Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Burqa Debate Comes to Harvard

Judith Surkis vs. Patrice Higonnet. As regular readers will know, I am more sympathetic to Judith's side of the argument and would respond to my friend Patrice that continuity is no substitute for justification. It may be relevant to point out Marcel Détienne's observation that historians of France have in some respects contributed to the myth of national identity that politicians have lately been eager to exploit.


David A. Bell said...

Much as I admire and respect Patrice Higonnet, I can't accept his arguments here. Like many advocates of the legislation in France, he proceeds on the assumption that a ban on the burqa is justified by "French Republican traditions" or "the French perspective." And thus he states that "outlawing it in France seems to me to be more or less acceptable, even if that should not be the case in the United States. It has no place in French life and history." The logic here is, dare I say it, dangerously relativist. One could similarly argue that the freedom NOT to wear a veil in Iran "has no place in Iranian life and history." Of course there is a role for French traditions in French legislation, but they must always be trumped by considerations of universal human rights. Yes, one could argue that in the case of the burqa, different rights come into conflict. But surely freedom of belief--however misguided we think these beliefs might be--has priority over the "rights" of others to have face-to-face interactions ("rights" which previously don't seem to have been a high priority in France or anywhere else). Public safety concerns can be addressed by legislation appropriate to those concerns, such as ensuring drivers have unimpeded fields of vision.

MCG said...

The burka has no direct relationship to belief, since it is not required by the Muslim faith.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine, rather erudite and who lived for 20 years in Tunisia, converted to tepid but thoughtful and informed Islam. He was appalled when he learnt his tunisian (he was married with a tunisian for a while) daughter-in-law has been wearing a nijab since last year (NOT a Tunisian custom), but attributes this new fashion to a feeling of defiance after all the colonisation, oppression and discrimination Arabs were and still are submitted to by French people.


Anonymous said...

You know, David, there are multiple traditions of universalism.

Our universalism is one active democracy. We think the state and society should take an active role in protecting the values of citizenship we hold dear. One of those values is a well-guarded public sphere where individuals can develop free from parochial pressure (e.g. having to wear a burka).

Your universalism is about individual rights. You think the state and society should take an active role in protecting all kinds of behavior whatever their social consequences. So you constitutionalize the right to march in a Nazi parade and sell animal cruelty videos.

But who am I to judge American legal culture for having fucked up priorities? Different traditions of universalism reflecting different values will develop in different directions. And that's all right.

What's not all right is pretending that "considerations of universal human rights" lead to one incontrovertible truth. So stop trying to jam your idea of universalism down everybody else's throat. How's that working for you in Iraq?

Anonymous said...

Let me add that I detest ostentatious, defiant wearing of religious garb in public, but Sarko's focusing on that small number of burka-wearers is doing what he does best - sow division and discord.

By the way, not wearing religious or political symbols in public schools became law in 1905, not around 2004. The law just needed a reminder, as there were more and more hijab wearers.


Steven Rendall said...

Do you suppose the ban on the burka will be extended to include the burkini? If you haven't seen this, you have to:

Anonymous said...

I do wonder how a burka wearer can use a bank and a public library, or drive a car, or be in any situation where she needs to be identified with a picture ID. It does seem that a woman wearing a burka would be very limited in her access to social and economic institutions. That can be her choice as well, of course. We can't legislate against "stay at home moms" just because we decide it's not feminist and it's "anti-social." I do wonder about the security issue. Shouldn't all people's faces be visible for public safety reasons? There are many cameras in public places for a reason. On burka wearers they are rendered useless. Also, what use are pictures of "have you seen this person" if the person can hide behind a burka 365 days a year (exceptional cases like Halloween, or very cold weather, or an aerially spread contagious disease would not provide a permanent shield for someone who is in hiding). I understand that such exceptional cases shouldn't be used to limit the religious rights of people, and that one is innocent until proven guilty, and that thus people shouldn't necessarily have to show their face if they don't wish to. But again, what is the use of "have you seen this person" and public cameras if a segment (admittedly minuscule) of the population can simply bypass them? Not all religious practices are a matter of right. It's just that the burka is not obviously dangerous. Only potentially. And many things that are legal and useful are potentially dangerous. I can't reach a decision, and I haven't seen a sufficiently strong argument against the safety issue. I want to see one, because my gut says let them wear what they want.

Unknown said...

There are many ways of concealing one's identity other than wearing a burka: makeup, sunglasses, skin-tight masks, headgear, etc. Why single out one? There are many forms of dress that permit the concealment of weapons and explosives. Why single out one? Banks no longer use the face to establish identity: they use passwords (at least my bank does). High-security operations use fingerprints. The security issue is a red herring. As for safety, as in the case of driving an automobile, it would make sense to require that peripheral vision not be restricted. It is not clear to me that either the burka or the niqab restricts peripheral vision, but this is easily verified.