Hot on the news that Bob Jones thinks GW needs to be setting a more Christian agenda for the U.S. comes word from Germany that Bavaria has banned the wearing of headscarves by teachers, becoming the fifth German state to enact some sort of ban on wearing the hijab. It seems that Bavarian Culture Minister Monika Hohlmeier thinks that the wearing of headscarves is repressive and un-democratic- but not enacting a ban on wearing them, even if that ban doesn’t extend similar prohibitions to wearing Christian or Jewish symbols.
What these two seemingly unrelated pieces of news convey is the failure of both the Evangelical Right and the European Left to come to terms with the kind of religious world that the now occupy. Bob Jones and others like him would like to pretend that nothing has really changed in the world since the 1950’s or so – that Bush’s small but undeniable gains in the election indicate that the United States of America is ready and eager to become a nation that is, if not theocratic, at least ready to proclaim its allegiance to a single religion. While the Evangelical Right did an excellent job of delivering their supporters to the poles this year, they may be in for a rude awakening should Bush push too hard or fast on religious issues. The conservative alliance that gave victory to the Republicans earlier this month is itself made up of a religiously diverse group – many Evangelical, Protestant Christians, to be sure, but the American religious landscape supports more than one species. Moderate Catholics, small government conservatives and Libertarians, and middle-class Americans that sided with Bush because of security concerns could all potentially be turned away by moves like those that Jones is encouraging. To make matters worse, giving a strong Evangelical bent to Bush’s second term could contribute to the feelings of persecution and embattlement that have troubled many American Muslims since September 11th. The American Muslim community – particularly its immigrants and visiting students – is the best hope for the United States of finding ambassadors for American good will who can be heard in the Muslim world. Choosing to put religious partisanship ahead of the interests of the whole nation could instead convince Muslims temporarily residing here that the U.S. is a single-minded crusader state, where religion sets the agenda as surely as it does in Tehran.
Meanwhile in Germany, the Bavarian Parliment’s decision to forbid teachers from wearing headscarves, but not crucifixes or yarmulkes, represents the trend of knee-jerk overreaction that began with France’s ban on all religious dress in schools. At least the French had the good sense to extend their ban equally to all faiths; the Bavarians, on the other hand, seem to be going out of their way to offend and alarm Muslims by singling them out for special treatment. But while the French ban is wider reaching, the ultimate motivation behind both it and the Bavarian ban is the same – to stop the wearing of hijab because it is imposed on some Muslim women – and is thus just as poorly thought out.
While it is certainly true that some Muslim women in both Europe and America are pressured into wearing the hijab by their families, these new rules do nothing to address the root causes of this phenomenon. Rather, it permits the people of France and Germany to pretend that because they no longer have to witness the symptoms, the disease is cured. Meanwhile, authoritarian families will continue to privately dominate the lives of their daughters and wives. The rights of willingly observant Muslims – male and female – will be trampled. And the first lesson on freedom and democracy for many Muslim immigrants in Europe will be that democratic Western nations dislike religion, and that Bavaria dislikes Islam in particular.
In the United States, as well as in Europe, there are Muslim women who wear hijab not because they have to, but because they choose to. Often having grown up in non-Muslim countries, they have opted to wear the scarf or veil as a visible symbol of their faith and as an indication of their conscious acceptance of the heritage and traditions of their culture. Some of these Western Muslim women wear the headscarf over the objections of their families, who would prefer them to dress to fit in with their peers and neighbors.
The bans in Germany and France are undemocratic and represent a needless intervention of the state in the religious lives of its citizens. These laws reveal a growing squeamishness about religion that threatens to put European democracies in the Orwellian position of compelling behavior in order to prevent compulsion. Freedom of religion has started to metamorphose into its Chinese Communist counterpart: freedom from religion. If this sort of legislative meddling continues to grow in popularity, the battle to prevent the state from imposing religion on its citizens will turn into a long, pointless battle to stop citizens from imposing religion on themselves and one another.
So here we see the religious follies from across the political spectrum and around the world. In America, on the Evangelical Right, Bob Jones and his ilk think a slim popular majority are indicative of a long-suppressed desire to tear down the wall between Church and State. H.P. Lovecraft couldn’t have described the horror that they will find on the other side. Meanwhile, on the European Left, entire states have grown so nervous that displays of religious faith might offend, oppress, or alarm that they are prepared to abandon the pretense of equality to preserve a vision of secularism that they worry may no longer hold in the face of immigration.
The Bob Joneses of the world need to hear a simple message: the co-mingling of state and religion will ruin both. A free people will not stand for a religion to be imposed on them, and in the face of politics the moral absolutes of religion will quickly decay into conveniences and expediencies. Meanwhile, France and the various German states nervously eyeing the headscarf need to recognize that the suppression of religion in the name of secularism is no more just than the suppression of one religion in favor of another.