An Orwellian assault on free expression

The review of “counter-terrorism” legislation announced by the coalition government seems to be more comprehensive than I'd feared. Control orders, pre-charge detention and stop-and-search will all be on the agenda. It's a welcome announcement from a government about which I've so far found very little to welcome.

The UK may be about to reverse some of the appalling assaults on civil liberties that characterised the Blair years. This makes it especially sad that, on the day the Home Secretary announced the details of the review, the French National Assembly voted to impose a draconian restriction on religious liberty and free expression that has little parallel in western Europe in recent decades. It is shocking that in 2010, a member of the European Union could begin to pass laws regulating what its citizens may and may not wear in public.

In Orwellian style, the French Justice Minister described yesterday's vote as a victory for “democracy”. Equally Orwellian is the punishment structure that the new law – if passed by the Senate in September – will introduce. A man who forces a woman to wear a niqab could get a year's imprisonment and be fined 30,000 euros. France is right to treat such behaviour as a serious offence. This provision implies that it is wrong to force a woman to dress in a particular way. And yet the same politicians who passed this have voted to impose a fine of 150 euros on a woman who freely chooses to wear a niqab.

I trust that the European Court of Human Rights will overturn this totalitarian-style attempt to tell people what to wear. Unfortunately, a great deal of animosity and anger are likely to have been spent, and inter-religious respect seriously wounded, before such a ruling comes about.

The reaction in Britain is important. Tory MP Philip Hollobone has no chance of passing his private member's bill to ban face coverings in public in the UK, but the news from France has no doubt given him a boost and helped his profile. He was quoted approvingly in the predictable front page story in this morning's Daily Express. The Express has long hated the niqab – or the “burkha” as its editors insist on inaccurately calling it – and today called for Britain to follow France's lead (an unusual stance for a paper that puts so much energy into anti-European sentiment).

In Britain, the words “religious liberty” have in recent years used most loudly by certain Christian groups who object whenever there is a story of someone being prevented from wearing a cross or speaking openly about his or her Christian faith. The liberties of Christians are vitally important. So are the liberties of Muslims – and everyone else. If those Christian groups which have made such complaints are serious in their comments on religious liberty, they should now make this clear by condemning the French National Assembly's vote to ban the niqab.

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