بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
The lovely Pauline Hanson has recently made for an entertaining show by wearing a burqa to a senate hearing. It has sparked mixed reactions to say the least, but one type of comment I frequently come across is something as follows:
It seems this latter fellow thinks that morality is based on mutual agreement between two parties, as if world leaders sit down and agree to play a petty game. Needless to say, that’s not how morality works. Unfortunately, these kinds of comments have been responded to in a grossly inadequate way. For example:
As sound thinkers, and as Muslims in particular, it’s incredibly important for us to understand both our own values as well as the values of Western civilization (both where they meet, and where they have differing perspectives.) Through understanding ourselves and the society we live in at large, we can be bridges through which constructive dialogue occurs.
The Real Reason It’s Not Okay
The Basis of Western Morality Is Freedom
If we were to attempt to reduce Western moral norms into one phrase, it would be as follows: people are allowed to do whatever they want, so long as they do not harm anyone else.
This is a little simplistic as there are other considerations, but not really. On the basis of this moral principle, all forms of traditional morality have been steadily eroded for the past 250 years. Our purpose here is not to examine whether this principle is actually sound or not, but to show how Pauline Hanson is being inconsistent with the foundational ethical maxim of modern Western civilization.
The default position in the West is that you are free to do whatever you want. You want to produce pornographic films? Sure. You want to insult sacred and holy symbols? Be my guest. You want a messy, no-fault divorce involving child custody battles? Don’t think of the kids – go right ahead. Heck – even if you literally violate a marriage contract by sleeping with someone other than your spouse, to whom you have legally promised exclusivity – it’s not considered a crime. “My body, my choice,” right? But someone wants to “put a bag” on their head. Ahh, now all of the sudden we have a problem. Now you must “assimilate” to “our values” (which values – the ones which 50 years ago persecuted homosexuals, or the ones today that hold gay pride marches?) or we will come after you with the full force of the law. We will punish those who dare not follow [insert the current year] – an irony compounded by the fact that Ms. Hanson and her sympathizers claim to be conservatives.
The problem is two fold. Firstly, when people like Tracey Billson and the 500+ people who liked her post demand that Muslims assimilate to Australian cultural values, what they fail to realize is that they are confusing cultural norms and moral precepts. 150 years ago, the way Australian women dress today would not have been “Australian,” so to codify in law current fashion trends is short-sighted to say the least.
Secondly, a cultural norm is seldom a reason to tell someone what they can and cannot do by law. In fact, as we will see shortly, even Islamic theocracies don’t do this.
Attempts At Showing “Harm”
If people are allowed to do whatever they want so long as they don’t “harm” anyone, the question becomes what is harm? The concept is amorphous as virtually anything bad can be categorized as “harmful,” so traditionally courts have by and large gone with a concept of physical harm. That which causes or leads to physical harm is outlawed. The obvious strategy then, by people who want to ban the burqa, is to try to establish that it is physically harmful.
Muslim Women Are Harmed
In a spectacular feat of mental gymnastics, opponents of Islam are convinced that the women who voluntarily wear traditional forms of clothing for what they think is religious piety, are actually oppressed. It seems that Freud was not so unique; indeed scores of Islam-haters will happily offer an in-depth psychoanalysis of how these women are actually being suppressed and want – nay require freedom. So oppressed are they, that they can no longer think for themselves. They require a white saviour to come and show them the superior ways of “freedom,” by which they intend sexual freedom.
Oh, how rich. Those who claim that women are free independent beings who can think for themselves turn around and essentially call women who wear traditional clothing mindless and cowardly. To them I say: Do us a favour. Why don’t you actually have extended conversations with the women who choose to live their lives, and in fact endure great difficulty at the hands of an intolerant society (at least towards their choices) and ask them why exactly they do what they do. I’m sure you’ll be happily surprised to find that among niqab and burqa adorners you have the good, the bad, and occasionally the stupid, just like in every other community.
The Security Risk
Opponents of Islam claim that the burqa and/or niqab present security risks. Someone could walk into parliament with a bomb, as Hanson wished to suggest, and police need to be able to identify people. Furthermore, in Occupied Palestine (commonly known as Israel) there have been reported cases of veiled women actually detonating suicide bombs in crowded areas.
This seems to me to be the only argument that potentially has a point. Yet, as careful thinkers we should ask further questions, particularly in the face of a proposal as radical as limiting the clothing a woman can wear. In Australia specifically, how many burqa-bomber type situations have security forces faced? Israel, quite obviously, is not Australia. It is entangled in a complex relationship with Palestine which includes expulsion, military excursions every few years, and the use of white phosphorus on hospitals. Australia thankfully does not have the same track record. I am not at all justifying terrorist attacks against civilian populations (whether it be done by Palestinians or Israelis). What I am saying is that Australia is not remotely close to being Israel – that much should be clear to any casual observer.
There have been a few terror attacks in the last 3 years in Australia coinciding with the rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. I sympathize deeply with those who have lost their loved ones, and I do think Australia is within its full rights in taking terrorist threats seriously. But up until now the modus operandi of terrorists in Australia have been isolated, angry young men who get radicalized online. To my knowledge, there has not even been a single woman directly involved in a terrorist incident in Australia, let alone a woman who dons the niqab or burqa, let alone enough incidents with sufficient frequency to justify a law restricting freedom.
Practice What You Preach
When you step into the two Islamic countries (out of some 60) that formally claim to be theocracies ruling according to their interpretation of Divine Law, you will immediately be met with a demand to put on a hijab. The reason, contrary to Western perception, has nothing to do with “cultural norms.” It has to do with the fact that the basis for their moral values is not freedom; it is Divine Command. Contrary to Western perceptions, moreover, you are not being required to “follow the orders of their religion,” at least not entirely – you’re not required to perform the Islamic prayer, last I checked. Rather, what is required is that one adhere to Muslim standards of public decency, both in dress and speech, as derived from the Quran and the practices of the Prophet Muhammad (s). When we see Saudi princes enjoying dancing girls with state funds, and we hear of obscenities like the Dubai Porta-Potties, we are well within our rights to point out the utter hypocrisy that these degenerates exhibit.
The West, on the other hand, professes to be a bastion of freedom. I would not have a problem with banning the burqa if Australia claimed to be a Christian theocracy, or at any rate, I would at least engage in an entirely different line of argument. But as it stands, people (legally) immigrate to Western countries on the basis that they will be allowed to wear what they want, practice the religion of their choice, and say what they believe. They also recognize that they are required to tolerate the behaviour of those who they disagree with. That’s what Western values stand for. When Austria passes a law required Muslims to “adhere to Enlightenment values,” they evidently missed the boat as to what Enlightenment values are. Perhaps our burqa’d sisters would be kind enough to teach them.
The person below mocks the freedom argument I’ve made here, without realizing that denying the freedom principle makes Australia essentially a secular version of a theocracy. Perhaps an atheocracy?
But there is still hope. Some people get it.