Many liberals today believe that a ban on Muslim veiling would be inconsistent with liberalism. However, the chief architect of liberal political philosophy, John Stuart Mill, who was also one of the nineteenth century’s greatest feminists, probably would have accepted a ban in principle. Mill’s 19th century England presented a different set of religious issues to those of multicultural Britain today, but Mill considered three cases contemporaneous to his writing that offer a prism through which we can discern how liberalism’s founding father might have responded to the question of a state ban on Muslim veiling.
First, he considers whether a ban on eating pork would be acceptable in a Muslim minority country like his own. He concludes that the ban on pork-eating would be unacceptable since many would want to resist the ban because they do not accept Muslim disgust as legitimate grounds for preventing other people from eating pork.
Next, Mill looked at the Christian Puritans’ ban on various forms of recreation, such as music and dance. Mill remarked that the moral and religious sentiments of Puritans were inadequate grounds to restrict other peoples’ leisure activities.
Finally, he considered the Mormon minority in the United States, who practiced (male only) polygamy and were persecuted for it. Mill’s response was that interference in the Mormon way of life would be unjustified on the condition that the practice is undertaken with the full consent of all participants. He also stipulated that it should be permitted only if people living in Mormon communities were free to leave.
The Mormon example can be extended to any case in which a host society seeks to change the practices of a minority when those practices are not enforced on people against their will. If we accept – as most people do – that religious dress codes are sometimes forced on people against their will, then, to that extent, according to Mill’s reasoning, the state would bejustified in interfering with the practice, just as it would be in cases where the practice of male polygamy did not have the full consent of those impacted by it. This conclusion is consistent with the rationale of Mill’s conditional ban on male polygamy, since the only condition that he thought would make state interference in the practice acceptable was if women had not fully consented to the practice and were not fully free to leave the practicing community. If these conditions are met in the case of the veil, for instance, then it is consistent with liberal political philosophy to ban it.
No one should be made, by legal or political force, to conform to ideological values that are not his or her own. So, while well-meaning British or American citizens may argue that it is not OK to tell people what to wear (or not to wear), the same goes for Salafi-Wahhabists and fundamentalists as well as for the state and government officials.
A legal restriction on veiling, because it would ensure that we are consistent when we say that “nobody should tell women what they can wear (or not wear)” is more principled and starts with the existing situation, which is that a subset of women are currently being told what to wear. Many women wear the veil because someone has told them that they cannot wear Western dress, or that not to veil themselves would be in contravention of religious values. If these women dissent, some of them would face violence, abuse and homelessness. If we really want women to be free to “wear whatever they want,” then we must (a) argue against religious authoritarians who tell women exactly what they must wear (b) stop allowing the state to prosecute as “hate speech” every attempt to do so, and (c) possibly erect a legal ban on religious modesty dress to protect those who are currently coerced to wear it.
Mill’s various responses to the cases above illustrate that mere offence is not a good reason for society to constrain what people do. Liberals have never favoured state interference with self-regarding behaviours that others merely find distasteful. Liberals have only accepted state interference when the behaviour in question is ‘other-regarding’ (i.e. when it impacts others in a significant way) and is also harmful.
While it is debatable as to what is or is not harmful, liberals have interpreted harm in a narrow sense, such that merely insulting the feelings or offending other people’s tastes or beliefs is not ‘harmful’ in any significant way, since it does not harm anyone’s permanent interests as a progressive being. On the other hand, denying people access to education or information, limiting their freedom of movement or their liberty to assemble with people, or to pursue their own goals, are acts that do harm other people’s permanent interests as progressive beings. It limits the individual’s ability to have genuine options and a variety of sources of information. This prevents informed decision, constrains ‘education’ within very narrow limits, and ultimately stunts intellectual and personal growth and development – all of which is seriously harmful.
Offence, far from injuring my development and growth, may actually stimulate my thought, provoke new ideas, or challenge me to question my own assumptions or to defend existing ones with better reasons. On the other hand, customs, when they are coerced or enforced through family and community pressure (sometimes violent pressure) do harm peoples’ permanent interests as progressive and free human agents, capable of exploring their own physical, emotional and intellectual growth.
For this reason, liberalism has been the best form of government for allowing individuals to pursue their own good in their own way. The state does not presume to enforce any moral or ideological code, but rather is treated as a neutral referee. The state’s sole purpose is to enforce a set of principled and fair rules so that all ideologies can compete on the same level playing field and follow the same rules of engagement. When governments act paternalistically by granting special protections to a particular subculture in society, they are not protecting individuals within those cultures but lifting the protections that would otherwise grant them the same rights as other (more powerful) individuals within their culture. Liberalism protects all members of a minority subculture, whereas the kind of faith-based multiculturalism that liberal states have pursued in the past decade allows only dominant community leaders to pursue their own values and goals, while protecting their “right” to impose these values on everyone else in the community. This is not liberal. It is conservative communitarianism that can quickly become religious fascism.