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Derrick Abdul-Hakim

I don’t mean to shift the focus of the discussion to Paul Berman’s Flight of the Intellectuals, but Berman’s discussion of the headscarf ban in France does raise an interesting issue. Consider this passage:

“A good many people came to think that ultimately the issue was not whether Muslim girls had a right to wear headscarves in the schools, but whether Muslim girls had the right not to wear headscarves. The purpose in proposing the law was not to crush Islam. The purpose was to transform the public schools into a zone beyond the control of an authoritarian movement. (pg. 211)

The ultimate issue surrounding the headscarf ban, Berman tells us, was not to destroy Islam but to protect the negative rights of Muslim girls. In doing so, the proposal attempts to secure negative rights by banning every form of religious headwear. So: to protect liberty the French government enacts a legal ban on religious headwear that ultimately undermines liberty. Think carefully about the claims made above. Berman conspicuously neglects to mention that the ban (1) applies to children as well as adults, (2) applies to those who voluntarily opt to wear religious headscarves, and (3) applies to non-Muslims. Is he for all of that?

The “closed-door” testimony of French Muslim schoolgirls forced to go clad in religious garb demanded the attention of non-Muslim sympathizers. Hence the French, concerned about the well-being of Muslim women living under domestic Islamic authoritarianism, vouched for a headscarf ban that equally applies to everyone. It gets passed into law, thus dispensing with the very thing the ban was supposed to protect: liberty. I don’t mean to minimize the issue of Muslim women being forced to wear headscarves; it’s serious enough. However, the French reaction to it is symptomatic of a knee-jerk reactionary attitude that has surfaced not just in France but here in the US. Contrary to Nussbaum, I would say the quoted passage doesn’t fall under the category of prejudice or “Islamophobia” but under the umbrella of paternalism; a paternalism of the sort that fuels hysteria about Sharia law in the US and efforts to monitor and/or shutdown Muslim schools/mosques; a paternalism of the sort that, in effort to salvage liberty for a minority, denies liberty to the majority.

John Pepple

Thanks for the comment, and I don't mind your shift in focus. Though I didn't mention this in my post, I myself think the ban is not the best way to solve this problem, plus it does nothing about other things that had been imposed on these girls, such as not being able to take gym classes.

And yes, you're right that this ban restricts liberty in order to protect liberty. There might be times and places where this makes sense, and it would be an interesting discussion to talk about when this would be appropriate (such as when the survival of a culture is at stake). Unfortunately, Nussbaum doesn't see the need for any such discussion.

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