Sunday, April 17, 2011

Burqa: To ban or not to ban...

I came across this blog - The Answer's 42 - by way of Twitter, and found it... interesting. The author, Margaret Nelson of the UK, makes a case against the recent French ban of the burqa, speaking on the possibility of a similar ban being put in place in the UK. The write-up has several issues on which I'd like to disagree heartily with the author, and I have left a comment. However, I don't know if my comment will make it through (Have I ever mentioned how much I loathe comment moderation, especially in a so-called 'liberal' blog, and one in which the author charitably mentions, "Comments are moderated - I'll zap anything I don't like"?). Therefore, I am putting my perspective in this blog.

Margaret wrote:

One of my Facebook friends wrote ... about France enforcing secularism with this ban, or words to that effect. I think he confuses secularism with atheism. A secular society is one where religion doesn’t dictate political decisions – where the state and religion are separate – and where freedom of religion is possible, as no one religion dominates society. There are religious people who support the principle of secularism, recognising that it's the fairest system there is. Of course, hard-line atheists who are anti-religious don't like this idea...

First, most atheists have no prima facie problem with secularism. "Live and let live" is a very fine principle in theory. But that's not how religion operates. Religion thrives by spreading itself - much like a cancer metastasizing; this happens with religion either insidiously creeping into various aspects of daily life, as happens in largely secular countries such as US (Cf. the battles over evolution and abortion); or, forcing itself down the throats of those that do not subscribe to its tenets, as happens in fundamentalist theocracies around the world (Cf. blasphemy laws). So, let me ask Margaret, "as a 'secularist', do you think that religion adheres to your lofty 'Live and let live' ideals?"

I sometimes wonder whether those atheists who seem to imagine that religion can be forcibly eradicated or sneered into submission have any understanding of people in general. I'm inclined to agree with Baroness Mary Warnock, who, when interviewed by Laurie Taylor for New Humanist, said:
I find Dawkins’ simple-minded view of religion very difficult to take. It pays no proper attention to the history and tradition of religion. It says that religions have done nothing but harm but that is manifestly not true. He omits all the good things, the education, the cathedrals, the music. All that’s disregarded.
There are many things about religion I find difficult to understand, like how intelligent people can believe so much nonsense, but as a secularist, I'm happy to live and let live, as long as they do the same.

The good Baroness - from her privileged position - may well find Dawkins' view 'simple-minded'. I somehow doubt that she has actually bothered to read 'God delusion'. But be that as it may, in defending religion, the Baroness conspicuously ignores one fundamental and immeasurable harm that religion visits upon humanity by its insistence on faith - the harm to rationality, sense and sanity (that leaves the mind open to arrant superstitious nonsense of various kinds), not to mention the psychological toll of religious indoctrination from childhood. And painting religion as responsible for education is, well, simply ridiculous. Is the Baroness unaware of Christianity's long-standing tussle with the sciences?

However, wearing the niqab and the burqa isn't just about religion; it's mainly a cultural thing. The monotheistic religions are inextricably linked to patriarchal politics, but would banning the burqa improve the lives of the women who wear it? Not necessarily. They have a variety of reasons for doing so; it would be a mistake to assume that they're all forced by male relatives. I doubt very much that Nicolas Sarkozy had women's interests at heart, and nor do the most vocal advocates of a British ban.

Really, Margaret? 'A variety of reasons'? Pray illuminate us. You rightly infer (in your blog) that the answer to this is education. Yes, but it is very difficult to educate already-indoctrinated minds. That's where legislation may be of help - as a first step, with the added advantage that it would invoke debates and questions.

The vocal 'liberal' opponents of the French burqa ban tend to gloss over two facts:

(a) The burqa is the ultimate symbol of religion-inspired subjugation of women; it brands the burqa-clad women as chattel, the property of some man, father or husband, and is often enforced by Islam on pain of death. What would a so-called liberal think if s/he suddenly found at an open place a woman put on a collar and a leash, being pulled by a man? The burqa, enforced by tribal patriarchal customs from the Dark Ages, is symbolically equivalent, although one may not quite understand this parallel unless one has lived in or in close conjunction with an Islamic country. Therefore, even if Sarkozy's France is not completely motivated by secularism in enforcing the burqa ban, the move should still be hailed as a courageous stand. I invite the readers to read a reasoned articulation of the situation surrounding the ban from Marvi Sirmed, a burqa-ban proponent, journalist and prolific blogger from Pakistan.

(b) The ban is in effect only in public places. One of the main reasons cited in the prior debates is the question of public security. Margaret does recognize this when she writes:

Apart from security considerations, such as those that apply to motorcyclists who are asked to remove their helmets when it's necessary to identify them, it's an infringement of someone's human rights to legislate about what he or she may or may not wear in public.
The public security considerations are not trivial. In a system where identification largely depends on facial features, how is identification of any kind possible in presence of a Naqaab? Framing this argument as a human rights issue takes away from the main focus, the symbolism of burqa and naqaab; it is about what they represent. Would Margaret think it's still a 'human rights' issue if, for example, Klan members decided to wear their white Klan costumes (robes, masks, and conical hats, designed to be outlandish and terrifying, and to hide their identities) to public places in the Southern parts of the US?


  1. Mmm. Well, the sort of comments I don't like are the uncivil, abusive ones, so yours got through, OK? I'll get around to answering when I've got the energy and I've digested the risotto I had for supper.

  2. Thank you. I hope the Risotto was excellent and would put you in a good mood for debate!

  3. People also moderate comments to stop irrelevant spam cluttering up their blogs.

  4. Quedula, the commenting sign-in system that Google has for blogger (including a captcha) is already an effective deterrent to that. Spam is also effectively dealt with by the system. There is no need for additional comment moderation; it smacks of censorship.

  5. It's about stopping the trolls in their tracks. And anyway, why not censor comments? It's my blog; I can't be bothered with belligerent idiots, so they get zapped.

  6. Yes, of course, Margaret. It's your blog and you can do whatever you want with it.

    What bothers me, I admit, is the fact that many of the anti-science, pseudoscience-peddling, misinforming, misleading blogs use the EXACTLY SAME reasoning to stifle any criticism of their content in the comments section.

    You OTOH invite reasoned discourse; I am sure you'd agree that the practice of censorship is completely antithetical to any reasoned, intelligent discourse.