Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
Britain, in particular, but also Western Europe and the US have cultures which rightly seek to be tolerant both in general terms and specifically of other religions. As Indian friends of mine have commented, it is wonderful to see that London is such a successful, multi-racial, multi-religious metropolis where, in the main, people live happily side by side.
In this context, if women want to wear burkinis, then arguably they should be allowed to do so. But the current, French row over burkinis touches the surface of other major issues which are being largely glossed over.
The first is that if individuals of migrant origin wish to live in Britain (or other countries) they must accept that they need to live in accordance with local national laws and customs, and must give their first political allegiance to their country of adoption and not to their religion.
The second is the treatment of women. From both a legal and cultural perspective (from which Sharia practice is often contrary to our laws and customs), we should expect Muslim countries to afford similar tolerance to their non-Muslim populations to that which is afforded them in the UK, which is manifestly not the case.
The particular issues which the French burkini row reflects are about the treatment of women (where, rather than wanting to wear burkinis, many Muslim women are forced to do so by their husbands or families); and that many Muslims regard the wearing of it as a politico-religious assertion.
On the other side of the argument, France’s highest administrative court has found that banning burkinis is an infringement of fundamental liberty. In Britain, we are wholly relaxed about Sikhs wearing their magnificent turbans. I wonder, however, whether the French Court would find banning those who wish to swim naked in other than designated areas an infringement of fundamental liberties?
I believe that the two big UK issues are Sharia law and Muslim schools. We have our laws and legal system, so it strikes me as wrong that an “underground” system of law, which is not the law of the land, is in operation and frequently conflicts with our laws with regard to the treatment of women. Sharia law is also an impediment to assimilation.
Over the last 150 years, the United States has made a major success of assimilating migrants from all over the world, largely, through its education system. Schools do not teach religion, but teach American culture and values. Within two generations, millions of migrants have been happily assimilated to being “full” Americans. Muslim schools have been a great barrier to this happening in the UK and, in several cases, have been found to be promoters of Islamic fundamentalism. As we learned in Northern Ireland, Catholic children going to Catholic Schools and Protestant children to Protestant Schools served to prolong sectarian hostilities. It is not fair to compare British Muslim Schools with Christian Schools, since Christian Schools accept pupils of all religious faiths and do not actively propagate Christianity. We are, moreover, historically a Christian country. Many of the church schools in central London now have a majority of Muslim pupils.
I was in Mumbai shortly after the terrorist attack in 2008, and was pleasantly surprised that this did not lead to major Hindu/Muslim altercations. I asked a great Indian friend why this was. To which he replied that the leading Mullahs had got together and agreed not to “same-day” bury any of the dead terrorists – not doing so sends them to Hell according to some Muslims – and also asked Muslims to wear black arm bands. I cannot help feeling the time has come for the civilised Muslim leaders in Britain to take a much more active role, both to root out the teaching of fundamentalism and to promote the necessary measures to speed up and underpin assimilation. Without this, and, particularly if people start thinking that our practice of tolerance is being exploited, there is the risk that tolerance will wear thin.