Monday, 28 July 2014

The burqa and regressive tolerance: challenges for the centre-left

The other week the European court of human rights (ECHR) concluded that the French ban on full-face coverings in public spaces – including the burqa and the niqab – did not constitute a breach of human rights. The court decided that the French authorities’ concept of integration, of “living together”, was a “legitimate aim” and trumped the intrusion into local communities affected.

This seems very much in line with what I suggested in an article last year, that it is reasonable that national principles trump local practicalities. Said article was a reaction on a reaction on Liberal Democrat Jeremy Browne’s call for a national debate in Britain on the burqa: To be or not to be banned?


That is the question indeed discussed in many other west European countries. Belgium has already banned full-faced veils in public spaces, and various forms of bans are or will come into place in regions and towns in Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany. The previous Dutch government was just before it collapsed in 2012 about to introduce a nationwide ban in all public spaces, and following the ECHRs verdict various parliamentary parties in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Austria have called for bans or at least discussions on the matter.

What is noteworthy is that it is not only the usual suspects who have been making such calls, i.e. xenophobic parties and right-wing strands in conservative parties. Voices from the centre-left – social liberals and social democrats  are also raising the issue. Take the Norwegian social democrats, a proud humanistic party, about as Islamophobic as Anders Breivik is an Islamophile (hence why Breivik targeted the party on  July 22nd 2011). Prominent party representatives are now calling for a debate on introducing a general ban on the burqa and niqab in Norway. This includes Thorbjørn Jagland, the former party leader and current secretary general of the Council of Europe. Jagland welcomed the ECHR-verdict and postulated that it could be used as a precedent for other countries. He described the verdict as making it: 
"clear that each and every human being in a society has an obligation to show their face, otherwise other members of society cannot relate to you." 
 Thorbjørn Jagland, former Norwegian prime minister, current head of the
 Council of Europe  & chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize committee
As for my native country, Sweden, the two centre-left parties believe that the burqa and niqab can be banned in schools and both parties sympathise with non-tolerance of the veils in work places. (In contrast, the two Swedish left parties – the Green party and the former communists, who both boast of their progressive feminist and multicultural credentials – oppose any bans). In Austria, the social democratic women’s minister defined the burqa as a “symbol of oppression” and has previously tinkered with the idea of testing a general ban. And as for Britain, Jeremy Browne is of course a social liberal and his party is hardly known for being averse to immigration and multiculturalism on the whole.

To go French or go British?                                                                                      
Regarding Jagland’s postulation, caution is recommended. I would be wary of drawing any straight lines from the French ban to potential burqa/niqab bans in other European countries. In France, a strong secular tradition permeates the public institutions; a legacy traceable back to the French revolution, constitutionally enshrined in the concept of laicïté. When the French government banned all Muslim veils in public buildings 2004, it also banned all other ostentatious religious clothing and paraphernalia – be it a kippa, a turban or a large crucifix. In addition, what in the media is sloppily labeled “the French burqa ban” is in fact part of a legislation, which came into force 2011, that bans all garments covering the face. Be it balaclavas, helmets, masks. In the eyes of the ECHR, surely, such a consistency and tradition made the case for the French authorities’ stronger.

Britain, on the other hand, does not have a similar tradition. If one were to crudely translate the ban-or-not-ban question into nation state terms, it could be one of France-or-Britain, of state authoritarianism versus cultural relativism in relation to thorny multicultural issues.

Of course, just because one might have difficulties reconciling oneself with a certain minority custom does not mean that one can leap to a ban. There is a difference between approval and sufferance. Both forms of tolerance are integral to a modern liberal multicultural society. Here, the French can perhaps learn from the British.

On the other hand, just because something is a minority custom should not axiomatically warrant it protection. Here, Britain might consider taking a leaf or two from the Gallic book. It is well-known that France holds Britain in contemptuous regard for its infamous tolerance of radical Islamic preachers and organisations. And not only the French, be it the Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka or the British former Islamist Ed Husain, they all lambast Britain for being much too lenient in dealing with extreme forms of Islam.

The wearing of the burqa/niqab has also been portrayed as a manifestation of extreme Islam. To which I would add that there is a slight difference between a garment and a pro-jihadi proselytising preacher. Nonetheless, I do think it legitimate to question the wearing of these veils in liberal west European societies, and I find it refreshing that social liberals and social democrats now appear to be chiseling a position from a sound centre-left basis on the issue. For too long they have allowed the left to control the fashioning of the progressive position.


In the overriding struggle against xeno- and Islamophobia, the cause of the centre-left and the left is a common one. But in the specific case of the burqa/niqab, the left’s position is showing all the hallmarks of regressiveness. Its intent might be benign, but what it is doing is promoting tolerance towards a profoundly illiberal practice in the name of multiculturalism. And by so doing it is ultimately discrediting and undermining the good names of tolerance and multiculturalism.

Proportions and strategy                                                                                           

The burqa/niqab is an issue that engages many, and the ECHR-verdict has more or less guaranteed that the issue will not go away. Still, is the burqa/niqab really a big west European ‘problem’ in quantitative terms? Most certainly not. But does that disqualify it from being important in qualitative, principled terms? Again, most certainly not. It is a dangerous slippery slope to start relativising societal phenomena based on their proportional attributes. By way of such facile logic, female genital mutilation (FGM) would hardly be worthy of addressing since it does proportionally not affect many in west Europe.

If we are to be guided by the sage old saying that if you save one life you save all mankind, the at least hundreds of burqa/niqab wearing women in smaller European countries and the couple of thousands in France and the UK surely constitute a cohort worthy of debate.

It is thus vital that centre-left forces rise to the challenge. It is these ideologically progressive and strategically pragmatic forces who are best suited to initiate and successfully implement operations where a counter-productive phenomenon – which discredits the progressive system as a whole – is in the least harmful way reformed (e.g. dysfunctional benefit systems, misused union strike powers, forced marriages) in order to save the overall system and the general public’s confidence in it (welfare state, union rights, multicultural tolerance). This is vital to strike: a prudent balance between the interest of minorities and partisan interests and the public in general.

A robust liberal society cannot compromise with something as fundamental to it as progressive gender equality – a pillar of its raison d'être –  as it is e.g. defined by the United Nations (UN), including: 
"that women's and men's rights, responsibilities and opportunities will not depend on whether they are born male or female."
Thus, although on the whole commendable, multicultural tolerance must have its limits and not be extended to nihilistic Cloud Cuckoo land. The campaigns and subsequent laws against forced marriage – recently strengthened in both Sweden and the UK – exemplifies how liberal societies must protect multiculturalism but in doing so set certain limits. When certain extreme aspects of multiculturalism is anathema to society’s core universal principles, society must draw an intolerant line. Customs like FGM and forced marriage, practiced by both Muslims and Christians, are in such dissonance with liberal society that tolerating such practices in the name of multiculturalism – as was and is advocated by various leftists, denouncing any bans on them as western ethnocentrism – discredits the concept of multicultural tolerance on the whole.

Herein lies the ostensible paradox: in order to defend multicultural tolerance, so that it is not undermined, one must limit multicultural tolerance.

Progressive intolerance <> Regressive tolerance                                                       
Pluralistic tolerance is integral to a liberal society. But this must not be misinterpreted as if liberal society should be tolerant towards everything. Fact of the matter is that at its very core the progressive liberal society is bigoted, as the tolerance it extols is ultimately based on intolerance towards extreme forms of illiberal politics and culture. Such intolerance has been extensively applied when protecting multiculturalism from racist phenomena, e.g. laws against incitement to racial hatred. But similar progressive intolerance should be applied when certain exceptional phenomena within multicultural minorities are fundamentally incompatible with fundamental pillars of liberal society and threatens the multicultural concept on the whole, not least the public’s trust in it.

The multicultural society must thus be furnished in a responsible, resilient fashion. Otherwise multicultural tolerance will be undermined, xenophobic forces and sentiments will gain ground, which we have undoubtedly seen them do in western Europe as of late. When David Cameron and Angela Merkel respectively declared that multiculturalism had failed, their popularity took no hits, on the contrary – hardly a sign that multiculturalism evokes positive connotations among swathes of the public.

Hence, although generally commendable, tolerance should not be misconstrued as something intrinsically progressive and benign. It can, when it goes too far and/or is exploited disingenuously, be downright regressive – and regressive tolerance discredits the concept of tolerance on the whole.

As with freedom of expression, tolerance must too have its limits. The alternative is to resign to some form of absolute value relativism, which basically equates to nihilism. As indicated, the evolutionary nature of such limits in relation to multiculturalism can be exemplified by how many west European societies do not brook FGM and forced marriages anymore. Once upon a time they did, but debates and public opinion led their governments to finally introduce bans.

For these bans, centre-leftists played an integral part in fighting for and fashioning them – setting the limits, as it were – which they did responsibly and constructively, surgically isolating and excising the exceptional custom whilst stressing the general rule that multiculture is on the whole positive.

The centre-left ground                                                                                               

It is not a lackadaisical gig, holding the centre-left. It is this ground that is the glue of progressive liberal society. If it does not hold, things will fall apart. Thus the centre-left are not those, as Margaret Thatcher disparagingly described British upper middle-class: who see everybody else’s point of view and have none of their own”.

For a centre-leftist no ban should be introduced summarily. Especially not a ban pertaining to Muslim women, i.e. the ‘weakest sex’ in the arguably most hounded minority in west European societies. In the prospect of a burqa/niqab ban, social liberals and social democrats are confronted with an intricate, frictious mix of cherished projects such as protecting minorities and multiculturalism, gender equality and integration.

But, alas, this is the Sisyphean fate that centre-leftists are doomed to suffer. Intrinsic to their political position is the honest but backbreaking task of evaluating arguments from both left and right before coming to a (pragmatic) conclusion. Which is of course much more arduous than the simplistic but comfy position of only allowing oneself to see things through the blinkered monocle of a left-wing or a right-wing eye – where only one sort of ‘truth’ can filter through.

Yes, a sound centre-left position equals compromise, but only so far. It does not do trade-offs with its basic principles, its fundamental pillars. It is still resilient in its flexibility, humble but not supine, accommodating yet assertive. Yes, it tries to take account of most perspectives – aiming to come to a judicious, balanced conclusion – but only on the uncompromisable premise of defending the progressive liberal society. And being firmly robust in doing so, as we e.g. saw Thorbjørn Jagland being above as he welcomed the ECHR-verdict since it made “clear that each and every human being in a society has an obligation to show their face, otherwise other members of society cannot relate to you.”

This quote highlights the social communication argument for banning the burqa and niqab. The other dominant pro-arguments relate to gender equality and security.

Pro-ban arguments (as seen from the centre-left)                                                  

The security argument is valid, but I would put emphasis on the gender equality and the social argument (of course, the security argument is partially entwined in the social argument).

Regarding the latter, seeing as the objective of integration is to increase the cohesive interaction between all people – regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality – the non-concealment of the face is pivotal for such an endeavour to succeed. As I wrote in the article last year, I welcome a discussion on if not outright banning at least introducing an age ban on the burqa and niqab. These garments ultimately constitute FGM on the mind by way of removing, on a gendered basis, the most vital muscle of the social human being: the face.


The face, the signifier of our individuality, intrinsic to what it is to be human, its full usage essential to being a complete person.   

The face, with all its varied and complex signals, a crucial tool in our development, in the construction of our identity, at least as vital as speech as a means of communication in the quotidian interactions with our fellow citizens.

The face, with its full usage, thus, ultimately pivotal to becoming a full-fledged member of society.

In conjunction, seeing as employment is a crucial component for integration and female empowerment, the wearing of  the burqa/niqab greatly hinders the woman’s employment prospects which in turn risks leaving her dependent on benefits and her husband. Surely not the best way to empower and integrate women. Hence why in Austria the social democratic women’s minister tinkered with the idea of a ban, and even the odd Austrian green politician is sympathetic to reducing the woman’s benefits if she insists on wearing the burqa.

The fundamental principles of a liberal society are universal. They form a broad and flexible church/mosque/synagogue/temple, that can accommodate many a multifaceted- and farious strands. The lion's share of the Muslim minority is about as incompatible with these principles as the burqa and niqab are representative of said minority. One can ask that if these garments are only worn by fringe strands in the Muslim minority, why not just let them be? But this goes back to the proportionality aspect. No matter their quantity, customs that are incompatible with the universal principle of liberal gender equality should not be sanctioned. From a centre-left understanding of gender as the social sex, the burqa and niqab are ultimately, no matter how one twists it, blatant manifestations of female subjugation. The human being’s face in effect circumcised – its full freedom circumscribed – just because it happens to have been born female.

In these veils are laid down the principles that women are inherently different to men, enabling them to be regarded as less equal to men, subordinate to and ultimately the property of their patres familias. These are gendered clothings that have very little to do with female empowerment and very much to do with archaic patriarchy and that age-old notion that women are the custodians of the family honour and must be controlled, hemmed in, shielded off, from the outer world. Preferably she will by herself uphold this subjugation of herself, internalising it and accepting that the onus is ultimately on her to keep her morality untarnished – whilst men are let off as slaves to their urges (hence, if those urges are let loose on the woman, tarnishing her morality, it can be assumed that the woman is at fault for stirring up said urges).

You do not need a doctorate in gender theory to see the gender systemic principles of dichotomy and hierarchy at work here in the most garish fashion. Principles which will in turn be transferred to the children of these women, the next generation internalising and perpetuating such gender inequal sentiments. The daughters, by virtue of their gender, conditioned to ‘look forward’ to being deprived of their most important social muscle – and the sons believing this to be right and normal, consequentially valuing women’s virtuousness on such bases. Surely, these are not principles compatible with a liberal progressive society, and if given succour in the name of tolerance rather indicative of a society in which the concept of tolerance has been hijacked by regressive forces.

The regressive left                                                                                                    

With regressively tolerant forces I am thus not referring to xenophobic parties. They do not do tolerance of any kind towards Muslim minorities. With complete incredulity is how the Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Austrian xenophobic parties shall be approached as they make their cases for general bans, buoyed by ECHRs verdict (a court which they usually abhor but now, suddenly, support wholeheartedly). Make no bones about it, these blinkered parties clamouring for burqa/niqab bans in the name of gender equality are about as credible as a Sun editor declaring page 3 a women empowering institution. Many of them are social conservative and generally essentialistic on matters of gender. Yet, they habitually turn into self-proclaimed Qasim Amins’ when any foreigner displays anything that can be interpreted as misogynism. Do not be fooled. They are bigots who serve up nothing but base xenophobia, at times concealed behind an ‘enlightened’ veneer.

Nonetheless, just because these inane parties are taking on an issue does not by that very nature make the issue invalid. Whilst these parties can only dish out multicultural intolerance steeped in enmity, the centre-left has the advanced ability, as touched on above, to serve up multicultural intolerance steeped in empowering progressiveness. That’s right, progressive and multiculturally intolerant – probably an oxymoron in many a leftist camp.   

Significant swathes of the left would be wise to acknowledge that there is a regressive side to tolerance. They do at times seem blindly guided by the illusion that tolerance is inherently progressive, axiomatically benign. As such, bent on being progressive, they are unable or just do not want to see when their tolerance advocacy turns into something regressive. And this in turn is where we find that peculiar unholy alliance: leftists making common cause with illiberal forces; mismatches in arms, supporting the perpetuation of phenomena that would appear anathema to the general leftist cause.

Case in point, the British civil rights organisation Liberty. On the whole a highly commendable organisation, advocacy of tolerance institutionalised, hell-bent on protecting minorities. However, in its progressive fervour Liberty occasionally picks the wrong battle to fight. And so in 2012 it declared that it would take part in challenging the French ban at the ECHR. Anyone with a binocular vision would find Liberty’s case wanting as it was based on a line of reasoning in which the women concerned were opportunistically detached and attached to context and structures. Absent were any patriarchal structures in any insulated Muslim communities where burqa/niqab is worn. Here Liberty instead situated the women as completely independent agents in a form of empowering structureless vacuum. The macro-societal structures of the majority population were however very present in Liberty’s reasoning. To an almost totalitarian (and banal) extent. Structures that only served to disempower said women.  

Oh, Liberty, if only those structures could be more like the empowering ones in the countries where the burqa and niqab are customary. You know, the countries that constantly scrape the bottom of both the UNs and the World Economic Forum’s gender index – all very indicative of the female empowerment infused in these garments. Confirmed just the other day by that beacon of progressive feminism, the Islamic State (ISIS), proclaiming that all women in Mosul must “wear full-face veils or risk severe punishment.”  ISIS too reasoned that this was actually to empower women, declaring that: 
This is not a restriction on her freedom but to prevent her from falling into humiliation and vulgarity or to be a theatre for the eyes of those who are looking.”
I would even be so bold as to wager, and I know I’m sticking my neck out here, that structures similar in principle are at work in the local context surrounding the burqa/niqab-wearing women in western Europe, however much Liberty turns a blind eye to this.

Neither would I wager against Liberty in a decade or two repenting that it fought for these full-faced veils to have a place in liberal society. Just like Liberty today regrets allowing the Paedophile Information Exchange into its fold in the 1970s. This was an organisation which lobbied for the normalisation of paedophilia in society by attempting to “conflate its cause with gay rights” and “sexual liberation” – whereby it managed to gain support from self-labelled “progressive groups”, including Liberty. Not dissimilarly, there are certain conservative fringe strands within the Muslim minority who by playing the Islamophobic card attempt to conflate their extreme, narrow position with the vast moderate majority of Muslims, thereby garnering support from said “progressive groups”.

It is one thing to fight Islamophobia in the name of progressive tolerance, quite another to fight to protect female subjugation. But then Liberty and various leftists point to women in west Europe who claim that they voluntarily choose to wear the garments. Yes, yes, and neither are the prominent Saudi women opposing any liberalisation on the burqa and niqab – on women’s right to drive, to vote, to go outside without a male escort – unconscious (or conscious?) victims of extreme patriarchy, internalising their own subjugation. The approach to their points of view should be similar to the approach to Swiss women who opposed being given the vote in 1971 as they argued that women e.g. “shouldn’t get involved in politics because they really don’t understand it […] It’s much too tough a business.” (Not until 1990 were all Swiss women granted full suffrage).

Denouement - arise, ye centre-left!                                                                         
In France, in the family planning association as elsewhere, the first reaction to the facts was to consider that westerners should not intervene in this cultural issue - Colette Gallard,  family planner, on FGM
In Holland I have seen well-meaning, principled people blinded by multiculturalism, overwhelmed by the imperative to be sensitive and respectful of immigrant culture, while ignoring criminal abuse of women and girls” - Ayann Hirsi Ali,  Somali-Dutch feminist activist
The starry-eyed left should be more discerning in its choice of battles and remove the ideological blinkers that inhibits its view. By defending the burqa and niqab today, as some of them in yesteryears supported the cause for forced marriage (advocating inter-cultural tolerance) and/or paedophilia, they risk undermining the liberal society, turn tolerance into something negative, and give ammo to right wingers. Their intent might be benign, sure, but the end product amounts to something regressive. Whereby they sacrifice the most vulnerable – women and children – on the altar of multicultural tolerance.

If a society should, as is a common denominator among left and centre-left, be assessed on how it cares for its weakest, surely this is not the right route. Here, instead, multicultural intolerance should be applied. A progressive kind that perhaps only the centre-left has the sophisticated dexterity to weave.

Compromising the fundamental universal pillars of liberal society in order to accommodate an extreme practice is not advisable, however much of a drop in the ocean that compromise might constitute (even the slightest crack can in the long run endanger a foundation, enabling future cracks to appear). If liberal tolerance shall be able to survive, liberal society must be robust and set certain intolerant limits – including when a fringe custom is incompatible with a progressive liberal perception of gender equality and its uncompromisable universalism.

Thus, with regard to the burqa/niqab issue, I urge the centre-left to rise to the occasion and take control of the progressive position. Do your intolerant voodoo that only you do-do so well. Arm and fashion that robust kind of liberal society that does not only challenge regressive xenophobic intolerance but also regressive leftist tolerance. Yes, unite with the left when they do progressive tolerance, but never desist from sagely applying progressive intolerance when need be. That is your pragmatic responsibility. 

All in the pursuit of achieving the overriding goal: maintaining and consolidating a progressive, sustainable and resilient multicultural society that is compatible with the fundamentals of liberal society and which the general public has faith in.