Our refusal to do the same has nothing to do with toleration: we just don’t have the political courage

Whatever one thinks of the French legislation, now in force, to ban the wearing of the burqa and the niqab in public places, it seems to be generally supposed that there is a very clear and overwhelming case for our own view. I think that there is in fact a particularly strong case in favour of allowing the wearing of the burqa in public places. But I think there is an even stronger case for banning it.

First, the case in favour. This is a country which prides itself, not always justifiably, on its tolerance. As Catholics, we should be particularly grateful that anti-Catholic intolerance is weaker than it was (though as we saw during the Pope’s visit, the new tolerance is not universal). Catholics ought to be tolerant of other minorities, because of our own awareness of the consequences to us when the old intolerance re-emerges, as it does from time to time. If you doubt that, talk to any Catholic who has unsuccessfully tried to adopt a child, though Christians from other backgrounds have also had the door slammed in their faces.

There are also the obvious recurrent cases in which the wearing of the cross has been forbidden by employers: earlier this week, a driver was stopped by his (Marxist) employer from putting his palm cross on his dashboard. But most anti-Catholic/anti-Christian intolerance in this country is hidden and subtle. The banning of the burqa in France has been blatant and, to some, offensive. The fact that 82 per cent of the French are in favour of it simply shows how hostile to religion the French are. So, as Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith put it earlier this week, “If anyone should start a campaign to restrict the way Muslims dress in this country, then the Catholic Church should be vocal in its opposition.”

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That’s the case – a very strong one – for the avoidance of government legislation forbidding the wearing of this (or any) form of religious clothing, and it’s one we should be particularly aware of as Catholics. As Fr Lucie-Smith points out, “historically such legislation has often been aimed at the Catholic Church. Clerical dress is still illegal, for example, in Mexico, thanks to the anti-Catholic laws passed under president Plutarco Elías Calles.” It’s also illegal in constitutionally “secular” Turkey, of course, though wearing the burqa is not.

I think that though this is indeed a strong case, the case against the burqa is even stronger. It isn’t, so far as the burqa itself is concerned, the inevitable Catholic view (as we shall see). The real case for the banning of the burqa isn’t in fact a religious one, and there are many Muslims who insist that the wearing of this garment has no Koranic or other religious justification, that its origins are cultural, and that it should therefore be resisted here precisely on social and cultural grounds.

The very strong arguments against this uniquely unattractive garment are cultural, too. First, its wearing is an instrument, encouraged by Islamist extremists, aimed at helping to prevent the integration of the Muslim community into mainstream British society. Allison Pearson, in a persuasive piece in this week’s Sunday Telegraph, quotes the website of a mosque in the East Midlands, next door to which is a private girls’ secondary school, an offshoot of the mosque. From the age of 11, the niqab is a compulsory part of school uniform. She quotes the following, by “Muhammad the Agony Uncle”: “There should be no imitation of the Kuffar (non-believers) because “whosoever imitates a nation is among them”.

“A Muslim woman,” Allison Pearson continues, “is allowed to dress like a British slapper in the home, if it pleases her husband, but if the intention is to imitate Kuffars – that’s creatures like you and me with our brazenly exposed wrists – then it’s forbidden. According to Mr Muhammad, if a Muslim woman starts copying the style of the country she lives in then she will soon be part of it – and we can’t have that, can we? No man is an island entire of itself, said the poet. A beautiful sentiment, but the women of this mosque and its girls’ academy seem to be instructed, quite specifically, to be an island, separated from the mainland where the rest of us live.” So that’s the first part of the case against the burqa and the niqab: that the wearing of them in public is part of a separationist Islamist (not Islamic, there’s nothing Islamic about it) political campaign, which is already causing, in mainstream British society, precisely that hostility to the Moslem community which radical Islamists want. These are the bitter fruits of “multiculturalism” as it has actually developed: separatism and mistrust.

To be a society at all, we need to be able to see each other. That’s the beginning of any communication between individuals. As Charles Moore argues in this week’s Spectator: “The justification for banning the burqa and the niqab in France surely has nothing to do with the French ‘separation of Church and State’. If it is justified … it is solely because the veil hides identity. Common citizenship involves trust, and trust cannot exist where one cannot see people’s faces in public. Obviously there can be necessary functional reasons for concealment – surgical masks, beekeepers’ helmets, extremes of cold – but concealment in normal circumstances in an open society amounts to a hostile act.” [my italics].

“The truth is”, as Stuart Reid argues in the paper this week, “that we have a right to know to whom we are speaking and, in the name of national and personal security, a right to be able to identify (perhaps in a police line-up) the woman with a bulging shopping bag and a hidden face who is sitting opposite us in the Tube. These rights trump the right to religious freedom.”

Except that it isn’t even religious freedom we’re taking about. It’s the freedom to live in a state of cultural apartheid from the rest of us, a state precisely of “separate development”: it’s the right for these women implicitly to declare every time they walk in our streets “I may be walking among you, but I will never be part of you: I reject your entire culture and everything you stand for”. It is, indeed, a hostile act, and the French are right to ban it. In this country we never will, because we will never summon up the necessary political courage; we will congratulate ourselves on our tolerance and back away. Well, so much the worse for us. We will all now have to live among the bitter consequences.

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