Dominic AsquithHMA, Cairo
I have found the many comments on the niqab very rewarding - including from those who thought that, as a Catholic and a British Ambassador (it was not quite clear to me which was worse in their eyes!), I was unqualified to voice an opinion.
I was not seeking to compare religions. Even less was I attempting to comment on the dogma or core beliefs of religious faiths. Even as a Catholic I would not consider myself qualified to comment on Catholic doctrine. I would never dream of doing so on Islam.
However, I do think it is legitimate to ask questions about the practices which people adopt when they worship. Do they define their religion itself or are they signals that merely identify people as followers of a certain religion? Because the two are different. Most religions have distinguishing marks. One can recognise an orthodox Jew from the way he dresses. One should be free to exhibit those symbols and for some believers it is important to do so. But other believers might choose in certain circumstances not to adopt practices or symbols traditionally associated with their religion. If they choose not to do so, I can't believe that makes them less devout or less religious persons.
We cannot presume to know the mind of God and whether God attaches importance to the symbols we have adopted. But I think it is reasonable to ask whether adopting symbols and practices increases one's understanding of God. I accept that it may make one feel more devout, but that is different. It goes to the heart of what is ritual in religion and what is dogma, between the external and the internal. That becomes an important question if ritual assumes greater importance or attention than dogma.
But there is another theme that emerges from the comments on my blog which I think is also important. It is about excluding people from voicing opinions. Exclusion is a deep fear that everyone knows from childhood. To be excluded from a group can be one of the cruellest forms of punishment. We have all been guilty of it or have suffered from it at some time in our lives. To exclude people shows lack of imagination. More seriously, it shows lack of humanity.
It remains for me one of the deepest puzzles of history that those who believe in God who oversees and cares for all humanity should seek to exclude - whether from debate or any other human activity - a fellow human being. Exclusion is an indication of intolerance. And intolerance invariably results in injustice. I remain passionately attached to the notion of tolerance and deeply fearful of any exhibition of intolerance.
I'm not surprised by the emotional response of some bloggers to what I wrote. It was emotionally understandable for some to dismiss my remarks as cultural imperialism from the days of the old British High Commissioner. However, such an approach does not help develop a rational debate or one which is open to the opinions of others. Emotion can stand in the way of really understanding one surroundings and can make one deaf to listening what others are trying to say.