Faith, Is it divisive or does it help integration in our society?


I only really concerned myself with this vexing question as a result of a recent debate on the TV which was held in East London, where the audience comprised solely of women, the majority of them wearing the Niqab face covering. One of the questions which I asked myself even though I wasn’t in the audience and present at the studio was:- ” Why is it that I felt uncomfortable when confronted by so many people wearing the niqab, as in this audience and yet when I work in the Middle East and other Islamic countries, which I often do, I never feel uncomfortable?” From this question I began to question my primary position which is always that as far as I am concerned people can wear whatever they like and I also respect and accept their fundamental human right to do so. This is an inalienable right of all people in a free society and one which is governed by the democratic process and the National, European and International law.

So far so good. So why my differing feelings in two very different environments?


Culture is a word bandied about to describe many different things and it became clear to me that I also used it in that way without any really deep understanding of the importance it holds for people and how difficult it is for them to describe their feelings about it. This then caused me to question further my cultural feelings and compare them to those of others in our society.This is in fact the way individuals see the world and all that they hold dear and also judge to be contrary to the way they see others.It is held deep within us all as people to judge others on their dress, religion, ethics, education, socio-economic position in society, colour of their skin, age and all the other factors which go together to make us individual human beings. No one factor is indivisible from the rest when making these judgements about others and our subsequent actions towards them based on these judgements that we make.

It matters not that the Quoran makes no mention of this form of dress but only states that all people, men and women, should dress modestly in keeping with the philosophy of most of the other major religions. It has always interested me as to why this form of dress only applies to women given the advice given in the Quoran and how would we feel if men also dressed in this way. I believe that deep in the British cultural psyche we tend to associate facial coverings historically with banditry and criminal actions and maybe that also gets in the way of rational discussion of this subject.  Culturally the niqab form of dress has become accepted for many reasons, which may allude to the dominance of men in some societies and has been misinterpreted from the writings of men across all the Abrahamic religions, that certain forms of dress are more acceptable than others.Dress codes can be used to conform, to be different, to exercise power  or as an expression of self. Why should it matter what an individual chooses to wear?

However it clearly does, as seen by the widely differing views expressed by both sides in the debate. Differing views held strongly by both Muslims and people of other faiths both for and against the wearing of this form of dress. One country which answered this question most clearly was an Islamic state which separated the state from the national religion. Ataturk the reforming leader of Turkey, took the momentous decision to secularise Turkey because he saw the future of his country lay with both the East and the West and Turkish progress should not be complicated or hindered by the individuals right of religious practice. He also ensured the recognition and equality of all other faiths. Perhaps he was the man of not just his times but also of today and had great vision and courage and from whom we all have a lot to learn.There is no doubt in my mind that British culture is predicated on the fact that human discourse can only be successfully enjoined if people can see facial expressions. Not just this alone, but in all my learning, training and coaching with people across all walks of life, communication is not just what is said, but also the entirety of non-verbal communication which statistically comprises up to 70% of successful human intercourse.


And so why my differing feelings in different cultures about the same thing?

In discussing this issue with people who I both trust and whose opinions matter to me, there seemed to be some anecdotal consensus that like me they felt uncomfortable but were not able to articulate fully what the uncomfortableness was, without appearing to be racist.Interestingly this was across the cultural divides which are now prevalent in British society. In that statement lies the nub of the argument. I suspect that British society is now so multicultural and that multiculturalness is legislated for so specifically in order that individuals do not suffer as a result of their difference, that the discussion is polarised immediately by either side, as happened once again in the TV debate. Resulting in a lack of genuine exchange of views to bring about some understanding.

So let me pose two rhetorical questions for your consideration. “Would it be acceptable for a British parliament to have an MP dressed in a niqab?”. More importantly “What is the likelihood of a person wearing a niqab being elected to parliament or even becoming Prime Minister?”

I believe this is an acid test and rationalises British culture into a catalyst. Because if the answer is No, several issues come to the fore. Does that mean the niqab is an obstacle to progress and advancement for women who choose to wear it? Does the niqab emphasise difference and the isolation for the people who choose to wear it? I believe it may do on both counts and it is not enough to say that that is just a reflection of a racist society as some may do, but to try to resolve how a persons free choice to wear whatever they wish can result in a lack of equality and opportunity.

Private v Public

I have worked for several years with a Dr Olu Ogunsakin, a most learned man who has addressed himself to these prickly issues of managing difference over many years with both courage and common sense. He uses a model of integration, which I now use in all my work in the Managing Difference arena that talks about the role of society in the individuals’ private domain and the role of the individual in the public domain. I find his model most useful to explain integration as opposed to assimilation. He prescribes that the role of government is to protect the individuals right to express themselves in language, customs, dress, religion or no faith in their private domain but also to open the doors of equality and opportunity into public life of the Law, Medicine, Politics, Education and all the other public institutions to all citizens of our country. I would add a responsibility on the part of individuals to respect the public culture whilst working in the public domain. The French felt it necessary to legislate in respect of this form of dress in order to resolve the question for them. I believe that they have used a blunt instrument which does not uphold the rule of law, specifically the Human Rights Act which is a benchmark of the reasonableness of any democratic society. The resulting French legislation also chooses one form of faith over another by linking state to religion as we do, which is inherently flawed in my opinion.


Leadership, as stated before in previous blogs is about vision, courage, authenticity and consistency and so perhaps now is the time in our land of many faiths ( 33 million Christians, 3 million Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and others and perhaps most importantly 14.5 million non- believers in any faith at the last census)  for our leaders to take the initiative and sever the link between faith and state. Is it really necessary that the Queen maintains her combined role as Head of State with Head of Church? Is it really necessary that we place the clergy in the House of Lords? Do you believe that Prince George’s christening should be a public or private affair and an individuals choice of faith or not, is a private matter? The problem we face, as did the French is that any legislation in this matter will be used by many sides to emphasise the primacy or not of their particular faith. Sever that link and and we sever the contradiction which causes such hatred and ill feeling. No one faith is better than another, no one person is better than another and no one culture is better than another.

I believe that a secular state is more likely to be able to tread the difficult path of creating opportunity and equality for all its citizens and help all to feel included. So, to conclude, all people should feel comfortable to dress how they choose until working in or entering a public domain where the cultural norm is to enter into discourse with others without hiding from others any of the means of communication which this culture holds to be dear.I am not advocating how secularism should be implemented, merely providing a start point for others in positions of influence to change things.It may however mean a statement about dress in the public institutions such as, Schools, Universities, Courts, Public Service offices, Hospitals and all places where the public are served or treated as customers.


I recognise this subject is both controversial and emotive however, I am firmly in the integrationist camp and believe that :

1. A secular state would meet the needs and expectations of all our people.

2. Reduce the angst for those living and working in the public domain whilst safeguarding freedom of expression in the private domain

3.  Speed up integration in society.

4. Provide equality and recognition to all faiths and the expression of faith.


Leave a Reply