Let me update and expand a topic I’ve written about before: governmental actions limiting or banning the wearing of face-covering garments by Muslim women in western countries. The New York Times reported last week on the ongoing spread of burqa bans and their status in various countries: France, which was the first European country to enact them, in 2011; Germany, where recent legislation forbids wearing them in the civil service (a ban Bavaria extended to all teachers and professors); Austria, where a new law bans them from universities, courthouses, and public transit; and now Canada, where the Province of Québec joined the burqa-banning movement last week.
These bans rely on arguments invoking security and public safety, the fostering of assimilation among immigrant groups, and the protection of secular civic values; the European Court of Human Rights, ruling last summer in favor of a ban in Belgium, asserted that such laws “guarantee the conditions of ‘living together.’” But they strike an adverse response among Americans, who possess a quite different sense of what living together means and requires. Even with all our post-9-11 anxieties and our stingy, occasionally ugly readiness to view Muslim immigrants and refugees with mistrust, it is hardly imaginable that we would try to use our laws to ban a garment on cultural-political grounds. It’s just an instinctive non-starter for the overwhelming majority of Americans. This gap in instincts shows how fundamentally different most European nations are from ours.
I’m hospitable to the argument that extreme face and body covering reflect a patriarchal society’s attempt to keep women down. In this sense, the burqa represents values that I personally mistrust and reject. But... so what? Who am I to tell a Muslim woman what she should wear? The American instinct for tolerance is partly a legacy of our frontier libertarianism, but more positively it also signals an abiding acceptance of democratic pluralism. Pluralism means pledging (and learning) to cohabit with styles, speech, habits, and values that are strange to you, and in some cases even repugnant.
In his 1988 essay “On the Pursuit of the Ideal,” the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin defined pluralism as “the conception that there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational... [as well as] capable of understanding each other and sympathizing and deriving light from each other.” Putting those different ends in proximity to each other in a pluralistic society, Berlin acknowledged, unavoidably creates conflicts; the goal, challenge and art of living in such a society consists in managing those conflicts, both personally and politically. It has to be done, if a society like ours is going to function. As Berlin wrote, “an uneasy equilibrium, constantly threatened and in constant need of repair,” is “the precondition for decent societies and morally acceptable behavior.” Should we fail to maintain that equilibrium, he warned, “we are bound to lose our way.”
At the heart of the burqa bans—and what the European countries are currently facing—is a difficult reckoning with conceptions of nationhood that upset this equilibrium. Have the Europeans lost their way? Did they ever really have this way to begin with? In Germany, the right-wing, anti-immigrant party Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) won a landmark 13% percent of the vote, and 94 seats in the Bundestag, in last month’s elections—and the party’s leader, Alexander Gauland, promised on election night to “take back our country and our Volk.” All seasoned Germany observers immediately grasped that this was highly significant rhetoric. While the phrase “das Volk” translates as “the people,” it has a particular valence in Germany that it lacks in the U.S. Here it is a political concept, as in, “We the people”; but there it means, implicitly, “the German people.” And who are the German people?