David Mitchell talks about burqas and freedom of speech

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    If you bought The Observer this weekend, there’s a fantastic article by David Mitchell (of Mitchell and Webb fame) about the growing movement to ban the burqa.

    It’s such a divisive issue, but Mitchell argues that we can’t run around banning everything we disagree with. That’s a fundamental attack on our freedom in this country. Banning a piece of clothing is the same as banning tattoos because some of us don’t agree with them. Or banning the sacrament of communion because non-Christians might find it ludicrous.

    Though I often find that Mitchell talks in circles in his articles, the part that resonates for me is that you can disagree with something without calling on it to be banned. And I side with him that burqas are in and of themselves a disturbing phenomenon. For me, it’s akin to soccer hooligans running around with their faces covered: obscuring the face is alien and creates distrust and suspicion. 

    There’s altogether too much harping on respect and banning these days. If you can’t respect something, you should ban it. If it’s not banned, you should respect it. Bullshit. There is a huge gulf of toleration between respect and banning. In a free society, people should be allowed to do what they want wherever possible. The loss of liberty incurred by any alternative principle is too high a price to pay to stop people making dicks of themselves. But, if people are using their freedoms to make dicks of themselves, other people should be able to say so.

    So the fact that, lamentably, some people sincerely believe in Scientology and consider it a religion, even if the British state does not, doesn’t give Scientologists the right to be treated with rhetorical kid gloves. Similarly, while burqas shouldn’t be banned from public places, we don’t have to respect people’s decision to wear them. We can tolerate but criticise it and, as long as we’re not being abusive, take the piss. Consequently, those women who feel pressured into wearing burqas by cultural or familial forces might become aware that they’re living in a society where questioning those forces is welcomed.

    The important point is that we need to stop pretending that every idea, be it religious or political, has equal merit. We must be allowed to make criticism without a) being fundamentalist about it (i.e. by banning the thing we disagree with) or b) being vilified for having a contrary opinion.

    Something we see a lot is the “why do we have to take Muslim faiths seriously when it’s fine to laugh at Christians?” argument. I think we do take Muslim religion far too seriously in the UK, it definitely doesn’t have the same equity of treatment that Christianity has.

    My opinion (as an atheist) is that all religions should realise that they exist within a diverse society, and as a result, their belief system stands subject to scrutiny and open criticism and disagreement from other areas of society. And I mean that as much from someone who thought the stridently Presbyterian DUP in Northern Ireland tried to close down shops on Sundays because of their beliefs.

    It’s not acceptable for religions to impose their will upon the general public. We’re a secular society first and foremost, so nothing – not even religion – should be beyond analysis and comment. Otherwise any old cult can spring up and we’d have to take it seriously. Can you imagine a more fertile territory for the modern descendants of David Koresh?

    Sorry for the slightly heavy-themed post this afternoon, but I enjoyed David Mitchell’s article immensely and thought it might be worth discussion.

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