Banning the ‘Burka’: a poor performance from UKIP
Posted by rantingkraut on January 17, 2010
Nigel Farage appeared on the BBC arguing that face covering Muslim dress should be banned on security grounds -which seemed uncontroversial- and because it is a symbol of the oppression of women and of a divided society. On the two latter points he lost the argument to his Respect opponent.
To argue that women who choose to wear burka or niqab are as a rule oppressed -even if they say otherwise- is essentially a feminist argument which requires hefty dose of social determinism to conclude that women can’t make genuine choices within a patriarchal society.
Alternatively, one could argue that the professed choice is not credible because such statements are conditioned by implied pressure from a domestic patriarchal tyranny at the family level. The problem with this line of argument as a basis for intrusive legislation is that it would lead on to demands for further state regulation of family and private life: if husbands -or Muslim husbands at any rate- are such dangerous creatures, can they be left without the close supervision of a responsible ruler? Well, yes: laws for exit from an abusive marriage already exist, they should suffice.
Farage’s problem throughout is that he does not make it clear why the state should ban symbols of something it finds objectionable. There may be situations where this is justifiable: a tolerant society needs to reserve the right to be intolerant of intolerance if it is too survive. So if the argument had been made, that islamism is a totalitarian ideology that needs to be fought to preserve a tolerant, liberal society, then the moral justification for taking measures to contain it would have been established.
With this argument, the justification for banning islamist disguises could be made on the same grounds as Germany’s decision to ban the swastika. As in the German case, the moral justification would be one thing, the usefulness of such a measure is a different matter.
It did not help either that Farage concentrated on opposing islamic extremists. The issue is islamism vs. secularism, not extremism vs. moderation, and that is a big difference. There may be Muslims who are extreme in their religious observance. Nobody needs to care about this as long as it remains a private lifestyle choice. The problem with islamists is that they seek to derive generally binding rules from their religious beliefs. There is an islamist consensus, for example, that Muslims should limit non-believers’ rights to talk about Islam. Moderates and extremists may disagree how far those prohibitions should go, but they agree on the key principle: their religious traditions and beliefs trump the liberty of others.
It is therefore crucial to consistently oppose the conflation of religious belief and political authority in all its forms rather than creating the impression that only its extreme manifestations are a problem. When religion meets politics, the outcome is the inquisition -in one form or another.
Finally, the issue of consistency in the protection of individual liberty was not addressed. The freedom to dress as you please is one instance of the general freedom to do as you please so long as you don’t limit the freedom of others. Freedom of association, the liberty to associate, do business with etc. only with those people who you like to associate with or do business with … , is another such manifestation. Anti discrimination rules have limited freedom of association. If people who don’t get on are legally banned from going their different ways, a further regulatory task to limit controversial lifestyle choices directly follows.
The principled argument therefore would have been to maintain that individual liberty can’t be limited a la carte. Measures to restrict liberty at one end create unintended consequences elsewhere and these may create a need to impose further restrictions or remove the original one. How big the need for opposing islamic dress actually is is debatable, but pressure for it certainly exists. Part of this pressure is highly likely to be blowback from increasingly aggressive islamist demands. The challenge for Western societies is not to destroy the freedoms we should be defending in the process.
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