can be made that Nazism was actualy a religion with Hitler as its god (the Roman Emperors were hailed as ‘gods’…)

      In fact I have reservations about other belief systems than my own precisely *because* I believe that they are bad for people who hold to them, and because I want the best for those people. But I do not believe in coercing others, for you might force or bribe people to behave but not to believe. Giving informed choice is the way. In contrast the qur’an states that Islam should be forced on people by the sword if proselytisation fails. I do not support burning the qur’an in response as a statement to Muslims, although it is time that parliament considered the appropriate response to its political aspects.

      District Judge Chalk came out with the statement that Ryan set out to cause “maximum distress” to Muslims. What a woeful lack of perspective! Maximum distress would involve a terrorist atrocity against them, not burning a book. Burning it angers Muslims to no point (which is why I am against it), but I doubt that it distresses them.

      Not everything that is wrong should be outlawed. Legislators, police, CPS and judiciary have made England less free. Shame on all.

  11. Anton Garrett Says:

    Meanwhile a woman is in court charged under the Public Order Act with saying “Bang, bang” to the policeman blinded by Raoul Moat (as the policeman arrived at court for the trial of men accused of being Moat’s accomplices). Anybody who carries around the amount of hate necessary to say that is, sadly, going to have a life more blighted than the courts could ever do to her. Comments like this are the downside of free speech – but they are worth it. If I may say so, Chief Constable…

  12. The European Court of Human Rights has no ruled that France’s “burka ban” is allowed. No appeal is possible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: