A recent European Court of Justice ruling makes it potentially lawful for an employer to ban the wearing of all religious symbols in the workplace. Not for the first time, however, the court’s judgment has sharply divided opinion, both in this country and abroad. On the one hand, the notion of “banning” the wearing of religious garments or symbols is a very troubling thought in a Western liberal democracy. But, on the other hand, people do wonder whether it might be reasonable for a company to want to project a “neutral” or corporate image.
Perhaps enabling companies to make this choice themselves, as long as it is applied equally and fairly, is in the best interests of business in general.
Part of me actually has some sympathy for the latter view. Employers have rights, too. There is an argument that the ruling puts a brake on people abusing a “religious exemption clause” to wear whatever they like to work. And I can also fully appreciate the fact that a full, or even partial, face veil worn by an employee in a customer-facing role can make it difficult for her to perform her job properly.
However, I think that the aftermath of last month’s horrific terrorist attack in Westminster puts this issue in a different light. Tragic events of this magnitude always lead to some public soul-searching. Could the attack have been thwarted? Is there anything that can prevent the radicalisation of people like Khalid Masood? But also prevalent is a profound fear that, ultimately, it may be impossible to stop another lone, crazed individual from rampaging through the streets of Berlin, Nice, Jerusalem or London with a car.
And it is this sense of mass fear that unfortunately contributes to the aims of the fanatics themselves. These people know that they cannot “win” in a conventional, military sense. But they also know that they can play on the sense of fear in society and exploit it, until people let their own irrationalism and terror do the extremists’ work for them.
To my mind, the very notion that it should be considered “reasonable” for companies to want to project a corporate, religion-neutral image through banning all forms of religious symbols or dress, panders to this growing sense of fear in society. A fear, not just of an attack, but of religion itself. As if faith is the root of all evil — and, critically, as if all people of faith are somehow out to convince others to convert to their way of life.
Some argue that the right to ban religious symbols should be compared to the understandable right of a company to ban the wearing of political symbols at work. But this is a false comparison. People wear political symbols to effect change in society. By contrast, the vast majority of religious people do not wear religious symbols or clothing to make a statement. They wear them because they are a critical part of their identity, as natural as wearing a pair of glasses or a coat.
That is why I believe that the European Court of Justice’s ruling is fundamentally, and even dangerously, wrong. It stems from a basic misunderstanding of what religious belief actually is. And to allow such misunderstandings to grow, as the ECJ’s ruling does, is to perpetuate that sense of fear in society, rather than encourage a sense of respect for the values of faith.
Not only is this a step in the wrong direction, but it plays directly into the hands of extremists like the monster who carried out the Westminster attack. Because the most lethal weapon the terrorists have is the creation of a society based upon fear. People living in a state of constant terror, not just of those who seek to harm them, but of anyone different to them at all.
Jewish tradition teaches us to open the door to Elijah during the Seder. We know that in generations past, Jews had real reason for fear at that moment on Pesach. The spectre of the blood libel cast its long shadow over the Jewish communities of medieval Europe for hundreds of years. Yet still they opened the door. Because fear is never the answer. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now.
And unlike the fear of difference that lies behind the European Court’s ruling, being confident of our own identity as Jews, unafraid to wear a kippah or Magen David in the street or at work, should always be something we feel proud to do.
Rabbi Birnbaum is Rabbi of the Hadley Wood Jewish Community