Ever since the staggering news broke that Nicholas Sarkozy believes the burqa is “not welcome” in France, a debate has been raging amongst rent-a-gob talking heads in the UK about whether or not a ban on wearing the burqa should be instituted here. Except the problem is that there is only one side in the debate, and it is flailing at shadows.
The latest example was this morning on BBC1, when Nicky Campbell’s panel show “The Big Questions” featured the item. It was all standard Sunday morning popcorn fare, with Peter Hitchens being crotchety and (in news this blog finds especially reassuring) the return of a familiar face in the form of the still-delightfully-weird Yvonne Ridley. And so “debate” they did, some people against the idea of wearing the burqa, others in favour of it as a religious duty, others still defending the practice on the even more spurious grounds that it is a “feminist gesture”. Much ya-boo-hiss knockabout fun ensued.
The problem they had, of course, is that there is no prospect of a legislative ban on the wearing of the burqa in the UK. It ain’t gonna happen. Furthermore, almost no prominent figures in the UK, whether they approve of the burqa or not, support legislating for a ban. The debate about the ban is therefore completely redundant. For all the difference it would have made in terms of political relevance, Campbell (and Dimbleby on last week’s Question Time, and Old Uncle Tom Cobley and All previous to that) might as well have picked a debate about whether one can indeed get better than a Kwik-Fit fitter, or whether one prefers Daddy to chips.
Of course, the burqa is one of those subjects which provide an endless opportunity for blow-hards in the media and on the blogosphere to vent hot air. The reality is rather different. You can approve of the burqa if you want: personally I think that if you do, you’re defending a culturally specific and socio-politically reactionary practice which is not laid down in the Qur’an, but equally that’s just my view and besides, frankly I don’t really care to debate it out that much as I’m not a Muslim. However, that doesn’t mean that I think the law has any business interfering in people’s right to believe nonsense on any number of unrelated subjects. For instance, I strongly disagree with the idea that the human race owes its current situation to a volcano-dwelling alien called Xenu. Do I (and others) mock Scientology ruthlessly on this blog as a consequence? Yes. Is it then right to call for state intervention to stop Scientologists from practising what they believe, such as the silly tin-can stressometer thing? Absolutely not.
The reason? Secularism, my friend. One of the most mis-used words in the religious and political lexicon, it refers to the state being free from religious control. Religious belief should be allowed free rein a secular society, and if that means that some women choose to wear an archaic piece of clothing then it is their right to do so. The state only has an issue where religion encroaches on its power, and if that is our primary concern then women wearing silly clothes should be the least of anyone’s worries.
All of which rather strikes me as being common sense. Not that it means the “debate” is likely to stop. Yvonne, Peter and all the others do have bills to pay, you know.