Looking back through my cuttings files, I see that my second column after I started writing on this page in December 2001 was on the subject of multiculturalism.
The then Labour Home Secretary, David Blunkett, had declared that British Muslims needed to realise that some of their cultural practices were incompatible with British values.
For his pains, he was accused of helping to promote racism. Plus ca change! Twelve years on, we are having the same argument.
Last week, Birmingham Metropolitan College dropped its ban on female students wearing the Islamic veil that covers the whole face except for the eyes, or even covers the eyes as well with a mesh.
This ban had been in place for eight years, along with a similar edict against hoodies and hats to ensure students were always ‘easily identifiable’.
Eminently sensible and overwhelmingly obvious, you might think. And apparently there had been no protest until recently, when a Left-wing student activist, Aaron Kiely, organised a 9,000-name petition after an anonymous student complained to a local paper that the ban discriminated against her right to wear the full-face veil.
A threatening demonstration was also on the cards. In the face of this pressure, the college shamefully backed down and modified its ruling to allow students to wear ‘specific items of personal clothing to reflect their cultural values’.
Amen to that last sentiment. A liberal society should, indeed, permit cultural or religious minorities to wear distinctive clothing — but only if that doesn’t get in the way of an institution’s ability to enforce basic standards of security, which the full veil most definitely does, since it obscures the identity of the person beneath the covering.
But it does more even than that. It destroys nothing less than the presumption of equality on which human communication is based.
For the full veil radically alters the balance of power between the woman it conceals and those attempting to communicate with her. This is because while they cannot see her face, she can see theirs.
The result is that they are no longer communicating as equals, because she has a basic advantage over them. And no one has the right to bring about that imbalance.
There is nothing remotely ‘racist’ about such concerns. (The term is also illiterate, since Islam is not a race.) Indeed, ‘racism’ is used merely as a smear to intimidate those trying to defend basic values.
For it is a fundamental characteristic of society that faces are visible.
As the Muslim anti-Islamist campaigner Maajid Nawaz has written, it cannot be ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’ to ask someone to show their face, since only a minority of Muslims believe covering a woman’s face is a religious duty. Some Muslims don’t even believe in covering a woman’s hair.
Nevertheless, non-Muslim society has been thrown into confusion over this issue. In similar vein, a court is due to rule today on whether a Muslim woman can stand trial while wearing a veil that shows only her eyes.
The woman, who has denied a charge of witness intimidation, had been told by Judge Peter Murphy in a previous hearing that being unable to identify the defendant was contrary to the principle of open justice and she would not be allowed to enter a plea until the veil was removed.
The judge changed his mind after a female custody sergeant, who had seen the woman when she was photographed after her arrest and then saw her face in a private room in the court building, swore on oath that it was the same person.
But Judge Murphy also indicated the woman might have to remove her veil when the case came before a jury, the issue on which he is to rule today. ‘I will not have the defendant dictating to the court how she wishes to appear,’ he declared.
Let’s hope he sticks to his guns. For much more is involved here than the issue of identification, important though that is.
As the judge said, it is basic to justice that the faces of those involved in court proceedings should be visible so that their expression can be seen.
That is vital in helping to decide whether or not they are telling the truth and their evidence is reliable.
The argument by the woman’s lawyer, that it is a denial of human rights to insist on removing the full veil in court, is as preposterous as it is predictable. There can be no ‘human right’ to interfere with the course of justice nor, indeed, with the universal givens of human communication.
Moreover, the full veil is also a mechanism for denying certain Muslim women their rights. For although some claim they wear it through free choice, others have revealed that, despite initially making such a claim, they have, in fact, been coerced and intimidated into doing so.
More fundamentally, the over-riding rule of a liberal society is that minority customs should be tolerated — but only if they do not interfere with the values of the majority.
That’s why last year another Muslim woman was barred from serving on a jury in an attempted murder trial because she refused to remove her veil.
And it’s why, in a key case in 2007, a High Court judge rejected a bid by a pupil to be allowed to wear the full veil in the classroom.
After that case, the Department for Education issued guidance that enabled head teachers to ban full-face veils on grounds of security, safety or learning.
To his credit, the Prime Minister backed the Birmingham college’s earlier decision to ban such veils, and let it be known that he would back a similar ban at his children’s school.
However, Nick Clegg declared he was uneasy about the ban and believed the bar had to be set ‘very high’ to justify such a prohibition.
For heaven’s sake, how can it be set any higher than a garment that replaces normal human communication by a sinister and intimidating black-out?
Mr Clegg’s lamentable feebleness of mind reflects widespread confusion about multiculturalism. For this doctrine is not, as is so often thought, merely about being tolerant of other cultures.
It holds instead that no culture can uphold its own values over any other.
It means, therefore, that Britain cannot say its core values of openness, equality before the law, women’s rights and so on should take precedence over cultures based on oppression and inequality.
It thus damns basic western values as ‘discrimination’ or ‘racism’, and turns the application of common sense into a prohibited activity.
It is, in short, a mad reversal of truth and justice that ultimately would destroy western society — a fate that risks being brought about not by Leftist rabble-rousers or Islamic fanatics, but by sanctimonious idiots like Nick Clegg.
Multiculturalism is one of the principal confusions of our age, one of many I have been writing about on this page for the past 12 years.
This, I’m sad to say, is the last column I shall be writing in this slot. I am extremely grateful to you, my dear readers, who have written to me in such huge number over the years to express your often passionate support for my views.
I will continue to champion the values in which we all believe and to stand up for truth, justice and the truly powerless against those who would destroy them. I look forward to sharing the next phase of my writing career with you all.
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