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Burqa ban again

December 28, 2010

I’ve just read The Caged Virgin by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and it got me thinking again about the idea of a “burqa ban”, as they have voted for in France this year. Can it be a good idea?

I don’t think so. Don’t get me wrong, I think the burqa has no place in modern society. It is a symbol of an aspect of religion that treats women as second class citizens, that restricts their rights, and acts as if any problem caused by sexuality is the fault of women and not men. If you are in any doubt about this then read The Caged Virgin, or anything else by Hirsi Ali. I used to say that I didn’t have a problem with them – if a woman chose to wear it then so be it. But this doesn’t work. Someone who chooses to support a measure that is degrading to a group they belong to doesn’t negate my responsibility to stand up for what I consider moral fact.

But a ban? More than anything, getting rid of burqas and similar clothing is a human rights issue. By banning them we are imposing a limitation on freedom of expression – the freedom to wear what you want. Unless that limitation has a just cause – to stop the incitement of hatred and violence, say – there can be no justification for it. It is the exact same issue as with blasphemy laws. Unless I am inciting hatred or violence, I have freedom of speech. In the case of a burqa ban I can see no reason that an imposition on the rights of a minority should take precedence over rights for all. Are there any good arguments? I haven’t seen them.

The way to get rid of the burqa is to make people in Islamic culture realise that the way forward isn’t to blame the west for any ills, but to empower women with education, birth control, and freedom. But this requires a lot more brave women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 29, 2010 3:46 AM

    Although it is from last year, I think you may find this book review useful. The author comes from a Muslim perspective and reviews her works. The link is here … it is good to hear other opinions and ideas.

    Hope you find it interesting.

  2. December 29, 2010 9:12 AM

    Thanks for the link. My initial opinions on this were formed after reading No God but God by Reza Aslan, who’s much more chilled out about everything. The problem I have is reconciling what I read there and what I’ve read since. I’ve read some criticism of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but I look forward to reading your piece.

  3. December 29, 2010 10:39 AM

    Thanks again for the link. One thing I do know is that Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn’t seem to leave much of a middle ground in peoples opinions.

    I don’t agree with your conclusions. The reason for this is that I don’t think you refute the major points that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is putting across. I think your criticisms fall down once you place the quotes you select into context. For instance, the first two major points your raise, the lack of definition of “good muslim” and “extremist religion” isn’t the case if you place these phrases into the pages from which they come. Many of the points you suggest need citation don’t in fact require it. I admite that for some it would be good to get references, but that’s the problem with the popular book form. The book in general is well referenced and not as opinion-heavy as you suggest. At least it encourages further research. I for instance have read some of the reports to which she refers in her extensive notes.

    You rightly contrast her views on Islam with what she has to say about Christianity. The problem with this is that, since Ghazali, there has been a major difference between Christianity and Islam, in that Christians went (slowly!) down the path of interpretation, whilst the Islamic tradition is much more literal. For instance, biblical criticism is an extensive discipline that charts the history of the bible as a man-made text, written well after the “fact”. This is widely accepted. Islam however holds to the myth that the full complete Qur’an was formed in some way during the time of Muhammad. With a much more restrained criticism possible how are we to interpret this cliam? Sceptical sources place the formation of the canon of the Qur’an much later, just as in the case of the bible.

    Some people will be offended by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and what she has to say. I certainly don’t agree with her on everything. But she addresses this fact in her books. Some people will take this as an insult to themselves rather than their beliefs. This is the problem when criticising religion.

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote what in my opinion is an excellent book. Her views are agreed with by people who’s opinions I respect.

  4. January 1, 2011 1:24 PM

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Do keep in mind that I was reviewing her first two books, not the latter two. The most recent two have been more of a personal narrative, where I would agree it was an interesting story (I use ‘story’ because since then it has become clear much of those details were falsely presented, nonetheless I didn’t want to spend much time on that). The first book, however, needs citation and reference because argues about political positions and is more academic in that sense and since she quotes “verses” that don’t exist in the way she’s presented it, or quoting scholars without citing the name or the text – this is just common faux pas that authors ought not do. I am sure you agree.

    With regards to a lack of textual criticism, there certainly has been a discussion (not just a literialist view) both before and after Imam Ghazali – I’d be happy to direct you to text if you are interested. And, with regards to textual criticism, did you have to read my post on Qur’anic textual criticism? That post deals more with a response to Orientalist claims against the Qur’an, nonetheless it might give you an idea as to how alive textual criticism actually is (in the present and the past). link to that is here:

    All the best.

  5. January 4, 2011 1:10 PM

    I agree that it is a common faux pas, but I’m not sure that in this case it’s as fatal a flaw as you make out in your review. My edition of the book had a decent amount of notes and references that let me go away and read more, so I felt it was an acceptable level. If there were no references, then I’d agree with you.

    Textual criticism – I’m aware of Ibn al-Rawandi and Ibn Warraq, but other than that can’t say I’ve encountered people who provide extensive criticism of the Qur’an, or who are willing to interpret the Qur’an as extensively as Christianity (in its popular form) interprets the Bible. I’d be interested to know if I can add anyone to my list.

  6. January 8, 2011 10:53 AM

    (Not sure if you want to discuss on my blog or yours)

    Fair enough – I suppose the problem I had with the lack of references was that the points were factually incorrect. However, we can move on and agree to disagree.

    Regarding textual criticism, it certainly has gone on (and is going on). I may or may not agree with the way in which it is done (like how many Christians disagree with the approach of the Jesus Seminar). However, it certainly does occur. Try a Google search on Tarek Fatah, Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Dr. Amina Wadud, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Fatema Mernissi, Dr. Umar Abd-Allah or for a classical one ibn Arabi.

    If you are looking for criticism, there is plenty in the Orientalist field, however I’ve given you some people who are in the latter category look at reinterpretation of the Qur’an.

    Obviously you’d encounter more work in the language of the Qur’an and the language where most of the scholarly discourse takes place (namely, Arabic), so if you’d like some suggestions in that language I’d be happy to provide. Do recall the Qur’an was only recently translated into English, so it is not really appropriate to compare existing scholarship in the English language alone.

    All the best.

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