Muslim veil ruling? Nonsense upon stilts

That's Jeremy Bentham's line. And it's a good one. But what was an English court thinking of in its ruling over the Muslim niqab? Did English law from Magna Carta die today?

Magna Carta
Robin Shepherd, Owner / Publisher
On 16 September 2013 13:39

The English utilitarian political philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously (and mischievously) described natural law related predispositions towards societal governance as "nonsense upon stilts". Still, it was a great line. And if anyone thought it had had its day, they must have missed Monday's judgment in an English court about a defendant's right to wear the Muslim veil.

To set out the relevant details: a female Muslim defendant accused of intimidating a witness, and therefore brought to trial at the Crown Court, had argued (via lawyers) that her "human rights" would be violated if she were disallowed from standing in the witness box wearing a veil (niqab) from which only her eyes were visible through a narrow slit.

At Blackfriars Crown Court in London, the presiding judge said: "The ability of the jury to see the defendant for the purposes of evaluating her evidence is crucial." But he did not "doubt the sincerity of her belief" not to be seen by a man in public. The upshot? She will be shielded from public and media view but must be seen by the lawyers, the judge and jury while she is giving testimony.

That has been billed in the British media as a "compromise".

No, it's not. It means that if your non-Muslim, non-niqab wearing sister, mother or daughter is accused of a crime she has to face the public scrutiny of her peers while a Muslim, niqab wearing woman does not, at least not in a very important, similar way.

We have legal traditions in England going back to Magna Carta (1215) that have been developed so as to provide for that most important of legal principles: equality before the law.

With this ruling, those traditions have just been trashed. To be fair, the judge was obviously not entirely happy about what he had ruled: "...the niqab has become the elephant in the courtroom... Parliament or a higher court will provide a definite answer to the issue soon," he said.

Don't hold your breath. Fudging this issue is becoming a national sport in Britain, and much of the Western world besides.

And that is because everyone is terrified of confronting an issue of truly civilisational importance: How do you remain intellectually honest and supportive of a law-based Western-style society while simultaneously trying to reach a deal with those whose existential requirements are antithetical to your core traditions?

Robin Shepherd is the owner/publisher of The Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @RobinShepherd1

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