In France, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands they have been getting agitated over the full burka. Again. And – like the Icelandic volcanic ash – the problem drifts over to us, posing huge challenges on how to think about this issue and how to react. As always, the British power elite casts itself – unconsciously perhaps – as more tolerant and enlightened than its European counterparts. Voltaire, after his period of exile on these isles, said we were. What better reference do we need?
We have a history of self-righteousness in these intra-continental culture wars. The veil once more gives us a chance to show off our liberal credentials and show up our more bigoted neighbours, whose anti-Muslim attitudes are indeed uglier and untamed.
Undeniably too, to be a Muslim in the rest of Europe is more demanding than in this country. When France banned the headscarf and other obvious religious symbols in schools it did shake up some of its citizens of North African origin, who had seriously to question their own identities.
Such tough secular tests are not set in the UK. When tricky situations arise – like the time Jack Straw asked a constituent to take her face-covering off during a meeting, or a school disallowed full cloaks for pupils – the state sort of fades away and emblematic conflicts are turned into local difficulties. Now Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and even Germany (until now feverishly anxious about its history of ethnic persecution) have either passed laws banning the burka or are seriously debating that option.
Hard-liners come from left and right. In Italy, a fully veiled woman was fined €500 (£426) and now her husband says he will keep her indoors because he can't have other men looking at her (a fixed prison replaces a mobile one). Sarkozy is all for tough action because he believes the garment "is contrary to the dignity of women", but French legal experts have warned that any outright prohibition would violate the constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. And so it would.
Which is why even those Britons who patently detest the black shroud have tried, sometimes convolutedly, to defend religious choices made by citizens in the name of their faith. Real liberalism means accepting illiberal choices, they say. Though full of moral intent, these views lack guts and sense and are based on, at best, infrequent and limited contact with European Muslims.
What of the fact that millions of us are against the black covering? And that many supported the French school-uniform proscription? We know there is no Koranic injunction to cover the face, and we watch helplessly as organised brainwashing is leading to the blanking out of female Muslim presence and individuality from the public space. The Oxford theologian and imam Dr Taj Hargey can give you chapter and verse to prove both these points. We say that dress codes can be imposed in public-service interactions for a greater good. That whether opted for by the woman or pushed on her by others, the inherent message of the veiled woman is that femininity is treacherous – which is an evil slur.
It's about the right to choose, say the apologists. Oh yes? Then why are these campaigners not champ-ioning the rights of Muslim and non-Muslim women in the West and East not to cover up? The truth is that they aspire to be separatists, and blackmail our nervous nation to stop them if it dares.
For me, the overwhelming argument against the burka (and various coverings for children, another growing abomination) is that there is such a thing as society. Community fetishes cannot override social communication, connection, obligations, equality, duties and understanding. Security and safety-measures too require facial identification. Politicians need to get assertive and argue that they believe in non-racist, universal human development. Effective policies to halt the spreading habit (in both senses) will then naturally follow.
And reformist Muslims too should speak up more frankly without fear or favour. A traditional Pakistani friend of mine – who always wears the shalwar kameez – recently refused service from a burka-ed librarian in one of our big libraries. The next time she went in, the face was no longer hidden. Maybe our new government should consult her. She could teach them how resistance, not acquiescence, gave us our past freedoms and will preserve our present ones.