The reason there can be such a gaping disconnect between the reality of the niqab/burka problem, which is small, and the discussion of it, which is intense, is because this debate is driven by subjective rather than objective factors. Its fuel is not the nature or extent of the niqab problem in British society, but rather the needs of the political and media classes – primarily their need to say what Britain is for, what its values are, which they find ever harder to do in this era of moral relativism, when cleaving to any kind of universal or all-encompassing value is looked upon as an old-fashioned and possibly even dangerous thing to do. Thank God for the niqab, then, whose foreignness and weirdness provide the perfect foil to politicians and observers who want to say what Our Values are, but can’t, and so instead they say: ‘We’re not that, we’re not about burkas.’
This is why politicians will say that these veils go against ‘our way of life’. Following a decade or more in which the question of what constitutes the British way of life has been thrown completely into flux, with tortured political, academic and media debates over everything from our imperial past to the question of what makes a British citizen, the niqab is one thing - possibly the only thing - we can be clearly judgmental about and effectively say: ‘Well, our way of life - whatever it is - is at least better than that.’ Incapable of asserting British values positively, or substantially, observers do it negatively, via the niqab -this garment ‘doesn’t fit with British values’, they say. It is the defensiveness of the elites, their crisis of values, which has led to the niqab becoming the focus of national attentions, with all sorts of observers metaphorically pinning ‘Not British!’ notes on this most peculiar of foreign garments.
It was the same in France and Belgium, where, likewise, tiny numbers of women completely cover their faces yet politicians seem weirdly obsessed with them. It was the opportunity for values-asserting grandstanding provided by the niqab which really got those nations’ political classes going. As Belgium banned face-covering veils in 2010, one parliamentarian said that ‘the image of our country abroad is more and more incomprehensible’ but the burka ban has restored ‘an element of pride to be Belgian’. In short, this was about cultural rejuvenation for an at-sea elite. In France, the banning of the burka has been hailed as a great defence of French republican virtues, since, in the words of one government report, these veils run ‘contrary to the values of the Republic’.
Both within and without France, so-called men and women of the Enlightenment, self-styled promoters of reason and secularism, have depicted their loathing and even banning of the niqab as a victory for historic Enlightenment values. At a time when such values are sadly held in profoundly low esteem, screaming at the burka, sweeping it off the streets, has become one of the few ways that so-called ‘Enlightenment followers’ can get a moral kick, a virtuous rush, a feeling that the battle for reason continues, with them at the forefront. How spectacularly sad that being Enlightened has been reduced to this.
There are two problems with the transformation of the niqab and burka into the sartorial equivalent of Emmanuel Goldstein, which we can all define ourselves in opposition to. The first is that it does nothing to help the women who wear these garments. In fact, it makes their lives harder. Among Britain’s niqab-wearers, many are British-born young women who do it largely as an expression of an alienated identity, not unlike other teens becoming punks. But no doubt there are other women, possibly foreign-born, who are under cultural pressure to cover their faces. How would they be helped by the public ban being demanded by some? That would effectively force them to stay indoors. It is the shallowest kind of Spice Girls-style feminism to focus myopically on the outward appearance of isolated Muslim women - their garments - which is only an expression of their possibly subjugated position. There are many ways British society could help female immigrants from Muslim countries, for example by providing them with language classes, childcare, jobs, by meaningfully integrating them into society in a way that might make them jettison their veils eventually. Simply saying ‘Take off that niqab!’ is not helpful.
And the second, even bigger problem about the veil obsession is the message it sends about progressive, Enlightened values in the twenty-first-century West - namely that the threat to them comes from without, from foreign elements, from alien external ideas and practices. The notion that something like the niqab undermines the French Republic or the British way of life or secularist, rationalist ideals more broadly overlooks the fact that, actually, the greatest threat to such values is here at home, emanating from our own deracinated intellectual classes and defensive political elites.
In short, burka-bashing has become a displacement activity of epic proportions for so-called progressives who have neither the guts nor the insight to examine where the threat to progress and Enlightenment is really coming from today. Unwilling to explore the crisis of Enlightened thinking in serious depth, to accept that its true origins lie in Western society’s own turn against its historic gains, in the West’s misanthropic environmentalism, in its judgement-eschewing postmodernism, in the agency-denying politics of victimhood promoted by feminists and others, the niqab-naysayers prefer instead to rail against alleged foreign usurpers of the modern way of life. In the process they give rise to the idea that the Enlightenment is threatened by barbarians at the gates, when in truth it is those inside the gates - thinkers, politicians, campaigners, observers - who have left Enlightenment values battered and bleeding.
I have a very strong disliking of the niqab and burka. I balk when I see women wearing them. I also think colleges should be free to decide that students cannot wear the niqab and that niqabs have no place in courts of justice. But I also know that being a true man of the Enlightenment means tolerating even those things we hate or don’t understand, which means there should be no public ban on face veils. And it also means focusing on creating a reasoned, progressive, future-oriented society that all might one day aspire to join, not bashing tiny minorities who don’t accept my values.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.