RAMESH THAKUR. Debating the Burqa

Aug 25, 2017

Brandis was wrong to harangue Hanson. A debate on banning the burqa in Australia is required and should address three questions: its origins in religious edicts and cultural practices; the current practice in Western liberal democracies; and the practice in Islamic countries.

How did those who proudly call themselves progressive liberals end up endorsing one of the most regressive visible symbols of the subjugation of women? Perhaps being a progressive means never having to say sorry for perverse consequences. Six months before the US election, I had foreshadowed Donald Trump’s victory by pointing to the popular backlash against the snobs (cultural, economic, political and intellectual elites) and scolds (political correctness warriors). Australian elites are yet to learn that lesson.

On 16 August – by tragic coincidence, the day Islamic terrorists mowed down over a dozen pedestrians in Las Ramblas, Barcelona – Pauline Hanson swept into Senate wearing a burqa. George Brandis, to a standing ovation from opposition members, condemned her ‘appalling’ stunt for insulting Islam by ridiculing and mocking its religious garment.

He was factually wrong and muddle-headed in his reasoning – who’d have thought that of our Attorney-General? His hysterical reaction proved Hanson’s point: the burqa is a confronting garment in the Australian context that evokes strong emotions. Branding calls to ban the burqa as Islamophobic is an illiberal attempt to shut down legitimate public policy debate. Just as even the paranoid can have real enemies, so too even the bigoted can voice genuine community concerns. Regardless of her motives – somehow, I doubt that the welfare of Muslim women was uppermost in her mind – Hanson reaps political brownie points for having put the issue on the agenda when none of the other parties had the courage of Australian convictions to do so. Suppressing the debate gives her the political space to exploit the issue on her terms.

A mix of religious injunction and cultural practices permit, mandate and proscribe different dresses. For Muslim women, the burqa covers the full body with a mesh over the eyes for vision. The niqab veils the face but not the eyes. The hijab is a headscarf that does not cover the face or eyes: see this BBC site.

According to our own ABC report last December, covering one’s face in public has been illegal in Italy since 1975; wearing the burqa and niqab in public was banned in France  and Belgium in 2011; banned in pubic places like schools, hospitals and transport (but not on the street) in the Netherlands in 2015; in Switzerland in 2016; and in December even the generous-towards-refugees Angela Merkel called for its ban in Germany while driving and in pubic places like schools, universities and courts. On 18 May Austria banned full-face veils in public with a 150 euro penalty. While most countries have justified the ban on security grounds, Belgium also held the veil to be a threat to secular society.

Among Islamic countries, Malaysia and Syria permit the hijab but not the burqa and niqab in public institutions, while Tunisia and Morocco have restrictions even on headscarves. In officially secular Turkey, the hijab was banned in civic spaces and official buildings but this has been gradually relaxed since 2008. Across the Muslim world, there is wide variation in legal obligations and social practice regarding wearing the hijab, niqab and burqa: see this  country-by-country account.

When Turkey began easing the restrictions on the hijab, I said to an expatriate Turkish friend in Canada that surely giving women the choice – especially for just a hijab, objections to which I have never understood – was good. Her reaction surprised me. No, she said. The point of banning it had been to protect girls and women from family, social and religious pressure.

That is worth thinking about: we on the outside have absolutely no means of knowing how voluntary or coerced the various forms of women’s attire are. We had hints of this when Afghanistan was liberated from the Taliban and more recently parts of Iraq from the Islamic State rule.

By the same token, we cannot know how many Muslim women will feel abandoned by the liberal majority if we condone oppressive attire. In effect, whether we intend to or not, we run the risk of adopting a profoundly racist attitude: we believe these are core human rights and values, but we don’t think you Muslim women quite deserve the protection of Australian law to enjoy the same rights. As I shall argue shortly, the same debate has played out with respect to the right of Muslim men in India to ‘instant divorce’.

Conversely, if core Australian values are that offensive to them, immigrants do have to ask if they should not stay in more congenial societies and countries.

It is bizarre to virtue signal liberal values by defending a potent symbol of illiberal women’s oppression. The burqa is an insult to all women and an offence to liberal communities. Opposition to it no more proves bigotry than does banning female circumcision, polygamy, or child marriage. Should Australia segregate outcastes so they don’t ritually pollute religiously-minded high-caste Hindus? No Labor or Green politician would be daft enough to defend these immoral and inhumane practices. The real question is where to draw the line, and this cannot be done if open discussion is stigmatised and expressions of concern group-shamed into silence.

Brandis attacked Hanson also for damaging counter-terrorism. Security service chiefs claim that the cooperation of Muslim communities is vital to intelligence and law-enforcement. But their cooperation is critical because the main threat of terrorism comes from inside their community. Every politically correct politician would prefer to ignore this fact. But people read the names of the killed and captured terrorists, see their videos invoking their god’s name at the point of beheading captives, connect the dots, and tune out of our leaders’ euphemisms.

True, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are law-abiding peaceful citizens, Islam has many powerful taboos against the killing of innocents, women and children, and most victims of Islamist terrorism are Muslims (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq). That said, it is equally incontrovertible that most terrorist acts today are committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. Every single person killed or apprehended in the terror cells in connection with the Barcelona attack was/is Muslim.

Ignoring and denying this creates anger and feeds the right-wing backlash. Large numbers of immigrants deeply steeped in illiberal religious values and social practices cannot easily absorb the norms of pluralist democracy. This poses a threat to the host country. Global polling shows strong support for sharia law in many Islamic countries. Similarly, ‘British opinion surveys consistently find gaps between the attitudes of Muslims and the liberal ethos of the wider culture, on everything from homosexuality to women’s rights to anti-Semitism’. A small minority of disaffected Muslims can still amount to a large pool of potential jihadist recruits.

An honest debate over immigration would help to defuse anxiety by elucidating facts and dispelling myths. For example, the problem could lie not in the immigrants but in particular imams who preach extremism and should be put on intelligence watchlists and denied entry visas.

In refusing to debate the impact of Muslim immigration, governments have condemned all citizens to increasing restrictions on their liberties and freedoms in the name of anti-terror national security laws and practices. A liberal policy for a few has already produced growing illiberalism for the majority as the new normal.

Westerners are myopic (racist?) also in failing to learn from the world’s largest democracy with the world’s biggest Muslim minority. It is difficult to conceptualize more than 150 million people as a minority, but that’s India’s scale for you. Its experience shows the perils of endless politically expedient appeasement of intolerant demands by a religious minority. Anyone who wants to understand the rise of Hindu militancy in India needs to study, not the ideology of the ruling party, but the Congress Party’s history of ‘vote bank’ politics of courting Muslims.

The nadir of appeasing Muslim illiberalism came in the infamous Shah Bano case in 1985 when PM Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government passed a retroactive constitutional amendment to overturn a Supreme Court judgment and strip a poor Muslim divorcee of alimony rights. The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party exploited Hindu grievance ruthlessly and its parliamentary seats jumped from two to 85 in the 1989 election. Anyone who criticises the Modi government’s tolerance of Hindu intolerance today, including moi, attracts an army of trolls for being a Congress ‘sickularist.’

An Indian Muslim man can divorce his wife in an instant through ‘triple talaq,’ simply by uttering ‘talaq’ (Arabic for divorce) three times: in writing, orally, or even by SMS or social media. Modi turned the discourse from a religious into a gender rights issue. Are Muslim women to be denied the rights available to all other Indian women, he asked? Answering no, on Wednesday India’s Supreme Court banned triple talaq as a ‘manifestly arbitrary’ practice not protected by  the Constitution’s freedom of religion clause. The case had been brought by women who had been thus divorced. The Court’s verdict has been hailed widely by gender equality advocates.

India’s Muslim leaders would have advanced the cause of social justice and inter-communal harmony by leading instead of opposing the call to ban triple talaq, which benefits mainly Muslim women. There’s a lesson for Islamic leaders and intellectuals in the West. Specifically, they should ask three questions. Is wearing a burqa for Muslim women a religious injunction or a cultural practice? To what extent does it discredit Islam in the eyes of the wider community? Does it promote or impede social harmony? Given the tiny number who wear the burqa, the community faces a choice between defending regressive practices for a few and feeding a backlash against all Muslims, or leading the call for reforms to adapt to liberal norms.

Religious leaders are not exempt from learning to pick their fights.

To return to the main argument: banning all three of the burqa, niqab and hijab from all public spaces, and not touching the religious garments of any other faith, would clearly be Islamophobic and discriminatory. But banning any covering that conceals the face and eyes, not perhaps in the streets but from public buildings, transport and while driving? Or going the French route of state-church separation and banning all religious apparel in government institutions? Or looking for creative solutions, as with the burkini? Is there really no room for debating the issues through to a solution that all sides can live with?

Professor Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

(PS. The New Daily has today, 25 August  2017 reported that a  ReachTEL poll found that 43.6% of respondents expressed ‘strong support’ for banning the burqa in public. Another 12.7% also said they would ‘support’ such a ban.   18.9% said they ‘strongly opposed’ such a ban and another 12.3% said they were ‘opposed’ to such a ban….John Menadue)

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