Burqu’ing freedom: the danger of ‘moral civilizing’

The year 2010 appears to be marked by the ‘war on burqas’ (the Switzerland minarets being an exception). While Belgium has formally moved to ban niqabs and burqas, Italy used regional laws to fine Muslim women using niqabs, and Quebec has imposed a ban for anyone wearing one to enter government places, including hospital and casualty departments (see this article for more information). The majority of European nations, such as France, are still debating the matter. Both politicians and experts recognize that the number of people who wear a face veil (click here to avoid any confusion about them as often happens) on European streets are very few, and in Belgium they are even less than fifty. It would not be so unimaginable to suggest–even starting from my own observations–that today in the west there are more Muslim women wearing miniskirts than face veils.

Many have been the opinions over whether the niqab or burqa are an Islamic requirement, innovation, or just one of numerous other styles of veiling. Al-Qaradawi has suggested that niqab is neither a requirement nor an innovation. In other words,it is a style within the tradition of Muslim dress. In another post I have discussed how increasingly, Muslim women, both by non-Muslims as well as Muslims, have been reduced to the ‘material culture’ of their dress styles. In this case, I wish to observe another aspect of the ‘war on burqa’.

The reasons provided for the direct or indirect ban of the face veil are of two orders: the first, quite hypocritical, suggests that the ban is imposed because of security legislation, often ‘rediscovered’ after decades, which forbids citizens to cover their faces in public. An example of this legalistic approach is Italy, which has rediscovered fascist left-overs that impose fines and prison time for those who disguise their face in public. The second is more honest and direct. Like the case of France, the ban is justified in terms of the traditions and morals of a country. In essence, the first case is nothing other than a camouflage of the latter. I think that it is reasonable to suggest that the attempt to ban face veils should be read within the discourse of ‘values’ and ‘morals’ rather than ‘security’ and ‘legal tradition’. In other words, we are entering the realm of ‘civilizational discourse’ and ‘ideology’.

We have to recognize, as also my research during these years has demonstrated, that Muslim women may decide to adopt a particular dress code for numerous reasons and the majority do so of their own free will. Indeed, one of the problems I have encountered in the sociological and anthropological literature on veiling is a certain rigidity in addressing the topic. Muslim women are not a single entity, and as such they may express themselves differently. Although there are documented cases of the coercion of women to wear niqabs or burqas, they are far fewer in number when compared to the imposition of the widespread, and normally unchallenged, hijab (or headscarf). In other words, if the logic behind the ban on niqabs and burqas were justified through the idea of freeing women from oppression and backwardness, what the proposers had to ban were not face veils but, following their own essentialist ‘creed’, the headscarf. Of course, this would have been much more controversial and surely perceived as an attack on Islam by a large section of Muslim communities.

Why do so few Muslim women wish to wear niqabs or even burqas? The reasons, as stated above, are multiple: some strongly will affirm that this is the right Islamic dress code; others will tell you that this is the traditional dress that they have grown up with and that makes them feel secure in foreign places; others may say that it is a political statement (and this category of course is exponentially increasing); and others still claim that it enhances their freedom since it allows them free movement in streets where they may be seen by friends, relatives and other Muslims. Finally, a few, trusting the promise of ethnographic anonymity, will confide that with a burqa you can meet your boyfriend and nobody knows. Yet it is certain, to any expert, that those who are really oppressed, abused or fully segregated, will never benefit from the ban. Their radical ‘purdah’ conditions are beyond the reach of law enforcement, and unfortunately, far from both local Muslim communities and non-Muslim political interests.

Therefore, why have governments, parliaments, commissions and so forth, of so many countries, embarked on such an ‘iconoclastic’ crusade consuming precious time and resources, as well as increasing ideological conflicts, when Europe is facing a destabilizing economic crisis? To understand, we have to read the ban through ‘values’ and ‘morals’ seen as part of a ‘civilizing’ ideology. Europe, with the end of communism and an increased social political identity crisis, seems to increasingly employ defensive epistemological paradoxes to affirm a patronizing ‘moral’ superiority over its own Muslim minorities.

In this case, the paradox is clear: it’s through denying freedom to the minority (which is assumed not to know how to use it) that freedom is considered to be achieved. But is it really ‘freedom’ that is the aim of the new controversial ‘legal annoyance’ strategy towards the Muslim minority? I doubt that. My opinion is that increasingly in Europe we are witnessing a dangerous process in which more people believe themselves to be ‘moral civilizers‘, ready to teach others how to be ‘human’, and in this case, how to be ‘women’. This means to pay a bit of attention to the concept of ‘civilization’.

‘Civilization’ was only fully conceptualised starting from the second half of the eighteenth century — as different from the simple distinction between ‘being civilised’ and ‘being barbarian’. The first usage can be found in 1758 in Mirabeau’s L’Ami des hommes: Traitè de la population (Mirabeau 1758). The term indicated the progress from a society under military law towards a civil administration as well as people who were ‘polished, refined and mannered as well as virtuoso’ (Mazilish 2004: 7).

The new concept spread quickly and increasingly became part of, and adapted to, the European of understanding the others, and particularly the Islamic other, which at that time was the Ottoman Empire. For Europe it was a time of expansion and revolutions, including the industrial one (Weinner 1973). Although with a new connotation, which included the idea of good manners, the status of women and secular values, ‘the concept of civilization provided a standard by which to judge societies, and during the nineteenth century, Europeans devoted much intellectual, diplomatic, and political energy to elaborating the criteria by which non-European societies might be judged’ (Huntington, 1996: 41).

As tensions between European nations would continue to grow during the 1930s, the popularity of the term civilization shifted from the intellectual to the political sphere. More than the simple idea of the West, civilization provided politicians and nations with a ‘verbal arsenal of praise and blame’ (Starobinski 1993: 29). If European intellectuals, convinced of Enlightenment-type values of endless progress and scientific achievement, used the concept to evaluate the ‘progress’ of cultures and societies (see Tylor 1958), Starobinski has correctly observed that then, ‘Civilization itself becomes the crucial criterion: judgement is now made in the name of civilization. One has to take its side, adopt its cause. For those who answer its call it becomes ground for praise. Or, conversely, it can serve as a basis for denunciation: all that is not civilization, all that resists or threatens civilisation, is monstrous, absolute evil’ (1993: 30).

The consequences of the transformation of civilization from a social scientific analytical tool, strongly rooted in a unilinear understanding of culture, to an ideological weapon of superiority did not need much time to express its the most terrifying potential. In the 1930s Nazism illustrated the nightmare which humanity can endure when the concept of a pure, totally superior—since representative of the human apogee—civilization becomes a shared value and belief of a nation and entire society.

Bonnet (2004) in his book The idea of the West has provided an interesting, and provocative, reading of ‘the west’ as a concept. He has suggested that the historical development of the modern idea of the West cannot be understood in isolation, but rather as part of the cultural and political effort to differentiate human society. The key, according to Bonnet, is to observe the change in fortune of another powerful European myth, the superiority of the white race.

If today the expression ‘Western civilization’ is widely used and accepted, ‘one only has to look back some hundred years or so to find that something called “white civilization” was once also taken for granted’ (Bonnet 2004: 14). Bonnet, through an analysis of works written between 1890 and 1930 in Britain, has observed that literature that supposedly had to celebrate white identity highlighted in reality the vulnerability of such a social category. By the 1930s, ‘with hindsight, its decline and eclipse appears foretold in its own propaganda: for even the most ardent advocates of white solidarity found the idea inadequate’ (2004: 23).

One of these vulnerabilities was the lack of a proper history; the myth, in this case, had to be rooted within nature and the scientific domain. Bonnet is very careful not to directly connect the decline of whiteness and white solidarity with the development of the modern idea of the West. He has, however, rightly observed that the fading of the former has made the latter central to the European discourse of superiority since, ‘the idea of the West helped resolve some of the problematic and unsustainable characteristics of white supremacism’ (2004: 36).

When Western colonialism was at its height, it was said that the West was in its death throes. When communism spread in East Asia, and as Asian and African countries achieved independence, it was said, perhaps with more justification, that the West was in retreat. Yet even minor phenomenon, like the rise of youth culture or the decline of classical music, have been interpreted as signalling the end of Western civilization. (2004: 36)

As we shall see, such vulnerability of the idea of the West has been recently reinforced through a new powerful myth, the progressive and theological Judeo-Christian roots of the western civilization. The roots of the West are normally sought in the history of the Roman empire and the subsequent Christian Byzantine empire as well as the so-called Sacrum Romanum Imperium (The Holy Roman Empire), which represented the ‘Western Christendom’. It is in this conjecture of colonialism and European expansion that the idea of the West met the idea of civilization, today expressed also through the idea of ‘secularization’.

The few women in niqabs and burqas visible in our cities express different identities, often, more than rarely, by exercising their freedom expressed in the right of owning one’s own body and deciding what strangers are allowed to see. In reality, a majority of Europeans read the freedom of these women (those using the face veil by choice) as a threat to that freedom which these Muslim women often want to claim. These Muslim women want the freedom of not being seen, the freedom of observing and interacting without the need to display themselves as an object of desire.

For those Muslim women forced to wear the face veil, the ‘civilizing’ ban and the political discussion will not help their status. By contrast, the new legislation will make their condition worse by imprisoning them in their homes, removing from them even that little freedom was left to their eyes.

The only aim of these kind of bans is to prevent those women, who are proud to wear their niqab, to walk around the increasingly sexualized streets and venues of European cities while incased in their exotic clothes. Paraphrasing Orwell, we can say that “Freedom is imposition”.

Indeed, the ‘moral civilizers’ need to express their superiority through the paradoxical denial of those personal freedoms for which men and women have fought and died. The real threat to Europe today is certainly not a few women in burqas, but rather the burqa covering genuine enlightenment and liberal values, which cannot be other than rooted in the supreme respect of personal freedom. To the politicians of a decadent Europe who wish to justify their own expensive existence through populistic defense of ‘Enlightenment’ values against the ‘barbarians’, and who see themselves as the chevaliers freeing passive exotic women from the darkness of their beliefs and traditions, I can only remind them that

freedom is independence of the compulsory will of another, and in so far as it tends to exist with the freedom of all according to a universal law, it is the one sole original inborn right belonging to every man in virtue of his humanity.(Immanuel Kant)

14 thoughts on “Burqu’ing freedom: the danger of ‘moral civilizing’

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  1. after quite a long period of time, i’ve read something enlightening, highly informative and not biased either! Thank you very much!

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  3. Thanks Prof Marranci for the read 🙂 It really helped me in broadening my perspective towards this particular issue. Also, your point on the donning of burqas by the Muslim women as a personal choice was also a fresh perspective for me.

    I understand your point on the irony of certain groups of people in European countries advocating (or rather, enforcing) the ‘freedom of Muslim women’ through the ban of the wearing of burqas.

    However, I would like to ask for your opinion. Let’s say, if the donning of burqas is enforced by their religious leaders or husbands, instead of it being their personal choice, wouldn’t the banning of burqas be beneficial to this group of women? (I hope I am not generalising..)

    Thanks and have a nice day!

    1. Dear Cybil,
      thanks for your comment and interest in my blog.
      The problem is again the issue of agency. Women are often seen as ‘passive’ objects without real control over their lives. Of course, there are some issues of gender inequalities, but women are able to express themselves and, in this case, make their own mind.
      The issue is: why “the donning of burqas” should be forced? For which reason? I mean, if this is their own decision, if they believe that this makes them feel safer or even pious, I do not see why the rest of society should take offense. Yet in some parts of Europe, any symbol of Islam is read in ideological terms, not differently from how the most radicals and extreme Muslims read it. In other words, in some parts of Europe (but see also the US recently) there is a convergence and acceptance of a great number of Muslims (in particular politicians) to understand Islam in the same identical fashion as the very minority of Muslims whom support an extremely strict version of it. But what about the majority? Society can only work through social harmony. Disagreements may be useful if they offer a solution; if they end in sterile polemics, they can only damage and raise tensions. Yet in the decadence of the European political landscape, such tensions are useful to maintain power through an increasingly populistic vision of the state and society.

    1. Hi Jay,
      thanks for your comment. The main issue with Huntington’s idea is how he has used the concept of “Civilization”. If you think carefully, there is nothing called “Christian Civilization” or even “Western Civilization” so many are the differences among the traditions and people.

      Even us, as individuals, are not the expression of a single “Civilization” or use a single culture expression. In a Globalized world, we use and are part of complexities: from culture, communication and economics. One of the proofs that Huntington’s views were in this case wrong (other aspects of his works are academically excellent) is the stronger relationship between China and the US.

      Huntington had theorized the link between the Confucian Civilization and the Islamic one against the West, represented by the US. Today we know that China and the US will have more and more relationship and interests together. Furthermore, the “West’ is facing a terrible economic and cultural crisises which indeed, show the weakness of too old models and the need of rethinking Europe and the US future.

    1. Thanks for reposting it again. I have to pay more attention to my blog. I would have so much to write on the recent topics and also my research here in SouthEast Asia, but time is tyrant. Anyway, very soon I will also post some videos on my youtube channel, it is my intention to provide a series of lectures freely available.

  4. I’ve just finished R. I. Moore’s ‘The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250: 2nd Revised Edition’ (Blackwell Publishing, 2007), who argues that, since the High Middle Ages, Europe has been a “persecution society” (in the same sense as the term “slave society” is used), where period inquisitorial attacks on minorities have become a critical and even unshakeable facet of European societies. I wonder whether the current attacks on the Burqa are not simply part of the demonization process that is part and parcel of Europe’s long history of inquisitions (see also media Islamophobia and Prevent).

    1. Well, I often do not buy this kind of very generalist arguments. One of the reasons for this is that we do not have something called Homo Europensis. Indeed, who are the Europeans?
      My anthropological research tends to suggest that as any ‘animal societies’, human societies privilege the in-group (or what is perceived as such) and persecute the out-group. This is ordinary biological dynamic. The issue is that our societies were supposed to have moved, through rationalization, at least a bit from just ‘genetic’ orders of behaviors. Yet it seems that Europe is rediscovering the ’emotional’ side of the political discourse and for this reasons we witness an increase of irrational populism. I tend to link this also to the present economic crisis.
      Overall, I am very pessimistic since, as I suggested in my first book some years ago, I can see how processes of reinforcement will took over in a kind of ‘arm race’ in which some, albeit few, Muslims will react to provocations providing the excuse for more populistic irrational provocations and so forth. If you want all my opinion, I think that Europe is playing with fire and it will end to be burnt if does not change approach, and so will do Muslim communities in Europe if they would not reconsider their own position and traditions.

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