Why the French were right to ban the burqa and why Britain should do likewise
The real case against the burqa has not been made. It is time to recognise that it is a threat to the freedom of all of us
Of all the most ridiculous things that have been said in recent days about the French burqa ban, a piece by Noam Chomsky admirer Stefan Simanowitz in the Christian Science Monitor entitled “France's burqa ban: Has Europe forgotten the gas chambers?” surely marks a new low.
“Although the Enlightenment laid the ground for religious tolerance,” he warns ominously, “European history is nevertheless stained with expulsions, inquisitions, pogroms, and massacres culminating last century with Nazi Germany's gas chambers”.
Today the French burqa ban, tomorrow it’s back to Auschwitz.
As a statement about the liberal-left mindset and its almost complete inability to deal with the failures of a multi-culturalist agenda now derided even by such doubtful defenders of the Western tradition as British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, this is about as emphatic as it gets.
And yet, and to be fair, there has been so little by way of reasoned explanation of what the burqa ban is, or should be, about that it is easy to see how so many people have fallen into error in their attempts to interpret it.
So, let me have a quick stab at putting matters to rights.
The central argument in favour of the burqa ban is that all citizens of a liberal-democracy have the right to a personality, and to be seen (literally) to have one in the public domain.
The covering of the face reduces the individual to an anonymous subset of a collective identity, and thus prevents those who do not share that collective identity from interacting, in accordance with liberal values, with those who are covered.
The burqa is not, therefore, simply oppressive to those who wear it, it is oppressive to those who come from a liberal tradition and do not wear it.
In classical liberalism, rights proceed from an acceptance of the uniqueness of each individual and a belief that everyone should be accorded equal concern and respect. Whether one approaches the discussion from a left-liberal or a classical-liberal perspective it is clear that the burqa violates basic principles of liberal-equality – a core element of the Western tradition.
Of course, this all presupposes that we should accord primacy to the Western tradition in the first place – a presupposition that is not shared by thoroughgoing multi-culturalists.
But at least we need to be clear about how and where the battle lines in this discussion should be drawn.
Clearly, none of the great classical liberal thinkers ever approached the subject of the burqa directly, since it did not form a part of the social and cultural realities they were writing about, which is a relevant point in itself.
With mass immigration from the Muslim world, European societies have changed in recent decades in ways that would make them unrecognisable to the people whose ideas infuse our political, cultural and legal inheritance. It is not surprising that Western societies are having trouble reconciling some of the practices brought into them by Muslim immigrants since those practices evolved in a non-Western context.
Finally, let us expel once and for all the great red herring that is frequently brought into the discussion at this stage: the equivalence of ski-masks or the kind of masks worn at the bal de fous to the burqa. If we’re going to ban the burqa, we should ban them too.
Introducing such false parallels represents something of a desperate last stand. They are clearly not equivalent to the wearing of the burqa since they are tied to a specific activity and they are transient: they do not represent a permanent exclusion from liberal society and do not, therefore, represent a threat to the values on which a liberal society is constructed.
The French government did not articulate the case against the burqa in quite this way. It is nonetheless essential to understand how the burqa threatens the core principles of a free society.
And that is why the French were right to ban it earlier this week, and why Britain should do likewise without delay.
Robin Shepherd is the owner-publisher of The Commentator
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