Burka, Secularism, America

I haven’t blogged for a while so this post is a sweep-up of odds and ends.

The Burka

I went to an excellent One Law For All talk about the burka on 22 February at Conway Hall. It was great to see such a high turnout.

As I explained here, I detest the burka.

As far as I am concerned there are two categories of people who wear it.

The first category is women who are forced to wear it. And, more disturbingly – considering the burka is a method of controlling men’s completely uncontrollable animal lust towards females by generously shifting responsibility for the consequences of that lust to the females – children who are forced to wear it. These women and children deserve our sympathy and support, and we owe it to them to speak out about the burka. So often these days free speech is seen as a problem. It’s not: it’s a solution to problems.

The second category is women and children who genuinely choose to wear the burka of their own free will. If they are genuinely emancipated and choose to wear this medieval garb then that’s great for them – but it means they are strong enough to handle robust criticism of their dress sense. And even if we do suppose that their decision to wear a burka is made freely, it has never been the position, even in a democracy, that one is or should be free to do whatever one wants.

Person A’s choices have consequences for Person B. Protecting those who are forced to wear the burka is a more worthwhile use of our time than allowing those who choose to wear it to do so. Also, I think it is reasonable for me to be able to identify my fellow citizens in a public place.

I said there were two categories, but there is probably an intermediate one: those who don’t necessarily want to wear the burka but who make a pact with their oppressors (either under duress or willingly) that they will wear it, and who also passionately speak out in favour of the burka, in return for favourable treatment from their oppressors and even a degree of power over other women in their circle who might not want to cover up. This is nicely summarised by Churchill’s remark that, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

Although I’m opposed to the burka, I have difficulty deciding one way or the other whether it should be a matter for the criminal law. However, increasingly I’m finding myself very much on the side of criminalisation, or some form of state intervention.

If criminalisation is necessary then so be it, but I would want to exhaust every other avenue first (and perhaps we have already arrived at that point), such as freely discussing, condemning and even ridiculing the burka, without fear of being called a racist or receiving violence courtesy of the Religion of Peace.

There were a couple of excellent contributions from the floor.

One was from a female Arab Muslim who was opposed to the burka. This lady had not seen so much as one burka until she moved to London. I found that funny and depressing.

The other was from a teaching assistant. He told us how one of his seven-year old pupils comes to school every day in a burka. And that recently, this plucky little thing has taken to proudly removing her burka as soon as her parents have dropped her off. Her academic performance has improved dramatically, as has her overall level of engagement with her peers and her teachers. The school has chosen not to tell the parents. This very pleasant young man asked us for advice, and the general theme of that advice was, “please, whatever you do, don’t tell her parents.”

When this well-meaning chap mentioned the difficulty he felt in criticising someone else’s culture I was unable to resist the urge to interrupt, so I simply asked, whose culture? The girl’s culture or her parents’ culture?”.

My intention was not to embarrass him but rather to plead with him to treat this brave, burkaless Bodicea exactly like he would treat anyone else: like an individual with inalienable human rights.

Secularism

The discussions continued in the pub, where I was forced to drink heavily. (Praise be to Allah, there weren’t many imams about.)

We discussed secularism.

Although secularism is a political ideology, it only has a limited scope. Secularism is not democracy, and it cannot be expected to achieve democracy on its own.

Democracy requires the rule of law, equality and the protection of various essential freedoms. Secularism can sometimes even be synonymous with a lack of democracy – as in the Turkish model – but that is a failure of Turkey’s democracy and not necessarily of its secularism.

In my view there cannot be genuine democracy without secularism, though. I like to think of secularism as a ‘plug-in’ to democracy – but not an optional one. An absolutely essential one.

Secularism is concerned specifically with the issue of religion/belief and it attempts to prevent the hideous problems that often arise from that. Its task is to juggle freedom of religion with freedom from religion.

Although the term “freedom from religion” could be interpreted as treating the very concept of religion suspiciously or negatively, I would argue this is not the case. For it is not only the non-religious who need freedom from religion: it is also the religious.

Religious people need freedom from religion, too: that is, they require freedom from all religions apart from the one they choose. And they also require freedom from elements of their own religion that they reject or abhor. As for the non-religious, secularism simply provides them with freedom from all religions. (This is similar to the argument that the religious are atheists regarding all gods other than their own, whereas atheists simply go “one god further” and reject all gods.)

Secularism also attempts to bring religious institutions and leaders firmly within the framework of the rule of law. Power is to religious leaders what pizza is to a pothead: the more that is available the more that is desired. This feeding frenzy only comes to a halt when there is no more power or pizza.

America

Another interesting discussion in the pub, this time about America and secularism.

I find it difficult to get my head around this one.

On paper America is secular, and its constitution says so. There is no established religion. But in practice the influence of religion on American political and public life is immense – much more so than in the UK.

The UK, on paper, is very non-secular. Established church, clerics sitting in the legislature as of right, faith schools, head of state = head of the established church. Really, you would struggle to design a more non-secular country if you tried. But in practice the influence of religion on political and public life in the UK is much less than in America.

In terms of the role of religion, I would choose to live in England rather than America ten days out of ten, regardless of the different constitutional arrangements of these countries.

Oh, and if that’s not strange enough we have a picture of Darwin on our money and America has “In God We Trust” on theirs. As Manuel would say, “Que?”.

With a couple of those in the pub we tried to work out some reasons for this paradox. I suspect there is a complex interplay of these factors – and many others – at work:

1. By mentioning religion so explicitly in its constitution a huge emphasis is placed on religion in America! (Amendment 1: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”). An analogy I can offer is this. Let us say John has been recruited to work for Company X. On day one of John’s new job the chief executive of Company X calls a meeting of the entire company – thousands of people – and presents a bemused John to his equally bemused new colleagues. The chief executive tells the workforce that John is to be treated no better or worse than any other employee. They all nod. He then emphasises this repeatedly. Perhaps, on the fourth or fifth occasion some of John’s colleagues start to think, “Err, what is so fucking special about John?”.

2. Many of those settling in America were fleeing religious and other persecution, and their new home granted them admirable sanctuary from this. Perhaps in practising their faith and forming a religious identity they over-compensated somewhat – understandably, it must be acknowledged – in order to ensure they would remain free from persecution in the future.

3. By freeing religion from state control America created a thriving “free market” for religion, in the same way other industries often flourish when they break free from their state shackles. (The historian, Niall Ferguson, argued this in a recent documentary series.)

4. Following on from that, the decay and irrelevance of the Church of England – hanging on by its silly clothes to its outdated views, with its floorboards creaking, its buildings collapsing and its power waning – is plain for all to see. Its inevitable death, played out in slow motion, constantly reassures us how pathetic it is. We also see, too, how pathetic is the absurdly large amount of state energy required to sustain this beast. And even with state sponsorship it doesn’t manage to remain in the least bit relevant to most people, let alone to flourish.

And finally: some advice

I have recently had some work done at Re-Enlightenment Towers. If you don’t like clichés then look away now: Polish workers, excellent work ethic, very reliable, highly professional, high quality work.

My best advice for life generally is to find yourself a good builder, a good plumber, a good electrician, and a good decorator. And then, don’t give their details out to anyone. Let me emphasise by that I also mean your own family.

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