Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Free to Choose

If a government minister came in to your house in the morning and told you that you should not wear whatever clothes you had set out for the day, it is quite likely that at the least, you would tell the minister to get out of your house.

What people choose to wear- whether it is a mohican and safety pins, a worsted suit, jeans or anything else is not a matter for the government.

Why should a government minister tell Muslim women what to wear? Once you start down that road where do you stop? Now, apparently the Jewish yarmulke or Sikh turban or visible crosses on necklaces are no longer acceptable.

The minister's lack of tolerance reduces freedom for everyone.

I do not feel entirely comfortable with heavily veiled Muslim women, but then I did not feel that comfortable with punks- or the kaftans that Mr. Straw himself famously used to wear.

It is not up to the government to tell anyone what to wear- that way lies towards intolerance and a lack of respect that will alienate Muslims in our society.

If people choose- and I use the word advisedly- to wear the veil, then the government has nothing to say on the matter.

As we used to say: its a free country.


BarryStocker said...

Just for once I have to disagree with Cicero who usually says pretty much what I believe. Unfortunately I can't answer everything with out some detail, so sorry for a very long post but I think it's necessary. Jack Straw's comments were maladroit and his insistence on asking veiled Muslim to remove the veil in conversation with him is a bit weird. Is he acting out some fantasy? But, the general issues around religion, integration and tolerance he raised are real. It's not enough to say Liberals are tolerant therefore we tolerate everyone wearing what they want. Yes everyone is free to wear what they want at home, slightly less free to wear what they want walking down the street, presumably we all recognise that some kinds of offensive langauge and images would not be accpetable printed on shirts in public. We are all a lot less free to wear what we want at work. Employers can reasonably demand certain standards. BA are perfectly entitled to ask employees to refrain from wearing religious(or inded anti religious) at work so long as they are consistent in their approach. Unfortunately it appears that BA has not been consistent. The veil is not just a random dress preference, it's a synmbol of an extreme religious position which takes a phobic view of the body and sexuality, and does not recognise the kind of individualism that Liberalism does. Liberalism is an Enlightenment secular position, with historic roots in worldly civic thinkinking in earlier times, including that of Cicero. Cicero , like other antique republican thinkers wopuld never have thought that dress and religion were a matter of indifference. Classical notions of republicanism and civic virtue presume that the state has a positive position to promote as the basis of civic community. Enligthenment Liberalism sometimes states itself in purely negative terms of the state leaving people alone, but even such libertarian thinking is rooted in a secular Enlightnent mentality, as was the thought of Adam Smith, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, etc for all of whom the state has a posiiton to promote as the condition of Liberalism which means at very least suspicion of those with evidently pre-Enlightenment culture. This does not deny the right of everyone to private liberty to follow a religion or ideology but it does suggest that the secular view is the ground of liberalism, liberalism actively promotes secularism and in the end where it is absolutely necessary will use the state against acts and provocation threatening secularism. Wearing a veil clearly indicates not just being a Muslim, but a belief in a life guided in every detail by the Koran and the Hadiths (supposed sayings of Mohammed) and a belief in a state based on sharia law. Claims to the contrary are disingenuous in the extreme. Liberals are entitled to qestion if this dress is appropriate for a teacher in a state school. Certainly those who insist on wearing religious dress to the extent of undermining the work for which they are being paid for, teaching English in a state school really cannot expect to stay in employment. Phil Woolas' way of commenting was crass attention seeking and inappropriate with regard to the employer-employee relationship, but the underlying point is correct and in accordance with Liberal principles. None of this is anything to do with being anti-Muslim. I live in Turkey and no one could wear the veil or a religious head cover of any kind in a public institution. Even the Muslim conservatives only ask for more tolerance of the head scarf, and do not raise the issue of the veil. No one would deny that the veil is a symbol of sharia law. These laws in Turkey were and are mostly instituted by Muslims, who wish to promote a modernised Enlightnment Islam. I don't suggest that Turkey is a model of liberalism in every respect but it is liberal compared with other Muslim countries and that state led constestation of conservative Islamic symbols is part of that achievement. If modernist Muslims can take a negative view of the veil, though in Turkey not denying the right to wear it in everyday life, Liberals in post-Christian secular Britain should not automatically reject such a position.

Cicero said...

Thanks Barry- it is a thoughtful and interesting contribution.

I agree that wearing a veil is a statement of piety. It is a statement in favour a religion whose beliefs I do not share. However, provided in all other respects the teaching assistant was doing her job to the satisfaction of her employer, I can not beleive that she should be compelled to wear any clothes that she does not wish to.

You rightly point out that there is diversity in the standards of dress amidst Islam, and in my oppinion the veil is neither required nor necessary. However if we make an issue of it, then it acquires a political symbolism that it did not have before.

The Punks embraced a political position: mostly violent, abusive and anhilistic. However we do not think of punk in those terms- we think of it as a cultural phenomenon.

In my oppinion we should do the same with the more extreme dress elements of Islam. Sure there are some very scary elements in Islam, but being confrontational will play into the hands of nutters.

Turning the other cheek and offering tolerance on things that do not impede on civic peace is far more likely to engage the alienated Muslim population

Richard Thomson said...

Well said. The freedom not to wear a veil, if it means anything, also means having the freedom to wear a veil if one pleases. It's a private matter which should be well outwith the scope of any sensible government.

Given the man of Straw's authoritatian tendencies while he was Home Secretary, perhaps I can be forgiven for not rushing to embrace him as the saviour of Moslem women and free speech, which some seem ready to crown him as.