Saturday, December 20, 2008

Jail that veil

So, a Muslim woman is jailed by a US judge for refusing to remove her hijab in court. Apparently, this particular judge has a preoccupation with disciplining Muslim women who wear the hijab in his courtroom. I am constantly amazed by how un-nerving people find a simple garment - and for what a variety of reasons too! Either it is hiding something, or it is a symbol of patriarchy (as if patriarchy exerted no effects on the clothing of non-Muslim women), or it is a special privilege, or a symptom of separatism and radicalism... The veil is the 'borrowed kettle' of liberal-conservative discourse.

The woman in question was merely asserting her rights in a secular state, yet I have an almost clairvoyant sense that someone, somewhere, will already be preparing a 'secular' defense of the judge's actions. Those who have defended the actions of various European states in banning the veil, foulard or sluieren, in different contexts, are perfectly placed to do so. In lieu of an engagement with that kind of argument, I should just like to briefly state a position. As much as I detest - and I really want this word to count - most of those who loudly proclaim their secularism, I would critically defend the principle. Thieving copiously from the armoury of arguments elaborated by the great Alasdair Macintyre*, whose writing is valued as much by Muslim intellectuals as by marxists, I endorse a secularism that contests the state's right to uphold values of any kind, 'Western' or otherwise. The state's role should be restricted to delivering certain public goods, but it has nothing whatever to do with morality.

Yet, it is interesting that the specific work done by the invocation of what is defended as a universal principle can be strangely exclusionary - and also, in an odd sense, particularist, eventually boiling down to a defense of 'Western values'. The self-congratulatory hyphenation 'Judeo-Christian' is no more justified than 'Islamo-Christian', but it is the former that purportedly properly encompasses said 'values', while the very texture of the veil apparently contains, woven into it, a threat to them. Of course, such a threat is part of the fabric of the veil to the extent that 'Western values' exclude the right to practice a religion that is held in low regard by a broad coalition comprising liberals and reactionaries. In other words, the argument that the veil is in some sense a challenge to 'Western' norms boils down to a confession that such 'Western' norms are sectarian, bigoted and irrational, (as opposed to rational, humane and universal).

The way in which secularism is both asserted as a universal value and as part of the family of 'Western values' is a hangover from Europe's colonial era. For example, when those French soldiers were marauding in the Algerian countryside, their deference to universalism compelled them to remove the veil first before raping and killing the women. And when the Algerians rebelled, the veil was seen as both an expression of and subterfuge for 'native fanaticism', proof and advertisement of their separatism, and their rejection of French universalism. Subsequently, in the debates about 'integration', the veil was just one symbol of the incompatibility of North African Muslims with the secular French republic. That was as true of the discussions around mass postwar migrations that made up for a decimated labour force as it is today of arguments about the discontented banlieues.

One last thought. What is the abjuration of the term 'Islamophobia' symptomatic of? There are so many people who insist that it means nothing, or that it is dangerous. They say it protects iniquity from criticism and forecloses serious inquiry. Yet, such arguments rarely go on to elaborate an alternative way of discussing the way in which Islam is unfairly singled out as deviant, as an abberation from cherished values, as the ultimate source of much or most global violence etc. The documented racist violence against Muslims as Muslims, the ceaseless acres of verbiage denouncing Islam and purveying false accusations of 'extremism' (which really is a meaningless term), the hysteria manufactured by newspapers who apparently learned all the wrong lessons from the Dreyfuss Affair... all of this doesn't deserve a name? Isn't this disavowal really an expression of guilt? Doesn't the unease about the term simply reflect the fact that many liberals distrust their own criticisms of Islam, that they don't trust their own motives, and suspect that if all of this viciousness was given a name (or 'christened' if you like), they would be incriminating themselves on a regular basis? They know very well that the misuse of a term doesn't make it invalid. Unfair accusations of antisemitism are extremely common - far more so, in my view, than unfair accusations of Islamophobia - but most of those so branded don't decide that the term itself can have no meaning. It is accepted that there are parameters for sensible discussion and that the accusation of antisemitism should be taken seriously. It is uncontroversial that some criticisms of Israel, never mind Judaism, can be antisemitic in tone and content. The argument is almost always over what does and does not constitute antisemitism, not whether the charge is even worth listening to. So, why are some people so timorous, unless they doubt their ability to defend their arguments from a charge of Islamophobia?

*This infamous, delicious quote is relevant: "Modern nation-states which masquerade as embodiments of community are always to be resisted. The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one's life on its behalf; it is like being asked to die for the telephone company." (Alasdair Macintyre, "A Partial Response to my Critics", in John Horton and Susan Mendus, eds, After Macintyre: Critical Perspectives on the Works of Alasdair Macintyre, 1994).