October 25, 2006 | National Review Online

An Unveiling

Muslim women veiling has become the subject of intense controversy in Britain in recent days, with Prime Minister Tony Blair calling the veil a “mark of separation.” National Review Online asked a group of commentators — including Bill Bennett, Andy McCarthy, Mona Charen, Phyllis Chesler, Emanuele Ottolenghi, and Daniel Pipes, to weigh in on the questions: Should the nikab be banned? CAN it be?

William J. Bennett

Few are as tough on radical Islam as I am, and I often learn from contributors here such as Andy McCarthy, for whom I have the greatest respect. But I think Europe is going the wrong way in its banning of the Islamic veil or nikab. I do not know, I cannot know, what Muslim women think when they take upon themselves such a dress code voluntarily, although I am inalterably opposed to them being forced to wear religious clothing they do not choose to wear of their free choice.

But our view of religious liberty in this country, should be the guide. Yes, I honor God as I see Him, but does that mean I have to coerce my fellow citizens to honor and see Him the same way? Concomitantly, does this mean I must deny fellow citizens the right to worship their god in their fashion so long as such worship is peaceable, and they “demean themselves as good citizens,” as George Washington put the test for religious liberty?

To go after women donning their veils is to attack the problem at its weakest — and frankly, least important — link (again, when the veil is freely chosen). While Muslim women are being beaten, while honor killings are extant, and while mosques, universities, and madrassahs are fomenting actual terrorism, Muslim women assuming a dress code is not where our — or our allies' — focus should be. Go after the men who do these things — that's where the fight is.

I'm all for a terrorist profiling system for those that should receive extra scrutiny because they actually carry themselves, or look, like the enemy (including pat downs and further examinations of the suspicious) — but the entire female population of Islam cannot credibly be seen as the enemy, and those who assume the veil in Western societies may seem extreme, may be extreme, but if peaceful in belief and deed, they are not the enemy either. Indeed, it is a distraction from the real enemy to pick on what I assume a large percentage of these women are — seriously religious women who are not building bombs in their garages or study groups. To deny them the first right we boast, namely, the freedom to practice their religion peaceably, seems to me a good way to further radicalize them.

Thomas Jefferson said we can use our laws to coerce the acts of the body, but not the operations of the mind. People should be free to worship their god freely, so long as other laws, neutral laws of general applicability, are not violated. By all means we should investigate whether those laws are being broken or whether there is any effort or premeditated plan to break those laws — but without more, I believe our commitment to religious freedom compels us to leave the dress code of believing men and women alone.

Is it too far off to suggest that if the distrust of the woman in the face veil dictates her removing it for purposes of employment or education then there no longer remains a good justification to allow a Hassidic Jew his black coat and beard, or the next man in a beard and turban his religious freedom — no matter how distrustful that look may be to some? Or nuns in their habits? The difference between the veil and many others' coverings is four inches.

To be sure, we are not at war with Chasidim, Catholics, or Sikhs. But neither are we at war with women who seek an orthodoxy in Islam that includes peace-abiding interpretations — even if curious, odd, or even distasteful.  Again, to expand our efforts there — and throw out the concept of religious liberty at the same time — is to take our efforts off the real object: Islamic terrorists who can dress as soccer players or clerics, soccer moms or wives of clerics. The clothing is not the problem.

Many for whom I have the greatest respect disagree with me here, but what have I got wrong?

 — William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute & the host of the nationally syndicated radio show, Bill Bennett's Morning in America.

Mona Charen

The controversy over the veil is one of the first flickers of European awareness after decades of somnolence. The data are well known: native Europeans are failing to reproduce in anything like the numbers necessary to sustain their societies. Someone however must pay for their corpulent welfare states. Enter the Muslims, who have become a mortal threat. They are a threat for two reasons: 1) the average Muslim woman in Europe has 3.5 children compared with an average 1.4 for native Europeans, which means that in a few years, they will become a majority (a t-shirt popular among Swedish Muslims reads “2030, The Year We Take Over”); and 2) European Muslims are among the most radical and Islamist in the world. Rather than assimilate into European society, many European Muslims are insisting that Europe change.

The battle over the veil embodies all of this. These tentative first steps toward cultural self-assertion by the Europeans follow decades of degrading “multiculturalism.” Europeans found themselves guilty of ethnocentrism, imperialism, and racism and accordingly lacked the confidence to insist upon assimilation. Now, at last, when it may already be too late, some are coming to their senses. In the wake of Theo van Gogh's brutal murder, Holland has introduced a new immigration law demanding that would be immigrants demonstrate Dutch proficiency and pass a “civic integration” examination.

The question that still hangs in the air is this: Can a post-Christian Europe summon the will to preserve itself when the animating principles of its civilization are a watery mix of pacifism, socialism, and sexual license?

 — Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist and author who blogs on National Review Online's “The Corner.”

Phyllis Chesler

Western democracies pride themselves on religious freedom and on the separation of religion and state. From this point of view, we are upholding our own most cherished values by allowing diverse expressions of faith. However, this may also prove to be our downfall. The veil in Muslim lands is imposed upon women whose religious training and opportunities for scholarship and ritual authority is practically nonexistent. The veil is no more freely chosen than is their religion, which neither women nor men are allowed to leave without risking exile or death. Muslim women in Muslim lands or in immigrant communities in the West might gain their only access to public attention and approval if and when they espouse a fundamentalist point of view, namely one that favors Islamic gender and religious apartheid and that upholds the view that women must be veiled.

However, when Muslim women in Western countries wear the veil it has some additional connotations. Veiling is a visible, public, symbolic, and very aggressive statement about refusing to assimilate into a Jewish-Christian and modern democracy. It is a way of remaining apart, different. Also, a professional who is fully veiled (a teacher, physician, lawyer, driving instructor), cannot really do her job. In addition, veiling oneself may also be a way of rebelling in a romantic and nihilistic fashion against a grandparental pro-assimilation generation who worked long hours for small wages in countries now perceived as “colonialist” and “racist.” For such young women, often encouraged by their male counterparts, they are literally “taking the veil” for Islam, Allah, and the caliphate. It is a way of rejecting sexual promiscuity, sexual availability in the West and paradoxically, embracing Islamic gender apartheid (arranged marriage, polygamy, wife-beating, segregation, female genital cutting, honor killing, etc.).

If veiling did not mean any of the above I might have one view about it — but might still view it as a slippery-slope problem. But since veiling does have the above meanings I say this: If we allow our Western views about tolerance to force us to tolerate the intolerant; if we allow human-rights violations to flourish as expressions of religious liberty — then we are lost. Thus, I would ban veiling in the workplace, at school, and in public venues but at this time take no position about it at home or in the mosque in the West.

 — Phyllis Chesler is an emerita professor of psychology and women's studies and the author of 13 books including Woman's Inhumanity to Woman and The New Anti-Semitism. Her forthcoming book is titled The Islamization of America. She may be reached through her website www.phyllis-chesler.com.

Andrew C. McCarthy

In the debate over the veil, as in most debates, it is necessary to define one's terms. What we are talking about here is the severe form of facial covering, the nikab, which generally has a slit for the eyes but otherwise obscures a woman's face entirely.

It's also necessary to resist comparing apples and oranges. British and American approaches to expression are different because the Brits don't have a First Amendment — particularly, the modern one imposed on us by the courts, which has been weighted radically (and foolishly) in the direction of individual liberty (at the expense of the community) in the last half-decade. There is a big difference between what can be regulated under the two systems, and any comparison that does not appreciate that difference is sure to be ill-founded.

In the U.S., notwithstanding our veneration of both free expression and religious liberty, the regnant interpretation of the First Amendment holds that a religion-neutral law (i.e., one that does not expressly target a religion) is valid even if it happens to infringe on religious practices. The drug laws, for example, are valid even though that keeps peyote and cannabis away from sects which would use them in religious rites.

In terms of what the law can do, versus what a society should do, this gives clear guidance. For legitimate public purposes — e.g., testifying in court (where the fact finder must be able to make a discriminating appraisal of credibility which involves observing the witness's demeanor), photographs for identification purposes (as on a driver's license), inspection at a security checkpoint, etc. — the nikab would frustrate the public purpose. That public purpose is expressed in laws and rules that apply to everyone equally — they do not expressly target Muslims. Therefore, orders that the nikab be removed are proper. That doesn't mean the nikab is illegal; the ban is situational.

But what should we do? My own view is that wearing the nikab in this country at this time is an expression of affinity with the enemy — an enemy whose goal is a fundamentalist Islamic society that would deny us the freedom and equality we cherish … including the freedom to dress as we choose and the equality of women with men. Such expression should be discouraged in every socially legitimate way. We, after all, have a right to express ourselves freely, too, and that must mean freedom to shun forms of morale-boosting for those who would destroy us. We are not talking here about any random form of expression by clothing — any more than burning a random banner is the same thing as burning the American flag.

But is the nikab really a statement of alliance with jihadists? This gets into an issue on which I've been like a broken record: who are the real moderate Muslims? Since we have not wanted to confront that question (a self-defeating reticence in a war that is as much about ideology as anything else), we cannot say precisely who constitutes the enemy (which includes not only terrorists but those millions more who support their anti-libertarian aims). The jihadists don't wear a uniform. In discerning who they are, all we have to go on are forms of expression which signal support for their cause.

The nikab, to me, is such an expression. Countenancing it, moreover, puts enormous pressure on Muslim women to conform — or face what can be the deadly consequences of not doing so.

I don't think the tolerance of a society is necessarily measured by how much intolerance it is willing to abide. The law will not let us ban the nikab outright, but we should be free to discourage it severely.

 — Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Emanuele Ottolenghi

The veil should not be banned as a matter of individual choice. But it cannot be treated as an expression of religious freedom, or even as the implementation of a religious duty. It is neither. Not only is the veil not mandated in the Koran, but it is clearly an instrument of submission for women. It decrees the inferiority of women and their subordination to men. It is the expression of a worldview that we reject as contrary to Western values. It does not mean that women who freely choose to wear it and live by the rule of the veil should be punished. It means that a) those communities that embrace it as a moral and social imperative cannot but be left at the periphery of Western society, due to their rejection of our fundamental belief in the equality of the sexes and b) that Western society is entitled to fight a democratic battle of ideas against the veil and the logic that hides behind it, in order to ensure that women who wear it choose to do so rather than being forced to wear it by a strict system of social control, personal intimidation and moral intrusion.

 — Emanuele Ottolenghi is the incoming executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute.

Daniel Pipes

The nikab, which leaves only a woman's eyes showing, is the second most extreme Muslim covering of women after the burka (which covers the entire head, including the eyes). Both garments have become the topic of debate in Europe in recent years; in “Europe's Burqa Wars,” for example, I catalogue some efforts to penalize or render illegal the burka. Thanks to a statement by Labour politician Jack Straw, the nikab has in recent weeks become the center of furious dispute in Great Britain. To a lesser extent, it is already debated in the United States, such as the case of Sultaana Freeman, who wanted to wear a nikab for her driving license picture, or Ginnnah Muhammad, who had her lawsuit thrown out of court because she refused to take off her nikab.

I see the nikab or burka doing immense damage to male/female and Muslim/non-Muslim relations, but in those areas an American's right to freedom-of-expression prevails. On grounds of security, however, I believe that both coverings should be banned, as one cannot have face-less persons walking the streets, driving cars, or otherwise entering public spaces.

 — Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and author of Miniatures.

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