Suddenly the world is awash in burqa suspicion and vitriol.
In the past fortnight, headlines have been dominated by bans and proposed bans in Belgium, France and Denmark (home to only three women who wear the burqa), to our own shores, and the boorish postulating of Cory Bernardi:
In my mind, the burka has no place in Australian society. I would go as far as to say it is un-Australian. To me, the burka represents the repressive domination of men over women which has no place in our society and compromises some of the most important aspects of human communication.
As Parliamentary Secretary and spokesperson for the would-be Prime Minister and the Liberal Party, Bernardi’s comments can hardly be dismissed lightly.
His comments also show him for what he is: a conspicuous xenophobe who’s rather fond of fear mongering. His comments are in line with the ideas of the BNP, whose ‘ban the burka’ campaign is inscribed in their manifesto and promoted as a concern about the oppression of Muslim women.
Here’s their leader Nick Griffin’s take on Islam: there’s ‘no place in Europe for it’ and the UK is urgently in need of ‘global chemotherapy against Islam to save civilisation’.
The UK Independent Party also espouses a concern for women’s rights in their call for a ban, while simultaneously stating that the garment is dangerous because it could be concealing terrorists, and is simply ‘not consistent with traditional Britishness’. Greg Sheridan wrote of a similar problem for the French, where the burqa doesn’t adhere to their ‘civic values’.
In a country where a mere 1900 women wear face veils, it is difficult to see how further oppressing an already ‘oppressed group’ is fostering any civic values.
From the smoke of all this paranoia and prejudice, rises a growing movement of people who claim to oppose the burqa for progressive reasons. Writers and feminists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali are feeding the fires of Islamophobia:
Islam is not a European religion … what we are seeing in Europe is that there is conflict between the values of Europe and the values of Islam.
Australian feminist columnists Virginia Haussegger and Elizabeth Farrelly both champion a ban on the burqa. Last week, Farrelly went so far as to imply that the freedom to wear the burqa could be as detrimental and misguided as ‘mass suicide or ritual bestiality (both of which have been genuine religious practices)’.
The most salient example of this trend is famed author, savant and atheist, Christopher Hitchens, in Australia this week as a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Hitchens still passes himself off as a radical, and his book attacking God made him a poster boy for atheists and intellectuals the world over.
Hitchens will no doubt receive a rapturous welcome from small-l liberals in Australia who sneer at the parochial bigotry of Cory Bernardi. Yet in Slate last week, Hitchens declared himself in favour of a ban on burqas. His argument is that Islam is trying to force the Western world to abandon its ‘immemorial tradition of equality and openness’ by forcing Muslim women to hide their identities in public – an option not given to any other religion.
He asks: how is abiding the burqa any different to abiding the Klan? And then replies that it’s actually worse because there is no evidence that Muslim women are ‘as passionately committed to wearing a burqa as a male Klansman is committed to donning a pointy-headed white shroud’.
Why should Europeans and Americans, seeking perhaps to accommodate Muslim immigrants, adopt the standard only of the most backward and primitive Muslim states? The burqa and the veil, surely, are the most aggressive sign of a refusal to integrate or accommodate.
How is his argument any different to Bernardi’s or the BNP’s or Farrelly’s? It’s not. He too reiterates the arguments of those above: this is about women’s liberation, male criminals can hide in the burqa and France is doing a good thing because the burqa is just not ‘French’.
These arguments, hiding behind a veil of progressiveness, all make women wearing the burqa about us – the West and our liberties – as if ‘we’ are the ones under threat, rather than the minority of women wearing burqas in the West. There is no room for these women or their subjectivity in this debate about their oppression, because there is only room for ‘us’; those, like Hitchens, whose way of life is threatened by the wearing of a head-to-toe garment.
What is most striking about the claims of Hitchens, Bernardi and Farrelly is that they won’t engage with Muslim women as whole people; their identity has been stolen, and subsumed by the fight for the ‘greater good’. There is no acknowledgement of individuality through freedom of religion, or the recognition that these burqa-clad women exhibit all the range of qualities and characteristics of an individual.
There is a direct correlation between the rise in Islamophobia and racism and racial crimes in society. It is little wonder when the arguments of Hitchens and the BNP reframe the debate to make it seem as if the ‘Indigenous peoples’ of the West are being invaded, as if it is the war between the West and Islam that Hirsi Ali claims.
It is hard to accept that Hitchens, France, Australia, or Bernardi care about the individual happiness of Muslim women. But they do care about war. And fundamentally, this call for a ban on the burqa is a defence of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; wars that Hitchens zealously campaigned for and Senators like Bernardi continue to support. In the name of freedom and secularism, we invaded these countries with the battle cry: the end of oppression, the delivery of democracy, the liberation of all!
If we pause to consider the immeasurable death, maiming and displacement in these predominantly Muslim nations, we may have to admit that the wars were a mistake; that there is no recognisable liberation of women, or the people; that truth be told, it’s the inverse.
But if the wearing of religious garb can still be made an issue of women’s oppression, then the war of liberation comes to our Western shores.
Over the past decade, Australia has had a hand in the destruction of many things Muslim. Conceivably it’s time to try a new approach so we don’t have to resort to criminalising the burqa and live in a country where it would be a far lesser crime to rip a burqa off a woman – forcibly strip her of this garment via the law – than to allow people freedom of expression and religion, and the freedom to be religious in a public space.
And this sinister vision of the West is much more dangerous when disseminated by Hitchens and his ilk, because Bernardi would never be invited to lecture at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.