The debate on full veils - burqas and niqabs - in British courts and British schools was always bound to happen. The issue flared up a few years ago following some remarks by Jack Straw but it had not yet turned into a discussion over the possibility of a French style umbrella ban.
Politicians such as Phillip Hollobone, Jeremy Browne and Nick Clegg seem to propose something along these lines. Yet, I believe, this country will not eventually generate a law similar to the French one in force since 2011. If it did, it would not be beneficial, but it is still important that we have this discussion.
Public deliberation is healthy for democracy. In particular, debating is a highly treasured feature of British democracy, but so are individual freedoms and so is pragmatism. From this latter perspective, I am not sure that the numbers of women wearing niqabs or burqas in this country is so sizeable to actually deserve so much public attention, as well as expenditure of much public resources.
Unlike the French, Britain has taken a fluid approach to difference and the multicultural character of its society, and in the current circumstances, it is unclear - perhaps impossible - to establish where the limit for “difference” lies.
Ultimately the difficult question for everybody nowadays is how to balance the rights of the citizens as a group and the rights of the individual. Although France and Britain share their beliefs in human rights and the principle of religious freedom and their respect for the rule of law, their political cultures and legal systems are quite diverse.
The French attribute a strong symbolic role to state institutions. Institutions are also highly respected in Britain but the political culture and legal system of this country lead to a more practical approach to these matters (there is, for example, not even a single document called a “Constitution”).
The French discussed their anti-burqa law over nearly two years, hypothesising possible scenarios where the full veil could challenge the sacrosanct principle of laicité (secularism). Instead, British society seems to have not taken the significance of the veil that seriously until it appeared to cause a dilemma in a specific very “concrete” case where the state is represented, a law court. And even in this hotly contested context, the solution adopted is still far from the French one.
Judge Murphy’s decision on how to deal with the niqab case in his London court has proven that, in Britain, pragmatism prevails in relation to the contested issue of whether full veils should be banned in public spaces. Some have accused the judge of having compromised too much in this. Instead his ruling is firm and cleverly spelt-out.
While avoiding the route of a broad ban, his request for the woman to unveil only while giving evidence does set a precedent, even if technically it has been reiterated that this solution was ad hoc and that similar situations in the future will be discussed on a case-by-case basis.
In taking a nuanced approach that allows the woman to sit with the veil during the trial but to identify herself to public officers when she enters and to unveil while giving evidence, the judge has in fact highlighted the two roles and two sets of priorities in rights for the defendant, as well as the institutional position of a judge and of a law court. As an individual simply sitting in court, the woman’s individual right to freedom of religion has been prioritised, but when she takes on the “official” role of defendant then the interests of the state (which “requires” her to go to court) and its rules for identification, transparency and communication during a trial take over.
Without being a fan of the integral veil “fashion” (as I like to see it), I still understand the position and logic of those that decide to wear it and the significance that they attribute to their right to express their faith. I also appreciate that maintaining peace, freedom and social order is a key task for the state.
For these reasons an overarching ban would be more dangerous than beneficial for public interest and for the cohesion of society. It would needlessly stir up feelings in all corners of society, may exacerbate real or perceived divides among communities and may cause anxiety among Muslims. It may also give encouragement to individuals and groups already engaged in or leaning towards offences towards racial or religious groups.
Tunnel mentality and exclusivism are two big threats for contemporary society. They can lead to fundamentalism, extremism, and totalitarianism. Flexibility and pragmatism are to be welcomed on all sides to protect democracy, individual freedoms and the common good. So let’s welcome the debate but let’s also hope that, once the debating is done, there is found to be no need for a law.