Burqas and our worldview vacuum

The debates raging in the west about burqas and state-controlled fashion betray how hopelessly confused we've become about who we really are.

November 13 th 2009

Frequently, friends share links to calls from influential groups or prominent public officials calling for a legal ban on the wearing of burqas.

It is strange and troubling when people who are to reflect and foster culture promote the idea that it is in any way consistent with the traditions of western pluralism and liberalism for the state to engage in dictating fashion. Strange, because these are the same people who would react vehemently were the state to decide that women should dress according to a state-imposed definition of modesty or political correctness—no visible cleavage, for instance, and no skirts above, say, mid-calf, lest such sights inflame male passions and threaten the moral stability of society.

Such laws already exist in nations unlikely to be described fondly within women's studies programs (Saudi Arabia and Iran come to mind), while in Canada, a mere dozen years ago, an Ontario court ruled that Gwen Jacobs, who enjoyed walking around her London, Ontario, neighbourhood topless on hot summer days, had every right to do so and was not guilty of indecency. The controversial decision was well-received by the young men who gathered to drink beer and watch Ms. Jacobs from their shady porch across the street. This ruling illustrated the shift in Canada's view of how the law should apply to women's freedom to dress (or not) as they please.

The recent calls for Saudi-style repression—albeit of a reverse nature—are troubling because they illustrate how poorly people understand that while a person's attire is connected to how they think, it is the thinking that is the issue and not the clothing.

The banning of burqas—head-to-toe Middle Eastern attire that cover all parts of a women's body, including her eyes and face—is being discussed in Britain, France, Sweden, Egypt and Denmark. In Canada, a recent plea came from Farzana Hassan of the Muslim Canadian Congress. The burqa, the Congress argued, is "medieval" and "misogynistic."

The problem with those points isn't that they aren't true. Many would agree. The problem is that these are matters of taste, and the same could and no doubt has been said of a Roman Catholic nun's habit or the adopted attire of almost all of North America's Amish and Hutterite people. In a secular society, this means that any law would have to apply equally to all people of faith and, indeed, to people of no faith at all. It is not possible to create and apply a reasonable law forbidding young Muslim women from wearing the head-covering hijab, for instance, without having it apply equally to the Sikh turban, the Jewish yarmulke or, for that matter, a tattered old Yankees ballcap.

Clearly, we are a confused society. People have become knee-knockingly nervous about their cultural future and not without reason.

Birth rates throughout the post-Christendom west have been well below replacement level for some time. Immigration trends have changed so that increasingly large percentages arrive from countries with traditions that differ strongly from those upon which North Americans have built their society to date. Policies of official multiculturalism have de-emphasized the importance of a shared cultural identity. The old "when in Rome do as the Romans do" slogan went out of fashion in Canada and many European countries a generation or more ago.

Cultures develop and preserve themselves through fostering a consensus of the worldviews held within them. The challenge faced by western nations is not the presence within their cultures of new strongly-held worldviews, such as those represented by the Muslim and Sikh faith (which in a healthy culture would be viewed as enrichments and embellishments). Rather, the problem is the incoherence and confusion that exists within the core of western democracies themselves. While many have enthusiastically worked to dismantle Judeo-Christian traditions and structures, efforts to replace them with a new secular consensus have produced no coherent results. Cultural and philosophical relativism has instead expanded to the point where societies are—perhaps hopelessly—confused about what it is they really are, have been and wish to become. If that increasingly large vacuum within the western worldview did not exist, there would be no need to fear the occasional burqa and what it represents.

Nature, whether through physics or philosophy, abhors a vacuum, and any number of bans or demonizing of les autres cannot rationally defend the vacuous nature of our own thinking. Increasingly incapable of articulating what it is they are defending, people within our western intellectual void are in danger of defaulting to attack mode against those who have a clear, albeit very different sense of their own cultural meaning.

The problem is not the fullness of the "them" filling the vacuum. The problem is the emptiness of the "us" who created it.

Topics: Culture
 

Peter Menzies is vice chairman and president of telecommunications for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and past publisher and editor-in-chief of one of Canada's major daily newspapers.

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