Standing in my bedroom, the much loved pine bookcase giving off it’s scent of forests mixed with books. The flat is quiet, England is at peace. What a contrast to the situation in Iraq where madmen in the shape of The Islamic State murder and persecute Christians together with anyone else who dares to disagree with their warped view of the world. Mad men doing evil, chaos reigns and I stand, breathing in the smell of books mixed with pine, at peace in a free land.
The other day an acquaintance remarked that they felt uncomfortable in the presence of women wearing the Burka (the cloak worn by some Muslim ladies which leaves only the eyes exposed). France has banned the garment as an affront to equality, a decision recently upheld by the European Court of Human Rights despite the claims by some Muslims that the ban on the Burka in public breeches human rights. Is the prohibition a peculiarly French piece of legislation stemming from Rousseau’s view, expounded in The Social Contract that man “must be forced to be free”, (in this case those Muslims wishing to wear the Burka must subordinate their desire to “the general will” which, in France appears to be in support of the Burka ban?
Some in the UK are calling for the country to go down the French route and prohibit the Burka in the interests of “social cohesion”. One can not, they claim interact with fellow citizens when all but their eyes are concealed behind black cloth. The Burka is “sinister” and should be prohibited in public. Calls for a prohibition on the wearing of the Burka have found support among some muslim scholars who say it has no place in a modern conception of Islam, (see, for example the following recent article http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2695181/Why-I-Muslim-launching-campaign-ban-burka-Britain.html.
Others argue that banning the Burka runs counter to a long and honourable tradition of British liberty. It is, they say intolerable for the state to dictate to people how they aught to dress. The British philosopher J S Mill was suspicious of what he termed “the tyranny of the majority” and adherents of Mill’s views might well argue that to impose “the general will” or what most people would call “the will of the majority” on fellow citizens as regards how they choose to dress is illiberal. The idea of a person being arrested merely for wearing a certain kind of garment sticks in the throat of many liberals. However other liberals argue that Muslim girls and women often come under intense pressure from within their own communities to wear the Burka and, in many cases it is far from being a free choice of clotheing. Therefore we must assist such women by prohibiting the wearing of the garment in public.
Leaving aside for a moment the rights and wrongs of the Burka there is also the argument of pragmatism. At a time of limited resources is it a good use of police time to go around arresting women for flouting a Burka ban? If such a prohibition where introduced might it act as a recruiting sergeant for Islamic extremists who could portray it as persecution of Muslims?
At a deeper philosophical level can one “force people to be free?” Would prohibiting the wearing of the Burka promote outward conformity with western norms of dress but leave those who wish to wear it inwardly seething with anger?
The advance of the terrorist Islamic State in Iraq undoubtedly helps to fuel suspicion and, in some cases paranoia against Muslims most of whom abhor what is being done in their name in Iraq. We must be steadfast in our opposition to extremism (whether Islamic or otherwise) but, at the same time consider long and hard before going down the road of Burka bans and other similar measures.