middle east, muslims, war on terror

Niqab-ban in France: Contextualized and Dispelled

“Toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to […] the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it.”
—John Locke

Much a fuss has been made of the recent ban that has gone into effect in France that forbids the wearing of the niqab in public. At once an opportunistic tactic, but also a misinterpretation of Enlightenment principles, the legislation is not necessarily worth the amount of press and anguish devoted to it.

Nicholas Sarkozy is the least popular French president since the founding of the Fifth Republic. Hovering at around 25% approval from his people, Sarkozy has so far enacted a two part play in order to rectify his image. First, his overt conjecture in the NATO bombing campaign in Libya was supposed to rally his countrymen behind his veneer of Manichean populism (while he let the U.S. do the heavy-lifting where it counted). Next came the ban, something less than novel at this point in time (recall Quebec, Belgium, Turkey, the Netherlands, etc.). Sarkozy knew this was a sure-fire route to take when his heart sank at the prospect of Marine Le Pen out-prejudicing him on the Islam front. The horror! Halal food and minarets have gone through the same treatment.

But it seems that every time something like this comes along, one is forced to enter into another nebulous philosophical debate with “clash of civilizations”, “secular freedom under siege”, “repression of women” and other clichés bouncing off of one another. Every single time, the same arguments are re-argued, and the same anguish is recycled. However, with each subsequent joust, the discourse becomes more unclear, eventually mediating the representation of the big picture that finally gets lost in the fold.

Let’s quickly dispel the three main arguments deployed by those who are for the niqab ban. (1) No, the fewer-than-2000 niqabis in France do not constitute a security threat. A backpack is a much better place to hide a bomb, should we ban them? Should we also ban ski masks (much more common in robberies) and balaclavas (popular among violent protestors)? (2) No, banning the niqab is not on the same plane as banning frontal nudity in public. Most free societies do have some sort of regulation in term of dress, but compromises can be reached when particular difficulties like the niqab are presented. There are ways around problems like this, like getting a female bureaucrat to check ID when necessary. Not the end of the world. (3) The “mobile prison argument”, that women are forced to wear the face-veil by their fathers and husbands. Suffice it to say that one should speak to those who wear the niqab in order to evaluate the merit of this argument.

Where does that bring us? Back to square one, a most basic and fundamental principle of Enlightenment expression and tolerance: cartoonists who drew demeaning portraits of the Prophet Muhammad have to put up with the face veil, and the niqabis have to put up with the cartoonists. One may not “approve of” or respect a particular way of life, but—like it or not—that is the deal in a free society: one must to learn to live with practices that one “resents”.

Therefore, the Sarkozy ruse is, like its progenitors, an easy one to untangle. It fails politically due to its easily detectable hypocrisy and opportunism, but also philosophically (if one is to grant him the audience of an unnecessary debate), for it disrespects the vows of a free society and the guiding principles of free-expression/religious-freedom.

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middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

Michael Ignatieff on Bill-94

I approached Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff this past weekend when his nation-wide bus tour landed him in Mississauga, Ontario’s annual MuslimFest festivities. After a rather warm reception, I asked the Liberal Party leader to “clear up the confusion” that has accumulated recently regarding his stance on Quebec’s proposed “niqab ban”, or Bill 94.

Ignatieff was reported by the Globe and Mail on March 26th, 2010 as to have backed the bill. Commenting on the matter at the Liberal Party’s 3-day “Canada at 150” conference, Ignatieff was quoted by the Globe as to have supposedly stated that the Quebeckers “have found a good balance.” That balance apparently referred to how “The Quebec government is trying to make sure that in civic and public places that freedom of religion is respected but at the same time on the other side citizens come forward and reveal themselves when they are demanding public service.”

This statement actually does make sense, but it was tough to see how banning the veil in Quebec would strike such a “balance”.

His answer to me this past weekend was similar, but lacked an endorsement. He was clear enough that he wanted to seek the “good-old Canadian compromise,” and that he thought Quebec would have to find its own way in achieving some common ground. When I followed up by asking whether he was misquoted in the Globe piece, he replied (with a slight hint of annoyance) with a brief “Yeah, I thought I was.” Fair enough.

I later spoke with Liberal MP (Parkdale-Highpark) Gerard Kennedy, and Omar Alghabra (former Liberal MP of Mississauga-Erindale) on the same issue. Both are against the proposed ban, and both concurred with Ignatieff’s statement.

[Addendum: I didn’t note this in the first version of this post, but in all fairness, Ignatieff did say explicitly, along with his statement on “balance”, that the state cannot/should-not dictate how women practice their faith and how they dress. Again, note the striking difference between these statements and the Globe piece. Both Kennedy and Alghabra concurred with this specific point as well.]

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The reason I, and many others, occasionally fixate on Ignatieff’s stance on particular political and cultural issues is because we want to know how viable he is as a potential alternative to Stephen Harper. Like most people I know, I am of the “anyone-but-Conservatives” camp, and think that the Liberals have the best chance of winning an up-coming election.

The Harper administration has had such a horrible effect on me (his immigration minister Jason Kenney being a primary reason) that I simply wish it political death as soon as possible (and by any means necessary/possible). This thrusts Ignatieff into unique significance for some of us at least. Will he turn out to be the more nuanced/just leader that is needed in order to mend the bleeding wounds torn by the current administration? What will he do for immigrants, for human rights, for the environment, etc.? These are the questions we have to ask, and this is why his conclusions about the niqab in Canada should be made as public as possible.

Those of us who value whatever progressive inclinations Canada possessed before the Harper nightmare, however we feel about Ignatieff, want to know whether or not he will make an effort to step away from the post-9/11 climate that has been dominated by American belligerence.

I won’t speculate on how a Liberal administration under Ignatieff will do. Anyone can rant. However, if anything needs to be said, it is the fact that the anti-Bill 94 campaign is necessary, and that political parties/administrations move based on the pressures they feel from their respective societies.

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