What if we were confronted, in our cities, by a neo-pagan cult with passionately held views that required all their votaries to walk around naked in our streets? No doubt after a hubbub of debate, largely stoked by loony freedom-of-speechers, we would soon arrest the cultists, wrap them in blankets and throw them in jail for indecent exposure.
But the questions will remain: Where do we get these notions of decency? With what right do we impose them on others? Why should our standards of dress trump those of the cultists? We may not resolve the matter intellectually, but this much, we will conclude, is clear: We do espouse a coherent set of rules about such things--at least we consider them coherent--and we are prepared to support them with legal sanctions. They may not be written into the Constitution, being largely a matter of self-evident cultural or civic or even moral norms, but we do stand by them.
Now let us think about French President Sarkozy's recent declaration that the burqa "is not welcome in France" and his official moves to discourage the wearing of it in France. The burqa, you will recall, is a gloomy robe worn by women in fundamentalist Muslim lands that covers the entire body and face like a death-shroud.
Mr. Sarkozy went on to say that "In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. … The burqa is not a religious sign, it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement. … I want to say it solemnly: It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic."
In response to which my colleague Elisabeth Eaves recently took Mr.Sarkozy to task in her column, saying that he was "twisting ideas of liberte beyond all recognition." She went on to talk about Europe as the "formerly lily-white continent," rather artfully bringing up the bogey of the "anti-immigrant far right" and ingeniously turning the matter on its head by portraying Mr. Sarkozy as the real oppressor of women's rights. Hers is a familiar enough argument: You ban burqas and you've effectively removed free speech for one and all, including Sikhs with turbans and punk-rockers. Pretty soon the French police will be arresting veiled women and making political martyrs of them while perversely glorifying the burqa as a symbol of resistance.
I am sure readers can supply the full panoply of libertarian arguments for themselves without my help--all very legitimate and hard to ignore. But how then do we effectively discourage the spread of the burqa in the western world? How does Ms. Eaves propose to stem the growing Islamization of Europe's streets--or does she not worry about such things because, after all, it's just a preoccupation of the anti-immigrant far right, and if it happens it happens: better we let events take their natural course than be accused of trafficking in fascistic measures.
Let us first dispose of the slippery-slope argument: Banning burqas will not, mutatis mutandis, lead to the banning of turbans and punk rock hairdos. We are, as a civil society, perfectly capable of drawing nuanced lines between gradations of extremes. We do so everyday. A micro-mini we tolerate but a woman walking around topless, or even bottomless, we consider beyond the pale.
Why is the burqa any different? Ah, you say, the burqa is a religious symbol and we guarantee religious tolerance in the West--precisely what differentiates us from intolerant Islamist societies. But the fact is, the burqa is not mandated anywhere in the Koran, nor indeed is the full veil. Such forms of sartorial female enslavement are tribal customs, as are clitorectomies--which we certainly don’t allow. We prohibit female genital mutilation because we do not acknowledge any circumstance in which women would willingly adopt it, even though many women do in certain barbarous cultures. We believe that those women are not in their right mind or acting out of free will, and we do not let them import such practices to our shores. To defend the right to wear the burqa as a matter of free speech begs the question. One can equally argue that it constitutes a curbing of expression and that women who adopt it are being suborned by outside pressure, just as female circumcision victims are.
There is a point at which our multicultural or pluralist tolerance makes a mockery of our own values. The danger we face over these issues is not the threat to our liberties but comes from the West's increasingly muddle-headed inability to defend its own customs. Yes our political traditions allow all manner of variegated freedoms of speech and action, but we do differentiate between the barbaric and the civilized. We are not only political animals. Our values do not end with those laid out in constitutions and bills of rights. In fact, one can argue that the U.S. Constitution does not comprise a morality in itself but rather lays down a framework that allows our actual code of values to operate, whether it's one based on the Bible or Cartesian empiricism or a host of inherited cultural traditions.
And here we must make a distinction between Europe and the U.S. For good or ill, the U.S. has increasingly chosen to base a large chunk of its national identity on its written political scriptures, thereby making it a country built around a "system" rather than an ethnos. European countries, however, have not founded their identity on the genesis myth of settlers or immigrants. A nation-state like France or Spain or the U.K. is built around an indigenous population with deep roots in the landscape and with ancient traditions. This does not make them racist or egregiously "lily-white" or inherently reprehensible. Not every country must be multi-ethnic like the U.S. to be virtuous. We do not ask Japan or Iceland to proceed in that direction. In such countries, as in those of Europe, the rituals of custom and unwritten consensus anchor stability and happiness even more than in the U.S. In short, they have a right to demand that immigrants adapt to their habits, more than the other way around, to become more French or Danish or Dutch in a host of subtle ways to be fully accepted as citizens.
Always at some point in the immigration debate the point is (quite rightly) made that many Muslim societies do not offer Westerners the same freedoms as the pushier Muslims demand from the West. In Riyadh, a woman may not show any flesh in the street and in Peshawar she's likely to get shot for doing so. Yet when citizens of such countries come to London or Paris they insist on the right to veil their women fully.
The same disparity applies in the area of other public liberties, from religious expression to pre-marital dating with local women. Until now, I have believed that the solution to this imbalance is to require such Islamic countries to offer equal levels of tolerance. I am beginning to think that this will ultimately benefit neither side, and anyway will not happen because backward Muslim societies are not about to change anytime soon.
Enough of trying to be more like each other. It's time to leave the Saudis to their unreconstructed habits as long as they don't bother us by exporting jihad and sharia in our direction. If they do, we have the unfettered right to export Western habits by any and all means to their countries. But we should also have the courage to say to immigrants, "You come here to seek a better life, one that's based on different values and habits from the country you left. We believe our society provides a better, more successful, way of life otherwise you wouldn't be here. Therefore it's up to you to change. That may be painful and demanding, but we will help you in the process through adequate education and color-blind employment opportunities. But change you must."
Shedding the burqa is as good a place to start as any.
Melik Kaylan, a writer based in New York, writes a weekly column for Forbes.