Thursday, July 09, 2009

The sacred, the profane and the public sphere #1

I'd hoped to collapse a whole lot of thoughts about this into a single post but in the course of doing a little background reading into the issue of religion and the public sphere I got a little distracted by something which I'd intended to use only as a passing example - which is that of the proposed ban on the burka in France.

To begin with, the fragrant Agnès Poirier points to the dichotomy between the French and the British political culture and argues that such a debate could never take place in Britain. She's right about this and for the right reasons - although her take on the differences between the historical experiences of France and Britain is a little shaky. This can be seen in the way in which she conflates republicanism and secularism. Citizens of a country with Cromwell in their history tend not to, or at least shouldn't, make the same mistake.

Anyway, Oliver Kamm in a short article in favour of such a ban quotes both her and Christopher Hitchens approvingly. Norm, however, takes issue with what he considers to be an illiberal measure. All this left me with a curious feeling: I agreed with Norm's conclusion along with the reasoning that lead him there, yet I found myself much more in agreement with the spirit of what Oliver Kamm, Christopher Hitchens and Agnès Poirier have written on this subject because whether by default or design I think they do more justice to the historical context. This, I would argue, teaches us something fairly straightforward: for liberty to flourish, religion and the public demonstrations thereof, have to be circumscribed.

It does not follow that a ban on the burka is either expedient or necessary but in the discussion of this issue the trajectory that human liberty has taken, along with the agency that has secured this, could do with being appreciated more fully. By way of explanation as to what on earth I'm talking about, can I refer you to a rather depressing piece from Laurie Pennie? On this subject, with what one can only assume she imagines to be sarcasm, she writes the following:
"It's always a nice surprise to see a government trying to stick up for women."
To which one feels obliged to respond thus: it could only come as a surprise, nice or otherwise, to someone who is woefully ignorant of the role that the modern state has played in securing rights for women in the last couple of hundred years or so.

An understanding of this should serve as a counter-balance both to those who can't tell the difference between communism and fascism, as well as those 'libertarians' who believe the modern state must of necessity always be the greatest threat to liberty. For the latter, that they don't find many women in their ranks is no co-incidence - this for reasons I would have thought were obvious. Not so, though, for the ahistorical generation, which leads me back to Ms Pennie:
"It is patriarchy rather than religion that oppresses women across the world, whether it wears the face of an Imam, an abusive partner or a government minister."
Note the jutxa-position here: patriarchy rather than religion. But they can't be separated - at least not the monotheistic salvation religions - which is why her second combination doesn't make any sense. Nothing to choose between the cleric, the husband and the state? At the risk of making broad-brush generalisations, I would insist that the lessons of history would suggest otherwise. The uncomfortable truth is that wherever regimes that are secular have triumphed, even those deemed to be 'totalitarian', this has almost always been accompanied by significant advances in the position of women in society.

None of this should be taken to be an argument supporting a ban on burkas or anything like it. I intend to argue, on the contrary, that the public space should be as lenient as possible towards modes of behaviour that people might find either intolerable because they are profane or unacceptable because they are seen as demonstrating a piety that is insufferably anachronistic - but this will have to wait for now...

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