The Burqa, the Baker, and the Bishops

Denmark has become the latest European country to ban the Islamic full face veil in public. Wearing the niqab, which shows only the eyes, or the burqa, which covers the entire face, will result in a fine of 1,000 kroner ($156) for the first offense. In addition, anyone who coerces a person to wear a face covering can also be fined or imprisoned.

I don’t know how Danish bishops have reacted to the ban, but French Catholic bishops reacted negatively to a similar ban in 2010. Bishop Michael Santier, the prelate in charge of interreligious dialogue argued, “If we want Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries to enjoy all their rights, we should in our country respect the rights of all believers to practice their faith.”

What if a burqa ban was proposed in the U.S.? How would American Catholics respond? Answer: they would probably react very much as the French bishops did—in terms of the rights of all believers to practice their faith.

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One indication that this would be the case is the overwhelming support one finds among Catholics and their leaders for Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for the “wedding” of a gay couple. Along with many others, the Catholic hierarchy has welcomed last week’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of Phillips. According to a statement issued by the USCCB, “Today’s decision confirms that people of faith should not suffer discrimination on account of their deeply held religious beliefs, but instead should be respected by government officials.”

But much the same could be said of a Muslim woman’s desire to wear the burqa.

For the same reason that they support the Christian baker’s right to refuse the cake assignment, the U.S. bishops would in all probability support a Muslim woman’s right to wear the burqa. They would argue that if a Christian baker shouldn’t be forced to bake a cake against his conscience, neither should a Muslim be forced against her deeply held beliefs to show her face in public.

Even if a bishop should have personal qualms about the burqa, he would still likely defend the right to wear it. That’s because the USCCB’s policy on religious liberty is more or less the same as Ben Franklin’s policy for resisting the British—namely, “If we don’t all hang together, we shall all hang separately.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (whose leadership is mostly Catholic) has a similar slogan: “No religion is an island. When the rights of one are abridged, the rights of all faiths are threatened.” That sounds very noble and also very American. But, as I have argued elsewhere, one could just as easily say, “When a certain quasi-religion gets a foothold in society, the rights of all other faiths are threatened.”

This has been the case with Islam. Historically, wherever Islam spread, the rights of other religions were severely abridged. The oppression was so severe that, over time, the non-Muslim religions tended to disappear. Many large areas around the Mediterranean Sea that were 90 to 100 percent Christian are now 90 to 100 percent Muslim.

The trouble is that many Americans aren’t much interested in what happened before their own appearance on the stage of life. Consequently, the historical record of Islam’s treatment of other religions is of little concern to them. For the most part, their historical memory only goes back to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. And, in a sense, we’ve been in the Civil Rights era ever since.

In other words, almost all major issues are now looked at through the lens of civil rights. The social history of the last half century has largely focused on the expansion of civil rights to new identity groups—to gays, lesbians, transsexuals and the whole alphabet soup of identities that begins with the letters LGBT and seems to go on to infinity.

Consequently, there is a strong propensity to view Muslims as another identity group with special civil rights needs. Moreover, since Muslims are often equated with Arabs in the popular imagination, many will assume that any opposition to Muslim demands must be racist. And that assumption, of course, lends all the more urgency to the demand that Muslims be given their full quota of civil rights. All of which means that you had better get used to more burqas in the streets.

But should you? With our short-range historical perspective, and our lopsided concern with civil rights, we tend to forget that some things existed prior to civil rights. One of them is the existence of a civilization that believes in God-given rights, and the dignity of all persons. If that kind of civilization is not secure, neither are civil rights.

In criticizing the French burqa ban, Bishop Santier chided his fellow citizens. “The French,” he said, “including the Catholics among them, should not let themselves be gripped by fear or a ‘clash of civilizations’ theory.” But what if there really is a clash of civilizations? What if, as Maulana Maududi, one of the twentieth century’s chief Islamic theorists, put it, “Islam requires the earth—not just a portion, but the whole planet”? In that case, the wearing of the burqa might be more than a civil rights issue. It might even be an issue of civilizational survival.

Although Muslim activists are happy to employ the language of civil rights, there is much to suggest that Muslim leaders are more interested in the civilizational struggle than in individual civil liberties. Exhibit A is the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. Dissatisfied with the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 45 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference adopted its own list of human rights. The document guarantees many of the same rights as the UN Declaration, with the qualification that all these rights must be in compliance with sharia law. For example, Article 24 states that “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Sharia.” So what the Cairo Declaration gives with the one hand, it takes away with the other. Its authors quite clearly subordinate civil rights to sharia law.

The clash of civilizations, in this case, is a clash between one civilization that believes in civil liberties and another civilization that does not. And Islamization is the process by which the latter civilization intends to replace the former.

You may look upon the wearing of the burqa as a civil rights issue, but many Muslims look upon it as a key element in the Islamization process. Like the Ku Klux Klan hood or the Guy Fawkes mask, the burqa works, in part, through intimidation. Suppose a burqa-clad woman (if it is a woman) enters the bus you are riding. Do your thoughts turn to the riches of diversity, or do you begin to wonder if you just bought a bus ticket to eternity? Do you reflexively think that multiculturalism makes life more interesting, or do you think that it may be time to move to another neighborhood? Oh sure, you know that, realistically, the chances of having drawn the short straw are remote … but still.

The burqa, in short, is not just a personal fashion preference; rather, it’s one way that fundamentalist Muslims have of staking a territorial claim. Where burqas abound, sharia, no-go-zones, and virtue patrols soon follow. And non-Muslims begin to move out. So the burqa is far more than a statement of modesty. It’s a statement on the part of the Muslim community that these streets belong to us. Thus, the burqa can become an effective weapon for advancing Islamic law and culture.

Assuredly, many Muslims who wear the burqa might not think of it as a weapon. They may look upon it as simply an important family or religious custom. A woman might easily convince herself that she wears the burqa or niqab out of modesty, or to please her husband or to please Allah. Nevertheless, one can’t settle the issue on the basis of subjective feelings. The fact that some people don’t feel personally oppressed by moving about in a shroud doesn’t make it okay. In Denmark it is generally understood that there is something wrong about covering one’s face or having it covered by others. It amounts to an erasure of one’s identity. Muslims shouldn’t get used to it and neither should those who coerce them.

Laws must apply to everyone equally. While it is tempting to make exceptions for this person’s feelings, or for that person’s cultural background, it’s self-defeating to have different laws for different people. Laws should be established with the common good in mind. A good example is the 1878 Supreme Court decision outlawing polygamy. It may well be that many Mormon women had become accustomed to the practice and did not see it as oppressive. But if Mormons have the right to polygamous marriage then everyone should have that right. The Supreme Court rightly decided that that was a bad idea. Although some women may learn to live with polygamy, polygamy, objectively considered, is a violation of a woman’s dignity. To have allowed this Mormon tradition to stand would have amounted to a giant step backward for civilization.

The same is true of the burqa debate. Individual Muslims may not find it oppressive, but objectively speaking, it is. Upon examination, this “civil right” looks very much like a violation of a woman’s basic human rights.

It violates the rights of non-Muslims as well. “I can see you, but you can’t see me,” is a violation of fundamental equality between persons. As Prime Minister Francois Fillon said at the time the French ban was instituted, “concealing the face… places the people involved in a position of exclusion and inferiority incompatible with the principles of liberty, equality and human dignity affirmed by the French Republic.”

Just so. But will American Catholic bishops see it that way?

When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ordered Jack Phillips to cater same-sex “weddings,” the USCCB and other Catholic organizations filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of Phillips’ religious freedom.

The brief makes a solid case that the government should not compel Phillips to act against his deeply held religious beliefs. But many of its arguments could also be used to overturn a burqa ban. One can imagine CAIR lawyers presenting a very similar brief defending the right to wear the burqa in public should such a case arise. One can imagine the bishops filing their own brief in support of the burqa.

In fact, to buttress its case, the USCCB brief in support of Masterpiece Cakeshop observes in several places that the rights of Muslims would also be impacted by the court’s ruling. Indeed, the brief approvingly cites Barack Obama’s defense of the controversial Ground Zero mosque in New York City.

The problem with the bishop’s brief is that it rests on the questionable assumption that religion is always and everywhere a good thing—an assumption that Church leaders have taken for granted ever since the Second Vatican Council. The central argument of the brief holds that:

The common good is best served if courts show deference to individuals and organizations choosing to exercise their consciences in challenging situations implicating their religious beliefs.

Why does deference to religion serve the common good? Because “when religion flourishes, so does society.” The document provides numerous instances of the benefits that religion provides to society, even citing Thomas Woods’ How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. But it’s not so apparent that Islam has advanced the common good. Islam certainly didn’t build Western civilization, and it didn’t do a very good job of building Islamic civilization either. Islamic nations are always well represented on lists of countries with the most poverty, disease, and illiteracy. More to the point, Islamic nations elevate sharia law over the Western notion of justice, with the result that Muslims have few of the rights enjoyed by citizens in the West. Moreover, many of the stipulations of sharia law are outright violations of the Bill of Rights. Amputations, stonings, and whippings violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments, while the blasphemy and apostasy laws are clear violations of the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

It is not at all clear that Islam contributes to the flourishing of society. Does polygamy contribute to the flourishing of society? Does child marriage? FGM? The blasphemy laws? The apostasy law? The doctrine of jihad?

It’s time for Catholic bishops and Catholic religious liberty organizations to go beyond the current simplistic model of religious liberty, and recognize that Islam does not fit in with many of the assumptions on which it is based.

Catholic leaders need to recognize that Islam is as great a threat to religious freedom as any local, state, or federal government agency. If they don’t start thinking more deeply about these issues, they may soon find themselves defending the right of Muslims to wear the burqa—a custom that not only obliterates a woman’s identity, but also serves to pave the way for Islamization.

The greater danger, however, is that activist groups such as CAIR, ISNA, and USCMO (US Council of Muslim Organizations) will be able to recruit Catholic leaders to side with them on the issue of blasphemy. In recent years the OIC has broadened the definition of blasphemy to include the defamation of any religion or any religious prophet. The tactic is designed, of course, to appeal to the many Christians who find themselves subject to the slings and arrows of secularist slurs and slanders on a daily basis. It’s essentially the same argument that Catholic defenders of religious liberty make—that is, if we religions don’t all hang together, we will all hang separately. Only this time it’s Muslim activists that are making the argument.

Will it work? Unfortunately, there are signs that it will. Many in the Catholic leadership already think of themselves as allies with Islam in a common battle against secularism. Indeed, the U.S. bishops have enthusiastically joined up with the anti-Islamophobia campaign—a movement which is essentially a campaign to outlaw criticism of Islam. It is, in short, a back-door way of bringing Islam’s blasphemy laws to the U.S.

That the bishops are willing to get on board the anti-Islamophobia bandwagon does not bode well for the future of religious freedom in America. Muslims may or may not lose the burqa skirmish, but it looks like they may be winning the more decisive blasphemy battle. The lopsided victory for Masterpiece Cakeshop shouldn’t lead Catholics to think that the fight for religious freedom will be a piece of cake. With the entrance of Islam into the public square, the arena of civil liberties has become a mine field.


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