A burning issue in France right now is whether women should be allowed to wear the burqa — a complete face-veil considered obligatory by some Muslims for the sake of modesty. Muslims disagree among themselves as to what exactly their faith demands, but some believe that in order for a woman to leave her home, she must be invisible — leading to a host of impersonal shrouds floating through the streets of Europe, rattling the sensibilities of the locals and setting relationships between the cultures rightfully on edge.
Interestingly, the French bishop in charge of interreligious dialogue has condemned a proposed ban on the burqa, noting, “If we want Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries to enjoy all their rights, we should in our country respect the rights of all believers to practice their faith…. A dialogue in truth among believers will help us go beyond mutual mistrust.”
His primary appeal to reciprocity is very important, since there are onerous burdens placed on Christians in predominantly Muslim countries. But it is his secondary appeal for dialogue — the “dialogue in truth” that makes his statement upsetting, and it may well compromise the first, because the truth about human dignity has been swallowed in confused notions of both diversity and modesty.
The Enlightenment values that currently prevail in Europe make no distinction among religious professions. Thus Mohammed and Jesus, the Buddha and Lord Shiva must all break bread with Voltaire and Rousseau, and if moral confusion ensues, it is the price of accommodating every worldview as an equal and no confession as true.
Islam, the fastest growing faith in Europe, teaches firmly that men are superior to women, that women are property of the men in their lives (fathers, brothers, husbands and sons) and that women should not mix freely with men who are not related to them. Girding this worldview is the notion that women are temptresses and men are incapable of resisting their crafty wiles.
To Christians, who understand men and women to be fundamentally equal and called to a fruitful complementarity, this view is insulting. The virtues of modesty and chastity are grounded in the call to prudence and self-control, and freedom includes the ability to act in accord with God’s will despite our disordered passions and compromised will. Blaming women for leading men astray and punishing them by banishing them from visible society leads many to say that Islam must not be taken as an equal partner by those who value the gifts of women.
Just as civilization has rightly marginalized racists and anti-Semites, the bigotry inherent in Islam has to be considered from a human rights angle. To consider diversity as a strict benchmark ignores the hard fact that some of the celebrated cultures brought into the pantheon of respect degrade certain persons and deny them authentic freedom.
Thus, while I respect this bishop’s grave concern for the well-being of Christians in Islamic nations, I would warn that if a singular drive to co-exist is the fuel to their action, then authentic freedom is in jeopardy everywhere. Doesn’t the acceptance of fully veiling women indicate that permitting some to exist as non-persons in Europe is an acceptable price to pay for negotiating abroad? What of the countless women who look to the West to honor their dignity and reject those who brand them as chattel?
To insist on decency, integrity and respect for women — Christian, Muslim and other — requires that all forms of oppression be banned, and to this end, a soul-searching inventory of all that contributes to utilitarianism and objectification would benefit all persons who are called to a deeper communion and a higher standard.
[The Anchor 2.12.10]