Culture Clash The Political Animal

Unveiling a Full Ban on Full Veils

The New York Times reports on French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to introduce

a bill in May to ban the wearing of the full veil in public places in France


from streets, markets and shops, according to his spokesman, Luc Chatel.

Sarkozy intends the bill, a follow up to the 2004 ban on conspicuous signs of religious affiliation in public schools, to supersede

An earlier proposal from a panel of the National Assembly [that] suggested a bill banning the full veil in public places belonging to the state, like schools and public buildings, and in areas where facial recognition is vital for security reasons: airports, banks and even public transport.

As I have suggested, here, here and here, I think the National Assembly has offered a reasoned, sensible approach. Sarkozy overreaches, beyond what can be justified in a liberal society, and the error could have long-term negative consequences. Sarkozy has already been warned by France’s Council of State, the chief administrative authority in France, that such a total ban would have no legal basis.

The Times also reports that Belgium too is planning to vote on a bill that mandates a fine and brief jail term for anyone wearing the full veil without police permission.

The danger is this. Many European nations are facing the threat of a significant and growing immigrant population not only resistant to assimilation, but hostile to the values of the cultures they have entered. On one hand are politically correct, even sometimes themselves illiberal social elements ideologically committed to denying the nature of the problem. On the other are predictable xenophobic and racialist forces driven to excessive reaction. The best and surest way to meet the challenge is by upholding liberal values, clearly understood, that in themselves properly contain the illiberal values and practices of unsympathetic immigrant Muslim populations. The National Assembly’s proposal does this. If Sarkozy’s overreach is struck down by French courts, the product of his effort, rather than a discrete effective measure in a broader, successful policy, may be the impression of France’s own illiberalism and an intellectually floundering response.

In opposing illiberalism, liberalism needs to perceive clearly what it, itself, is.


Culture Clash The Political Animal

Public Space and Personal Prerogative

One of my pleasures in reading Norm Geras, over at Normblog across the pond, is that I very close to always agree with him, a pleasure in self-confirmation I do not pursue with excessive regularity. However, I stumbled upon a point of disagreement, and Norm has responded to my partial dissent from his views on the wearing of the niqab. Norm considers any public bar to the wearing of the niqab, whatever his own opinion on the garment may be, to constitute an illiberal act. I qualifiedly agree, while allowing that the French approach, applied to all conspicuous religious displays in school, is a reasonable alternative. Norm’s point of disagreement with me, now, is something a bit different, though. I stated at one point,

Whatever religious, philosophical, or psychic justification the wearer of the niqab may offer for the dress, another individual, even a teacher, is within her own human integrity to find the obscured human face, the withholding of what others openly present – an affront. Legal restriction, it may be, should not be founded on an affront, but neither should an individual be compelled to accept it.

Norm responds

The apparent symmetry of the ‘not… neither’ statement here might suggest that a reasonable balance is being struck: on the one hand, no legal compulsion merely to protect people from affront; on the other hand, no compulsion to accept the affront either. In a liberal society, however, there is nothing at all reasonable about this balance. If individuals have extensive rights and freedoms … then, in one critical sense, all of us are indeed obliged to accept things which affront us, provided these do not also harm anyone, violate their rights or liberties. Of course, we don’t have to like what affronts us, and if we dislike something enough we don’t have to tolerate it in spaces over which we have exclusive rights. You don’t want someone wearing the niqab in your house or your car? You don’t want a crucifix or a yarmulke or a shirt bearing the logo of French Connection UK worn there? Then you aren’t obliged to accept any of them. But in spaces over which you don’t have rights of control you can’t forbid them. And there’s a second sense in which you needn’t accept what affronts you. You don’t have to pretend to be happy about it. You’re free to tell the bearer of the affront what you think of it, and of her for putting the affront your way. But, once again, you do have to accept that she may go on putting it your way in shared spaces, and in that sense you are compelled to accept it – or should be in a liberal society.

The context of Jay’s argument concerns what teachers accept from their students. Naturally, teachers are free, even in a liberal society, to restrict usages and behaviours that obstruct or disrupt the educational process. But a teacher’s being merely affronted, if he can show no more legitimate complaint than this, is not to the point.

First, in the nature of “public space,” I think we need to make some distinctions. What Norm seems mostly to have in mind is the notion of the public commons – the streets and parks and public buildings, even the public avenues of communication, to which we all have unqualified access, and I agree that there we must all accept whatever might affront us, in regard to each of our individual rights of being and expression. Even in this context, though, I would note an exception. Within that public space, while we have entered it, we each of us have a temporary and shifting perimeter of personal space. The extent of this space, we know, varies among cultures, but we all know when it has been violated by an unwelcome someone who has come too close. In the U.S., one current, popular advisory in response to this breach of the perimeter is “Get out of my face.” If we imagine that an individual, again unwelcome, stood too close, and that I turned in order to rid myself of the violation, and that whenever I turned, the offending party turned to be in my face yet again – well, in that case I would have cause to be aggrieved. Someone is pressing on me a contact – if speaking to me, a communication – that I do not wish to accept. I would have cause, I think, to call on the local constabulary to bring an end to what amounted to harassment. Even in the public commons, there is space that temporarily is each of ours individually, within which we have the prerogative to reject unwelcome forms of communication and contact.

Norm writes, “You don’t want someone wearing the niqab in your house or your car? You don’t want a crucifix or a yarmulke or a shirt bearing the logo of French Connection UK worn there? Then you aren’t obliged to accept any of them. But in spaces over which you don’t have rights of control you can’t forbid them.” But I did not speak of forbidding anything. I wrote of a personal prerogative to reject a particular form of unwelcome communication, in a particular kind of public space, and I spoke of not merely the presence of some unwelcome, typical religious or other symbol, but of a form of direct contact that violates, I think, what is for most people the first principle of trustful and welcome communication: the handshake, the hand held open and up, the ability to look into each other’s face and read as best we can the nature of the person before us. You show me yours; I’ll show you mine. The niqab is a violation of this first principle.

I included in my post a comical photo of a cat claiming to hide while its entire body is obscured, but its face revealed. The comedy, of course, is that if the face is visible, one is not hidden. If it is not visible, one is profoundly hidden, even if located in space.

In reaching my conclusion that the wearing of the niqab should not be banned in general, I purposely removed the religious component from my consideration, and considered only the matter of a person’s right, indeed, to hide, to cover oneself and be obscured from the full view of others. But now let’s consider that right within the confines of that very particular kind of public space I spoke of in my post – a school classroom.

I wrote of various kinds of behavior that teachers are empowered to prohibit in the classroom. Some of these – telephone or music headsets, for instance – are barred not because they interfere with any other student and disrupt the classroom (they don’t, and this is the argument the student always makes in defense), but because they remove the student from the communication of the teacher, and to accept such barriers is to acknowledge the acceptability, however much students may remove themselves mentally, of students carving out a space in the classroom where they may be removed physically from communication with the teacher. Should we imagine, then, that it is acceptable for students to attend class wearing paper bags over their heads, or  masks, or huge blankets or sheets that cover their heads and bodies? What instructor would accept this? What institution?

Why would institutions and teachers not accept this attire? Not because of disruption to the class, which, if there were any to begin, could be overcome. It would not be accepted because of the withdrawal and secrecy involved, the hiding from view of the activity and even of the identity beneath, all of which is an affront to that fundamental venture toward trust in human communication. To whom is the teacher even speaking? Who is attending the class beneath the cover each day? What is going on under cover that might permit the student to absent herself even as there is a pretense of presence?

In a classroom, every student is sitting, in whatever configuration, in a direct relation to the instructor, and is in direct communication with the instructor, just as is that person standing directly before one in the public commons. The affront of masking oneself is not any affront, like the expression of a disfavored idea, of which we must all be tolerant as a support for our own freedom of expression. (And even so, there are classroom limits: if I am teaching Flannery O’Connor, there may be discussion of notions of the grotesque and of Catholic theology, but I will not be accepting commentary on healthcare reform or sanctions against Iran.) The affront of masking is one of offense against openness in communication itself. A classroom should require minimum, mutual conditions for communication, and any individual should have the right to reject communication that is not offered in that spirit of mutuality.

Finally, then, if all this is true of masking in general, independent of the claims of religious practice, why then should any religious claim be granted the right of imposition on existing cultural norms – when without the religious claim no such right would be acknowledged – and on the integral right of any individual to assent to the nature of the communication in which he or she engages? If the state is secular and not theocratic, it should not bow to such impositions, and to define the liberal state as one that must bow to the impositions of all religions would direly weaken secular liberalism. An argument can be made from all of this that any form of masking be prohibited in the classroom. Certainly, each person has the right to reject it for him or herself.


Culture Clash

Veils of Ignorance

Over at Normblog today, Norm considers the situation of a Quebec Muslim woman ordered to unveil or leave French course, as the Globe and Mail headlined it. Norm thinks the order of the Quebec (? – this was unclear from the G&M story) Immigration Department an instance of “rank, crass illiberalism.” Norm has written about this issue before and has been consistent in his view. I have written about it, too. I agree with Norm only in part because I believe the context of any reaction to the niqab, or burqa, is crucial. Links beneath the G&M story lead to other recent stories.

If the issue is banning the burqa, in general, I am opposed – in the United States, where I live. In the U.S., such a ban would contradict a long, well established tradition of tolerance for religious expression in the public place, as well as much legal precedent clarifying constitutional protections. As I argued earlier, however, there isn’t necessarily only one correct approach to these conflicts of expression and values, and I think the current French approach – a prohibition in public schools against all conspicuous religious symbols – to be a legitimate alternative. In certain contexts, secular, civil society is right to empower itself against the demands that varied religious persuasions try to make of it.

What points to a more nuanced consideration of the issue, in this instance, is the fact that the teacher and other students in the Quebec case had come to appreciate and like the young woman, who was a good student. They were willing to accommodate her. In fact, when I began to read Norm’s post, I incorrectly anticipated that the controversy was going to have arisen from a position of opposition to the woman’s niqab that the teacher took. That turned out not to be so. However, I, like Norm, am a teacher, and the last time I wrote on the subject, I made, among other distinctions, that based upon standards people are entitled to require for other people’s intercourse with them. I looked at the matter, in fact, from both perspectives.

I find the burqa objectionable in every way I consider it. On the most general level, I think it an obnoxious public imposition on the sensibilities and the environment of others, not less, visually, than is, aurally, the power car of your choice offering its musical library to the non-assenting world around it. That the wearer simultaneously withdraws, declines to present her identity, though in public, to the others that present themselves to her, leaves her no more elevated in my regard than the, no doubt, shaded musicologist invisible behind the tinted windows. Much more significantly, I object to the burqa’s literal effacement of female personality and its overall representation of female servility and oppression. I could go on, but I think that should be sufficient for now.

I added

I lived most of my life in New York City. I am so accustomed to being accosted by beggars for change and seers in their own minds, proffered flyers for pizza and puntang patronage, and retailed stories of lost-Greyhound-ticket woe, that I am ready to opine… on human interactions that begin in the absence of mutual openness and trust. Anyone wishing to communicate with me wearing a mask and a cape, or any simulacrum thereof, might, on my sunnier days, get the day, but surely not the time.

I then considered the matter from an opposing, non-religious, moodier perspective, viewing the matter in a very particular application of John Rawls’ veil of ignorance.

I might well wish, feeling so out of fortune and sorts, to venture into the world and affirm myself by nullifying myself, and dis-appear before the world as a nearly featureless blob. Who are you to say to me I cannot? Or, of course, I to you. If my essential, self-evident human rights begin anywhere, it is in the right to be, or not to be – to be present in my absence, as in writing I am now, or absent in my presence, as a mask makes me – as I will.

Everyone else, however, is free to respond to and reject this behavior as they will. And in most cases, as I see it, should.

In this instance, what arose in my mind was any entitlement on the teacher’s part. What if the teacher is personally uncomfortable, finds this manner of presentation before him, to him, objectionable. Teachers always, even more so today – even in college – confront representations in the classroom that they are required to control by prohibiting. These days, of course, there are cell phone ringtones – and students, even, who will answer the phone. (The escalation from a misdemeanor to the felonious offense.) There are students who will attempt to wear headphones, or single ear headsets; students, for sure, heads down, who text message. There are the variant, higher degrees of disrespectful behavior. Almost surely, all of these behaviors are institutionally banned, but instructors have their own varying degree of temperamental willingness to combat the upswell of incivility. Some will abide what others will not tolerate.

Whatever religious, philosophical, or psychic justification the wearer of the niqab may offer for the dress, another individual, even a teacher, is within her own human integrity to find the obscured human face, the withholding of what others openly present – an affront. Legal restriction, it may be, should not be founded on an affront, but neither should an individual be compelled to accept it.

I raise the issue of compulsion because I speak here of teachers, who, whether publicly or privately employed, have legal, public obligations of service. In the weighing of individual conscience and integrity versus public obligation, there is a long line of thought, and people may, and do, claim too much under the banners of conscience or offense. On the other hand, resolution might often be found in other teachers who are willing. However, symbolic religious expression is not inherent in the self. It is a choice. Others may have reasonable responses to our choices. If the choice does no harm, it will be wrong to punish, but in the absence of any spirit of accommodation to the world around, there should be no obligation to serve either.