Saturday, 17 July 2010


The Bishop of Leicester's First Person column appears in today's Leicester Mercury:

Ban on religious symbols is not the way forward
The Bishop of Leicester sees France's move to ban the niqab as a disturbing development
Earlier this year a nurse was banned from wearing a crucifix by her employers. In his Easter sermon the Archbishop of Canterbury subsequently spoke out about "wooden-headed bureaucratic silliness" that stopped Christians wearing religious symbols at work.
He went on to say that there is currently a strange mixture of contempt and fear towards Christianity.
Last Tuesday the French took the banning of religious symbols one step further. Their parliament passed a law which will affect fewer than 2,000 people out of a population of 64 million. The people whom the law targets are the small number of Muslim women who wear a full-face veil or niqab.
The French parliament voted 335 to one in favour of a bill that would make it an offence punishable by a fine to appear in public in the full veil. Any man convicted of insisting that his wife or daughter wear it can be imprisoned for up to a year. During the debate the niqab was described as a "walking coffin" by one MP, and "a threat to French values" by another.
In secular societies religious symbols are increasingly seen as dangerous and problematic. Last month I listened to a distressed woman speak about being attacked by a youth in Leicester while she was wearing a niqab. The youth tore down her veil and shouted abuse at her. This was not the first experience of abuse she has suffered but it was the most serious.
The woman went on to speak of how the incident had knocked her confidence, but she knew that she must stand up and go ahead with the complaint to the police. The offender was found through CCTV evidence.
Subsequently, other Muslim women have come forward to her to say they have suffered the same kind of abuse, including the woman's own daughter.
The Lord Mayor of Leicester recently expressed the view that "religion has no role to play in the conduct of Council business". In secular societies there is always a tendency to get anxious about expressions of religion. The niqab can be unsettling for many people but why do the state and employers feel the need to ban it?
Many of the great cities of the world are made up of people from different cultures and faiths. In plural societies people live plural lives. One of the main strengths of Leicester is that its diverse citizens and communities respect each other's cultural and religious differences and value them rather than be threatened by them.
If we follow the example of the French and try to impose a single culture it leads us to question what would be banned next? Banning religious symbols is not the way forward.

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