Random Rants, Raves and Ramblings

The EU headscarf ruling, or how to undercut your own argument.

This article is a comment to Iman Amrani’s opinion piece for the Guardian, “The hijab ruling is a ban on Muslim women”

On 14 March the EU’s highest court ruled that employers can ban the wearing of religious symbols in the workplace, provided that this ban is part of a company policy and not a one-off on the occasion of a customer request. Amrani’s point is that this can make it hard for Muslim women to find work, at least those who consider wearing the hijab part of their religious practice. I would agree with that. You can’t turn your religion on and off like that when you walk into the office. The same cannot be said of Christians wearing crosses. I’m not aware of any Christian denomination actually requiring the wearing of a cross. The even-handedness of the ruling is perfunctory and illusory.

I’m with Amrani: this ruling unfairly singles Muslim women out.

I'd like to point at a self-inflicted weakness in her argument though. Between paragraphs 7 and 8 the term “conviction” is suddenly replaced by “identity”. People do this often when talking about tolerance and human rights. They hope it strengthens the argument: since identity is clearly something you did not choose and cannot hope to change, any form of discrimination based on identity must be particularly unfair. Well I have bad news: arguing from a strong premise weakens the argument instead of buttressing it. If you can argue your point from the mildest possible premise, that makes it more convincing.

To show you why, allow me to poke a hole in the “religion as identity” premise.
I don’t think there’s anything controversial about my earlier statement that “identity” means something entirely involuntary and immutable about a person. You can’t change your parents. You can’t change your ethnicity. You can’t change your sexual orientation or the gender you feel you have. By contrast, many other things do change. Your age changes so that’s no part of your identity. Your behaviours and attitudes change, so those aren’t part of your identity either. Your nationality can change. Even your name can change, by adoption, marriage, or simply because you wanted to. And yes, people undergo religious conversions, when they decide that something they thought was right no longer seems right to them.

And that to me is the crux of the matter. The mere fact that people can and do change where they stand on religion without this changing who they are is enough to disqualify religion as part of one’s identity. Believing is something you do, not something you are.

The reason why it’s so easy to think religion is a profound form of identity is of course that any religion that doesn’t try to convince believers that this is so, will quickly be supplanted by one that does. Religions tell believers that any criticism ought to be taken personally by the believer. Those that don’t, tend to disappear. Especially when religions find themselves in direct competition, success can hinge on cultivating in their followers the longest possible toes. That is precisely why Western European Catholicism and its slightly camp younger brother, the good old C of E, are on the retreat. Their openness to discussion and robust sense of humour have insured its peaceful cohabitation with enlightened scientific and secular thinking. They’ll take anything on the chin. By contrast, Pentecostalism, Orthodox Judaism and certain sections of Islam actively demand their followers to react with hurt or anger to every slight, perceived or real. So guess which religions are on the up? Catholicism or Pentecostalism? But the fact that religions say that they’re part of one’s identity doesn’t make it so. Religious conviction, no matter how fondly held, does not constitute identity.

Good. Have you now magically become convinced that the “EU headscarf ruling” is just? After all, if your opposition only followed from the “religion as identity” premise, it’s just been robbed of its basis. Every woman who stops wearing the headscarf because she’s decided she no longer believed in God is living proof, right?

Well, no, neither have I. It is a fact of life that many believers have strong sentiments towards their religions. Asking them to act against their beliefs will cause distress. I am not advocating the silly notion of respecting beliefs here. Beliefs don’t have feelings and do not require respect. They can be factually correct, incorrect or plainly nonsensical. But I do respect human beings. Knowing that for some religion is a tender spot, why open up the subject at all unless there are clear and pressing reasons? I think our approach towards religious symbols in the workplace ought to be informed by that.

So here’s my take: if an employer wishes to have a policy against the wearing of headscarves, they ought to give a bloody good reason why they think wearing a headscarf makes the employee less suited for her job. With the exception of places that require other headgear anyway (like hospitals or the food industry) I can’t think of any.

I’ve just argued that the headscarf ruling is still a bad idea from the mildest premise that I could find, namely that many religious people’s beliefs are an emotional matter. This statement is incontrovertibly true whereas the strong statement that religion constitutes identity is easily waylaid.

It also shows that religious freedom in the workplace is relative. An example of where there is a clear and pressing need to confront one’s job description with one’s religious beliefs would be a registrar marrying a same-sex couple. So there are situations where a potential employee (not the employer!) has to consider the choice between having a religion and getting the job. Generally, there are enough situations where religious beliefs will have to be confronted, so let’s not make things worse by asking bank tellers to take off their hijab.

Thursday 16 March 2017