A Critique of Alibhai-Brown’s Burqa Ban

I have not read as much as I would like on the burqa debacle – which seems a little overblown. Nonetheless, when I read a recent piece by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I felt she made some rather fallacious claims. Hence this critique.

According to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, in a recent online debate at New Humanist, we should accept banning the burqa. I know little of the current situation of cultural politics in the UK, so I will attempt to assess the arguments as they stand. Readers may then ponder themselves whether there are specific contexts – I do not think there is – in which the arguments do hold.

Her analysis is rather flimsy: she begins by saying something about Voltaire and Enlightenment figures being ‘prophets’ for defenders of secularism. Being somewhat of an Enlightenment defender myself, this strikes hard of oxymoronic confusion. The so-called ‘prophets’ of Enlightenment precisely dedicated themselves to fighting against anyone who proclaimed him or herself a prophet of any kind; they fought, as Susan Neiman has stated, against any and all forms of authority: religious, political, royal. They precisely aimed at providing tools of analysis and liberation. That which clarifies the world also frees you from its chains, one tool being the universalisation of reason exemplified by Kant’s moral system.

Alibhai-Brown says the torch-bearers of the Enlightenment ‘are as committed to literalism as are literalist religious believers – in all situations they revert to the rule book, quote Voltaire, Mill and Locke, their prophets.’ Considering they were fallible human beings, who often premised our fallibility as a reason not to take the word of authorities as perfect, it would be strange for any ‘torch-bearer’ to be literalist. Indeed, if we were truly being literalist about Enlightenment thinkers, we would not be literalist at all – since this is directly what they tell us. As Voltaire says: ‘Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.’ Yes, let us take that literally. And, yes, I did just quote Voltaire, Ms Alibhai-Brown.

She then makes some more strange claims:

Real liberalism means accepting illiberal choices they say, somewhat self-righteously. The burqa does not affect their own lives or test their powers of endurance. I tried to wear the full veil for a day, but threw it off in a couple of hours. I felt wiped out, lifeless and voiceless.

I am uncertain why there is a sudden switch to a first-person perspective, but it jars. The first part tells us liberalism means accepting ‘illberal’ choices – if it is a choice one has not been coerced into making, then it is accepted as a so-called ‘liberal’ choice – then she says she tried to wear it, but felt ‘lifeless and voiceless’. So what? Was she coerced into wearing it? No one forced her into wearing it. No one forced her out of it. This is the essence of liberalism: freedom, choice, etc. We can predict she will use this as argument to ban the burqa, because it makes one feel ‘wiped out’.

When all complex dilemmas are reduced to choice, liberty itself becomes limp and eventually irrelevant. A daughter of, say, Christian Scientists will refuse medical treatment for a life-threatening condition. We all know that response was steadily injected into her – it is a choice she cannot not make. And yet if a group of girls were ready to hurl themselves off a cliff, proclaiming their right to do so, the most libertarian of warriors would surely try to stop them.

She has given us no reason to accept her first sentence, in this paragraph. Karl Popper warned us long ago that a theory that explains everything explains nothing. To reduce everything to choice would be a bad move, but in this instance, we are not saying that: we are saying, specifically, the ban on the burqa is about choice and the lack thereof. And what are we to make of her idea that a daughter of Christian Scientists has a response ‘steadily injected’ into her? Alibhai-Brown appears to be saying the girl has not chosen to reject life-saving treatment herself; it was the parents’ beliefs, which was drilled into her, making her refuse. This appears to be saying: ‘she has no choice because of her past’. But why does this not apply to myself, women who choose to not wear the burqa, Alibhai-Brown herself? We are all influenced by our past, but we are not chained by it. This only means we must speak loudly and more broadly about choice. (Also, if we are talking about children, the State can legitimately intervene to prevent parents’ stupid beliefs killing their children). To say women living with a highly religious past are automatons is rubbish: this argument applies to us all. A common argument is these women have no choice, they are still living according to their past. Even if we grant this as true, which to some degree it is, it does not give us any more right to tell these women how they must live. This is the very problem we should help them be aware of, not force them out of. We must be wary of most, if not all, instances of paternalism, which Alibhai-Brown is defending on poor grounds.

And if someone wanted to kill himself, I am not sure to what extent I would stop him: be it shooting himself or hurling himself off a cliff. I do not think I would presume to know his life should be continued, just because he is a person. I would probably presume choice, but then I could be wrong. (And we would only intervene premised on the Millian ‘harm-principle’.)

The reader must also be aware that Alibhai-Brown accuses torch-bearers of Enlightenment of bifurcating the world (apparently committing the ‘either-or fallacy’). She says: ‘Avowed liberals are only able to see conflicts in binary terms – left/right, faith/atheism, freedom of expression/censorship, west/rest, Islam/enlightenment and so on.’ Whilst this gross generalisation receives no defence, she then, a few paragraphs later, says: ‘The burqa [is a battle] between open and egalitarian Islam and obscurantism; human rights values and inhumane exceptionalism; integration and apartheid.’ I don’t mean to say she is being hypocritical, only that for the sake of communication, we can postulate legitimate polarised views. She should be consistent.

This paragraph is all over the place and not worth reading, but she says that the burqa is repressive, prevents us realising women as free beings, prevents us seeing the scars of abuse, etc. None of this being denied, the problem is then saying this allows us to ban the burqa completely.

Modernist Muslims watch helplessly as organised brainwashers, aided and abetted by liberals, bury Muslim females in living graves because femininity is treacherous – an evil slur. Muslim men too are demonised as sexual beasts lacking self-control. Most Muslims may have come to Europe for economic reasons, but many also migrated to escape women-hating Ayatollahs and Mullahs and regimes, to live in democracies that uphold civil and gender rights. Those oppressive ideologies have migrated too. There seems no escape.

I do not know what a ‘modernist’ Muslim is, but presumably a Muslim who recognises the inherent idiocies of Islam, its juvenile attitude to the world and misogynistic tendencies to the better sex.  Alibhai-Brown says that liberals aid the brainwashers; presumably because liberals will defend a Muslim woman’s ability to make a choice for herself. However, this is something that Islam directly opposes: the burqa is testament to that. Liberals oppose coercion. Just because they both result in women wearing burqas is not the point: Islam forces, liberals say choose. If you do not want to, Islam will oppose you, liberalism will defend you. Alibhai-Brown, ironically, is denying choice in this second formulation: you will not wear the burqa.

Finally we come to the rehashed arguments in one single paragraph.

It is perfectly legitimate to require that faces must be visible in public institutions. And surely it’s a defence of human rights to insist that pre-pubescent schoolgirls are protected from restrictive and inhibiting coverings. Progressives should stand for non-racist, universal human development.

Of course it is legitimate. But once again, we must be consistent. Why place special emphasis on the burqa? People wear all manner of things that obstruct their faces: scarves, for example. Are we to ban scarves in winter, when people fear their noses will fall off from the cold? Surely not. What does she mean ‘protected from’? Are these ‘restrictive and inhibiting coverings’ stalking the streets late at night, waiting to pounce on some poor, unsuspecting girl? If not, why do they need protecting from ‘restrictive’ covering? And what about the numerous strange things women wear all the time, quite openly that are, even they say, restrictive. My female friends constantly complain about high-heel shoes, tight-dresses, and so on. Are we to ban these because they are restrictive? Must we protect our poor, defenceless women from themselves? From their clothes? And indeed, what is racist about any of this defence? At no point have I limited my critique to a particular group of people, aside from women. And, we might note, men also can wear scarves in winter, wear uncomfortable clothes and so on. But both sexes can be adult about this and decide for themselves.

What we must oppose is not pieces of cloth, but pieces of choice. Autonomy must slip through the cracks of dogma within secular societies. We must promote women’s liberation, which comes from themselves not from societal imposition. Freedom imposed it not freedom at all. Alibhai-Brown does a disservice by thinking we must remove, rather than promote, choice for Muslim women. Indeed, as many know, our goal in today’s world is engaging with the freedom of all women, for all time. This, dictating what they may and may not wear, prevents this goal from arising. If there is one thing we need to scream louder it seems, it is this for all circumstances: let women choose for themselves.

Women and the death of equality

The most important focus of our times is not the death of monotheisms, the acquisition of utopian states, nor the drive toward wealth. The battle we have on our hands is already coagulated from the vast proportion of those we’ve allowed to die or disappear, from the toils of our past, in the crusade against ourselves. It is the ceaseless oppression of women―that most horrid denigration against one half of our species. (In the space taken to read this paragraph, a women has probably been burnt alive in India, for an inadequate dowry or to make space for a new wife).

The battle could not be more sound: the economist William Easterly has argued that money given to poor countries does little. Tossing greens at a cause will not get it to grow; it is the way it is used and by whom. There has been little correlation between the amount of aid going to the poorer countries and their economic growth-rates. What is needed is the attraction to the right hands and the right causes: those hands and those causes belong to the goals and dreams of the better sex―it rests with women.

A beautiful article, which has become a book, written by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (a husband-and-wife two-pronged sword against misogyny), highlights many of these elements. They have coined a phrase, “gendercide”, to begin the creaks and rattles so that our collective gaze shifts. Like some magnificent telescope, we can eventually set our sights on this horrid and bizarrely under-focused problem of our world. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the future of our collective good, the end product of whether the human species could ever, sub specie aeternitatis, promote more happiness than evil in an indifferent universe, rests with our collective action or in-action toward women. Thus, what is doing more damage might not be the active oppression against women but those many who choose to ignore or remain stagnant about it. It is perhaps one instance in my entire life where I will support either we stand against or for it. I see no middle-ground when it comes to the emancipation of women: we are either freeing them or allowing them to remain prisoners.

“Genderside” is a brilliant and powerful word which Kristof and WuDunn describe as follows: “The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls and women are now missing from the planet, precisely because they are female, than men were killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century. The number of victims of this routine “gendercide” far exceeds the number of people who were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.”

Their focus and sudden alert to this important endeavour could be a metaphor for our own. Why does the massacre in Tiananmen Square, which claimed a staggering 400-800 lives, shake us but the equivalent number of girls (possibly more), every week also in China, lie beyond our concern? Our priorities are skewed. The refocusing must begin soon or we will lose many more women through our ignorance and our sustained incredulity to this pervasive oppression.

The fight for women is the fight for humanity. This needs clarification: by humanity, I mean not only our species (“race” is a dead word) but also our collective concern for ourselves, our freedoms and the promotion of what we consider good. It is the aspect that results in a life well lived or a life betrayed to fallacious reasoning. Like Bertrand Russell, one could hold a disdain for people yet retain a fervent hope for the flourishing and happiness of humanity, the species. To this end, those who are concerned for the good of our species are forced to realise that one of the first steps is the freedom of women.

We have excellent reasons and mountains of evidence to suppose that, when given autonomy and power and money, women end up promoting the happiness of their families. It also results in a slowing down of births, in the needless cycle of vegetative humanity called poverty, where too many children are raised with too few resources. Women take control of their bodies, their minds and their futures when given the opportunity. Not only themselves, but their ability to guide those closest to them comes to fruition. For a beautiful example, read about Saima Muhammad from Pakistan, who saved her family from the needless downward spiral toward poverty by using her business skills. Or, what happens when women and men grow crops and the effects of their profits (to paraphrase, men use it on alcohol and women on their families).

Simone de Beauvoir in a dated but important book dubbed women the “second sex”. Men, throughout our intellectual history (if such a view can even be linked to the intellectual), have dominated the story of humanity. Our words like “man” and “mankind” used to be an argument from the feminists that humanity is by definition patriarchal. Whilst acting on linguistic barriers is wobbly, the necessary viewpoint is somewhat gained. De Beauvoir’s failure is apparent to anyone who reads The Second Sex but her goal was reached. The writings of de Beavouir, Wollstonecraft, Woolf and, most importantly, John Stuart Mill, might seem to many as antiquated thoughts on the “women question”. But their eloquence needs a stab of the contemporary and this can be done by all. Instead of a few writers focused on these issues, we need everyone.

This is also not an apologist’s approach: I do not think women are powerless and need the hands of men to raise them. Rather, it is that men are powerless and need to realise that the plateau of equality needs the better sex. There are no more hills of denigration, where men can apparently see further into the future, beyond the horizon of current possibilities, whereas women can only hear what men shout down from their vantage point. We are on a plateau and we gaze at the future together. Our combined view will bring the future good to the present, it will render the light anew and give a fresh stance to our current goals.

If the world is to have a future, AC Grayling says, “it rests in the hands of women.” No more succinct statement could display the most important focus and fight of our times.

I Don’t Care About “Your” Quran – I’m Worried About What the Violent Muslim Thinks

I received a comment on a previous piece, in which I outlined why I am not a Muslim. You can read the piece for the whole reason, but mainly I find Islam narrow-minded in its view on humanity finding fulfillment. The commentator took it upon him- or herself to machine-gun me with bullets of quotations from the Quran that speaks of human rights and equality and other nice stuff.

Many “liberal” Muslim scholars, like Tariq Ramadan and Reza Aslan, speak similarly and beautifully about Islam and its past. Indeed, Aslan’s debut, No god but God, was a lovely book on the history of his particular form of a particular faith. I found a lot of his arguments unconvincing, since in order to repudiate his claims for peace, love and equality in Islam we can look to the same source as Aslan – namely, the Quran.

Anyway, the point being that in order to discuss Islam there is a paradox: the Quran is literally the Word of Allah and must be obeyed to the letter. It is eternal, perfect and must never be altered or changed. It also supposedly loses many meanings through translation, thus in order to understand it one must read it in original Arabic – or so that poor argument goes. This is nonsense, however, since the majority of Muslims are not Arab-speakers and thus this claim is hollow. Nevertheless, a point I want to make clear, especially concerning aforementioned comment, is this: It does not matter what you think the Quran says, or what Islam means, what matters is what the Quran says and what Islamic leaders say. These are the men – no women of course – who decide for a whole nation or Islamic society, how to deal with a current “crisis”.

The Ayatollah Khomeini was an instance of this – he took it upon himself to decide that Rushdie must die. He was of course justified, according to his magic book. To carry this point further, look at this reply to the Jyllends-Posten cartoons, issued by Al Ghurabaa:

The recent cartoons that appeared in a Danish newspaper (Jyllands-Posten) and that were then re-printed in a Norwegian magazine, The Paris daily France Soir, The German Welt daily, Spanish and also Italian newspapers and which insult the Messenger Muhammad (saw) carry the death penalty in Islam for the perpetrators, since the Prophet said ‘Whoever insults a Prophet kill him’ [For example in the narration collected by Al-Haakim, upon the authority of Hussain Bin Ali (ra)] In this respect Muslims do not make any distinctions between any of the Prophets of Allah (SWT) and so this would also apply to any insults levelled against Essa (as) (Jesus) or Musa (as) (Moses) or Ibraheem (as) (Abraham) etc…Allah (SWT) sent his Messengers and Prophets to mankind to guide them from the darkness of following their own whims and desires into the light and beauty of obedience and subservience to him.

For example, the Quran informs us to kill unbelievers (2:191-2), that unbelievers will suffer doom and death and fire (3:131, 3:151, 3:177, passim.) and so on. Fine. Sure. See, we can quote and belabour this point till Judgement Day – which to many can’t occur soon enough – but the point remains that quoting does not help apologists. And religious groups and leaders issue statements like the above all to often to somehow render Islam peaceful and lovely.

So, my previous commentator can tell me all sorts of lovely things in the Quran; (s)he can talk to me all about the sophistry, sorry, “theology” of Islam that has the doctrine of abrogation (where the violent parts are not really true only in that context even though it is an eternal book but no wait we are peaceful, they are not true Muslims). Frankly, I don’t care whether the Sunni’s got it right but for some reason you think you have it spot-on. It doesn’t matter. It is the same problem I have with Karen Armstrong (who I genuinely am in awe of): she has a beautiful view of faith, backed up by years of scholarship into the history and plethora of religions and cultures. But the problem is, the dangerous, horrible, terrible people – who get into mobs to kill people they barely know about an unproven “crime” of blasphemy – do not render their faith in such beautiful language or focus on those nice lines.

The point is, they have told us explicitly what they think of the Western world and its ideals especially when we insult their religion; the West and its ideals of equality and justice; its progress toward the betterment of everyone regardless of religion or lack thereof; the emancipation of women and the placing them on the plateau of treatment. Sure, many Muslims can say: “See? The Quran also speaks about equality, justice, liberty. It justifies my religion and makes me feel good to be part of such a progressive, universal religion.” But many Muslims, who have more of an impact in our society by diminishing lives as opposed to benefitting them, do not and can justify their anti-rights, anti-women, anti-liberal, anti-freedom views by pointing to the Quran with one hand and pointing to the promise of paradise with the other.

So, I don’t really care if you think that Islam is beautiful and lovely and so on. This really is not the point. I am not going to try reform those who think that it should serve as a tool for the destruction of lives, happiness and the denigration of women. Instead, we can pull the carpet out completely instead of trying to clean it with a soap even dirtier than the filth it targets. I have no problem with those who love their religion and believe in equality and liberty and other things. But they must remember that people – who possibly believe even stronger than themselves – threaten death, violence and bloodshed to those they do not know, for “crimes” that have harmed no one physically. Call yourself a Muslim but remember how many kill in that same name, die because they believe so strongly, and rape and torture and belittle their wives and daughter because, well, the Quran says so, as does the hadith… basically, god said so.

PS: Please note, the article sounds more harsh than I actually intend it, mainly for brevity’s sake.