If Britain decides to ban the burqa I might just start wearing one
There's too much harping on about respect and banning. What about the huge gulf of toleration in the middle?
Sunday 25 July 2010
Tattoos and burqas are all the rage. One in five of us now has a tattoo and there are enough burqas around to invoke talk of banning them. Some people, presumably, sport both – but they're difficult to identify without causing an embarrassing scuffle. Especially if the person under the burqa turns out to be a woman.
Nothing good has come out of the tiresome burqa-banning debate, other than a timely reminder that the French aren't really to be trusted. Most of the time they're OK – quite like us, relatively affluent, but not so as to make us feel bitter, the kind of people you'd happily share a school run with. But, every so often, they'll do something a bit mental – have a revolution, nearly elect Le Pen, capitulate in the face of an evil empire whose armies they outnumber, ban the burqa from public places. It's always a bit of a shock, an undermining of confidence, like noticing that your accountant has a tattoo.
Damian Green, the immigration minister, deftly dismissed calls for a burqa ban as "rather un-British". I imagine he was hoping that this would cause a sort of feedback loop in the minds of xenophobes: "Hate not British! Burqa not British! Hate burqa! Ban burqa! Banning not British! Hate banning! Ban banning! Ban burqa! Ban burqa banning! Does not compute!"
I certainly prefer that argument to his colleague Caroline Spelman's view. She thinks burqas are "empowering". That's only true in the sense that a ban would be massively disempowering and colossally violate the rights of free-born citizens. It would, in fact, be the only thing that would persuade me to wear one myself, in the spirit of Guillaume Morand, a Swiss businessman who last year responded to his country's outlawing of minarets by defiantly erecting one over his shoe shop.
Governments and legislatures shouldn't tell people what they can and can't wear. By doing so, they would, in every sense, be taking a massive liberty. As long as people aren't wearing crotchless jeans outside primary schools or deely boppers with attached sparklers on petrol station forecourts, we've all got the right to wear exactly what the hell we like and I can barely believe that we're having this debate.
But we are. Stupid people are thinking about an issue that doesn't need to be thought about and a YouGov survey says 67% of us want full-face veils outlawed. Just when I thought my estimation of humanity couldn't fall any further, I discover that two-thirds of my fellow countrymen are, or at least were for the duration of taking a survey, morons. I'm so glad the Conservatives are committed to local referenda.
These idiots may not be proportionally represented but they do have a voice in parliament: Philip Hollobone MP. He's tabled a private member's bill that would make it illegal for anyone to cover their face in public. "Covering your face in public is strange, and to many people both intimidating and offensive," he says. Take that, Batman.
None of this means I think there's anything good about wearing a burqa. I think it's daft. I think any belief system that concludes that half the population should go around constantly covered from head to toe in black cloth, whether out of modesty, humility, tradition or stealth, has a massive flaw in it.
And, while I'm at it, I think that it's ridiculous to believe in transubstantiation, that considering the Bible to be the literal word of God reduces that supposedly omnipotent being to a muddle-headed maniac and that the Hindu caste system and Roman Catholic rules against contraception could have been invented by Satan. There! Now no one will be able to guess who's killed me.
Expressing these kinds of opinion is becoming taboo, as Cardiff councillor John Dixon has found out. He's up in front of the public service ombudsman for Wales for calling the Church of Scientology "stupid" on Twitter. Ever zealous in the defence of their good name (and can you imagine what would be said about them if they weren't?), the Scientologists lodged a complaint against Dixon, accusing him of "bigotry". It was taken further because, as the letters "Cllr" were part of his Twitter name, he was deemed to be commenting in his official capacity and thus breaching Cardiff council's code of conduct on respecting people's religious beliefs.
There's altogether too much harping on respect and banning these days. If you can't respect something, you should ban it. If it's not banned, you should respect it. Bullshit. There is a huge gulf of toleration between respect and banning. In a free society, people should be allowed to do what they want wherever possible. The loss of liberty incurred by any alternative principle is too high a price to pay to stop people making dicks of themselves. But, if people are using their freedoms to make dicks of themselves, other people should be able to say so.
So the fact that, lamentably, some people sincerely believe in Scientology and consider it a religion, even if the British state does not, doesn't give Scientologists the right to be treated with rhetorical kid gloves. Similarly, while burqas shouldn't be banned from public places, we don't have to respect people's decision to wear them. We can tolerate but criticise it and, as long as we're not being abusive, take the piss. Consequently, those women who feel pressured into wearing burqas by cultural or familial forces might become aware that they're living in a society where questioning those forces is welcomed.
It bears restating that it's not bigoted to disagree vociferously with people's choices, as long as you're even more vociferous in defending their right to make them. So if, because of peer pressure, a section of our community is altering its appearance in a way that I think looks awful or silly, I'm allowed to say so. Which brings me back to tattoos.
Tattoos are horrible and they never come off. Walking around with a tattoo is like perpetually screaming: "I should not of done this!" at the top of your voice. It is foolishness and vulgarity made permanent. Most people can extricate themselves from marriages with less pain. This fashion for tattoos – this fad for the indelible – shows an outbreak of mass imprudence comparable with Easter Island at its head-carving peak. It will lead to thousands of years of collective regret. But that's liberty for you: gladly or not, it's all about suffering fools.