The Ban the Burqa lobby has been battered into abeyance in recent times. The attempt by the Speaker of Parliament Bronwyn Bishop to make Muslim visitors to the House wearing the burqa (full facial covering) or the niqab (just eyes exposed) sit in a glassed off area in the public gallery was ill-considered and divisive. It failed and it cost Bishop a plum retirement job and whatever credibility she had left.
In the wake of this, security chiefs, the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police and the Prime Minister have all rushed to reject the notion that facial coverings represent a security risk in Australia.
I should make the rider here that I default to the principle that people should be able to wear whatever they choose in a democracy. The quaint idea that styles of dress can “outrage public decency” depends on whether one accepts that such decency still exists, or has any useful value.
Like most moralising twaddle, this is an attempt to impose one’s views on the wider society. It begins with shrill condemnation and inevitably progresses to some form of legal coercion. The campaigns are often nothing more than an attempt by the high-minded to manifest “hostility to lifestyles they personally dislike,” according to AC Grayling in The Meaning of Things. Many of the opponents of the burqa fall into this category.
On that simplistic level, I reject much of the anti-burqa argument. However, when you talk to police practical considerations arise.
A former very senior policeman argues that the security risks of the burqa (and all facial coverings) are being underestimated. I should hasten to add that he is not a racist or anti-Muslim, far from it, but he prefers to remain anonymous.
He says garments that cover the face are able to defeat facial recognition technology (FRT) which is being used to combat terrorists and criminals.
The biometrically based FRT camera takes measurements between facial features and makes comparisons against previously taken photographs.
Such tools have been employed widely overseas with great success by law enforcement but so far are only in limited use in Australia.
There is talk of the creation of a national database of faces so it’s on its way here. Our Customs and Border Protection Service is set to introduce an FRT system for passport checks.
Few would argue against the need for biometric identification systems to thwart the use of false passports by terrorists such as Khaled Sharrouf.
Sharrouf left Australia on his brother’s passport to join Islamic State’s blood orgy in Syria and Iraq. He made headlines when pictures of his seven-year son were published holding the severed head of a Syrian soldier.
Who would argue that new measures at airports would make Australia a safer place by preventing the free movement of degenerates like Sharrouf?
Obviously, a person wearing a burqa or the niqab will simply have to show their face at immigration points to officers and there would be little conflict.
But with Australia’s terrorism alert recently raised, the security arsenal will be greatly enhanced. We have been warned by authorities to expect greater intrusion and control. It’s likely that FRT cameras will be used to conduct security sweeps on crowds in public venues. A whole new set of problems then arise, my retired cop says.
Imagine if Samantha Louise Lewthwaite, the world’s most wanted female terrorist, were to be in the crowd at a sporting venue in Australia, he says.
Lewthwaite, who was raised as a Christian but converted to Islam at the age of 17, is rumoured to have been behind last the September 2013 Westgate shopping mall massacre in Nairobi. She is said to employ disguises to conceal her identity, according to media reports.
If she was in a crowd wearing either a burqa or a niqab, FRT would not identify her. What’s to stop a male terrorist also disguising his identity and gender by wearing such garb, the cop argues.
It’s not surprising that police are unabashed fans of FRT.
A system used by Victoria Police has achieved a flawless track record in the identification of suspects, SC Magazine reports.
The home-grown iFace biometric system was so accurate that it reportedly outed an identical twin who tried to evade prosecution by using his brother’s name.
iFace was introduced in 2010 across hundreds of police stations to help identify persons of interest with criminal histories.
Yet iFace is useless if the face is covered. Of course, this applies to anyone wearing full face covering, including a motor cycle helmet, balaclava or joke mask – anything that effectively hides their primary facial features and their placement.
There are limits to personal freedom already. Walk into a bank wearing any of these items and see what happens. There is a public interest in forbidding or discouraging the wearing of what in effect can be a ‘disguise’ in the dictionary meaning of the word, my cop argues. To FRT cameras, any facial covering is in effect a disguise, he says.
For those who must cover themselves for religious or cultural reasons, the hijab (head scarf) with long robes would be acceptable from both perspectives, the retired cop argues.
Whether we like it or not, we are now in a “heightened security environment,” we are told. How much freedom we have to give up to maintain our security is the burning question. As soon as Australia joined the fight against Islamic State, we effectively declared war on a section of our own community. It’s inevitable that there will be the home grown terror attacks that we have thus far been spared. In that scenario, political correctness will not save us. If we accept that FRT is a legitimate tool in the fight against terror, this will become the next field in the battle for and against the burqa.