An Argument for a Burqa Ban
The Islamic practice of women’s veiling, extending to the absurd and offensive burqa, presents difficult questions for the West. Who are we, we wonder, to trample other cultures voluntarily perpetuated? Worse yet is the question of whether a society can stop intolerance once it has granted itself permission to discriminate against that which it finds offensive.
Yet, journalist Claire Berlinski argues that veiling itself tends to be a metastasizing intolerance:
… 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. …
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.
To be sure, the United States is nowhere near such a point, but even here, the intellectual dynamic exposed by the questions has relevance. Neither the Constitution nor the principle of tolerance should be a suicide pact, and sometimes it may be the case that one side in a cultural battle will inevitably prevail and wipe out the very rules of competition that enables such thorough pluralism. There may be no rational reason for veiling to win over liberty, from an enlightened standpoint, but it is utterly predictable of human beings to behave irrationally and to rationalize.
Berlinski hits the core of the matter when she asserts that there is no such “thing as a neighborhood where the veil is the cultural norm and yet no judgment is passed upon women who do not wear it.” In agreement with her subsequent assertion that “our culture’s position on these questions is morally superior,” one is inclined to suggest that we let those neighborhoods pass judgment, and dismiss them when they do so. Provided no violence transpires and the law does not ultimately flip from allowing the practice to imposing it, we can expect no legal shield against interpersonal judgment. And if the particular neighborhood in which the shifting attitudes is a concern, then we must individually fight the cultural fight.
The concern, ultimately, is that the West lacks the confidence to pass its own judgment when the rule isn’t written into the law. There’s a tendency — emanating from our “nation of laws” mentality — to feel as if anything not codified into law is too ambiguous to form so strong a personal or group opinion about that we impose compliance as a condition of our personal good will. The foundation of that self-doubting ideology is clear: it gains the upper hand in the intrawestern culture war if the law demarks legitimate judgment and values are banned from the “whereas” clauses of legislation.
The fatal flaw, however — the dangerous risk — is that the shallowness of a libertine society won’t form the basis of adequate cultural confidence to defend against foreign principles that don’t begin with the assumption of tolerance.