Burqas, hijabs, niqabs, oh my!

McGill Daily

I suppose it’s time to address the rather large and noisy elephant floating between the margins of Aristotle’s lackey.

Law 94.

Just last week, the National Assembly passed a law banning the niqab from such critical public spaces as universities, government offices, daycares, and hospitals receiving government funding. The support for the ban has been strong throughout Canada, with an 80% approval rating according to a survey conducted by Angus Reid. Criticisms have been sparse, coming primarily from an unsure Muslim community, various lawyers, scattered academics, and select university papers.

But the general discussion on this matter has just been a mess, with a near complete avoidance in English-speaking Canada of the question of the role of identity. Given the provincial nature of this legislation, however, I will limit my discussion to Quebec.

As mentioned briefly in an article last month by Sheetal Pathak (“Muslim women don’t need saving from themselves,” Commentary, March 18), the Canadian Muslim community is itself divided on this issue. Unlike the hijab, there’s no real consensus on the status of the niqab. A small minority see it as an obligation – or at the very least, the superior form of the modesty principle prescribed by Islam.

While this debate is legitimate, it’s irrelevant to the issue at hand – the discussion on the matter within the Muslim community needs to move beyond the question of necessity. If there are women who believe it is their religious obligation to wear the niqab while living in North America, then that choice must be respected.

That cyclic debate along with broader reductionist debate on “choice,” grossly undermine women’s agency and completely overlook the greater context of Law 94 and the persistence of a discourse ultimately not about gender equality, secularism, integration, or identification, but about identity. And just as identity politics create a limiting framework for political discourse, identity politics can and often do create limiting platforms for legislation and issues regarding minority populations.

Quebec is not France. But like French identity, Quebec identity is built upon a shared linguistic and ethnic heritage as embodied by the historical interactions between church and state, epitomized by the near-total rejection of Catholicism during the Quiet Revolution.

And like France, Quebec has seen a surge in its immigrant population – which challenges a system long sustained by the province’s homogeneity. It is understandable that the majority of Quebeckers – outside Montreal especially – would fear the erosion of an identity with a tumultuous past. Quebeckers are, after all, a minority within Canada so the issue of identity is already fragile.

While this fear is understandable, it is not justified and it certainly should not be the source for any law. With only a few dozen women in the province actually wearing the niqab, how much of a problem does the covering actually cause? France’s proposed ban on the burqa, recently judged unconstitutional by an advisory board, affected only 367 women out of 5 million Muslims. How necessary is a law for an exception – especially at the expense of appearing hostile to a significant and growing minority? What’s more, where exactly is the line drawn? When does “reasonable” accommodation become “unreasonable”? Can any demand be unreasonable if it’s made in the name of identity and ideology? Is it unreasonable if by the minority and reasonable if by the majority?

All of this is not to ignore the obligation upon the Muslim community itself, as with any other ethno-religious group, to sincerely engage with such issues and ask themselves what is a “reasonable accommodation” to ask of the state. But this question and its implications are to be addressed and dealt with by the respective communities themselves as it hinges on their own identity and place in society.

For many, a law that discriminates against an exception may not be really consequential to the “big picture” in a negative or a positive way. It is, however, crucial that we consider the sort of framework this persistent debate and this particular legislation create for future discussions on matters concerning minorities. This discussion is not black and white, nor do I wish to even hint at such a claim. There are, however, some factors which play a stronger role than others and we must pay heed to their influence.

But until we get to future debates, I’ll keep rocking flashy and colourful scarves that my students seem to love for as long as I can.

Beyond Mini-Skirts and Veils

Kabobfest post on the French Veil debate. It’s time we moved onto a discussion a little more intellectually engaging.

FRANCE SARKOZYPresident Sarkozy’s recent declarations against the burqa have fallen out of the news headlines but his words are still ringing loudly within and outside Western Muslim communities. Opinion pieces and letters continue to flood international and local papers, tugging back and forth. While such debates may be painful and trivial to read and listen to by many, they must be welcomed as they bring into light a far greater issue than any all-encompassing piece of fabric. Most importantly, however, there is a dire necessity for a more intellectually sound discussion outside the common “the mini-skirt versus the veil” parable. Albeit legitimate, this comparative argument is reductionist, focusing on a superficial detail. For one thing, it does not take into account that the question of the veil in France is beyond basic issues of the place of religion in a secular state. This is the same problem found within the monologues expressing support for the ban; monologues arguing for the universal liberation of universally oppressed Muslim women. If we are to engage in this discussion, as citizens of a multicultural secular democratic state, education on the matter becomes an obligation upon each and every one us. We must engage and we must learn to observe outside the tunnel. After all, our own society faces watered-down versions of the questions being whispered and roared amongst the French state and its populace.

In 2005, France declared that any and all “conspicuous” religious symbols would be banned from public schools. While Christian crosses and Jewish kippas also fell under the ban’s radar, its most obvious target was the hijab, a head-covering worn by many Muslim women around the world. The French state repeatedly assured the ban’s critics that the action was necessary for sustaining the country’s foundational secularism and was not meant to isolate or harass a large demographic within its citizenry. But as the home to the largest European Muslim population, it was hard for observing critics to bat their eyes in any other direction.

A thorough survey and critique of the 2005 ban was provided by Professor Joan Wallach Scott’s 2007 book Politics of the Veil. Scott explores French notions of secularism, sexuality, individualism and history, in particular putting an emphasis on the link between France’s role as a former colonial power and its current relationship with its minority populations. This role is only one part of a far more complex and multi-layered situation in which France currently finds itself. The French Revolution created a republic with ideals of equality, individualism and secularism which reflected what it meant to be French in the post-revolution period. The issue of colonial history, however, is one which deserves more attention than it has received, especially in the discussion regarding the adornment of the veil – be it in the form of the hijab or the burqa – in the French public.Battle of Algiers

Scott argues that the colonialist experience of the French in North Africa saw the veil as a symbol of both cultural and violent resistance. Algeria stood at the forefront of France’s efforts: ending France’s reach with the 1960s revolution. The adornment of the veil made the Algerian woman’s grasp to her ‘barbaric and backwards’ culture all the more apparent; she had to be unveiled for assimilation to be successful. This was, after all, in line with the imperialist European strategy of conquering a society through conquering its women first. During the revolution, however, the full veil took on a violent façade. Many men, hidden within the garment, attempted to assassinate French officials roaming the Algerian streets. This tactic proved to be successful. The veil became the physical manifestation of an entire people’s resistance to being conquered. As Franz Fanon discusses in his book The Wretched of the Earth, in the process of decolonization both the colonized and the colonizers are affected. They are no longer the same bodies of people which existed before colonization; they emerge from decolonization as partially, sometimes fully, reborn. France’s colonial experience has, thus, unsurprisingly left a legacy not only within the lands it attempted to conquer but also within the minds of the French state and populace.

The fascination with the unveiling of the woman of the so-called Near East is perhaps most perfectly depicted within the Orientalist artwork of the 18th and 19th centuries. These works portrayed themes and images which created a long-lasting impression. Many painters were unable to travel to the conquered regions, having to rely on secondhand accounts. Yet even those who were able to travel were often unable to gain access to women as models.  Thus their illustrations were driven by both circumstance and self-fulfilling fantasy.

The artists collectively created a singular portrait of the Near Eastern woman as both a virgin awaiting her salvation and a seductress seeking her next willing victim. She would often be either confined within the cages of a harem, forced to perform for her bearded and overweight master or she would lounging naked in a large bath, being gently scrubbed by a black female slave. Thus, over-eroticization of the Near Eastern woman was not isolated to the oft-misunderstood harem; it was extended to all facets of her life, from the most intimate to the most familial and mundane. Additionally, her clothing deserves special observance.  When clothed, her garments were often depicted as sheer and tantalizing, covering just barely enough.

in-the-harem-by-gyula-tornai-sThe Near Eastern man was also not safe from an overly exoticized depiction; he was a man unable to treat his women in their deserving manner. He was a man who kept a strong hand on his women, who were merely his sexual properties. It was the thus the duty of the European man to save the poor women and unveil her from the precincts of the harem and home. This fantasy has persisted till this day: Muslim and Arab women are confined to a veil forced upon them by their vicious men thereby making it the duty of the Western man to come and liberate the oppressed from their chains. And just like the feminist missions of the past, the men of today come to liberate the women of ‘backwards and barbaric cultures’ forgetting the strong patriarchal structures which still exist and exploit their own societies.

France now stands at a social and political turning point. It has been unwilling to see and accept that in its post-colonial condition it is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. Instead, it continues to push its homogeneous identity upon a heterogeneous populace in an effort to secure its power as a strong state. France’s ideological secularism is not the problem. Its inability to adapt to its reality is. The hijab and the burqa are not the problem. Their symbolic throwback to history is, as are the rigid structures and understandings of equality, sexuality and individualism.

Banning an article of clothing, which is both chosen and unfortunately sometimes also forced, does not provide any solution to the attack France sees coming from the nearby horizon. Such a ban only acts as its own resistance to the reality of its changing face. French Muslims, who have been living within the country for generations, consider themselves French above all else. Yet they are consistently told – socially, politically and economically – otherwise. The 2005 riots, by angry young men of immigrant origins is testament to the alienation and discrimination felt by those who have lived in France for two or three generations. These young men are no longer considered natives of the lands from which their forefathers came and at the same time are not considered to be “actually” French by those who are French “enough.”

By targeting how a small number of French women choose to assert and represent their sexuality, France is missing the real sources of the problem as well as implying that its foundation is perhaps far less stable than what it would like the world and its own citizenry to think. It is now time for France not to shed the various components of its identity, but rather to approach those very pieces with a broader outlook. Its minority population has been willing to adapt for decades, but can France accept minimal equity as a basis for greater equality as we have done so here in North America?

Mr. Sarkozy, your efforts may be sincere; you are, after all, only trying to protect the criteria for what makes one“French” enough.0720-niqab-france1 Remember, however, that in your attempt to free woman from her draping chains, you restrict her sexuality, her own sense of her individualism and her being to the confines of your harem by dictating the dance she must do and the garments she must wear to please you.

Patrick Part II – the secular fundamentalist

What this!?

In my last column I introduced you to my friend Patrick* who, by the way, is a real person and not a figment of my attempt to create an interesting preface to this second part. Now, in this piece, I want to discuss the existence of what specifically Patrick represented: secular fundamentalism.

“Fundamentalism” is, in and of itself, a contentious term which has come to take on completely negative connotations extending to all religions. For the sake of argument and brevity, I will adopt the term in its modern construction and with such connotations. Today, we relate zealousness, close-mindedness and religion to the term: a fundamentalist is a religious zealot who has medieval and unwavering ideas regarding religion and its role in society. My problem with this popular understanding of fundamentalism is not with the inclusion of religion, but rather the definition’s exclusiveness. Fundamentalism, as we take it to mean in the popular sense, should not be confined solely to religious zealots.

Religious fundamentalists strictly adhere to certain ideas based on an eschatological foundation. Their ideas about the public and private realms are political and social ideas based on a greater ideal and good they see as the salvation force of society and humanity.

Regardless of anyone’s personal convictions against religious fundamentalists, and regardless of “right” versus “wrong” and other moral epithets we can throw, their ideas are legitimate as they define a certain way of living; they form a certain worldview which is as legitimate, in and of itself, as any other worldview. “In and of itself” is important because it stresses not the fundamentalist beliefs, but that the ability to have such a worldview is objectively valid. That being said, if fundamentalism relates to strict and unwavering adherence to certain social and political ideas, based on a greater utilitarian good, then why should it be limited to religious zealots?

Secularism, broadly defined and understood, consists of certain ideas regarding the public and private life based on a particular idea of the role and the understanding of religion. It differs in both theory and practice.

American secularism, as established by the forefathers, serves to protect religion from the political realm, while French secularism aims to protect the French citizenry from the evils of religion. These two examples right away show us the vast differences in understanding what secularism is and/or what it should be.

We do, however, see the latter understanding of secularism, in which religion – with no differentiation made – becomes a negative force in society that needs to be controlled; religion creates a life contrary to the aims of the secular ideology. Religious fundamentalists see other forms of life, secularist or from other religions, as contrary to the aims of their ideology.

Political and academic rhetoric in France, Turkey, northern Europe and North America, in particular, shows the rise of secular fundamentalism in which religion – seen as a unified and stagnant force – is swiped away from the Enlightenment-rooted ideals of rationalism; it is made incompatible, a joke. The enemies of secularism fundamentalists are not religious fundamentalists, but rather anyone who adheres to religion. Religion is a brainwashing force that chains minds to lofty fairytales and fruity promises; it cannot be upheld by those with a hint of rationality. This line of thinking ironically makes religious and secular fundamentalists brethren. Religious fundamentalists see those who adhere to other religions, or to nothing at all, as lost, brainwashed by false prophets into believing in lofty fairytales and fruity promises. Salvation and destruction become parallel terms – both see their salvation in what the other sees to be destruction.

Secularism is not the problem in our society, nor is religion; both can co-exist peacefully, and both have proven to be positive forces in the governance and function of society – as well as negative thanks to their uses by individuals and groups. What we see increasingly today, however, is this “fundamentalism” penetrating all ideologies and belief-systems. Feminist fundamentalists, Buddhist fundamentalists, libertarian fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists, who share an intellectual relationship with the secular fundamentalists, exist – they’re not griffins. Intellectual essentialism becomes practical fundamentalism, and this practical fundamentalism affects the portrayal of other worldviews, especially religion, which is again seen in a singular and stagnant lens.

Christianity, in particular, has had to bear the burden of social contempt given the negative role it has played in many Western societies that now bear the mark of secular fundamentalism. Thus, like religious fundamentalism, which is largely reactionary, as embodied in the works of individuals such as Syed Qutib, secular fundamentalism follows the same route – reacting to a long history of a negative relationship with a particular belief system by extending that reaction towards not just a religion but toward religion..

The solution? I’ll write about that after I learn to type secularism without first typing sexularism.

*Patrick is real, but this name isn’t.

Patrick, the Ideological Rationalist

Take it back! (Timbaland style!)

This is the first of a two part-piece looking at secularism. This first part acts as a loose introduction to a discussion on the negative approach secularism has taken toward fundamentalism, ideology, and essentialism. If we consider secularism to be the governing ideal of the future and the modern state, then we must reconsider the popular form it has taken within the past decade.

Meet Patrick*, a young 22-year-old living and attending school in Alberta. Patrick’s your stereotypical college guy. He’s intelligent, good-looking, well-liked, laid-back, politically active, well-read, and knowledgeable about current affairs. The ladies love him and the guys want to be him. That kind of guy. But behind his bright I-want-to-knock-his-teeth-out kind of smile, there lies a deafening darkness. See, Patrick’s a conservative. Not usually a big deal, but having known Patrick for almost six years, his evolution into his current manifestation of neo-conservatism has shown me the dangers of ideology. I had always believed that ideology, no matter where on that sham of a spectrum it fell, was inherently poisonous and conducive to loss of rationality, even if that ideology was rationalism.

Patrick wasn’t always a huge ideologue. He used to be cool. Like “Whoa! Even though you’re from, like, hick-chuck Alberta, you’re still so awesome!” sort of cool. We met through our love for political discourse and international affairs six years ago. I was sarcastically dabbling in Communism, a result of my high school teacher who was the former head of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation and, unapologetically, really NDP. Patrick was dabbling in green politics, holding favour toward the Green Party while still grasping onto the prepubescent beginnings of conservatism. I thought Karl Marx had a sick beard; he thought John Locke was a saviour. Juxtaposed properly, we fit. We met through mutual friends, and formed a good platonic relationship, filled with enlightening conversation and music-file sharing. Our common thirst for knowledge despite dissimilar views, allowed us to have civil conversations and grow together intellectually.

But things began to change by the time I hit university. Patrick had already been in university for about a year by the time I made my historical entrance into McGill in 2005. His views had become more refined and his MSN citations were also more impressive. He had also begun to get heavily involved with local prominent conservatives in Alberta – something that concerned me as he had always said he felt the only party decent in the Canadian system was the Green Party. Slowly but surely, classes with leading conservative scholars in a conservative university and close relations with prominent Conservative politicians led to a hardening of Patrick’s prepubescent conservatism. He had hit political puberty.

While he became conservative, but not Conservative, in most aspects, his greatest concentration took the form of the superiority of the West. Seriously. During the next four years, I would see the radicalization of Patrick; from a moderate young guy with conservative tendencies to an ideological rationalist. Don’t get me wrong – I love rationalism, it’s great and whatever, but to be such a proponent of it so as to believe that it’s inherent to the so-called West and lacking in “other” cultures? That’s enough to get Edward Said to bust a cap in his own, now deceased, ass. But this extremely erroneous line of thinking did not stop Patrick from fighting against what he thought was the antithesis of Western rationalism. The major part of this antithesis was “Islam” – a religion he believes needs a Protestant revolution, but with a “Mohammadan” twist of course.

After a while, I just came to the conclusion that he had become reactionary to cultural globalization. After all, he had begun seeking what “Western culture” really entailed. To him, it was a given (albeit a fallacious one) that the Ancient Greeks were the forefathers of Western awesomeness. He felt, however, that there must be more to being Western other than the suffocatingly brilliant works of Hegel, Kant, Locke, Rousseau, and Dershowitz. Patrick found this awesomeness in the American South and secularism.

Patrick started asserting that the real heart of the West, everything it stood for, was found in the South, in the form of rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll, he said, encapsulated the very essence of everything associated with the West, including freedom. Aside from the geographical misnomer, I didn’t have the heart to tell the only person I know who identifies so strongly with his hemisphere, that even rock ‘n’ roll, his emblem of the West, was rooted deeply in African music traditions brought over on the slave ships and into the cotton fields. And while he claimed he was an internally religious person, his rhetoric claimed religion to be the most destructive of forces, unless it was liberalized – in other words, regardless of origin and belief, religions needed to conform to his Western ideals of liberalism. The implications of such a line of thinking are tremendous and reflective of a growing trend within popular ideas of secularism, all of with which Patrick has been acquainted.

During the past year, especially more recently, Patrick has become unbearable. He has become rabid about the West, which excludes Russia, but includes Israel and Turkey. He quietly refuses all opposing perspectives, and when debate is ended with frustration by his opponents, he claims they are against dialogue and thus against the core of sweet, sweet Western values. Secularism, rationalism, and the so-called West have been rolled into one massive and ticking package of ideology. All three of these components are fine in and of themselves as ideas and practices, to a large extent. However, as soon as we turn these into a cohesive unwavering ideology, which we have seen happen in the past decade, we begin to see a sort of fundamentalism arise. In my next column, I will address the fundamentalism of secularism from which, I will argue, rationalism and the idea of the “West” cannot be separated.

*name has been changed