The American comedian and social commentator George Carlin once said that “Religion is like a pair of shoes…..Find one that fits for you, but don’t make me wear your yours.”
This is the popular philosophy among western democracies – the idea that expressions of personal faith cannot and must not ever unreasonably impact upon another person who is not of that religious persuasion.
It’s a philosophy which has worked reasonably well until recently – and now, with the European Court of Human Rights ruling that a ban on the burka should be upheld, it is all unravelling before our eyes.
It is unravelling because whereas the burden of proof used to lie with those who were seeking to deny religious freedoms, (sometimes with good intentions) it is now for faith communities to make the case for their rights to be upheld.
It used to be very straightforward. If an individual (or even a community) argued that in order to live by their religious principles they needed to beat a demon or an evil spirit out of a defenceless child, the authorities would intervene.
If however they needed to offer up a quiet prayer in the privacy of their home or a communal place of worship then they would be treated with respect for doing so. The line was very clear – as long as I don’t have to ‘wear your shoes’ – religious practice gets a pass.
Then it all got a little bit more complicated.
Faith communities were forced to defend fundamental religious practices such as circumcision and religious slaughter. Are animal rights as important as religious rights? What about the possibility (however small) that a child could claim they never wanted to be circumcised as an infant?
For the purposes of these ongoing debates, champions of human rights, normally conclude that in general, these practices should not be challenged.
Yet the bans on the building of minarets in Switzerland in 2009 and on wearing a burka, upheld by the ECHR in the last few days, have crossed a red line.
My personal view is that to suggest that the particular appearance of a place of worship (of which there were only four across the entire country at the time of the Swiss referendum) could somehow negatively impact on a person in any meaningful way is ludicrous in the extreme.
I am also deeply suspicious of claims that a ban on the burka is designed to promote intercommunal relations.
The question is, how badly would your life be affected if you had to walk past a minaret on the way to work every day? How intimidated would you really be if a lady with her face covered walked past you?
Let’s imagine for a moment that you are somewhat intimidated by the fact that you can’t see what is behind that lady’s burka.
Would you be less intimidated by a large man, wearing torn clothing, tattooed from head to toe, who you happen to know always keeps a baseball bat stowed in his motorcycle? Is anyone calling for a ban on tattoos and concealed sports equipment?
Of course many people make a judgement about a woman wearing a burka and that appraisal might not be conducive to social harmony but that is no different to the judgement you make when you walk past a group of thugs on a street corner.
If you’ll forgive me for stating something so obvious – people should be judged on their behaviour not on the sort of clothes they might wear.
Who knows – if you went to have a conversation with that lady who dresses differently to you, you might find them to be quite friendly and open-minded. You might find that they are not looking to force you to do anything that you don’t want to do.
So how did we get to a situation where the Muslim community has to prove that “respect for the conditions of ‘living together’” as the ECHR puts it, has everything to do with the way that people behave and nothing at all do with what they wear?
I don’t know the answer to that question but I do know that faith communities around Europe are feeling more and more disaffected and marginalised, not less.
Those people that think banning the burka somehow strikes a blow against extremism are woefully naïve – if anything they have created a distraction from the attempts to tackle terrorism and radicalisation and they have made the problem worse.
I will be the first to object, the moment any person of any faith tries to impose their way of life on anybody else but the same rule must apply to those people of no faith. I wonder if we can we come to an agreement? I won’t ask anyone to wear my shoes, if they don’t ask me to wear theirs.
Pinchas Goldschmidt is Chief Rabbi of Moscow and president of the Conference of European Rabbis.