The 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 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.