Lucy Winkett, formerly of St Paul’s Cathedral and now Rector of St James Piccadilly, unwittingly put her finger on it. Speaking on Radio 4’s Thought For The Day (here) immediately after the recent massive central London demonstration against government spending cuts, she said the anonymity of the balaclava-wearing black bloc protesters was disturbing and corrosive. Concealed behind their masks they “reduced the rights of us all.”
A Bangladeshi Christian who came to London to escape persecution in his Muslim homeland is likewise disturbed over a similar source of anonymity on the streets of the capital. “There are now more burkas in London than Dhaka,” he told me. “Over there you rarely see a face-veil but over here it’s growing. And to think I came here to escape this extremism.” He despairs about the growing Islamification of Tower Hamlets in east London where he lives and reckons his rights there are being reduced daily. “I shall have to move again,” he said.
The French ban on the face-veil or niqab came into force this week and I found myself envying their clear sense of national identity and political will on the issue: female face-covering is anti-social, misogynist and against French values so, with little controversy or debate, they outlawed it. French MPs voted in favour by 335 votes to 1 (here).
Here in Britain it’s very different. Five years ago Jack Straw complained that niqabs are a visible statement of separation and difference and told the media that he respectfully requests veiled Muslim women to uncover their faces at his MP surgeries (here). Immediately the roof fell in; it was as if he’d admitted to assaulting little girls in his constituency office.
Last year when Tory MP Philip Hollobone proposed a Bill to outlaw face-coverings (here), not a single MP supported him publicly. Both Government minister Damian Green (here) and Shadow Cabinet member Ed Balls (here) reckoned such a prohibition was “not British.”
And this year Home Secretary Theresa May formally ruled out any ban on the veil. “It is not for governments to say what people can or cannot wear,” said the Home Office statement piously (here).
(You my reader should note this: now unseasonably hot spring weather has arrived, you can completely strip off in your local park – or your local high street for that matter – to improve your tan and stay cool. Yes, the full monty. Just tell the police officer who tries to arrest you that Theresa May has said it’s OK.)
Bizarrely it’s the same Theresa May who says she’s now looking to strengthen police powers “to force the removal of the face-coverings and balaclavas” (here) of black bloc-type demonstrators.
But debate on the burka is not over. While the major political parties are politically correct and brain-dead on the issue, UKIP has once again caught the popular tide. Party leader Nigel Farange called for an outright ban; face-veils, he claimed, are a symbol of an “increasingly divided Britain”, they oppress women and are a security threat (here).
And there is debate amongst Muslims. A few years ago Lord Ahmed of Rotherham, Britain’s first Muslim peer, took a lead in defining veils as a “barrier to integration” (here). He said they are a “mark of separation, segregation and defiance against mainstream British culture” and called for an end to their use.
Recently Muslim commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown published 16 reasons why she objects to “this dangerous cover-up” (here) and called for a state-enforced veil-free dress code for Muslim women while in public institutions such as hospitals and schools. Without some state intervention, she wrote, most Muslim women will be rendered faceless and probably voiceless too.
And liberal Muslims’ hostility to face-covering drew me to Oxford on Saturday. My friend Dr Taj Hargey, the progressive Imam of the Oxford Islamic Congregation, held a celebration to acknowledge the landmark French legislation. Originally from South Africa where he fought racism and apartheid, Dr Hargey doesn’t believe in a ban, however, as “banning is not the British way”. But he gave an hour-long lecture on why the face-veil is not Quranic and why Islamic hadith referring to it are little better than fairy tales (here).
He then led us out of the lecture hall. In front of TV cameras he proceeded to burn four burkas while shouting defiance at Osama bin Laden, Anjem Choudary and other “Wahhabi, Salafi and Deobandi misogynists” who promote this “pernicious cultural custom and tribal rag.”
It was impressive and courageous. Inevitably he has incurred the wrath of some Muslim leaders. Such is the fate of progressive pioneers in the face of the UK’s growing Islamic fundamentalism.
But I disagree with Dr Hargey on one issue. The British can do bans. We’ve recently banned smoking from all public buildings, transport and work places.
We should do the same with the face-veil.
(This post also appears as an article in tomorrow’s edition of the Church of England Newspaper)