Veil ban supporters are dumber – and more dangerous – than you think

To no-one’s surprise, but to widespread concern and dismay, Québec passed a bill banning anyone giving or using public services from having their faces covered.

Although the bill is being spun as a safety measure, no one’s really fooled. The bill is only the (current) end-point of a long game of political football played between Québec’s political parties over the “Muslim problem”. Sometimes it was spun as a quote-unquote “secular” need to ban “ostentatious religious symbols” (while, as many have noted, the giant crucifix hanging in the Assemblée nationale remains exempted and even, in some versions of the law, enshrined). Other times, as in the version passed, it was spun as a public safety measure; the current form is very careful to avoid any hint of religious targeting, to the point that Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée is going out of her way to insist that it is not just about niqabs and burqas, it will also ban bandanas, hoodies and sunglasses. Of course, the bill still includes religious neutrality in the title.

[A photo of the Assemblée nationale room in Québec, showing the large crucifix hanging prominently in the middle.]
This is what Québec “secularism” actually looks like.

But I’m not going to point out the obvious anti-religious (read: anti-Muslim) intentions of the bill in this piece. I’ve done plenty of that elsewhere – including explaining in detail why religious symbols bans in general are not secularism or “neutrality” or whatever you want to call it – and I’ll probably be writing a lot more about that in the coming weeks. I’m also not going to point out the obvious unconstitutionality of such a law, because I’ve done that before too, and will again. That the bill won’t survive a court challenge is reassuring, but only partly.

There is a much deeper and more insidious problem that I want to discuss today.

Over the past week I’ve had several opportunities to discuss the veil ban with its supporters. I am not impressed with any of their arguments. To summarize just about every defence of the veil ban I’ve seen:

This is necessary for secularism

Even if that were true (it’s not), the bill’s current form makes it blindingly clear it’s not about secularism at all. It makes a point of banning “face coverings” – note, not just specifically religious face coverings – and it allows for religious exemptions to that!

This is necessary for security/safety

Presumably this is about stopping the wave of masked bandits that is not currently terrorizing Québec.

Showing one’s face is a requirement in society

I’ve tried to get people who have pushed this argument to elaborate, but it’s like pulling teeth. No one can explain to me exactly what showing one’s face is a requirement for. Do buses just not work if anyone on the bus has their face covered? Are surgeons unable to operate on someone’s gaping chest wound if their face is covered with bandages or medical equipment? And no-one seems to be able to explain to me how we survive the complete societal collapse that must occur every time it gets really cold in the winter, and everyone’s walking around with scarves on.

You might commit a crime while your face is covered

Ah, so if we make a law banning covering your face, criminals will surely follow it! And it’s really important that we make this law about using public services, because we really have to stop those criminals who wear their stocking mask when they take they take the bus to pick up their kids from school, bring them to the hospital for their tests, then drop them off at the library while they go rob the bank.

Covering your face is un-Canadian

Yes, it says right there in the handbook of Canadian stuff that if you don’t show your face, you’re not one of us. We need to stick to traditional Canadian values, like the genocide of indigenous peoples.

They force women to wear niqabs/burqas in <insert repressive country here>

Actually, they don’t. Seriously, look it up. Outside of flaming shit holes like Daesh- or Taliban-controlled territory, no country in the world forces women to wear a niqab or burqa. In fact, to my knowledge, only two countries in the world force women to wear the hijab – note: not the niqab/burqa. And of those two countries (Iran and Saudi Arabia), one of them actually banned the niqab/burqa (Iran, during the dictatorship of the Shah). So that’s great company you’re in, veil banners.

Okay, well, women are forced to wear niqabs/burqas in some places

True, some fundamentalist religious communities do force women to wear niqabs/burqas. But then… some fundamentalist religious communities force women to wear skirts. Because pants just make it harder to access their breeding hole, and that’s ultimately all those religious communities think women were put on Earth for. So the skirt is apparently just as much an instrument of oppression and the veil. And the thing is, while there are no niqab/burqa-requiring communities in Canada, some of those skirt-requiring communities do exist in Canada. So, by this “logic”, shouldn’t we be banning skirts before we worry about banning niqabs/burqas? (Oh, I’m sorry, silly me… the skirt-requiring religious communities are Christian, so they’re harmless… no need to worry about them… unlike those evil niqab/burqa-requiring Muslim communities in far-off lands, right?)

The niqab/burqa is different because it dehumanizes women

This whole idea of “dehumanization” actually requires a lot of unpacking, because you can argue any adjustment of the human form – piercings, tattoos, and even makeup and clothes – is “dehumanization”… it all just depends on what your opinions are for what is necessary for someone to be considered human. Seems to me that if you think all it takes to take someone’s humanity away is to cover them with a sheet, the problem is really with you and not the sheet. But that’s a topic for a very different post, so here I’ll just point out that dictating what women can or can’t wear seems a far candidate for “dehumanization” than a woman who has chosen to wear something ugly, stupid, and non-revealing. In any case, this is irrelevant for the Québec law, because it also bans sunglasses, bandanas, and hoodies.

This is to help women

So now in Québec, preventing women from being able to use public transit, get an education, or even go to a hospital is “helping” them. In other news, Québec just legislated that 2 + 2 = 5.

This is to protect children

Sure, by banning their mothers from being able to use the bus, take them to the library, go to school with them, or even take them to the hospital, we’re protecting children. Seems legit.

A bunch of majority Muslim countries did it, and they know how to deal with the “Muslim problem”

True, a bunch of majority Muslim countries have banned the niqab/burqa… mostly to combat actual, widespread terrorist threats that simply don’t exist in Canada. Those few that did it for non-terrorism-related reasons – Azerbaijan, Morocco, Tajikistan – are not exactly paragons of human rights we want to be copying ideas from.

“Secular” Turkey did it, and they know how to deal with the “Muslim problem”

Oh, really?


*screams like a frightened child*

You may have noticed that many of the “defences” of the law are specific to the niqab and burqa, and specifically to fundamentalist Islamic interpretations of the burqa and niqab. Which is really odd for a law that is just about face coverings, and totally not targeting any specific religious minority.

But what I want to focus on here are the “security” arguments.

As I mentioned, I’ve had discussions with several of the face-covering-ban supporters over the past week. Most have made anti-religious (that is, anti-Muslim) defences of the ban, but several have tried to play to the bill’s current spin: that it is about safety. Some made a point of insisting it’s not religious targeting, or any sort of cultural domineering, going all in on the “public safety” argument.

I pushed back, of course. I called out what I thought was the obvious bullshit idea that people are required to be publicly identifiable in a free society. Some of the responses I got were terrifying.

It turns out that some people are so determined to stick it to Muslims, that they’re willing to throw even their own rights and freedoms under the bus.

For example, I sarcastically suggested that since fingerprints are a better way to identify people we should be demanding fingerprints of all public transit users rather than “merely” having them show their faces. One commenter actually liked that idea:

Know what, fingerprint ID when you get on the bus would be a good idea, you are using public transit you should be ID’d for that.

He wasn’t joking either, as you can see from the rest of the comment, and the surrounding context.

In fact, when I followed up by asking, So you mean you actually do want to live in a police state, where citizens are monitored and tracked all the time?, this was his response:

A police state requires more then just monitoring, but as long as the records are publicly available and not only available to law enforcement I have no issue. Keeping secrets leads to most of the horrid shit in the world.

Yeah. This guy is not only thinks it’s a great idea for there to be mass fingerprinting just to ride the bus, he is totally with the state monitoring its citizens and wants all the monitoring records to be publicly available. Because it’s not bad enough for Big Brother to be tracking you… every business, private individual, stalker, and harasser should be in on it too!

I asked a follow-up question to really press this individual to see if that’s what they really believe or if they were just thoughtlessly mouthing off, and haven’t got a response yet. But he was far from the only nutter I’ve run across in the past week.

This next jackass started out with a fairly common, intelligence-free sentiment:

For once gouvernement takes steps to prevent something before it becomes à bigger problem

Immediately he got some pushback from a more intelligent Canadian Atheist reader, who asked exactly what problem was being prevented. His response was:

ho i dont know the spread of mysoginistic and retrograde ideas that are used to diminish womens worth maybe ?

I felt compelled jump in immediately. The idea that a government should take it upon itself to stop the spread of ideas – no matter how bad those ideas may be – set off alarms in my head. So I asked: So you think the government should be regulating ideas?

The shocking response:

absolutly !

What does the vail stand for ? Do you know ?

Of course we should regulate bad ideas ! We do it all the time ! It’s illegal to cover or face in public in general. Why would that be different for religion ?

(Note: It is not and never has been illegal to cover one’s face in public. In fact, as some idiots “discovered” in the last federal election, you can even vote with your face covered (once you’ve confirmed your identity).)

He goes on, ranting about the oppression of women (and that’s why it’s necessary to show your face when boarding a bus, folks, because women are being oppressed!), and although I asked a follow-up to press on the idea that governments should regulate ideas, I never got an answer. Nor do I ever expect to get one. Once he realized that reality was not in alignment with his bigotry – once it became clear that not just Canadian Atheist, but also other Canadian secular organizations weren’t falling for the bullshit pretense of this law having anything to do with secularism, he took his ball and ran. I can’t speak for the Canadian Secular Alliance, but as managing editor of Canadian Atheist I can assure you: we won’t miss his patronage.

What frightened me about these and similar exchanges is how quickly people are willing to just… throw away fundamental rights, just for a chance to stick it to Muslims. Because, let’s be honest, that’s what it’s really about. And even those who refuse to admit it’s specifically about Muslims will openly admit it’s about sticking it to “religion”. Ya know, all the religions that have customs of women covering their faces.

I will grant that this may just be an artifact of where I was having these discussions. Let’s face it, if you’re on Facebook, you’ve already indicated you don’t really care about privacy rights all that much. But if what I’ve observed does extend beyond the social monopolies, it has some terrifying implications – perhaps not just for this particular topic, but for discourse in general in the modern era.

All of these people have staked their ground on a particular ideological position – in this case, to stick it to Muslims (whether they will admit it or not). That’s fine; people have always been like that. What appears to be new is how far they’ll go to defend that position. They weren’t just resorting to lies, non-sequiturs, or other irrational nonsense – Gish Gallops and other rhetorical games freethinkers have been struggling against for eons. They did all that, yes, but that’s old hat. What appears to be new is that they were so committed to not being wrong about their position, they were willing to hurt themselves rather than admit it. They were willing to throw away their own fundamental rights and freedoms, and it didn’t take much pushing to get them to that point.

I’m not sure what to conclude from this. It’s possible they were all just very stupid people, who talked themselves into a corner, and were too stubborn to admit it. It’s possible they didn’t really believe the things they said, and only said them to stop the relentless assault of reason and logic they were being bombarded by.

Some people are so determined to stick it to Muslims, they’re willing to throw out their own rights and freedoms.

But what scares me is that they might actually believe those things. They might actually believe that widespread monitoring of the public by the government is harmless, or that ideas really should be regulated, or that there’s nothing wrong with the idea that everyone’s movements should be readily-available public information. They may never have lived in an actually repressive society, and never gave any serious thought as to why we have the constitutional protections we do. Like the clueless relative that throws out a valuable collection of figurines thinking they’re “just toys” these people may simply not realize their value of the rights they have.

What also scares me is how quickly, and how cavalierly, they threw those rights away… just to stick it to a few dozen Muslims.

The supporters of this ban have already demonstrated that they are willing to disregard the rights and freedoms of those they don’t agree with, or dislike. That’s dangerous enough. But if they’re willing to sacrifice their own rights for this cause, they are far more dangerous than your average bigot. The average bigot will only burn those they hate… this level of bigot is crazy enough to burn their own house down, rather than admit that starting fires was a bad idea.

I think this is something we need to watch out for in the coming debates we’ll be having about this ban.

I don’t think many people appreciate just how powerful hate is, and just how much harm it can do – not just for the target of the hate, but for the hater as well. I don’t think many people realize how important fundamental rights and freedoms like privacy are, or how easily they can be tossed aside in the name of hate.

Whatever your opinions on the Québec face-covering ban are, I urge you to take at least this one thing away from this post:

Don’t throw your own rights away carelessly, just to send a message to those whose ideas you dislike.

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