The latest Western outburst against Islamic political correctness comes our way from Holland, that normally most tolerant of Western nations. Even the stoic Dutch were transformed after the 2004 murder of native filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim fundamentalist. That event made the Dutch more tolerant of intolerance.
Holland’s center-right government announced five days before national elections that it plans to consider banning burqas and similar full-body garb in public places. While some scoff at the idea of Western governments dictating Muslim women’s dress, Dutch officials are starting to line up with their more proactive European counterparts. Many Europeans now see face and head coverings as walking security threats.
Since 1985 dozens of female suicide bombers (mainly in the Middle East) including Palestinians, Turks, Chechens and even Tamil Tigresses, have donned the disguise of traditional Islamic garb as vehicles for mass destruction. Some hid bombs on their bellies to feign pregnancy.
The West’s reaction to its ballooning Islamic population is only one side of a two-sided cultural clash. The other side is being driven by Islamists moving to Western nations while adhering to homeland traditions. The flip side would be Pamela Anderson emigrating to Saudi Arabia and continue dressing with midriff and cleavage exposed.
Consider this excerpt from an opinion piece on Al-Jazeerah’s Web site: “In post 2000 and 2004 elections in the USA, vilifying Islam and Muslims has increasingly become the norm. Most recently, just prior to the Pope’s remarks, President Bush joined the cabal declaring the war on terrorism as being waged against ‘Islamic fascists’ who seek to destroy our freedoms.”
“Vilifying Islam” and banning full-body garb in public are two different things. But they are becoming increasingly intertwined as Muslims emigrate in larger numbers to the West and Western nations attempt, however ineptly, to integrate Muslims into their societies.
Here in the states two court contests brought by Muslim women rose to recent national attention. In 2003 Florida Judge Janet C. Thorpe overruled Sultaana Freeman’s wish to cover her face while being photographed for her driver’s license. Judge Thorpe decided national security concerns trump those of free exercise of religion. Last month Detroit Judge Paul Paruk ruled he needed to see the face of a Muslim woman, Ginnah Muhammad, to judge her truthfulness during court testimony. He gave her a choice: take off the veil while testifying or have her case dismissed. She stuck by her veil and lost the case.
Clearly the use of burqas or other full body coverings to commit suicide bombings is the most extreme danger posed by traditionally dressed Islamic women. And let’s state for the record that very, very few Islamic women living in the West wear full-body garb, although headscarves are increasingly visible.
But Muslims should not ignore the fact there are legitimate reasons for banning full-body garb in public places, including courtrooms and government offices.
Let the ethicists and constitutional scholars sort through whether the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom of expression covers 21st century Islamic women’s desire to live in a modern western nation while dressing as if they are living in a conservative Islamic state. Let Islamic women decide whether, as many claim, Islam is the original “feminist” religion and gives women equal or greater rights than most Western societies.
But banning burqas is not just a freedom of religion issue. Burqas are perhaps the most visible attribute of a new cultural trend brought on by the latest wave of mass international migration. Are we entering an era of anti-assimilation? Are religious purists making social statements with their dress, or are they simply exercising constitutionally guaranteed freedoms?
Prior waves of U.S. immigrants congregated in homogenous neighborhoods. But they quickly learned English and bought into American dress codes and customs. (Still, Muslims might point out, however, that nuns, for example, never did adhere to modern western dress codes.)
Political correctness and cultural preservationists have haphazardly launched an era in which it is OK, even desirable, in some circles to emigrate to or be born in America while dressing, speaking and living as if one were elsewhere. There is an enormous potential downside to this philosophy. And it’s an impossibly tricky-track to navigate the middle ground.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)