Thursday, 28 February 2013

Blinkered Vision

The Burqa and the Civil Libertarian Left

NOTE: The following essay deals with face-covering - ie: the burqa and the niqab (see below). For the sake of simplicity, use of either term here can be taken to mean both.

BURQA: Covers the entire body and hides the eyes behind a grill.
HIJAB (headscarf): Covers the hair and neck, but not the face.
NIQAB (face veil): Covers the whole head except the eyes. 

*     *     *
The Muslim veil, the different sorts of masks and beaks and burkas, are all gradations of mental slavery. You must ask permission to leave the house, and when you do go out you must always hide yourself behind thick drapery. Ashamed of your body, suppressing your desires -- what small space in your life can you call your own? The veil deliberately marks women as private and restricted property, nonpersons. The veil sets women apart from men and apart from the world; it restrains them, confines them, grooms them for docility. A mind can be cramped just as a body may be, and a Muslim veil blinkers both your vision and your destiny. It is the mark of a kind of apartheid, not the domination of a race but of a sex.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
These stark reflections on a life behind the veil in Ayaan Hirsi Ali's memoir-cum-polemic Nomad were occasioned, not by a trip to Saudi Arabia or Iran, but by a drive down Whitechapel Road where Britain's largest Muslim community live in the shadow of the notorious East London Mosque. Veiling, and the oppression of women that the practice in its most extreme forms unavoidably entails, is becoming increasingly common amongst Muslim women living in free societies, despite the fact that the progressive struggle for women's rights in such societies has resulted in laws designed to promote and safeguard gender equality.

For the relativist Left this is cause not for outrage but for celebration. They argue that the growing prevalence of veiling, including face- and full body-covering, is evidence not of oppression, but of our society's broad-mindedness and cultural diversity. Since Western laws and culture make no such demand on women, adoption of regressive dress codes can only be a matter of free and individual choice. To circumscribe or even criticise such a choice is not only illiberal, but evidence of cultural imperialism, bigotry, 'Islamophobia' and intolerance. When the French lower house passed its ban on face-covering in 2010, The Guardian's Madeleine Bunting voiced her disgust:
It is not difficult to see the racism which permeates this debate. It is about assertion of identity – under the soubriquet of protecting "our way of life" – and crucial to that is forcing a choice: do you subscribe or don't you? Sign up or get out. But such choices are notoriously slippery. Who gets to decide what our way of life is exactly?
One of the most trenchant critics of this kind of incoherent, woolly thinking has been the progressive writer and journalist Nick Cohen. Some of his most powerful writing has been devoted to attacks on the pieties of multiculturalism and its apologists, who would tolerate intolerance in the narcissistic belief that what mattered most was the ostentatious display of their own open-mindedness. In a particularly scathing article for Standpoint on the subject of liberal attitudes to religious misogyny, he wrote:
People on the receiving end of repression notice the air of moral superiority as soon as Western liberals refuse them their support out of "respect" for the culture which intimidates them. Liberal relativists are in this respect the true successors of their imperialist ancestors. Where once Westerners denied rights to lesser breeds without the law who were racially unsuited to enjoy liberty, now they deny them to diverse breeds without the culture who are unsuited by accidents of history and geography to exercise the freedoms white Westerners take for granted or handle the complex arguments white Westerners take in their stride.
In other words, if the debate over, say, minority women's rights is being permeated by racism, it is the racism of impoverished expectations produced by the cultural relativism of people like Bunting (who, contrary to her declaration, finds this very difficult to see indeed). Cohen argues that these "weird twists in liberal opinion" are the product of fear. Fear, in part, of "provoking accusations of racial or religious prejudice".

The Burqa and the Question of Religious Freedom 

But the peculiar quarrel over whether or not to ban the burqa has produced some weird twists of its own. In the middle of a discussion about the reactions of the political left and right to the spread of political Islam in Europe in his blistering free speech polemic You Can't Read This Book, Cohen suddenly writes the following:
[T]he Sarkozy government banned women from wearing the burqa - a direct assault on freedom of choice and freedom of religion.
I have to confess I was slightly stunned by this declaration. Even allowing for his hostility to State interference in matters of individual freedom, it is not a conclusion I would have expected Cohen to arrive at without difficulty. Not least because in the Standpoint article excerpted above, he had also written this:
For all the qualifications, the stubborn fact remains that mainstream opinion does not consider the oppression of women a pressing concern when it is done in the name of culture or religion, particularly in the name of once-subordinate cultures and religions. The misogyny they generate does not move hearts or stir passions.
Yet his indictment of a ban on the burqa is as definite and unequivocal as it is pithy. The emphatic terseness with which the case is stated and concluded gives the clear impression that the question is a straightforward one undeserving of lengthy consideration. Two pages later, he writes:
Liberal societies treated the Islamist wave with a disastrous mixture of authoritarianism and appeasement. On the one hand, they passed terror laws that conflicted with basic liberties, banned burqas and imposed new immigration controls....
...and, with that, the ban is bundled up with two other highly contentious issues, stamped "right-wing authoritarianism" and simply thrown away. The burqa is not, as I recall, mentioned again. To be fair, it is not central to the thesis of Cohen's book, which is an impassioned monograph about censorship in the internet age. But, having introduced the subject, his casual dismissal of it and his partial defence of the burqa on the grounds of religious freedom took me aback.

To take Cohen's two main objections in reverse order, it is highly dubious whether a burqa ban constitutes an infringement on religious freedom at all, still less a direct assault. Admittedly, the pitiless subjugation of women by Wahhabist doctrine is invariably justified by a medieval theology that demands submission of people to God, and of women to men. But it is in fact a cultural practice from the Byzantine and Persian Empires pre-dating Islam, designed specifically as a mark of ownership at a time when women were considered the private property of men. There is no explicit scriptural justification to be found in either the Qur'an or the Sunna, either for enforcing or 'recommending' the covering of the female face. Nor, for those who care about this sort of thing, is there any agreement on the subject amongst contemporary Islamic scholarship.

But even if there were such a scriptural justification, and even if it were the only verse clear and unequivocal enough for everyone to agree on its meaning and applicability, it should make no difference to the question of its legality in a secular society. Freedom of religious belief and opinion ought to be inviolable - no-one should be persecuted for their theological or metaphysical views, no matter how absurd. But the parameters of what constitutes legal or legitimate freedom of religious practice must be determined on a uniform basis by secular human (and, where applicable, animal) rights law.

Laws already exist proscribing cultural and religious practices such as genital mutilation/cutting of the unconsenting female young, irrespective of how fervently the parents may believe it to be necessary. And polygamy remains illegal, irrespective of its supposed justification or whether or not the adults involved have freely consented. Such restrictions are designed to uphold equality and universal human rights, and Cohen has not to my knowledge described either as a threat to religious freedom. On the contrary, he has expressed his outrage (which I share) that enforcement of the law banning FGM is so lamentably lax, and he has been justifiably caustic in his condemnation of the soft racism lurking behind this failure.

The confinement of the niqab to women - and only women - in austere Salafist sects is persuasive evidence, not of free and independent choice, but of conformity to the untestable demands of misogynistic - and invariably male - religious and cultural authorities. It is on the recommendation of such authorities that Muslim women are persuaded that such an oppressive degree of 'modesty' is required of them by her faith. And it on the advice of such authorities that any suitably pious husband deserving of her 'purity' will grow to expect this requirement of her, in perpetuity.

Given the superstitious hold mosques, churches and synagogues have on their followers and the uniquely coercive power it affords their authority, it must be permissible for the State to limit the sacrifices they require of their adherents, so as to protect the vulnerable from abusive clerical indoctrination. If religious doctrine can persuade adherents to blow themselves to pieces on the London transit system in the hope of finding paradise, then it follows that others are also vulnerable to the idea that passively accepting a life of subjugation and misery will reward them in death. As Saudiwoman reported on her blog:
The number of times I have heard Saudi women here, who are conditioned to believe that covering is an unquestionable issue, sigh as they watch uncovered women on TV and say لهم الدنبا ولنا الأخرة (they get the world and we get the afterlife). These are the women “choosing” to cover, brainwashed into living to die.
The Multicultural Disaster and the Matter of Choice 

The question of whether a ban on the burqa is an unacceptable restriction of individual choice is a more complicated one. For some Muslims, individual choice is already hugely circumscribed by the illiberal cultural and religious demands I've just described. These restrictions on individual liberty are exacerbated by the unintended consequences of multiculturalism.

The British multicultural model was not designed. Rather, it evolved as an ad hoc policy response by local authorities to a knot of unforeseen problems produced by mass migration. The policy was expedient, but its demand that all communities be respectful of one another's cultural peculiarities was - theoretically at least - also well-intentioned.

But by homogenising groups and elevating respect for cultural difference over individual rights, multiculturalism has inadvertently imprisoned many Muslim migrants and their children inside precisely the same regressive value-systems they came to the West to escape - powerfully coercive cultural and religious traditions of honour and shame, the burden of which falls most heavily and disproportionately upon women. For Muslims in this situation, dress codes are not remotely a matter of free choice, but of conditioning and enforcement by families, communities and religious leaders. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali and countless others have discovered, rebellion against kin, clan and culture can exact an intolerable cost, from ostracism and beatings to murder.

The complication is that not everyone who adopts the niqab is a hostage to culture. Increasingly, educated young Muslim women are covering in defiance of their parents' secularism and religious liberalism. If this is an act of masochistic self-abnegation, then it is one undertaken freely.

The reasons why anyone would choose to do such a thing are complex, but a large part of the catalyst for this somewhat sinister phenomenon can be located in a second, no less disastrous, consequence of state-sponsored multiculturalism: that it unintentionally cleared political space for the rise of the Islamic far-right.

In his brilliant 2010 polemic, From Fatwa to Jihad, writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik observes that during the 1970s, young irreligious Asians had aligned themselves with the anti-racist Asian Youth Movements and secular, class-based organisations such as the SWP. But in the 1980s, in response to short-termist policy initiatives designed to diffuse racial tensions, they suddenly found themselves expected and incentivised to organise and self-identify as Muslims. With nimble opportunism, radical Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat-e-Islami and Hizb ut-Tahrir stepped into the breach and provided a political framework within which to forge a new identity and sense of belonging.

Like Wahhabists, Islamists are Salafi (or fundamentalist) Muslims, who ostensibly advocate a return to the example set by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. But while Wahhabism represents an austere, literalist interpretation of Islamic faith and culture, Islamism represents its aggressively politicised variant, animated by contemporary goals and grievances. While Wahhabism demands separation and withdrawal from Western society, Islamism demands confrontation and overthrow. To describe Islamism as a far-right ideology is to flirt with euphemism. It is more correctly described as fascistic - totalitarian, supremacist, imperialist, sectarian, misogynistic, gay-hating and pathologically anti-Semitic. In short, it has no redeeming features. At all.

(It is, by the way, a rather marvellous irony that, while Islamist mosques, communities, parties, bookshops and think-tanks are almost exclusively funded by Saudi Arabian petrodollars, much of that money is spent preaching hatred of the equally loathsome Saudi regime for its alliance with America.)

But Islamism has been extremely adept at exploiting liberal freedoms and areas of cultural sensitivity as a means of furthering its agenda. In his short, riveting memoir The Islamist, former Hizb ut-Tahrir activist Ed Husain offers an object example of this process. As a boy, he rejected the secular, spiritual Islam of his parents and fell, almost without realising it, into the arms of the far-right. The Islamists he encountered were not pious men fired by religious fervour, but angry, confused men and women in search of identity. Most of them, he reports, had little or no knowledge of the Qur'an. Others openly took drugs and used pornography (activities to which I have no objection, incidentally, but which are rather at odds with adherents' professed asceticism and piety), and energies were channeled not into theology and scriptural exegeses, but into single-minded grievance-mongering and a fanatical hatred of the West and all its works.

In this environment, Muslim women and converts radicalised by Islamism's ruthlessly efficient recruiting drives on university campuses began to adopt increasingly strict dress codes as a sign, not of religious observance, but of political defiance and cultural hostility. Commenting on his observations of the corresponding spread of face-covering in Canada, Tarek Fatah, author and founder of the Canadian Muslim Congress, flatly told the Calgary Herald that:
The burqa and the niqab is the political uniform of the regiments of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a fascist, supremacist organization. You can’t wear a swastika today and not be a Nazi, and the niqab is the swastika of the Muslim Brotherhood. Every woman who wears a burka by choice in the West is a supporter of Islamic fascism, believes in jihad and desires the implementation of sharia law and the destruction of Western civilization. There is not one of these women who will say that they are against sharia and they’re against jihad. So, we’re dealing with a dress code of a fascist organization that has in its gun-sights, the West.
Whenever the subject of the burqa ban is brought up, it is Islamists who are the burqa's noisiest defenders and whose outraged cries of persecution and 'Islamophobia' seem to catch the ear of the relativist Left, postmodern Western feminists and civil libertarians. Islamist niqabis announce that the burqa is not a symbol of their oppression, but a symbol of their empowerment and of a kind of 'feminism' that empties the term of all coherent meaning. They vow to disobey laws proscribing it, and if they are arrested for doing so, they present themselves as martyrs to a liberalism they unapologetically despise and are sworn to overthrow. For good measure, and unencumbered by a sense of irony or humour, they then righteously denounce the West for its racism and intolerance. In the hands of Islamists, face-covering is a crude instrument of cultural warfare to which Muslim women are so much cannon-fodder.

A few - those with the strength of character to repudiate Islamist values as Ed Husain eventually did - may leave without fearing for their lives as those ensnared in monocultural ghettos often must. But Islamist sects, like all cults, maintain their control by fostering dependence through indoctrination and by isolating their adherents from an outside world they demonise. For those women unable to extricate themselves, a glimpse of the grotesque subordination awaiting them once the frisson of youthful rebellion wears off can be found in novelist Hanif Kureishi's account of a visit to the home of Farid Kassim, a co-founder of Hizb ut-Tahrir's UK chapter:
Four women brought in the food. They came into the room backwards, bent over, so we could not see their faces. I have never seen that anywhere else.
The decision to adopt the niqab is not so much a matter of exercising free choice as renouncing it. Just as when an electorate votes for an Islamist government, it is almost certainly the last vote they will ever cast, so a woman adopting a burqa is asked to forswear choice and to exchange a life of independence for one of servility. Inevitably Islamist women find they have become apologists for their own oppression and, disgracefully, for the oppression of other Muslim women denied their freedom to choose.

So the question of choice presents a problem for liberal universalists: does the right to freely adopt the burqa in the first instance trump the need to protect and emancipate - if necessary by recourse to State intervention - those compelled to wear it?

Kenan Malik had a stab at addressing this question when he argued against a State ban on the burqa in the New Humanist. Like Cohen, Malik is no relativist. From Fatwa to Jihad is a lucid and thoughtful examination of the West's response to Islamic fundamentalism in the wake of the Satanic Verses affair. But it is also a sturdy defence of Enlightenment universalism from the pincer threat of Western relativism and reactionary Islamism. Malik shares Nick Cohen's dismay at the concessions made by open societies to theocratic fascism in the name of fear and sensitivity. But, unlike Cohen, Malik stutters when it comes to the burqa.
[I]s a ban not necessary to protect women from being forced to wear the burqa? In countries such as Saudi Arabia or Yemen women have little choice but to cover up their face. That in itself is a good reason for liberal societies not to impose coercive dress codes. In democratic countries, the law already protects citizens from being harmed or coerced by others. It should go no further, especially as evidence suggests that in Europe most women wear the burqa of their own volition.
This pretzel of an argument is completely foreign to the clear-minded reasoning of his book, and in its convoluted logic I detect dissonance. He asks what is to be done about those coerced in free societies. He then shifts the argument to the treatment of women in Gulf theocracies, before returning - not to those forced to wear the burqa whose fate is supposed to be under discussion - but to those he fears may be asked by the State to remove it.

The additional argument that laws already exist in democracies to protect citizens from coercion sidesteps precisely what is at issue: that some Muslim women are being coerced in spite of these laws and in spite of others supposed to guarantee gender equality. Who speaks for them?

Contrast Malik's reasoning to that of American feminist and anti-theist Ophelia Benson, who back in July 2009, told the New Statesman:
One reason I don't flat-out oppose [a ban] is because community pressure can force other women and girls to wear the hijab or the burqa, and from that point of view a ban is like any other law that creates a level playing field. If no one can wear the burqa on the street, then no one will be forced to wear it on the street. This is hard on women and girls who want to wear it but good for women and girls who don't want to. If I have to choose which should be helped, I choose the latter.
Malik's position, conversely, requires him to choose the former and abandon the latter. There is no need to divert the discussion into the Arabian peninsular when debating the human rights of women in European democracies. But having done so, the equivalence he asserts is a false one. A theocratic state imposing a uniform and dehumanising dress code on half of its population in the name of gender segregation and female subjugation is not comparable to a democratic state which proscribes a single item of clothing in the name of gender equality and female emancipation. To suggest that it is paddles into the very relativist swamp Malik's reasoning is intended to avoid.

In fact, his parallel invites a different question: if we deplore the oppression of women by political and religious sects in the Gulf, why should we tolerate the same oppression by those same sects in the democratic West? What does freedom gain exactly by allowing the flourishing of Saudi Arabian and Yemeni microcosms in Amsterdam, Paris and London? 

Infringements upon individual choice in free societies, although thankfully exceptions rather than the rule, are not unheard of, provided a persuasive utilitarian justification can be offered. The ban on the freedom to undress completely is an infringement upon personal liberty but has not resulted in a slippery slope towards State-sponsored sartorial fascism. Nor is it generally regarded as coercive, even though the freedom to be naked in public has been massively curtailed for a minority who like that kind of thing. If an exception can be made at one extreme, then there can be no 'on principle' objection at the other extreme where a mode of dress obliterates the identity of its wearer entirely.

Liberalism and Fascism 

One of the most imposing and eloquent liberal opponents of a ban on the burqa I have come across is academic and blogger Norman Geras, one of the co-architects of the Euston Manifesto. He has written considerably more on the subject than either Malik or Cohen and has adopted a particularly inflexible line on the issue. When a Muslim student in Quebec was faced with exclusion from classes for refusing to reveal her face in accordance with a new provincial law, Geras described the ultimatum as "an act of rank, crass illiberalism".

As far as I know, Geras has not made a standalone case of his own. However, he has been assiduous in quietly patrolling the subject, posting carefully reasoned objections of varying lengths to pro-ban arguments offered by Christopher Hitchens, Oliver Kamm, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Mona Eltahawy, who found herself accused of 'Burqa Leninism'. (Given that it was the French ban she was defending, 'Burqa Jacobinism' might have been more apposite.)

He even took issue with blog posts by A. Jay Adler and Alice Thomson, both of whom share his overall view that a State ban on face-covering is undesirable. 

Geras's approach to the subject is coolly rational almost to the point of frigidity, and painstaking in its attention to semantic detail. His objection to Thompson, for instance, is entirely concerned with the question of whether or not she is justified in describing facial expressions as being "crucial" to personal interaction rather than simply "very important" (conclusion: she is not).

Which is not to trivialise or gainsay the importance of this approach. Clarity of language and calm rationality are essential to the constructive discussion of ideas, particularly in a debate as emotive as this one. However, reading his blogs on the subject, I couldn't shake the suspicion that the micro-management of his own position's defences betrayed a disabling myopia.

This suspicion appears to be confirmed by an astonishing remark Geras makes in response to Christopher Hitchens. In his piece for Slate in support of the French ban, Hitchens had written:
Let me ask a simple question to the pseudoliberals who take a soft line on the veil and the burqa. What about the Ku Klux Klan? Notorious for its hooded style and its reactionary history, this gang is and always was dedicated to upholding Protestant and Anglo-Saxon purity. I do not deny the right of the KKK to take this faith-based view, which is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I might even go so far as to say that, at a rally protected by police, they could lawfully hide their nasty faces. But I am not going to have a hooded man or woman teach my children, or push their way into the bank ahead of me, or drive my taxi or bus, and there will never be a law that says I have to. 
To which Geras responded:
'What about the Ku Klux Klan?' Christopher asks. What about them? Why are they relevant? OK, they also cover their faces. But, leaving aside the issue of how that should be dealt with in terms of the permissibility or otherwise of public displays, why aren't the differences between the Ku Klux Klan's reasons for covering their faces and the reasons of Muslim women more important than the similarities? In one case, we're talking about a type of political uniform and its use in the spreading of hatred, and in the other case... we aren't.
Hitchens's analogy between Christian neo-Nazism and Islamofascism is drawn with unpardonable sloppiness, but its intention is not obscure. That Geras misses it, or simply disregards it as so much paranoid hysteria, is indicative of the degree to which he is prepared to accept Islamism's preferred narrative - that the debate over the burqa ban is a straightforward quarrel between the State and the freedom-loving individual. It is in fact a quarrel between the secular State and an Islamist ideology that seeks to usurp its authority, and to do so using the mechanisms of free societies and the language of liberty and choice to advance an agenda intended to dominate and enslave.

In Islamism's rejection of integration in favour of belligerent separatism, the burqa is not just a tool and symbol of subjugation and control; it is a crude instrument of gender apartheid and one aspect of a deliberate campaign to create sex-segregated societies within our own, also evidenced by the demand for parallel Sharia jurisdiction and Muslim Arbitration Tribunals; the increase in faith schools; the demand for separate hospitals and beaches and so on. And I do not believe that an Islamist challenged in a moment of candour would disagree.

If there is an assault on individual liberty going on here, it comes from Islamist ideology, and from those who preach and practice it. It is an assault against which the burqa ban is intended as a defence. An assault, first and foremost, on Muslim women; then on Muslims; then on Western society as a whole, the tolerance and pluralism of which Islamism sets out first to exploit, then to disfigure and destroy. Speaking on Canada's Sun News Network, Tarek Fatah could barely contain his exasperation:
[The burqa] is a symbol of Islamofascism which is showing its middle finger to Western society saying: "We are going to use your laws to humiliate you and we don't give a damn as to what you feel about it!"
Tolerance, Silence and Appeasement

In The Flight of the Intellectuals, his 2010 book about the Western Left's respective treatment of Islamist 'scholar' Tariq Ramadan and Somali apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the American liberal essayist Paul Berman catalogues the 2007 controversy over Dutch liberal Ian Buruma's book Murder in Amsterdam.

The row was ignited by an essay by French philosopher Pascal Bruckner, in which he accused Ian Buruma of using cultural relativism to excuse fundamentalism and shamefully denounce a courageous dissident. In a testy response, Buruma denied the charge of relativism and countered that his arguments were the stuff of classical liberalism and tolerance:
Should we only side with rebels whose views and practices we like? Or does living in a free society also imply that people should be able to choose the way they look, or speak, or worship, even if we don't like it, as long as they don't harm others? A free-spirited citizen does not tolerate different customs or cultures because he thinks they are wonderful, but because he believes in freedom.
Buruma continued:
[Pascal] Bruckner mentions the opening of an Islamic hospital in Rotterdam and reserved beaches for Muslim women in Italy. I fail to see why this is so much more terrible than opening kosher restaurants, Catholic hospitals, or reserved beaches for nudists, but to Bruckner these concessions are akin to segregation in the southern states of America, and even Apartheid in South Africa.
Turkish-German feminist and Muslim reformer Necla Kelek, who had been watching this debate from the sidelines, then entered the fray with a furious contribution of her own. She began by pointing out that Buruma's denial that he is a cultural relativist did not in fact preclude him from being one. She went on to say:
I can tell you, Mr. Buruma, why Italian beaches reserved for Muslim women are "so much more terrible." Unlike kosher dining or a case of the flu requiring hospitalisation, the beach is a Muslim attempt to bring about change. Whether it is headscarves or gender-specific separation of public space, political Islam is trying to establish apartheid of the sexes in free European societies. A Muslim hospital is fundamentally different from a Catholic hospital. In a Muslim hospital, patients are separated according to gender. Men may be treated only by men, women only by women. Muslim female nurses, for example, may not wash male patients, they may not even touch them.
I am not privy to the thoughts of Norman Geras on the Murder in Amsterdam controversy. For all I know, he may agree with Ian Buruma and argue that resistance to segregated hospitals and beaches is also evidence of rank intolerance and illiberalism, with the proviso that no-one be compelled to visit them. I can find no reason in his arguments concerning face covering to suspect otherwise.

Kenan Malik may be more sceptical. In From Fatwa to Jihad, he mentions Buruma's Murder in Amsterdam only in passing, but he does so to illustrate the collapse of confidence amongst relativist liberals in the superiority of Enlightenment universalism. And many of Bruckner's arguments about the malign effects multiculturalism has had on individual freedom are echoed in Malik's writing. Furthermore, it is possible to detect clear parallels between Pascal Bruckner's outrage at the treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali by Ian Buruma, and Malik's disquiet at the treatment of Monica Ali by Germaine Greer. Still, his equivocations over the burqa could equally extend to the areas Bruckner raises.

But in You Can't Read This Book, Nick Cohen deals with the Murder in Amsterdam controversy directly, and he is explicit in declaring his sympathy for Pascal Bruckner's position - not just in the narrow matter of whether or not to show solidarity with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but in his opposition to the racism that Bruckner and Kelek detect beneath Ian Buruma's professed defence of individual liberty. Cohen (correctly) describes Pascal Bruckner as "heir to the best traditions of the French Enlightenment" and sub-heads his section on the row "The Racism of the Anti-Racists", directly quoting the title of Pascal Bruckner's essay.

And yet, in a brief paragraph on the subject at The Spectator's blog, Cohen's reasoning becomes almost indistinguishable from Ian Buruma's:
[The unnamed author of a blog at Time magazine] deplores France’s ban on the burqa and says it reflects "very real Islamophobic attitudes spreading throughout society". I am not position to judge that, but am sure he is right to say that the state should not tell citizens how to dress. Many people find the burqa "obnoxious and offensive" – myself included. But in a free society all we can do is argue against the misogynists, who promote male ownership of women’s bodies.
Has the thinking of civil libertarians like Cohen, Malik and Geras become infected with the termites that have hollowed out so much of the rest of the Left? I doubt it. Rather, their response to the unique problem posed by the burqa seems to rest on a miscalculation - a wish to split the difference between the cultural relativists and the universalist abolitionists and forge a 'third way'; a compromise that opposes State interference in the lives of individuals, but without suspending moral judgment. The position is untenable.

The closest Geras gets to condemning the burqa is a line in his reply to Mona Eltahawy in which he politely allows that he has "no quarrel with the claim that [Salafi] ideology diminishes women and the interests of women". Reading his blogs I discern a reluctance to ackowledge that the burqa causes anyone any suffering at all, and that what is really at issue for abolitionists is the offence it gives to their Western sensibilities.

Malik opens his piece by stating: "The burqa should have no place in a 21st-century society, either as a piece of clothing or as a symbol of the status of women" but by the conclusion, he has retreated behind the familiar (and, I have to say, somewhat shabby) euphemism that the niqab is simply "a piece of cloth worn by a few hundred women"; a matter, in other words, of scant importance. 

In Cohen's 3500 word piece for Standpoint about religious misogyny, the burqa merits only a glancing reference. The only other instances I can find in which he discusses it are mentioned above.

Moral judgment ends up, if not suspended entirely, then reduced to throat-clearing. But the civil libertarian silence is not the result of the cowardice, fear, political correctness and latent racism that Bruckner, Kelek and Berman identify in Ian Buruma's thinking. Instead, it strikes me as a straightforward conflict of interests. It is, after all, difficult to criticise the burqa too vehemently without fortifying the case for the State ban. But the upshot is that, on an issue central to minority women's rights and the war of ideas occasioned by the challenge of Islamic fascism, three of our most brilliant progressive writers and thinkers have rendered themselves almost mute.

*     *     * 

There is a noble exception to this rule. This brings me back to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, with whose passionate and unequivocal condemnation of Islamic dress codes I chose to open this essay. As it happens, Hirsi Ali also opposes a ban on face-covering, but for reasons unconnected to arguments from individual freedom or cultural indulgence. Hirsi Ali believes that State intervention is impractical, counter-productive and, like the related quarrel over minarets, a superficial distraction from the urgent debate in which societies need to engage about what she terms (after Huntington) "the clash of civilisations".

I agree such a debate is long overdue. I disagree that a State ban on the burqa need be a diversion or that the question should come down to a matter of either/or. The abolition of the burqa by one means or another is a necessary precondition to winning the fight against theocratic and cultural misogyny, but it is by no means a sufficient one. Were the burqa to be proscribed by law, the backward values and attitudes that demand and bodyguard it, on the Islamic far-right and relativist Left respectively, will remain and the universalist counter-assault on these values and attitudes will need to continue. But we cannot wait until that argument is won before admitting that a free society should never have tolerated the totalitarianism, misogyny and intolerance the burqa represents.

I believe that Nick Cohen was absolutely right when he declared that politicians have responded to the Islamist challenge with a mixture of authoritarianism and appeasement. But I think he miscategorises French and Belgian reactions to the effrontery of the burqa. As Pascal Bruckner put it:
Many people scoffed at French authoritarianism when parliament voted to forbid women and young girls from wearing headscarves in school and in government offices...Yet now political leaders in Great Britain, the Netherlands and Germany, shocked by the spread of hijab and burqa, are considering passing laws against them. The facts speak against the appeasers, who enjoin Europe to fit in with Islam rather than vice versa. For the more we give in to the radicalism of the bearded, the more they will harden their tone. Appeasement politics only increase their appetite.

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UPDATE: Norman Geras has responded to this essay and to the criticisms of his position within it at normblog here.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: In the short section dealing with Kenan Malik's post for the New Humanist, I originally quoted Malik as follows: "[I]s a ban not necessary to protect women from being forced to wear the burqa? In countries such as Saudi Arabia or Yemen women have little choice but to cover up their face. That in itself is a good reason for liberal societies not to impose coercive dress codes". I then commented: "Notice that Malik can’t – or won’t – provide his own question with a straight answer." Malik rightly objected that I had cut his quote short and misrepresented his view. He pointed out that in the very next line he had written: "In democratic countries, the law already protects citizens from being harmed or coerced by others. It should go no further..."

I had taken the two different parts of this paragraph to be two separate arguments, and only addressed the first. However, re-reading it, it is obvious that both points are part of the same argument. Malik still begs the question, in my view, and my argument in reply remains the same (although re-worded). However, my omission of the second part of his quote was careless and needlessly misleading. The post has now been amended to include the full quotation. My apologies to Kenan Malik for the error.