I am against bans on the wearing of the burqa or niqab in public1 therefore I am going to recommend that you read the best article I have read in favour of such bans:
The argument that the garment is not a religious obligation under Islam is well-founded but irrelevant; millions of Muslims the world around believe that it is, and the state is not qualified to be in the business of Koranic exegesis. The choice to cover one’s face is for many women a genuine expression of the most private kind of religious sentiment. To prevent them from doing so is discriminatory, persecutory, and incompatible with the Enlightenment traditions of the West. It is, moreover, cruel to demand of a woman that she reveal parts of her body that her sense of modesty compels her to cover; to such a woman, the demand is as tyrannical, humiliating, and arbitrary as the passage of a law dictating that women bare their breasts.
All true. And yet the burqa must be banned.
I quote Jefferson in the title of this post because he was one of the Founding Fathers and the author of the article is American; I don’t agree with him either.
- But I have no strong objections to consistent bans on all religious symbols on the premises of state-funded institutions [↩]
Yes, that’s a terrific defence of the burqa ban. This is an issue which I find it very hard to get clear about. What do you see as being the strongest reason for rejecting Berlinski’s case?
One reason for the UK to reject is that this isn’t or Turkey or France—just as gun control makes less sense in Switzerland or Israel than it does in the US.
One reason I reject it is consistency: I have said here more than once that, absent violent local tribalisms, people should be allowed to wear whatever they want in public, including nothing at all.
Yes, that’s very interesting. So your first reason is compatible with thinking that the ban might be justified elsewhere – it’s just that we don’t need it here (perfectly reasonable position, since such things can be highly context-sensitive, even for – *especially* for – a good Millian liberal). And your second reason is certainly a consistent one, but it gives a hostage to fortune in the reference to violent local tribalisms: isn’t it a central part of Berlinski’s case that we’re here in the presence of the equivalent of violent local tribalisms, and it’s the likely consequences (for *all* women) of permitting the burqa that give us reason to ban it?
One of the reasons I haven’t written a blog post addressing this issue is that it would take me an essay of a similar length to Claire’s to do so properly and, sadly, I don’t have the time to write one (nor will anyone pay me to do so). I’m going to try here to be as concise as I can. There will be oversimplification.
Humans are tribal. Religion does not poison everything, but it is not inherently noble; it is no more deserving of respect than any other manifestation of the human tendency toward tribalism. Humans are violent. Together, these aspects of human nature lead to physical conflict. In the absence of state intervention, the weak and the few suffer.
Usually, in free, democratic countries where the rule of law applies and the state has a monopoly on violence, most citizens grant this monopoly on condition that it is wielded blindly. It should be blind to blood and blind to clan.
Tribal violence, by definition, is not blind; it discriminates. It is also unreasonable, so the vulnerable must be protected by the deployment of greater force. This will also inevitably lead to physical conflict. The best we can do is distinguish between just and unjust conflict and strive for justice. There will be occasions when it is not practical for the state to enforce justice (universally), when it’s easier simply to make it harder for violent tribespeople to discriminate—or when making it harder for violent tribespeople to discriminate makes it easier for the state to defend the tribespeople’s likely victims with force.
If/when, in parts of the UK or elsewhere, it can be shown that one tribe physically threatens others in a way which constrains the freedom of those others, then it is time for the state to constrain the freedoms of those doing the threatening—and perhaps, as a concomitant or last resort, constrain the freedoms of the threatened. At an extreme, the best the state can do is separate tribes, with walls if necessary. This is a failure, but it is better than at least two other extremes: genocide and civil war. It’s a failure because, in the first place, one of the worst forms of tribal violence is the physical separation of individual members of different tribes. Inbred species go extinct.
For example, when people in one part of a country choose to divide their schools into black and white, then the state may be obliged to use force to end this tribal division. It will constrain the freedom of the supporters of segregation to organize their educational institutions as they see fit and it will constrain the freedom of the desegregated to, for example, travel to and from their places of study at times when agents of the state can defend them against tribal violence, but this is better than constraining their respective freedoms of association. In the long run, it leads to less material harm.
I know someone, slightly younger than me, a daughter of relatively liberal parents, who grew up in a country where there were certain areas she couldn’t walk through wearing a skirt without having boys throw stones at her. Her freedoms were being constrained, but any attempt by the state to deal with that would have also required it to act in ways which, however temporarily or minimally, constrained certain of her freedoms. Despite this, its not so doing was a failure.
Although state intervention on pain of violence is already routinely required to regulate tribal displays in Northern Ireland, I don’t believe that, as yet, there are places in mainland Britain like the Middle Eastern country I described; but, if similar situations developed here, then the state would probably have to restrict somebody’s freedoms. Exactly whose and how would depend on the circumstances prevailing, but neither class of constraints can be ruled out on theoretical grounds. One reason that Claire’s essay is so good is that it acknowledges the importance of cherished ideals but doesn’t fetishize them.
In a lot of currently fashionable and empty-headed commentary and under totalitarian systems, however, theory trumps reality. Under truly liberal systems, this isn’t the case. As I have said many times before, political “theory” is vastly inferior—in its applicability, insight, importance, robustness, logic, evidential base, elegance, and universality—to scientific theory. According it similar respect is fatal. (It has been literally so.) Besides, when they accurately approximate the real world, physical-scientific theories don’t care whether you respect them or not; they just are. Try defying gravity.
Apart from anything else, it is easier for the state to get tribes to agree on the relative extents of material harms than of abstract ones, so, when claims conflict, arithmetic must prevail over algebra. Even then, it’s difficult to choose how to sum material harms over time and across space. I’m not going to give any glib answers about how to do so here.
There’s not much in this I’d want to disagree with, except to say that there’s more to religion than just a manifestation of the human tendency to tribalism; though sometimes the religious impulse is vile, sometimes it’s noble. And though political theory is as you say imperfect and inelegant, it’s not as if we can do without it: most people work with some implicit theory or other of justice, even if they don’t recognise it as such.
This is true. It’s also irrelevant to the question under discussion: the regulation of this particular tribal display and tribal displays in general. That some/many religious people are or have been noble has no bearing on how we should treat the tics of the faith with which they are associated. I can’t say enough times that the religious nature of a belief is, if anything, a reason why it (though not necessarily its holders) should be accorded less respect, not more, by the state.
Many people regard practising doctors with particular respect, in part because they must meet high measured standards of skill, knowledge, and ethics. Many treat on-duty police officers with particular respect, in part because the law holds them to higher standards of conduct than other members of the public. Worshipping priests, priestesses, and parishioners have earned no such respect.
Because doctors are answerable to materialist, evidence-based professional bodies, it is harder for them, for example, to sustain and escape professional expulsion and criminal prosecution for conspiring to perpetrate and conceal the rape and torture of thousands of children. That many doctors are motivated by high humanitarian ideals (and they don’t, in general, rape children) is a bonus, but it’s not why we allow them by law to do things denied to other citizens.
One reason why England is such a good place for actual human beings is that—especially when it comes to this kind of question—its common law tradition has muddled along happily for hundreds of years paying limited attention to theories of justice. Indeed, the recent history of the World is bloody with good reasons for humans everywhere to do the same.
Believing that people are guided by implicit theories of justice does no more work here than believing that their social relations are governed by flows of humours. A voter who opposes full veiling of women because she has been harrassed by local Islamists will be unmoved by attempts to persuade her that her opposition is inconsistent with her (perhaps even publicly expressed) belief in religious tolerance. If I were her neighbour, I wouldn’t be popping round any time soon, armed with my (obviously more insightful and highly educated) assessment of her unrecognized implicit theoretical framework, to try to persuade her that violent misogynists should be allowed to shroud their human chattels in public because a ghost told them to.
We live in a material world, according to rules shaped by prevailing material circumstances (though, yes, many of them are products of ancient religious traditions). As far as I am concerned, anyone who believes they deserve special treatment on grounds of mystical revelation can get themselves to a nunnery. Whatever good their co-religionists might do/have done, this belief breeds hate. Today, I think, most Britons would agree with me.
Totally agree with the last post. Religion is the destruction of human nature, whatever religion it is. Everyone should respect that the next man AND WOMAN! could have a different view, and realise there will be a good reason behind his AND HER beliefs as long as they are HIS OR HER beliefs that he has thought long and hard about and not some controlling, sick, brain washed, nonsensical thoughts they have been force fed since birth. And nobody should be told what to believe in, it should be a deep feeling within the heart mind and soul of each individual that we should do and are doing whats good and right for all of us here on this planet and that we are all here as equals and should love respect and take care of each other as lifes too short for all this hate and badness. And although everything that is, has an equal opposite as humans we are all equal but we shouldnt be opposing each other. Over what? God? Who is he? Where is he? The MAN (ha)who is nowhere to be seen, up there in the sky, causing shit but staying well out of it, our father? (Typical father) If we are children of god, it takes two to create life and gods equal opposite the mother (EARTH) The Goddess is taking care of us children giving us a safe home, feeding us and struggling while her disrespectful children abuse her and god does nothing. Men of earth, sons of god are typically just following that example. One day he will look in and realise he didnt do his job right and the kids are all gone and the mother is burnt out. But then it will all be too late. If god is good and created everything and loves us all, I dont think he would have allowed this to happen. Its all bullshit. Sorry for ranting thats my opinion and im not an academically well educated woman, just a single mother trying to do her best and get by and raise her kids right with no money and the way things are going no prospects either, so please just ignore me if you disagree, and appreciate my beliefs are mine, and although I think im right im not wanting to convert you as I respect you already have your own beliefs. Peace and love people, we are all beautiful individuals, equal human beings who dont know who or where our father is, so please believe this and this is one thing I will try and get you to believe, respect mother earth she is the one taking care of us and if we dont she will slowly suffer and eventually die, and so will you. Things can change if we all take that on board so that our kids, kids, kids, will see this amazing planet in its most beautiful state, looked after and appreciated, with god looking down and being proud of something he created with the Goddess and protecting their creation. If anyone wants to debate me on this, facebook me diane green as I am only on mobile internet and will never remember how I got here to check up! Peace and unity fellow human beings. please just Love each other. Its not hard if you are nice! God is love, spread that one around! X x x
Pootergeek, man youre cool even though I do disagree with a couple of your beliefs! I dont wanna fight about it! (Joke-teehee) We can have different views without having to prove ‘my way is better than yours’ ‘im right and your wrong’ and if you dont agree we should fight. If only people could appreciate uniqueness, if we were all the same things would be quite boring. The reason there is as you say tribes is because although we are all unique we have similarities with others and tend to hang out with people who think alike and thats because they get along well. Its not in our human nature to be violent, most people dont like violence. Too much control causes the violence, when we are told we have to do something we dont believe in and we think is wrong is what causes conflict, we should respect all our various beliefs and personality traits and choices of activities and the freedom from not conforming to someone elses ideals will make people more peaceful and contented. Sometimes I feel like I could be very violent but its only towards the police and government for controlling my life while they Fuck up the world, a lot of laws are wrong and pointless and it gets me angry that they can control me but- I dont go killing anyone because it would make me just as bad as them and I want peace, like most people xxx
Dont agree with burkas at all. Got a very good reason for that but im too tired to get into it now. But if they do not ban them. I am going to start wearing one. And make a fuss about it whilst acting shady, see how freaked out they all get by that! And they will understand how I feel now. I can be as dodgy as I like and nobody will even know its me! Perfect disguise.