Some green shoots of recovery for secularists

Green shoots

I remember as a teenager at school how we once had to write an essay for our English homework called “My life so far”.

There were generally two forms of outraged, anarchic protest against this evidently unreasonable assignment, each of which was made with equal adolescent fervour: those who claimed that their life to date had been far too uneventful and boring to warrant such an essay, and those who claimed that their decade and a half on planet Earth had been far too eventful and exciting to be relegated to a lowly scrap of homework.

I haven’t blogged for a while and I was trying to work out why. Perhaps too much has been happening. Perhaps not enough has been happening. Perhaps I’ve just become lazy, or lazier. Whatever the reason, this post is a bit of a sweep up of odds and ends.

I’ve been called many names in my time but “optimist” is not one of them. However, I can’t help but notice a few green shoots of recovery for secularists. I’ll cover five items here to show how the tide might be turning, admittedly at oil-tanker speed, in such a way that more and more people are finally starting to recognise the importance of secularism.

Universities UK

This organisation recently published guidance giving their blessing to gender-segregated seating at universities if such seating arrangements were demanded, I mean requested, by external Muslim speakers, I mean external religious speakers.

Following a protest which was well covered by the mainstream media, and widespread public condemnation, Universities UK withdrew their guidance – although they are currently still consulting on it.

What was noticeable about the condemnation of gender segregation was that it was very high-profile (including from none other than the Prime Minister himself); that it was from across the political spectrum; and that it was unequivocal. Also, it wasn’t just “secularists” who were outraged – it was normal people too. The nation’s pulse seemed to be transmitting a loud and clear message along the lines of “Ok, this is getting silly now, please can someone make it stop”.

It was also encouraging to see high-profile Muslim women such as the journalist and commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown really come into their own and strongly condemn gender segregation. See her debate on Channel 4 News against an Islamist here. See her rage. It’s a thing of beauty.

In fact Alibhai-Brown has been speaking very strongly in favour of secularism generally. Look at her heart-warming contribution to a piece in The Guardian a few weeks ago called “Secularism: what does it mean to you?”:

“I have faith. I pray. Prayers sustain me. But my faith is personal, in my head and heart, within my home. It’s the way I connect with my mother and the past and my private conversation with God. It is not a battle cry, not my identity, not something to parade, not a demand on my nation and absolutely not a mark of segregation. Secularism to me means the separation of state and religion. I believe in that separation almost as strongly as I believe in God. We must all live under the same laws and buy into codified human rights. Those take precedence over religious obligations.”

“India, a nation with more religions and believers than almost anywhere else, is a secular state. If it was not, religious wars would tear the country apart. (Pakistan, an Islamic country, is a failed state.) Turkey was secular too and is now hurtling towards becoming an Islamic state, and fragmenting. The US holds on (just) to secularist principles. The UK is in a dreadful muddle. The established religion and the state are tightly plaited together. Which then means other religions can legitimately press the ruling elite for their bit of power, their strand of hair. So we end up as a country of separate religious schools (what did our children do to deserve that in an interconnected world?), exceptionalism in law and even human rights. The centre will not hold for ever with these arrangements. Secularism is the only way to stop collapse and chaos and to foster bonds of citizenship in our complex democracy.”

Love that.

In the past Alibhai-Brown has sometimes blown a little hot and cold for my liking, especially on free speech. For example, a piece of hers from late 2012 about the “anti-Islam internet film made by some dodgy Americans” includes this opener:

“Freedom of expression in the west is hokum, I say, and hypocrisy dressed up as high virtue. Worse still, it is now used as a missile aimed mainly at Muslims.”

See what I mean? Hot and cold. But hopefully it’s now full steam ahead for the likes of Alibhai-Brown and other liberal/secular Muslims.

Incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that the compelling cases for secularism, and against Islamism, do not need the validation of liberal/secular Muslims. The arguments work perfectly well on their own merits, and regardless of who is making them. But the more people who endorse those arguments, the better. If those people happen to be Muslim women, well that’s just grand. At the very least it gives us infidels some much-needed time to rest and recuperate.

London School of Economics

In October two LSE students ran into some pretty heavy turbulence for wearing Jesus and Mo t-shirts at their annual Freshers Fair. The LSE has now apologised to the students and in doing so it has hopefully set some kind of strong default setting for free expression in UK universities.

Whenever and wherever religious ideas have escaped scrutiny they have caused utter mayhem, and so the students’ victory against the LSE really cannot be over-emphasised.

Marks and Spencer

M&S has apologised after a Muslim member of staff refused to serve a customer wanting to purchase alcohol.

It’s not clear exactly how or whether M&S would prevent such a thing from happening in the future, but it was encouraging to see how quickly M&S responded to the public anger. Again, as with gender segregation, the mood of the public seemed to be one of complete exasperation at the never-ending – and rarely reasonable – demands made by Islam in shared, secular spaces.

Laurie Penny

At the weekend the “feminist” Laurie Penny entered the university gender segregation debate and displayed her contempt for white men who have the temerity to disapprove of gender segregation demanded by Islamists on the basis that white men are, well, white and male – and probably therefore very racist and very sexist. She was rapidly slapped down from all sides, including from the “left” where she claims to reside.

Penny likes to think of herself as a crusader against both racism and sexism. But by dismissing the views of people on the basis solely of their skin colour, and helping to contribute to a strangling climate where the appalling treatment of many women of colour tends to go unchecked (by screeching “Islamophobia” and racism at every half-opportunity and thereby silencing people), it is actually she who is being racist and helping to perpetuate some of the worst manifestations of sexism. Not a very clever thing to do if you claim to oppose racism and sexism.

Penny seemed to back-pedal very slightly when she heard that many of those leading the protest against gender segregation were Muslim women or women of colour, but in doing even that she revealed she’s not bothered about underlying harms or the merits of an argument – she is only concerned with who is making the argument and what their motivation (as determined by her, of course) might be. Heaven forbid she should end up on the same “side” as a white man in any debate. That’s surely a fate worse than death for her.

Even if the protest against gender segregation had been led by white men, so what? This may come as a shock to Penny but not all white men are goose-stepping racists with a secret stash of Nazi regalia, or rapists. Besides, what happened to the idea of displaying solidarity? Don’t the left often talk of “solidarity”? And in a predominantly white country such as the United Kingdom (I say that as a current statement of fact), and where there is presumably a roughly 50:50 population split between men and women, is it really that surprising or sinister that some or many of those speaking out against gender segregation which is taking place in the United Kingdom might be…white men?

By slightly back-pedalling when she heard about the Muslim women and women of colour protesting against gender segregation, Penny displayed a nasty, patronising tokenism towards those women. What a confused, small-minded woman she is. I think we should pray for her.

Ed West

The journalist Ed West, who is considered to be on the right and who writes for The Spectator and is also the deputy editor of The Catholic Herald, seems to have rethought his positions on secularism.

In The Telegraph a couple of years ago he covered the National Secular Society’s successful “council prayers” judicial review against Bideford Town Council, in somewhat unflattering terms. He didn’t have anything nice to say about secularism, or the NSS. He used the phrase “secular zealots” and he also remarked that:

“there’s something very un-English about the National Secular Society and the campaign against prayers, intolerant and petty-minded as it is.”

I did a response to West’s Telegraph piece here. Let’s just say it wasn’t very flattering to him.

Fast forward a couple of years, though, and it’s a bit of a different story for Edward. In a recent Spectator piece he was rather more gracious towards secularists. Look:

“the best way to protect religious freedom is through secularism, since religious freedom is most commonly threatened by other religions.”

“the Church leadership in Britain is far more reluctant to talk about serious anti-Christian violence abroad than it is to address ‘militant secularism’; much as I disagree with many of Britain’s recent discrimination laws, Stonewall and the National Secular Society do not burn down churches.”

“Britain doesn’t rule the waves, of course, but military power isn’t the only kind: the least Britain could do is to use its influence to draw up an annual report of Christianophobia, and to promote secularism, the best way of ensuring religious freedom.”

Well I never. Nice one, mate. Must be that Catholic guilt kicking in. Religion has its uses.

Also, have a read of his piece in The Catholic Herald this week called “Anti-Christian violence in the Middle East: the answer is more secularism, not multiculturalism”.

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Not all of the public disapproval of, say, gender segregation on campus, LSE or M&S has been framed in terms of secularism or even by reference to the word secularism. But I don’t think that’s too important. The mood of the public seems increasingly to be that religion – and one religion in particular – needs to be shackled, and very fast.

To my mind secularism is neither a left-wing concept nor a right-wing concept, and to the extent it might be, it shouldn’t be. I always resist any attempt by anyone to portray it as one or the other because such an approach immediately alienates the “other side”, and it risks forcing people to take entrenched positions against it simply because they don’t want to agree with their “enemies” (like the Laurie Penny school of thinking, if you can call it thinking). In any case, I don’t really understand what the terms left-wing and right-wing mean these days anyway. Secularism means equality before the law for people of all faiths and none, and the removal of any form of religious privilege whether official or unofficial. Is that left-wing or right-wing? More to the point, who cares?

Secularism is an essential component of democracy, and increasingly the most essential component. Without secularism, democracy as we know it, and as we take it for granted, will continue to collapse section by section, hinge by hinge, screw by screw, under the intolerable and unsustainable strain that religion is placing on it. Eventually we will fight over a pile of rubble.

The more people who recognise the need for secularism, and the quicker they do it, the more chance we have of salvaging what we have left of our precious way of life in the West, and the more chance we have of sending the loudest possible message to the rest of the world that secular democracy is the only game in town.

Am I saying that secular democracy is superior to any alternative form of governance?

You’re goddam right I am.

Merry Christmas.

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Racists must go to jail. Or must they?

Village IdiotsThere was a worrying criminal case last week about racism and free speech. I say “worrying not only because of the racist chanting by the individuals who have now been convicted, but more so because they were convicted of a crime at all and received pretty heavy sentences.

On 30 October a group of six knuckle-dragging Charlton Athletic football supporters were given sentences ranging from eight months to eighteen months for chanting songs on a train which “glorified and idolised” the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, who was killed in a racially-motivated attack in 1993 and whose murder served to highlight some pretty sickening institutional racism within the Metropolitan police. A seventh racist received a suspended sentence.

The case has some uncomfortable parallels with the case of Liam Stacey (which I covered here), who was sentenced to 56 days in jail for posting racist tweets about the black footballer Fabrice Muamba in 2012.

Both cases concerned racist speech and its now almost inevitable criminal consequences. The similarity that struck me most, though, wasn’t just that racist speech is now apparently criminal by definition, but that in both instances the BBC’s online reports stopped short of providing details of the underlying speech that resulted in the convictions. One might have thought this would be a key component of the BBC reports.

It’s as though merely reporting racist speech which is the subject of a criminal trial might place someone at risk of committing a racist crime today – and that’s putting to one side whether the criminal law should even apply to the original speech at all. As I said in my earlier post, the journalist Nick Cohen has made a similar point about Pakistan’s hideous blasphemy law: even just criticising the blasphemy law, rather than actually blaspheming itself, can be a very risky endeavour in Pakistan. Cohen calls this “blaspheming against the blasphemy law”.

I have deliberately not researched in detail exactly what words the morons on the train said. Perhaps these village idiots did cross the line between mere offence and “racially aggravated fear of violence”. Why couldn’t the BBC, our “public service broadcaster”, just tell me what they said in their report? And in any case, eighteen months? Eighteen months? You can serve three of four years for manslaughter, for goodness sake. And if racist songs on a train are criminal then how about the murder-inciting sermons of vile Islamic clerics, on television? I’d say those represented a far more credible threat of violence. Is there any chance that the long arm of the law might extend to these guys one day? (That’s a rhetorical question, obviously. And probably racist too. And therefore probably criminal. I better stop there.)

It would be rather nice if we could condemn racist or other unpleasant speech without criminalising it. It would be rather nice if people were capable of drawing a clear distinction between speech which is merely offensive and speech which constitutes the incitement of violence or a credible death threat.

But unfortunately an inability to understand or value free speech amongst the general population and also amongst our politicians (who seem too preoccupied regulating speech rather than making it free) means that most people instinctively reach for a deceptively comforting big red switch when faced with unpleasant speech generally and racist speech in particular – a switch labelled Make it Criminal. Broadly I would separate speech into three categories for the purposes of the law.

Firstly there is speech which is and should be criminal: death threats; incitement to violence; and contempt of court or contravention of court orders (for example, naming rape victims or breaching the terms of an injunction).

Secondly there is speech which constitutes a civil wrong but not a criminal wrong. Libel, basically.

And thirdly there’s everything else. Let’s call this the rough and tumble of free speech. Don’t like free speech? Not a problem. Feel free to migrate to somewhere that doesn’t have it (you might want to select “return journey” when you book your flight though, just in case).

The best way to defeat bad ideas is with good ideas. The best way to expose bad ideas is to let them be heard. Just ask Nick Griffin, Oberführer of the British National Party, who thought he had secured a massive PR victory when he was invited on to BBC’s Question Time a few years ago. Sadly for Griffin, though, it was our democracy that secured the PR victory because the spotlight and microphone showed everyone just what a fool he was, and he hasn’t recovered from it.

This positive aspect of a bad use of free speech isn’t merely theoretical. Here’s a practical example of the good consequences of Griffin’s hapless appearance: one young man from Cumbria called Alistair Barbour who had become involved with the BNP – even working very closely with Griffin personally – finally woke up and left the organisation, renounced the BNP’s ideology and started recording his experiences in a blog.

My guess is that people are so concerned with proving they’re not racist that they can no longer distinguish between the undesirability or immorality of racist speech, and whether it should be criminal. They default to their pathetic factory setting of “if in doubt, just say it should be criminal”. It’s safer that way. Because if you don’t say racist speech should be criminal then you might just be a racist yourself. The ability of people to think and debate critically and calmly on the subject of racism has essentially vanished. Critical thinking involves, well, thinking. And that’s the problem. People can’t think. They think they can, but they can’t.

It takes moral courage and an understanding of the real, practical importance of open discourse to permit free speech and free expression which is racist or offensive. And not just to permit it, but to positively defend it. For all their faults in the reporting of the above criminal cases the BBC also managed to publish something rather more inspiring on their website last week. Again, the subject was racism and free expression. In 1996 a black teenager in Michigan called Keisha Thomas physically protected a white man from a violent mob who thought he supported the KKK when they saw an SS tattoo on his arm. The mob surrounded the man, kicking him and hitting him with the wooden sticks of their placards.

So what did Thomas do, you might ask. Call the police to arrest the man for racism? Scream about how offended she was? Well not exactly. Not at all, in fact. She threw herself on top of him to protect him. She shielded a complete stranger from serious harm and in doing so placed herself in harm’s way. This was a stranger who most probably hated her for no reason other than her dark skin and who it is logical to assume wouldn’t have returned the brave favour if the tables were turned.

And this is the important point; this is what it really boils down to. Thomas said:

“Nobody deserves to be hurt, especially not for an idea.”

And nobody deserves to be jailed simply for saying racist things either. There, I said it. Can you?

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Pack up your toys, Mehdi. The game’s up.

Mehdi HasanPoor Mehdi. He’s had a tough few weeks.

It’s no secret that I have little time for Mehdi Hasan’s rose-tinted views of Islam and his unhealthy fixation with what he calls “Islamophobia”.

I’ve written two posts about him. In the first I argued he has little right to be considered a moderate and in the second I illustrated the obsessive way he likes to smear people through their perceived but very tenuous associations with each other, as a diversionary tactic when under pressure himself.

Despite our differences on the beauty or otherwise of Islam, though, I do try and listen objectively to Hasan’s commentary on general current affairs. I don’t consider myself particularly on the left or the right though on balance I’m probably ever so slightly more on the right. Despite that I do make a conscious effort to battle my own instincts and so I don’t dismiss Hasan’s general leftiness out of hand.

Hasan is considered one of the country’s foremost commentators on the left. The thing is, in some ways he’s not really a lefty at all. On BBC’s Question Time a couple of weeks ago he launched a major broadside against the Daily Mail and its socially conservative views, to rapturous applause. He left viewers in no doubt at all that he despised the newspaper and everything it stood for. But shortly after the programme it emerged he had written a rather grovelling letter to the newspaper’s editor Paul Dacre only a few years previously, asking for a job and displaying his own views which were rather, well, socially conservative. Look:

Daily Mail

As a chin-stroking QC might remark: “Hmm, interesting case this Hasan”. From what I can see he seems to have at least four different faces: moderate; not moderate; lefty; socially conservative.

Will the real Mehdi Hasan please stand up? Does Mehdi Hasan even know who Mehdi Hasan is anymore? Actually, does Mehdi Hasan even exist? Maybe he only exists in our imaginations? Perhaps we all have a Mehdi Hasan-shaped hole in our brain that only Mehdi Hasan can fill? Will there be a book one day called The Hasan Delusion?

Hasan has now generously given us his views in the New Statesman on Tommy Robinson’s decision to leave the English Defence League and collaborate with Maajid Nawaz, the founder of the counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation (I discussed their collaboration in my previous post here; I generally think it’s a very positive step forward).

Mehdi isn’t a happy bunny. The sands are shifting dramatically and he is absolutely livid. He has lost his big bad wolf Robinson – his bogeyman – and he is devastated that Robinson’s views are now being given a mainstream airing as they thoroughly deserve to be.

To add insult to injury Hasan is (or at least was) fairly matey with Maajid Nawaz. He no doubt feels let down by the brave, visionary Nawaz for siding with the UK’s Kaffir-and-Islamophobe-in-Chief. You see, Hasan likes to speak “as a Muslim” and so it’s in his interest for as many Muslims to agree with him as possible – especially Muslims with a rising public profile and box office appeal like Nawaz. Otherwise it starts to sounds as though Mehdi Hasan is only speaking for, er, Mehdi Hasan rather than for other Muslims. By contrast Nawaz likes to emphasise he is a citizen who happens to be a Muslim. He doesn’t preface everything he says with a reminder of his religious status (“as a Muslim I find the weather unseasonably mild today”“as a Muslim I find this smoky pepper houmous pairs well with my lamb doner”, etc).

Hasan is now on the ropes with his I love Mecca boxing pants around his ankles. Three heavy punches have rained down on him: whether he is a “moderate” is anyone’s guess; his supposed leftiness is a sham; and now his arch-nemesis is being publicly rehabilitated at breakneck speed – and his views flooding into a very receptive public domain – with the help of what Hasan considered to be his fwend.

On the ropes and in a tight corner Hasan has no choice but to lash out with the same old punches but they just aren’t connecting. His piece in the New Statesman about Robinson reads like one of the Daily Mail’s paranoid and barking mad Christianity under attack pieces.

Have a look at this:

“It was the most stunning volte-face since Libya’s foreign minister Mousa Kousa defected to the west in 2011. Or perhaps since Sol Campbell left Spurs for Arsenal on a free transfer in 2001. On 8 October, Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka Andrew Mc- Master, aka Paul Harris), the co-founder and leader of the English Defence League (EDL), quit the far-right group and joined hands with the Quilliam Foundation, a “counterextremism” think tank.”

Hasan has two objectives here.

Firstly, he is desperately trying to put Robinson’s rehabilitation into reverse by reminding readers he has used different names – which he did for his own security because we all know how excitable some Muslims can get – and therefore to cast doubt on his integrity. After all, using false names is a crime against humanity. I believe the International Criminal Court in the Hague will shortly be hearing the landmark case of The People v. Prince, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Captain Sensible et al.

Secondly, he’s still trying to report as fact that the EDL is a far-right group, which is exactly what he and the vast majority of commentators have done so shamefully for the past four and a half years, rather than even let readers countenance the idea that there might be some or even many decent individuals associated with the EDL as well as some undoubtedly nasty ones. It was precisely this kind of supposed factual reporting that so hampered the EDL, that made it impossible for Robinson to be heard until very recently, and that actually encouraged far right elements to be drawn to it.

And how about this:

“Can a fascist renounce fascism?”

See what he did there? Hasan’s subtle assumption here is that Robinson was in fact a fascist who must now prove he has renounced fascism. Robinson need do no such thing. He wasn’t a racist or a fascist before and he still isn’t now. He doesn’t need to change. He therefore doesn’t need to prove he has changed.

Towards the end Hasan throws in some succulent morsels:

“No faith or community should be protected from criticism and even ridicule”.

Of course not. It’s just that if you exercise your sacred right to free speech to analyse Islam or Muslims then you must accept you are a racist, a fascist and an Islamophobe. It’s your choice. Guess what most people decide to do? That’s right, keep their mouth shut.

And this:

“In the past year, I have challenged anti-Semitism and homophobia inside Muslim communities in Britain on these very pages.”

Mehdi, Mehdi, ra-ra-ra.

This is classic Hasan. He is allowed to speak out against anti-Semitism and homophobia inside Muslim communities – and he expects to be thanked for it – but if anyone else does they are an Islamophobe (see Douglas Murray’s excellent Spectator piece here). What’s outrageous is that Hasan is trying to claim credit for his supposed defence of human rights when in fact he has personally made things worse. His annoying and thoroughly unhealthy obsession with shutting down anything other than glowing discussion of Muslims and Islam perpetuates the harm Islam causes, including the homophobia and anti-Semitism which he rightly acknowledges as challenges within his community.

This is someone who expects to be admired for making things worse. This is a sad excuse for a man.

Mehdi, the game is up. You are a fraud and a hypocrite. People are turning up the volume when Robinson speaks and turning it to mute when you speak. You want to live in the past and so it is in the past you shall live. Your determination to unearth racism and “Islamophobia” under every rock and where it simply does not exist – or certainly not in the volume or seriousness you want everyone to believe it exists – has contributed immeasurably to the poor perception of Islam and Muslims in this country, and to the harm caused by Islam through ever-greater self-censorship. You have done decent Muslims a grave disservice. Simply be grateful that you have got away with your duplicitous taqiyya for so long and please now quietly retreat into obscurity. Go, Mehdi, just go.

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Unite Against Jihad: praise be to Tommy and Maajid

QuilliamOr: Stop Holy Wars: A New Hope, starring Obi Tom Kenobe and Maa-Jedi Nawaz.

On Tuesday 8 October Tommy Robinson left the English Defence League, the organisation he founded in 2009. In doing so he also made a commitment to continuing his fight against Islamism – and other forms of extremism – by working in partnership with Maajid Nawaz and the counter-extremist think tank the Quilliam Foundation. Nawaz’s Quilliam Foundation “facilitated” the departure of Robinson, and Robinson’s co-leader Kevin Carroll, from the EDL.

Robinson’s reasons for leaving were that the EDL had become impossible to control; toxic far-right elements having infected the organisation meaning there was now little prospect of the EDL being a positive force. As the public face of the EDL Robinson was blamed for every inadequacy of the organisation. He felt he was spending more time battling extremists within the EDL than he was Islamism. He also felt the EDL’s tactics of street protest were no longer productive.

This was big, big news, and completely unexpected. Some will say Robinson and Nawaz have entered a death embrace. I’d say they’ve taken a huge leap of faith together, that this is definitely a positive step forward, and that we should enthusiastically applaud both of them for their courage and wisdom.

There have been predictable accusations against Robinson that he has sold out, and a sense of nervousness from his supporters that he will now have to drastically dilute his message. There is a fear he will sand away his uncompromising edginess and will now have to adopt the toe-curling, offence-neutral, treacly language of meaningless and ineffective “interfaith dialogue”. A change in his approach is inevitable, and probably even necessary, but I see little danger of Robinson trading the hell that has been the last four years of his life for a seat on a comfy interfaith sofa as a regular on the Islam Channel.

Robinson had many enemies before last week: the hard left, the “liberal” left, moderate Muslims, other opponents of Islamism who wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole, and not to mention demented, bloodthirsty jihadis who were caged for plotting to bomb an EDL rally. Although his overnight rehabilitation has presumably made his life slightly less chaotic than it was a week ago, let’s not forget he now has an additional category of enemy: former EDLers who feel betrayed by him.

In July, after forcing myself to think for myself about Robinson rather than believe everything I was hearing, I drastically changed my opinions on him. I wrote a lengthy post in which I laid on some pretty heavy praise and I was very moved when Robinson said how encouraged he was by it.

It became clear to me in July that there was much, much more to Robinson than met the eye. Here was a brave young man who was utterly committed to defeating Islamism and who was voluntarily placing himself under the kind of pressure which would break simple men: constant accusations against him of racism and bigotry; arrests; public enemy number 1 status; an infamous public reputation – taken as fact by so many – little different to canine excrement; carrying the blame for anything done by anyone under the guise or supposed guise of the EDL; goodness knows what strain on his family life; and of course worrying about death threats and murder plots.

I don’t think Robinson has sold out. On the contrary, he has demonstrated just how committed he is to tackling Islamism because he has cut himself off from the very organisation that has been his life’s work for four years, and whose power base was his lifeblood. I think there are few people in this country who are more committed to slaying the Islamist beast than Robinson.

In his interviews this week Robinson has appeared almost to regret the street protests and the “Allah, Allah, who the fuck is Allah” chants at EDL marches. This might just be the impression I’ve had; maybe he doesn’t regret them. In any case I don’t think he has any reason to regret them. The EDL had (and still has) every right to do street protests, within the law of course, and to chant whatever they want about “Allah”. It’s worth remembering that Robinson has reached this new stage in his career precisely because he and his supporters exercised their precious rights to protest, to free speech and to free association in the grip of vice-like pressure and intimidation. What we have seen is a real-time example of these freedoms working, not failing.

It’s been disappointing to see how Robinson’s defection from the EDL has been constantly framed by the question “but has he really changed?”. This misses the point. He didn’t really have to change anyway. He wasn’t racist before and so he doesn’t have to prove he’s “stopped” being racist now. He condemned violence before and he still condemns it now. He didn’t “hate all Muslims” before and so he doesn’t have to prove he doesn’t hate all Muslims now. The key change he has made is disassociating himself from the organisation he founded and nurtured, and which was his power base. He has acknowledged that the EDL vehicle has performed its function and that he was increasingly a passenger on a madcap journey rather than the actual driver. He has now jumped out of the vehicle and effectively let it fall over a cliff. Someone might salvage the wreck but that’s not his concern. He knows there are seriously nasty elements within the EDL and he wants to demonstrate once and for all that he wants nothing to do with them. This is tough on the decent people remaining within the EDL, but that’s the price to pay. It happens.

The EDL has served its purpose. It has given Robinson his voice, and what a voice it is. But don’t forget just how tough life has been for Robinson. It’s taken him about four years to battle for a right that shouldn’t have taken him even four minutes to obtain: the right to speak freely, and the right not to be called a racist for opposing a totalitarian, inhumane ideology that poses an existential threat to the United Kingdom, the Middle East and to humanity itself.

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To focus merely on Robinson, though, is to do his joint venture partner Maajid Nawaz a huge disservice. Both these men have shown incredible vision and bravery by collaborating, and both have significant skin in this game.

To many Muslims, as well as all those employed in the Islamophobia and anti-racism industries, Nawaz is siding with the arch-enemy. He is forming an alliance with a man who everyone has been led to believe was (and as far as many are concerned, still is) a far-right, racist, bigoted Nazi thug. Robinson was the poster boy of unwavering kuffar defiance. Lest we forget, the price paid by “disloyal” Muslims is often a brutally heavy one. Nawaz has therefore invited severe pressure on his own shoulders from his fellow Muslims as well as anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, who has a lukewarm approach to tackling Islamism. Even away from his anti-extremism work Nawaz’s decision has made his life far less comfortable: he is the prospective parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats in Hampstead and Kilburn. Seeing Nawaz jump into bed with Robinson might be difficult for voters to stomach. Some residents of the north London constituency will pause for thought before putting a cross against Nawaz’s name come May 2015. The “piece of paper” Nawaz can proudly clutch in his hands and show to sceptical voters, though, is a death certificate bearing the words English Defence League.

Like Robinson, Nawaz hasn’t sold out in his fight against Islamism. He has demonstrated his commitment to it. He has effectively told everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike: “I am really, really serious about defeating Islamism and I will form alliances with whomever I consider, in good conscience, to be part of the solution. I won’t let you ignore the voice of ordinary white Englishmen. They have very legitimate concerns. You cannot simply hurl accusations of racism and bigotry against Robinson. This will not make him go away. This will not make Islamism go away. Now, what are you doing to fight extremism other than crying Islamophobia or racism when someone draws a cartoon of a prophet?”

Nawaz knows that fighting extremism isn’t just a matter of pinning a badge saying “moderate” to your lapel and taking part in interfaith love-fests. This hasn’t worked in the past and it won’t work in the future. He knows there are plenty of uncomfortable truths to be told; truths that Robinson has shown the bravery and skills to communicate time and time again. I can’t tell you just how encouraged I am when I see Nawaz put clear water between himself and phoney moderate, cry-baby taqiyya merchants like Mehdi Hasan and Mo Ansar. By bear-hugging Robinson so publicly Nawaz has pushed unpleasant individuals like Hasan and Ansar, and worse than useless organisations like Tell MAMA and Unite Against Fascism, even further away from him. This is highly significant. His unexpected move on the chessboard isolates them and hopefully puts them out of business.

It’s not all champagne and skittles. I have previously heard Nawaz lapse into occasional Islamophobia rhetoric, for example when talking about people’s opposition to halal food, and obviously I’m not exactly over the moon about that. Halal slaughter is barbaric and it creates employment discrimination in the supply chain. It can be distinguished from kosher slaughter on the basis of how widespread it is, and because it represents an oh so subtle power play by Islam. I have never had kosher food imposed on me in a secular environment such as a work canteen. However, I do see halal food in my work canteen every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (I only work Monday to Friday). I don’t oppose halal slaughter because I’m “Islamophobic”. I oppose it because I don’t want sentient creatures to die in agony even if they’re destined for my stomach; because I think employment discrimination is bad; because I’m concerned about the religious privilege in our legal system that allows halal slaughter; and because I’m concerned that secular environments are becoming increasingly religious – by which I mean increasingly Islamic. Oh and I’m also concerned at the relentless growth of halal-slaughtered food which has largely been caused by…a crippling reluctance of ordinary people to criticise it or even ask questions about it, on pain of being summarily convicted of “Islamophobia”. So please, Maajid, let’s throttle back ever so slightly on the use of this term. Deal?

But without getting sucked into a vortex of banal interfaith drivel let’s be positive, let’s look towards the future and – as a freshly-elected President Obama said – let’s fix our eyes firmly on the horizon.

Tommy, Maajid, I salute you both. I thank you both for having the courage and vision to embrace each other. There will be tough times and disagreements ahead for you, of that I am sure, but you must keep going because it’s possible that the very stability of the United Kingdom might be determined by the success of your relationship. No pressure there then. Like the banks in the lead up to the credit crunch, this thing is just too big to fail.

***

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War on Terror? Islam’s War on Us, more like

CenotaphThe last couple of weeks have been really tough. The issue of the niqab has affected me in ways I wasn’t expecting. It’s triggered all sorts of emotions in me. I think we’ve passed some kind of threshold.

Let’s have a quick recap. Last time, on Islam.

Judge Peter Murphy allowed a defendant in a criminal trial to refuse to reveal her face in the normal way when entering her plea and he subsequently allowed her to retain her veil during the trial itself, other than when she was giving evidence.

The reason? Religion. The religion? Oh I forget now. Can I get back to you?

I once heard that the closest thing the UK has to sacred sites is its war memorials, and I think there’s some truth in that. But there are other sacred sites and institutions in this country and indeed any democracy: the legal system, and in particular the criminal legal system.

A criminal legal system is an awesome institution of the state. It’s the forum where the state exercises its not inconsiderable power to deprive citizens of their liberty and to safeguard fundamental rights. Think of it as a location where extremely non-trivial business takes place.

In the last couple of weeks the niqab has been legitimised in a criminal trial. The consequences of this are painfully clear to me: it’s now possible to legitimise the niqab absolutely anywhere.

Hospitals? Not a problem. After all we all know that surgeons cover their face so the veil is presumably nothing to be concerned about, right? Surely the justifications for covering a face in these two circumstances are equally valid?

In the case of the surgeon’s mask the justification is a scientific, evidence-based reason to minimise the risk of infection and so the intention is clearly to relieve and minimise actual human suffering. I have to say this strikes me as a thoroughly sensible idea in a building dedicated to relieving and minimising human suffering.

In the case of the veil the justification is a faith-based imperative to oppress women and blame them for sexual violence they receive and so the intention here is to increase human misery. This is always a poor use of human effort, and even more so in a hospital.

It tells you everything you need to know that these two reasons for covering the face are considered by some to be equal or even remotely comparable.

But of course we need a “review” to establish whether NHS staff should be allowed to conceal their identity without good reason. Understand that in the year 2013 no decision is possible without a formal review, especially a very straightforward decision about something incredibly important, and especially where Islam is lurking oh so subtly in the hospital waiting room.

Would we need a “review” to establish whether NHS staff should be allowed to dress as deep sea divers or giant pineapples? I’ll hazard a guess on this one and say, “on the balance of probabilities, maybe not”. Just like I’d hazard a guess and say Judge Peter Murphy might not have been so accommodating to a defendant wearing a ski mask, a KKK mask, a Darth Vader helmet or a Robocop helmet. Throw Islam into the mix though and everything changes. When Islam pops up to say hello we need a government review to establish whether we’re even allowed to use our own brains.

Criminal trial, tick. Hospitals, probably a tick. Schools? Ah, why the hell not, let’s go for the full house. Hey, they’re only kids. They’re practically dispensable. Mere fodder for religion.

And while we’re at it let’s also make it a contractual condition of employment in a “free school” set up “based on Muslim principles, but not as a Muslim school” (and no I don’t understand that distinction either) not only for Muslim teachers but also for non-Muslim teachers to wear a hijab. Yes let’s do that. I for one am all for it because I’m culturally sensitive. Feel that warm glow of multiculturalism wash over you, it’s so…ooh, cohesive.

***

At this precise moment in time I don’t particularly care for the minutiae of court procedure and whether Judge Peter Murphy applied the rules meticulously, or whether there’s enough guidance for this judge to have made his decision, or whether Parliament now has to scratch its balls and decide what to do, assuming Parliament has any balls. Do we need a parliamentary review, perhaps? A Royal Commission? Should someone call the President?

I’m not a criminal lawyer and I’m not even a litigator. I’m a commercial lawyer and my day revolves around four activities of the utmost banality: meetings, conference calls, Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Word (especially track changes, god how I love it).

My only memories of litigation are similar to my memories of religion: bad ones. I remember being sent to the High Court as a trainee on a number of occasions without the faintest idea what I was doing, getting lost in there (even with the map of the building they give you), carrying a load of boxes and papers I didn’t understand and getting properly drenched in my own sweat through a mixture of heat and sheer bloody panic.

But there’s something I do remember even from my student days about a shifty little ace that judges keep up their sleeves for special occasions called “public policy decisions”, when there’s a blindingly obvious solution available but the intricate legal reasoning isn’t necessarily there. It’s the judicial equivalent of the quick ‘n’ dirty, or the Ministry of the Fucking Obvious. As far as I’m concerned Judge Peter Murphy could have done more to raise national morale than a back-from-the-dead Princess Diana handballing a winning goal against Argentina in the last minute of a World Cup Final by saying:

“For reasons of overwhelming public policy considerations that the criminal justice system of a democracy should be fair and transparent, there must surely be a strong default presumption that a defendant be visible throughout all court proceedings.

“There may well be objective reasons to depart from this on occasion in order to fully serve the interests of justice and to prevent or minimise a harm, but I have heard nothing in the submissions presented to me today convincing me of the need for such a departure.

“Now let’s get on with this fucking trial before I open a can of whoopass – that’s contempt of court to you, lady.”

Like I said, quick ‘n’ dirty. But it does the job.

Our criminal legal system even allows anonymity and concealment of identity. This is for objective, harm-based reasons. At the outer edges of our judicial solar system intelligence officers remain unidentified as witnesses and they appear behind a screen. This is spooky stuff. It’s pretty much the most spookiness the rule of law can comfortably withstand. But if you accept that the state has a right and a duty to keep its citizens safe, and I do, then you probably accept like me that an intelligence service is necessary, and you probably also accept like me that normal everyday rules aren’t always going to apply to an intelligence service. But to allow concealment of defendants for no reason other than someone claims this as a requirement of their faith? Well there’s a legal term for that: barking fucking mad.

At work I’m surrounded by other lawyers. You might have thought recent events concerning the veil would have prompted all sorts of passionate discussions around the rule of law, transparency of justice, the role of religion in a democracy, the role of a niqab in a criminal trial. Think again. Don’t ever rely on the lawyers to save the day. In my experience lawyers are no more or less likely to understand or even be aware of dangers to our fundamental civil liberties than any other section of society.

Lawyers with far more knowledge and experience of court procedure will tell you whether or not Judge Peter Murphy’s decisions on the veil were satisfactory in law (here is one good analysis), and I humbly bow to m’learned friends on this. Some will also tell you that a defendant’s face is not the most important element of a trial – and they would be absolutely correct. No-one’s saying for a moment that a jury should convict or not convict based on someone’s face, or that a judge should make decisions of law based on someone’s face.

But I like to think lawyers shouldn’t just be technicians. Yes, correct procedure itself provides a degree of legitimacy but there’s far more to fundamental legal issues than technical compliance. What about everyone being equal before the law? What about justice being done? What about justice being seen to be done? What about common sense?

Common sense, what’s that? This is religion we’re talking about. Hitch was right. It poisons everything, it truly poisons everything.

***

As if the last couple of weeks haven’t been heavy enough, on Thursday my work laptop was replaced with a new one. This was the IT equivalent of a heart transplant. This was traumatic for both of us, or all three of us even. As I sat in the IT lab while the guy prodded and poked (no he wasn’t wearing a niqab, so I might have caught a virus, boom boom) I was listening to the songs on the radio, I can’t remember which station it was. And as if I wasn’t feeling on edge enough as it was, the Sting song “Fragile” came on. I’m not a massive Sting fan but this is an amazing song. The words just stuck in my head all day long, “On and on the rain will fall, Like tears from a star like tears from a star, On and on the rain will say, How fragile we are how fragile we are”.

But of course even that wasn’t enough so as I was checking Twitter for the latest pseudo-feminist bullshit justification for oppressing females while matey boy performed CPR on my hardware I discovered the latest pet project for these so-called feminists: did you know that sex-selective abortion of female foetuses is now a good thing for feminists? This is a form of liberalism which likes to eat itself from the inside out.

Then later on that evening, while Sting was still telling me how fragile we are, how fragile we are, a young lady on Question Time calling herself Laurie Penny, who I am told is a feminist, pretty much finished me off because she wasn’t nearly as bothered about the niqab as I was, and then she plunged the knife deep inside my torso by telling me it was racist for any white man (I’m a white man) to tell a Muslim woman what to wear or not to wear. That was for me what alcoholics call “rock bottom”. I pretty much had to scrape myself off the floor into bed after that.

Why is it racist specifically for a white man? What if you’re mixed race? What if you’re Chinese, or Chilean? Does the word “racist” actually mean anything in 2013?

Being called a racist is one of the hazards of talking about Islam in anything other than glowing terms. You can pretty much set your watch to it. “It concerns me that women are stoned to death for adultery and apostates are murd-” RACIST.

What’s more, in the context of the niqab the accusation of racism takes you firmly into Monty Python territory. Will no-one dare point out the glaring incoherence here? The incoherence is this, if it hadn’t already occurred to you: how oh how can it be RACIST to criticise the NIQAB when it’s impossible to establish the RACE of the person wearing it?

In the year 2013 racism is an assumption when criticising Islam – and it’s up to you to rebut that assumption. A small price to pay for community cohesion.

I have nothing but contempt for so-called feminists who shut down criticism of the niqab or who try to frame the discussion with endless slurs of racism. I have nothing but contempt for a bloated, decadent, über-intellectual, theoretical, mutated and ironic strain of feminism that wishes to view the niqab as an expression of female empowerment.

I just try to think of a miserable young girl forced to wear a niqab, peaking through the cracks of her veil and maybe even the cracks of a living room door to catch a glimpse of a feminist holding court on this subject on Question Time, and I just try and imagine what she might be begging to hear from that feminist.

I have little if any concern for the women who choose to veil. They have zero respect for my culture. And why should my culture accommodate theirs? Why not the other way round? I’m told these women who choose to veil are strong as lions, clever as Einstein, free as eagles. Well in that case they have all the tools they need to fight their own battles. I’ll concentrate on life’s victims.

***

The last two weeks have been horrible. Something has changed. I don’t feel right. My heart is beating quicker when I think about these things, when I talk about these things, when I write about these things. People speaking is just noise. I have been sitting in traffic with tears in my eyes. I have had probably irreparable disagreements with some I considered friends and allies, on the subject of the veil and wider issues of the religious threat we face and what the response to that should be.

There are things we don’t seem to talk about in 2013. Like 9/11 and 7/7. Even the numerical way history has recorded these events has taken on a sinister feel: it now provides convenient code for avoiding taboo words. You know, like Islam. Like Muslims. These events are not ancient history by any means. I still have some of the same clothes I was wearing those days, and I still fit into them.

I remember all sorts of things about 7/7. I remember hearing the bus explode in Russell Square as I sat at my desk. I remember a colleague who was in the Territorial Army who had some weird scar on his shaven head that I used to call a bite mark for a laugh – I remember him bursting into Action Man mode as he helpfully confirmed that the large bang that had just shaken our windows was a bomb. I remember getting texts from friends I had lost contact with saying something like, “I’m really sorry I haven’t been in touch for ages but I just want to know you’re ok.” I remember being surprised that other friends I was in regular contact with didn’t text me. I remember changing my commute for a few weeks to walk the last part of the journey rather than get the tube. I remember all of this. Very clearly.

There’s something else I remember very clearly about 7/7: there was no backlash against Muslims. Why? Because Londoners are better than that. The British are better than that. Western civilisation is better than that.

But never mind 9/11 and 7/7, or Madrid. What about Lee Rigby, Muslim grooming gangs, Sharia councils, the slow death of free speech by a thousand cuts?

What about the fact I can’t even go to my work canteen without being served halal meat? Is halal a good thing or a bad thing? What happens if you refuse to eat halal? What happens if you formally challenge it through the Human Resources department? Are there consequences? What actually is halal anyway? Some say it’s just a prayer. Or is it true that the animals are not pre-stunned? Or perhaps the non-stunning thing is an urban myth? Are there even such things as facts in the year 2013? Or is everything a matter of opinion, of compromise, of nuance?

Why don’t my colleagues want to enter into conversations about halal? It’s just a menu item in their canteen. That’s all. Why do they quickly flick their eyes to the left and to the right when I bring up the subject? What or who are they looking for? Security officers? Diversity officers? Police officers specialising in hate crime? How come even the colleagues who are willing to discuss halal talk slightly quieter than usual? Is it because they don’t feel safe?

In the year 2013 people in workplaces are scared to talk about the food their employer feeds them in the canteen, the food they put in their own mouths. Maybe that’s a small price to pay for workplace diversity.

Why don’t we talk about these things? Why do we talk instead about attacks on Islam and Muslims? Where are all these attacks? Are they actually happening, and what actually constitutes an attack on “Islam”? What scale are these attacks on? What type of harm are we talking about? Who are carrying out these attacks? Are these people being punished? What does Islamophobia mean? Am I being Islamophobic now? What’s the punishment for Islamophobia? Is it loss of employment, loss of personal relationships, social ostracisation, jail, amputation, death? Is there a transparent and fair justice system for establishing guilt? Is there a right of appeal? Is anyone’s face visible in these proceedings? Why do people talk of “Muslim areas”? What is the status of non-Muslims in “Muslim areas”? What is the status of women and homosexuals there? Are “Muslim areas” separate legal jurisdictions?

I devour the news and I come to the same conclusion over and over and over again: overwhelmingly, the rights of the Muslim are infringed by fellow Muslims, in the name of Islam, in what is called the “Muslim world”. Anyone who disputes this has made a conscious decision not to think.

***

Commentators such as Kenan Malik rightfully point to the significance of 1989 and the Salman Rushdie affair as a watershed moment for Islam’s relationship with the West. This was the prompt for the West to assert its values. We didn’t. We blinked.

Perhaps there is some parallel between the Satanic Verses and the veil. Both can be dismissed as minor turbulence in a hot beverage. One was merely a book and by some accounts a pretty useless one, though I haven’t read it, and one was a piece of clothing which was politely accommodated in an otherwise ordinary criminal trial. The question is this: when Islam presented the veil to us in our criminal justice system, did we just blink again? Was this another colossal prompt that history delivered up? What do you think happens when civilisations don’t assert their values?

Someone recently told me that the first year of World War II was known as the “Phoney War” because of the lack of major military operations by the Western Allies. The same person invited me to consider if we might presently be living through a “Phoney Peace”. Well let’s just say that got me thinking.

To assume that freedom of the individual is somehow the default factory setting for humanity is to make a rather grave error. Individual human rights, and specifically freedom from religious tyranny, are in historical terms very recent developments. They can be lost in an instant.

People take their freedoms for granted on an epic scale and sometimes it takes seismic events to wake them from their stupor such as…jet airliners slicing through skyscrapers, anyone?

And this is the truly terrifying thing. Think of everything that Islam has demonstrated to us in recent history. And think of how the discussion is constantly cranked into reverse in order to protect Islam. To defend Islam. To protect Islam from “attacks”. And ask yourself: how much lower must we fall? Where is our rock bottom? If 9/11 and 7/7 and Madrid and Mumbai and now Nairobi are not enough; if veils in criminal trials and in schools are not enough; if sharia councils on our doorsteps are not enough, then does anyone know what is enough? What is your rock bottom? And incidentally, at what point might we be entitled to evidence that this religion is peaceful?

War is a strong word. One pictures planes, ships, submarines, tanks, soldiers. But forget those images for a moment. Think about conquest, domination, subjugation, submission, unwillingness to accept criticism, hostility to facts, death to dissenters, aggression, violence, bloodlust, martyrdom. Think of the consequences of not speaking. Think of civilisations not asserting their values.

Make no mistake: we are at war. We are in a nightmare.

Sweet dreams.

***

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Maybe it’s time to ban the veil

Niqab banLast week was a good week for Islam and the veil. As usual.

Firstly, a brave college in Birmingham took the radical step of deciding its students shouldn’t conceal their identity on college premises. Reasonable? Most certainly. Even our Prime Minister thought it made sense, and we all know how much difficulty politicians have speaking honestly and coherently about this topic. Well done Birmingham Metropolitan College. But then a few seconds elapsed and the college caved in, overturning its decision.

Secondly, a Muslim woman entering a plea before a trial managed to force a “compromise” by refusing to remove her veil when identifying herself in formal court proceedings. It wasn’t a compromise. It was appeasement. Judge Peter Murphy agreed that the woman could remove her veil in front of a female police officer, who then verified it was the defendant.

This week, at the beginning of the trial, the same judge decided that the woman could stand trial wearing a full veil but that she had to remove it to give evidence. Put the bubbly back on the supermarket shelf though because there’s nothing to celebrate here – and on another day, with another judge, we could easily see an even worse decision. Have a look at the shocking inconsistency in these next two paragraphs of the judgment. The first paragraph is entirely sensible and very encouraging but then in the second paragraph the judge discards his own flawless reasoning by allowing the woman to retain her veil during the trial:

59. On the other hand, there is the question of the comfort – and beyond comfort, the rights and freedoms – of others whose participation in the trial is essential. In my view, it is unfair to ask a witness to give evidence against a defendant whom he cannot see. It is unfair to ask a juror to pass judgment on a person whom she cannot see. It is unfair to expect that juror to try to evaluate the evidence given by a person whom she cannot see, deprived of an essential tool for doing so: namely, being able to observe the demeanour of the witness; her reaction to being questioned; her reaction to other evidence as it is given. These are not trivial or superficial invasions of the procedure of the adversarial trial. At best, they require a compromise of the quality of criminal justice delivered by the trial process. At worst, they go to its very essence, and they may render it altogether impotent to deliver a fair and just outcome. They drive a coach and horses through the way in which justice has been administered in the courts of England and Wales for centuries. I would add that, although of lesser significance in the case of a judge, it is also unfair to require a judge to sentence a person he cannot see.

68. The question is how these considerations should be balanced. Leaving aside questions of identification, I do not consider that it is necessary to ask a defendant to remove her niqaab for the purposes of the trial generally. While it remains true that juries scrutinise defendants throughout the proceedings, and take note of a defendant’s reaction to the evidence as it is given throughout the trial, I am not persuaded that this is of sufficient importance to require a restriction on the defendant’s right to wear the niqaab.

The judge’s previous decision on the plea was sold as a compromise when actually it was nothing of the sort. The subsequent decision on the trial has been sold as some kind of heroic victory for our legal system (“Muslim woman must remove veil”) when that legal system in fact now finds itself slumped on the ropes. This most certainly wasn’t a victory. Both decisions, and the way they’ve been portrayed, demonstrate how embarrassingly low we’ve set our success threshold against Islam’s never-ending and rarely reasonable demands. Pour a few drops of neat, toxic, 7th century religious ideology into otherwise sturdy 21st century legal pipework, allow to simmer, then stand back and watch with drooling multicultural glee as appeasement is redefined as compromise and defeat as victory. There’s a word to describe anyone who isn’t deeply troubled by the heavy blows our fine legal system has been apparently content to soak up and that word is delusional.

One of my earliest posts was about the veil and my position then was that I wasn’t keen on a criminal ban. Now I’m not so sure. So I thought it was about time I looked again at some of the arguments for a ban.

We often hear how the full veil has “nothing to do with Islam”. Well blow me, that’s strange because whenever I speak out against it I’m called an “Islamophobe” and whenever others argue for the right to veil they talk about religious freedom. Which religion would that be? Mormonism? The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? A mystery unnamed religion? Has the religion of peace now been rebranded as the religion of no name?

The position we seem to have settled on, then, is that the veil can be justified by Islam but it can’t be criticised on the basis of Islam. More anti-logic and collective denial there, courtesy of Islam.

Whether or not the veil is a requirement of Islam is irrelevant. In fact given the inability of people of the same religion or even the same denomination to, er, see eye to eye on anything, establishing what is and isn’t a requirement of a particular faith is a pointless and impossible task. Moreover it’s actually undesirable because it outsources key issues of human rights and religious freedom to the loudest and most regressive self-appointed faith “leaders”. This is something I discussed here and here in the context of the ECtHR cases at the beginning of this year.

Anyone with an ounce of honesty knows that Islam hangs very heavy here. The question isn’t whether the veil is a requirement of Islam though. The underlying questions are whether a symbol of undoubted female oppression should be allowed in public, what the state’s position on this is, and how the decisions (or more often than not, the forced decisions) of those wearing the veil affect the rights of others.

Let’s assume there are two groups of women (and children) who veil: those who are forced to veil to one degree or another, and those who choose to veil.

As far as the coerced veilers are concerned, I’d hope that even the most morally invertebrate, culturally-relativist pseudo feminist would agree this is harmful and undesirable. What to do about it then? It’s clear we’re getting nowhere fast because people are absolutely petrified to talk about the veil. Unless we do something now then in ten or twenty years’ time we’ll see pictures like this and this showing how the UK has changed in the same way Afghanistan and Iran have.

Are the women and children who are forced to veil not entitled to some protection from the state? Does the state not have a duty to strongly condemn this? The most effective way of the state doing this is to use the criminal law. In an ideal world this would be unnecessary because the creation of a new criminal law should always be a last resort. Well maybe the depressing events of last week show we’re already in the last chance saloon of last resorts. Whereas previously I might have been opposed to a criminal ban I’m not necessarily now strongly in favour of one. But nor am I strongly opposed to a criminal ban. I just want this problem solved. If we can do that without a new law, great. If we need a new law, then so be it. That’s life.

Will it be a difficult law to enforce? Most probably, and this is a common argument against a ban. Many laws are difficult to enforce though and that’s no reason not to have them as laws. Imagine being the person who first suggested the idea of income tax. “How the hell are you going to do that? It’ll never work. People will just lie about what they earn”, the doubters would have presumably argued.

Making a particular activity illegal has a very strong effect. It makes it socially unacceptable, it creates legal protections and it creates legal remedies. It puts the state on the side of the victim and not the oppressor. The state itself takes a position.

As for those who claim to disapprove of forced veiling but argue against banning it on the basis it will cause more problems than it solves (for example, because the women “won’t be allowed out”), well presumably they do accept that the veil is a problem then? In that case what are they doing to solve the problem? Answer: nothing.

Let’s think now about those who choose to veil of their own free will. Let’s assume they’re not mere puppets and that they’ve managed to unshackle themselves from the hundreds of years of religious and cultural misogyny that created the veil. Let’s assume they have all the freedom of a soaring eagle.

What I say to those individuals is this: if you’re emancipated enough to genuinely make all your own decisions, then great. I’m very happy for you. Many of your co-religionists aren’t nearly so lucky. The flip side of your freedom is that you’re emancipated enough to take criticism of your clothing choices without crying persecution and you’re presumably also bright enough to understand that very few freedoms are limitless. You should be able to understand that your choices have consequences for others. You should be able to understand that others also have rights.

People will often completely dismiss the idea of a criminal ban on the basis there are some individuals who freely choose to veil. Case dismissed, they’ll say; a criminal ban would be an unacceptable infringement of personal liberty, so goes the argument. Well sorry but that’s not good enough. The discussion doesn’t end there. Yes, in analysing the case for a criminal ban on anything we must always approach the argument on the basis of personal liberty. But when that exercise of personal liberty results in that person concealing their identity in key state institutions or other public places, and displaying a sign of female oppression, is that still a valid right?

I say it isn’t. I say the state has the right and even a duty to take a position on the veil. I say I have the right to see the face of a fellow citizen in certain places. Whether that right of mine is a legal one or a moral one, I’m not too sure. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Hey, maybe it’s even a……cultural one!! What if my culture is gender equality, secularism, opposing misogyny, and advocating open human interaction? What do the cultural relativists have to say about that?

Whatever the basis of that right, I think it exists. Am I not entitled to see the face of a fellow female citizen in certain public places? Not the tits, not the arse, not the private lady parts. Just the face. How about we consider the rights of people other than Muslims for a change? (I’m assuming the rest of us still have rights. Right?)

And while we’re on the subject of rights, don’t state institutions, businesses and educational establishments have the right to set rules for people on their premises? Is it not reasonable to require of those entering their premises that they don’t conceal their identity?

One thing at least is perfectly clear. If one sector of society can conceal their identity in public then we all can. If freedom of religion/culture/belief is absolute then it’s absolute for all religions, for all cultures and for all beliefs. If the defendant in the court case had been a white supremacist (as opposed to an Islamic supremacist) who refused to remove a KKK mask to enter a plea, what do you think the judge’s decision might have been? Would a “compromise” have been reached where, say, the KKK member would only remove their mask in front of a white person? (Altogether now…..“NO!”). It would have been dealt with on the only sensible basis possible: contempt of court.

A criminal ban on concealing one’s identity in, say, public buildings and state institutions might indeed restrict the personal freedom of a certain number of people who choose to veil. Well if that’s the worst infringement of individual rights that can be pinned on secularism then I’ll take that and I suggest any religion worthy of the name “peaceful” ought to take that too, and it ought to stop whinging just for once.

I’m far more bothered about the individuals who are forced to veil than the ones who aren’t. After all, the ones who voluntarily veil don’t seem remotely bothered about my right to feel comfortable and secure in a public place. They don’t seem remotely bothered about my culture. They don’t seem remotely bothered about perpetuating a symbol and a tool of female oppression at the expense of those who don’t have the freedom to choose. They don’t seem remotely bothered that I don’t want to be surrounded by faceless zombies. At least I agonise over whether to restrict their liberties. They never do the same for me.

It’s upsetting how unwilling some Muslim women are to express their disapproval of the veil openly (but credit to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown for piping up). A female colleague of mine, an Ismaili Muslim, once told me she was “secretly very pleased” that France banned the veil. Why “secretly”? Does she realise how much harder she makes it for people speaking out against the veil, and for people who are forced to wear it, by keeping silent?

It’s time for everyone who hates this cloak of oppression to say so. Especially Muslims, and especially female Muslims. If everyone spoke up then wearing the veil in public would be completely socially unacceptable, just like wearing a KKK mask is, and we wouldn’t have to recalibrate our collective intellect to pander to it by pretending the veil is a demonstration of personal freedom and women’s rights. We wouldn’t even need to think about banning it. But this is what happens when religion has power. This is what happens when religion causes fear. Madness. Absolute bloody madness.

The state has views on lots of things and it often uses the criminal law to express those views. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time the state expressed a view on the veil and whether people can conceal their identity in public for no rational reason whatsoever.

I for one would very much like to know the state’s view.

And I’m guessing the poor women and children who are forced to veil might like to know, too.

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