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Conflicting perspectives

27 Jun

That is an HSC English topic much exercising me of late, but it is also an interesting thing to explore.

Take President Sarkozy and his recent speech. There is an interesting Australian Muslim perspective on Crikey: Sarkozy’s proposed burqua ban is a blunt instrument.

…Last year, I spent a few days in Paris with a French friend of Moroccan background. She and her family and friends related stories of almost routine discrimination  — of elderly relatives being rejected as unworthy for citizenship after fifty years of law-abiding, tax-paying residence, of always having to strive that little bit harder in work and study in order to prove yourself to your non-Muslim colleagues, of the banning of religious symbols in public schools, which was seen as particularly targeting Muslim girls wearing hijab.

My friend now lives in Sydney, and said that she felt a sense of resignation in the face of Sarkozy’s speech. “It’s just another chapter. The kind of events that are almost unthinkable in Australia are commonplace in France. It’s supposed to be about the burqua, but it’s really about something deeper  — about attitudes to Muslims.”

Many Muslim women, including many hijabis, are deeply uncomfortable with face-covering. It is so vanishingly rare among Muslims in the West that many observant Muslims have only encountered it at a distance.

In Australia, a disproportionate number of the women who observe this practice seem to be converts. Their stated commitment to face-covering as their “personal choice” is rendered problematic by the fact that many of them don’t believe that personal choice over dress standards should be extended to women in Muslim-majority societies. While they believe that covering the face is commendable rather than obligatory, they defend the mandatory covering of women’s hair in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

But as Sarkozy’s speech illustrates, they are not the only ones who think that choice is a one-way street  — you can choose, so long as you choose what I tell you to choose. There is no single experience of face-covering, just as there is no single experience of the bikini. Some Muslim women describe face-covering as providing a sense of privacy and comfort…

Not quite unthinkable in Australia of course, but the outcome was more commendable.

In helping one of my coachees towards a definition of “conflicting perspectives” for HSC purposes earlier this week I raised the question in the following way: “I suppose at your school there are heaps of girls wearing hijab…” “Yes,” he replied. “Does anyone take any notice of it?” “No,” he said. Then I asked if he knew what the French President had been saying recently. He did. We then explored what perspective he might have been operating from – and I was as objective and non-judgemental about it as possible, the point not being whether Sarkozy was right or wrong, or whether he was playing dog whistle politics – a term the French do not have according to that Crikey post. We went through a number of historical and cultural factors. We did conclude that making an issue of such things – and similar things like Sikhs who have to wear turbans – tends to exacerbate the conflict of perspectives.

And Bruce, from an atheist perspective, comes in practice to similar conclusions. (I have to say I am bemused by the sectarianism that leads to charges of “accomodationism” or “Uncle Tom atheism”. A bit “holier than thou” isn’t it, if you get my drift?)

…Harris is famed for championing a reduced form of intolerance, which I think most of the people where I come from would just call criticism. Maybe it’s an antipodean thing, but intolerance to me seems more a matter of civics than of intellectual conduct. Maybe its an Australian thing – I think we and Canada have done better with these kinds of concepts, at least in practice, than the US or any of Europe (you will notice that as the primary architects of multiculturalism in practice, neither Australia nor Canada fell for the mockery of human rights that was the Durban Review Conference – so much for the culpability of multicultural tolerance in that mess.*)

I think Harris falls into a deadly rhetorical trap for even associating the criticism of religion with intolerance. It’s not “conversational intolerance.” It’s not intolerance at all!

Intolerance is kicking a kid out of school for wearing a burqa. It isn’t intolerant to opine that the burqa, when forced upon someone, is oppressive. Or to opine that theological reasons for the burqa are sophistry.

Does the fact that I’m against banning the burqa in schools make me an accommodationist? Even given what I think of it? Please do make a distinction between my applied civics and my intellectual position – just because I think something is a bad idea doesn’t mean that I don’t think intervention would be worse…

I certainly endorse that conclusion.

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One response to “Conflicting perspectives

  1. Bruce

    June 27, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    I think Sam Harris is a bit confused about the conduct of other atheists, and about the concept of tolerance in general. Labelling himself as being intolerant when he’s not and so on.

    I don’t pretend to know Harris’ ideas that well, but I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that he supports the extreme measures that France has undertaken. The most radical thing of this kind that I’ve read of his has been his stated lack of a categorical opposition to ethnic profiling of people from Muslim countries – that it may be necessary and justifiable if it is demonstrated to be reliable.

    I think that falls far short of Sarkozy’s certitude, pomp or prejudice.

    The term “accommodationist” I think is risky because of the flexibility with which it is being used. PZ Myers has tightened up his definition recently, but if you look at the list of atheists who are being called “accommodationist”, a number of them don’t fit the definition.

    In fact, considering some of the potentially conciliatory consequences of the tightening of Myers’ definition (that incompatibility between science and religion occurs epistemologically, not psychologically or socially) Myers could be labelled an “accommodationist” in the broader sense – for explicitly acknowledging that genuine theists can be genuine scientists. This kind of absurdity seems inevitable when careless, equivocating rhetoric is doing the rounds.

    The “Uncle Tom atheist” term, I do have to endorse though. When an atheist endorses discrimination against atheists, which is a pretty low act, I think it’s appropriate. Aside from endorsing discrimination (which is bad enough), doing it for personal/political gain just seems so much more cynical.

    The portrayal of Roy Cohn in Angels in America would seem to be the gay version of “Uncle Tom.” I don’t think you have to be holier than thou to level this particular criticism – or at least, being holier than Uncle Tom isn’t that much to brag about.

     
 
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