May 6, 2010
“Tearing Away the Veil” an affirmation of intolerance, not liberty
In his New York Times op-ed yesterday, “Tearing Away the Veil,” French politician Jean-François Copé attempts to make the case for France’s impending legal ban of the wearing of Islamic veils–the burqa or niqab–in public. He convincingly does just the opposite. His argument for the ban is a snide and condescending apology for authoritarianism. He claims to be arguing for a reaffirmation of liberty, but it’s clear that he has no idea what religious liberty is. He claims the practice of wearing a burqa is a “blow against the dignity of women,” but his own arguments are just as contemptuous and intolerant of women and their freedom to make decisions–especially unpopular decisions–to live on their own terms as are the clerics and cultures which enforce the wearing of the burqa.
He, too, fears women who do not behave as he thinks they should.
None of his justifications for his assertions that the ban is necessary for public safety or for the defense of French principles of liberty and fraternity even hold up to logical scrutiny, and are in fact a threat to the freedom of all citizens, not only Muslim women who wear a veil.
First, he claims that the allowance of full-face veils is a serious security problem in a society dependent on security cameras to maintain safety and order. “As a mayor, I cannot guarantee the protection of the residents for whom I am responsible if masked people are allowed to run about,” he says, and cites an example of a man in a ski mask who committed several robberies in a Paris suburb.
Has this man ever experienced winter in Chicago or Minneapolis? I dare him. Masked people running about everywhere! Oh noes! A couple years ago in New York, we had a man in a ninja costume rob seven houses in Staten Island. Ban the ninja costumes! We cannot have ninjas running about!
This reasoning is silly, of course, and factually absurd. Major cities all over the world allow masked people to run about all winter long. The visibility of the face in public is not always a public safety requirement. What’s serious, and disturbing, is that Copé presumes the criminality of his citizenry, and suggests that it’s their responsibility to live so as not to inconvenience the security cameras. Has he even read 1984? His example of not allowing people to walk naked down 5th Avenue not being an encroachment on liberty is the wrong one entirely; the correct one would be, are people allowed to walk down 5th Avenue masked? And of course, they are.
Secondly, his appeal to social norms as mandatory for maintaining a political community and its dedication to equality and fraternity is a threat to anyone who has trouble with conforming to those norms or who chooses any expression of nonconformity. “How can you establish a relationship with a person who, by hiding a smile or a glance — those universal signs of our common humanity — refuses to exist in the eyes of others?” he asks. Really, this is so hard? By talking with them and listening. Treating them kindness and courtesy on the basis of the simple fact of their humanity. God help the blind or autistic, stroke victims, the facially disfigured, or simply shy people–what do you do with them now, Mr. Copé? People establish relationships with others by letter, phone and internet, without ever seeing their faces, on the basis of shared feeling and humanity, every single day.
Copé tries to discredit veil-wearing by citing experts who say it isn’t actually required in the Koran, but this is irrelevant to civil government. In the US, hundreds of different denominations have very different interpretations of what the Bible requires. The government is not in the business of deciding their validity; it protects all religious practice to the extent that it doesn’t do violence to the rights of others. It’s a danger to all religious liberty if we give any credence to the proposition that the government can take any holy book and dictate which is the acceptable interpretation.
Finally, Copé maintains a profound ignorance of how integral and necessary religious belief and practice may be to religious people’s understanding of their own personhood. He doesn’t have to like it, but he doesn’t seem to have any inkling of it. He doesn’t consider that the veil may have meaning to women who wear it which is utterly different from his own presumptions of its meaning, and his presumptions are arrogant and insulting: “The person who wears one is no longer identifiable; she is a shadow among others, lacking individuality, avoiding responsibility.” But it is his prejudice which makes this true in his eyes; he makes no apparent effort to understand what the veil means to women who wear it. It is his prejudice and fear which robs her of individuality and human identity, not the veil.
It is his attitude which excludes veiled women from participation in democratic society. He is attempting to impose a “condition for living together” that will force women to reject either their religious practice, or their participation in society. He is the one trying to forcibly exclude veiled women; the veil itself cannot do that.
If the French are disturbed by the implications of women choosing to wear the burqa, they would do better, and be truer to their purported principles, to redouble efforts to simply show respect and tolerance in normal, daily interactions with both veiled and unveiled women, demonstrating incontrovertibly to Muslim women that with or without a veil, they can expect to be treated with dignity, equality, and civility in France. But Copé’s ignorant and bullying apologetic for the ban demonstrates the opposite: that a woman will not be trusted to live on her own terms in France.
Even the imagery of his article’s title, tearing away the veil, suggests violence, not liberty, not equality, certainly not fraternity. He is saying to Muslim women, you will be exposed to the extent that makes us comfortable, or you will not be allowed to participate in society.