How Would Mill Have Responded to a Ban on Religious Modesty Dress?

Many self-described liberals of today believe that a ban on Muslim veiling would be inconsistent with liberalism. However, the chief architect of liberal political philosophy, John Stuart Mill, who was also one of the nineteenth century’s greatest feminists, probably would have accepted a ban on principle.

One advantage that Mill’s political philosophy had over its rivals was his keen awareness that a majority in society can exert a tyranny over individuals as formidable as that of any totalitarian state apparatus. Indeed, Mill recognized that the social tyrannies of tradition and custom can be even more constraining for individuals than the obvious kind of power that wears jackboots and quotes laws while trampling dissidents underfoot. For this reason, Mill’s liberalism does not advocate a pure democracy but a constitutional democracy that protects not only communities (which are scarcely homogeneous) but also the individual’s civil rights. Mill’s approach recognizes that communities are made up of individuals and that, when a person’s life goals or roles are constrained by custom, tradition and community values, she is often deprived of self-determination in a way that other, more powerful, members of the community are not.

Mill uniquely recognized that the justification for legal interference with the individual’s liberty should be grounded in human wellbeing, and that autonomy and self-determination were necessary conditions of human flourishing.

Mill’s nineteenth-century England presented a different set of religious issues to those of multicultural Britain today, but Mill considered three cases contemporaneous to his writing that offer a prism through which we can discern how liberalism’s founding father might have responded to the question of a state ban on Muslim veiling.

First, Mill considers whether a ban on eating pork would be acceptable in a Muslim minority country like his own. He concludes that the ban on pork-eating would be unacceptable, since many would want to resist the ban because they do not accept Muslim disgust as legitimate grounds for preventing other people from eating pork.

Next, Mill looked at the Christian Puritans’ ban on various forms of recreation, such as music and dance. Mill remarked that the moral and religious sentiments of Puritans were inadequate grounds to restrict other people’s leisure activities.

Finally, he considered the Mormon minority in the United States, who practiced (male only) polygamy and were persecuted for it. Mill’s response was that interference in the Mormon way of life would be unjustified on the condition that the practice is undertaken with the full consent of all participants. He also stipulated that it should be permitted only if people living in Mormon communities were free to leave.

The Mormon example can be extended to any case in which a host society seeks to change the practices of a minority, when those practices are not enforced on people against their will. If we accept—as most people do—that religious dress codes are sometimes forced on people against their will, then, to that extent, according to Mill’s reasoning, the state would be justified in interfering with the practice, just as it would be in cases in which the practice of male polygamy did not have the full consent of those impacted by it. This conclusion is consistent with the rationale of Mill’s conditional ban on male polygamy, since the only condition that he thought would make state interference in the practice acceptable was if women had not fully consented to the practice and were not fully free to leave the practicing community. If these conditions are met in the case of the veil, for instance, then it is consistent with liberal political philosophy to ban it.

No one should be made, by legal or political force, to conform to ideological values that are not her own. So, while well-meaning British or American citizens may argue that it is not OK to tell people what to wear (or not to wear), the same goes for Salafi-Wahhabists and fundamentalists, as well as for the state and government officials.

A legal restriction on veiling would ensure that we are consistent when we say that nobody should tell women what they can (or cannot) wear and is therefore more principled, since it starts with the existing situation, which is that a subset of women are currently being told what to wear. Many women wear the veil because someone has told them that they cannot wear Western dress, or that not to veil themselves would be in contravention of religious values. If these women dissent, some of them face violence, abuse and homelessness. If we really want women to be free to “wear whatever they want,” then we must (a) argue against religious authoritarians who tell women exactly what they must wear (b) stop allowing the state to prosecute as hate speech every attempt to do so, and (c) possibly erect a legal ban on religious modesty dress, to protect those who are currently coerced to wear it.

Mill’s various responses to the cases above illustrate that mere offence is not a good reason for society to constrain what people do. Liberals have never favored state interference in self-regarding behaviors that others merely find distasteful. Liberals have only accepted state interference when the behavior in question is other-regarding (i.e. when it impacts others in a significant way) and is also harmful.

While it is debatable as to what is or is not harmful, liberals have interpreted harm in a narrow sense, such that merely insulting feelings or offending other people’s tastes or beliefs is not harmful in any significant way, since it does not harm anyone’s permanent interests as a progressive being. On the other hand, denying people access to education or information, limiting their freedom of movement or their liberty to assemble or to pursue their own goals, are acts that do harm other people’s permanent interests as progressive beings.  They limit the individual’s ability to have genuine options and a variety of sources of information. This prevents informed decision-making, constrains education within very narrow limits, and ultimately stunts intellectual and personal growth and development—all of which is seriously harmful.

Offense, far from injuring my development and growth, may actually stimulate my thought, provoke new ideas or challenge me to question my own assumptions or to defend existing ones with better reasons. On the other hand, customs, when they are coerced or enforced through family and community pressure (sometimes violent pressure) do harm people’s permanent interests as progressive and free human agents, capable of exploring their own physical, emotional and intellectual growth.

For this reason, liberalism has been the best form of government for allowing individuals to pursue their own good in their own ways. The state does not presume to enforce any moral or ideological code, but is treated as a neutral referee. The state’s sole purpose is to enforce a set of principled and fair rules so that all ideologies can compete on the same level playing field and follow the same rules of engagement. When governments act in a paternalistic capacity, by granting special protections to a particular subculture in society, they are not protecting individuals within those cultures but lifting the protections that would otherwise grant them the same rights as other (more powerful) individuals within their communities.  Liberalism protects all members of a minority subculture, whereas the kind of faith-based multiculturalism that liberal states have pursued over the past decade allows only dominant community leaders to pursue their own values and goals, while protecting their right to impose those values on everyone else in the community. This is not liberal. It is conservative communitarianism that can quickly give way to religious fascism.

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  1. Good article, I think we need to take the growth of Islam more seriously. As Europe’s Muslim population skyrockets, integration is absolutely necessary to holding their societies together.

    We should also not act as if any Muslim is ever forced to remove their hijab/niqab/burka. There are 50 Muslim countries that all prefer that dress and in some cases mandate it. The world has changed much since Mill: many of these Muslims visit their home country every year. Let’s not pretend that they are like Jews during the 1930s (incidentally this influx of Muslims has lead to Jewish flight from Europe unprecedented since the Holocaust).

    Those who do not wish to integrate are best off going home, and policies that encourage that should be aggressively pursued. This is in the best interests of everyone, from actual refugees, to Jews, to the poor European taxpayers who are paying astronomical sums just to watch their culture be destroyed.

  2. Anonymous has lied. Mill was not a racist, nor a sexist, and did not beat his wife. He is not anachronistic but is more progressive, more consistent and his thinking is likely to liberate more individuals than the rival pseudo-liberal tribalism being peddled today.

    1. Really he wasn’t racist? Have you read on liberty? I do appreciate a genuine criticism of my position but what I said was factually true. We cannot hold up thinkers like Mill on a godlike pedestal. Look up Bernard Williams, a real philosopher if you don’t believe me, and his ideas of government house utilitarianism and how they apply to Mill. Here is a quote from on liberty Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians. Can you really not call this racist? He is saying the liberty of white western people shouldn’t be afforded to non whites, im particular those living in colonial rule. You all honestly need to do some more research before claiming I’m lying look up postmodernism. However, that being said there is still value to be found in Mill’s works and he certainly wasn’t as much of a racist as Kant however all racism Im sure you would agree is abhorent. I would urge you to rethink the way you percieve the great philosophers of the past and take a less dogmatic and more critical/rational view of them. An idea Im sure Mill would subscribe to.

  3. Who cares. Mill was also a racist, sexist bigot who beat his wife. There are fundamental issues in applying anachronistic thinkers(albeit very important thinkers) to our modern problems. We should look to their ideas to find general ideas (in Mill’s case representative democracy) and build on them. To say X thinker would have said Y about this issue is to my mind deeply flawed and uncritical. Mill isn’t the only thinker guilty of having this vast chasm that exists between us today and thinkers a few hundread years ago. For example, Kant arguably the most important philosopher of all time was a devout white supremacist. Therefore, whilst his ideas like the catagorical imperative (a universalist ethic which is completely contradictory to his view of white supremacy, a contradiction which the greatest philosopher of all time never noticed) and autonomy are important we should take them with a grain of salt when applying them to our modern problems.

    1. @Anonymous from Anonymous

      «For example, Kant arguably the most important philosopher of all time was a devout white supremacist» – Looks, like your brain is able to assimilate only the simplest modern intellectual fast food.

      Yours sincerely, White Supremacist

      1. You misunderstood what I was trying to say. Im not calling anyone who subcribes to the philosophical ideas of these great philosophers a racist. I just simply do not think ignoring those racist views of thinkers like Mill are helpful when we are trying to apply them to a modern context. I certainly disagree it is intellectual fast food. On the contrary I would argue it is a much ‘higher’ intellectual activity given it is a meta philosophical position I am arguing from. I would urge you to do some reading up on this it is very interesting and from my view important. A good place to start is Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract. It would also be nice to have a genuine criticism of what I am arguing rather than just name calling.
        Yours sincerely, a human who hopes to better educate a white supremacist like yourself.

          1. Im not saying it does settle the debate about programmatic secularism at all. But it does show limitations to applying very outdated thinkers like Mill to modern issues like the ones discussed in this essay. Should we really concern ourselves with an outdated thinker with modern issues? It seems to me to be very dogmatic and illiberal (in the sense of not being rational) to attempt to apply these thinkers to our modern problems. If you do not believe me on the racism of Mill here is a link A primary source example of Mill’s racism is in On Liberty where he says despotism is a legitimate form of government for barbarians. It seems to me that he is saying the liberty and democracy afforded to whites shouldn’t be afforded to other races. I would also like to clarify that I do hold Mill in high esteem he is my favourite philosopher and extremely forward thinking (on issues like contraception, homosexuality etc…) and a thinker of supreme importance however it is in my opinion a fruitless exercise to say Mill thought X about Y therefore we should do X given his anachronistic views.

          1. Honestly mate if I werent studying for my A levels right now I would. But I urge you to do some research into the issue.

  4. Whether or not most Muslims want to wear modesty dress is questionable, since the Muslims who get interviewed about whether or not they choose to wear a headscarf are always hijabis, not Muslims who don’t appear to be Muslim (but are so). Furthermore, that some people choose to do something is irrelevant to whether they have the right to impose this behavior on others who do not consent to it. The UK bans the naked rambler merely because they feel other people will take offense to seeing him, even though he is not imposing his dress code on anyone. This is illiberal. That some people choose to smoke does not entitle them to subject other people to their smoke. That some people choose to listen to extremely loud music does not give them the right to prevent other people from enjoying peace, etc. We need consistency.

    1. Good point. If public nudity is against the law because it violates sensibilities, the hijab, niqab and burka should be as well. After all, women get raped and lashed in Muslim countries over those, whereas nudity is not enforced through any systemic legal or social mechanism and is thus not intrinsically associated with harm. A consistent standard could see the hijab outlawed and nudity legalised.

  5. A headscarf is one thing. A mask that conceals the face is quite another.

    In many public circumstances it’s not only appropriate to ban a face mask but it would be an unpardonable negligence on the part of government not to.

  6. Very well expressed Dr. Murray. It seems to me that any society is bounded by some criteria as to what constitutes that society. There are centripetal forces and centrifugal forces, and what conservatives understand is that the latter must not become stronger than the former. The hippies, and their grandchildren the Warriors, think that everyone can have everything and that society itself is a bank from which one can withdraw forever. Muslims in any formerly Christian society are a centrifugal force and their burkas very strongly so. As centrifugal forces grow, the desire for centripetal countermeasures will also grow. So rather than seeing the issue in the abstract, I’d look at any given society and ask how much more ‘diversity’ it can take before it dissolves. Thus I understand why, say, France might ban the burka.

    1. But the isn’t anything to do with what constitutes society, but to do with compulsion and to what extent people with particular communities are genuinely making free choices.
      This has nothing to do with ‘diversity’ as Mill would clearly believe an individual was free to do something so long as it didn’t harm others, no matter how it may sit outside the norms of society. He wouldn’t agree with the French ban as it’s predicated on the idea of what it means to be French. He may well have supported the ban on the basis that women within such patriarchal societal structures can’t be said to truly choose and aren’t truly free to leave.
      So you’re free to think that we should look to impose some version of societal norms on minorities, but your argument has zero to do with Mill or indeed what Murray is arguing.

  7. Very interesting piece. However, would you not agree that most Muslims want to wear the burqa or other religious dress of their own choice? Most Muslims grew up in a Muslim family and thus believe in the religion and its traditions (just as most Christians grew up in Christian households and believe in its traditions). Therefore, I would argue, that most Muslim women whom veil do so out of their religious beliefs. And, if more Muslim women wear religious dress of their own choice than are forced to wear it, then by the least harm principle, would not a ban on the veil cause more harm by impeding all those women’s free choice, in favor of a minority?

    Moreover, the ban would come directly from government, which is worse than being forced into wearing the veil due to tradition/social pressures. You say, “The only condition that he thought would make state interference in the practice acceptable was if women had not fully consented to the practice and were not fully free to leave the practicing community.” But, in a country already in accordance with Liberal law, they are free to do these things. Sure, there is social pressure and tradition, but this only exists for a minority of them as I argued, and does not come from the government.

    In short, enforcing laws whereby veiling is not allowed harms more people and comes from a more rigid structure (the government), which is worse than social norms which can be tempered over time.

    1. How do you know they do it out of choice?. Hiba Krisht of Ex Muslims US has made clear that whilst she was in Lebanon and basically compelled to wear the Hijab by being part of that Shia community and by her family, if she’d been asked would have said it was her choice. She had no choice but to claim it was a free choice. You have to ask yourself, what would happen to many of these women if they chose to take it off? We know the answer is potentially abuse, shaming, disowning by communities and family, and in some cases kidnapping and physical violence. No that’s not everyone, but we have no way of knowing for how many it’s not a meaningful choice, and we won’t until the worst sanction these women would face is disappointed and a bit of finger wagging from ultra conservatives. That’s not necessarily an argument for banning, but it is for ditching the ridiculous western leftist position that the Hijab is something beautiful and empowering and even more bizarrely ‘feminist’.

      1. I would say it is at least over 50%, most likely more. People feel a sense of duty when growing up in illiberal households. As Haidt showed, conservative and religious people have a certain reverence for sanctity and authority. If this was not the case, how could religions perpetuate themselves?

        All the consequences for not wearing a burqa that you named, are already illegal under Liberal law.

    2. The family is a more rigid structure, because refusing to wear the hijab means a beating, ostracism, family shame, and becoming unmarriagable, while all the government can do is issue a fine.

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