Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Hitchens v. Obama on Hijab Laws

A few posts ago Redneck described a left-winger's conundrum. Well, here's another one: what happens when the practices of a religious minority conflict with equal rights for women?

Avowed secular polemicist Christopher Hitchens just took issue with President Obama's assertion — in the Cairo speech on America and Islam — that French and other European governments infringe religious freedoms when they enforce laws that prohibit women from wearing the hijab.

I gotta say, I'm not sure where I come down on this one — I think because both Hitchens and Obama are oversimplifying the question (go figure a journalist and a politician dodging complexity).
In truth, there's a whole lot of middle ground between the assumption that drives Obama's position (that women want to wear the hijab) and Hitchens's (that they don't). I won't presume, as Obama and Hitchens did, to speak for all Moslem women, but my surmise is that a lot of them don't draw a distinction between what they want to do and what they have to do. This is the ambivalent nature of tradition, after all. I would venture to say that a lot of Moslem women do want to wear the hijab, but they only want to wear it because they have to — just as I might find more pleasure supporting another baseball team, but I stick with the godawful Indians because it ties me to my roots, it's something my father taught me, and for some unfathomable reason the Indians are a part of my identity.

If you want to have to do something, or you have to want to do it, is it fairer to say that you want to do it, or that you have to? I'd say neither. But when the question is whether or not to have the sort of law that President Obama was discussing in Cairo, it's useful to make one or the other assumption. If women are culturally (or physically) pressured to wear the hijab, then it's sure worthwhile to have a secular sovereign write and enforce a law to override the compulsion. If they simply want to wear it, then that same law surely infringes religious freedoms. Ideally, there's a law that says it's unlawful to compel someone to wear a hijab: that would get to the heart of the question, and it would punish appropriate people: i.e., the jerkwads who impress backward, illiberal "traditions" on these women in the first place.

There's the broader policy point, too, that Hitchens makes: acceding little pockets of sovereignty to the umma is destabilizing to Western countries, and it encourages the kind of transnational radicalism that al Qaeda et al. promote with their talk of a worldwide Caliphate. But there's a counterpoint to consider here, which is that the true believers will always exalt the celestial law over the mundane, so that a secular state's regulation of religious practices itself has a radicalizing property to it, by provocation. I'd like to figure out which is the better policy, and I'd like to tackle it with some sharper analytical implement than "concessions embolden, so let's antagonize them."

In the end, though, I go with my instinct: liberal, secular values are important. Everybody else who comes to America has to trade some component of his/her identity to join the larger community. Life's a bitch. Wear what you want, but when we take your driver's license picture, take off the frickin' hijab so we can see you. Just like everyone else.

Of course, this only brings me back round to another conundrum: does disagreeing with President Obama here make me part of the hawkish right-wing opposition, or an apologist for France?

Redneck: any thoughts?


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