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Secular vs. Sacred: Reflections on the Muslim dress code in France

Stephen Thomas

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Let the wives of the Prophet and the wives of believers hold their veils firmly in order to remain chaste. The Quran

The human being differs from the animals in clothing himself or herself. Nature has equipped the beasts with protection from cold and relief from heat, camouflage from predators and display for mating. In the natural state, human beings are uncovered, feel uncovered and look about for clothes. But already this nakedness is something more for a human being than an absence of protection. It has an emotional side: it is ultimately embarrassing even to the most emancipated. Where does this embarrassment come from? We know of cultures completely unembarrassed by total nakedness. These days, one should be wary of calling such people primitive.

I suggest that the origin for Europeans of this shame lies in its Palestinian, Judaeo-Christian roots, in an idea of modesty and chastity which Muslims share, a feeling that the female body should not be consumed by the public gaze. The more liberal ancient Hellenistic world of the gymnasium was outrageous to Christian, Jew and Muslim and for this very reason died out in Europe. In 16th-18th century Spain, women were surrounded by strict codes concerning chastity affecting every detail of their lives: during the same period of the Ottoman Empire at La Porte Sublime, the codes were different but just as strict. When in the 16C Spanish and Turkish ships clashed at the Battle of Lepanto for the control of the Western Mediterranean, the men on both sides had much the same view of what was publicly proper and right for a woman. Europe has broken with the idea and reality of Christendom - but not completely. We still cover up to a great extent - unless we are film stars - and this goes back, I suggest, to the sense of the sacred inherited from Palestine through Christianity. We are still partly affected by a sense of the sacred, something not entirely reasonable or necessary: when we are uncovered, we are ashamed as were Adam and Eve after they had eaten of the forbidden fruit. [Genesis 3:7-11]The ancient story still resonates within us and expresses itself externally, if minimally for most of us.

Perhaps it is this continuing, subliminal connection with the sacred expressed in our feeling about dress-codes and modesty that explains the discomfort of the many who profess modernity, secularity, equality and rationality, when confronted with a group of women who cover themselves too much for their liking, as in the cases that have recently agitated France, that is pious Muslim women. Is it that this group reminds the secularist that he or she has not yet managed entirely to rid the sacred from their hearts and minds? Is it that a secular society is haunted by an externally-expressed religion pressing upon its eyes as an unwelcome but still powerful reminder of the Other, what it cannot bring around to reason and what is right: 'raison' can only with great difficulty be semantically divided into a sense of what is right and of what is reasonable. 'Vous avez raison,' say the French. You 'have reason' and are, inevitably, right.

Inevitably, then, the unreasonable must be put right in a secular society. 'Raison' does not have the English sense of 'reason,' as open to compromise: 'Let's be reasonable about this' is usually in England the moment when hostilities cease. The case for the opposition to Muslim dress-codes is that here is an inequality, that the men wear secular dress but their women are veiled, an inequality which must be ironed out in the spirit of a secular constitution with liberty, equality but, more questionably in this case, fraternity. The real inequality, however, is the militant secularism of those who, in the name of Enlightenment, enforce uniformity with all the persecutory zeal of an Inquisition. It is also cynical, as all hypocrisy is. The politicians can score a double benefit for themselves: they can satisfy the nave kind of feminists by duping them, whilst at the same time gratifying the racist right.

If a society was really fair, it would allow issues about covering of the body in Islam to be settled within a discussion of the hadith and in terms which Muslim people understand. Secular societies usually proclaim freedom of religion. It is a benefit of a secular society and an index of its success as a civilization that different religions can co-exist in the same society amicably and express themselves outwardly, with only a minimum of restrictions concerning dangerous cults. What we have in France, however, is a militant secularism and what Muslim people would be justified in regarding as Satanic; it is an active, persecuting, atheist-religion. The Jew, Walter Benjamin, declared that 'every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism.' The Enlightenment in France had that darker side, as freedom gave way to Robespierre's doctrine of Terror and the promiscuous use of that most enlightened of machines for silencing opposition, the invention of Dr Guillotine. One may regard Robespierre's short period of rule in France to be an unfortunate aberration, a blip in human progress. But what if Walter Benjamin is right? It follows that the values and ideas being imported into the European Constitution need careful scrutiny. Prejudice can mask itself as Reason.

What has this situation to say to an Orthodox Christian and what does an Orthodox Christian have to say about the plight of those who subscribe to the dress-codes of those who were once the most powerful civilization threatening Christian Europe? What do we have to say, as European Orthodox, to our old enemies? I refuse to pursue the line of ethical expediency: 'We must protest because we Orthodox, with our robed and covered monks nuns and priests, will be next.' This is disingenuous. It is also contrary to the command of Our Saviour: 'Love your neighbour.' [Matthew 19:19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27, 19ff] And if you consider some of your neighbours inimical, foreign, threatening and alien, then you must love them. We are commanded by Christ to love all human beings and, if we cannot love all, then we must begin, concretely, with some of those who might appear still to us to be the strangers within our gates. [Exodus 20:10; Hebrews 13:2]

These commands of Our Lord are equally clear to Christians who are not Orthodox. Ecumenical statements about doctrinal matters are very fine but here is an issue where Christians from all traditions in Europe can join: the harassment of a minority for what they wear and for the values they express in behaving as they do. In the period of the 'united Europa' of the last century [1939-1945], that is, the tyranny of Nazi-occupied Europe, the Christian Churches did not distinguish themselves, with some notable exceptions. The extermination of Jews had been prepared for by a bureaucratic dress-code imposed upon Jews, the yellow star, which pretended to legality and reason of a kind.

Some societies resisted this from the first and made the annihilation that followed much more difficult in these areas: in their refusal they were facing a deadly risk. Since the most we have to face today is the obstructiveness of the bureaucrat, the opportunism of the politician, some unpleasant pressure from the boss and unpopularity in some quarters, we should be able to do better. Here is an issue where an Orthodox Christian schoolteacher or public servant can make a big difference, simply by refusing to obey bad rules. We will be judged, not by our sentiments but by our works [James 2:19-25], judged, that is, by what we do concretely - or refuse to do. The Word of God, His Logos or rationality, is not the wisdom of this world to which we should not be conformed. [John 15:19] Christians should not reason according to the rationality of prejudice or terror. We are commanded to love all human beings. [Romans 13:1; I Corinthians 13:1-13] The Word of God burns against all injustice. [Amos 2:6-7]

Read the article on the Europaica: Bulletin of the Representation of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions website.

Posted: 4/26/04

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