That is the question
The Muslim veil or niqab has been in the news lately. Birmingham Metropolitan College banned veils in the classroom, and then, intimidated by a local campaign, relented. Now a Lib-Dem Home Office Minister, no less, Jeremy Browne MP, has called for a debate on the veil.
What stance should UKIP take? My starting point is that we are a Libertarian party. Broadly speaking, we favour allowing individuals to do what they choose to do, provided it doesn’t harm others or our wider society. Sometimes, however, this issue of “harming wider society” becomes a very grey area.
There are various practical arguments against the veil. In many public and social situations, face-to-face contact is important. We think we communicate with words, but to a large extent we communicate with body language and especially with facial expressions. Deaf people rely on lip-reading.
There was a recent case where a judge insisted that an accused Muslim woman should be seen for purposes of identification. She refused. Eventually a compromise was reached where a woman police officer saw the accused’s face privately and verified the identity to the Court. This seems to me to be the start of a very slippery slope. For judge and jury to form an impression of the reliability of a witness, it seems to me essential that they should be able to see the witness’s face and expression. Mere verification of identity is not by itself sufficient, and in my view the judge was wrong to allow it.
In schools, again, facial expressions are an essential part of communication. The pupil must see the teacher, and the teacher must see the pupil. In commercial and social transactions, the same comments apply. And of course we already ban motorcyclists from covering their faces with crash helmets (although for different reasons) in banks. It may not be a major issue for most of us, but there have been cases of (usually male) criminals and terrorists covering themselves in the burka to commit offences.
There is a totally different and much wider-ranging argument against the veil, and that is the fear that many Muslim women are pressured or forced to wear the veil when they would prefer not to. It is difficult to get data on this, and difficult to intrude into these areas of cultural sensitivity, yet most of us would say it was wholly wrong for Muslim women to be pressured or forced by Muslim men to cover their faces.
It seems to me, however, that there is a much broader issue here. In our society, the ability to see the faces of other people is key to social interaction, to trust and to relationships. We all see the masking of the face as potentially suspicious or even threatening, whether it be Muslims in veils, louts on the street in hoodies, motorcyclists with helmets, or bank robbers with stockings over their heads.
Hiding the face is a public demonstration of alienation from society. It is a deliberate (and arguably provocative) assertion of differentness and isolation. So I would argue that allowing one group of people in society to cover their faces in public places and public institutions is disquieting and divisive. It is bad for them, and bad for the rest of us. It is certainly a barrier to integration, and I believe that integration is a vital way to welcome citizens of different races and religions into our society.
On balance, therefore (and it is a difficult issue), I believe that we in Britain are indeed entitled to ask visitors and immigrants to make at least this small concession to our own indigenous culture. I think we should ban the full face veil, at least in public places and public institutions. I am glad to see that there appears to be widespread support for this view – even amongst the Lib-Dems.