Don’t ban the burqa – but don’t celebrate it, either

Both Europe’s burqa-banners and burqa-defenders are denigrating tolerance by inviting the state to police our beliefs and thoughts.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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On 14 October, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill took part in a Battle of Ideas/British Council debate on burqa bans at the House of Literature in Oslo. An edited version of his speech is published below.

There is no question, in my mind, that tolerance is under threat today. This Enlightenment ideal – one of the most important, radical Enlightenment ideals – is being assaulted and undermined around Europe.

However, it is being undermined not only by governments and thinkers who want to ban the burqa, but also by some of those who defend women’s right to wear the burqa. Tolerance is being denigrated first by those who refuse to tolerate the burqa – and second by those who defend ‘burqa rights’ in a very shallow, relativistic fashion and who clearly don’t have the first clue what tolerance really means.

So tolerance is suffering a double-whammy attack. It is being explicitly attacked by the authoritarians who want to ban certain religious symbols, and it is being implicitly attacked by some of the liberal critics of those bans, who foolishly and dangerously think that tolerance is the same thing as recognition.

Let’s take the first lobby first: the burqa-banners. The great irony of the French government’s restrictions on the burqa in public places, and to a certain extent the Belgian government’s restrictions, is that they have been presented as being in the tradition of the Enlightenment. This is about liberating women from oppression, they say, and therefore it is a good, Enlightened, Voltairish thing to do.

In fact, banning a religious garment is counter to the spirit of the Enlightenment. What these authoritarians forget is that the Enlightenment sprang from a defence of religious liberty. The Enlightenment has its origins, not in any attempt to censor certain minority religious symbols, but in a belief that minority religions, even ones we consider ‘heretical’, should be protected from state intervention, censorship and oppression.

So in calling for the state to restrict a certain form of religious expression, these pseudo-Enlightened censors are doing something that the original men of the Enlightenment would have considered pretty outrageous.

One of the most important early texts of the Enlightenment was A Letter Concerning Toleration by the English liberal philosopher John Locke, published in 1689. It is easy to forget how radical this letter was when it first appeared, following the Inquisition and much religious conflict. Locke had to go into hiding and then exile simply for calling for the following: ‘the toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion’.

Locke argued that the civil authorities should not ‘prejudice another person in his civil enjoyments simply because he is of another church or religion’. He wasn’t defending these faiths because he liked them – in fact he considered many of them erroneous. Rather he was defending their right to believe what they wanted to believe and to practise their faith because he felt that the authorities had no right to interfere in our internal lives, in matters of faith, belief and conscience.

The liberal tradition was built on this foundation stone laid by Locke and others, on this determination to expel the civil authorities from the realm of belief. Now, in the twenty-first century, 300 years later, some of the self-styled heirs of Lockean liberalism are explicitly inviting the state back into the realm of belief. They are turning the clock back three centuries by fundamentally blurring the Enlightenment distinction between those areas where the civil authorities have jurisdiction – our ‘outward lives’ relating to property, security and law – and those areas where the civil authorities should have no jurisdiction – our ‘inward lives’ of freedom of belief and expression.

And they are mad if they believe that banning the burqa or the niqab will liberate Muslim women. In fact, it will make life even harder for the tiny minority of women in Europe who wear these garments. A woman who truly believes that it is wrong to go outside without being covered up – and as Locke pointed out, you can’t magically change people’s beliefs through brute bans since ‘no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another’ – will now potentially be imprisoned in her home. She will be less free.

The burqa and niqab are symbols of oppression rather than the causes of it. You cannot tackle oppression, you cannot challenge the undoubtedly inferior position of some poor Muslim women, simply by attacking its outward symbols. From a principled point of view, banning religious symbols is illiberal and un-Enlightened – and from a pragmatic point of view, it is shallow and counterproductive.

However, there are some big problems on the other side of this debate, too, amongst those who defend the right of women to wear the niqab or burqa.

Too many of these people are also denigrating tolerance, by confusing it with the therapeutic category of recognition. For them, it is not enough to tolerate something – apparently we must also respect it, recognise its validity, even celebrate its contribution to making Europe a varied, multi-faceted, properly multicultural place. Some even say that Muslim veils are now as much ‘part of the European fabric’ as clogs or Italian coffee or Belgian beer.

This point is made very starkly by Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University. In his new book, Quest for Meaning, he says that tolerance is too passive a virtue – we have to replace it with the more active virtue of respect. He says that tolerance ‘reduces the Other to a mere presence’, whereas respect ‘opens us up to the Other’s complexities’.

This, too, is a worrying development – because the Enlightenment ideal of tolerance does not mean having to respect something. You can tolerate something and hate it; you can tolerate something and also ruthlessly criticise it. Tolerance is not about suspending judgement or putting one’s critical faculties to one side in order to avoid offending ‘Others’. As Locke said, it is wrong to try to force or censure people into changing their beliefs, but ‘in teaching, instructing and redressing the erroneous by reason, [we] do what becomes any good man to do’.

Tolerance involves judgement and criticism and the free flow of ideas and debate. For the early Enlightenment thinkers, the real, true, explosive virtue of tolerance lay in the toleration of the things we hate. And I hate the burqa. It is deeply objectionable. It restricts women’s vision, freedom of movement and ability to engage with their fellow citizens. I have no respect for it whatsoever, far less any desire to celebrate it as ‘equally valid’. But I tolerate it, as Europe must, because we should recognise that people’s freedom of conscience is so important that it overrides our personal objections to what they believe and how they express their beliefs.

Today, we have the emergence of a deeply relativistic tolerance industry. In the political sphere, and in education in particular, tolerance is promoted as a form of non-criticism, non-judgement. As Robert Weissberg argues in his book Pernicious Tolerance, ‘an incredibly worthy idea – tolerance as enduring the odious – is being replaced with a fantasy: tolerance as a blank-cheque appreciation of diversity’. This so-called tolerance is actually about policing hate, policing our emotions and attitudes towards religion. Britain and other Western European countries have passed laws outlawing ‘religious hatred’ in the name of promoting tolerance.

So in a very powerful irony, the promoters of tolerance also invite the state into the realm of belief, the realm of thought. Like the burqa-banners, they too want the civil authorities to poke their noses into our inward lives. Both the banners and defenders of the burqa believe the state has the right to tell us what we can believe and how we should express those beliefs: the banners attack freedom of religion and the defenders attack our freedom to hate religion.

This is the crisis of tolerance today – it is being undermined both by religious censors disguised as men of the Enlightenment, and by the intolerant policers of hate disguised as the promoters of tolerance. This has got to stop. Tolerance means allowing people to believe what they want to believe, and allowing everyone else to criticise and even mock them for it. It might not be pretty, but who said freedom would always be pretty?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here. The above is an edited version of a speech he gave at a Battle of Ideas/British Council satellite debate at the House of Literature in Oslo on 14 October. The Battle of Ideas festival takes place in London on 30/31 October – click here for more information and to buy tickets.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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