On the burka and bans

Should we ban the burka?


I was sorely tempted to leave it at that. So sick am I of this preposterous and disheartening debate.

But given that we are, apparently, doing this again; here’s five reasons why it’s a bad idea.

1) It will do nothing to help women who may be suffering under oppressive religious or cultural strictures. It will simply make them liable for criminal proceedings should they follow those strictures. So it will further inhibit what limited freedom they have to go out and interact with wider society.

2) Ditto for social integration either then.

3) There’s not much liberating about setting the police on women and girls because of how they’re dressed. But we all knew that didn’t we? Because:

4) This has sweet FA to do with improving social cohesion or liberating women. This is about picking an out-group and squeezing them for political capital. It doesn’t take a genius to clock that the fact this out-group are Muslim and overwhelmingly non-white is like, not coincidental.

People who are suddenly excised about the oppression of Niqabis often seem strangely unconcerned about the fact that say funding for women’s refuges has been slashed by £7million since 2010. Or that Universal Credit makes it harder for people to leave abusive partners. Which seems like it should be top-of-mind for those who worry about domineering men trapping women in the home? Not to get all whataboutery about it, but it does give cause to question their motives.

5) Finally, because, outside some strict and sensible limits regarding safety and public decency, it is in no sense the place of a democratic state to legislate what people can wear and it beggars belief that we still have to say this. Who are these supposed liberty-lovers who think that the Government should be piling in to decide what women can wear on the way to the shops?

Ah but what about swastikas etc?

That’s a facile comparison, because swastikas are specifically worn to indicate the wearer’s hatred of other people, and to inspire fear in those people. The burka isn’t.

Ah, but what about if women are forced to wear the burka?

Well, we have laws against physical and now emotional abuse and if necessary we should deal with that situation under that rubric.

However, I suspect it won’t be. Because, again, this isn’t about protecting women.

The right type of clothing doesn’t protect women from an abusive partner. Refuge, support, and a welfare system that doesn’t impose harsh financial penalties for trying to escape does that.

But there’s little political capital in offering genuine solutions to domestic violence. Instead, let’s just wheel out the dog-whistle, again.


The myth of Question Time

There is a persistent myth that has shifted from inaccurate to pernicious and it’s time it died. The myth is that the night that Nick Griffin was invited on to Question Time was the end of the British National Party as a political force in the UK. Griffin was humiliated and the facist beast was sent packing after being bested in an open debate. As proof, less than a year later the BNP was trounced in both local and national elections, bankrupt through lost deposits and consigned to the dustbin of history.

So the system works.

In 2009 waves of the British public were seriously considering voting for a racist party, and enough had done so, at a local level and London Assembly level, that the BBC felt obligated to give Griffin a platform. But the same British sense of fair play that insisted Griffin be heard also ensured he was rejected. Thereby, putting paid to all the fear-mongering over allowing the leader of a facist party into the mainstream.

This line of reasoning has made it easier to justify allowing a range of far right voices onto prime time. Last week Raheem Kassam was given airtime on The Today Program to defend the far-right leader Tommy Robinson. No mention was made of Kassam’s links to Breitbart, or of his complete lack of qualifications to comment on legal matters. Instead the insidious idea: that Stephen Yaxley Lennon’s conviction for contempt of court is a freedom of speech issue, was bolstered by a slot on BBC radio 4’s flagship news show.

The defence is that sunlight is the best disinfectant and its best to have the views out in the open where they can be challenged. Look at what happened to the BNP.

Except that it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

In the 2005 general election, the BNP received a total of 192,746 votes. In 2010, after the forces of rational debate vanquished their leader on national television their vote slumped to a mere 564,331.

It wasn’t the brilliant rhetoric that vanquished the BNP, it was a jump in turn out of around two million voters. Their vote didn’t rise enough to match it and under a first past the post system that was hugely damaging. This was compounded by a combined local and national election that drove up the turnout for local elections in a manner that drastically penalises small parties who might otherwise do relatively well at locals but struggle to make a dent in the general under FPTP.

Secondly, the idea that white nationalism fell into catastrophic decline in the aftermath of Griffin’s admittedly stilted and awkward performance is palpably untrue. One would need to be obtuse to the point of dishonest to look at the dramatic rise of UKIP; Theresa May’s tenure at the home office; the EDL; the transformation of Tommy Robinson into an alt-right martyr; the career of Katie Hopkins; Steve Bannon’s various interventions into UK politics, the murder of Jo Cox and in fact the entire Brexit referendum, and conclude that racism reached its high water mark in 2009. Griffin’s political career may have ended in failure but his politics are far more firmly ensconced in the mainstream than they were when he was invited on to Question Time.

Open debate is great, but we shouldn’t be naive. Not everyone respects the rules. Some people don’t want to demolish their opponents arguments through the cold light of reason. They just want to repeat their poisonous message on as big a stage as possible and hope it cuts through. When we invite them to join a debate being conducted at a national stage we lend credence to their vision and offer it up as another acceptable option among the many. We imply that where you stand regarding fascism is the kind of thing reasonable, well-meaning folks can disagree upon.

We should think long and hard about whether that’s a myth we are happy to live with.