Saturday, 1 May 2010

Ban on the burka reveals our fear of Islam

For what it is worth, I think Belgium's decision to ban the burka, and France's consideration of the same says very little about a European concern for women's liberation and an awful lot about our fear of Islam.

At the same time, I don't think this is, as Amnesty International have apparently argued, an issue to be resolved by an appeal to human rights or religious freedom (though essentially I'm personally committed to both).

Why do I think it is a move based on fear? Well, imagine a situation where a slightly loopy man decided not to go out in public except wearing a Zorro mask. We would think him sad, he would probably be jeered at by children, and he might cause some alarm in banks. But we would not expect to see the police arrest him, or want Parliament to be bothered with legislation to prevent his eccentricity.

Now our modern advocates of secularism are all for reminding us that religious people are all 'fruit loops' who believe in a 'magical friend' or something similar, and that our outlook is laughable and our influence is waning prior to our inevitable and much-to-be welcomed demise.

But surely what is sauce for the Christian goose (because that is where most of these remarks are directed) is equally sauce for the Muslim gander, the Jewish duck and so on?

In other words, Muslim women in burkas are just a gaggle of equally fruit-loopy people, who are just as much to be pitied as our hypothetical Zorro-mask wearer. And although we should perhaps, in the interests of public order, protect them from the jeers of children, we will have to work jolly hard (if we are secularists) not to despise them just a little bit for the folly of their own practices and the iniquity of them passing their empty notions onto their children.

But given that their ideas are stupid, their practices eccentric and their beliefs doomed to die out, what's Parliament got to do with it? A few more years, a bit more education and the burka will go the way of the Vestal Virgin's distinctive outfit.

That, at least, is what a confident secular society ought to think.

So why the need for a ban?

It is, I suggest, not because we feel sympathy for the women under the burkas. It is because we feel fear. And that is something worth a bit of self-examination.

John Richardson
1 May 2010

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  1. I note that the bill bans 'anything that covers the face' That would include the IRA balaclava and western style outlaw bandanas as well as the burka. The fear expressed is a fear of the unknown, unseen terrorist. I am not sure that it has much to do with 'human rights'.

  2. tio, at least if it came in here it would mess up Halloween, which can't be all bad.

  3. Yes, I quite agree that this ban is stupid and thankfully it is doubtful such a law would be passed in Britain. I think what you have to understand is the different ways in which Western societies accepted the ideas of the Enlightenment. France very much adopted the idea of ‘freedom FROM religion’; whereas the United States acceptance of Enlightenment ideas resulted in a ‘freedom OF religion’. England hovered somewhere in between – partly because it had an Established Church. Hence it is rather a simplistic argument to speak of ‘Secularists want such and such...’. Citizenship in a nation such as France is a contract between the individual and the secular state. Religion is very much a private matter as is its practice.

    However I agree that there is almost an entrenched paranoia about religion, particularly minority religions, in France and Belgium. I attended INFORM’s recent seminar (see the other week and two of the speakers were from France and Belgium and both intimated a distrust of new religions movements (NRMs); I have attended previous seminars where French contributors from various anti-cult and NRM groups have spoken with profound distrust of such groups. Hence distrust concerning religion, particularly minority religions, does seem part of the national psyche and I would suggests that how Enlightenment ideas were woven into the political discourse of these nations is a major reason for misgivings concerning religion in general. So I don’t think this is just those wicked secularists wanting to push religion out of society. You have to remember in France, religion has not been ‘IN’ much of its society for over two centuries.

    Of course the fact this ban is concerned with Islam adds to the variables if you are trying to build an argument that the ban is evidence a secularist agenda. So much of what is deemed to be concerned with Islam is often wrapped up with race, immigration and (thanks to a tiny minority of violent fanatics who claim Islam is the motivation for their terrorism) national security.

    Taking these points together I think it can be argued that here we are not looking at secularism having its wicked way, but what happens when cultures clash and prejudice and bigotry are veiled (!) as national interest. I certainly don’t think religion is the issue although I am aware that many of the religious persuasion have a habit these days of assuming the role of victims or saviours of society and therefore anything in the news that has a hint of discrimination against religion is pounced upon for this very reason. Let’s face it, the only reason why religion gets media attention is when something salacious occurs that might interest the nation; there is little concerning religion per se that grabs the majority of people’s attention is there? So if you want religion discussed you have to play up any attack or perceived attack on religion for all they’re worth! If this didn’t happen it is doubtful religion would be discussed on the media at all – aside from the obligation of British broadcasters to include a ‘God Slot’, which is usually tucked away in some dusty corner of the program schedule, reflecting its lack of appeal to your average citizen...



  4. A very salient point about feeling fear. I find this subject quite akin to the “anonymous comments” subject below. What makes us think that seeing a person’s face or signing a comment with a “real name” is an indicator of goodwill?

    Rather it is an assumption that one will see through subterfuge if the other person presents what is real. Did Lot’s neighbors hide their faces and use pseudonyms when demanding “knowledge” of the strangers? In other words violence is well hidden in man’s heart and will manifest according to its own logic; anyone who tells you otherwise is a filmmaker.

    SteveP, US

  5. the bill bans 'anything that covers the face'
    ---Would that include the full beards?---Are Men going to be put in jail for not shaving?

  6. Mark Steyn has a lot to say about the overweening State claiming to rule citizens' lives in the interest of 'public security', 'social cohesion' etc. But it is immigration from Islamic countries that has undermined social cohesion in the first place.

    Is Belgium really a country, BTW? Wasn't it something cobbled together from spare parts after Waterloo?

    Mark B.

  7. The law would put an end to this Belgian custom too:

    Speaking of famous Belgians, have you ever noticed the amazing similarity between President of Europe van Rompuy and Gollum?

    Mark B.

  8. Anonymous, the Western Allies twice fought valiantly inter alia for Albert I of the Belgians' notion that, contra Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, Belgium is a country- not a road.

  9. Yes, the Britsh and the French fought for them. All the Belgians fought were the Congolese.

    Mark B.