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.

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The Problem with ‘Atheism’

There are many problems with the atheist label. The main reason rests merely in inefficiency: that for the sake of a decent dialogue, conversation or communication, the label is almost completely unhelpful. Why premise yourself on what you are not? We need to indicate that against the weight the corpses of deceased deities and the beating heart of a loving one, religious people are more atheists than believers. Purely based on numbers, they are more non-believers in deities than believers. After all, today’s monotheists have confined themselves to a singular deity. This idea of course indicates how unhelpful the label is.

I, for example, also do not believe in fairies, goblins, the Loch Ness Monster, and so on. Must we begin creating labels by negating each non-existent entity? I am an afairiest, an a-goblinist, an anessiest. The list would be ridiculously long and unhelpful. The point being: why stop at an arbitrary god the current climate of society happens to worship?

Julian Baggini, in his excellent Very Short Introduction to Atheism, conjures up a scenario in which the world is plagued by a majority who desperately believes ‘Nessie’ the Loch Ness Monster exists. Finding wide-eyed hatred and fervour, those who do not believe in Nessie are labelled ‘Anessiests’. Now, being a minority, the label is used by the majority who are Nessiest. Of course, these Nessiests do not believe in Atlantis, the Tokoloshe, and Alien Abductions; and once again, even against the weight of these other superstitions, they are more non-adherents than adherents to a particular superstition. (This, given the fact they do not believe in Atlantis, et al, which will not be true of all of them.)

Atheism is negative. Perhaps due to my own lack of intellect, I am struggling to understand what dictionaries mean when proclaiming: ‘the belief there is no x’ or ‘believing there is no y.’ How do you believe in a thing’s non-existence? What does that mean? Perhaps being philosophically inclined, I am greatly exasperated by attempts to clarify this concept; but none that I have seen, and again perhaps simply due to my lack of intellect or sources, have managed to show me what this means.

There is nothing special about Yahweh. He is one more in a long list of conjured up deities made by people no one today has met. Atheists are equal opportunity non-believers: we are not picking on a particular religion or deity. We don’t believe in any of them. And, considering the sheer volume of deified corpses littering the intellectual landscape, monotheists are very close to us even though they proclaim one of these corpses actually resurrected itself or is alive and well and wants to see women dead for being on Facebook. The idea of both groups being clearly aligned comes to ahead when cults or stranger religions (they are all strange, though) erect themselves; then monotheists will be on the frontline calling bullshit on Scientology, proclaiming Wahhabism is not Islam, etc. We critics of religion, secularists, ‘atheists’, anti-religionists would do the same. But we do not discriminate: we will pick on any religion, including those opposing Scientology as not Christian or Wahhabism as not Islam.

If communication is to be feasible both sides must do away with the atheist label, as much as possible. There is nothing shameful or embarrassing about atheism – indeed, it is intellectually honest in most instances. The main problem remains how unhelpful it is: why stop at gods? Why stop at fairies? If religious people are going to peg us with what we do not believe, they must be prepared with a near-infinite amount of pegs. And why just us? Why not label themselves by what they do not believe in? They must be fair: if they insist on labelling us according to what we do not believe, they must do the same for themselves.

This also gives the lie to so-called genocidal atheistic regimes: Muslims do not believe in Jesus’ divinity, Stalin did not believe in Jesus’ divinity. Therefore, disbelief in Jesus’ divinity leads to massacre and slaughter. Christians do not believe the Quran is the word of god, Pol Pot did not believe the Quran is the word of god, therefore disbelief in the Quran leads to massacre and slaughter. Why is this not making Christians or Muslims worried? Do they not see how disregarding the sacred tenets of other faiths has direct consequences in which people will die, be slaughtered, and so on? Christians should surely realise that their disbelief in Muhammad’s miracles will lead to gas-chambers and mass slaughter. Muslims must embrace Jesus’  divinity or be prepared to see the massive deaths of innocent people.

To communicate more effectively, let us judge each other by what we proclaim. There are no central tenets to atheism or non-belief, just as there are no tenets to not believing in the Loch Ness Monster. For this reason there is no such thing as a fundamentalist atheist, just as there cannot be a fundamentalist non-astrologer, afairiest, agoblinist, etc. For this reason, I can only speak for all atheists by proclaiming we disbelieve in deities. To no other extent can I proclaim what they then believe in: some might by Marxists, democrats, Conservatives, liberals, pro or anti-abortion, for and against suicide, etc. Then we begin on stable ground, focused on the current road these people travel rather than the many they do not.

I can only speak for myself by saying that I believe in the tenets often referred to as Enlightenment values, so beautifully expressed in the works of Hume, Voltaire, Diderot,  Jefferson, and Adams – to name a few. This means doing the best we can, for who we can, with what we can; shadowed by premises of alleviating suffering and promoting an individual’s autonomy to pursue happiness as she sees fit. Equality, liberty, justice, protection, and so on are all things worth defending and pursuing. (One would be hard-pressed to link Stalinism and the alleviation of suffering and promotion of freedom.) What critics must do is find an example where such tenets are not worth pursuing, where the alleviation of suffering is to be avoided, where equality and justice and freedom are to be denied.

We can begin a conversation then, on these grounds. It is not only more effective a criticism against me, but would also be beneficial to me. I do not want to spend my life pursuing these goals when at their core they are found to be antithetical to preventing suffering and promoting autonomy. Critics should be shadowed mentors, hidden guides, who through their rough censure lead us on to those paths we do not walk on, those paths we do not give names to; agoblinist, ahumanist, atheist. Until then, the label atheist will not help me nor any religious apologist. Indeed, they would be doing themselves and the conversation a favour by clearing the ground of these negatively-focused terms, to find some bedrock from which our views are spun and which we do pursue.

UPDATE: I knew Sam Harris had spoken at AAI ’07 about this topic, on similar grounds. However, I had no idea he had also titled his talk, then subsequent On Faith piece, ‘The Problem of Atheism’.  My apologies, I did not know. At least my ‘atheism’ is in quotation marks – though I doubt that makes a difference.

Dialogue Between ‘Nice’ and ‘Militant’ Atheist – Concerning being nice and Islam

Jeff:     I heard you on that chat-show, last night.

Dick:   Ah, yeah?

Jeff:    Yes, it was really good. Well-done and all … but did you have to be so, I dunno, harsh?

Dick:   What you mean?

Jeff:    I dunno. I’m just wondering, with your eloquence and obvious intelligence, do you really need your points to be felt rather than heard, do you really need to add mockery to your criticism?

Dick:   Well, perhaps mockery is part of my criticism – if that’s the case, then if you welcome my criticism, you also endorse the mockery that goes with it.

Jeff:    Ah, come on. I accept your ‘points’ against what Islam says and does, you know, we can all agree that it treats women like chattel and is poor in justifying self-reflection … but did you have to add that Islam is a ‘death-cult under the shadow of self-righteousness, a bloody-thirsty hypocrite who screams at the advancing wall of civilisation by typing on a keyboard’? Did you have to say Muslims are ‘strapping young lads … with bombs’? Did you have to say they ‘put women in bags, children in paranoia and themselves in agony’?

Dick:   The problem is when you take my thoughts like that out of context, of course it sounds harsh. However, I do justify why I think that. If you agree that Islam treats its women like chattel, then you must agree that they put women in bags. If you agree that the way a lot of Muslims educate children – ‘the West is bad’, ‘Islam is the greatest thing that can occur to anyone, even if we have to ensure that with force’ – then putting them in a state of paranoia is truly the same thing. And I am not the one saying it is a death-cult: their own believers have endorsed death as a viable alternative to life, and are willing to prove that to us again and again.

Jeff:    Yes, but why can you not make those points without mockery and being harsh?

Dick:   As I said, it may appear harsh out of context, but it is no harsher than a lot of things people say about political-views, restaurants, and so on. Why can’t we speak about religion and religious people in this way, too?

Jeff:    Because they are not restaurants, or politicians! They are not trying to … well, maybe they are, I don’t know, but they have not defined themselves as entities which should be open to such criticism. Most of these people are good, kind, decent. There is no need to be so harsh to them.

Dick:   You are making too many divergent points. Firstly, no ‘entity’ chooses to be a target of mockery. It simply occurs that they become as such: there was a time when there was no such thing as celebrities, but with their rise in stature and the awareness of how society rewards people with no talent and grand egos, there was a space in which to criticise such things. Similarly, no restaurant wants to be widely criticised – but if the food is truly horrible, we will do that. Similarly, if the goals of political views somehow negatively affects my life and those who I love, am I expected to roll over nicely because it would hurt somebody’s feelings? Surely, not! Similarly, another ideological group seeks to influence my life – either by destroying it or in other negative ways. Am I expected to roll over because someone might have their feelings hurt? And, you say, these people who I mock are ‘good, kind’, etc. – many killers during the Nazi regime were also good, kind, like Eichmann. But so what? Being good or kind tells me nothing about what beliefs they hold, nor what beliefs they support. If it is stupid, I will say as much. I am not better than them, I am not smarter than them; to say we shouldn’t criticise them is to treat them like children, it’s to say we can mock restaurants but not their religion because we might hurt their feelings. I do not think any adult should be treated like a child, so why should I do that for Muslims?

Jeff:    Hm, I take your points. But I still don’t agree that the average Muslim beliefs Islam is a death-cult or is seeking the destruction of Western civilisation. After all, there is no central-body of Islam or rather there is no one group that speaks for Islam and all Muslims. To say that all Muslims do this is an almost-racism. Indeed, to treat all Muslims as terrorists is basically Islamophobia. You claim that because Islam is a death-cult, according to you, you have a licence to treat anyone who subscribes to it as basically endorsing that death-cult status.

Dick:   I agree it is wrong to treat all Muslims as potential terrorists – anyone is a potential terrorist! We know that thoroughbred American boys and girls can grow up to fly themselves into anything they want, too. Nonetheless, you are conflating Islam, the religion, with Muslims, those who claim to subscribe to it. I also think that term Islamophobia is a useless term, and one that only seeks to paint critics of Islam with the brush of racism, in order to encourage self-censorship. In any case, consider a country like North Korea: it is a horrid place, filled with suffering, death and constant worship. One is not a person in any recognisable way because you have no freedom at all. Yet, we can call it all these names, but are we saying all North Koreans endorse it, welcome it? Surely not, as they themselves tell us. They either leave North Korea or they try, in an ultimately futile attempt, to change it from the inside. Imagine Islam as a country, and our criticisms still stand: it sends combatants out to destroy us, it sends messages of hate, etc. What’s the difference? Well, people who leave Islam either don’t consider themselves religious at all, anymore, or can try integrate themselves in other countries. You can never escape where you were born or where you grew up – that is a physical place. But to escape your metaphysical and moral assumptions gained from Mommy’s knee? Yes, you can. And then you are no longer a part of that ‘country’ of Islam. Anyway, my point is that Muslims themselves are welcome to – and sometimes, rarely, they do – criticise Islam. However, from within, nothing is happening that even matches it. It is concrete. All Muslims are fundamentalist Muslims, according to what we consider fundamentalist Christians: to be Muslim, you must believe the word of god is absolute, binding, perfect, concrete, eternal, as it is written. Some so-called liberal Christians of course do not think so of their Bible – they see it as allegory, not every word is true, etc. But Muslims have to believe this. So I am working from the definition Muslims claim for themselves, from articles and books and what their leaders say.

Jeff:    Still, most Muslims I know would never endorse violence as an answer. They are peaceful, trying to understand the world; just like you and me. To be so dismissive of them, to say ‘oh they’re actually all fundamentalist’ does not remove you from being Islamophobic – it makes it worse! You are sounding like a bigot. You have no right, just because you think Islam is bad, to call all those who endorse it bad, too!

Dick:   I did not say they were all bad or evil or terrible people. Your charge of Islamophobia is leading you astray. Your ‘most Muslims’ are most people’s ‘most Muslims’, in many parts of the world. The point remains: criticising Islam automatically means criticising Muslims. And all Muslims, by definition, have to believe the tents of Islam fundamentally – that is, that the Quran is the word of god, etc. You can’t escape that.

Jeff:     My argument remains: why make your points so emotionally, so unnecessarily lyrically, rather than another way?

Dick:   Well, just from a communication’s perspective, it has a greater impact. For example, you noticed, you remembered. The most important aspect of criticising traditional, axiomatic and long-held beliefs is to raise awareness. If people take notice by the sudden overturning of a taboo, they will hear the cracks it makes in most people’s deeply held beliefs as it collapses.

Jeff:     Is that a sophisticated way of saying ‘because people will notice me’?

Dick:   Not me, the cause itself. There are always better people than oneself who can talk about why women are treated badly and must be released from their positions in Islamic communities, always better people to discuss education of children, etc. If you can start shattering taboos, and you are cornered, you can always point to better sources than yourself who have been saying the same things for some time. I can at least act as a gateway to better thinkers.

Jeff:     So after trying to draw the spotlight, you want to turn it elsewhere.

Dick:   Very well put. Yes.

Jeff:     I don’t buy that. The spotlight will demand you answer for your own charges; it demands you stand up for your harsh criticisms. You can’t just pass it on.

Dick:   Oh no. My point is that I can justify my assertions and seemingly provocative statements. Remember, it is part of the criticism, not separate. You can’t separate it just because they seem harsh on their own. What’s harsh is not my calling Islam a death-cult, but my entire reason why I think it engenders suicides, martyrdom; what’s harsh is not my calling Islam a faith that puts women in chains, but my entire charge that Islam negates a woman’s personhood completely. In fact, if you think those cherry-picked parts are the harshest, then maybe I have failed. Because what’s harsh is not little bits but the entire criticism.

Jeff:     Perhaps then you ‘have’ failed because all I can remember is your harsh tones and mockery.

Dick:   Well, by making you aware of how my criticism works, perhaps next time you will integrate yourself into the whole thing, instead of just focusing on my rather boring but provocative statements.

Jeff:     Then why do I, as someone who is also an atheist, who agrees that most religions have dangerous parts to it – why is it that I remember the harsh parts?

Dick:   Honestly? Because you agree with me.

Jeff:     What!? But since the beginning…

Dick:   No, wait. Listen. The most important thing is this: you agree with me that religion is best left out our public life as much as possible; you agree that it must not influence how we educate our children; you agree it must not teach creationism; and so on. These, my friend, are the most devastating charge against religion! They have become a song that has been sung so long, many have adjusted to it. But that adjustment led to apathy and many religions have taken a chance to teach creationism, to influence its daughters to marry at 7, to kill us and so on. The most devastating aspect of religion has already been dealt with since the Enlightenment showed us why we must get rid of religion from politics, why the principles of secularism stand. You agree all the way up to here. That is why you don’t hear this but you do hear the so-called provocative parts. You don’t hear ‘there is no good reason to believe in god’, but you do hear ‘the god of the bible is a vindictive bastard’. You don’t hear ‘Islam can be dangerous’, but you do hear it being called a ‘death-cult’.

Jeff:     So because I am so used to the arguments, I don’t hear them.

Dick:   Yes. You are so used to them, that suddenly when they are embellished, they appear worse. But what’s worse is not calling someone’s god vindictive, but saying he doesn’t exist. I think you have forgotten that the harshest blows are done. But religions have a tough-skin as do all forms of irrationality. They adjust to pummelling, they no longer notice it. We can keep beating with the stick of reason onto the flesh of the insanity, but after awhile, it will get up and continue to build make-believe castles in the clouds. You agree with the beating – but when we suddenly dust away the clouds, you get upset. No, no, come now.

Jeff:     I still think there’s a problem.

Dick:   Well, let’s finish this wine and continue this later…