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The Limits of Freedom

The Limits of Freedom

Issue 74 November 2010

Who defines and sets the standards of global liberalism?


Standing in a Netherlands court room, the Dutch MP Geert Wilders ran his hands through his hair and declared that he was a victim. Facing charges of inciting hatred against the Netherlands’ Muslim community, he argued: “I am sitting here as a suspect because I have spoken... nothing but the truth”. What ‘truth’ he has spoken is debatable. Wilders, whose Freedom Party came third in last June’s national elections and currently holds the balance of power in Dutch politics, has called the Qur’an a fascist book and declared all Muslim immigration should be stopped. Reports have suggested that, were he to enter into a governing coalition, he would seek a ban on the full-face veil as the price of his party’s cooperation.

There isn’t a significant problem with women wearing the full face veil in the Netherlands. Nor is there a problem in France, where a ban has been enacted.

But then the face veil is not a political problem to be solved, but a political point to be scored. The respectable far-right is well aware that the majority of those who vote for them have little experience of women in veils, or indeed of the immigrants or Muslims that they profess such fear of. Rather, it is the stoking of the fear of the other, of the possibility of contact that drives these parties support.

The main fears of their voters are local, about jobs and identity and being disenfranchised from their societies. But they are stoked by politicians who present minor issues like the face veil as symbolic of a wider, ideological struggle. Big ideas like liberalism and tolerance and freedom of expression are wielded to stop a handful of women wearing a piece of cloth. In the process, the freedom of these women is being curtailed.

Wilders says he is exercising his right to freedom of expression. But some of what he says comes dangerously close to being hate speech – the Dutch courts will decide if his words cross the line. What he is arguing against is something as important as the freedom of expression – personal freedom and personal liberty. While the banning of the full face veil is a minor concern of minority parties targeting a small minority of women, the implications are more serious. Even a small blow against personal freedom by the state can have larger repercussions.

To see why this is so, consider the logic of a ban on a piece of clothing. The arguments for it are fairly weak. The strongest case, over security, is easily handled: most of the countries considering bans on the veil already require their citizens to carry identity cards. The police should be able to request that women wearing the veil raise it briefly for them to confirm their identity.

The limits of freedom on clothing are difficult to set, varying with the moral culture of countries and communities. But a good starting point is to recognise that, broadly, citizens should be free to wear what they like, as long as they do not harm others. This means that some items of clothing that are garish, that are ridiculous, that are even borderline obscene, must be tolerated by others. It is not for the government to set the limits of fashion.

The veil falls squarely in this category. As long as it is a choice by the individual, it is hard to see what harm it causes to other people. It may be provocative to some, irritating to others, even a symbol of division or a reminder of a distant region, but none of those things can be sufficient cause to ban it.

So what Wilders is proposing, what the French have enacted, is profoundly illiberal and strikes at the heart of what makes Europe free. Curtailing the freedoms of a marginalised minority is worrying in any country – when you consider it in the context of Europe’s history, at the same time as minorities like the Roma are being driven from their homes in France, it becomes profoundly concerning.

The compromises needed in free societies are sometimes complex, but they start from first principles. Wilders is exercising one of his rights in order to deny his fellow citizens another.

Faisal al Yafai is the editor of a collection of essays “Women, Islam and Western Liberalism”, available on Amazon from this month.

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