Freedom and the banning of Islam's scarf

It is proposed that in France that the wearing of religious clothing and of other religious symbols in schools and public buildings be banned. A similar policy has existed in Turkey for decades. How can this policy be defended against claims of civil rights infringement? The answer is by asserting that there is an over-riding public good. The ban may be defended as being not only in the best long term interests of society, its social cohesion and peace, but also in the interests of the people whose rights it seemingly infringes. Somewhat like similar bans on smoking in public buildings, it may be determined that it is for the good of both the individual and of the community. But such a ban can only be justified if the harm it prevents is clear and substantial, or if the practice banned can be deemed immoral. That both these conditions can be met is demonstrated here.

The ethical legitimacy of a ban on religious clothing such as scarves for children in schools is readily established on the grounds that children have a right to be protected form such forms of indoctrination. It is harder to establish such ground for adults, where they may be presumed as exercising their freedom of choice. In the case of the burqa, or full face veil, a ban is more easily justified on public interest grounds.

Legislation in democratic countries commonly imposes restrictions on individual freedoms for the public good. Grounds for doing this are defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While freedom of "thought, conscience and religion", as well as the freedom to change religion or have no religion is declared in the Declaration, Article 29 (2) states that individual rights may be limited, but only for the purpose of meeting "the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society".

It may seem unlikely on first view that the wearing of a humble scarf or hijab could in any way be considered a threat to morality, public order, general welfare, let alone democracy, but on proper examination, it may indeed be seen that such behaviour is associated with these problems. In a globalized world, in which Islam is a globalized religion, it would be negligent to ignore relevant information regarding the nature of these practices and the trends, tendencies and aspirations associated with them. If such trends are seen to be a danger,  then it would be wise and prudent to take steps to avert them. It is necessary therefore to have some regard of the international trends in Islamic activism and fundamentalism in order to assess these risks.

In doing this it may seem unreasonable to focus on Islam in particular. However if one religion is the focus of problems more than others, necessitating a policy response, and if such policy responses are applied universally to all religions, then such action is legitimate and justified. With the rise in the importance of Islamic beliefs and practices in recent decades, and particularly since September 11, 2001, there has been a great deal of research, investigation and commentary on the nature of the Islamic religion. One conclusion that may be drawn from this is that Islam is indeed different from other religions. Muslims themselves explain that Islam is not just a religion but a "way of life". The difficulties arise because certain characteristics of the required Muslim way of life conflict with the way of life that citizens of modern secular democratic societies are entitled to expect. The general message from books published on the subject, including some by ex-Muslims like Ibn Warraq, is that fundamentalist Islam is Islam, and that it is inherently hostile to human rights, democratic values, multiculturalism and even world peace.

In making the case for some limitation on the right to religious expression in public places, the four UDHR requirements for justifying the implementation of such limitations, in terms of morality, public order, general welfare and democracy, may each be considered in turn. The first of these is morality. As the scarf is worn by women it is appropriate to consider the morality of status imposed on women in Islam. In countries with a majority Muslim population, the situation of women in such societies can only be described as oppression. The burqa, in particular, is a symbol of this oppression. The protestations of some Muslim women that the hijab is voluntary and that Islam is liberating for women must be balanced by the numerous others that have no voice and no choice. The economic and social circumstances of women in the Arab world, as measured by statistics such as labour force participation, are the lowest in the world.

The motivation for wearing hijabs and burqas derives from a requirement in the Koran that Muslim women be veiled as protection against molestation (Koran 33:59). Other doctrinal imperatives, such as the Koranic text that defines women as inferior to men (Koran 4:34), and other strictures that restrict women's activities, combine to denote that in Islam, a woman's main purpose in life is attend to home duties and child rearing, and to provide gratification to men. The result is an ideology which aspires to an ideal, that is all too often realized, in which half the population exists in a permanent state of virtual house arrest. The fact that religion is the basis of this oppressive ideology is not cause for excuse or pardon. Such practices are in breach of universal standards of human rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration and other UN covenants. They are also in breach of universal standards of morality. Oppression is immoral. It cannot be condoned and must be opposed. The scarf, and especially the burqa, is a symbolic as well as a real expression of this oppression. Some limitation of the overt expression of this immoral oppression, buy banning the scarf and burqa in public buildings while engaging in secular activities, is therefore warranted. The moral argument alone justifies it.

The second Universal Declaration requirement in justifying limitation of rights is in the interest of public order. In this regard, increasing expression of Muslim identity can also be anticipated as a problem. Religions, especially when continuously visually expressed in public places have a tendency to be divisive. Cultural separatism is a characteristic not only of Islam. It is more pronounced however, in Islam, and often actively sought, in contrast to other ethnic groups. In the interest of social cohesion, society must consider whether the wearing of such overtly religious attire in the course of public activities is a source of division that it should do without. As all forms of religious attire are a possible source of social division, this justification of the ban is applicable to the attire of all religions including yarmulkes and turbans.

There is an especial need to avoid unnecessary sources of division in schools. As British scientist Richard Dawkins has pointed out, experiments have been done in which children, where they have simply been provided with artificial differences, such as green and blue labels. In a short time, vicious "enmities spring up between the greens and the blues: fierce loyalties to one's own colour, vendettas against the other". Religious labels are divisive enough, even without the sense of moral superiority that they instill in their believers. Adding to this the growing perception of a global "clash of civilizations", in reality a clash over religion, which further intensifies local divisions. What such divisions may do to the future state of public order can only be unfavourable, if not disastrous. Thus, further legitimate grounds exist for banning religious attire in schools, as a means of lessening rather than encouraging such divisions. It may also be added that indoctrinating children with possibly hateful and oppressive ideologies, especially those that lack proper epistemological validity is morally wrong.

The third grounds for imposing a limitation on religious expression is on the grounds of general welfare. If there was any doubt that societies engendered with a strong psychology of religious fatalism are generally less materially beneficial to citizens than secular ones, then this surely must be dispelled by the recent Arab Human Development Reports, compiled by Arab scholars from the United Nations Development Program. These reports starkly depict Arab societies as going backwards in terms of incomes, labour productivity, women's empowerment, civil rights and media independence. They depict societies deficient in knowledge of science, technology and with education systems based on faulty priorities. It is quite clear that the quest for knowledge, for innovation and for improvement is inhibited by the burden of religious doctrine. Without reversal of the prevailing psychology these societies can only experience continued relative economic decline, the global consequences of which are fearful to contemplate.

A realistic assessment, although uncommonly expressed, is that the Islamic religion, both through its inhibition of individual motivation and its institutional lethargy, is singularly detrimental to economic development, and is thus bad for the welfare of the individual and of society. It was for this very reason that Turkey long ago sought to rigorously separate religion from the functions of state, including the prohibition of religious attire in public service and schools. It is not therefore in the interest of either individual or general welfare that the public expression of such a detrimental ideology be encouraged.

Regarding the requirement for a democratic society, it may not of course be suggested that the wearing of scarves is of itself any threat to democracy. However it may certainly be argued that, in Muslim countries where democracy is not established, Islam is a barrier to achieving it. The difficulty arises because Islam demands submission to the rule of law as specified in the religious texts and their interpretations, whereas in democracy, authority is granted to a secular authority where the rule of law is as determined by the elected legislature. In many Muslim countries, political discourse is characterized by undemocratic Islamists in opposition to secularists using undemocratic means to combat them. The Islamic state is intrinsically inimical to democracy. Hence, in the interests of democracy it may make little sense to encourage the expressions of Islamic identity that work to inhibit it. Such expressions include the humble scarf.

To this may be added some general issues. Religious tolerance requires that tolerance be reciprocated. However Islam, while extending a degree of tolerance to Jews and Christians, according to doctrine, is less tolerant of other "infidels", and of secularism and the secular state. Hence the need to encourage universal secular values is greater in this case. The right to freedom of religion has a counterpart in the right to freedom from religion. If that freedom from religion is being diminished, then there exists a right to defend it. In a world where the forces of religion are resurgent on many fronts, and where conflicts based on irreconcilable religious differences pose real dangers, solutions based on rational adjudication may be necessary.

While a ban on the hijab may be more difficult to justify than a ban on the burqa, such a ban would send a strong signal that the secular values of society need to be defended. A ban on the burqa can be further justified on security grounds, and on grounds of natural justice. To be seen and identified in public implies an obligation that this be reciprocated. The intrusion of religion into secular life must have its limits.

History shows that those countries that have imposed some limitation or the role of religion in political and secular affairs have been the most successful and prosperous. It is desirable that such policies be advanced, while at the same time seeking to promote universal principles of kindness, honesty, freedom, justice and general utility. As American philosopher Paul Kurtz has noted, what is required is a New Enlightenment.

(C) Copyright February 2004.   John L Perkins
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