During my graduate days at Stonybrook, once it happened that I opened the door to find a kindly- looking elderly gentleman in a nice suit standing outside. Since no one came to sell anything to poor desi graduate students, I was a bit surprised. Soon however his intent became clear—–somehow he had come to know that there was a bunch of heathens living in this corner of Long Island and he had taken upon himself to show us the way of Christ.I respectfully told him that I was not interested in what he was selling and was about to close the door when, with the smile stuck on his face like a Halloween mask, he said in a voice whose edge was unmistakable —-“Son, you don’t know it but you are going straight to Hell”. Fortunate enough to have had a comeback materialize instantly on the tip of my tongue, I barked “Good then I will see you there”, banged the door on his face and called the cops (since soliciting was prohibited on campus).
As an agnostic who does not believe in organized religion, I have always been uncomfortable with overtly-religious people. There would not be a problem as long as they kept their beliefs to themselves but more often than not, that simply does not happen. Soon they try to spread their “love” through overt acts of persuasion of the kind I experienced in Stonybrook or of the type Zakir Naik engages in. This typically consists of a two pronged strategy of endorsing their own product and concurrently disparaging their rivals. This kind of belief-pushing irritates me but I take it in the same vein that I take a Coke vs Pepsi or a Verizon vs AT&T knock-down copy and avoid these harvesters of the afterlife as I would an Amway salesman.
However the crisis starts when the people who define themselves by their religion, through threats and through acts of violence, start impinging on my basic rights of expression. Draw a picture and get your head cut off. Be disrespectful and you lose your hand. Be prepared to be physically assaulted or have your exhibition vandalized if you be deemed offensive. As if such extra-constitutional intimidation was not enough, there is also the government of India which, through the force of law, does its best to inhibit expressions of free opinion, be it a Satanic Verses or a book on Shivaji. The logic is simple: they are to be banned because they hurt “religious sentiments”.
I always thought that in a democracy, free speech needs to be guarded especially when it hurts someone’s sentiments; for benign statements that draw no blood, what is the need for the protection by the state? Evidently I was wrong.
On the same principle though, I am opposed to the French ban on the veil as I see it as an impingement by a secular progressive society on the right of an individual, in this case someone who is overtly religious, to express herself as she deems fit. The official reason for the ban is that the burkha is a symbol of female enslavement and that it has no place in civilized society. While I recognize the need for the state to intervene where freedom of practice goes against the most basic human rights, like the right to live (honor killings, widow burning) or the right to education, the issue of the veil is slightly different in that many people who wear it do so out of their own free will (as evidenced here). While the state should interfere if people are forced to cover themselves up, it has no right to prevent citizens from making what are essentially voluntary sartorial choices, specifically those that impact only the person making that choice and which lead to no deprivation for anyone, except again the person making the choice.
The retort to this is usually “Aha Muslim women have been conditioned by their religion to welcome their enslavement. So when they say they actually want to wear a veil, they really do not. Or should not.”Once we accept this as valid, we have started walking the slippery slope of majoritarianism wherein what the majority believes to be right, is sought to be imposed on a minority with control being exercised even on actions that are so intensely personal (like what people wear) that they really should not concern anyone else, far less the state.
Personally I do not understand why Muslim women would want to cover their faces up and found most of the reasons given here unconvincing. Veils, like any overt display of religiosity, makes me greatly uncomfortable. However I have no right to forcibly prevent someone from doing something that makes me uncomfortable—be it preaching, be it selling Coke between deliveries, or be it covering their face with a piece of cloth. I can protest it, I can call it retrograde and medieval but I have no moral right to stop it, either through might or through law.
If I started feeling that I had the right to impose my mistrust of all the manifestations of organized religion on others, I would be indistinguishable from religious conservatives who use this “We know better and you are offending my notion of right and wrong” stance to attack couples on Valentine’s Day or in front of a pub, thus preventing them from exercising their basic freedoms. In the case of the French ban on the veil, the fact that it is not a frenzied mob or a loony theocracy but a secular government, which is engaging in personal freedom-inhibiting behavior using secularism-feminism as its rationale, should not make it more acceptable.
Now of course the real reason why Sarkozy’s action is so popular in France and has gained such wide acceptance in Europe (considered to be more liberal than the US where paradoxically public opinion is against the French action) has nothing to do with concern about the freedom or lack thereof of Muslim women. The burkha is seen by many as a symbol of Islamic assertiveness, a symbol that Muslims do not seek to assimilate into European culture but instead want to make European culture Islamic, in roughly the same way that chhat puja is seen by many in Maharashtra as an expression of North Indian pride and of their intent to not be assimilated into Marathi culture.
Without going into whether this burkha-phobia is a valid fear or whether the government can really do anything about that, one has to accept that banning the garment is a knee-jerk reaction to Islamic influence, one that serves exactly the opposite purpose for which it is intended. It gives the radicals a genuine grievance to promote the miasma of Islamic “victimhood” , lends credence to the “Islam is under threat” slogan, pushes even moderates to the extremes of religious isolation and shows that sometimes even secularism can be as dogmatic and stifling as ultra-religious regimes on matters of personal choice and acceptance.