The Taliban has issued threats against the Netherlands if its government goes ahead with ‘anti-Islam’ laws and policies including toughening immigration laws and banning the Burka, the veil worn by certain Muslim women (its proper name is the Niqab). “If Holland is stepping up its policies against the people of Muslim origin, it can be sure that they will be subject to attacks by jihadist groups,” said a purported Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahed, in an interview published some days ago by the leftist Dutch newspaper Volkskrant.
The declaration is unacceptable by any standards of diplomatic and political scope. Yet it is useful in that it points to certain issues, revealing some underlying problems which are not as straightforward as we may think.
The Burka ban, already in place in France, while currently being considered by Spain and Belgium, is the latest draconian measure to take effect in Europe. Some call it Islamophobic. Others call it discriminatory. Many oppose it. Many support it. They deem it necessary, overdue. Whatever the stance, one thing is for sure. People have a strong opinion about it. It’s a heated, polarizing issue.
On the surface one may see one of either opinions surfacing. ‘The Burka ban is justified,’ say some (let’s call them John). ‘How can we accept the blatant oppression of women and all practices that promote it?’ says John. ‘We ought to make a stand and declare we shall not allow this kind of mentality to operate in our country.’
Others disagree (let’s call them Doe). ‘The Burka ban is discriminatory,’ says Doe. ‘It arbitrarily targets a culture, using civil rights as pretext to meddle in its affairs, applying double standards to criticize with one hand while condoning related, more nefarious things with the other. Look at yourselves before anything else, and let’s apply our customs, to each own own, as the constitution allows us to.’
Clearly both sides have a point. There’s no clearcut answer to the issue.
The situation gets even trickier when you scratch below the surface. John: ‘Those who think that banning the Burka is unconstitutional or against freedom’s values and civil rights ought to first apply those values on the Burka itself, see that it’s in violation of those premises in the first place, and stop using freedom’s tenets to defend measures which are in direct or indirect opposition to that freedom in the first place.’ Point.
And Doe argues back, ‘Banning the Burka won’t uphold society’s values and principles. On the contrary, it will undermine them. Promoting tolerance through restriction and prohibition has never worked. It sets the wrong foundations and sends out the wrong messages. If you have a problem with the Burka or any other religious custom or practice – of questionable but not criminal nature – then address the problem by promoting cultural tolerance. Rather than prohibit its use, for example, provide incentives for people not to wear the Burka, or make it easier for them to adapt to local culture.’ Point.
And the plot thickens. John: ‘How can we provide incentives when we’re dealing with belief systems that consider themselves above the law, answering only to God and his agents? There’s no room for negotiation whatsoever, no leeway for compromise or adjustment. This ban is the last resort, and we’re here because all other avenues of discussion have been exhausted.’
Doe: ‘Very easy to say that. When one can’t find a solution, or when one is incapable of making headway with a given group, they claim a breakdown of all communication channels and start passing restrictive laws in the name of tolerance and society in general. A very self-defeating measure by all standards.’
John: ‘Maybe, but there’s a point after which you have to draw the line and say enough is enough. Intransigence can’t go on forever. One must respect local rule of law and adapt to certain given parameters. If one can’t do so, or isn’t willing to do so, or able, or just wants to drag on the debate to gain time or waste time or divert attention away from the issue, into theoretical side-arguments, we have to put our foot down and lay down the law. This is our country. Respect it.’
Doe: ‘This is our country, too, and we’re afforded by the premises and laws of this country the right to fight for our customs and uphold our beliefs. It’s too easy to say that something goes against society, brand it unacceptable, intransigent, offensive, rigid, deem it harmful to society, and then forbid it in the name of greater good. This country would not have existed if people had accepted that line of thinking. This country’s sole reason for existing is because people at some point exercised their right to challenge the norms and fight for their beliefs. Kindly show some respect for the legacy of this place and for the multitude of groups that make it up and give it strength.’
John: ‘We do show respect to these groups. But some groups are doing what they’re doing not for the good of the country and the rest of the population, but for their own self-motivated, self-serving reasons. They don’t add to the country’s multicultural strength when what they promote and fight for is based on principles of restriction, censorship, and repression of one’s language and mode of expression, and appearance, and way to live. When fear and prohibition underscore a belief system or a cause, that very cause ought to be challenged, stopped and prevented from operating because, as it stands, it’s oppressive and tyrannical.’
Doe: ‘Don’t confuse fear and prohibition with respect and restraint. Some things are sacred, and we observe them with reverence. It’s not just our right, but also our privilege. Societal order hinges on certain modes of discipline, whereby one can’t do whatever one wants wherever he wants. There are boundaries to keep and rules to follow. Dressing up in cultural attire is one such way of showing our respect to forces we deem superior and divine, by which we abide. Uniform has never been unconstitutional, nor can it ever be so.’
John: ‘Uniform is one thing – decrees by which to control populations is another. Wearing the proper attire for given situations is not the same as forcing a person to be clad from head to toe when in public. The reason for that kind of dress has less to do with reverence for the divine and more to do with maintaining women in second-class citizenry. It’s a way of keeping a stranglehold on the female population.’
Doe: ‘No, it’s not. It’s a way of maintaining order within the ranks of society and keeping a lid on the vices that, once let loose, work on our foundations, eroding them, bringing society to a level of wanton debauchery. By restricting ourselves over these issues we’re a little less free to do as we please, granted, but we maintain the discipline so very necessary to sustaining our society.’
John: ‘It’s too easy to say that something serves society and maintains order. This is exactly what monarchs and clergymen used to say in the Middle Ages to maintain their stranglehold on people. Where does order stop and suppression begin?’
Good. It’s healthy.
Then someone flicks the other in the eye, or rubs them the wrong way. And tempers rise. They flare. The debate deteriorates. It degenerates into a fight. It sounds something like this:
‘The Koran should be burned. It’s chock-full of hatred-inciting passages. Muslims are idiots. Kick them out, the lot of them.’ Thus spake Geert de Wilders, in so many words.
‘The West is the Devil. Strike this Devil down. Burn their cities and strike terror in their hearts. Show them the wrath of God.’ Thus spake the Taliban, in so many words.
Which roughly describes the current situation.
One can ask the question, who started it? Who flicked the other in the eye first? It’s their fault, surely! Let them apologize for it, and retract. It will alleviate the tension.
Some say it was the de Wilders side. Others say it was the Sharia crowd. You can’t really tell. Who cares anyway? We’re not ten years old, are we? Let us address the essence, not the smoke and mirrors.
The Burka: it’s a religious attire representative of medieval mentalities. Ultra strict. Tied in with other female-repressing practices. Culturally sanctioned but at direct odds with modern society’s premises in public spaces. Practically not sound. Conceals all features. The mask can be unnerving to public not akin to it. It resembles the balaclavas worn by thugs and thieves. Provides fertile ground to possible agitators or criminals, under which to exercise their clandestine operations, undercover.
The Burka ban: it’s a legal measure representative of oppressive regimes. Ultra strict. Tied in with other minority-repressing practices. Legally sanctioned but at direct odds with society’s premises of freedom and tolerance. Practically not sound. Gives out the wrong message. Resembles fascist regulation. Its enforcement is unnerving to the public and a foot in the door to other arbitrary measures in the name of security and order. Resembles the decrees issued by Germany and Italy in the 1930’s. Provides fertile ground to possible agitators and tyrants, through which to exercise their clandestine operations, under the pretext of law.
Where does that leave us? Dangling in the middle of two positions that have equally valid points! Which is not very settling. The debate is good, but at some point a conclusion must be reached and a verdict given so that society may move on; it’s imperative that the argument is settled ends, for debate accrues value through completion. Only then do results surface.
The Burka revisited: not advisable to wear in western societies because it unnerves local sentiments. Those who emigrate to the West ought to bear this in mind and naturalize themselves to the local environment. Their basic rights will be upheld, but some customs must be adapted to local culture.
The Burka, as attire, also poses a practical difficulty. Concealing identity is not acceptable for safety reasons. There are rules and regulations in effect to ensure transparency of identity when in public. Motorcycle helmets are not allowed in certain places, such as shopping malls, airports, cinemas, banks. Neither are balaclavas. Burkas aren’t an exception. The fact that they constitute religious attire does not and should not exempt them. The separation of church and state has been developed and upheld precisely for such reasons, to ensure that no religious irrationality can pass onto society on the pretext of holy decree (we have a long way to go, and it involves all religions). Common sense must prevail over divine rule.
The Burka ban revisited: not advisable to enforce to draconian extents. The Burka prohibition must be extended only to the reach of laws that prohibit hiding one’s identity in public and sensitive places, such as those mentioned above i.e. in matters of real security. It should not be extended beyond that, and should not forbid people from wearing it in their own environment. It should be complemented with an incentivizing approach, with regulations and incentives that counteract the polarizing effect of the ban i.e. with measures that draw people out into local society, giving them reason to drop the Burka for locally compatible attire, thereby promoting naturalization of immigrants and integration of culture.
Perhaps this will silence both the de Wilders bigots and the Sharia fanatics. Society needs to settle the argument and move on.