Like many Muslims I find this all depressing. But it also provokes feelings of bemusement. One European government after another apparently feels compelled to proscribe the clothing choice of a tiny percentage of their population. It would be funny if it was not so sinister. In Belgium, it is said that only 30 women in the entire country wear the niqab. In France, it is less than 2,000 out of a population of 64 million. With Europe in the middle of its greatest economic crisis in over half a century you might be forgiven for thinking there are more serious issues to address.
I am against the imposition of dress codes on women, whether they live in Saudi Arabia or Southampton. It is a woman’s right to choose how to dress and nobody else’s. It certainly is not the right of any religious authority, father, husband, brother or politician to impose a dress code. Everybody should have the right to freedom of expression as long as in so doing they do not infringe on the rights of others. It is a simple principle that does not mean we have to agree with each other. Incidentally, that is a principle that some Muslims should think about more deeply. We rightly demand that our rights to practice our faith are upheld. We rightly insist that we are treated equally and with the same respect as all other citizens. It seems to me that it is hypocritical to demand these rights for ourselves, but to object when gay people, for example, demand the same equality as citizens. It is a basic principle of pluralism and civility that we don't only defend the freedoms of people whose choices we happen to like. Indeed the real test of tolerance and freedom is defending the rights of people whose choices we may actually dislike or disagree with - as long of course they do not harm or infringe the rights of others.
Those who support calls for a ban claim we need one on the interests of security. But there are already powers which allow authorities to request women show their face on entering buses, banks, airports etc. The wearing of the niqab is not a threat of security. Nor is it a threat to community cohesion. There is nothing which prohibits anyone from approaching and speaking to niqab wearing woman. And in my experience the women themselves adopt a practical approach by removing the niqab if it is required or if they feel it necessary. The biggest threat to community cohesion we face is not a piece of cloth the covers the faces of a minority within a minority, it is the climate of intolerance and racism this debate invariably brings with it.
As this government unleashes an austerity package much more extreme than anything Margaret Thatcher attempted, which could well result in riots on our streets, this focus on the extremely marginal actions of a handful of people is a divisive distraction. While Phillip Hollobone claims to be inspired by wanting to defend women’s rights, even invoking Emily Pankhurst in the process, he is noticeably quiet on government plans to slash benefits which will impact heaviest on women and single parent families.
There is an ugly tide of Islamophobia spreading across Europe and it is lapping on our shores. Almost every day there is some negative story about Muslims in the media. Almost every weekend gangs of racist thugs in the English Defence League target Muslim communities seeking to provoke street violence. Just yesterday they were down the road engaging in violence on the streets of Dudley. Whether those who call for a ban on the niqab are aware of it or not, this demand is stoking the fires of intolerance prejudice and racism. Muslim communities today across Europe are being subject to a kind of demonisation that has ugly echoes with the hysteria Jewish communities endured about their culture, lifestyle, and the politics of fringe elements among their ranks, during the 1920’s and 30’s. The political beneficiaries of this climate of hysteria in this country will be the fascist thugs marauding our streets in the English Defence League, and the ones wearing the suits in the BNP.