This long feature about the tendency for many young Muslim women to veil themselves in Europe is interesting. Granted, the author clearly abhors the trend, and much of the text is impressionistic, but with the Shabina Begum affair, it seems apropos. Back when I was a pretty doctrinaire libertarian I used to joke about Maggie Thatchers quip that “there is no such thing as society.” No longer, humans are social creatures and the norms that we espouse shape how we interact with each other, social conservatives and communitarian liberals both draw from a deep vein of human reality. My ruminations on religious pluralism should make it clear that I think increased diversity will generate social anomie.1
In the specific case of women declaring that their taking up of the hijab or niqab is a personal statement (i.e., “I am no longer evaluated for my sexuality”), I think in most cases it is clearly fabulation. My experience on the “inside” is that the number one reason given within the community is that the only men that should see women are their closest male relations and their husband. But an important social and psychological parameter has to be the need to demarcate group barriers. In One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them, the Reform rabbi comes close to taunting the Orthodox scholar1 about the fact that he “dresses like a 17th century Polish nobleman.” Now, granted, this jab was partly a reaction to the fact that the Orthodox scholar nakedly questions the Reform rabbi’s Jewish authenticity repeatedly. I was interested to note that the Orthodox scholar finally responded by making an analogy to a girl with tatoos and piercings who wishes to express difference and distinction from society. I have used this analogy in the context of women who ostentatiously (in my view) demand acceptance of both the most extreme forms of Islamic “modesty” as well entering into the public world where they are exposed to a level of interpersonal contact that would be shocking to “traditionalists.” I recall as a child listening to my father expressiong confusion upon hearing of a woman who he knew of who had recently had a “religious awakening” and veiled herself…but remained at her job as a loan officer at a bank!!! If you do not understand my father’s confusion, the common interpretation of shariah bans interest.
The last example suggests that in the case of veiling we need to decompose two aspects of the issue, 1) individual/personal driven factors, 2) the social-cultural context. Many of the women who are causing the greatest social tension do so because they juxtapose a modern and pre-modern worldview simultaneously, and demand that they be accepted on their terms. On a social-cultural level the withdrawl of women into purdah would be less tenditious simply because their visibility and friction with the mainstream would be mitigated. On the other hand, students and professionals who assert their modesty make it an issue by their projection into a world that does not share or understand their purported values or religion. I say purported because the simultaneous assertive modernity in goals (i.e., becoming a professional) of some Islamist women and their appeal to a melange of progressive (self-respect, liberty) and religious (“my religion demands I do this”) talking points is a disorienting phenomenon which I don’t see the mainstream being able to grapple with very well even though its legitimacy could be questioned through several angles of deduction from espoused axioms. When someone asserts that their religion demands a particular set of actions or beliefs, there is often a lack of retort that it is actually their interpretation of their religion. Without the latter there is an implicit marshalling of an entire religious tradition in the service of their personal opinion. To use another case as illustrative, I recall in high school an acquaintance of mine who declared in biology class that their “religion said that evolution wasn’t true.” I happened to know this individual and asked to confirm that they were Roman Catholic, which they assented to, at which point I offered that Pope Pius XII stated in an encyclical in 1950 that evolutionary theory was reconcilable with Catholic belief. This burst my acquaintance’s bubble rather well.
Another issue is the social stress that different cultural mores induce. Most non-Western, and frankly, non-Anglo-Saxon, cultures have a different idea of “free expression” than is norm in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The chilling of speech offensive to Muslims in Europe is a harkening back to the all-to-natural human norm. The attack on a theater in England by Sikhs was bestial. Not that absolute defense of freedom of speech is a universal characteristic of even all Americans, I recall back during the 1990s that William Donohue of the Catholic League floated ideas about enforcing sanctions against blasphemy via publically accepted community standards. In Catholicism and American Freedom I got the distinct impression that the Irish and Irish American hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church were uncomfortable both with the pluralism of American society and its minimal protections for the dignity of the Church.3 In fact, as the 20th century wore on Roman Catholic activists who had battled the WASP elites and Know-Nothings shoulder-to-shoulder with Jewish intellectuals felt betrayed when the latter would periodically align themselves with secular anti-clerical WASPs to attack the Church as an anti-democratic institution. Donohue didn’t have a coherent heuristic when queried in depth, but clearly there are those who would not shed tears at the death of liberty for Diderot.
I bring up the Roman Catholic example to emphasize to those sanguine about the rise of muscular Islam that elbow room offered to a marginal minority might be a tool used against the liberal order over the long term. Concessions in the interest of expediency and tolerance may be the first cracks in the high stress edifice of modern liberal democracy predicated on individual rights. Additionally, I believe the liberal democratic system is buttressed both by a particular relation between the state and individuals, and the pairwise interactions between individuals themselves. Clearly there are many segmented societies, but their social dynamics are often less than ideal. If social and political legitimization is granted a minority of “activists” from the increasing panoply of diverse communities, I suspect we will see a future where every man can be a Sharpton. As individuals and communities many will still thrive, but I believe the world will suffer the lack of liberal-individualistic witness.
What does the liberal democratic nation-state stand for? Well, sometimes it is easiest to define what one doesn’t stand for….
1 – Contrary to the title, Yaakov Yosef Reinman declares himself a scholar of particular legal issues, not a rabbi.
2 – The point of this post is that liberal individualism is good, so some social anomie is OK by me. My point is that systems have breaking points, and when you transform a society characterized by gentle graded variations into one clustered around particular modes the primary vehicle of social organization and expression will shift from the individual to the groups.
3 – Attacks against the Church, many of them clearly libelous, were not generated by secularists as much as Protestants in this case. Ironically, the Roman Catholic Church, despite its lack of affirmation for the separation of church and state until deep into the 20th century, was probably the single most importance vehicle for the push toward non-sectarianism in public schools from the 1850s on.