Everyone everywhere wants to tell women what to wear

The move against religious attire in France- in practice meaning various types of coverings used by some Muslim women- is not new. Recently, however, the brand of secularism touted by French authorities has increasingly come to mirror the restrictions imposed in countries with fundamentalist governments. The horseshoe theory of ideology, ironically created by a Frenchman, posits that the two far ends of the spectrum are more alike than each end is to the political center. Laws banning the ‘burkini’ and other types of clothing definitely give credence to the horseshoe concept.

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Having armed police order a woman in loose-fitting clothes and headscarf to strip on a beach bears far too much resemblance to the ‘morality police’ in Iran. It’s an example of the limits of Western liberalism- which has always been rooted in European cultural superiority. Freedom of religion is sacrosanct, but only within very particular boundaries. Islam is not a protected group- as was seen when Switzerland banned minarets, yet kept Christian bell towers alone, despite being functionally identical.

The idea of French law as a savior, keeping Muslim women from subjugation, is a contemporary repackaging of the white man’s burden. And as a version of the white man’s burden, it is dangerously misguided.

In society, there are institutions and processes. Institutions are concrete, and processes are are created and/or influenced by institutions. The hijab is concrete, the processes that lead women to wear it are really, really complicated. France is banning clothing and justifying it by saying it addresses the underlying process. Namely that women who cover to some degree are oppressed, and they are liberated through having certain types of clothing banned.

This rarely works. Clothing, being concrete, is much easier to regulate. Thus it is often chosen not because it is effective, but visible. Increasing airport security does nothing to combat the forces behind terrorism, but it signals that those in power are doing something. However, the core issue was never the hijab, burqa, or burkini. The issue is coercion and male supremacy, which may lead some (but certainly not all) women to don clothing they would prefer not to. And clothing is one of many manifestations of this coercion. It’s just a particularly visible one.

What we get with the French approach is a blanket ban that doesn’t actually solve anything, and fosters a clear cultural bias. Is modesty in public, no matter who you are, now unlawful? Anyone can choose to dress conservatively in public- many of these people are not Muslim, not female, or both. Europe for centuries sanctioned and punished women for showing too much skin, only for the pendulum to swing such that not showing skin is now somehow suspicious.

Women need a lot of things. Access to education and healthcare. Protection from discrimination in the workplace. A safe environment to live. And the ability to decide how they wish to dress, and whose opinion they listen to on the subject. Women do not need to be told how to dress- and those who came from countries with morality police now find in the enlightened West the same, damn restrictions.

The war on day-to-day Islamic religious practice

In recent years, there has been a turn in some countries towards criminalizing basic religious practices of Islam. The ban on minarets in Switzerland passed in 2009. A huge court battle in Tennessee trying to forbid a new Islamic center. And currently, the ugly debate about a new Islamic cemetery in Texas. In all three, vague connections to extremism were made, though general ignorance was the real core. In the Texas case, there was a bogus concern that Islamic burial practices would be toxic to the surroundings- despite that Jews and Muslims bury their dead sans embalming, which gives them very little long-term danger to the environment.

How government and society should deal with extremism and terrorism is an open question for debate. What shouldn’t be up for debate, but is in many countries, is the right of people to practice their religion peacefully. If you forbid minarets, or building mosques, or burying your dead, you’re making a decision that Islam is not covered under freedom of religion. You can indeed regulate something into oblivion.

With the Texas case, I just see people fighting amongst themselves instead of standing together against genuine threats. If one day you wake up to a totalitarian state, it’ll probably not be because of a couple dozen Muslims in your town. It’ll be because the institutions of power swooped in while you were distracted.

Open Mosque, and the not-quite Reformation

Vice writer Gavin Haynes has a new feature out about Open Mosque, an eclectic liberal mosque in Cape Town. I think he oversells the idea that Open Mosque is unprecedented in its views (the Alevi of Turkey are millions strong, largely secular, left-wing, and gender-equal). Otherwise, I found it interesting. The idea that Islam needs a Reformation like the one Luther kicked off in the 16th century has gained much currency recently with the rise of ISIS and their so-called ‘caliphate’. This is problematic- early Protestants were extreme theocrats (anyone living in Calvin’s Geneva would let you know that), the two religions are dissimilar in a lot of key areas, and since the Reformation global industry, culture, and politics has emerged that create complications. But taking the idea of the Reformation as a potential good, let’s go on.

Haynes gives an idea as to what a Martin Luther figure would look like- TV news tends to skimp on the details of how a Reformation would work, besides moderate Muslims creating new institutions that end the reign of hard-liners. Taj Hargey has a key thing in common with Luther- going back to the core text and using it as the moral guide to society. This is a lesson that all religious people can use- going back to scripture, what does it say, and what kind of society does it put forward? What is the gap between scripture and modern day religious authority? I don’t think Open Mosque will change the face of world history like Luther managed to, but it is offering a genuine alternative. What I worry is that violence against him and his congregation will prevent the spread of new ideas.

Rohingya now face a different, but familiar hell

The big news in Southeast Asia has been the ejecting of Doctors Without Borders from western Burma. This comes due to a dispute with the government regarding their treatment of the stateless Rohingya people- which the Burmese government views as squatters and parasitic. From the linked story:

The BBC’s Jonah Fisher in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, says MSF is one of the few agencies providing treatment for Rohingya who would otherwise be turned away from clinics and hospitals.

The government says that MSF has prioritised the treatment of the Rohingya community over local Buddhists.

The final straw may well have been MSF’s statement a month ago that they had treated people after an alleged massacre of Muslims by Buddhists near the border with Bangladesh, our correspondent says.

Displaced Rohingya have serious food security issues.
Credit: Andrew Stanbridge/Al Jazeera

The conflict between the Muslim Rohingya and mostly Buddhist surrounding people has gone on for decades, but the humanitarian situation has been especially dire recently.  I wrote a brief piece last year that is still as relevant today. These people also live in Bangladesh but face similar issues- at best, they are ignored. Two weeks ago a huge number of Rohingya fleeing by boat were intercepted by Thai authorities and sent back into the country they were fleeing from.