Commentary / World

Islamic dress codes and liberal democracy

It is bizarre to virtue-signal liberal values by defending a potent symbol of illiberal women's oppression

by Ramesh Thakur

Being a progressive means never having to say sorry for perverse consequences. Six months before the U.S. election, I had foreshadowed Donald Trump’s victory in these pages by pointing to the popular backlash against the snobs (cultural, economic, political and intellectual elites) and scolds (political correctness warriors). Australian elites are yet to learn that lesson.

On Aug. 16 — by tragic coincidence, the day Islamic terrorists mowed down 13 pedestrians in Barcelona — Sen. Pauline Hanson, leader of the right-wing One Nation Party, swept into Senate wearing a burqa. Attorney-General George Brandis, to a standing ovation from opposition members, condemned her “appalling” stunt for insulting Islam by ridiculing and mocking religious garments.

He was factually wrong and muddle headed in his reasoning. His hysterical reaction proved Hanson’s point: The burqa is a confronting garment in the Australian context that evokes strong emotions. Branding calls to ban the burqa as Islamophobic is an illiberal attempt to shut down legitimate public policy debate.

A mix of religious injunction and cultural practices permit, mandate and proscribe different dresses. For Muslim women, the burqa covers the full body with a mesh over the eyes for vision. The niqab veils the face but not the eyes. The hijab is a headscarf that does not cover the face or eyes. A BBC site offers a good description of the differences.

There is wide variation among Islamic countries on wearing the burqa, niqab and hijab in public and civic spaces (schools, government buildings, transport). Malaysia, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey ban one or more of the three attires from some public spaces. Among Western countries, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have banned one or more of the three garments. On May 18, Austria banned full-face veils in public. Wikipedia provides a country-by-country account. While most countries have justified the ban on security grounds, some instead/also do so to defend a secular society.

It is bizarre to virtue-signal liberal values by defending a potent symbol of illiberal women’s oppression. The burqa is an insult to all women and an offense to liberal communities. Opposition to it no more proves bigotry than does banning female circumcision, polygamy or child marriage. Or should Australia segregate outcastes so they don’t ritually pollute high caste Hindus? No Western politician would be daft enough to defend these immoral and inhumane practices. The real question is where to draw the line, and this cannot be done if open discussion is stigmatized and expressions of concern shamed into silence.

Brandis attacked Hanson also for damaging counter-terrorism. Security service chiefs claim that the cooperation of Muslim communities is vital to intelligence and law-enforcement. But their cooperation is critical because the main threat of terrorism comes from their community — a fact every politically correct politician would prefer to ignore.

True, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are law-abiding peaceful citizens and Islam has many powerful taboos against the killing of innocents, women and children. Moreover, most victims of Islamist terrorism are Muslims, as in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. That said, it is equally incontrovertible that most terrorist acts today are committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. Every single person killed or apprehended in the terror cells in connection with the Barcelona attack is Muslim.

Ignoring and denying this creates anger and feeds the right-wing backlash. Large numbers of immigrants deeply steeped in illiberal religious values and social practices cannot easily absorb the norms of pluralist democracy. This poses a threat to the host country. Global polling by the Pew Research Center shows strong support for Shariah law in many Islamic countries. Similarly, “British opinion surveys consistently find gaps between the attitudes of Muslims and the liberal ethos of the wider culture, on everything from homosexuality to women’s rights to anti-Semitism.” A small minority of disaffected Muslims can still amount to a large pool of potential jihadist recruits.

An honest debate over immigration would help to defuse anxiety by elucidating facts and dispelling myths. For example, the problem could lie not in the immigrants but in particular imams who preach extremism and should be put on intelligence watch lists and denied entry visas.

In refusing to debate the impact of Muslim immigration, governments have condemned all citizens to increasing restrictions on their liberties and freedoms in the name of anti-terror national security laws and practices. A liberal policy or a few has already produced growing illiberalism for the majority as the new normal.

Westerners are myopic also in failing to learn from the world’s largest democracy with the world’s biggest Muslim minority. It is difficult to conceptualize more than 150 million people as a minority, but that’s India’s scale. Its experience shows the perils of endless politically expedient appeasement of intolerant demands by a religious minority. Anyone who wants to understand the rise of Hindu militancy in India needs to study the Congress Party’s history of “vote bank” politics of courting Muslims.

The nadir of appeasing Muslim illiberalism came in the infamous Shah Bano case in the mid-1980s when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government passed a retroactive constitutional amendment to overturn a Supreme Court judgment and strip a poor Muslim divorcee of alimony rights. The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party exploited Hindu grievance ruthlessly and its parliamentary seats jumped from two to 85 in the 1989 election. Anyone who criticizes the Modi government’s tolerance of Hindu intolerance today attracts an army of trolls for being a Congress “sickularist.”

An Indian Muslim man can divorce his wife in an instant through “triple talaq,” simply by uttering “talaq” (Arabic for divorce) three times: in writing, orally, or even by SMS or social media. Modi turned the discourse from a religious into a gender rights issue. Are Muslim women to be denied the rights available to all other Indian women, he asked? Answering no, on Aug. 22 India’s Supreme Court banned triple talaq as a “manifestly arbitrary” practice not protected by the constitution’s freedom of religion clause. The case had been brought by women who had been thus divorced.

India’s Muslim leaders would have advanced the cause of social justice and inter-communal harmony by leading instead of opposing the call to ban triple talaq which benefits mainly Muslim women. There’s a lesson for Islamic leaders and intellectuals in the West.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.