By Simon Jenkins
16 September 2013
Do we really want a "national debate" about veiling? A home office minister, Jeremy Browne, thinks so. France banned the wearing of the full-face veil in public in 2010 with Belgium following not long after. Their debates have been bitter and divisive.
Browne is reflecting a swirl of conflicting pressures. Some women's groups want liberation from social authoritarianism. Others want to be left to express their religion as they see fit. Many institutions, schools, colleges, hospitals, the courts, the police need to be able to identify their clients and the public.
Many Britons clearly resent what they perceive as newcomers eager to benefit from British public services yet refusing to accept even a minimum of conformity. Others cherish freedom in all its forms, including sometimes the freedom to behave in what might be considered by others an illiberal fashion.
Certainly, the predicament of Jack Straw MP, who stated publicly that he asks the women who visit him in his constituency if they would mind removing the niqab, is understandable. If the police can ban hoodies in parts of town centres because they obscure their cameras, why not other forms of dress? Teachers must be able to distinguished between pupils in class. Those who wish to make use of public services must expect to identify themselves somehow.
Yet the point of a national debate is to yield a national decision. In this case it is not clear whether such a decision is really needed. The sight of totally hooded people wandering the streets may spook some people and can sometimes pose a security threat to police but it is hardly widespread or a menace to the state and society. Blind people manage without being able to see the people with whom they deal.
The calm answer has to be to deny this as a national crisis. Individuals and institutions should be able to make their own decisions ad hoc. Some authorities, possibly schools and colleges in populated Muslim areas and certainly the justice system, clearly regard obscured faces as a practical problem. They should make their own decisions, consulting and defending them in their local circumstances.
The state, and the law, must stand behind such decisions and, where appropriate, support them. But a national debate, a national decision, another France? The game is not worth the candle.