Banning the Burqa: An Assault on Freedom

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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.

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