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Saturday, October 21, 2006 

Ban it!

There is a very British disease which afflicts mostly the tabloid press, but which also infects politicians and sections of the public from time to time. This illness, which at times appears to come out of nowhere, tends to hang around like a bad smell for a few months, then disappears, lying dormant, waiting for an opportunity to strike again. This ailment, closely related to the moral panic, is the ever-growing chorus for a certain thing to be outlawed.

The Daily Express, which previously ran a campaign it called a "crusade" against the injustices of inheritance tax, has been at the forefront of the current demands from a tiny minority for the niqab, the full face veil, to be banned. You can guess why it's chosen not to present its current jihad in those terms. In just over two weeks it's dedicated its front page to the subject four times, twice leading on the views of Express readers who have rang Richard Desmond's poll lines, who seemingly overwhelmingly support the right for women to wear less in public, by margins which are creeping up to an apparent 100% of calls. The first poll said 97%. The second 98%. Today the Express's article says 99%. The goalposts, however, appear to be shifting.

The Express's original front page, demanding the veil be criminalised, wanted Muslim women to show their faces in public whether they felt able to in line with their religious beliefs or not. Today's article instead focuses on the aftermath of the tribunal ruling of the case involving Aishah Azmi, who lost her discrimination case, but was awarded £1,100 on the grounds of victimisation.

Desperately trying to come up with some justification for such a restriction on liberty and freedom of expression, the Express does its best but fails miserably in its attempts to convince that such a ban would be a good thing:

A ban would see Britain following many of its European
neighbours, along with predominantly Muslim countries like Turkey and Tunisia in outlawing traditional Islamic headscarves in public schools and buildings.

The only European countries that have some sort of ban on niqabs or hijabs are France and Germany, the former of which covers all religious symbols, including crosses, in state schools and buildings, the latter being individual decisions by federal states. Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU, had the hijab banned in schools by a court ruling in 1997. Turkey, which aspires to EU membership (something which the Express no doubt opposes) has a ban on the wearing of religious clothing outside times of worship and in government buildings, which reflects its internal conflict between secularism and political Islam. Tunisia, which doesn't even feature in UEFA's expansion of Europe's borders (Israeli football teams compete in European club competitions, as do Russian based sides) also only bans the hijab in government buildings.

That none of these countries would dare to actually outlaw the wearing of the niqab doesn't seem to make the Express wonder about its dubious argument, but then again, when they're backed up by David Davis, why do they need to? Not content with writing an article for the Sunday Torygraph that suggested that Muslims were living in voluntary apartheid, he puts the boot in once again, even agreeing with Tony Blair's remarkably inarticulate view that the niqab is a "mark of separation" despite evidence to the contrary now beginning to stack up. That women wearing the full veil seem unconcerned to visit their MPs, which started this debate in the first place, or to work in Christian schools in the first place doesn't warrant a mention.

Just to equal up the parties in intolerance, the Express also asks the views of Ann Cryer, the Labour MP for Keighley. While Cryer is one of the bravest MPs there is, taking on the BNP in her constituency over their lies, claiming that young Muslim men had been grooming under-age teenage girls for sex, the fact that the BNP has been so active in her own community means that she has had to shift to the right in some of her views in order to retain some of her support. Her claims that Mrs Azmi's decision to pursue her case if necessary right up to the European court of justice could result in more similar actions is rather daft, considering that the decision of the employment tribunal has now set a precedent for other similar cases; unless they too wish to go through numerous appeals, then there's no way that they could win, and lawyers would advise their clients against doing so.

The only thing the Express has to counter claims that its series of articles is bigoted, if not to say incendiary, is that the wearing of the full veil, not the hijab, by teachers in schools is completely indefensible. While children would get used to being taught by someone with whom they can only have eye contact with, the limitations it would impose on the quality of the teaching make it obvious as to why teachers should be discouraged from doing so. Whether a ban is necessary in order for this to be accomplished is now much less compelling, considering the ruling of the tribunal. It would be next to impossible for a Muslim woman to find a job in which the school would accept the wearing of a full veil, outside of the private and religious sector.

Coincidentally, the release of a study which shows that white pupils at a predominantly white only school were far more likely to have intolerant views than those attending a mostly Asian Muslim school or a mixed school, shows where the real problem may well lie. While it would be interesting for the study to be conducted at schools around the country rather than just in the north, it rather gives the lie to the claims of politicians that the Muslim population needs to demonstrate its allegiance to what they term British values. It seems they have far more in common with Gordon Brown's view of Britishness than those currently growing up in isolation do.

The banning reflex has infected other spheres of public life as well. Jack Straw says he supports the banning of videos showing alleged incidents of "happy slapping"
which have been uploaded to sites such as YouTube. Rather than relying on those who moderate the site to remove such content, the urge to legislate kicks in yet again. That those behind the site can easily see who's uploading the videos, with the possibility that their IPs could be traced and given over to the police to investigate any breaking of law doesn't seem to occur, when politicians can instead get their names in the papers attacking the latest outrage. One such politician, Keith Vaz, previously known only for the Hinduja passport scandal, has been leading a one man campaign against the Bully video game, which has yet to be even released in Britain. Most of the initial controversy surrounding the game was the impression that the player would control a bully inside a school. The player actually assumes the role of a teenager dealing with school life in general, rather than as a one-dimensional hell raiser. The game has been given a 15 certificate by the BBFC, which is light considering its alleged content, and the fact that the board tends to be harsher on video games than it is on films, giving the original Grand Theft Auto an 18 certificate. Other recent demands for action have involved violent pornography, a campaign set in motion by the death of Jane Longhurst. The man convicted of her murder, Graham Coutts, was this week granted a retrial after the appeal court judges ruled that the jury should have been given the option of convicting him of manslaughter rather than murder, as Coutts has always maintained that Longhurst died as a result of consensual sex involving asphyxiation. Despite the lesson from the past in the Dangerous Dogs Act, which proved unenforceable and farcical, the News of the World has launched a campaign against “devil dogs” after a number of high profile cases involving children being savaged.

The reliance on the long arm of the law to save us from the outside and the unknown is based primarily on the the fact that gesture politics is at the heart of British parliamentary life. It's so much easier to focus on one seemingly insignificant but important issue to the public than try to make radical, long-term changes to either the constitution or employment, say, which effects everyone rather than a distinct but vocal minority. The media, who demand something new every day, have their own poisonous role in this discourse. Coupled with the tabloid reliance on distortion, sensation and outrage, an issue such as "video nasties" one of the most ludicrous and unfathomable moral panics of the 80s, becomes irresistible to the average unknown MP and suddenly makes the front pages. John Reid's decision to see no ships, a completely craven and ridiculous sop to Rebekah "Red Mist" Wade, is a case in point. Sadly, there is no sign that sanity is waiting to emerge, and with circulation of the tabloids apart from the Daily Mail plummeting, the worst could if anything be yet to come.

P.S. The Scum's chief slapper, err, I mean Britian's favourite page 3 girl, goes, um, undercover, wearing a niqab. Unsurprisingly, she concludes that her way of life “feels more free and empowering”. It also involves her being paid a huge amount of money just to take her clothes off, which doubtless has no influence on her point of view.

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