By Daniel Hannan ~
Some ladies in hijabs live near me, and we often stop for a chat when we pass in the street. There was a time when their choice of headgear would have provoked suspicion. Veils were seen by some Britons as tokens of an alien religion, and the women wearing them were suspected of being unpatriotic. But, in these more enlightened times, the Catholic nuns on my street barely attract a second glance.
It wasn’t so long ago that Catholics in Britain – and, indeed, in the United States – were regarded in much the same way as Muslims today. It wasn’t so much their religious beliefs that were distrusted as their political motives. Seventeenth-century England was as traumatized by the Gunpowder Plot, a terrorist attack on Parliament, as was twenty-first century America by 9/11. The man caught with barrels of explosives under the House of Commons, Guy Fawkes, was the Mohamed Atta of his day – a jihadi, radicalized in foreign wars.
The French crackdown on religious dress – notably the recently overturned burkini ban – is akin to some of the anti-Catholic legislation which, from our modern perspective, seems so wrongheaded. God knows France has its problems with religious extremism. It’s understandable, after the horrors of Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan and Nice, that its people are jumpy. But targeting Islamist terrorism by telling women what to wear isn’t using a sledgehammer to crack a nut; it’s using a sledgehammer to miss a nut.
Let’s reprise a couple of principles which, in normal times, wouldn’t need stating. First, governments ought not to tell their citizens what to wear, at least not without an extremely good reason. Just as it is wrong for Taliban patrols to order women to cover up, so it is wrong for French gendarmes to order them to uncover.
Second, while governments have no business reviving mediaeval sumptuary laws, employers have every right to impose whatever staff uniforms they like. Almost as silly as the burkini ban are the frequent legal cases brought in Europe against companies that don’t allow headscarves or ostentatious crosses or whatever. There is a huge difference between being told what to do when you are going about your own business and being told that you must accept certain conditions if you want to take a particular job.
That difference is sometimes blurred because Leftists insist on approaching the issue, as they approach most issues, as a racial one. Because the most visible symbols of religious devotion tend to be worn by ethnic minorities, liberal commentators in Europe often see the question as one of minority rights rather than of free choice or free contract. British Airways, obedient to the politically correct demands of our age, once got itself into the idiotic position of banning big crucifixes but allowing headscarves, arguing that employees should be allowed devotional dress when it is prescribed by their religion. An airline, in other words, was setting itself up as the authority of what is and isn’t scripturally mandated.
Now plenty of people, Muslims and non-Muslims, will tell you that headscarves are not scripturally mandated. Some, indeed, will defend bans on burkas and burkinis on grounds that they are primarily a political rather than a religious statement.
Which brings me to the third principle which would be obvious in normal times. There is a difference between disliking something and wanting to ban it.
I have never cared for those Che Guevara tee-shirts that you occasionally see on cretinous teenagers. Communism must be reckoned, in crude mathematical terms, the most murderous ideology devised by human intelligence. If you ask me, a Che Guevara tee-shirt is as morally repugnant as an Adolf Hitler tee-shirt or an Osama bin Laden tee-shirt. But I wouldn’t ban any of them. That’s what makes our way of life better than the alternatives advanced by those three monsters.
Incidentally, European Muslims can usefully learn from the way eighteenth-century Catholics eventually overcame prejudice. They didn’t retreat into victimhood. They understood that even the most baseless criticisms needed to be answered patiently and politely. In the end, the charge of divided loyalties was made offensive by the number of Catholic names on Britain’s war memorials.
British Muslims are now in the habit of flying flags from their mosques, praying for the Queen, pronouncing fatwahs on extremists and encouraging young men to enlist. French Muslims, though, feel less connection to their country than almost any other immigrant community in Europe. Now ask yourself this: Will banning burkinis soothe or inflame that sense of alienation?
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributor Daniel Hannan is an British writer and journalist, and has been a Conservative MEP (Member of the European Parliament) for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the EU is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free. He is the winner of the Bastiat Award for online journalism.