As September gasped its last, something unprecedented happened in the French town of Meaux, located about 25km from the heart of Paris. In this town, whose previous claim to renown had been its cheese and a special variety of mustard, the first fine was imposed on two women who had been found wearing the niqab, or the full-face veil, in public. The women, Hind Ahmas and Najate Nait Ali, were ordered by the municipal court judge to pay fines of 120 euros and 80 euros respectively. They vowed to appeal against the court’s ruling in the European Court of Human Rights.
It was through this humdrum route that France, historically renowned for its cultivation of creativity and its evolved appetite for artistry, entered the ranks of nations that utilise bans to eliminate from the public sphere acts which a majority deems morally repugnant or politically subversive.
France was thus inducted into the dubious fellowship of the afraid, which include — amongst others — the Saudi state that sends men with sticks after ‘inadequately’ covered women and the Chinese state that imprisons bloggers that try to tweet against the government.
Like the majority of the French, who would emphatically endorse the municipal court’s actions, most Chinese and Saudis apparently see no problem with their bans — after all, order and stability must be protected and who better to do the deed than the state under the imprimatur of law.
Bans catalogue a nation’s worst fears, enumerating acts which many believe would — if left unchecked — instigate a devastating loss of identity. It is a proximity to existential terror that creates justifications for the existence of bans —for the French, cafes spilling over with veiled apparitions; for the Saudis, a cavalcade of untamed tresses streaming out from convertibles; for the Chinese, virtual revelations of the peasants felled to make way for skyscrapers. In each case, the ban in question is tied, purposely and with great intention, to the behaviour it seeks to prohibit, its content justifying its coercive nature and obscuring its intrinsic fallacy.
Through this circle of flawed logic a ‘ban’ society, be it Saudi or French or Chinese, adheres to the specificity of the ban it produces as a justification for it. By criminalising an act, say the wearing of a niqab or the abandoning of an abaya, the act is redefined as deviance.
What is banned becomes the same as what is dangerous, leaving only incremental shades of difference between covered and uncovered women and murderers. The mechanics of bans is employed by governments with an appetite for political manoeuvring to get vast populations to back bans, to get scared minorities to adhere to them and to have those unaffected by their proclamations ignore them.
To draw up an itemised account of the costs imposed by bans requires moving beyond the intoxicating concoctions of right and wrong meant to trip the unwary citizen. Rid of context and criminality, a ban inflicts two wounds on society: the first cripples, the second kills.
The imposition of a ban, like no other act of state, proclaims the breakdown of a society’s own mechanisms for imposing blame and shame. Hence, it controls communal behaviour. A society that bans has no moral confidence in itself and becomes, with decades of accumulating bans, unable to judge behaviour without the mandate of the state to distinguish between right and wrong.
Acts become wrong not because of calculations of harm and the benefit or dictates of social conscience but because they have fines and penalties attached to them. With time, getting caught becomes more crucial than the act itself. Cleverly evading censure becomes the basis of moral decision-making, skewing all equations on the basis of being found out.
It is as a consequence of the stunting of moral life that the intangible costs of bans can also be weighed. The most avid fans of bans, the Saudis and the Chinese, believe in the assumption that an artful selection of prohibitions retains just the right amount of freedom. Based on this premise societies safely incentivise science and technology, for instance, while placing curbs on literary or artistic expression.
In China, therefore, you can consume an expensive French meal and purchase a Ferrari but you cannot get on Facebook or ask your friends to assemble and protest against the razing of a slum. This same idea of circumscribed freedom exists in all ‘ban’ societies, pivoted on the premise that freedom can be rationed or directed into certain permissible pathways.
This idea of limited freedom would work if those subjected to it were not already crippled by their navigation of bans. The ultimate cruelty of a ‘ban’ society is that it judges all acts by their permissibility; hence, an act becomes defined by limits instead of possibility.
Creativity, too, while initially whetted by the trickery required to get around firewalls and get on Facebook anyway, or drive a car deep in the desert, reaches a desolate dead end dictated by the very edict it seeks to evade. There can be no invention in these societies since the unimaginable is a realm that cannot be explored; the unimaginable is off-limits precisely because it is unknown.
A ‘ban’ society is a scared society, where the terror of the future must be curtailed by artificial guarantees of order. In its feeble attempts to destroy uncertainty, to create identity by outlawing this or that, it eliminates the possibility of ideas whose impetus is not defying bans and whose originality is not located in the simplistic mechanics of violating well-known taboos.
This past week, a world enamoured of bans bid adieu to an inventor whose creations could not be described, or even imagined, until they existed. Such is the potential of creativity unhampered by the maze of restriction, a suggestion that when acts and expressions are not teased and tampered with through prohibition, the translation of the unknown becomes not the terrible but the possible.
Rafia Zakaria is an associate editor of altmuslim.com and an attorney who teaches constitutional history and political philosophy. This piece originally appeared in Dawn.