Archbishop warns of ‘dangers’ of banning veils
A society that does not allow visible signs of religion such as veils and crosses is a “politically dangerous” one, the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned.
Rowan Williams said the government currently only “brokers, mediates and attempts to coordinate the moral resources” of different communities in society – and that should not change.
Removing all outward signs of faith would signal a move to making the state the only source of morality, he said, which would undermine the vital work religious groups do to keep society going.
“The ideal of a society where no visible public signs of religion would be seen – no crosses around necks, no sidelocks, turbans or veils – is a politically dangerous one,” he wrote in The Times.
“It assumes that what comes first in society is the central political ‘licensing authority’, which has all the resources it needs to create a workable public morality.”
The archbishop’s comments come amid a renewed debate about the role of religion in society, focusing particularly on the Muslim veil and the question of faith schools.
Last night education secretary Alan Johnson announced he would not be going ahead with plans to force new faith schools to take a quota of pupils from outside their religion.
The plans were introduced only last week amid concerns that some schools were socially inclusive, but he withdrew them following lobbying by religious groups concerned at the negative message it sent out.
Muslim schools were most likely to be affected by the change, as they form the majority of faith schools being opened. It also fed into the debate about the veil worn by Muslim women – Tony Blair had said it was a “mark of separation” between communities.
He justified his comments as part of a wider discussion about community cohesion, prompted by the home-grown suicide bombers who attacked London last summer.
But today Mr Williams said such concerns, and objections to people who chose to wear a cross around their neck, were misguided.
The archbishop has recently returned from a trip to China, a secular state, and he noted that even there the government was increasingly allowing people to practice their own religions in order to fill the “vacuum where cohesive social morality ought to be”.
“Here in the UK, the daily reality of faith in ordinary communities is bound up with the maintenance of civil society, with enabling citizens to ask constructively critical questions of the state and to cooperate with statutory bodies to meet urgent needs,” he said.
“We could do with some common sense and realism about this. It would be something of a paradox if we had to look to the emerging China to find it.”