Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States

I'm just trying to develop an online body of work (even if the work is throwaway nonsense) to advance my writing career.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Let's Go Dutch

The clothes do not make the woman. This simple, bordering on infantile, message has apparently not reached lawmakers and other authorities in the Netherlands who seek to ban the wearing of burqas in public. These full body garments are said to isolate Muslim women from society at large and, some have added, pose a security risk as well.

This kind of wrongheaded nonsense establishes once and for all that the road to Hell must be paved with good intentions, or at least what remote, know-it-all politicians consider good intentions. The suggestion that covering one's face and body in public might be isolating isn't altogether inaccurate, but it's not terribly relevant. First of all, in a free society, individuals should have the right to isolate themselves from whomever they choose, as long as they're prepared to accept the consequences of doing so. Secondly, this alleged isolation emerges as much from the Dutch citizens who are put off by the garments as the Muslim women themselves. Acceptance and assimilation are not one way streets and cannot occur solely through legislation; these things take time.

The security angle is interesting, but far-fetched. At the forefront of the burqa ban is Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who insists the law is also essential to reduce the risk of terrorism. Wilders, whose name is much too similar to the nappy-haired frequent costar of Richard Pryor to be taken seriously, believes everyone walking the street should be "identifiable"--that is, faces uncovered--although what exceptions, if any, will be made to this mandate remain unclear. Will the ban extend to wedding veils or winter attire? Of course, it is possible that a gaggle of burqa-clad Muslim women will commit some kind of terrorist act and their unobserved facial features will frustrate law enforcement, but it does seem unlikely. To my knowledge, nothing of this kind has happened anywhere in the world to date, giving credence to the idea that Wilders let's-do-this-for-the-sake-of-national-security enthusiasm is both exaggerated and fatuous.

Wilders argues further that such clothing is "a medieval symbol, a symbol against women." This claim, while not exactly false, does not actually miss the point so much as it strikes the point squarely while traveling in reverse, the equivalent of stroking a cat's fur the wrong way with the mistaken notion that this is better than not stroking it at all. Wilders is, in essence, saying it's not right to force women to wear austere clothing so the best plan is to force them not to.

Just across the Dutch border, in Maaseik, Belgium, a ban on wearing niqabs, a garment similar to the burqa, is already in place. Jan Creemers, the mayor of Maaseik, says he introduced the ban because elderly people were afraid and children cried when they saw women wearing the body-covering ensemble. With all due respect to children and old people, what will the world have left if everything that frightens them or makes them cry is banned? Surely spiders can't be far behind. Parents in Maaseik couldn't possibly have explained that the individual inside that garment has made a choice to dress in a traditional manner and it's a decision a free and open society should respect even if the reasons for it aren't entirely understood. Or, to put it another, more easily comprehended by children way, "yes, I know you think that's a funny outfit, but she won't hurt you and don't stare." Is this so difficult?

Ever since the murder of Theo Van Gogh, whose film, Submission, took Islam to task for its treatment of women, the Dutch have been scrambling for answers on how to approach their problems of integration and assimilation. Their old model failed because it emphasized multiculturalism so much that it turned into something closer to voluntary segregation. Now, it seems, they want to swing the pendulum so far in the other direction that nobody has a chance to catch a breath. No one appears willing to accept that laws and government mandates, while necessary at times, can only advance integration so far. The rest of it takes time and at least a somewhat willing populace, among whom people on both sides are bound to sooner or later grasp the inescapable fact that not all indiviudals in a certain racial, national or religious group think and act alike and many of them are quite worth knowing after all.

Muslims are not blameless in this saga, either. If one chooses to live in a free, affluent and peaceful nation such as Holland--and yes, despite its problems, Holland is free, affluent and peaceful compared to most of the world at large--there should exist a willingnes to accept, though not necessarily adopt, the customs of said nation. One of those customs is free speech. Critics of Islam have a right to their opinions. For Muslims to take umbrage at these opinions is understandable and expected; for any of them to threaten, injure or kill the critics not only violates the law, good sense, taste and decency, but it also gives xenophobes an opportunity to advance their agendas.

Perhaps most galling of all is the fact that an estimated fifty women in all of the Netherlands wear such attire. Fifty. Does the Dutch parliament not have more pressing matters than to ponder a ban on clothing worn by almost no one? The whole idea has done nothing but increase tensions in an already simmering debate.

The phenomenon is not new, but it is disappointing. All over the world, we see examples of the following declaration: society is free for me but not for thee. It brings to mind Abraham Lincoln's 1855 quote: "When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy." And while I have no wish to emigrate at the moment, it is unfortunate that neither individuals nor government seem to fully realize that if tolerance is expected, it must also be extended.

Source: BBC News, Mark Mardell


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