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July 1 - 7, 2009
Read Boris Johnson and all of our columnists at telegraph.co.uk/comment
Imagine this scene at the next State Opening of Parliament. The Queen is standing in front of the assembled Lords and Commons, reading from the speech prepared for her by the Prime Minister. “My Government,” she says in that familiar high-pitched but colourless voice, “will ban the burka. It is not welcome in Britain. In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen.”
The sound of jaws dropping would be audible at the Channel ports. And yet, only two hours’ train journey away, it is possible for President Sarkozy to make such an announcement. He picked the first time both the National Assembly and Senate have met in one place for nearly 150 years – at the Palace of Versailles, no less – to launch his attack on this form of Muslim dress.
If the Queen were to follow suit, it would arouse fury among many of those who feel they should be allowed to practise their religion in whichever way they choose. But it would also raise cheers, not least from some members of the Muslim community.
“The French president should be applauded for initiating this debate,” Dr Taj Hargey, of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, told me. Dr Hargey describes the growing belief that Muslim women should cover their heads, faces and hands as “doctrinaire brain-washing”. Dr Usma Hasan, a reformist London Imam, also has “some sympathy” with Sarkozy: he, too, does not think it is necessary for women to wear the burka.
These sentiments will reassure those, including the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, who feel uncomfortable in the presence of women dressed from top to toe in black, with only their eyes visible. Douglas Murray, the director of the think-tank The Centre for Social Cohesion, is another. “People shouldn’thave the right to hide themselves away in society,” he says. “Cutting yourself off from society is threatening, when we have known terrorists to try to escape wearing a burka. Men who said they had to wear balaclavas would be very unlikely to be allowed into banks or to travel on most public transport. Ask yourself this: can you imagine asking the time or for directions from a woman in a burka?”
To Murray, Sarkozy is showing “moral leadership”, unlike the “spineless” British politicians who would never dare to reflect the majority view. To do so would risk accusations of committing an offence against religious belief.
As he, as well as many Muslims, have pointed out, the Koran says nothing about how women should dress, apart from calling for modesty. The call to cover up comes from the hadith – interpretations of the Koran written many years after the death of the Prophet, and largely
President Nicolas Sarkozy used a policy speech on June 22 to declare that the burka was “not welcome” in France. “The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience,” he said. “We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity.”
The MCB, an umbrella group of more than 500 Muslim organisations, reacted by calling on Mr Sarkozy to “desist from engaging in and promoting divisive politics” towards the Muslim population.
Respectfully dressed: moderate Muslims believe any move to ban their clothing in Britain would be counter-productive
dictated by prevailing Middle Eastern custom.
“The Koran,” says Dr Hasan,” says that Muslims should respect local customs.” In Britain or France, that doesn’t have to mean wearing bikinis. A Muslim waitress was recently awarded £3,000 for being asked to wear a revealing dress at work. Those who do cover their faces should be subject to regulation. “A naturist is free to walk around naked at home, but not down Oxford Street,” says Murray. “The same should go for the veil.”
Of course, an exception might be made for the odd Saudi visitor shopping in Harrods, but not for people living and working in this country. However, this is not the way the law has been moving over the past 20 years. Equality and human rights have been the buzzwords. School and police uniforms now feature matching headscarves ( khimar) for those who wish to wear them. In a series of landmark
judgments, the right of individuals to follow their own principles of modesty have been gradually established. In 2005, Shabina Begum, a 15-year-old schoolgirl won the right to wear the jilbab, (a long, loosefitting garment) leaving only her hands and face exposed. The following year, a judge pronounced that a lawyer could cover her face in court, so long as she was audible. In 2007, a teacher lost her appeal against dismissal for covering her face in the classroom; when interviewed for the job, she had not done so.
On the other side of La Manche, the law has been moving in a very different direction. The French constitution is based on the separation of Church and State, allowing for the banning of the headscarf in schools and universities in 2004. Now President Sarkozy, under pressure from both the Left and the Right, wants to go further. “In France, the revolutionary tradition is all about being a citizen,” says Bonnie
Greer, a writer and member of the Franco/British Council. “In Britain and America, we believe in individual expression in a very profoundway.”
Individual expression ceases to have much meaning if women are being forced into wearing cover-up tents by male relatives or mullahs, but many Muslim women deny this is the case. “I wear the scarf and the abbaya (long coat),” says Rahana Ali, a 23-year-old London School of Economics graduate. “In the last two or three years, several graduate friends of mine have chosen to wear the full burka, even though their mothers don’t. If they need an ID card for work, they will be photographed, but they don’t want to display themselves all the time.”
And if Douglas Murray were to ask one of them the time? “I can understand why some people find it off-putting, but if a man were to ask for the time or directions in the street, it would not be a problem. People should not judge by appearances.”
Other British Muslims are equally outraged by the idea of a government telling them what to do. “I thought it was only the Left who used to ban things,” says a journalist, Urmee Khan. Many of them wonder whether Sarkozy has consulted any of France’s four million Muslims. Bonnie Greer doubts it: “Many of my friends who wear the veil are independent, even feminist.”
And they are mystified as to why Sarkozy is attacking the burka when it is worn by a tiny proportion of Muslim women – well under five per cent. “The only logical reason why he made those remarks is that he had just been to Afghanistan where women are oppressed,” says Ahmed Versi, the editor of TheMuslim News, published in Britain. Others claim it is a cynical tactic to secure the feminist vote in France.
Versi fears that any attempt to ban clothing willbackfire. “Three years ago, when Jack Straw wrote about not feeling comfortable with someone whose face he couldn’t see, many more women started covering their faces in defiance. At our next awards ceremony, an artist came to collect an award. Normally, she wears a scarf and abbaya, but she came onto the stage wearing a nikkab – a veil over her face. ‘Can you hear me?’ she called out. ‘It makes no difference to my art if I amcovered.’”
Versi believes the way forward is through tolerance and understanding, not legislation – and is glad he lives in Britain. “Britain is the best country in Europe for Muslims. We complain, but we are freer here, and we have more dialogue with government. In France, Muslim organisations are not representative; here they are independent. In France, Muslims live in ghettos and have double the unemployment rate of the rest of the population. Many French women come to UK because they want to study and wear the headscarf, which in France they cannot.”
Versi goes on to detail the remarkable level of integration he finds in this country, and the growing understanding among Muslims that they should not test people’s patience by applying for jobs that they cannot do – a police chef required to cook bacon is going through the courts. “In fact,” he concludes, “the UK is heaven compared toFrance.”
If it takes a foreign politician to prompt a Muslim to articulate that view, there is something to be said for an attack on the burka. At least it gets Muslims and non-Muslims talking, not just among themselves, but maybe even to one another. telegraph.co.uk/expat
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July 1 - 7, 2009
As David Cameron has observed in an important speech, information is power. In our modern era, there is a good deal of information; but most of it – and the power – is in the hands of the state. Mr Cameron pledged that a future Conservative government would reverse this trend, by divesting the state of much of the data it is gathering about us and giving us a lot more information about what it does on our behalf. He correctly recognises that this Labour administration’s most pernicious legacy will be a governing machine that not only spends and wastes vast amounts of our money but also seeks to control us in as many ways as it can. It believes it is entitled to know our most private details, to snoop on us, to enter our homes and to retain our very essence – our DNA – even if we have committed no crime.
Conservatives should instinctively be opposed to such intrusiveness. It is inimical to the traditions of individualism and liberty that are the foundations of a free country. For all that Tony Blair sought to change Labour, it retained the authoritarian instinct of all Left-wing parties – an arrogant assumption that it knows best how to run people’s lives and spend their money. Mr Cameron has promised to fight back by abolishing the identity databases that are being developed, curtailing the powers of state agencies and telling people more about what government is up to. One welcome innovation he proposes is to publish all items of public expenditure above £25,000, exposing Whitehall to the same scrutiny Westminster has faced since this newspaper revealed details of MPs’ expenses claims. There is, clearly, a role for the state to play in society. But the balance of power has become dangerously distorted, changing the character of the nation. It needs to be set right.
Taken from The Daily Telegraph 26/06/09
The tit-for-tat expulsion of two Iranian diplomats from London marked the abandonment of the cautious policy hitherto adopted by Britain towards the post-election crisis in Tehran. The Government had been reluctant to engage in a slanging match with the theocratic regime after Ayatollah Khamenei, its Supreme Leader, denounced Britain as “the most evil of foreign powers”. It was anxious to avoid giving President Ahmadinejad any excuse to mobilise anti-Western sentiment to deflect criticism of the way the regime handled the elections and their aftermath. The Iranian religious leadership has been confounded by President Barack Obama’s overtures to the Muslim world, which have made America a less convenient target than it once was; so they excoriate Britain instead. They have also been angered by the superb role played by the BBC’s Persian service in broadcasting images of the violence back to people in Iran who would not otherwise have seen them.
After Tehran ordered two British diplomats out of the country for no reason, Britain could not stand idly by and do nothing. Gordon Brown was right finally to voice the concerns already expressed by other leaders about the way the recent elections were conducted. So far, Britain’s response has been measured in the face of a provocative, bellicose regime. Whether this approach can be sustained if relations continue to deteriorate is another matter.
Taken from The Daily Telegraph 21/06/09
This column abhors cliché, which is why, in the miasma that British politics has become in the past few weeks, we have not invoked Caligula’s horse. Those who were spared socialist education policies will recall that the emperor, to show the Roman people what he thought of them, planned to make his horse consul. The Labour Party has just gone one better, by actually making John Bercow Speaker.
One must be careful in the tribal world of Westminster in accepting that disdain of anyone is inevitably rational. In nearly a quarter-century of writing about the madhouse, I have seen, and heard, many respectable and intelligent people vilified for no cogent reason at all: other than their being right, being honourable, being principled and being brave. If anybody thinks that the nearunanimous opposition to Mr Bercow among Tories is rooted in such spite, I implore him or her to think again. I couldn’t care less about Mr Bercow’s youth; I don’t care very much about his bizarre political journey from what he thought was the ultra-Right to what some of his colleagues think is the ultra-Left. I do care – and perhaps we have some evidence for this assertion in that “journey” – that he is not remotely serious.
Difficult though he be, let us leave him to one side, and consider what has brought the House of Commons to this pass. Almost half of its members realised, in voting last week, the reputation the institution has acquired following recent events. Mr Bercow was right to say that not all MPs were on the take; but enough have been for public esteem of them as a genre to have evaporated. They knew they had this coming: why else would there have been extensive “redactions” of the expenses published by Parliament last week? They knew what effect such things, when known to the public, would have. They cannot have been disappointed.
But, as I say, 271 of them, in voting for Sir George Young, understood that the time had come to stop flicking the V-sign at the electorate. We should take this as a sign of grace, and as a token of what Elgar described as “massive hope in the future”. Yet 322 of them, including the vast majority of the Labour Party, thought it frightfully funny to elect Caligula’s horse. This says a number of things, all about the party in government, and it is well to enumerate them.
First, it shows that even something so important as the election of a Speaker, at a time of severe institutional crisis, can be used as a means of disobliging the Conservative Party. Second, it shows that the loudly voiced concerns of the electorate about the need to reform the Commons have been roundly ignored, either in order to insult the Tories, or to display the anger of Labour MPs for being found out with their noses in someone else’s trough. Third, it shows how little the governing party understands what the absence of authority has done to the Commons in recent years, and how desperately badly it needs to be restored. Fourth, it shows the fundamental frivolity with which Labour now views the conduct of the nation’s Parliament. Fifth, it shows the utter contempt Labour has for the British people that it could have acted in this infantile fashion, and how it continues to
THE ELECTION IN BRIEF
On June 22, John Bercow, the Conservative MP, became the next Speaker of the House of Commons. He beat Sir George Young, a Conservative grandee, by 322 votes to 271, after more than six hours of deliberations in Parliament.
Some Conservatives have warned they will seek to remove Mr Bercow if David Cameron is elected next year. He is regarded with suspicion by many Tories and is thought to have previously considered joining Labour. Some refused to applaud as the result was announced.
Bookies had made Mrs Beckett favourite with Sir George an outsider.
provide electors with unanswerable reasons to vote for someone else. The party seems to be operating on the principle that when one has dug one’s own grave, it is helpful to recruit plenty of others to fill it in afterwards.
Frivolity: that is the distinction, now, between the two main parties. Regular readers will need no reminder of my scepticism about Mr Cameron, and my despair at the policy-free smell of his party. To say I look forward to a Conservative government with joy would be something of an overstatement. But in terms of this great crisis, one with which all politicians have a responsibility to deal, the Conservatives have shown a superior understanding of the mood of the nation, and of what must be done.
There are Conservative MPs who have got off lightly from expenses horrors because they appear to be beloved of Mr Cameron; his party still has an opportunity to rectify that. Other than that, a correct tone of regret, remorse and repayment has mostly been set. The support the party gave to Sir George Young, a man of integrity and of what the Tories used to call “bottom”, was indicative of the understanding of what is needed.
I have no idea whether, as alleged last week, only three Tory MPs voted for Mr Bercow. I would not be surprised. When the time comes – as it will after a general election, when all Speakers have to be reelected if proposing to continue in the chair – the Tories (should they have a majority) should not hesitate to end this offensive stunt, and unelect Mr Bercow in favour of Sir George, or someone similarly serious.
Frivolity: it is, we must suppose, the natural consequence of a Government that has swum so far out its depth. It has shown progressively less regard for the decencies of public life and the responsibilities of office since long before Mr Brown became Prime Minister, and long before there were those whose abuse of public money was, to wheel out another cliché, breathtaking. Its approach to the financial crisis – spend more, borrow more, cross your fingers and hope economic reality has been suspended – was frivolous. It has been frivolous about constitutional reform since 1997. The decision to restore the twicedisgraced Peter Mandelson to public life was frivolous, and it showed a frivolous regard for our democracy that this astonishing, unelected and unelectable figure should become, de facto, deputy prime minister. Many of Mr Brown’s other appointments have betokened frivolity – Shahid Malik, for example. Oh, I know the Prime Minister conveys this impression of dour Presbyterian conscience, but he’s just having a laugh, isn’t he? And it’s at our expense.
His party’s decision to elect Caligula’s horse is (as Caligula might have put it) the ne plus ultra of frivolity. Mr Bercow’s creativity with flipping houses alone should have ruled him out. It was bad enough that Labour couldn’t take governing seriously; now it is determined to ensure that parliamentary institutions aren’t taken seriously either. It seems to contaminate with frivolity everything with which it comes into contact. The public does not want to be insulted, or to see our politics trivialised. But that is precisely what Labour is doing and it has, in that regard, just had its greatest – and perhaps last – triumph.