Faith gives no right to be offensive

22 July 2009

The state can restrict religious clothing or adornment for sound reasons, says Jill Segger

Liberty or oppression: a shopper in a niqab in France

Liberty or oppression: a shopper in a niqab in France

TWO OBSERVATIONS from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty provide essential reference points when considering questions of tolerance and liberty: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exer­cised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”

The second maxim clarifies the first: “The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.”

After a month in which President Sarkozy chose to interpret the French state’s commitment to laïcité as justifying his call to ban the burqa, and a Roman Catholic school in the UK turned away a visiting Muslim parent who declined to remove her niqab, or face veil, it is timely to ex­amine some of the issues of freedom and proscription raised by religious symbols and clothing.

If we would act with justice and forbearance, these issues require us to look more critically at some of our underlying cultural assumptions, at the relationship between conviction and prejudice, and at our sense of entitlement.

As Giles Fraser wrote (Comment, 3 July), when decrying a form of dress as a symbol of the oppression of women, we need to remember that many Western women submit them­selves to tortuous dietary re­gimes and wearing ludicrous and uncomfortable garb to win male approbation. That we choose to interpret the familiar as innocuous and the unfamiliar as sinister should not blind us to the fact that they may have a common root.

Many Muslim scholars point out that Islam does not require women to wear the burqa, the niqab, or even the headscarf. It should not surprise us that, none the less, some will choose to do so. Christianity does not prescribe the wearing of crosses, crucifixes, or holy medals. These are choices made by individuals out of piety and as a witness to their faith.

Such choices should be respected wherever possible, but the absence of obligation means that there can be no claim of unjust discrimination where circumstances necessitate the tem­por­ary removal of veils, crosses, or other outward signs of inner con­viction.

In June, Helen Slatter, a phle-bologist at the Gloucester Royal In­firm­ary, resigned rather than remove her crucifix in compliance with the NHS Trust’s ban on neck­laces that could harbour infection or present a danger to the wearer should a violent patient grab the jewellery (News, 29 May). The ruling would have applied equally to a Star of David or an image of Ms Slatter’s favourite rock band.

To claim, as some Christian com­mentators have done, that the ban constituted an act of anti-Christian discrimination is ridiculous. To cite it as an instance of persecution insults all who suffer violence and dispos­session for the practice of their faith.

The conflict between doctrinal strictures, personal choices, and the wider culture brings us back to John Stuart Mill. There are circumstances under which a woman whose face is partially or entirely obscured may be a nuisance to others. In the same way as Helen Slatter’s crucifix presented a poten­tial danger, both to her patients and to herself, so the primary school-teaching assistant Aishah Azmi (News, 5 April, 2007) who refused to remove her veil be­cause she shared a class­room with a male teacher could — as the local edu­cation authority decided — reasonably be considered as having created an impediment to her ability to communicate with the very young children in her charge. These are matters of appropriate work-wear for the common good; they do not threaten religious freedom.

IT IS important to distinguish be­tween that which is central to faith and that which is peripheral and per­sonal. As a Quaker, I choose to dress plainly because I believe this to be a means of bearing witness to the Quaker testimony of simplicity. There is no compulsion involved — indeed, many Quakers will dress more flam­boyantly, but will exercise austerity in other areas of their lives. I cannot imagine a situation in which my choice of “Quakerly” dress would cause offence to others, but if such an event were to arise, I should not feel that my faith or my convictions were under threat. I might argue that the objection was irrational, but I would find it hard to interpret it as an insult to the Religious Society of Friends.

But that is, at least in some part, because I belong to the dominant ethnic and cultural group, and have no experience of being treated with suspicion for my beliefs. The majority culture, therefore, has a responsibility to act with consideration for the sen­si­tivities and fears of its minorities.

Westerners may dislike the niqab and the burqa because our culture tends to associate the concealed face with nefarious intent. But if we limit liberties, not because they endanger or gravely inconvenience others, but because the manner in which they are exercised is unfamiliar, we display a cultural illiteracy and a predilection for prejudice over tolerance that has the potential to undermine the common freedoms protecting us all.

Jill Segger is a freelance writer.

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