The core value of modern democracy is the liberation achieved by participation in public life.
Angela Merkel has proposed banning the burqa. To be clear, what she means by this is banning full facial covering. Not banning headscarves. The ostensible reason for this is security concerns.
In France a similar ban was related to issues of national identity. Others, including some Muslim women have associated a ban like this with protecting women’s rights.
In each case the covering of the face takes on a different symbolic value in relationship to the public good. And in each case those proposing a ban claim that they are not infringing on any fundamental right.
The problem with these claims is that whatever their theoretical merits the rulings affect actual women whose situations and motivations may have nothing to do with terrorism, or undermining national values, or even engaging in the struggle for human rights.
We can easily imagine some of the different reasons some Muslim women in Germany may choose to cover their faces in public. Some may do so out of a considered decision about what it means to be Muslim, to submit fully to God’s will. They will base their decision on a particular set of interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith which however contested nonetheless have a place in the history of Islamic thought and are part of what a significant number of Muslims believe to be the mandate for “modesty” by women. For these women banning the face covering in public spaces is a violation of their religious freedom, as wearing a veil is clearly enacting their religious beliefs.
There will certainly be other women, perhaps preeminently from among refugees populations, who have never given real consideration to the religious rational for wearing a veil. It is simply what they have been taught that decent women should do in public. It has been the practice of all the women they know for as long as they have been alive. For these women banning the veil has several possible effects. At best it makes them profoundly uncomfortable when they are forced into the public realm. It would be like passing a law that says I can’t wear a shirt in public. I don’t have a religious rational for shirt wearing, but having always worn shirts I’m quite uncomfortable with making my body an object for public viewing and quite possibly public judgment.
But for many of these women it isn’t just a matter of being uncomfortable. It is a matter of guilt and shame. It forces them to engage in a behavior in public (uncovering the face) which they have been taught is both shameful and against God’s law. And it really doesn’t matter if others, whether non-Muslim or Muslim believe that they shouldn’t be ashamed or guilt to show their faces in public. It is difficult if not impossible to change a lifetime of learning reinforced through practice. Even if these women changed their minds, changing the emotional response to their own behavior would be nearly impossible. And frankly no one is trying to change their minds. The result for these women will simply be to drive them indoors, to keep them from going out in public.
The result of this will be an ever more insular Muslim community cut off even further from participation in public life. It simply legitimizes the effect of public attacks on Muslims that seek to drive them from the public realm. Such actions toward a religious group are not new for Germany, and one might believe that lessons learned long ago would be transferable to new times and circumstances.
But let’s leave aside the past. The core value of modern democracy is the liberation achieved by participation in public life. It is precisely by being in public, by engaging in the realm of public discourse from the most trivial level of seeing and being seen to engaging in commerce to being part of public debate to voting that humans attain their full humanity. And it might be added, are gradually initiated into and transform shared concepts of what it means to be a public person.
None of this can happen if Muslim women are put in a position where they must remain in self-chosen exile from the public square in order to maintain their personal dignity and religious commitments.
Do women in burqas make Germans uncomfortable? Do they make Americans uncomfortable. No doubt it makes some of us uncomfortable. They are a reminder that much of the world, including millions refugees, doesn’t share in our patterns of public behavior. They are a reminder that we cannot be insulated from the tragedies that have engulfed the Arab world and Central Asia. They are a reminder that our world is inexorably changing as globalization in all its forms leads us into ongoing negotiations over the visible shape of the public space.
But what we need to remember, what Germany needs to remember, is that the greatest gift of our civilization is its commitment to liberation through participation in public life in public spaces. At every junction when we have extended that participation further both we and those drawn into public life were set free again. And whenever a group has been marginalized we have diminished the scope of our own liberty.
Most of the world is still a place that in one way or another has closed its public spaces to religious minorities, ethnic minorities, persons with different sexual orientations, unwelcome ideologies, and ultimately all dissent from both public policies and the culture promulgated by the ruling elites. We cannot go down that road in even the slightest way if we expect to be a force for freedom. Although our military interventions in the last decades have failed to extend the freedom of the public space to other nations, we must at least defend that freedom at home.
That public space where people of all religions, all sexual orientations, all ideologies, and all ethnicities engage with one another is the incubator of freedom, even if it isn’t always comfortable for any of them. It isn’t burqas that need to be banned. Its bigots, although on consideration even they too are better in the public square than banished from it.