Belgium and France signalled in the press this week (22 Apr 2010) that they would ban the Islamic veil known as the Burka (total body coverage with mesh ‘window’ for seeing), and also the Niqab (open slit for seeing). Before legislation is even passed in either country, arguments and insults are flying back and forth. In France, the State Council warns that such bans may violate the French constitution as well as the European Convention on Human Rights [RFI 30 Mar 2010].
I find the appeal to ‘religious rights and freedoms’ here very interesting, not to say disingenuous. Moral ‘rights’ based on religion have been invoked in countless abhorrent events in human history, from the Crusades (a mostly wrong-headed series of adventuring under Christian flags featuring long periods of boredom punctuated by short episodes of massacre and mayhem) [Amin Maalouf’s ‘The Crusades through Arab Eyes‘ is a wonderful read by the way] to the hideous practices related to ‘honour’ maimings and killings common (but not limited to) in the Islamic world. In the modern world, religion is never far from bombs and violence – Northern Ireland, Palestine, Nigeria and Iraq being just a few examples. These extreme situations are all easy enough for peace-loving individuals and governments alike to condemn.
But something strange seems to happen when religious demands that are not overtly violent surface. For example, when far right Christians demand control over the right for women to make their own choices with respect to abortion, or Muslims in Switzerland demand the right to build a minarets [BBC, 28 May 2007]. The first is justified by appeal to the 10 commandments, with abortion being classified as an act of murder; the second by the ‘necessity’ of minarets to the proper observance of Islam. The religious argument in such cases nearly always treats matters of faith as completely disconnected from the world of human affairs – the argument is in terms of isolated absolutes, rather than connected realities. This can’t possibly be right: pregnancy and abortion are matters of health and human emotion in the real world. Minarets are a style of architecture that is clearly out of place in the typical Swiss townscape (and note: city and town councils in most of Europe already have numerous rules about building style, effectively preventing houses painted red, made of glass or other eyesores). The question of abortion and religion remains unsolved particularly in the US where it routinely leads to violence on the streets and evasion and uneasiness by humanist-leaning politicians caught out by the press at election campaign time. For now the minarets are banned by popular vote, but it seems clear that with 350,000 Muslims in Switzerland, the question has not gone away.
The question of the Burka is the same: its supporters argue from a purely faith-based point of view, disconnected with reality of western society. What is the reality here? For one thing, anonymity isn’t compatible with normal human social relations. The ability of two people to converse, whether in a courtroom, a bar or a romantic tryst, relies on being able to see each other’s face (and consider the ways in which both the sighted and blind compensate for lack of such visibility). In the west, intentional anonymity is usually associated with criminal activity – that’s why bank robbers wear masks and why banks these days have a sign on the outer door demanding the removal of motor-cycle helmets before entry. Logically they should demand the removal of Burkas too. But they can’t, because it infringes on ‘human rights’. Western society sees facial anonymity as so inimical to normal social affairs that it has a special titillation that flouts the rule: the masked ball.
How did we lose our ability to reason clearly about these things? How did we get to a place where governments and legal bodies spout politically correct nonsense that asks all other cultural values, whether it be the beauty of Swiss villages or the occidental assumption of personal identifiability, be trampled by absolutist values (claiming to be) from faith systems? If minarets are allowed in Switzerland, will loudspeakers and Qawwali singers be next? Don’t get me wrong – this is a beautiful musical tradition of Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere – but it is part of those cultures, not western culture. An amplified 5-times-a-day call to prayer is not part of western culture. What of the tranquillity and peace valued by the Swiss or other western communities? Do they count for nothing? Getting back to the veil, how should we deal with girls wearing Burkas in a classroom? Neither the teacher nor schoolmates can have normal communication. This can only be disruptive to the normal social affairs of the school.
Without resorting to arguments about the oppression of Islamic women by the Burka, we should at least spare a thought for the value systems embedded in western culture as well. Some are worth defending in my view. But this argument is universal: I don’t expect to be able to go to Saudi Arabia and walk around in short pants and no shirt (I can’t even get close to that in St Peter’s basilica in Rome). I certainly would not try to invoke some Christian religious right to dress in ways offensive to the local populace of such countries. So in fact, we should remember that all cultural systems have some right to be respected (while of course continuing to make progress and removing less desirable features).
The real truth is that religious practice is intimately and inextricably bound in with what we call culture, and arguments for certain religious practices to be given priority over everything else, as if it just didn’t exist, don’t hold water – in the Islamic, western or any other world. We must have freedom to think what we like in our heads; as soon as it translates to demands on the real environment outside our bodies, including on other people, then we need a system of rights and privileges that balances all such demands, regardless of the underlying belief system. The irony I suspect is that some of the best models for co-existence come from bazaars and marketplaces of the ancient world.