Monday, December 15, 2003

Scarves and Other Dangerous Objects

It looks like the nation of liberte´ and egalite´, but certainly not of fraternite´, is about to outlaw the headscarves worn by Muslim schoolgirls, they being regarded by officials as symbols of Islamic fundamentalism. French feminists have advocated the ban, claiming that girls are being coerced to cover their heads. As elsewhere, there are objections when girls come to school overdressed, but never when, as happens far more frequently, they come to school underdressed.

If headscarves go, so will skullcaps on Jewish boys, they too being alleged symbols of religious coercion in the eyes of the ever-vigilant defenders of church-state separation, a breed that for far too long has distorted intellectual discourse with its rabid hostility to religion. Danger lurks everywhere, even on the heads of little schoolgirls and little schoolboys.

Islamic fundamentalism is the most significant political development in the contemporary period and it is a clear and present danger to world peace. The Middle East is but one stage, for much of Asia is already convulsed by an ideology that is antithetical to democracy and tolerant of terrorism. Shock waves are being felt in the Former Soviet Union and to a lesser, but escalating, degree throughout much of Europe. It’s frightening to contemplate the course being taken by tens of millions of people whose moderates are extremists by any ordinary calculus. The history and ideology of Islam are blood-stained.

But the issue posed by headscarves is not terrorism or even coercion. It is the ability of those who claim to speak in the name of civil rights to be tolerant of those who are different. Scarves are inanimate; at the most, they are symptomatic of a problem and their removal will not remove the problem. If they do not impede the education of students, they ought not be proscribed.

As for coercion, all of fashion partakes to one extent or another of compulsion. Headscarves are no more the product of coercion than are the sartorial atrocities promoted by Rap culture and embraced by Black and other youth who have been conditioned to believe that clothing which makes them look ridiculous is proper attire. What about the elements of style aimed at young girls, even preteens, which makes them feel that they must dress in a sexually provocative way?

The gendarmes presumably have in mind direct coercion, such as threats and physical acts against girls who are not head-scarved. These incidents must not be ignored, but governmental action should be directed against those who coerce and not against those who voluntarily wear scarves.

A ban on headscarves will not counteract that which is hateful in the Islamic mindset. Admittedly, there may be no effective way to root out the seeds of hatred and the encouragement of violence. But the likely result of the proposed ban is the giving of aid and comfort to Islamic extremists by reinforcing the notion that Muslims are outsiders in a world that is hostile to them. Even assuming that the ban can be enforced – a dubious prospect – it will breed resentment and rather than curtailing fundamentalism, it will feed the trend.

Any society that claims to be tolerant should accept the right of Muslim students to wear head coverings. They aren’t political or ideological statements and essentially they are not religious garb. They are worn out of a sense of modesty which most of us do not accept. Is respect for this attitude incompatible with the ideal of freedom?

It apparently is for those who dislike any manifestation of religion. I believe that French officials are prepared to act because they find the idea of girls wearing headscarves repugnant and antithetical to their notion of modernity. The fact that some girls may be coerced, wrongful as it certainly is, serves as a convenient justification for limiting the civil rights of Muslims.

In general, there is an animus toward religion, including its most neutral forms, in Western societies. This is evident, as well, in the constitutional battle over the Pledge of Allegiance. The goal is the eradication in public places and life of any religious sentiment, even the most indirect and moderate. The doctrine of church-state separation is employed as a club to limit the freedom of religious persons. Headscarves become dangerous objects and, somehow, the word “God” is a violation of the Constitution.

Fanaticism is the enemy of reason and liberty. It is the enemy of reason because neither experience nor logic can dislodge what fanatics have come to believe. It is the enemy of liberty because fanatics are determined to impose their views. The fanaticism of those who detest every religious expression is today far less dangerous than Islamic fanaticism, but it is no less an enemy of reason and liberty.