Banning the burka is a political issue, like scrapping inheritance tax and restoring the death penalty, that arises every so often without ever making much progress towards becoming law. At least, that was the case until the last few weeks, which has seen a remarkable rise in support for banning the burka, at home and abroad.
France infamously banned most articles of clothing that cover faces in public in 2010. Whilst the legislation was dressed as an assault on a variety of garments such as helmets and masks, it's real target, the burka, was clear. Now, France, which has suffered ten terror attacks at the hands of ISIS since 2014, is stewing in fear of Islamic extremism, and as a result is considering a further ban that would prohibit the innovative 'burkini' from being worn in public.
As a result, the United Kingdom, has sought to follow suit with 57% of the British public supporting a similar ban in Britain, with just a quarter of voters opposed according to YouGov. A plurality of voters from all of the UK's four major parties support the motion, 66% of Conservatives, 84% of Ukip, 48% of Labour and even 42% of Liberal Democrats. However, irrespective of public consensus, banning the burka would be a regressive step that will only worsen the already combustible religious tensions besieging the UK. When this debate arises, it brings with it a plethora of protestations that an injunction on the burka is about liberating Muslim women from 'oppression' - but this is simply not legitimate.
It is not down to the British government or the British public to decide what ways of dressing are or are not domineering to Muslim women. Some wearers of the burka may well feel burdened by their clothing, but we also have a duty to consider those who feel empowered by wearing one. I, as an agnostic male, am not at liberty to decide how Muslim women feel or should feel about donning traditional Muslim clothing.
If we fail to comprehend that it is not the place of the majority to dictate the feelings of a minority group, we should at least consider the dangerous precedent banning the burka would set. Ironically, by designating certain clothing as unacceptable, we are restricting freedom in our own nation, the very thing our state professes to try and protect through authoritarian proposals like these. As a liberal, I am steadfast in my belief that governments should not infringe on the personal choices of their citizens. The only time the government should restrict personal choice is if that choice can cause considerable harm to others.
Therein lies the problem with this debate. Many will point to the limitations of identifying people wearing a burka as being conducive to terrorism. Therefore, they perceive this threat there as grounds to invoke a ban. But this logic only carries weight if we are willing to accept the idea that Muslims should be held in perpetual suspicion, that they are a high-risk group in society, that they are fundamentally different from the rest of us.
This viewpoint is not only false but incredibly dangerous. The best estimates state that 106,000 of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide are members of designated Islamic extremist groups, meaning just 0.006% of the Muslim population are extremists. If we decide to tread this dangerous line that Muslims living their everyday lives should be met with increased scrutiny, distrust and hostility, we will pull at the crevices of social unity until they turn in to gaping canyons.
Not only would this precedent be counterproductive to restoring harmony to Britain's streets but it would give ISIS' recruitment propaganda a ringing endorsement for legitimacy. ISIS' enrolment drive is based on the idea of Muslims being disaffected by the West's 'war' against Islam. Banning a traditional Muslim attire only serves to reinforce their marketing, and their reason to exist, in some ways, it's a trap - a step ISIS would love the West to take.
The real challenge is to liberate the Muslim women who feel oppressed by the burka, but we do not do that by banning it. We only have to recount the harrowing images of a Muslim woman and her daughter sobbing as she was forcibly undressed by armed police in France, to know that this course of action would be the wrong one. We cannot promote the liberty we seek to protect by continuing with this endemic of draconian authoritarian 'sacrifices'.
A blanket ban on an item that has polarising and far-reaching effects on the empowerment of Muslim women is counter-productive and will leave communities disenfranchised, society racked with suspicion, and liberty crippled. We must tackle these issues whilst promoting the liberty of all - if the burka is a means of oppressing Muslim women then let them lead their own liberation, and let the rest of us support them, without dictating the terms.
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