Headscarves and freedom

Dave Belden
30 January 2004

For the first time that I can think of, a government wants to mandate more, not less, sexual display. The French government wants to ban modesty in schools. At least, modesty that is driven by religious belief. Young Muslim women in French schools will have to uncover their hair.

What next? Will they be told to uncover their knees, their thighs, their midriffs? Will the state make it obligatory to show décolletage? Is this Saudi Arabia in reverse, Puritan 17th century Massachusetts on its head?

Some European feminists argue the girls are forced by authoritarian communities to wear the headscarves and so the government policy will free them. Come again? Free them by constraining them with a different cultural authoritarianism? Heil Chanel?

European civilisation is indeed under threat from its immigrants. But also from its frightened governments.

Avoiding religious symbolism is not a European core value. Religious freedom is. If there is a threat from immigration to Europe’s core values, what is it? It’s easier to list what the threat is not.

Clearly it is not about race. Whiteness is not a core European value. Anyone who thinks it is has already lost the argument. The European peoples will inevitably turn brown over the next centuries, maybe much quicker than you think. At current rates a majority of Denmark’s people may be non-white within sixty years, according to one study. Intermarriage is a one-way street.

I am a white European. I look at any couple on the streets of New York or London, be they African, Arab, Chinese, or whatever and I think: ‘One day one of my descendants will very likely marry one of theirs.’ Then they and I will literally appear on the same family tree. I find this a very comforting thought. I admit it only occurred to me recently. The Human Family was a much more abstract idea until it did.

The immigrant threat is not about religion as such. Christianity is not a core European value. Christianity is all bound up with European values historically. But European core values can survive its reduction to a minority faith, or its transformation into something new. The nice old stone church where I used to live in Leeds, England, has been a Sikh gurdwara for a long time now and Leeds is a better city for it. I have friends who are Buddhist, Muslim and Unitarian. In their hands the future of European core values are quite as safe as they are in the hands of my atheist or secular friends.

Nor is it about separation of church and state – that’s an American core value, not a European one. America has separated education and religion so successfully, people think they have to choose between them as authorities: with the result many Americans don’t even see evolution as fact.

Most scientists don’t understand religion, or ministers science. A friend in England who is a physicist and a minister recently retired from being headmaster of a Church of England secondary school (which included lots of Sikhs, Muslims and others within it) – a much more satisfactory combination. Let people be whole. Subsidise religious schools, but require them to teach the national curriculum, including real science, and inspect them to make sure they do.

It’s not about the details of culture. I can recall when racist politicians like Enoch Powell in England used to rail against the immigrants’ cooking smells. Now when American friends go to England I tell them they mustn’t miss the curries. England is south Asian food as much as it is real ale.

Immigrants are us

It is about freedom. To stay rich, Europe must have its poor immigrants. The question is, as their descendants intermarry with the natives and gradually take over, will they absorb the core values that have made Europe free?

Some people will tell me that Europe’s core values are arrogance, exploitation, racism, and genocide. I respond that if that were all they were, Europe would not be half as powerful or rich – or as peaceful and inspirational – as it is today. Yes, Europeans have been arrogant, and this is one of the great things that immigrants are bringing to Europe – a sense of other people’s history, of the wrongs Europe has done.

But Europeans must not be so abashed by what they have done wrong that they fail to stand up for what they have done right. It isn’t cruelty that created modern science, tyranny that created modern markets and democracy, racism that created human rights, or exploitation that created shelters for battered women. The core values that are under threat – from some immigrants and governments – are those of freedom, choice, individualism, legal equality and inclusion.

The threat from the immigrants is just that many of them are poor and come from traditional societies marked by various authoritarianisms and intolerances. It is as if people from Europe’s own history came out of the past to live in it today. People from before the Reformation and the religious tolerance that resulted from endless bloody religious wars. From before the Enlightenment made it all right (in theory) to debate and criticise anything. From before feminism and gay rights made an impact.

An Islam of middle-class, educated, secure Europeans will be very different from the Islam of the poor. It will draw on Islamic history to change modern Islam. It will be a gift to Europe and the world. It just needs time to develop. Time, and government policies of inclusion (including the extension of citizenship) and of firm support for European core values.

Banning headscarves is a policy of exclusion, and of authoritarianism. Not of inclusion, and freedom. It will turn immigrants off, not bring them in. And Europe, like it or not, needs them.

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