There was something troubling about sections of the media’s sneering reaction to Ukip’s statement on the subject of face veils on Monday. The party wants to prohibit the custom of completely covering one’s face in public, as practised by some Muslims. As it’s the widely maligned Ukip who proposed it, the idea was met with a significant amount of derision.
“Does this ban apply to all face coverings, like beekeepers?” queried Christopher Hope, of the Telegraph.
It’s a funny line, to be fair. How about welders? And the local fencing club, do you want to lock them up too?
How about looters in a riot? Oh no, wait, we probably want to see their face and snare them on CCTV.
Of course, Ukip will always be more vulnerable to journalistic prodding than other parties, and if we can’t snigger at politicians then we’re doomed. But if the mainstream media were to stop and look around for a moment, they’d find that there is a quietly smouldering issue at the heart of all this, and it’s not cooling down.
This topic cuts to the bone of the overtaxed ‘liberal elite’ trope, which might be a cliché, but is as true now as it was last June when Brexit descended, filing its nails and grinning conspicuously, from the midsummer heavens. The metropolitan bubble never actually burst, and within it, concerns about Islam are dismissed, entirely wrongly, as a form of bigotry or narrow mindedness.
On the outside though, among the majority of the population, the wearing of face veils can be spoken about openly, and it’s a custom that’s certainly not welcomed with open arms.
Is that bigotry?
Well, ask yourself this. If you were walking down the street and the black-clad person approaching you was wearing their black hood up, with their black scarf pulled up tight so you could see nothing but their eyes, would it be bigoted to feel uncomfortable?
Is it bigoted to acknowledge that physically disguising oneself, so you cannot be visibly distinguished from others in your similarly attired group, is disconcerting for others?
Is it bigoted to state that we need greater integration between communities so that we can live together cohesively, and that if one group of people conceal their identities every time they go out in public, it’s disruptive to that process of integration?
Is it bigoted to note that burkas are worn only by adherents to a radically devout form of Islam, which in no way treats women as equals, and which is fundamentally incompatible with liberal ideals?
The media can go ahead and take the piss out of Ukip to their heart’s delight. Snarking and sniping is the British way of dealing with things and I wouldn’t want to change that for a moment. But they should also be aware that it doesn’t matter how much they ignore this issue, or laugh at it, or temporarily misdirect people’s attention, it will still be there, and it’s growing.
Wait a few years and it won’t just be Ukip discussing this, it will be all the major parties, and the beekeeping gag might not get rolled out. If it seems unlikely that the issue will gain wider traction, just look at how Euroscepticism used to be treated: as a fringe concern, toxic to the electorate. How misguided that false consensus looks now that we’re actually leaving the EU, for good, because it turns out that actually, most people are Eurosceptics.
Discussing face veils also raises vital issues around free speech and Islam. The establishment consensus is that there will be no burka ban, but at the same time there’s a risk that we’ll become constricted by hate speech regulations, which could prevent us from discussing Islam in a robust and open manner. Just recently Sadiq Khan implicitly warned us to wash our online mouths out with soap and holy water, or else prepare for a knock on the door. But logically, you can’t make the liberal case for the freedom to wear the veil (or the freedom to be forcibly veiled) while simultaneously endorsing hate speech rules, which are fundamentally illiberal.
A core part of the argument not to have a burka ban is that the state has no right to tell anybody what they can and can’t wear. This ignores the issue of coercion, but can nonetheless be framed as an authentically liberal argument. And authentic liberals know that the liberties they espouse extend to everyone, even those with whom they disagree. It’s very easy to defend liberalism when you’re only dealing with people on your side. It’s when you have to extend those liberal rights to your opponents that the true test comes. Put simply, if banning face veils is illiberal, then so is monitoring and restricting people’s speech.
If we aren’t to deal with the regressive elements of Islam through bans and state enforcement, then part of the alternative is to use reason and argument. And also jokes, ridicule, disrespect, trolling, baiting, and heckling. The same as we’ve done with every other overbearing religion, dysfunctional political system, and thin-skinned authoritarian.
But our ability to do any of this is hindered if we must be constantly wary of crossing arbitrary lines on what is and isn’t acceptable speech. We end up with what amounts to blasphemy policing, and are quickly left with no further method of critical engagement. Give a free pass to Islam in this way, by cracking down on those who peacefully confront it while also dismissing the idea of legislative intervention, and you’re on the path back to a theocratic dark age.
This post is also at Country Squire Magazine