Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Burqa Battle

The French government is working hard to outdo Swiss legislators in mistaking ethnic uniformity for national unity, crafting laws that are blatantly anti-religious and should, by any who truly value their religious freedoms, be opposed. As America watches this newest miscarriage of justice, it would do well not to imitate it.

The Swiss government's latest anti-Muslim volley banned construction of new minarets, but French President Sarkozy is getting a bit more personal about it by attempting to ban the wearing in public of the burqa, the head-to-toe covering worn by a very small number of Muslim women.

It's important to understand that France has a tortured history in terms of religious freedom. More than any other state in the European sphere, France has striven to be free from religion, at least in its public sphere. Indeed, its cathedrals are mostly museums, relics of a not-so-pretty past in which church and state, priest and provincial governor, ruled hand-in-hand. Even devout church historians have had to admit, belatedly, that it was a bloody bad marriage. The Reformation, at least in part, was an attempt at an amicable divorce.

The roots of official French intolerance reach far into its past. What is now France was once the de facto seat of European power during the Crusades. At the behest and with the blessing of a succession of Popes, French antecedents led the vast armies that marched to the Middle East to wrest the "Holy Land" from Muslim control.

Until the the crusaders arrived, Christians, Muslims and Jews had, for the most part, shared Jerusalem and the surrounding territories, traded with one another, and managed to live in relative peace. You wouldn't know it to look at the world today, but 'tis true: Muslim rulers, in obedience to the Prophet's declaration that Muslims, Christians and Jews were all "People of the Book," managed to be a bit more tolerant than either the modern-day French or Swiss.

That relatively peaceful epoch, of course, went out the window after European Christians swept like waves of locusts over the Middle East, killing not only Muslims, but Jews and fellow Byzantine Christians as well. The problems we live with in the Middle East now, we owe to those faithful churchmen who forever made the word infidel into an epithet. Europeans led by pre-French royals — not the Muslims — ignited the holy war that still rages in Palestine.

The Crusades were only the most spectacular of the many excesses of a wedded church and state. Secularists in France, seeking to undo the damage done, did what people often do when confronted with extremes: They had an extreme reaction. It's culmination was the French Revolution, every bit as bloody and mindless as the Crusades (albeit confined to France). Although the public thirst for the guillotine waned, that reactive mindset is still a foundational characteristic in French politics. France, above all, seeks its security, and French identity, in a profoundly secularist worldview.

That's the background for the current "ban the burqa" crusade. Polls indicate that only one-third of the French public actually supports such legislation. Another one-third favors a less restrictive law, in which, for security reasons, a burqa-clad woman might be required to unveil her face to abet proper identification. That means that another third oppose the restriction or have no opinion (see, for example, this article in the The Washington Post). But the total ban has the ardent support of the far right in France (political descendents of those who marched on the Holy Land and, frankly, those who accommodated Hitler in Vichy France).

Sarkozy has attempted to "sell" the law on the pretext that it protects women. Let me make clear that there is something to that argument. It is no secret that some groups within Islam would like to see all women forced to wear them. This same sort of group was behind the throwing of acid in little Afghani girls' faces because they had the audacity to want to go to school (one important reason why America and its allies are involved in the country — something those who oppose our efforts there as a "lost cause" conveniently forget). It is no doubt true that some women wear the burqa or other hair covering out of fear — fear even of their own husband's physical punishment. But it is also true that these groups do not make up the mainstream of Muslim opinion. And Mr. Sakozy's argument ignores the fact that a growing number of educated and otherwise fully empowered Muslim women are electing to wear head scarves and even the burqa as a religious duty — nay, as their freely adopted sign of devotion to Islam.

While the French government might rightly seek to help a Muslim woman escape from a burqa she is forced to wear, it must also, if it claims to safeguard freedom, affirm a Muslim woman's right to choose the burqa. One does not need to be a fan of the burqa or Islam to see the essential rightness of this in a free society. Any law that does not affirm and accommodate both realities is doomed to fail and is certain to further divide the nation that seeks, by that law, to be unified.

Sarkozy is right to oppose the oppression of women. But he is wrong to assume that the burqa is, by definition, an instrument of oppression. The reality is much more complicated, as reality almost always is. When we simply react, and seek no means to temper our fear and anger with wisdom and perspective, that with which we are angry ultimately controls us. In savage irony, we become what we oppose. We substitute tyranny for tyranny. A blanket anti-burqa law becomes, in its effect, just a bloodless and "civilized" attempt at what, in the Balkans and Africa, we might label "ethnic cleansing." And it is sure to be seen as such by Muslims now resident in France.

Indeed, despite Sarkozy's attempts to veil the burqa legislation in "women's rights" cloth, the law is actually one thread in the far right's overall mission: to more narrowly define what it means to be French. In the 2oth Century, Arabs, Persians and Palestinians were welcomed to France during prosperous times, to do the jobs French citizens preferred not to do. The French were glad to have them, and the newcomers were glad to accept better jobs than they were likely to find in their troubled home countries. Many, indeed, sought citizenship and planted deep economic and social roots. But by the 1990s, a faltering economy in France had dried up many of those jobs and, as displaced peoples are wont to do when they are suddenly poor and marginalized in their adopted land, many latecomers returned to the religion of their youth for comfort and security. The resulting unrest and the return to Islam alarmed the French far right, and the burqa has been politicized as a symbol of what is not French.

It's not difficult to make application to the current American political scene. It is easy to latch onto a simplistic view of national life ("America is a Christian nation," for example) and thus stir up the fears and encourage the anger that undergird the current "populist" uprisings. Fueled from the American far right by a litany of groundless and overblown fears, a growing number of Americans want simple answers to complex questions, and thus imperil the very foundations they seek to protect. (Obama as a"closet" Muslim, is groundless, for example, while the fact that "whites" soon will be out-numbered by so-called "people of color"— as if the latter were some kind of white-hating monolithic voting block — is an example of overblown.)

Those who call themselves Christians (I am among them) would do well to study Europe's past and present errors, and then resist the populist impulse to press (again) our own simplistic template of uniformity over the vast and complex diversity of American life — a template that ultimately includes only those who agree with "us" and excludes those who don't. It's the very stuff of the world's troubles — many of which our crusading Christian ancestors authored. And troubles that, history tells us without exception, are ultimately self-destructive.

If we insist on a Christian America (particularly a "white" one), and cannot regard those with whom we share the Scriptures — and those who read other "holy books" or have none at all — with not only tolerance, but love as well, then we have already lost the battle. To glimpse our future, we need only tour the empty cathedrals of France.

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