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Chakrabarti, crucifixes and burqas

Interesting to note the relative calm over the story that Nadia Eweida, a check-in worker who was banned by British Airways from wearing a small crucifix round her neck whilst on duty, lost her appeal at an employment tribunal and is beginning proceedings in the appeal courts today.

As might be expected, however, there has been one vocal backer of Eweida, that coming from the inimitable Shami Chakrabarti, director of the pressure group Liberty. She presents a cogent defence, most of which is based upon the opening maxim that it is vitally important to defend ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion from unjustified intrusion and prejudice.’

Which is all very true.

However… I do think things are a little more nuanced than that, and Miss Chakrabarti, in the course of making her case, offers a couple of little nuggets that demonstrate where liberalism often gets its account of ‘freedom’ wrong.

For example, we hear that, as a possible alternative to either ‘elevat[ing] an approved faith to the point of dominant status over all other belief systems‘ (apparently this is what Britain did in its ‘less enlightened times’, and is comparable with the approach of the Taliban), or else denouncing all religions and clamouring for them to be banned from the public sphere, there is a third option, that is ‘based on human rights and resonates well with a society such as Britain’s.

Now this sounds innocuous enough, but read between the lines and Miss Chakrabarti’s argument presents itself as wholly secularist, not to mention ideologically imperialist. That is, Miss Chakrabarti posits religion as a lifestyle preference, even whilst acknowledging it as an important one, and then offers an alternative, ‘human rights’, as an objective and universal doctrine that necessarily trumps all historical, religious or cultural particularity. Something so tame as ‘based on human rights and resonates well with a society such as Britain’s,’ reveals the ideological imperialism; Great Britain is the floating subject upon which human rights are imposed, rather than the very lens through which they are understood at all.

Accordingly, I think Shami Chakrabarti has a dogmatic blind spot that leads her to neglect the very social, cultural and ideological contexts that inform her conception of freedom, a chink in the logic that plays out in the rest of the article.  And this blind spot, like that of all liberals, might best be summed up as a projection into universal principle of that which is in essence a very atomistic individualism. For example, we hear,

If we really believe in freedom of thought, conscience and religion, this must include the right to the faith or belief of one’s choice, the right to no faith and to be a heretic. Proportionate limits on this precious liberty don’t arise because a minority causes irritation or even offence. We interfere when someone is harming others, or in the workplace when, for instance, their faith or clothing prevents them doing their job.

Well, yes, of course, that is all very true. But then, at the same time, what if one chooses to understand that little phrase ‘harm others’ through anything other than a wholly individualistic and materialistic (causing physical harm) worldview – for example, what if one believes that liberal relativism cultivates conflicting ideologies that cause harm to the social fabric of the country; could this not be conceived as harming others? And is there really no case to be made that, where an ideology or behaviour undermines those common threads and identities that traditionally united the diverse peoples settled in these isles, that there is, in some sense, a harm committed, that being to the common good?

This crops up again, toward the end of the article, with the snide jibe,

But that is very different from BA stubbornly defending past mistakes or UKIP attempting to steal clothes and voters from the BNP

Now, apart from being achingly banal, and carrying prejudiced undertones (with the chattering classes you can generally assume BNP = white working class), Miss Chakrabarti here neatly demonstrates the argument I have been trying to make. Because against her one might argue that ‘freedom’ is inherently bound up, as a concept, in those distinct social conditions, customs, traditions, and beliefs of the culture in which it is resident. The freedom to wear a burqa in this country is simply not the equivalent of the freedom to wear a crucifix, unless you hypothetically strip away any social and cultural conditioning factors that ought properly to inform the comparison. After all, we are culturally and historically a Christian country, so that wearing a crucifix at work will raise the question of ‘freedom’ in a wholly different manner to that raised by those who wish to indulge in a practice or belief entirely alien to the majority of the host culture. This is not to say that anything different should be banned, by any means: rather, it is to say that refusing to recognise the distinction between the two is simply disingenuous.

For this reason,  Shami Chakrabati is not really defending a Christian’s right to wear a crucifix at all, but is rather defending her own somewhat sterilised account of what freedom looks like.  The defence of the Christian is an upshot of this circumstance, not the aim of it, and it is the ideological foundations of liberalism that are really being zealously guarded.

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