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.

 

Comments:

#1 Randy on Thursday June 04, 2009 at 10:17am

President Obama is hopelessly naive, but this follows his trend of throwing friends under the bus to aid strangers and opponents.

The French have a right to decide who becomes citizens, and they have a right to set reasonably unintrusive standards of behavior and dress, just like any other democracy does.  There’s nothing undemocratic about that.  Just as we can ban full or partial nudity, we can also ban full or partial covering.  And the reason for doing so has nothing to do with religion, but with simply interacting positively in society, which consists mostly of sighted people for whom the hiding of a face is a deliberately antisocial act, one which in a very tangible way reduces the perceived richness and actual safety of simply walking down a street. 

Now separately, as a matter of pragmatism and also of stability, a state must also control who it admits as citizens, regardless of how they dress.  Those who come to a country with no desire to fit in are rude, and should not be allowed to stay permanently, just as any rude guest should be ejected from a property to which they were not explicitly invited.  Absolutely, someone seeking citizenship in a foreign land should voluntarily consider themslves a child in that land, out of respect for those who are already there.  It’s just common decency.  If a country is to change, it should be because the people who actually invested their lives into it want it to change, not because people took advantage of their hospitality with a deliberate intent to change the country to suit themselves. 

So, I could not disagree with you more.

#2 liberalartist on Thursday June 04, 2009 at 3:23pm

I think the purpose of denying citizenship is due to the problem of muslims not integrating into French culture, which seems to be a serious problem there. A friend from France once explained to me that unlike American culture, which is driven on individuality, the French consider themselves French first, and catholic, muslim, or whatever else second. To define yourself as muslim first, is to go against being french. So in those terms I can understand why France would deny that person citizenship.

I also think covering one’s head is a form of oppression, even if the woman wants to do it. It is about the shame of womanhood and hiding females from the “temptations” of men. Some cultural traditions in the muslim world need to change.

#3 PauC (Guest) on Friday June 05, 2009 at 2:38am

¿Should we deny citizenship to catholic nuns who cover their hair?

#4 Nairb on Friday June 05, 2009 at 2:39pm

I am disappointed by these comments from Obama and the NY times.
France does have a paternalistic style state. That is what we mostly want. We like free schooling and free medical care and long holidays to live life. We all pay for this and the state provides when its needed.

The issue here is that people coming into the state need to understand they have both rights and responsabilities as citizens. Women and men are equal before the law.It is the first right. The state is defending the rights of women and equality by demanding that immigrant women fulfill their role as equal citizens.
It is a good message to send to those fundamentalist muslim men in france who go to North Africa to marry a woman who will be ignorant of laws and customs, uneducated and docile and submissive.
Muslim French women would usually not allow such paternalistic attitude of their husbands. 

France doesnt want to become a melting pot. It wants to integrate immigrants into french culture. The Burqha and associated attitudes towards women does not integrate well with liberte, egalite, fraternite.

It is naive to think full citizenship alone promotes equality. Every country has inequalities. Amongst citizens. Equality must be promoted directly and by taking precise aim. Granting citizenship is not a panacea for equality.

#5 Nairb on Friday June 05, 2009 at 2:51pm

Conmment 3 by Pauc
“Should we deny citizenship to catholic nuns who cover their hair?”

The lady in question came to her immigration interview in a full Burqa (only the eyes are visble).
She had never voted (after several years in France) and seemed to have a cursory knowledge of what a citizen meant.
As far as I remember she rarely left the house and then only with male escort.

It was for her lack of basic understanding of what it means to be a citizen that she was refused citizenship.

I would like to add that this was a popular decision.
It targetted the issue I raised above and reasserted strongly that women are equal to men.

#6 Nairb on Friday June 05, 2009 at 5:23pm

Mr. Shook
I have become more and more angry at your blog the more I read it. You do not seem to be familiar with the case of muslim woman you mentioned. You appear to extrapolate from what President Obama said.I have put your statements below with my comments to show where I believe you are erroneous.

“I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal”
===>  This does not mean Obama condones the Burqa. Nor does it refer to France.

“The point of citizenship is to liberate people from State control over the way they live their lives”
===>  A very unusual description of the purpose of citizenship.

“Secularism means keeping the democratic State away from restricting free religious conscience and choice.”
===>  Not exactly Secularism denotes the absence of religious involvement in government affairs as well as absence of government involvement in religious affairs. For example it does not confer you the “choice” to walk naked in public.  Why should it give you the choice to wear clothing that is a clear symbol of oppression.

“When any repressed minority seeks relief from social inferiority, their citizenship is their most powerful tool for seeking social justice.”
===>  I cant believe you say this. Were not all gays and blacks citizens in America? Didnt the state intervene to help ensure equality - even bussing black kids to white school.

“Denying citizenship is a message that women who choose Muslim dress conformity are inferior and unequal and unworthy of State protection.”
===>  You appear to be unaware of the facts of the case. This is not someone looking for state protection. People who do not take citizenship seriously dont deserve to obtain it. 

“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? “
===>  Not that they cant be equals. That they are equals. That veils are a dispicable symbol of oppression of women. And particularly that citizens and the state have an active responsabilty to uphold the equality of all. The key point is that you cannot become a citizen without understanding this AND behaving in this fashion


“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. “
===>  There is nothing childish about obeying the state. The education of an adult on the reponsabilities of citizenship should begin before they apply for citizenship


“Paternalism doesn’t suddenly become right when a husband or a god or a religion or even a well-intentioned State does it. “
===>  The state is setting standards for citizenship. Reasonable ones.

“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. ”

#7 Nairb on Saturday June 06, 2009 at 1:41am

Mr. Shook was in fact right to link Obama’s speech to the Muslim womens clothing.

Excerpt Obama’s speech
“Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.”

I strongly disagree with this apparent position of Obama. In French Public Education and Public service, religous symbols (eg clothes) are forbidden. This is part of seperation of church and state.
On becoming a citizen one is expected to share the values of citizenship. Being aware of them is a good start, practicing them is too.
American rules of immigration do not allow communists to enter into the US easily - because they do not share your values. Likewise people who believe their bodies are not to be ashamed of are prevented from walking around freely. If I create a church which believes this fervently, will I get a free pass to walk around nude? I think not.

Other then this point. I applaud obama’s speech to mend fences with the Muslim world. However mending fences also implies being equally concerned about your own side of the fence.

#8 Ian Lowe (Guest) on Saturday June 06, 2009 at 7:33pm

I don’t believe that I am alone in feeling that bit by bit, Obama’s “Change we can believe in” is morphing into business as usual with some clever window dressing.

I can’t be more strongly opossed to this. Obama is wrong. Not just a little bit wrong - a whole lot of wrong. Journalistic cheerleading for the man who rid us of Bush doesn’t help make the base premise of this article any less wrong.

France is a modern secular democracy, with Enlightenment values at the very heart of the state.
Surely “Liberté égalité fraternité, ou la mort” has made it to the United States as an expression? “Give me Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood, or give me Death?

Freedom requires that you recognise that all are Equal and deserving of that Freedom and only survives when you have a common purpose to defend that Liberty for all - in other words, in order to have freedom, you must recognise that others should also be free, and act to defend that shared value.

Why should the French state extend that fraternité of citizenship to someone who does not believe in equality? or who thinks that Freedom should be dispensed in two flavours, depending on your Gender?

The wearing of a Burqa, whether it is enforced directly by a relative, or enforced indirectly by generations of subjugation is completely incompatible with this vision of a secular, equal, democratic and most of all free society.

Wearing this badge of oppression says loud and clear - “I do not consider Women to be the Equals of men”. It is a disgusting assertion of primitive tribalism which has no place whatsoever in a modern nation.

#9 PauC (Guest) on Sunday June 07, 2009 at 8:29am

#4 Nairb on Friday June 05, 2009 at 2:39pm:
I am sorry my comment on nuns went probably misunderstood. Their head dresses are only tolerated because christianism is majoritary, but I see it as retrograde as any other enforced system of distinction. Are you old enough to remember the time when catholic women had to cover their hair in order to go into churhch? It ALSO was retrograde, but of course, I consider retrograde having to go to church at all. The West got finally rid of that
tradition or law imported from the middle east through christianism. Others may do it if real culture, not superstition, advances in their midst.
Meanwhile, I agree with you, let them know that some of their habits are not welcome in our culture.
President Obama, should remember that our world is not unitary, we fight with neighbouring towns, gangs, countries, clans or tribes, for an oil field, a football match, cultural expressions, etc, as an ingrained part of our remnant territorial imperative.
This is what has allowed the existence of borders and nationalities as created by chieftains, kings and politicians and intenting to have as homogeneous a group as possible - through integration. Citizens were forced to speak the same language (out with the Breton, Provençal, Catalan,) and follow the same churches,etc.
Ignoring these facts will only result in more race
riots inside our cities, outside of the reach of internatiol treaties and conventions.
Now, please, do not construe my thoughts as a call for intolerance. All the contrary, to recognize the differences and work for tolerance is great, but not defending you identity will bring disaster.

#10 Nairb on Sunday June 07, 2009 at 8:57am

PauC

This is not so much a Christian Versus Muslim issue or a Our Culture versus Foreign Culture.
I agree Catholics had similar customs not so long ago.
But the secular state should be independant of this. In France the secular state had to battle for centuries to put religion in its place.

Both Catholic and Muslim headress are fully tolerated by the law generally. Where they are not tolerated is in school (amongst students) or in Public Services (employees).
This is because the state controls both and the state MUST be strictly neutral.

I wholeheartedly agree we should recognise and tolerate difference of religion and culture.
Where those religions or cultures spill over into the public sphere and contradict the fundamentals of our state then I think we are obliged to act.

Cultural practices which promote inequality (in this case of women) should be shown a minimum of disapproval by a civilised state.

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