Sunday 28 June 2009


A milestone, this. I'm going to disagree with Natalie The Wise, because she's made the usual Libertarian case for why the state shouldn't stop people wearing burqas:

If you want to keep your freedom to drink what you please on the public street then fight for the freedom to wear what you please on the public street.

But what about public drunkeness, then, and the fear and misery of those whose nights are blighted by drunks fighting at their windows and pissing in their gardens? And what about the cloth-entombed women, projecting an image of both slavery and Islamic aggression, who may or may not have chosen to wear the black bag?

My answer is substantially the same to both social problems: as a society we have chosen to deny ourselves the very tools of private social action (no, that is not a contradiction in terms) that could make things better.

For decades we have denied ourselves disapproval. For decades we have denied ourselves property rights. For decades we have denied ourselves the right to free association, which necessarily includes the right not to associate.

These tools are the ones we have the right to use. They are also the right tools for the job. They, unlike the tools of coercion, will not turn in our hands and cut us.

The burqa is not a matter of giving Muslim women the same clothing freedoms as the rest of us; it is a matter of making them a specific exception to various laws and regulations which already exist. There are lots of things I am not allowed to do when wearing a mask, and quite rightly, in my opinion: going through airport security, loitering in a bank, walking into a school playground. This is Northern Ireland. Imagine what would happen if I were to walk into a school wearing a balaclava. Anyone going to protect my clothing "rights"? I bloody hope not. Yet a polite request to a Muslim woman to remove her mask while on the premises would land the headteacher in court. She doesn't have equal rights; she has extra ones.

And sure, yes, as I've said before, we need more public disapproval. The word "judgmental" should not be derogatory. But, for that to work, you need to be dealing within a civilised framework. When it comes to the burqa, we are dealing with — in some cases — and, for obvious reasons, we have no way of knowing until it's too late which cases they are — people who will hurt us, even cut us dead in the street. We're not discussing a civilised debate here.

In general, I would say that strong private institutions are a bulwark against the type of creeping Islamification - or capture by other minority groups - that concern many of the commenters to this thread ... Contrast that with the position of state institutions, which includes state laws. These are a much more realistic target for capture by determined minorities. If, say 3% of the population feel really strongly about some issue and 97% are apathetic it is actually quite a realistic proposition for the 3% to get laws passed to steer things their way. Much easier than out-purchasing the other 97%, certainly.

A good point well made, but it's already happened via another method: violence. I don't think anyone really knows what proportion of Muslims in Britain are extremist Islamists willing to perpetrate sometimes lethal violence against infidels and apostates, but it doesn't need to be large: just a small handful of violent lunatics is enough to unleash enough violence to create enough news stories to change all our behaviour. If I'm running a shop and a group of people walk in all wearing burqas and I don't like it, sure, I could express my disapproval. But, of course, I'm going to be asking myself: Just how much do I disapprove? Enough to get a beating? Enough to risk an angry mob storming my shop? Enough to be killed? Enough to risk my family? And chances are I'll hold my tongue — even if the people who've entered my shop are in fact comepletely reasonable sane people who don't even want to wear bloody burqas and whose reaction, had I spoken up, would actually have just been to have a nice chat about it. Most people aren't likely to risk finding that out.

So a small group have changed the behaviour of the majority to accommodate their extremism. And this is exactly the sort of situation that we have a state with a police force for. We need a law to be passed — not necessarily a burqa ban, but some sort of law — in order to get back to the state we should be in: the state where civilised discussion is possible.

The commenter Ian B asks:

How does one define when citizens can cover their faces? Below a certain temperature? When it's snowing? It's not as if you can really define what a burka is.

Those who wear the burqa, even if they actually want to, don't just feel like wearing it on the street quite a lot. They insist on wearing it at all times, often to the extent of taking action against anyone who asks to see their face. When the rest of us cover our faces for whatever reason, the same is not true.

So don't define what a burqa is. Just apply the same rule to everyone: sure, you can hide your face because of the cold or because you're disfigured or even because of your religion, on the condition that you reveal your face when asked. And allow anyone who dislikes face-hiding to refuse entry. Banks can refuse entry to motorcyclists who refuse to remove their helmets. Let them refuse entry to anyone else, whetever their religion, who refuses to remove any kind of mask. At the moment, they can't.

That's one solution, but I'd go a bit further. There are a number of laws which are simply codifications of our society's social norms and conventions. This particular one has never been codified up till now because it hasn't been needed, but wearing a mask in public certainly has been considered for hundreds of years in Britain to be the behaviour of criminals. The big change here is not the proposal to ban the burqa: that'll just be affirming the long-established norms. The big change happened a few years ago, and was the decision to protect the "right" of certain people to wear masks at all times. There is no such right in Britain.

I am reminded of the seatbelt law. I know most libertarians will vigorously defend their "right" to drive without a seatbelt. Personally, I don't think anyone has a right to leap out in front of moving traffic, and I don't accept "But I've just been hurled through my own windscreen" as an excuse. But that's not the point. As anyone who's tried to put on a seatbelt as a passenger in a country without this law will know, the problem isn't one of freedom of choice. The problem is drivers who refuse to allow their passengers to wear seatbelts, because they consider it an insult to their driving skills or masculinity or penis size or whatever. The important effect of the seatbelt law was to allow people who had always wanted to wear seatbelts to do so when being given lifts by wankers. In a typical family car, there's one driver and three passengers, so the number of people whose freedom was increased is greater than the number whose freedom was decreased. Imperfect, sure, but that's humanity for you.

Similarly, the problem with the burqa is coercion. We all know it. Ban masks in public, and all those women being coerced are given freedom without being given the blame for asking for freedom. Great. Meanwhile, a tiny number of people are prevented from doing something that has never ever been socially accepted in this country and are denied a right that they never had. Boo hoo. More people will gain freedom than will lose it.

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