Belgium is on pace to become the first European country to officially (and indirectly) ban the essence of conservative Islamic female identity: the Burka, according to this article in the UK’s Daily Mail.
Of course, the legislation is not worded to single out Muslims nor even the Burka. Instead, strategically, the legislation is directed toward clothing or accessories which, “covers all or most of the face’ in any public place.”
Instances of this nature raise serious questions over religious liberty and national identity; particularly when appeals to the former usurp the absolute necessity of the latter. Indeed, some may say that the ultimate failure of pluralism is its tendency to erode any lasting national identity.
How are Christians to respond to this legislation when, in an albeit different sort-of-way, we’re arguing for religious liberty on issues of marriage and the sanctity of life? As a signer of the Manhattan Declaration, Christians like myself have resolutely confirmed that we will not submit to laws which violate our consciences. Don’t Muslims deserve the same in a “Golden Rule” manner? What separates Christians in the West and in American from Muslims in the East has been the inseparable link between Christianity and Democracy. While the two should not be seen as equivalent, Christianity has fostered a strong belief in the primacy and inherent-worth of the individual which only strengthened the cause for truths which are “self-evident” and stamped upon all mankind.
Back to the issue of the burka and national identity.
The latent issue residing beneath the surface for Europe, as I believe it has been all along, is the tension between religious identity and its breeding capacity for democracy. The influx of Muslims, some of whom are extremists, is causing an unstable mixture of resurgent Islamic identity in an increasingly Euro-phobic culture collapsing in on itself. It has been famously stated that civilizations do not die from murder, but from suicide. I couldn’t agree more. In Europe’s situation, it is the slow and steady decline of Democracy which will spell its demise.
As a Baptist, I am a proud accomodationist when it comes to allowing mulitple voices in the public square. The tensions, however, are manifold. On one had, cultural relativism is to be despised and neglected. On the other, bigoted claims which cast dispersion on the inherent worth of individuals—like Muslims—is likewise detrimental. Yet, as one of my professors has argued this semester in a class on Christianity and Culture, accomodationism implies the ability for there to be rigorous and robust debate. Indeed, sewn into the fabric of the constitution and democracy is the right to offend people, if necessary. That premised, I’ll admit, I would really prefer for there not to be burkas present throughout our culture. There’s a sense in which national identity requires at least a minimum of expected assimilation. The individual behind the burka is not participating in a Western society which prizes openness and freedom. This is not an, “Assimilate or die!” attitude as much as it is a clarion call to recognize that cultures take on their own identities…and that’s an absolute wonderful reality; one core essence of human existence is to participate and contribute meaningfully to one’s surroundings. This simply is not possible when different conceptions of “meaningful” are on the chopping block.
It’s not the burka itself which is off-puting, but the lurking conclusions present behind the fabric: Totalitarianism.
Democracy, stridently stated, is my preference. And where cultural practices are in place which either implicitly or explicitly reduce an individual’s right to (virtuous) self-expression, I would prefer not to participate in said culture. I’m not one to baptize America in a cloak of divine exceptionalism, but as far as achieving freedom and protection under the law is concerned, America is one exceptional place.
Now, for the audacious part: Burkas are evidence of a non-assimilating mindset, a mindset which often appears mysognistic and anti-Democratic and thus, incompatible with the values of the West. I have tremendous love and respect for Muslims—Jesus commands it. It’s Islam which is threatening.