My hometown of Seattle—known for its progressive politics—tends to view democracy through the lens of sixties-style protest. Concerned citizens gather, hold up signs, call senators, sign petitions, march, get arrested, and—in a twenty-first-century addition—faithfully document it all on social media. This is how Seattle “does” democracy.
But a new subculture of protestors has recently sprung up in Seattle. Their collective action calls into question the very foundations of our city’s progressive assumptions about race, gender, religion, politics, and culture. Their public demonstrations represent an incredible opportunity for the renewal of democracy itself. I am speaking (of course?) about Muslim immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East who wear headscarves. Let me explain.
Over the past fifty years, millions of Muslim immigrants have poured into Europe and North America. Their arrival has ignited a series of cacophonous debates on the issues of terrorism, immigration, censorship, race, tolerance, sexuality, national security, religious freedom, and more. Westerners have watched intense public debates erupt in England over the novels of Salman Rushdie, in Denmark over political cartoons, in the United States over Manhattan mosques, in Germany over refugees, and in France over headscarves in public schools.
Within each of these brief skirmishes there has been a growing sense of anxiety among Westerners that something larger and more historic is at stake, a haunting fear that something called “Islam” is threatening to ruin Western democracy. This growing anxiety has fuelled the dramatic growth of right-wing nationalism and populism in both Europe and the United States. Opponents of Islam claim the religion’s presence in the public square represents a clear and present danger to the secular democracies of the West.
I want to challenge this claim.
More than that, I want to suggest that Islam’s entrance into the public square represents a critical opportunity for the renewal of Western democracy. Healthy democracies actually require the public presence and public voice of religion— even religions that challenge their democratic foundations.
This, no doubt, is a massive claim.
For the sake of brevity let’s dramatically narrow our discussion of “Islam and Western democracy” in two specific ways. First, instead of surveying the whole of Western democracy, let’s limit our scope to France and its current need for democratic renewal. Recognizing that it is often difficult to recognize our own democratic shortcomings, I will ask my North American readers to do something that comes quite naturally—focus on the shortcomings of the French. While it is always easy to pick on the French, I believe this exercise will help illuminate blind spots and deficiencies present throughout Western democracy. Second, instead of surveying all of “public Islam,” let’s focus our attention on one of the religion’s most recognizable public displays—the headscarf, or “hijab.”
Why the French don’t like headscarves
In 2004, after a dramatic and contentious national discussion, the French government passed an infamous national law prohibiting any clothing in French public schools that indicated a child’s religious affiliation. While the law was worded in a religion-neutral way, everyone knew that the law was aimed directly at Muslim girls.
The news of the law surprised the Western world for three significant reasons. First, no one seriously believed that the headscarf of a young Muslim schoolgirl represented a serious national security issue. Second, there had been no widespread disputes or disruptions in French schools about headscarves. Third, France has a long history and an international reputation for advocating a radical commitment to democracy and liberty. Why would they, the famous champion of democratic liberté, pass such an undemocratic and illiberal law against a harmless group of schoolgirls?
In his aptly titled book Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves, the anthropologist John Bowen attempted to explain the dramatic political shift. Bowen’s survey of the heated French discourse in the run-up to the 2004 law is particularly instructive.
“You do not attend school as you go to the post office or to another public service,” one French advocate argued. The school has a transformative mission. The secular classroom is “a place where we share universal values of freedom, equality, and fraternity. The school’s mission has a liberating ambition to give citizens-in-the-making the means to free themselves.” Teachers must “defend secularism.” This mission of French secularism requires an “active intervention by the state.”
The crusade-like mission of secularism to liberate children from their “religious oppression” would eventually take its toll on the young Muslim girls. After the 2004 ban on the headscarf, one Turkish schoolgirl
who had worn the voile in school for several years, showed up with a knit cap and was refused entry. She was brought to see the principal who told her to take it off. When she refused, she was kept in a windowless room all day. Distraught, that night she cut off all her hair and shaved her head.
Likewise, a French swimming teacher complained that Muslim girls
cover themselves with a kind of violence that makes one ill at ease. . . . [They believe] the head ought to be covered because the body itself presents a problem. . . . We even had to refuse their demand for separate toilets for girls and boys, so as to avoid an anti-Republican politics.
Notice here that the new “field of combat is no longer the school but the girls’ attitudes toward their own bodies.” The supposed religious shame that was plaguing these girls was believed to be so damaging that it needed to “be fought even at the cost of the girls’ well-being.” The teachers’ mission to liberate girls from their religious convictions was so intense that the teachers seriously believed they were forced to refuse separate toilets for girls and boys.
But why would these teachers behave this way? Why would the French government and the French people support this crusade-like approach to public education?
Bowen identifies five particularly instructive reasons why the French—the international champions of democracy and liberty—would approach Islam this way and why they felt the need to pass such a restrictive law.
First, Bowen points to a very modern attitude toward religion in the public square. In modern France, he explains, public forms of religion are largely viewed as divisive, irrational, regressive, and—most importantly—inherently anti-democratic. Secularism, on the other hand, is viewed by these moderns as the polar opposite of religion: secularism is seen as a public force that is unifying, rational, progressive, and inherently democratic.
This strict dichotomy between religion and secularism has been constructed by a particularly slanted retelling of French history. According to the popular narrative, France’s medieval past was marked by religious wars, religious oppression, and religious backwardness. Meanwhile France’s present is defined by secular peace, secular freedom, and secular progress. Through this meticulously constructed historical lens, public expressions of religion are consistently depicted as the anti-democratic problem to which secularism is depicted as the prodemocratic solution. It is telling that the teacher quoted earlier based her arguments against the headscarf on the idea that “religion is something very private and intimate, like your sex life.”
Bowen argues that a second major reason for the headscarf ban was, quite simply, late-colonial racism. Bowen reminds his readers that North African and Arab peoples have historically been the objects of French racism, colonialism, and cultural imperialism. Through this historical lens, immigrants from these former colonies are consistently described by the French as the problem (to which modern French culture is the solution). The French state must therefore educate and civilize the feral North African and Arab immigrants, who are their cultural burden to bear. Through this Orientalist lens, the ban on the Muslim hijab is framed as one necessary part of a much larger cultural mission to assimilate a lower culture into a higher one. Unsurprisingly, this blatant cultural paternalism has not been well received by North African and Arab immigrants. As Bowen notes, the “term integration has come to mean quite different things to those who see themselves as the reference point and those who see themselves described as ‘the problem.'”The third reason for the headscarf ban was a very particular modern understanding among the French of what constitutes “healthy” female sexual expression. There was a growing belief that Islam represented a threat to the freedom and well-being of women. On questions of sex, gender, family, and women’s rights, Islam is consistently portrayed by the French as threatening the dignity and power of women. Accordingly, the public presence of a simple hijab is interpreted, not simply as a public expression of piety, but as a direct assault on the rights, identity, and sexuality of French women. Bowen recalls numerous French citizens describing headscarves as publicly offensive and aggressive. The hijab is interpreted as the quintessential symbol of gender oppression, which the modern state has a responsibility to snuff out. Framed in this manner, the 2004 ban on the hijab was interpreted as an act of benevolent liberation, the emancipation of young repressed Muslim girls shackled by the strictures of their religion.
The fourth reason for the ban on the hijab is the historically crusade-like mission of government schools in France. Bowen explains that—historically speaking— French schools were founded with a specific and transformational mission, namely, to take conservative Catholic children and convert them into progressive, modern, and secular citizens. It was not enough for these nineteenth-century Catholics to be educated by the modern and secular state; the children needed to be assimilated into a modern and secular way of life. In a similar fashion, when Muslim children began streaming into French schools in the late twentieth century, the government increasingly asked its schools to return to their nineteenth-century mission of secular conversion. The schoolgirls’ headscarves were, therefore, a stubborn public symbol of religious resistance to secular assimilation. Before the headscarf ban was passed there was a growing sense of frustration among the French people that the government schools were failing in their mission to assimilate Muslim children. The law against the headscarf was seen as a way of empowering schools to accomplish their central mission to integrate religious children into the secular whole.
Fifth and finally, Bowen argues that the headscarf law came about as the result of a widespread fear that French culture was dying, fragmenting, and “falling apart.” Reacting to this growing fear of dissolution, the French people demanded a strong cultural and moral center to unify around— an enforced common identity. Bowen points to the rhetorical power of two central actors in stoking this fear of fragmentation: the French media and right-wing nationalists. On a daily basis the French media successfully linked “Islam” to nearly every national issue. Most every story about war, education, immigration, poverty, crime, illiteracy, and domestic violence suddenly became about Islam. At the same time, right-wing nationalists consistently warned that France was a fragmenting society in desperate need of a strong secular center. Long marginalized by moderates, right-wing nationalists and their islamophobic political rhetoric quickly went mainstream. Soon enough, French politicians on both “the left and right sought to outdo each other in defending laïcité [secularism].” The headscarf ban in 2004 was seen as a critical step to ensure that France would remain one nation firmly united under the banner of secularism.
Undemocratic democracy: Illiberal liberalism
Each of these five factors contributed to the people’s demand that the government “do something” about Islam. And—in a stunning display of political cooperation and expediency—a diverse collection of politicians combined forces to send a clear message to Islam. In a matter of months, the ban on the schoolgirl’s headscarf had the force of law. The people had spoken.
It is a truism that democracy ultimately depends on the wisdom, justice, and virtue of “the people.” This is democracy’s greatest strength—and its greatest weakness. As long as the people are wise, just, and virtuous, democracy works beautifully. Of course, the precursor “as long as” casts a long shadow over the sentence. Here, “the people” democratically decided to do something quite undemocratic—the liberals decided to revoke liberty.
Emboldened by the national ban on the schoolgirl’s hijab, “the people” began to take matters into their own hands. One mayor decreed “that no parent going along on [school] outings would be allowed to display religious signs.” Muslim mothers would now be forced to remove their hijabs for all to see. “In some cities, mayors refused entry to city hall to women in headscarves.” “A mayor of a small town ordered a man working at the municipal pool to shave off his beard.” A “university student canteen in Paris refused to serve a student because she wore a headscarf.”
According to Bowen, many French secularists viewed the headscarf ban as just the beginning of their secularizing mission against Islam. After all, one newspaper argued, if the ban would not fully “vaccinate” the sickness of “religion,” a more expansive secular mission would be required.
The hijab as gift
As stated earlier, democracy’s reliance on the wisdom, justice, and virtue of the people is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. As we have seen from Bowen’s account, it appears that “the people” developed a significant series of blind spots when it comes to racial, religious, and cultural diversity in the life of their democracy. The rather dramatic example of France and the hijab perfectly illustrates how a democratic society can fail to notice its own racism, colonialism, and anti-religious bigotry
While it is tempting to wag our collective fingers at the French, the unwelcome truth is that all of Western democracy is infected with these anti-democratic viruses right now. Take, for example, the mistaken belief—widespread throughout the West— that democracy is weakened by the public expression of religious conviction. The West’s fear of civil religion as an inherently divisive and destructive force greatly inhibits the ability of Western countries to establish peace and justice in religiously diverse populations. When you view public religion as nothing but a problem to be solved, a sickness to be cured, the difficult task of cultivating a democratic culture is made harder—not easier.
Critical theorist Nancy Fraser argues that healthy and sustainable democratic cultures depend on cultural conflict—not consensus. The widespread assumption that democracy requires a homogenous culture and set of common moral values is wrongheaded. Instead, Fraser insists that democracy requires a “multiplicity of publics”—not a single or homogenous public square.
Fraser argues that diverse countercultures and counter-publics serve a critical function in healthy democracies. Countercultural communities openly challenge dominant political assumptions, moral practices, and power dynamics. Fraser warns that if the majority community goes unchallenged by these “counter-publics,” the majority community will inevitably grow in its destructive hegemony and pursue an even more aggressive public uniformity—á la secular France.
At the time of the infamous ban on the hijab, a popular documentary prompted French viewers to ask themselves, Are Muslims immigrants attempting to “forge an identity” for themselves in France, or are they attempting “to do good”? The question, of course, implied that Muslim immigrants could either forge an identity for themselves or they could contribute to the common good—they could not, however, do both.
I submit the opposite.
I submit that the Muslim schoolgirl who walks into her classroom with a simple scarf atop her head is performing a critical democratic function—one we should all be thankful for. Whether she knows it or not, she is offering a distinct contribution and precious gift to Western democracy.
Her hijab is doing the critical work of exposing several viruses growing at the heart of Western democratic culture: racism, colonialism, anti-religious bigotry, cultural insecurity, and fear. Each of these viruses is potential deadly to the democratic experiment, and she is exposing all of them.
Moreover, in publicly asserting her distinct religious identity—again, whether she knows it or not—this little girl is raising critical questions all democratic citizens must ask about what it means for distinct worldviews, races, and cultures to coexist within a single nation—questions many citizens want to avoid. Bowen is instructive here: “When Muslim women in headscarves say that it is with these clothes and this religion that they choose to abide by the rules of [the nation], they are challenging the conditions for belonging to the nation.” The Western liberal onlooker would be wise to pay attention. For, as
Rowan Williams remarks, “Unless the liberal state is engaged in a continuing dialogue with the religious community, it loses its essential liberalism. It becomes simply and dogmatically secular.”
The public piety of the schoolgirl, the simple adornment of her body with her religious convictions, represents a critical democratic contribution. The growing questions of Islam, the West, and democracy are extremely complex—much too complex for a single article to resolve. My point here is relatively simple: when Eastern religion covers up, Western secularism is exposed. We would be wise to take a look at what the schoolgirl has uncovered. As Saba Mahmood quips,
What is needed in the current moment of political chaos is not so much stringent and pious calls for the reassertion of secularism but a critical analysis of what has been assumed to be the truth of secularism, its normative claims, and its assumptions about what constitutes “the human” in this world.
Have you ever thanked your Muslim neighbour for wearing her hijab in the grocery store? If you value democracy, I am beginning to suspect that you should.