President Obama tells Europe to relax over the Muslim burqa

June 4, 2009

(AP photo by Hassan Ammar)

Last summer, France denied citizenship to a woman who wears the veil, the niqab, and by implication this ruling rejects the body-covering burqa as well. This controversy over l’affaire du foulard (the scarf affair) raises a fundamental question about democracy: which comes first, a person’s right to citizenship, or a person’s integration into society? The French decision declares that basic integration must come first: a veil-wearing Muslim is not sufficiently socially integrated and therefore she cannot be accepted as an equal citizen. 

President Obama has announced his disagreement with France. In his June 4th speech in Cairo, Obama affirms the full political equality of the veil-wearing Muslim. The text of President Obama’s speech is available at the   New York Times

"I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality."

President Obama’s statement is brief, but eloquently clear. Political equality comes first; social conformity comes second. The democratic State must protect women with equal citizenship—what women decide to do with their lives is a secondary matter from the political standpoint. The point of citizenship is to liberate people from State control over the way they live their lives. This remains true even when a democratic State wants everyone to accept secular values. But the promotion of secularism, a democratic value, should not prevail over democracy itself. When did the West start to forget this?

Some view France’s decision as an effort to promote secularism by suppressing displays of religious identity. Yet religious identity ought to be protected in a democracy. Secularism means keeping the democratic State away from restricting free religious conscience and choice. Democracy and religion are not necessarily incompatible, any more than democracy and freethought are incompatible. Promoting secularism by restricting religious choice is a futile exercise in hypocritical self-contradiction. That’s how secularism can get perverted into anti-religious oppression. Not surprisingly, that’s precisely how France’s decision is widely viewed. 

The more charitable interpretation for denying citizenship to veiled Muslims is that awarding citizenship to them would be a tacit approval of an inferior social status. Promoting social equality among people is a worthy goal of government, no argument there. What is the most powerful political tool for promoting social equality? The United States knows the answer: full citizenship. When slaves were social inferiors to whites, the USA granted their full citizenship to help. When women were socially inferior to men, the USA granted their full citizenship to help. When any repressed minority seeks relief from social inferiority, their citizenship is their most powerful tool for seeking social justice. 

How could France wrongly conclude that withholding political citizenship is the best way for the State to help Muslim women achieve social equality? Denying citizenship sends several contradictory messages. Yes, denial of citizenship expresses disapproval of a perceived social injustice. But it also sends a message of tacit confirmation of the unworthiness of veil-wearing Muslims.  Denying citizenship is a message that women who choose Muslim dress conformity are inferior and unequal and unworthy of State protection. Denying citizenship is a message that if you choose a peaceful lifestyle that the majority disapproves, you cannot be an equal citizen.  Does democracy work best when a conformist majority dictates lifestyle to a minority? President Obama doesn’t think so, and we shouldn’t either. 

If Muslim women are physically harmed, if they are forced into household slavery, if their fundamental human rights are violated, then let the State’s laws do their proper work of enforcing justice for all citizens. But freely chosen clothing? As if the West has never given a thought to what women ought to wear (see: wig, corset, lingerie, high heels, bathing suits). Those who argue that women submitting to men’s clothing preferences can be a moral evil may have a point. However, is this point best made by telling veiled Muslim women that they can’t be the equals of other women wearing business suits?

President Obama rightly declares that all women must have the opportunity for education, an education that opens doors to the other opportunities that society offers. But adults must have the dignified right to freely choose among society’s offerings. If citizens of France or any country would offer to teach "ignorant" Muslims about social conformity and proper integration, let them approach the "ignorant" as equals talking with equals. What sort of education is offered to you when you are first told that you are socially inferior and unworthy of full citizenship? Children are ignorant, socially inferior, and not yet worthy of full citizenship. Should the State first classify these Muslim women as children? Should the State paternalistically treat these Muslim women as children, just as some of their domineering husbands do? If it is wrong for Muslim women to childishly submit to domination, how could childish submission to the State be right? The social education of adults cannot begin with political inequality. 

The paternalistic treatment of any competent adult is wrong, period. Paternalism doesn’t suddenly become right when a husband or a god or a religion or even a well-intentioned State does it. President Obama is quite correct about how real democracy works. If the West would teach the Islamic world about democracy and secularism, let’s do it right.