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Facing the clash of civilizations August 23, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Freedom, Politics, Religion.
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Many people misuse the term “freedom of religion.” Here is Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic, writing about the recent French bill forbidding the covering of one’s face in public:

And now, to fight Islamism in France, the power of the state, the frightened state, is being used to forbid the free practice of religion. It is of course shocking to encounter a person in a burqa, as it is to encounter a person tattooed from head to toe: It is a mutilation of personhood. But by what right does the state intervene? If some Muslim women are forced into their hideous sartorial prison, the state will not relieve them, and the Muslim men who are solicitous of their humanity, of the need to dissent and to rebel — of the rupture of modernization, which can only occur within, as it did in Christianity and Judaism; and if many Muslim women cover themselves consensually, the state should leave them be. Intolerance is a poor security policy.

Got that? It’s Westerners who are being intolerant by trying to protect women from oppression! Does Wieseltier really not see the difference between a person who freely chooses to tattoo his body, and a woman who will very likely be confined to her home, beaten, or worse, if she chooses not to walk around in a cloth bag? We should not be expected to tolerate intolerance.

But let’s consider for a moment the issue of religious freedom. Muslims cite religious reasons for wearing the burqa, but does that automatically place it beyond the state’s authority? Clearly, freedom of religion doesn’t mean we must allow any behavior that is religiously motivated (human sacrifice, anyone?). Likewise, religious people cannot demand to be exempt from laws that everyone else is bound by merely because of their religion — that would be discriminating against the nonreligious. Freedom of religion means that no one will be treated differently by the law because of their religious beliefs. For instance, if we specifically outlawed Muslim veils while allowing other kinds of face coverings, that would be a violation of religious freedom. But if we decide that there are good reasons for outlawing or mandating certain behavior in our society generally, the fact that it conflicts with someone’s religious beliefs is irrelevant. We do not allow Muslims to genitally mutilate their girls, nor do we allow Christian Scientists to withhold medication from their children.

A good case can be made in favor of requiring people to show their faces when interacting with others in public. We naturally assume that someone covering their face has something to hide, since we cannot see their expression or even identify whom we are dealing with. It seems plausible that covered faces foster distrust and dishonesty, and are an impediment to a harmonious society based on trust and accountability. It appears especially reasonable to forbid people from covering their faces in areas where security is an issue, like banks and airports. Now, it can be debated whether these concerns justify an outright ban on covering one’s face in all public spaces — but religious objections (“That’s what we believe, full stop”) do not deserve any special weight in the discussion.

It’s true that the French bill is intended as a specific response to the spread of the Muslim burqa, but it may be an appropriate response. It’s a sad but inescapable fact that the oppression of women remains endemic in many Muslim societies today. Forcing women to cover themselves is part of a general obsession with controlling female sexuality, the same mentality that leads to genital mutilation, child brides, and honor killings. Before we assume that all those Muslim women must be smothering themselves by choice, maybe we should listen to someone who actually knows what it’s like to live as a woman in an Islamic society:

The Muslim veil, the different sorts of masks and beaks and burkas, are all gradations of mental slavery. You must ask permission to leave the house, and when you do go out you must always hide yourself behind thick drapery. Ashamed of your body, suppressing your desires — what small space in your life can you call your own?

The veil deliberately marks women as private and restricted property, nonpersons. The veil sets women apart from men and apart from the world; it restrains them, confines them, grooms them for docility. A mind can be cramped just as a body may be, and a Muslim veil blinkers both your vision and your destiny. It is the mark of a kind of apartheid, not the domination of a race but of a sex.

That is from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s latest book, Nomad, subtitled From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. It is not a coincidence that so many people from Islamic countries seek to immigrate to the West and not vice versa; there is a reason why Western states are usually rich and safe and functional while so many Muslim theocracies are poor and dangerous and corrupt. It’s a result of different values. On the one hand, we have societies ruled by a tribal mentality, where norms are derived from immutable scripture rather than science and reason, where independent thought and expression are repressed, where women are treated as property, where family honor is paramount and violence is considered a legitimate means of defending it. On the other hand, we have the values of the Enlightenment: free inquiry, universal education, individual freedom, the outlawing of private violence.

Muslim immigrants in the West must understand that by changing their nationality, by accepting the hospitality and protection of their new homes, they will have to leave behind their anachronistic values and ways of life. This can be very difficult, and the rest of us should do all we can to help ease the transition to modernity (Hirsi Ali offers several practical suggestions). We must not leave minorities to their ghettos and hope they will eventually integrate on their own, while we continuously proclaim how much we respect their culture, bend over backwards not to offend or criticize their beliefs, and insist on never imposing our values or way of life on them. Promoting “multiculturalism” in this context is as perverse as it is condescending — Hirsi Ali puts it this way:

In the real world, equal respect for all cultures doesn’t translate into a rich mosaic of colorful and proud peoples interacting peacefully while maintaining a delightful diversity of food and craftwork. It translates into closed pockets of oppression, ignorance, and abuse.

Much of this applies to Israeli Haredim as well. Many of them are happy to receive the benefits of living in a liberal democracy (health care, welfare, etc.), but without contributing their fair share to the system and without a commitment to the values that make it all work. If the Haredim suddenly found themselves alone in a state of their own, they wouldn’t last a week — no matter how hard they prayed for their God to sustain them. We should do everything we can (within the law) to encourage them to adopt democratic values and integrate into free society, and to discourage practices which hinder that goal (like denying children a modern scientific education).

We are indeed facing a clash of civilizations. We must vigorously advocate and defend our own values, the values of the Enlightenment, or we may find ourselves heading toward another Dark Age.

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