Banning the face veil is one of those issues that quickly escapes from the narrow confines of politics and assumes the heavyweight mantle of serious philosophy. Politicians aim to frame it in terms of freedom but, as is always the case with that slippery term, contradictions abound. Why, for example, should there be places where the removal of headwear is enforced but removal of the veil considered an affront to human rights? Conversely, when does a government become so authoritarian that they dictate what a person wears on their head? Would a ban on the veil mean a ban on the balaclava or, more problematically, a ban on the crash helmet for motorcyclists? When, indeed, does a veil become a veil? Is a scarf worn over the lower face constitute a veil? A bridal accessory? A low hanging fringe? A Halloween mask? A particularly large bandage?
These questions aren’t so much political as they are ontological, about the definition of things. They also distract us, somewhat, from the real issue at hand.
UKIP, of course, are very good at using language in deliberately provocative ways. They raise the issue of the face veil but not because they have any real investment in the civil rights of the individual. Since the Brexit vote, UKIP have realised that they have little reason to continue existing as a political force. Flailing around for a raison d’être, they have realised, as many misguided patriots realise, that love of country neatly elides into a proto-fascism. So in love with their own sense of nationhood, they would force that model of nationhood on the rest of us and thereby render it meaningless. They would have us institute a system of vaginal examinations of schoolgirls to ensure they’ve not become victim of FGM. In the pursuit of “British values” they would sacrifice British values. As we say: contradictions abound.
The problem with the veil argument as presented by UKIP is that they are only interested in the subject so long as it is a dog whistle to their voters. The veil is really being used as a codeword for “Islam”. Yet if we strip religion from the argument, the issue of the face veil would no longer retain their interest.
This debate should really serve as a good example of the broader problem with where religion and the law meet. Religions of any kind cannot be allowed to define or enforce any behaviour. The law cannot be defined by one supernatural belief otherwise it would have to be defined by all supernatural beliefs – and that way madness lies.
If face veils are a problem then they should be (and, arguably, have been) addressed in the reasonable language of the law. There are many precedents for this. These are the small civic laws that help us live together in a society where our rights are fairly well defined. There is no reason why the veil shouldn’t be classed alongside other minor points of conflict, such as the right to take photographs. Photographers have the right to take photographs in public spaces but they lose those automatic rights once they move into a privately-owned space. If a person has the right to cover their face then it is equally reasonable that they lose that right once they step into private property. If I want to walk down the street wearing a crash helmet, then that should be my right unless challenged by the police or until I step into private space. If a shopkeeper, say, asks me to remove the helmet from my head, I should do that or leave their property.
Importantly, religion can have no part in the decision of the law to defend my right to cover my face or in the right of the landowner to ask me to remove it. The law might defend your right to believe in whatever you might believe but those beliefs cannot be allowed to overrule the law. This is the cornerstone of our secular world and should no longer be an issue, let alone the stuff of an election manifesto.
That such problems remain perhaps highlights that it is time that we properly recognise that we are a nation of rationally derived laws and we are defined by our laws. That has to be the reasoned position of any properly modern nation. This isn’t about making specific rules about specific religions. It is about making specific rules about how we live together. That, surely, is what it means to be British and UKIP have to stop thinking they have exclusive rights to the word.
David Waywell is a writer and cartoonist whose new book, The Secret Life of Monks, is now available.