Banning the burqa is an assault on secular values

The fools who want to obliterate the face veil in the name of Enlightened values clearly don't know what Enlightenment is all about.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Following the Belgian parliament’s decision in May to vote through a law banning the niqab and burqa, now France’s National Assembly has shown itself equally determined to rid public spaces of extravagant face-veiling clothing. Last week, a ‘bill to forbid concealing one’s face in public’ was approved by 335 votes to one. While there’s still a chance that France’s highest legal body, the Constitutional Council, will rule the bill unconstitutional, a French ban on the face-covering niqab and the accompanying outer garment, the burqa, could be in force by early next year.

What this means is that should a woman (or indeed a very bashful man) be caught wearing a veil, they will either face a €150 fine or be ordered to follow citizenship classes, or both. If that sounds a bit harsh for simply wearing something that covers your face, then the punishment for those husbands or fathers who ‘force’ such veils on women and girls – a possible year-long custodial sentence or a €30,000 fine – is enough to make one’s unconcealed face blanch.

In Britain, the reaction to France’s decision has been more than a little smug. There is a sense that this is a peculiarly Gallic phenomenon, a product of a national culture prone to preening displays of Enlightened virtue. A columnist at the Independent admitted that, due to his sheer Englishness, he found it ‘very difficult to take seriously France’s impassioned debate about banning the burqa’. Similarly unmoved by the seeming silliness over the Channel, the Liberal-Conservative coalition’s immigration minister Damian Green felt protected by the Great British Tradition of Tolerance: ‘I stand personally on the feeling that telling people what they can and can’t wear, if they’re just walking down the street, is a rather un-British thing to do. We’re a tolerant and mutually respectful society.’

There is no doubting that the French government’s war on the veil is touched by absurdity. After all, the niqab – the face veil to which so much secular ire has been drawn – is hardly the bane of public spaces. Out of France’s five million Muslims, themselves a small fraction of the total population of 65million, just under 2,000 women wear the niqab and burqa. On a purely numerical level, opponents of facial dissimulation would surely be better off targeting masked balls or fancy-dress parties.

But beneath the puzzling fixation on a particular outer garment, the fears that animate the French and Belgian governments’ war on the veil are not as foreign as they might appear to those smugly enveloped in Great British Traditions of whatever sort. Take a principal justification for the ban: public security. In other words, the burqa and niqab not only prevent easy identification, they could also conceal some nefarious intent, perhaps even in explosive form. Is this fear of what certain members of the public might be hiding really such an alien anxiety for the British state?

For example, for burqas read ‘hoodies’ – hooded tops worn, in the main, by teenage boys, which have been banned in some shopping malls and public spaces in Britain. The demand for near absolute transparency, for the public to be visible to the state, is just as strong in the UK as it is in France. While the calls to ban the burqa might well have been limited to a few Conservative backbenchers here in Britain, people’s privacy, their freedom to act – and dress – as they see fit, is no more sacrosanct here than it is in burqa-obsessed France.

Public security is not the only justification for the ban, of course. The other aspect – the aspect which makes the burqa and niqab the particular recipient of the French state’s legislative fist – is religion. How, the National Assembly seems to have asked itself, can France, the self-styled crucible of Enlightenment thinking, tolerate the continued existence of backwardness and superstition, especially when it seems to involve the oppression of women? The sheer grandiloquence of French politicians denouncing the burqa certainly suggests that many believe in the world historical importance of their mission. A law banning the veils ‘will be a law of liberation’, said a French Communist deputy, while a member of France’s ruling party called the veil ‘a threat to French values’.

What seems to have escaped the cross-party purveyors of this so-called militant secularism is that a secular state is not the enemy of religion; in many ways it is its product. In other words, the idea of the secular state – one neutral with regards to the beliefs and moral reasoning of individuals – emerged not from some period of angry atheism but from the struggle for the freedom to practise one’s chosen religion, to express one’s faith, without fear of state-endorsed persecution. The ideal of a secular state, resting on a separation of church from state, means that the state does not promote a particular religion, does not say what one can and one cannot believe. Which is precisely what the French state currently seems intent on doing by banning the burqa – all as part of some spurious attempt to realise secular values.

That such an authoritarian move, no matter how insignificant its veiled target, deprives people of the capacity to act according to their conscience, and in doing so, denigrates any Enlightenment notion of autonomy, seems not to have occurred to those currently sat in the National Assembly. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in a letter to Voltaire in 1756: ‘I am outraged, as you are, that the faith of everyone is not in the most perfect liberty, and that man dares control the interior of consciences, where he ought not to penetrate.’

Yet this perversion of secularism and Enlightenment values, in the name, ironically, of Enlightenment, is also not some sort of continental curiosity. In the UK, too, religion seems to be generating an animosity not seen since the seventeenth century. From the British Humanist Association’s ‘God probably doesn’t exist’ advertising campaign to the consistent assault on religion by so-called New Atheists, secularism in its militant form is on the march. Hence the furore that greeted then shadow home secretary Chris Grayling earlier this year when he said that it ought to be up to Christian bed-and-breakfast owners to decide whether they accepted gay couples. It was, Grayling said, ‘a matter of conscience’. If they believed that that is how they ought to act, then the state is in no position to tell them otherwise.

The fact that Grayling’s assertion, an assertion completely in line with the secular ideal, was seen as an outrage against secular values suggests that people’s consciences are seen as the objects of state intervention here in Britain as well as in continental Europe. Grayling’s faux pas, his violation of politically approved etiquette, was not an isolated example. Whether it’s the suspension of a Christian relationship councillor for refusing to counsel gay couples – again on the grounds of conscience – or concerns that the Catholic Church discriminates against homosexuals, advocates of secularism seem all too keen to intervene in what Rousseau called the ‘interior of consciences’.

And this is the grand irony to the advocacy of secularism today, whether in France or Britain. To hold that the state ought to ban expressions of belief that the state disagrees with – say, the belief that a woman ought to dress modestly – is to reinvent the sacred. It is to transform what the state believes to be right into something holy – and, in turn, it is to transform those possessed of different beliefs into secular heretics. Unfortunately for militant secularists, as the philosopher John Locke recognised as long ago as 1689, you cannot change someone’s beliefs by force, whether by banning a burqa or hunting down bigoted B&B owners. ‘No man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another. All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing’, said Locke.

In other words, not only should the state not dictate what people ought to think, it is also fundamentally incapable of doing so.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton said European campaigns to ban the burqa amount to pseudo-libertarian grandstanding, and she didn’t see how a ban on French schoolgirls’ headwear would make Muslims feel more French. Mick Hume called for an end to Muslim-mania. Barrister Barbara Hewson argued against allowing Muslim women to wear the veil in courtrooms. Munira Mirza demanded a heated debate about race, veils and multiculturalism. Or read more at spiked issue Religion.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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