It is a common state of affairs for issues occasioning political disagreement to involve more than one moral value. It is also common for two parties to a political disagreement to share an attachment to some of the values involved but to come down on opposite sides. This could be because they assign different weights to the relevant values, or because they have made different assessments of the consequences of giving one or other value priority, or because of other differences of judgement between them about the real world. Reasoning about values and their political implications in given circumstances can be a messy business.
One area of disagreement which fits the picture rapidly sketched above is that concerning the wearing by women of the burqa (or other face or head coverings) and whether or not this should be forbidden by law. There is a constituency of left-liberal opinion for which (a) the burqa is an oppressive cultural artefact inimical to the interests of women, but which (b) is concerned at the same time about the rights of individuals to do as they please uncoerced by others, including the state, so long as they are not harming anyone else. Some within this broad constituency favour a legal ban since, of the two considerations, they see (a) as decisive to the case; whereas others within the same constituency oppose a legal ban since they see (b) as decisive to the case.
Unrepentant Jacobin - or, as I shall call him for short in what fellows, UJ - is of the first group; I am of the second. In a long post last week UJ set out an argument for the view he supports, making some criticisms of Nick Cohen, Kenan Malik and me along the way. Nick and Kenan are more than capable of looking after themselves, and so I won't be attempting to speak for either of them here. What I go on to say is strictly on my own behalf.
Since I have written much on this topic, I don't feel the need either to review all the arguments again or to say in detail why I disagree with UJ. Those interested may like to follow some of the links I shall now give to earlier normblog posts on this and related questions, or they may not. Here in any case are 54 such links:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54.
I cannot guarantee that that's everything, but I'm pretty sure it's most of it: posts directly on the question of banning the burqa; other posts relating to the issue more tangentially (being about religious freedom or the right to affirm one's identity through what one wears, etc); yet others drawing attention to and/or excerpting expressions of opinion that I broadly endorsed at the time.
In responding to UJ on this occasion, I shall limit myself to two exercises: first, I note a weak point in the way he makes his case, and I emphasize in doing so a contrasting feature of my own view; I then defend myself against an imputation to me, by UJ, for which there is no basis.
(1) On some level UJ is certainly aware of the competing considerations - (a) and (b) - that I have set out above. For while the oppressiveness of the burqa for many Muslim women is at the centre of his case, he clearly also knows that for some women wearing the burqa is a choice they make uncoerced by others. I say he knows this, because it slips out, so to say between the lines, that he must do. Thus, for example, when he says that 'some Muslim women [my emphasis] are being coerced' in spite of laws protecting the citizens of a democracy against coercion, that's a plain acknowledgement that not all of them are being coerced, since if they were it would strengthen his case and he would therefore say 'all'. Equally, in quoting Ophelia Benson to the effect that she chooses to help women and girls who don't want to wear the burqa but are forced to, rather than women and girls who do want to wear it, UJ registers Ophelia's recognition that the latter category is not an empty one, and I believe it is a fair inference from his not dissenting from Ophelia on this point that he knows what she says to be true.
And yet in the broad lines of his advocacy for a legal ban on the burqa, this awareness of UJ's gets lost. It is lost in the opposition he repeatedly sets up between two different sources of coercion: that of the state, on the one hand, and that of religious forces or ethnic communities imposing on Muslim women the necessity to hide themselves and their faces from view, on the other. The following excerpts from UJ's post reflect the simple opposition I'm talking about:
The confinement of the niqab to women - and only women - in austere Salafist sects is persuasive evidence, not of free and independent choice, but of conformity to the untestable demands of misogynistic - and invariably male - religious and cultural authorities.
For Muslims in this situation, dress codes are not remotely a matter of free choice, but of conditioning and enforcement by families, communities and religious leaders.
The decision to adopt the niqab is not so much a matter of exercising free choice as renouncing it.
[Geras accepts] that the debate over the burqa ban is a straightforward quarrel between the State and the freedom-loving individual. It is in fact a quarrel between the secular State and an Islamist ideology that seeks to usurp its authority.
Naturally, once the issue is presented in this way - a straight choice between, on one side, the authority and law of (roughly) secular governments in protecting women from male oppression and, on the other, the authority of male-dominated sects and communities confining women in ways that men aren't confined - then most members of the humanist, secular-minded, Enlightenment-valuing liberal left (including me) are going to choose the way UJ does. But only because a whole dimension of the problem has now been pressed to the margins and out of sight. This is, however, not just a matter of authority against authority, democratic law against theocratic male dominance. You cannot omit from the picture that there are Muslim women who want to wear the burqa and that a legal ban on their doing so would therefore restrict their liberty. If you do omit this from the picture, you make life easier for yourself in presenting the case for a ban, but your picture is no longer accurate, because it is one, too simply, of force versus force. The whole aspect of state interference with individual liberty has been obscured.
The contrast I want to note between UJ's way of arguing his case and my way of arguing mine is this. Despite his suggestion that I see the burqa issue as 'a straightforward quarrel between the State and the freedom-loving individual', I don't. In fact, in several of those 54 posts that directly or indirectly deal with the question, I make explicit my awareness of the fact that there is undue coercion and pressure upon Muslim women in this matter. Readers who care to verify that for themselves can click through the links above at 4, 19, 24, 28, 35, 38 and 40. For me this debate is not simply one about the laws of the state versus the liberty of the individual. It is about this, but it is about it as well. No doubt my viewpoint has its limitations; most viewpoints on difficult questions do. But I have tried not to simplify the issue by representing the choices of Muslim women about what they wear as simply uncoerced, never made under duress. It would be just as wrong to do that as it is wrong to suggest that a burqa ban is merely a choice between two different types of authority over the individual and to elide the dimension of legal curbs on individual freedom.
What is more, by acknowledging that there is coercion and duress exercised against Muslim women regarding how they dress I indicate my awareness that opposing a legal ban is not without its costs or (put differently) that leaving women free to wear the burqa, or not, is not an unmixed blessing.
(2) This is where UJ's imputation to me, of opinions I do not hold, comes in. For he ascribes to me a view according to which the burqa is not to be judged too harshly. The evidence for this? I don't know. He quotes me, accurately, as saying (see link 36 above), 'I have no quarrel with the claim that the ideology in question diminishes women and the interests of women', but styles this as my 'politely allow[ing]' what Mona Eltahawy contends; and he goes on to discern a reluctance on my part 'to acknowledge that the burqa causes anyone any suffering at all'. With reference to Nick Cohen and Kenan Malik as well as to me, UJ also says that 'Moral judgment [on the issue] ends up, if not suspended entirely, then reduced to throat-clearing'; and he adds further, 'It is, after all, difficult to criticise the burqa too vehemently without fortifying the case for the State ban.' But, so far as this concerns me, he is askew here on every count.
First, when I say I have no quarrel with the claim that the ideology in question diminishes women and the interests of women, I mean that I have no quarrel with it - because I believe that that is what it does. I'm not obliged to be either impolite or raucous about this. Making the point briefly and quietly is also OK.
Second, as for throat-clearing, the suggestion would have some bite if UJ could produce evidence of ambivalence on my part about the burqa - some sentiment of approval towards it. I doubt he can. He simply confuses an argument in favour of someone's having a freedom to do something, on the one hand, with an attitude of approval or indulgence towards their doing it, on the other. But there are plenty of freedoms one supports while knowing that bad uses may be made of them; it is indeed part and parcel of support for individal liberty.
And what is my real attitude in this matter? Well, let's see.
Apart from saying, at 36, that I have no quarrel with the claim that the ideology in question diminishes women and the interests of women, at 8 and 12 I cite reports from, respectively, Iraq and Afghanistan of intimidation of female students for failing to wear the hijab, and public punishments of women for wearing burqas that were too short. I give these as examples of (not to put too fine a point on it) badness. At 9 I acknowledge an observation of Mick Hartley's that being veiled is 'an affront to an unspoken understanding that in public places, where people interact, you should be able to read their faces'; and at 10 I say that there are benefits to be derived from Muslim women not wearing the veil, among them the promotion of gender equality. At 23 I take issue with Gabriella Coslovich for failing to consider how far the decisions of women in Muslim countries about what to wear are imposed on them. At 26 I quote from a Times leader, as follows: 'The fourth paragraph says - rightly - that the burka is a symbol of female subservience and runs counter to other crucial values: "openness, transparency, equality and opportunity".' I didn't italicize 'rightly' there, but you may consider it italicized now. I then quote these words from the same leader, 'civic education and religious debate... are the best way to consign to the dark ages this symbol of darkness', and I add for my own part, 'Exactly so'. At 29 I say that showing an open face in the company of others is a good cultural norm, and at 43, in a generally supportive link to a post of his, I quote Kenan Malik saying: 'There is certainly something medieval about the burqa and the niqab. The idea that in the 21st century women should be hidden from view for reasons of modesty or religious belief is both troubling and astonishing.' At 47 I say on my own behalf, 'I have no love for the burqa or what it does for either women or social interaction.' At 48 I express my opposition to religious dress codes being mandatory at a public venue. For good measure, at 7 and 13 I give excerpts from columns by the late Pamela Bone that are not friendly to the burqa and the veil. Is that enough? I reject the suggestion that it constitutes mere throat-clearing.
Third, and finally, I also don't accept UJ's contention that forthright criticism of the burqa would be difficult 'without fortifying the case for the State ban'. To repeat a point: you can defend a person's freedom to engage in activities which you oppose. To offer a pertinent analogy: I regard Holocaust-denial as one of the more hateful forms of contemporary anti-Semitism, but I am against a legal ban on it. I would have no difficulty whatever in spelling out why it is a loathsome practice, but if I'm writing a short blogpost explaining my reasons for being against its legal proscription, the emphasis will more likely fall on those reasons. This is also about my own practices as a blogger, if I may say so. I don't feel any obligation, or even temptation, to try to say everything in a single blogpost. I especially don't feel it necessary to repeat something I've already said when I'm blogging a second, ninth or thirty-third time about a given topic. I'm happy for my view to be assessed over the relevant series of posts.
So, in conclusion: UJ is Unrepentant as a Jacobin; and on the burqa I, too, am unrepentant. I am grateful to him, all the same, for the space he thought it worth devoting to my views.