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September 28, 2004

Against beekeeping

Recently I was flipping around channels and saw Bill Maher refer to Arabs keeping "half their population dressed like beekeepers." I found that hilarious. Now, as Stanely Kurtz has noted Westerners should be really cautious about fiddling with Muslim modes of dress. I'm taking that off the table, rather, I want to focus on the importation of Muslim attire into the West.

Frankly, recently I've been moving toward a Kemalist position on this of late. It is basically driven by realism and a rejection of my basic liberal individualist inclinations on these sort of issues. My position is basically undergirded by my study of history and evolutionary psychology, it seems that complex societies tend to treat their women anywhere from moderate levels of patronizing freedom to isolated beekeepers. The exceptions prove the rule: ancient Sparta was a bizarre social experiment that Adolf Hitler took a shine too. Even societies where women had some amount of power, the republican Romans or the Mongols, it was mostly through their relationship to men and it was in a very restricted fashion. By analogy: Bangladesh, Pakistan and India are not feminist nations in any substantive fashion even though they have had female heads of state because those women derived their power through their familial relationships to men.

Not all societies are so blatantly sexist, but those that aren't tend to be simpler, and closer to our EEA. The modern West is I think in many ways a peculiar, and unstable, throwback to the EEA (see here). It preserves values of cross-gender equality and cross-class egalitarianism that are not typical for large complex rule-based societies that restrict freedom of choice in the interests of social stability. Perhaps patriarchy is inevitable, but, I suspect with some elbow-grease we can maintain this sexual equalitarianism until the end of our species or its transformation into another form (I am skeptical that man-as-we-know it has much of a future beyond 100-200 years).

Does this mean that I espouse legalistic Kemalist positions on the expression of non-normative dress in public? No! Rather, what I think is sane is non-accommodationism on the issue of gender-mixing. There are news reports recently that Muslims in the West want local institutions to "respect" their need for gender segregation in physical education, swimming or would prefer non-male doctors. This is natural as an expression of many traditionalist cultures. Nevertheless, Westerners should not accommodate. I believe that most Muslims will eventually switch over to Western norms on this issue (frankly, most already have, if against their will). There is a precedent for this: the millions of traditionalist Jews who migrated to the United States in the early 20th century. The smaller community of established Reform German Jews were ashamed by the ways of the Eastern European Jews when they first came to American shores, but today, only 10% of Jews are Orthodox, and a smaller percentage are Hasidic. The American society simply did not accommodate Jewish needs when it came to perpetuating their shtetl life, and so you have 4 generations later acclimated Americans. Now, there are differences between Jews and Muslims, but in the United States immigrant Muslims tend to be rather educated, so the model is not wholly rhetoric.

Related: Zack Ajmal has a entry where the issue of Islamic separatism comes up. In The Nurture Assumption Judith Rich Harris uses the example of students getting the label of "overestimators" and "underestimators" in a totally arbitrary fashion but still favoring "their own kind" (who they did not know and had no incentive to favor) when disbursing rewards. This is highly illustrative of a tendency toward "groupishness." The problem with "Islamic dress," just like "Jewish dress," is that it perpetuates groupishness. Now, Western society can withstand some amount of intrasocial groupishness, but a People Apart can cause long term problems, and even though some Muslims will reformulate the wearing of Islamic dress as an individual prerogative, the donning of certain attire automatically sends signals to everyone around you about who you are (or might be) and how you view them (or how they think you view them). As a point of law one might circumscribe the individual from the society in which they reside, but as a operational reality it is simply naive.

Additionally, one of the commentors makes a point about Catholic nuns "dressing differently," and how no one objects to this. This betrays a lack of understanding of the history of anti-Catholicism, and in Roman Catholic nations anti-clericalism. The clerical class is obviously a sanctified People Apart, and so when the Reformation (and later the French Revolution) broke out they were objects of public fury and rage because of their perceived privileges and superiority.

Posted by razib at 03:56 PM