Monday, April 18, 2011

On Burqa ban - part Deux: response to Margaret Nelson

Yesterday I wrote about "The Answer's 42" blog and its British author, Margaret Nelson, touching upon my disagreements with her secularist approach regarding the burqa ban in France (and proposed in the UK). Margaret had promised me a detailed rebuttal. Well, here it is, and look! It's a post with my name in the title! Awww! A post solely for me? I am honored, Margaret!

Just so that I make my position on commenting crystal clear at the outset, yes, I tend to think of comment moderation as reeking of censorship (and do not practise it in my admittedly-low-volume blog). But since I have already dealt with this (in the comments section of the last post), I am simply going to jump into the heart of more pressing issues that Margaret's post raised.

Before anything else, let me cut back to where it all started: the burqa ban. Clearly, you and I agree with the thesis of the symbolism of burqa and naqaab. However, there are some concrete fact-based reasons I don't agree with your perception and assessment of the burqa situation in the UK (or elsewhere). You said:

I fully understand the significance of enforced burqa-wearing in Islamist states. Most British Muslim women, like educated Muslim women from countries like Egypt, do not wear the niqab or even the hijab. Two Muslim women at a school sixth form conference last year were asked about their choice – one wore the hijab, the other did not. It was agreed that the choice is largely determined by culture, rather than the Qur’an.

Allow me to point out two very recent incidents that completely demolish your position on this: first, the case of Shanna Bukhari, a young British Muslim who entered the Miss Universe contest and consequently received death threats from Muslims and White Supremacists; and secondly, the case of a non-Muslim woman professional in Britain, who wears Western clothes and was told to wear a hijab or face death. Similar incidents have been reported in the recent past from India. The imperative to make a woman cover herself may be a tribal, cultural custom, but the enforcement of that imperative, as well as the enablement of the self-appointed guardians of Islamic morality, comes directly from their scripture and/or its interpretation. It is denigrating for the women.

The trend that you mentioned - of young Muslim women voluntarily choosing the veil - is indeed disturbing. It only goes to show the level of indoctrination in these women, where a so-called Islamic identity (along with the accompanying paraphernalia) is considered more important than human identity or individual personality; such abject perversion of the mind can only be accomplished by religion and religious faith.

Support for the burqa ban in France has come from various quarters, including many progressive liberals from Islamic countries. And I am sure you'd agree, Margaret, that they would know a thing or two about the forces of Islamic fundamentalism. Please read this take from Ms. Marvi Sirmed, a journalist and author from Pakistan; I find her views very informative.

And now for something NOT completely different.

Upon my assertion that "atheists have no prima facie problem with secularism", Margaret asks me:

How would you know? When were you appointed spokesperson for atheists in general?

Heh, Margaret! Good one. You missed the key word, 'prima facie'. Perhaps I should have clarified my use of the term 'atheist', or made it more inclusive of the prominent atheists and rationalists whose writings I have perused and been influenced by. For example, this:

"Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility. As for whether they are "valid," let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so." (Richard Dawkins, in "The God Delusion")

Or, this:

"The sea our country is drowning in is a raging religiosity, wave after wave of ignorant arguments and ideological absurdities pushed by tired dogma and fervent and frustrated fanatics. We keep hearing that the answer is to find the still waters of a more moderate faith, but I’m sorry, I don’t feel like drowning there either... There is an answer, and it’s on display right here in this room. The solution, the only longterm solution, is the sanity of secularism." (PZ Myers)

Or perhaps this:

"We can do all that good--and we are doing all that good--without any affiliation with religion. It's true there are Christian missionaries doing very fine work in Africa. There are secular groups like Doctors Without Borders doing the same work. They don't need to believe in Jesus coming out of the clouds in order to do that work." (Sam Harris, interview with Laura Sheahen)

I don't know, Margaret; to me it seems that these leading atheist intellectuals understand plenty what secularism means. Some of them, however, reject the culture of inaction duly practised by so-called 'secularists' (the scare-quote is intentional, of course). As PZ Myers wrote last year after the Secular Humanism Conference:

"Too many of the godless believe in something even more: to avoid rocking the boat, to refrain from challenging dogma, to deftly avoid the issue when someone raises some religious folly. If you think you’re helping the cause with your cautious silence, then a brick wall is a public intellectual."

And even more importantly, this:

"One of the most common canards applied to [atheists]... is that we’re negative, that we lack a positive center that we stand for. This is completely false. When you look at the body of work that the prominent leaders of this movement have put together, when you look at the books of people like Dawkins and Harris and Dennett and Coyne and Stenger, you do not find them nattering on for hundreds of pages about how much they hate religion. Quite the contrary. What you find are authors who write about reason and evidence and science, where front and center you find an appreciation for a universe rich with natural phenomena that, with a little honest effort, we can reach out and comprehend. We atheists live a purpose-driven life, to steal a phrase, and that life is dedicated to deepening our understanding and learning about this world. Call us merely negative, or merely angry, or merely anti-religious, and you haven’t been paying attention. You haven’t been reading our books or articles for comprehension.

I added the emphasis in that last sentence. Sounds familiar, Margaret? The Baroness' viewpoint on Richard Dawkins mentioned in Margaret's post, anyone?

Margaret next trots out the tired, hackneyed argument for religious apologetics:

Religion doesn’t function in a vacuum, nor does it adhere to any ideals. It can’t force itself to do anything. People do these things. Talking about religion without acknowledging its complexity is pointless.

Sure, people do it. But people don't work, to borrow your phrase, in a vacuum either. Religion, religious indoctrination, religious edicts and interpretation of religious texts (and this goes for all religions, not just the Abrahamic faiths) - they make it extremely easy to behave in an irrational manner and commit acts of unspeakable violence and aggression. Faith, as well as blind reliance on faith, deranges one's rational faculties, including the capability to think and reason. You do understand this, Margaret; so how do you NOT connect these dots?

I called the US largely secular because, as you recognize, secularism is enshrined in the US Constitution, but you do understand correctly the situation regarding religion and religiosity in the US. The other country that you mention, India, my birthplace, got its Constitution in 1950, although the word 'secular' was not inserted into the Preamble to the Constitution before the Forty-second Amendment in 1976. In modern India, a secular democratic republic, while - as you pointed out - most people do live harmoniously with their neighbors of various faiths, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, as well as non-believers, the country has not been steadfast to its secular principles or immune to the divisive and malignant forces of religion: within the last couple of decades there have been instances of religiously motivated violence leading to loss of lives. And most damningly, the preponderance of religious faith in daily lives has made way for all sorts of superstitions, quackery and various social evils. You have seen similar problems in the UK, and yet it seems that - for some strange and baffling reason - you'd rather remain under the shadows of your brand of inert 'secularism', refusing to be drawn into taking a firm stand.

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