Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed escaped from a mosque in Acton by dressing up in a burkha and running away. He is subject to a Terrorism Investigation and Prevention Measure (TPIM). This means that he was tagged and his movements were limited by a government order. He is a British subject and no details were given of any successful prosecutions that may have been brought against him. He has been put on a TPIM to prevent him from travelling to support terrorism overseas. The arguments over the limits that may be put on individuals suspected of sympathising with the enemy have occurred over the centuries. Habeas corpus was suspended during the Napoleonic wars and defence regulation 18b was applied during the Second World War. TPIMs were used to replace the more onerous control orders of the last government. There is a risk that such measures are counterproductive as with internment in Northern Ireland and that they undermine rights which date back to Magna Carta. However, in exceptional circumstances they may be justified and there is some reassurance in the knowledge that under a dozen people are subject to TPIMs.
It may be that this limited applicability has meant the burka rather than TPIMs are the focus of interest. As Mr Mohamed could escape dressed in what Kenneth Clark called “a bag”, is it right that people are allowed to wear them? In questioning the Home Secretary, both Sir Gerald Howarth and Philip Hollobone called for them to be banned, but Theresa May demurred. The argument for a ban, put succinctly by Mr Hollobone, is that “the burka is medieval, sexist and oppressive and… represents a complete disguise for Muslim terrorist suspect.” The Home Secretary opposed prohibition, saying: “It is for an individual woman to decide how they choose to dress. They should be free to make that choice for themselves.”
This encapsulates one of the greatest dilemmas for those who believe in liberty. It is easy to defend the right of people to do things that fit in with the cultural norms of the majority. This includes practices that give personal pleasure but may be harmful, such as smoking or drinking. It is harder to argue for minority activities, especially those which stand out and may be obviously unsuitable in certain contexts. No one proposes that people can go through passport control wearing the burka while many who would not ban it outright feel that it is unsuitable for a witness or defendant in court.
Interestingly, laws on forms of dress have been a commonplace of Parliamentary debate since at least 1313 when an Act was passed banning the wearing of armour in the presence of the King. Sumptuary laws were also a staple of Tudor legislation because of the cost of imported materials and the status that certain cloth gave to people. Clothing is a clear statement of belonging to a particular community and it is, therefore, not surprising that societies wish to regulate the standard. This underpins the suspicion of the burka and encourages the desire to ban it. This is why in a YouGov poll for The Sun in September 61 per cent called for a ban.
Electorally the number of women who want to wear a burka is insignificant yet it is important to defend such a minority against the tyranny of the majority. The state ought not to intervene to prevent individuals from doing things that not only are no risk to others but are of no risk to themselves either. It may seem peculiar to modern society that anyone would choose to wear a burka but that does not mean it is not a free choice. The argument that one terrorist has escaped wearing it so it should be banned is spurious; another person subject to a TPIM absconded in a taxi and there is no suggestion of outlawing London cabs. It is often easier in the name of security to nibble away at liberty and this nation is considerably more regulated than it was 100 years ago. There is a nobility in a Home Secretary who is willing to resist this, especially for an unpopular cause.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a British Conservative Party politician.