It’s good to talk (about the burka)

By Nora Mulready

This is a cross-post, reproduced by kind permission of the author, from the original.

Every human being has the right to wear what they want. That includes people who choose to wear the burka or the niqab. However, to portray the debate about the burka and niqab as one solely or even predominantly about the individual choices of grown women is to miss the far more fundamental question at the heart of this debate. What are the values we are prepared to see morally normalised in British society? The burka and niqab are the physical manifestation of the belief that women should not be seen in public, and that we must cover every inch of our bodies & hair if we are to step outside. Regardless of the individual choices, (where they are choices), made by women, are we happy as a society to let such a regressive idea of how women should live go publicly unchallenged? I’m sorry, but I cannot believe that we should so casually throw away hard won gender equality at the altar of religious sensitivity.

Many people have suggested that ‘white men’, or even all non-burka/niqab-wearing Muslims, should stay out of this debate, that it is not their place to comment. This is a matter for the women and the women only. This is utterly wrong. Britain is a society where people from a huge range of backgrounds, cultures and personal beliefs live together, side by side, and, in most part, we do so in a cohesive and harmonious way. We have celebrated the idea that we are diverse yet united for a very long time. This has been rooted in the belief that we are fundamentally one society, where we all have equal rights and an equal stake in what happens. The question of whether, as a society, we are prepared to either tacitly or explicitly support the view that women should not be seen in public is a profound philosophical debate and everyone – male, female, Muslim and non-Muslim – is fully entitled to participate in this discussion. The values we choose to publicly uphold, as a collective, shared society, impact on us all.

There is an unfortunate tendency in Britain of mainstream politicians, particularly on the left, opting out of public discussions about regressive, and even abusive, cultural or religious practices on the basis that it is somehow not their place to comment. The mindset of cultural relativism, “it’s their culture”, continues to shut down important discussions about child veiling in state primary schools and the puritan curriculum taught in deeply conservative religious schools, just as it used to shut down important conversations about forced marriage and FGM, long after they began to percolate the consciousness of mainstream British society. Nimko Ali, FGM campaigner and survivor, recently wrote on twitter, “the act of FGM as painful as it was for me was never as painful as the dismissal of my experience as culture when I know it was abuse and a violation of my human rights.” By largely shying away from public discussions on these topics, hugely important conversations, which should have been happening in the mainstream of British politics were, and are, pushed to the fringes. Political capital is then made out of these issues by extremists, who use the silence of mainstream politicians to push the ideas that 1. people are no longer allowed to speak openly in British society, and 2. that entire communities can be demonised. In the long run, staying silent does not help create a better, kinder, more inclusive society. It only breeds resentment, tensions, anger and extremism.

This must be remembered now. Although triggered by the deliberately unpleasant “post box” and “bank-robber” comments by Boris Johnson, the debate currently happening about the burka and niqab is a good thing. There is clearly an appetite for the conversation in the country, so let’s have it. Bring the discussion out into the open, and into the mainstream, take the debate out of the hands of extremists on all sides. This discussion is not about challenging the clothing choices of individual women, it is about whether there is a moral imperative – or even, at least, a moral right – in a free, democratic and secular country to challenge the normalisation of the idea that women should not be seen in public, for whatever reason. In a shared society, it is only through genuine, sincere and open discussion, in which everyone – everyone – from burka/niqab-wearing Muslim women to “white men” – has a right to participate, that we have a hope of both upholding important principles and, somehow, finding a shared way through. It’s good to talk (about the burka).

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The Vicar of Glibley

By Ben Sixsmith

I feel sure that Giles Fraser, the Church of England priest and Guardian columnist, is a nice man: a loving husband, a devoted father and a loyal friend. But with such authority it is not enough to be nice, and in his work he can be obtuse, sentimental and smug. His writing spreads like treacle throughout Britain’s media; sweet but sick-making.

Reacting to the case of Charlie Gard, a young child whose parents were denied the right to seek experimental treatment for his terminal illness, Fraser tweets:

We need more love in the world not more bloody science.

More science, of course, could have saved little Charlie’s life. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the debate around his treatment it is an absurd thing to say when other children’s lives depend on the continuation of medical progress. The difference between medical science advancing and not is the different between them living decades and days. No amount of love would heal the wounds inflicted by the latter possibility.

Still, this was a tweet. None of us are at our best on Twitter. Yet this is entirely characteristic of him. Time and again he proclaims lofty platitudes. Promoting gay marriage, he wrote that…

What I find in the Bible is a gradually expanding consciousness that God is love and not an instrument of oppression. And there is always more of that inclusive love to discover.

So that’s it? Goodbye millennia of moral teachings? So long centuries of philosophical argumentation? Some Christians who support gay marriage, like Daniel Helminiak, analyse Biblical and theological teachings in depth. For Fraser, love is all you need. It was enough to justify abandoning his Church Times column as a protest against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s “moral opposition to homosexuality”.

I mention this because it illustrates Fraser’s habit of plastering quasi-theological, cod-philosophical rationalisations on his moral and aesthetic instincts. Floating in a kind of spiritual self-righteousness he rarely analyses their complexities and contradictions, or attempts to find his place in a coherent tradition. He denies, for example, that Jesus sacrificed himself – not with reference to scripture or theological arguments but as it is “a disgusting idea”. I am no Christian and, thus, in no place to condemn heresy but the unmerited assurance of Fraser’s judgements is absurd.

This is more obvious when he writes on politics. Community is a good thing, he believes, and so he argued in one column that is wrong to expect people to abandon or dilute their culture. I sympathise. Our conceptions of meaning and identity are wrapped up in our cultural characteristics and we lose something when they are deconstructed. But wait! Fraser is an advocate of mass immigration. If we have large ethnic minorities in Britain how can we maintain a united, cohesive and efficient society if people speak different languages and hold different values? Fraser does not mention this. It is too complicated.

Fraser sounds oddly conservative in this article. “The very nature of community is that there is a boundary between those who are in it and those who are not,” he says. ” To speak of community without any sense of a difference between being in it and out of it evacuates the term of any possible meaning.” This sounds like a Straussian argument for border control. It is not, of course. Fraser wants some kind of cultural patchwork. Yet it feels as if he likes everyone to have their traditional cultures except the ancestrally English. When he visited what sounds like a charming little village fete he wrote “how white”.

At the end of his article Fraser salutes Muslims for their “resistance to the hegemony of integration”. Given that some Muslims resist integration by forming sharia courts where domestic abuse is sanctioned; secretly circumcising little girls and running away to Syria to join ISIS you would think he would at least qualify his admiration. Nope. His feelings resist empirical contradiction.

Fraser is sadly naive about jihadism. Responding to a Radio 3 broadcast of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, in which nuns choose to die before renouncing their faith, Fraser asked what what have happened if it had been a story of Islamic martyrdomThere would have been outrage, he said, for “isn’t this religious extremism”? Well, no, not in the sense that people use the term. What people fear about jihadism is not people dying for the faith but people killing other people for their faith. Was Fraser asleep for the last two decades?

Sometimes he acknowledges acts of terrorism but he can’t believe they have anything to do with religion. Reacting to last year’s in Berlin, where a Muslim drove a lorry into a crowded Christmas market, Fraser wrote that terrorism cannot be inspired by faith because religious people “trust in God’s greatness” to heal the world and act on his behalf. This is one view of faith. It is not one most people share. I do not think Muhammad would have liked indiscriminate terrorism but is Fraser not aware that he was a brutal conqueror and statesman who very much thought he was doing God’s will in politics and war?

Despite all this hazy, subjective, impressionistic writing, Fraser thinks that he has a monopoly on reason. Of conservative Anglicans, he says that, “rather than laugh at them or argue with them, the best thing is probably ignore them”. Some of the words I have written here is harsh but I think this sentence excuses some severity. Why should the same treatment not be accorded to him?

Fraser’s columns often seem like sermons: heartfelt, urgent and emotive. Yet as far as I can tell the authority of priests is lower than that of God. Analogously, if not equivalently, the authority of political commentators is lower than that of data, logic and tradition. Our value depends on our ability to channel them.