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.