Angela Merkel’s pre-Christmas vote-grabbing volte-face on Islamic face coverings has reopened debates across the world about what, if anything should be done about burkas and other Islamic garments which conceal a woman’s face.
There are several ways by which one can legally ‘ban’ the burka. Some are ethical and honest, others are not.
The first option referred to by Mrs. Merkel is the most duplicitous. The call for banning ‘face coverings’ of all varieties is an insult to people with genuine concerns about the overbearing presence of medieval Islamic dress in western societies.
Europe does not have a balaclava problem, a ski-mask problem, a face-mask problem or a fancy dress mask problem. Europe has a Muslim problem in the same way Syria, Turkey and Iraq have a Muslim problem.
The vast majority of terrorist groups around the world are those who commit terrorist acts in the name of Islam. The greatest number of victims of such atrocities are secular Muslims living in secular Islamic countries like Syria, whose regimes have been destabilised by the US, Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The Muslim women whose 20th century tale has been one of progress and liberation, are now being threatened by the imposition of Wahhabist Islam, often at gunpoint.
The knock-on effect is that Western liberals who are themselves secular cannot understand that most women in the Arab and Muslim world do not like burka style clothing any more than those who are intimidated by it in the West.
Therefore the issue is not about face-coverings. If one were to walk down the street in a Boris Johnson mask, one would be mocked, rather than feared.
One might ask, what is wrong with the burka in Europe? Those who dislike it generally posit the following views and there is some merit to each point:
–The burka is a physical imposition of an ancient way of worshipping a foreign religion in countries that were largely Christian and are now mostly secular.
–The burka poses a security concern as Islamic terrorists can use the burka to remain anonymous as they plot criminal acts.
–The burkas runs contrary to the laws of European countries, which protect the rights of women from private and public exploitation and submission.
Legally and in theory, France is one European country that has it easiest where this issue is concerned. Laïcité is a concept enshrined into French law, which guarantees that the public sphere is secular. However while it was legally simple to ban the burka, practically it has been difficult to enforce because of France’s large Muslim population, indeed the largest in Europe, many members of which continue to harbour anti-French sentiments since the Algerian war.
Britain on the other hand is a secular society in practice, despite the Church of England of which Queen Elizabeth II is the Supreme Governor being the established Church. Few people in England want to revert to a period when all religions were subordinate in the public, and at times, private sphere to the Church of England. That would be a legally simple way of banning the burka but it would be extremely unpopular and inpractical.
One could in theory disestablish the Church of England and impose either a French style militant secularism or a US style ‘all religions are legally equal’ system, either of which would be unlikely given the current climate.
Britain therefore can do little to ban the burka without surrendering to the ‘ban all face coverings’ argument.
This is unethical as it ignores the actual problem whilst criminalising headgear that no one has complained about or fears.
The only way to ban the burka in countries which do not explicitly have a legal guarantee of public secularism is to summon the moral courage and admit the problem is with the burka and with a potent variety of anti-modern Islam that it has come to represent.
Self-effacing liberals would say ‘this is Islamophobic’ even though most moderate and secular Muslims in the Arab world and beyond also find the burka to be a regressive symbol. Indeed in the Islamic Republic of Iran face coverings are considered far too radical, the headscarf being the rule there.
The biggest problem with the burka debate is that it has been hijacked by people who either know nothing about the Middle East or modern Islam, or who are accidental apologists for a brand of radical Salafi Islam which is incoherent both with the modern Islamic world and with the wider world.
It is equally dishonest not to admit that there is a Muslim problem.
There is also a liberal problem.
Both are increasingly out of touch with popular opinion on this issue.