Can it be true? Are they really going to ban the wearing of the nuns’ habits, the Jewish kippa, the dog collar, the Hari Krishna robes, the turban of the Sikhs? Or are they rather more discriminating? Of course not – the target isn’t religious dress per se, it’s Islam.
France has gone ahead with the banning of the niqab in public places, on penalty of €150 fine. Meanwhile in the UK MP Philip Hollobone says he won’t meet constituents who wear a burqa or niqab,a clear breach of the Equality Act of 2006.
Syria has banned the wearing of the niqab, the full-face veil, at its universities in order toprotect the country’s secular identity it says. At the end of April, Belgium’s lower house voted to make it an offence to wear the full Islamic veil in public. In Germany, although resisting calls for a state-wide ban, seven individual states have acted to ban teachers wearing the Islamic headscarf.
Italy has not passed any national legislation but that hasn’t stopped Italian province Novara fining a Tunisian woman €500 in May for wearing her veil on the way to the mosque. In Spain, Barcelona has just banned full-face veils in public building including markets and libraries. Turkey bans Islamic headdresses in universities and public offices.
So what is motivating this upsurge in hostility to a specific form of religious dress?
France has been consistently secular in insisting that religious symbols have no place in the modern classroom, protecting the rights of students to decide their religious beliefs for themselves.
This seems like a principled position. Placing religious symbolism around teachers who, by definition, are authority figures entrusted with the education of students, will inevitably give an official stamp of approval to those religious beliefs. The catholic church knows only too well how effective religious indoctrination can be if children experience it from an early age.
And in education, it is essential that the student can judge the facial expression of the teacher, without which there will be confusion and ambiguity. For effective education the face needs to be visible and that is simply a pragmatic point. The removal of religious symbolism and dress from educational institutions is an important part of the separation of church and state.
Almost certainly the same principle applies in offices where effective communication is important and there must be no indication of religious favouritism. So there is at least a rational behind making faces visible and keeping religious symbols out of public institutions. However, France intends the ban to apply anywhere in public so it’s not really about communication nor about religious symbolism in public buildings.
The debate is about much more than that. The protagonists of the ban argue that it is something to do with identity and integration, about national culture and values. Those who are wearing the veil are, it is claimed, persisting in an identity which is non-integrated and that seems to be what causes the most offence to those with the fire in their bellies. For them, it is necessary to make people conform to an identity which is determined in law.
Of course, the same argument applies to an orthodox Jew who wears the traditional dress, monks and nuns who eschew the wearing of secular dress, the Sikh’s turban, or potentially any other sign of individual expression through dress. This assumption of a national identity to which everyone should conform has more than a hint of totalitarianism about it. But even claiming a specific national identity is problematic.
In what sense is there really a national identity to which we all subscribe? Ask ten English people what the English national identity consists of and you’ll get ten different answers ranging from cricket to morris dancing, from fox-hunting to ferret-racing, from Rule Britannia and the Raj to balti cooking. Most likely, they’ll answer “I don’t know” and then pick from a very wide range pretty much at random. That’s hardly surprising because all national cultures are complex mixtures, all countries have mixed populations, a wide spectrum of beliefs, regional and international traditions and even the languages show overlaps in vocabulary.
The truth is that we only regard ourselves as having a particular nationality because that is, by chance, what we have grown up with. It is neither intrinsic to us, nor unchanging. In my own case, very much in agreement with Amin Maalouf’s philosophy, I do not feel I belong to any particular country, I share in a number of different cultures. Whatever nationalistic sentiments we might espouse, we all share many cultures.
So when we hear the clamour of politicians playing the race card, responding to the crude Islamophobia of their constituents, we should reflect perhaps on the reality of our own cultures. It was Eddie Izzard who memorably demonstrated in a TV series that England was the ultimate mongrel nation, as are all nations.
There is no reason to ban the wearing of religious dress in public – it’s a fundamental expression of individual freedom which is far more important than forced conformity to some xenophobic judgement about what constitutes the national character. Nor is it about the freedom of the women wearing the veil. In a secular society, they can see around them the option of breaking with their tradition, but it is fundamentally their choice.
The right to believe in whatever we choose is fundamental, as is the right to criticise those beliefs. I have the same right to argue about the irrationality of religion as someone else has to wear a cross demonstrating their Christian belief. I can dispute the contents of the Bible and the Qur’an with the same right as anyone else has to believe in them. It is in all our interests to resist the rise of xenophobic intolerance, especially in its more pernicious form as a defender of culture and values.