Opinion: Syria’s ban proves nothing to British niqab critics

As the Syrian Government introduces a ban on the niqab in universities, the debate on Islamic veils has moved beyond Europe and into a wider discussion about personal freedom and national identity.

A niqab ban in a Middle Eastern country will give weight to those British critics who claim that their objections are grounded in values, not race, and the UK’s Muslim community will face scrutiny once more. The opinion formed by armchair pundits is that the niqab is not acceptable to our British values, but is it a threat to them?

The government of Syria saw veils as a destabilising force, but Syria is a constitutionally secular and predominantly Muslim country. In Britain less than half a percent of female Muslims cover their face, a figure that is generous in its assessment. Given that Muslims themselves make up less than three percent of the population of the UK, it is difficult to see how the niqab poses a threat to British identity. Yet judging by the raging debate you would think that all Muslims were covering their faces and that it is a matter of national significance.

There is, of course, the argument that personal freedom should not be at the expense of safety to the state. The Syrian ban comes in the wake of the increased Islamism following the terrorist attack in Damascus in 2008 which was linked to foreign powers. In Britain the niqab was used by one of the 21/7 bombers when he fled the UK for Italy, but this is only one instance to date and there have been no other cases which link the niqab to terrorism.

Bearing this in mind, does this piece of small clothing pose a national security risk? The answer is clearly no. Does it pose a risk to society? Well, I suggest that it only poses a risk if local communities are not at ease with themselves, and further work on developing local identities and cohesion is needed. However, harking back to monoculturalism is not the answer in a Britain whose strength globally is its diversity of communities.

The recent comment by Conservative Immigration Minister, Damian Green, that the niqab ban will not take place in Britain, is the right call. For a coalition government to rightly suggest that our freedoms were eroded by Labour, and then to propose a ban on a piece of clothing, would be a significant u-turn on the protection of personal liberties.

Such a move would also represent a completely incoherent ideology. The ban would undermine both the libertarian core of the Liberal Democrats and the ‘Big Society’ of the Conservatives. How could the Government claim to be redistributing power ‘from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street’, whilst simultaneously micromanaging something as personal as clothing?

Thank God we have some common sense in our own politics to protect our freedom and the many wonderful and diverse communities that make up the UK today.

Fiyaz Mughal is the Director of Faith Matters. He is also the Founder Director of two micro-finance projects to assist social entrepreneurism in Palestine and Israel. He has twice been a Liberal Democrat councillor.

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  • I disagree that we shouldn’t ban the full face veil.

    But let’s stop all this religious discrimination that allows people in full veils to do things people in balaclavas cannot. Why can I not walk peacefully into a bank, and speak to my account manager while wearing a balaclava?

    Am I being discriminated against because I’m a man? Yes. Am I being discriminated against not being a Muslim? Yes.

    If I walk into a bank, that previously served a woman wearing a full face veil, and I’m wearing a balaclava (a full face veil) and they refuse to serve me.. or even press the panic button. Then surely, in a fair and liberal society with one law for all, I’d have a case for both sexual and religious discrimination. I don’t get served because I’m not an Islamic woman.

    Let’s get back to one law for all. If you’re allowed to do it in a balaclava without harassment or arrest, they you should be able to do it in a full face veil, without harassment or arrest. The opposite must be true as well, or we’re not living in a free and fair society.

  • Bah.. The first sentence should have read “I agree that we shouldn’t ban the full face veil”.

  • Andrew Suffield 25th Jul '10 - 6:44pm

    If I walk into a bank, that previously served a woman wearing a full face veil, and I’m wearing a balaclava (a full face veil) and they refuse to serve me.. or even press the panic button. Then surely, in a fair and liberal society with one law for all, I’d have a case for both sexual and religious discrimination. I don’t get served because I’m not an Islamic woman.

    A liberal society would tend to say that a private business, such as a bank, may set their own rules for how you should do business with them, and where those rules are unreasonable then one of their competitors may offer an alternative and gain an advantage.

    Now, if there were compelling evidence that this was not happening – that all operators in the market were colluding to enforce discriminatory rules – then regulation can be considered. However, it should begin with incentives rather than enforcement. In particular the goal should be to correct any economic imbalances that caused this.

    Public services are different, and an argument like the one you suggest can be applied to them.

  • I agree with the principle Martin, but in practice there is a nuanced difference between the cases. If someone walks into my place of work wearing a balaclava (as has happened) my immediate response is that he is there to rob me; if he is wearing a motorcycle helmet I feel suspicious, but not directly threatened; if a woman comes in with her face covered I assume she is a customer.

  • James Moore 25th Jul '10 - 9:25pm

    There are some muslim women who wear the veil, not all muslim women wear the veil. It is personal choice not religion that is at play here. The veil is not worn in many muslim countries and some also have bans against them!

  • tonyhill:

    Why aren’t you suspicious of a person walking into your place of work wearing a full body veil? You either have an irrational fear of balaclavas and motorcycle helmets… or an irrational faith that no crook would use a niqab disguise.

    There’s no reasonable or rational reason why you should consider a person in a veil less of a risk than a person in a balaclava, or in a motorcycle helmet. In fact, the balaclava person could be less of a risk. In their case you can still see their hands, arms, and what they might be holding. A full niqab or burka covers not only the face, but is also a long flowing garment that deliberately disguises body lines. How do you know that under that mound of cloth is actually an Islamic woman, and how do you know s/he’s not carrying a weapon ready in a hand? Of course, they could just be secretly listening to an MP3 player, like that juror allegedly was (how do you prevent that without banning they veil, or excluding it’s wearers from jury service, and is excluding them discrimination, or are they rendering themselves unfit?).

    The more we tolerate the Niqab the more criminals will start to use it. Certainly using it seems to be on the rise, and is causing issues even in the Arab world (http://bit.ly/9thn1V).

    Here are some more examples from around the world: Add http://bit.ly/ in front of each link (truncated so spam filter lets this post through).

    UK: cVOzfD
    France: aGjL1Z
    USA: 9iAPF3

    I’m certain that criminal use of the face veil will increase. As tonyhill clearly demonstrated… it gives the criminals those extra few moments and additional element of surprise, and it disguises them as well. Imagine the poor policeman faced with a veiled shape… arrest or detain someone for simply wearing a niqab (imagine the trouble they’d be if they removed it to visually identify the person), or let them go, even though they might be the wanted criminal.

    There is no ban on wearing balaclavas in this country. Just as criminals and the IRA created a de-facto ban of it in businesses and common sense and courtesy excluded it from most other places, e,g, schools. I suspect the niqab will face a similar “ban” in the long run.

  • “…you either have an irrational fear of balaclavas…” Martin, I think you really answered the question, albeit in a rather convoluted way. It is down to empirical evidence. The IRA and other criminals have made the balaclava a sinister item of clothing by association; criminals frequently use motorcycle helmets as a disguise, though I have not personally been threatened in this way; the niqab has not, as yet, been widely used as a disguise by malefactors and therefore does not have threatening connotations in that way. That is not to say that it will not be used like that in the future, but perhaps that is a bridge we should cross if we come to it.

  • Andrew Suffield 26th Jul '10 - 6:03am

    criminals frequently use motorcycle helmets as a disguise

    Criminals frequently have brown hair and wear shirts. Think about that next time you go outside, and cower in fear.

  • The niqab deeply offends my liberal sensibilities and principles, but so do lots of other things. I’ll leave demanding that things be banned just because they might cause offense to the islamists. And Chris Huhne.

  • Fiyaz Mughal 26th Jul '10 - 11:55am


    It is interesting to note that you believe that the ‘supporters’ of the Niqab may come from Riyadh and Kandahar and you seem to have missed the whole point. A liberal society simply does not introduce bans on personal items just because it may cause offence. I am offended by people who wear no T shirt on the beach and let it all hang out (since they may not look particularly appealing) though just because I don’t like what they do, does not mean that I want to ban them. Nor does it mean that people who take this approach (to protect the individual rights of people), come from the areas that you have mentioned. You are simply attempting to debase the argument.

    On the issue of Muslim communities, yes there are people with varying degrees of religious affiliation, people from different countries and cultures etc, though what you are suggesting is that this plurality means that certain elements will affect different communities in different ways. On this issue, I can tell you (since I work with the communities on a daily basis) that it the Niqab issues is affecting all Muslim communities in one way or another. This issue of Muslim communities being different is regularly brought up by individuals who simply try and suggest that the difference in communities means that there are no elements that transcend the cultural and national variances. The reality is that there are.

    Not sure what you are trying to say around Mona’s comments, though I refer you to the fact that my argument is not based on minorities or majorities. It is simply based on the individual’s right to dress how they want when it does not cause a threat to state security or when it does not infringe on the human rights of others. Just because I don’t like something does not justify banning it!

    Not sure what the Tariq Ramadan issue has to do with it though clearly you have some issues with that. Finally, your last few comments suggest that the Burqa is and was seen as a ‘destabilizing force’ in Syria. I think that says a lot about the country and not about where we are in the UK. I believe that we are a more tolerant nation and harking back to countries in the Middle East is not a yardstick for us in the UK. In doing so, you take a very dubious line.

  • Kehaar: Shahid Malik said he hoped to see 20 Muslim MPs in Parliament, being about 3% of 650 MPs. If the composition of Parliament should represent the make-up of wider society then this seems perfectly fair, given that about 3% of the population is (or will be in the near future) Muslim. Now personally, I really don’t think that someone’s religious beliefs should come into it (and the same goes for the PM) except insofar as they affect that person’s actions, but it’s hardly a ridiculous statement and I can’t help but worry about the motives of anyone who finds themselves offended by it.

  • Kehaar,
    I think you give Mona El Tahawy’s (not helbawy) far too much credit, all because she made a rather dull observation about the ‘Muslim right-wing’.

  • Kehaar,

    As a secularist I really would prefer for Malik or any MP not to bring God’s supposed will into it but aside from that throwing ‘god willing, god willing’ (inshallah inshallah) into his sentences is really neither here nor there and if it terrifies the loony right (who – and forgive me for generalising – often love it when politicians make reference to _their_ god) then I’ll let it slide. 😉

    The rest of your post is IMHO perfectly reasonable, although I think you’re presenting a bit of a false dichotomy re. Parliament. It strikes me that if (as should undoubtedly be the case) our politicians were selected meritocratically, as merit does not fall along racial or gender lines (although of course not all people currently have equal access to education etc. which is something I’m sure we’d all, Mr Malik included, like to see improve), Parliament would naturally reflect the demographics of the nation.

  • Kehaar,

    This is a genuinely pleasant exchange so thanks for that.

    ‘Affirmative action’ can, IMHO, sometimes be used very effectively (an example I always liked was that of the South African rugby team which had IIRC just one black player in its last world cup squad. The reason for this isn’t racism by the selectors or anything like that but a result of the fact that almost all of the good rugby academies etc. are located in predominately white areas. Putting some form of affirmative action in place would force the various sporting bodies to invest more in developing players from non-white areas and create a level playing field in the long term). That is not to say that you should apply the same thing to Parliament – there is in any case no such direct link in terms of political, unlike sporting, development.

    I don’t support affirmative action for PPCs and I think that the issue is much more one of encouraging women and those of ethnic minorities to go into politics, or making politics less uninviting for them (as it’s often said, which may or may not be true, that many women are put off by the boorish, aggressive nature of politics. Personally I rather think this underestimates them and i know plenty of women quite at home in such an environment). 😉 As you say, I don’t think that the public in general give a fig about the ethnicity of the person they’re about to vote for (and if they do then they’re well catered for by the BNP).

    Of course our friends from across the Atlantic have a much more apparent problem with loony god-botherers, but I dare you to take your children (if you have any) to the Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm in Somerset (www.noahsarkzoofarm.co.uk/) – recent recipient of an award from the Council for Learning Outside of the Classroom (see http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/605), and I remember a good few Tory PPCs from the last election jabbering on about restoring biblical values and that sort of nonsense.

  • What no-one seems willing to answer is how a woman can possibly function as a member of civic society if she has been reduced to a mobile cloak.

  • Personally I just consider anyone who deliberately hides their face rude and discourteous, and I reserve the right to simply ignore them. But that’s probably religious discriminations… who knows?

    Hiding your face implies one of only two things. You’re protecting yourself, or your up to no good, or both. Take the cowboy’s bandanna, wear it outside and it’s there to protect from sand and dust, wear it inside and it’s there to protect yourself from identification while you’re up to no good.

    If women wear the face veil to protect themselves, who are they protecting themselves from? Men? Protecting their virtue?. If so, then that’s a deliberate insult to men, and lesbian women I suppose as well. If they wear it to protect men/society from women (“be gone foul temptress!”), then it’s a deliberate insult to the women wearing it.

    I’ve yet to discover a scenario where wearing a full face veil indoors, say in a shop, could be anything other than a deliberate insult to someone. Perhaps someone could suggest one?

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