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‘The crucial point is that it is not up to the state to define or interpret the meaning of religious symbols; what is decisive is that the individual considers it to be a manifestation of his or her religious belief.’

With France enacting, or attempting to enact, much tougher anti-veiling legislation, UD has been grappling with the question of how far a secular state (or province – Quebec has also been passing increasingly restrictive legislation) can legitimately go in the anti-clerical direction … in the direction of banning, in public spaces, symbols of religion. Human Rights Watch, from which I’ve drawn my headline, takes a firm anti-anti-religious position: absolutely whatever an individual asserts as religious clothes or jewels or weapons always goes; it’s none of the state’s business what people claim as religious self-expression. As Katha Pollitt once wrote: “[R]eligion is what people make of it.”

Yet how can this be true, really? On the most fundamental level, no state with any sense of self-preservation is going to cede legitimate religious self-designation to groups that in fact constitute state-reviling cults, like radical Salafists. For extremist Muslim women resident in France, the burqa virtually all of them wear communicates above all that “one does not belong to other groups, but only to Islam.” Their clothing conveys “complete loyalty to God, Islam, and fellow-Muslims and their utter rejection of everything else.”

(“These outfits are also available for children as young as two,” explains a writer visiting the Hijabi Store in Germany.)

I’m not seeing much in here touching even lightly on being a citizen of France, with even a rudimentary sense of affiliation with or responsibility toward France. (Does HRW absolve religious people of any responsibility to consider the meaning of state symbols?) It seems to ol’ UD that it is definitely up to the state to be aware of markers of perilously corrosive anti-state convictions among people who live in your country. (‘The national authorities say that the networks that once recruited jihadists have been weakened or have disappeared. The most visible signs of fundamentalism in [the once jihadi-rich city of] Trappes have also diminished, like the wearing of full-face coverings in public, which is illegal in France,’ a New York Times writer notes matter-of-factly.)

HRW does not seem to have glanced at human history; if it did, it would discover that plenty of religions – groups of people who called themselves religions – have been plenty dangerous to civilization, and civilization has every right to detect them and protect itself from them. Hell, religions have every right to protect against them. Think of the long history of the Vatican, or of Mormons, guarding against extremist offshoots.

UD also understands that free states should go as far as possible in the direction of neutrality in regard to belligerently non-assimilationist, and even extremist, groups within them. It is a sign of the strength of democracies that they can tolerate weird, utterly uncooperative sects like ultra-orthodox Jews and their fellow insurrectionists, the worshippers of Hitler. Spiritual extremity makes for strange bedfellows, and confident democracies can keep an eye on their zanies even as they trash the Capitol. But keeping an eye is the point I’m making – if a democratic state would like to do something other than roll from one street beheading and congressional beshitting to another, it would be wise to identify people who are likelier to behead and beshit than other people.

People who are pissed with Paris because it’s not a caliphate do indeed tend to dress in a certain rather rigorously invisible way on its streets. Not all of them; some burqa wearers don’t think this way at all. But some do, and the state and its citizens have a right to be unnerved by them. When you parade opposition to every foundational value of a secular state, you shouldn’t be surprised when people look at you funny. Doesn’t matter if you’re not a Salafist. I’ll quote Pollitt again: Religion is what people make of it. Goes both ways, see.

One of those foundational values, yes indeed, is neutrality in regard to religion; but what I’m trying to argue here is that not every cult should be accorded the status of a legitimate religion. So that is my first problem with HRW‘s argument.

[W]e uphold the right to express opinions which some deem contrary to the principles of human dignity, tolerance and respect, and which may deeply offend, because of the fundamental importance of freedom of religion and expression in democratic societies.

Of course no one’s talking about opinions here; we are talking about the symbolic action/expression of dressing in a certain very public, evocative way. And here again UD’s willing to be way offended by the enactment on the streets of her cities of female submission (remember: what people make of it. Yes? UD makes of entirely covered women an undignified statement of submission. On what basis does she make this judgment? Well, she listens to what women in burqas – and women who no longer wear them – say to interviewers; and she reads what Islamic texts and clerics tell women about submission.). She ain’t happy to be offended, but okay. Her daughter’s elementary school classroom, though? No. Her daughter is young, impressionable, just learning. She will take her daughter out of any school that normalizes the idea that an entirely blacked-out woman – with cloth over her mouth – is a role model.

This is the root of the legislation we are seeing. We shouldn’t be surprised. Most of us don’t like lies, or exposing our children to lies. Everyone outside of certain adherents knows that “The burqa is a vehicle of personal liberation” or “self-expression” is a terrible lie. Our children are going to have enough politically correct twistedness to negotiate as they grow up. Enough already.


UD thanks David, a reader, for linking her to the NYT story about Trappes.

Margaret Soltan, June 4, 2021 3:02PM
Posted in: forms of religious experience

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