Veiled Threat

Yet another excellent item from today’s above-average miscellany at NRO: a balanced and thoughtful essay on the banning of the burqa, by independent journalist Claire Berlinsky.

Ms. Berlinsky begins by acknowledging the many good arguments against such a ban — in particular the compelling point (previously emphasized here at waka waka waka by commenters Peter Kranzler and David Duff) that free societies should not tell people what to wear (bold-face emphasis mine throughout):

Let’s be perfectly frank. These bans are outrages against religious freedom and freedom of expression. They stigmatize Muslims. No modern state should be in the business of dictating what women should wear. The security arguments are spurious; there are a million ways to hide a bomb, and one hardly need wear a burqa to do so. It is not necessarily the case that the burqa is imposed upon women against their will; when it is the case, there are already laws on the books against physical coercion.

The argument that the garment is not a religious obligation under Islam is well-founded but irrelevant; millions of Muslims the world around believe that it is, and the state is not qualified to be in the business of Koranic exegesis. The choice to cover one’s face is for many women a genuine expression of the most private kind of religious sentiment. To prevent them from doing so is discriminatory, persecutory, and incompatible with the Enlightenment traditions of the West. It is, moreover, cruel to demand of a woman that she reveal parts of her body that her sense of modesty compels her to cover; to such a woman, the demand is as tyrannical, humiliating, and arbitrary as the passage of a law dictating that women bare their breasts.

It is hard to rebut these arguments; they articulate some of the most cherished principles of modern Western culture. If they cannot be rebutted, then those who support the ban must argue along the lines that these principles are not absolute; that there are circumstances under which a society is justified in limiting or superseding them. And this is what Ms. Berlinsky does.

All true. And yet the burqa must be banned. All forms of veiling must be, if not banned, strongly discouraged and stigmatized. The arguments against a ban are coherent and principled. They are also shallow and insufficient. They fail to take something crucial into account, and that thing is this: If Europe does not stand up now against veiling — and the conception of women and their place in society that it represents — within a generation there will be many cities in Europe where no unveiled woman will walk comfortably or safely.

With this, the debate is limned and focused with clarifying precision. Ms. Berlinsky argues that as Islam takes hold in a previously open society the freedom of women — all women — is gradually diminshed:

Recently, on a New York Times blog, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum not only argued against the ban, but proposed that those who wear the burqa be protected from “subtle forms of discrimination.” It was a perfect example of a philosopher at the peak of her powers operating in a cultural and historical vacuum. “My judgment about Turkey in the past,” Nussbaum writes, was

that the ban on veiling was justified, in those days, by a compelling state interest — derived from the belief that women were at risk of physical violence if they went unveiled, unless the government intervened to make the veil illegal for all. Today in Europe the situation is utterly different, and no physical violence will greet the woman who wears even scanty clothing.

Nussbaum is absolutely wrong. There are already many neighborhoods in Europe where scantily dressed women are not safe. In the benighted Islamic suburbs of Paris, as Samira Bellil writes in her autobiography Dans l’enfer des tournantes (“In Gang-Rape Hell”),

there are only two kinds of girls. Good girls stay home, clean the house, take care of their brothers and sisters, and only go out to go to school. . . . Those who . . . dare to wear make-up, to go out, to smoke, quickly earn the reputation as “easy” or as “little whores.

Parents in these neighborhoods ask gynecologists to testify to their daughters’ virginity. Polygamy and forced marriages are commonplace. Many girls are banned from leaving the house at all. According to French-government statistics, rapes in the housing projects have risen between 15 and 20 percent every year since 1999. In these neighborhoods, women have indeed begun veiling only to escape harassment and violence. In the suburb of La Courneuve, 77 percent of veiled women report that they wear the veil to avoid the wrath of Islamic morality patrols. We are talking about France, not Iran.

The association of Islam and crime against women is seen throughout Europe: “The police in the Norwegian capital Oslo revealed that 2009 set yet another record: compared to 2008, there were twice as many cases of assault rapes,” the conservative Brussels Journal noted earlier this year. “In each and every case, not only in 2008 and 2009 but also in 2007, the offender was a non-Western immigrant.” These statistics are rarely discussed; they are too evocative of ancient racist tropes for anyone’s comfort. But they are facts.

The debate in Europe now concerns primarily the burqa, not less restrictive forms of veiling, such as the headscarf. The sheer outrageousness of the burqa makes it an easy target, as does the political viability of justifying such a ban on security grounds, particularly in the era of suicide bombings, even if such a justification does not entirely stand up to scrutiny. But the burqa is simply the extreme point on the continuum of veiling, and all forced veiling is not only an abomination, but contagious: Unless it is stopped, the natural tendency of this practice is to spread, for veiling is a political symbol as well as a religious one, and that symbol is of a dynamic, totalitarian ideology that has set its sights on Europe and will not be content until every woman on the planet is humbled, submissive, silent, and enslaved.

Further on, Ms. Berlinsky continues:

Like all freedoms, religious freedom is not absolute. It is said in the United States that the Constitution is not a suicide pact, and this principle is applicable to any open society. It is one thing to say I should be perfectly free to worship Baal, another to say I must be free to sacrifice children to him. Donning a burqa is not an outrage on the order of killing a child, but it is surely an outrage on just that order to permit a culture that views women as slaves to displace one that does not. We are all by now familiar with the demographic predictions: Europe’s Muslim population is growing; many cities will soon have Muslim majorities. If the conception of Islam that the veil represents is allowed to prevail in Europe, these cities will no longer be free.

It is difficult to form a position on this issue that reconciles all of the West’s legal precedents and moral intuitions. It is probably best that the burqa be banned immediately on “security” grounds, even if we all know deep down that the case is spurious; for such a ban to make perfect sense, it would have to extend to all loose clothing, suitcases, capacious handbags, beer bellies, and shoes. Yet in some cases, hypocrisy is the least awful of options; bans thus justified may be the best way of expressing a society’s entirely legitimate revulsion without setting a dangerous precedent of legislating against a targeted religious group.

Headscarves cannot at this point be banned. It is politically impossible, and it is also too late: The practice is too widespread. But the decision to wear them should be viewed much as the decision to wear Klan robes or Nazi regalia would be in the United States. Yes, you are free to do so, but no, you cannot wear that and expect to be hired by the government to teach schoolchildren, and no, we are not going to pretend collectively that this choice is devoid of a deeply sinister political and cultural meaning. Such a stance would serve the cause of liberty more than it would harm it: While it is true that some women adopt the veil voluntarily, it is also true that most veiling is forced. It is nearly impossible for the state to ascertain who is veiled by choice and who has been coerced. A woman who has been forced to veil is hardly likely to volunteer this information to authorities. Our responsibility to protect these women from coercion is greater than our responsibility to protect the freedom of those who choose to veil. Why?

Why indeed? This is the very crux of the issue, and Ms. Berlinsky nails it:

Because this is our culture, and in our culture, we do not veil. We do not veil because we do not believe that God demands this of women or even desires it; nor do we believe that unveiled women are whores, nor do we believe they deserve social censure, harassment, or rape. Our culture’s position on these questions is morally superior. We have every right, indeed an obligation, to ensure that our more enlightened conception of women and their proper role in society prevails in any cultural conflict, particularly one on Western soil.

Exactly right.

The essay concludes:

When government ministers such as the British environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, legitimize the veil by babbling about the freedom and empowerment the garment affords, they reveal a colossally dangerous collapse in Europe’s cultural confidence. Instead, campaigns designed to discourage veiling should be launched. If the state is entitled to warn, say, of the unhealthful effects of cigarette smoking, it is surely also entitled to make the case against the conception of women that veiling represents.

Banning the burqa is without doubt a terrible assault on the ideal of religious liberty. It is the sign of a desperate society. No one wishes for things to have come so far that it is necessary.

But they have, and it is.

Does Ms. Berlinsky make her case? Read this outstanding article — which I am sure will be widely quoted as this struggle intensifies — here.

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12 Comments

  1. Dom says

    “Does Ms. Berlinsky make her case?”

    Yes, and I’d like to add another point about Ms. Nussbaum. She clearly wants the Burqa to be legal only as long as the Burqa does not have the effect that it is meant to have.

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 9:17 am | Permalink
  2. bob koepp says

    Sorry to be repititious, but isn’t the reasonable, liberty-loving response to enforce laws against treating women as chattel? Then, those whose personal sense of modesty inclines them to cover up will be free to do so.

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 10:00 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Second post; not quite so repititious…

    Malcolm sees this as the crux of the issue:
    “Our responsibility to protect these women from coercion is greater than our responsibility to protect the freedom of those who choose to veil.”

    Allow me to paraphrase. Our responsibility to protect these women from coercion requires that we coerce them.

    Also, Malcolm thinks Berlinsky “nail it” with:
    “Because this is our culture, and in our culture, we do not veil.”

    … except by choice, for weddings, and costume parties, or just to be different. So, to be more accurate, we should say, “In our culture we do not require veiling.”

    As a rebellious teenager, faced with a school dress code requiring me to wear a belt, I “complied” by wearing a belt around my thigh.

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Allow me to paraphrase. Our responsibility to protect these women from coercion requires that we coerce them.

    Prohibition is not the same thing as coercion.

    So, to be more accurate, we should say, “In our culture we do not require veiling.”

    No, more like “we do not permit this particular symbol of this particular repressive ideology to be displayed in public. If you want to veil your women, do it elsewhere.”

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 11:05 am | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    If you employ the coercive power of the state to enforce your prohibitions, there’s coercion.

    Ahh, it’s about symbols. Then it’s about expression. So, we need to restrict freedom of expression, because… And please, don’t tell me that wearing a veil is “on a par” with shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater.

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    This is exactly the sort of objection that Ms. Berlinsky began her essay by acknowledging, in the first quoted passage. What you are saying, then, is that you do not think that Western communities have a sufficient interest in opposing the spread of fundamentalist Islam to push back against it in this way. Ms. Berlinsky’s point is that the issue here indeed does rise to the level of shouting “fire”, because the expansion of this ideology in Western societies represents a genuine, and clamant, existential threat. It appears she hasn’t convinced you.

    Leading a woman naked down the street on a dog’s leash with a leather phallus strapped into her mouth would arguably be “expression” also, of course.

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink
  7. bob koepp says

    Oh yes, I think Western communities must oppose the spread of fundamentalist Islam. But “pushing back” in this way is just getting tangled up in symbols while concrete realities disintegrate around us. It’s rather like pissing into the wind. On the other hand, if we were to push back by enforcing laws against sex discrimination … well, I repeat myself, yet again.

    As for your provocative illustration (you do have a “colorful” imagination), if the woman in question was doing this of her own “free will” and the context was right (say, an S&M pride march) I’d say, “Yes, let freedom ring.”

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    I suppose I do have a colorful imagination. Comes in handy.

    As Ms. Berlinsky observes in her piece:

    While it is true that some women adopt the veil voluntarily, it is also true that most veiling is forced. It is nearly impossible for the state to ascertain who is veiled by choice and who has been coerced. A woman who has been forced to veil is hardly likely to volunteer this information to authorities. Our responsibility to protect these women from coercion is greater than our responsibility to protect the freedom of those who choose to veil.

    I agree with her here. A woman who has been “housebroken” into submission may say she wears the hijab voluntarily; what the truth of the matter is we cannot tell.

    When Winston Smith said he loved Big Brother, did he say so “of his own free will”?

    I’m glad you agree that we must oppose the spread of “fundamentalist” Islam. (I would do a lot more than just ban the hijab — and in my opinion the only way to push back against “fundamentalist” Islam is to push back against the expansion of Islam itself, because Islam never contracts, except by force of arms — but this is all we can manage for now, it seems.) The point here is that it is in our interest to make it clear that the hijab is simply not welcome in our society.

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Permalink
  9. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    Maybe it is true that most veiling is forced. But maybe it’s not true. I don’t know.

    I appreciate that the psycho-dynamics of oppression make it very difficult to know who does what of “their own free will”, but that doesn’t justify assuming the worst. If you automatically discount the claims of veiled women to speak for themselves, just how different are you from the brutes you claim to oppose?

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    If you automatically discount the claims of veiled women to speak for themselves, just how different are you from the brutes you claim to oppose?

    I don’t think letting the brutes brainwash and subjugate their women in public view exactly gives you the moral high ground either here, Bob.

    So this means you disagree with:

    Our responsibility to protect these women from coercion is greater than our responsibility to protect the freedom of those who choose to veil.

    I think this is the right view, though I agree with you (and, for that matter, Ms. Berlinski) that it is distasteful, and at odds with our ideals. As she wrote:

    Banning the burqa is without doubt a terrible assault on the ideal of religious liberty. It is the sign of a desperate society. No one wishes for things to have come so far that it is necessary.

    But they have, and it is.

    At least by banning the hijab we are working toward our other goal of making the West less fertile soil for Islam to take root.

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 4:02 pm | Permalink
  11. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I don’t claim any moral high ground, and I’m sorry if my use of the second person pronoun caused offense. Please substitute ‘we’ throughout the offending sentence (i.e., “If we automatically discount …”).

    Still, since I’ve noted several times that I favor enforcement of existing laws, I don’t believe that we should let the brutes brainwash and subjugate their women in public view — nor in private. Our first priority should be to confront concrete evil, not the things that we interpret as symbols of that evil.

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    No offense taken.

    I’ve noted several times that I favor enforcement of existing laws…

    As far as I know, Islamic brainwashing and subjugation of women is not in any way illegal. After all, it’s a cultural thing, and everyone knows that all cultures deserve equal respect and protection (except, of course, white European culture — whose displacement is to be encouraged, and demise hastened, at every opportunity). Don’t you know anything about Tolerance and Diversity?

    The burqa is concrete enough, and evil enough. We can start with that; we certainly won’t be banning Islam itself anytime soon.

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink