Birmingham Metropolitan College has reversed a decision to prevent students from covering their faces with veils. This measure was originally designed to include the minority of conservative Muslim female students who cover their entire faces, except their eyes, with a niqab.

The college was not asking the women to uncover their hair, just their faces. The rule was to apply only inside the college. The college argued, reasonably, that teachers needed to be able to identify their students for the purposes of class attendance, examination and college admissions.

The furore that erupted over this suggestion, and the college’s subsequent decision to back down on the new rule, was entirely unnecessary. It is a prize example of resistance for resistance’s sake. If anything, the college was guilty of failing properly to communicate its strategy to religious and student bodies before announcing the plan.
The decision itself, however, is perfectly reasonable. To ask bank customers, airport users, students at colleges that require ID to enter, people standing before a judge, or anyone else engaging in any identity-sensitive activity to show their face is a wholly necessary part of daily living. This is true not just in Britain but anywhere in the world, even in Muslim-majority countries.

It is not racist or Islamophobic to ask someone to show their face. To campaign against the rule on these grounds does a disservice to anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia struggles. First, Islam: only a minority of Muslim women believe that covering the face is a religious duty. The issue is the cause of some sharp divisions among Muslims, with opinions ranging from the Taliban-style view that the full face must be covered, to those Muslims who do not believe that covering the hair — let alone the face — is a religious duty at all.

Even those who hold a stricter view usually are of the opinion that covering the face is not required indoors, that is, when off the streets or in a college. Furthermore, Islam universally permits the showing of the face for the purpose of identification; traditional books of Muslim jurisprudence have made this clear for centuries.

Being unable to identify people in identity-sensitive environments is not acceptable for a secular state in the name of security Finally, because this is such a disputed issue within the religion, Islam usually resolves such cases by obliging Muslims to accept the regulations of any institution they have voluntarily joined, as long as these regulations do not violate the basic, agreed-upon tenets of the faith. The face veil is not a basic and agreed-upon tenet of the faith.

In other words, Islam’s own minority religious view explicitly permits Muslim women to show their faces in situations such as attending college.

And here the case should have rested. The fact that it did not is a sad indictment of how easy it is for people to politicise and abuse commonsense policies by playing the racism and Islamophobia card. By doing so, they inadvertently cheapen the power of the anti-racism message and turn the vast majority of reasonable people away from this good cause.

Part of Muslim integration in our societies surely requires empowering Muslims to join in debates related to the wider public as equal citizens. This in turn entails empowering the wider public to interject in debates concerning Muslims, thereby treating them as equal citizens. It’s a quid pro quo. The real losers of adopting an exceptionalist and identity-politics approach to society are minority communities themselves, who end up — and the evidence is all around us in Britain — isolated, marginalised and seen as “their own problem”. There is no greater barrier to Muslim social mobility than Muslim exceptionalism.

What is the secular case for stopping women covering their faces in the name of religion? Conservative Muslims would argue that their right to wear a niqab is enshrined in their human right to practise their religion freely. Indeed, it is on these grounds that I have spoken out against the blanket French ban on the face veil, and the Swiss ban on mosque minarets.

However, for every rule there must be exceptions. Being unable to identify people in identity-sensitive environments is not acceptable for a secular state in the name of security. It also relates to the integrity of the institution at hand.

For instance, should students be permitted to wear face veils during supervised examinations in gender-mixed halls, thereby concealing whether they are indeed the student who is being examined? Should student societies be permitted to segregate male and female students attending their events on — also disputed — “religious” grounds? I would argue that doing so discriminates against the sexes. Similarly, should Sikhs be permitted to carry short swords — the kirpan — into colleges, banks or airports because their religion stipulates these as one of the five Ks that make up the pillars of their own faith?

What happens to interfaith harmony if exceptions are made for Muslims on religious grounds, but not Sikhs? Somewhere, and fast, a middle ground must be established between the aggressive form of French secularism and the politicisation of my faith, Islam, merely to score more general goals against perceptions of western dominance. That middle ground is usually good old British common sense. But common sense requires a bit of a spine, and I fear that we are fast losing ours.

This article was originally published in ‘The Sunday Times’ on 15 September 2013.

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