Judging by my Facebook feed this post risks generating some unpopularity but since it is something that needs to be said here goes…
I cannot help but notice the persistent thread running through social media content here in the UK constantly seeking to garner support for a ban on the burqa, the full-length garment worn by many Islamic women.
In some countries, like France, such a ban already exists (strictly speaking the prohibition there is on face coverings such as the niqab veil & it also restricts balaclavas and hoods).
Unsurprisingly the French law is greatly resented in some quarters & had to survive a challenge at the European Court of Human Rights a while back.
The main argument supporting the ban is that face-coverings obviously prevent clear identification of a person and are considered to be both a potential security risk, and a social barrier.
Perhaps the first thing that needs to be said in the case of the UK is that the debate here is always going to be a moot one. There isn’t the remotest chance of a burqa ban being imposed here for the simple reason that our political class is far too craven to entertain such a controversy so you may as well save your Twitter campaign for something else.
But suppose the political will did actually exist, ought the burqa/niqab to be outlawed here? And what view of this ought to be taken by Christians?
I cite three reasons why I think that there ought not to be a ban.
Firstly the whole notion of the state instructing people what clothing they can & cannot wear grossly offends the libertarian in me. Broadly speaking I have an instinctive aversion to banning things & I consider that to be a healthy thing.
Like everyone else however I do have an inner totalitarian who is always fighting to express himself and if pushed this is certainly an area of life where I am capable of yielding to my more Soviet inclinations.
For instance, under my enlightened rule you would risk an immediate end to the unseemly sight of bare-chested males parading themselves down the high street on a warm summer’s afternoon. And then there is the atrocity of men wearing shorts in public…
Ah…but this is the problem isn’t it?
Once we start legislating in this area then we really are all at the mercy of whoever has happened to gain the sympathies of the powers-that-be for their own particular sartorial prejudices. In this regard we might do well to remind ourselves that there are parts of the world where the full burqa covering is actually required by law.
Between the two extremes of banning the burga as a form of dress on the one hand & requiring women to wear it on the other, can we not see the desirability of instead allowing for individual liberty especially in such a personal area as clothing?
In my view the law ought to dictate that we be decently covered and leave it at that.
This requirement for modesty in dress cannot be overemphasised, for personal freedom always has limits. I speak as one who once had a splendid walk over the Swaledale fells ruined by an encounter with an individual famous for his insistence on tramping over the hills wearing nothing more than a rucksack and a smile.
Unfortunately given the steadily growing influence of the naturist lobby and its brazen demand to be allowed to bare all in public, I predict that we as Christians will soon be far more exercised with the problems caused by those wishing to wear too little fabric in public rather than too much.
Secondly we ought to have respect for a person’s individual sense of what constitutes modesty.
If a woman feels improperly dressed because she is not wearing a burqa (and very many Muslim women do indeed feel this way) then who am I to argue with her?
Put yourself in her shoes for a moment: how would you feel if you were forced by law to wear an item of clothing you considered too revealing? How would any Western woman feel about legislation compelling her to wear a mini-skirt of a length that she considered indecent?
Well, that is how many Islamic women feel when others seek to impose by force of law their own moral code & I say that we ought to respect that.
Of course, where it can be demonstrated that the woman in question is being coerced into covering up that is obviously a different matter, but in truth I see little evidence that this occurs often in this country.
I have known of unmarried sisters, where one covers up and the other wears more traditionally Western clothing. Given that these are young women who live under the roof of the same father it seems reasonable to assume that they must be exercising individual choice.
I am confident that this is largely the case in Britain and very many Muslim women confirm that it is so.
Assuming therefore that the women in question are free & uncoerced agents, do the rest of us have the right to interfere with their individual sense of propriety in this way?
I say not.
Thirdly for Christians there is what I may term the Niemoller Effect
Ps Martin Niemoller was the famous German wartime theologian who, having abandoned an early flirtation with Nazism, began instead to warn his compatriots of its dangers.
The quotation from the poem he would later write is justly famous,
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
When we as Christians join the chorus of disapproval against peaceful expressions of the Islamic faith such as the burqa we are unwittingly playing a dangerous game, one that can very easily rebound upon us.
If we are happy to allow such restrictions on a Muslim woman’s sincere expression of her religion then what right will we have to complain when restrictions are later placed upon us in other areas such as street evangelism?
Many of the people who would seek to ban this form of Islamic covering have little respect for visible expressions of the Christian faith either; in fact they generally show themselves keener to harass members of our faith than any other!
We ought not to be encouraging further the climate of religious stifling which already exists in this nation.
Make no mistake, in such an environment restrictions upon personal, & religious liberties will always be first & foremost against Christians not Muslims.
Given that there are already enough people out there wanting to deny believers their rights, I suggest that we not give them any encouragement by joining the baying hordes wishing to deny others’ those same rights.