David Cameron has spoken out on the issue of wearing the veil that wholly covers the face in public. He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Programme he is in support of a ban on face coverings worn by Muslims in schools and courts, and he would consider issuing new guidelines to judges, teachers and immigration officials as to when they can ask for veils and face coverings to be removed.

The issue of Muslims wearing the niqab, the veil which covers the face, has been bubbling under the surface for the last few weeks. Several incidents have contributed to this: a London judge asked a Muslim defendant accused of intimidating a witness to remove her veil in court. After some deliberation, a compromise has been reached where she must remove it while giving evidence. Public protests caused Birmingham Metropolitan College to drop its ban on all facial coverings. Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne made some comments expressing concern over whether the British government was doing all it could to protect girls who were too young to decide whether they wanted to wear the veil or not. Though this amounted to a victory, a compromise and legitimate concern about coercion which amounted to nothing, some amongst the Muslim community fear Britain will go the same way as France, Belgium and Ticino (an Italian-speaking region of Switzerland), all of which have already banned wearing facial coverings in all public places.

But is banning the veil the right decision?

It is a woman’s right to dress herself as she wants. A woman should enjoy autonomy in every respect – including deciding what to wear. (The objection that ‘women are robbed of their individuality by covering their faces’ is very shallow. Though our appearance forms a part of us, we are so much more than that.) Just as it is necessary for a government to foster tolerance and protect freedoms of conscience and expression, it should also be necessary for the members of that society to decide what to wear over what is imposed upon them by an external authority. Browne may lead the public to believe external authority is a patriarch who subscribes to a literalist, fundamentalist reading of the Qur’an, but a ban on wearing certain items of clothing curbs someone’s autonomy just as much. Obviously this emancipation has its limits (humans need guidance from laws norms and other forms of rules) but it is a society’s responsibility to ensure the rights of its members are respected, regardless of the choices they make. This includes freedom of conscience and expression.

Secularism is not antireligionism. It is a separation of the temporal from the spiritual. The post-Reformation history of modern Europe documents the separation of traditional religious institutions from public institutions. Ironically, this was actually made possible by Europe’s Christian inheritance. The gospel records Jesus preaching that his Kingdom was “not of this world,” and that his followers were told to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. After Jesus’ ascension, it continued as a religion which made its adherents enemies of the state until Constantine’s conversion in the 4th century. This created the dichotomy of regnum (temporal authority) and sacerdotium (spiritual authority) which, until the rise of individual autonomy in the Reformation period and its subsequent development, remained the status quo. The post-Enlightenment consensus was then as it is now: just as spiritual power should not govern over temporal power; temporal power should not govern over spiritual power. But crucially, individuals were free to express themselves as they please so long as they did not encroach upon others.

Contemporary liberal democracy has now withdrawn much of the religious elements of authority and created a secular public arena (this is only partially true in the United Kingdom, but it is very difficult to feel persecuted by the Church of England) but it has never withdrawn religion from the lives of individuals in the way some states have. The British tradition of tolerance in religious matters is what marks us out from countries such as the Maldives, where moralistic religious uniformity is enforced by law. The U.K. should accept people as they are, not as how they ought to be.

This individual freedom of agency – vis á vis state power – requires pluralism and a balance of power between temporal and spiritual powers; and neither are to compromise an individual’s autonomy. This is democracy, where popular sovereignty emanating from the people produces a government which respects of their individual liberties. There are obviously practical times when this must be suspended to validate one’s identity or to protect children who do not possess the power to choose what they want to wear yet. If this is done sensitively and respectfully, there need not be a cause for concern.

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