False neutrality

A picture of two beige skyscrapers with tall rectangular windows at random intervals. A series of different European flags can be found to the left in front of a two-storey red-brick building.
European Court of Justice headquarters, Luxembourg

Last week the European Court of Justice ruled that employers have the right not to allow employees to wear ‘religious’ clothing (in this case, as is usual, the hijab or headscarf worn by Muslim women) if it is “justified by the employer’s need to present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social disputes” if the employer has a “genuine need” to do so. The judgement is littered with language which talks of large and conspicuous ‘signs’ of a particular religion which could “cause conflict” and peddles the standard argument that the rule “appears to have been applied in a general and undifferentiated way” because another employee was required to remove a cross; in other words, if a rule applies to everyone, even though in practice it only affects some, it is not discrimination. It also claims that such ‘needs’ may include the “rights and legitimate wishes of customers” and of “parents’ wish to have their children supervised by persons who do not manifest their religion or belief when they are in contact with the children”. (More: Juveriah Alam @ CAGE).

An obvious flaw in this judgement is how fixated on the white view of hijab it is. Muslims are treated as newcomers, not as a large community which has been present in almost any European country for several generations. The doctrine that hijab represents a sign of a particular religion is repeated, although Muslims repeatedly tell them that it is an obligation and not some sort of identity badge. (It only serves as one today because head coverings have been abandoned by most other religious communities; in the past, it would not have distinguished a Muslim woman as being a Muslim, only as a respectable woman.) Islam does not really use symbols at all; there is no pictorial symbol of Islam, despite the ubiquity of the crescent and star on Muslim countries’ flags and so on; the original flag of Islam, now appropriated by Saudi Arabia, used the written Arabic shahada (this also appears on the flag of Somaliland).

In accepting the rights of customers not to be served by someone wearing an item of clothing associated with a particular religion, they are simply endorsing the right of a bigot to have their bigotry catered to. The correct solution to this is for all businesses not to discriminate, such that someone can either lump it or leave it; discrimination is what is costly, rather than refusal, and all businesses are required by law not to. As for the ‘rights’ of the parents: while we accept that teachers or carers should not use their position to actually preach, parents have no right for their child not to see anyone who follows a different religion to them which requires certain standards of dress. They cannot bring up their child with the illusion that the whole world is like their family; this is to bring them up in ignorance in a country with several million of a different religion. The logical conclusion of this ‘right’ is that the same parents have the right for their child not to be taught or looked after by Black or disabled teachers or care workers. (In the UK, certain people, including some newspaper columnists, complained when an amputee presenter appeared on the BBC children’s TV channel; the BBC kept her and the complaints died down. This is how you deal with bigotry; you do not appease it, you face it down.)

It also reveals the common white bias that allows the absence of hijab to be presented as ‘neutrality’. This does not consider the perspective of either the Muslim staff who are discriminated against or those in wider society who do not see people like them in key public facing roles or in education or the media. If a large section of the population are conspicuous by their absence, this is not neutrality but a policy of discrimination in favour of the majority, of the ‘norms’ of three generations ago when the country is presumed to have been monocultural and white, by underhand means. It also means that these people cannot have the confidence that they will be treated fairly or with respect by those serving them or those who have power over them, because those serving them will not have colleagues who are like them (there might be workers in lowly occupations such as cleaners who wear hijab, as is known to be the case in France, but this only reinforces the notion that they are inferior).

In a successful multicultural society, it is recognised that “just treating everyone the same” is not a recipe for equality; in fact, it’s a sure sign that someone does not understand the principles of equality. In much of Europe, a continent which has never really been able to accept different cultures (hence the recurrent persecutions and occasional genocides), this is a tactic used to implement discrimination while sidestepping laws that were designed to prevent it. Europe’s judges have not only failed to protect women from obvious discrimination based on their religion and sex (as Muslim men are not affected by this issue at all, as Arab and Turkish men in Europe tend to wear western clothing and if they do not, their clothing is regarded as cultural rather than religious), but are failing to stop Europe slipping back into its old ways of intolerance and ghettoisation.

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