On Friday, the House of Commons sees the second reading of the Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill 2013-14. This is a Private Member’s Bill sponsored by Philip Hollobone MP, and it has only four clauses.
Very briefly, with a few exceptions it would criminalise “wearing a garment or other object intended by the wearer as its primary purpose to obscure the face in a public place.” It would also make it lawful for the owner of private premises who provides goods and services to require wearers to remove their face coverings or leave, and would require those providing or receiving public services to not wear face coverings.
In the Private Members’ Bills Ballot on 16 May 2013, 20 names were drawn. Mr Hollobone was not one of them. In the previous session, only 10 Private Members’ Bills made it to the statute book. Accordingly, irrespective of the subject matter, pressure of Parliamentary time alone indicates that this Bill will not get enacted. If it does, I will buy a chocolate fedora so that I can digestibly eat my hat!
What is the Bill really about?
Let’s be frank. This Bill is about Muslim women who choose to wear a niqab (face veil) or a burqa (all over body garment). This is an issue on which Mr Hollobone has had strong feelings for many years; as an illustration see this Guardian story from 2010.
Where do I stand?
I believe that each adherent of any religion is responsible for deciding for themselves what they believe and how their religion should be practiced. They can take note of the views of religious leaders if they wish. That applies even in religions with a formal hierarchy; e.g. Roman Catholics are supposed to follow the Pope’s teachings; some choose to; others choose not to. It applies even more strongly in religions with no formal hierarchy such as Sunni Islam.
Meanwhile the state is responsible for making laws that apply to all of its citizens. Most of the time state laws and religious practice do not conflict. Sometimes they do; e.g. the state will mandate a blood transfusion for the minor child of Jehovah’s Witnesses, overriding the parents’ religious views.
None of my Muslim friends or acquaintances wears a niqab or burqa, nor do any members of my extended family as far as I am aware. I believe that there is no religious requirement to wear a niqab or burqa, and do not believe that wearing it brings you one nanometre nearer to God.
However, I also believe that if your religious views differ from mine, then you should be free to practice them. Accordingly I believe that everyone should be free to wear a niqab or burqa, except when there are clear reasons for overriding that freedom, such as security, or the need for someone in witness box to be seen properly by the jury as recently ruled by a judge.
Hence I regard the Bill as an affront to my religious freedom, and to the religious freedom of my fellow Muslims.
The political implications
Most citizens are less well informed about the niceties of the legislative process than ConservativeHome readers. I have been approached by other Muslims who are genuinely concerned about the Bill being legislated. They see it as Tory legislation, since Mr Hollobone is a Conservative MP. As a concrete example, see this e-petition on the HM Government website. The drafter of the petition appears oblivious to the Bill’s status, believes that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is the responsible department, and appears not to understand MPs freedom to introduce Private Members’ Bills no matter how silly.
Accordingly, while the Bill is Mr Hollobone’s private initiative, it is the Conservative Party that is being seen as “anti-Muslim.” It is not just Muslims who will be alienated; ethnic minorities with other religious beliefs will also see the potential for their own religious beliefs to be criminalised. Some will be aware of Pastor Niemoller’s poem. The Conservative Party needs to attract voters from all parts of the community, not repel swathes of the community as “the wrong sort of voters.”
What is to be done?
The Government has far more important things to worry about (the floods, the Ukraine and Angela Merkel’s visit to name just three) than a Private Member’s Bill that has no chance of becoming law. The issue is even harder to handle because Mr Hollobone is not one of David Cameron’s most loyal supporters.
However I think it is time for the Chief Whip to invite Mr Hollobone to come into his office and have some coffee.