The discussion sparked by Boris Johnson’s burka comments raises some important points. I want to defend religious freedom, so I don’t like politicians telling people how to observe their religious practices. I want to defend free speech, so I don’t like the way people wanted Boris to be ‘investigated’ for his remarks. I am concerned about the rise of radical Islam, so I don’t like women being forced to hide their faces (yes, I know not every Muslim woman who wears a burka is forced to do so, but many are). All these things are swirling around in my head as I consider this latest controversy.
Religious freedom is very important. I want to defend my right to live and worship God in accordance with biblical truth. I want to be free to express my beliefs, and manifest them, in public not just in private. Those freedoms have been hard won down the centuries and should not be glibly tossed aside. To protect those freedoms, I have to be prepared to extend them to others of all faiths and none.
However, that does not necessarily mean I will defend religious freedom at all costs. It is not an unqualified right. A religious belief which supports acts of violence should not be tolerated. And there may come a time when a particular religion poses such a threat to the nation state that restrictions are necessary. In past centuries, Roman Catholicism was a political threat to England, and therefore restrictions on English Catholics were necessary in a way we wouldn’t countenance now. The fact is, Islam knows no distinction between religion and state. It is, by its nature, a theocracy.
Freedom of speech is also very important. It not only allows me to share my views as I am in this article but it also allows other people to read, hear, and listen to the views of others. It is the right to question, criticise, and correct. This robust exchange of views can be a painful experience but in the end, we are better for it.
However, that does not necessarily mean free speech trumps everything. Humour and satire can be very powerful tools when used rightly. But ridicule and rudeness usually generates more heat than light. Was Boris wise to say Muslim women who only display their eyes ‘look like letterboxes’? It certainly generated headlines, and perhaps that was his intention. He plays the clown, but don’t be fooled, he knows how to get attention. The abuse of free speech can be as dangerous as the restriction of free speech.
The rise of radical Islam is also a very important matter. The wearing of the burka is, rightly or wrongly, regarded as an expression of that ideology. Do people have the right to see someone else’s face in public? Context is important here. Wearing a balaclava is totally understandable on a ski slope, but alarming in a jewellery store. And is wearing a burka an expression of the subjugation of Muslim women by Muslim men, or is it an expression of modesty which Muslim women are happy to display?
These are difficult matters. It seems our modern, liberal, politically-correct intelligentsia are failing to grapple with it, let alone provide an answer to it. I don’t pretend I have the answers either, only questions. I instinctively want to defend religious freedom and free speech. But I’m suspicious of politicians stirring up an issue for their own gain. I also want to defend our society from the rise of radical Islam. But more than anything I want to see my Muslim neighbours come to know Jesus as Saviour and Lord.
As I say, I don’t have the answers. I have read numerous articles on Boris’ burka comments, and I have collected some quotes from the articles which I found helpful. I trust you find them helpful too. We are entering difficult days ahead. We need to start grappling with these matters now. May God grant us his wisdom.