In Which I Admit to Being Wrong

Kudos to the lot of you! I’m more than a little pleased with how the discussion worked out in comments to my Liberal Knees post about the burkha.

All of the comments were thoughtful, most were lengthy, and none of them were flames against me or the other readers/commenters.

Best of all, I learned some stuff, and I hope others did too. There were more nuances in the issue than my simple formulation of “I don’t get to wear a mask in public; I don’t think anyone else should.”

Most telling was the argument that Muslim women, arguably already suffering the repression of being forced to wear the burkha in the first place, were the ones being legally penalized for … well, wearing the burkha. Definitely something worth considering.

Many of us focused on the rights of individuals to wear whatever they desire, and mostly I agree with that. At the same time, we shouldn’t lose sight of the rights of all those other individuals, the ones around us in society, to be comfortable with the choices we make. Yes, sometimes that comfort level arises from ignorance and prejudice, but other times, though it might be just as apparently oppressive to the rights of the spotlighted individual, it’s conveyed in a way we ourselves accept.

Case in point: None of us have an automatic, no-strings-attached “right” to walk around completely without clothing. There’s even a blatantly sexist element to the restriction: Men can walk around topless in numerous situations that women can’t.

I’m interested in seeing how the issue plays out in France, where the previous post’s photo was taken. France faces an interesting dilemma, and this burkha ban is one of the results.

At present, France’s population is reportedly only about 10 percent Muslim, the greatest percentage of which are observant adherents of Islam. But that segment of the population is also the fastest growing, and some predictions I’ve seen place France as majority-Muslim by as soon as 2050.

Think of this: If France, a democracy pretty much like ours here in the U.S., approaches majority Islamic population, a LOT of what makes France France might just vanish.

Imagine a world without French wines. I seldom drink wine at all, and I confess that much of what I drink is cheap domestic Zinfandel, but … I’m happy for the world’s wine connoisseurs that there is such a thing. Say what you like, in its wines, cooking and in many other ways, France has style — a unique romantic, gustatory and cultural image that I would not like to see consumed by mere Islam.

As to “Islamophobia.” I’m not sure how I feel about the term. I think the people of Planet Earth have REASON to dislike and mistrust Islam. Just as they have ample reason to dislike and mistrust Christianity, and countless other religions, but – taking into account recent events – probably even more so in the case of Islam.

I think a lot of us liberals construe fairness to mean that Islam should get a fair shake in society, enjoying parity of rights with Christianity and other religions. Certainly when it comes to the rights of individuals to profess a religion, I’m aboard with that. But Islam itself is, to me, nothing less than a pus-filled inflamed boil on the buttocks of humanity. I’d much rather see it lanced and drained …

… just as I’d rather see the pus-filled inflamed boil of Christianity lanced and drained. Watching the shenanigans of Christianity here in the U.S. over the past 20 years or so, I realize that Christianity is, at its core, anti-democratic – is in fact actively opposed to what we think of as American values. Just the fact that the central figure of Christianity is an all-powerful immortal king who demands obsequious worship, rather than an array of elected officials who come and go at the will of citizen-voters … well, you can’t get farther apart than that in values.

Rather than see Islam raised up in rights and influence equal to the level of Christianity, I’d prefer Christianity to be lessened to the level of Islam, and the both of them moved off the public stage entirely. My heartfelt approach is: Worship the hell out of Allah and Jesus, but do it in a way that doesn’t impinge on your neighbor’s right to NOT be constantly barraged with your ugly superstition. Don’t invade the schools, don’t invade the courthouses, don’t come knocking on my door.

Here in Schenectady, we had a flap a few years back where a small number of Muslim newcomers were comfortable with the cultural practice of preparing for an evening feast by killing a goat on their suburban lawns. It didn’t take too many neighbor-parents complaining that they did not want their children to witness that, either the sight or the sound …

If you’ve never heard a goat having its throat cut, take it from me (and pardon me for describing it here): Though the sounds they make are not human, they fall easily into what most of us would characterize as terrified screams. They’re louder than anything a human throat could produce, they project for blocks, and they go on and on and ON.

… before an ordinance was passed against it. The pretext of the ordinance might have been the sanitary processing of meat or some such, but the core of it was the literal quashing of a minority’s “right” to slaughter goats on their private property, to keep from shocking their majority neighbors. Last I heard, the Muslim community had quietly agreed to carry out all necessary goat killing in some distant location and truck the carcasses to backyard barbecues after the goats were safely dead.

(But then again: Post-9/11, and following what appeared to be trumped-up charges against two local Muslims that had both of them sent to prison for life for conspiring to provide weapons to terrorists, the result of a phonied-up scam federal agents practically dragged them kicking and screaming into, and then concealed most of the “evidence” at their “trial” — the quotes are me spitting out words that in this case became a gross, disgusting parody of their original meaning — they probably dared do little else.)

We like to say “Your right to swing your fists around ends where my nose begins,” but the real-world situation is more nuanced than that. Sometimes we’re comfortable with individual rights being limited – literally, in this case, Man A’s right to swing his fists around stops far short of Man B’s (or Woman B’s, come to think of it) nose. He can be several feet away, but as long as that fist-swinging is overtly threatening, we rush to make it clear to him that we don’t allow it.

In the U.S. so far, we face nothing like France’s potential slide into Islamicization, so my initial reaction to this burkha ban, arising in less dire circumstances, is certainly questionable. I could easily be accused of Islamophobia.

But I still like to think MY culture has some obvious – and great – benefits over the Islamic one.

The point has been made that Gandhi’s peaceful resistance succeeded in part because he staged it in a society which was genteel enough to permit him to carry it out. Drop him down in Pol Pot’s Cambodia or Stalin’s Russia, and he’d have lasted about 10 minutes. The question that arises out of such a situation is: How does a person who values the freedom and rights of the individual deal with a force that values neither, and will kill you for attempting to make the point?

The two practical answers civilization seems to have found so far are 1) The long path: You work to “civilize” them at least enough to accept that you, too, have a valid point of view. And 2) The short path: You go to war and beat or kill them until they stop doing what they’re doing.

In this case, I have hopes that Islam will become more civilized. I suspect 9/11, and the world’s reaction to it, was Islam’s first step on the road to modernization and liberalization. That we are, in fact, living through Islam’s Enlightenment.

But as to an outright ban on the wearing of burkhas – masks, as they seem to me – probably none of us in the U.S. are in danger of being overrun by scary Islamic ninjas. And my reaction was probably premature and inappropriate.

Strangely enough, it was only AFTER I read the comments to that previous post that I remembered my across-the-street neighbors of a few years back. A nice older couple, Guyanese Muslim immigrants (Schenectady has a lot of them). Though I had many pleasant conversations with the two of them, and used to discuss gardening with the woman as we both worked in our respective front-yard flower beds, I never saw more than about 12 square inches of her actual skin. She wore a full burkha with nothing but her eyes showing. (I think I even recall her wearing some sort of gloves; I have no memory of the appearance of her hands.)

I was bemused by the fact of her gardening in that black shroud, even on sweltering days of summer. I thought it was funny-odd to see her painting her porch – white paint, no less! – wearing all black like that. But I didn’t feel the least bit threatened by her. She was just this nice lady who wore what amounted to an unusual costume.

So, to wind this up: You were right, and I was wrong.

In the U.S., at least, the long path is the right one. The right of Muslim women to wear full-body coverings takes nothing away from me, threatens me in no way I can see. (The special cases of identifying people, for instance in airports and drivers license bureaus, can probably be handled with work-arounds that respect the culture without ignoring public safety.)

I still think the burkha is a tragic, even ugly, cultural norm, and I would like Islam to change in a way that recognizes the rights of women to be free of it.

But the best way to do that, it now seems to me, is through exposure to us and our delightful freedoms (Ha! Baywatch!) rather than laws against them.