Monday, August 18, 2008

"Headscarves, Secularism, and Religious Freedom"

This article so well sums up so many things, I thought I'd re-produce it here. Please give full credit to the author at the title link:

"Headscarves, Secularism, and Religious Freedom"
By Nick Gier, Unfiltered, New West Politics, 8-16-08

I thought I would never get a consulting job until the day that the ACLU gave me a call. Some Muslim prisoners in the Boise penitentiary were complaining that the warden was forcing them to cut off their beards.

For $25 an hour I agreed to research the issue of beards and religion and write a report. I interviewed Muslim imams and Jewish rabbis, and I found that certain sects of each did indeed require beards as part of male religious identity.

Certain sects of orthodox Judaism do not even allow the trimming of beards because they read: "You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard" (Leviticus 19:27).

I also discovered that Sikh men may never cut their hair or their beards. Sikh women also must cover their heads, and they may not remove hair from any part of their bodies.

The Jewish Talmud requires that women cover their hair while in public, and Orthodox Jews still follow that tradition. In earlier times Roman Catholic women had to cover their heads during Mass, following Paul's injunction that a "woman who prays with her head unveiled dishonors her head" (1 Cor. 11:5). Some Pentecostal, Independent Baptist, and Mennonite women cover their heads in public as well as in church.

The passage most often cited from the Qur'an (24:31) has more to do with general modesty, although the specific injunction to cover the bosom with a veil does of course imply veil wearing, a common custom for women in the Middle East and now seen by many Muslims as a religious requirement for their women.

Recently Abercrombie Kids refused to hire a Muslim woman because she was told that her headscarf did "not fit the Abercrombie image." Abercrombie's own Code of Business Conduct and Ethics prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, and religious headscarves are now explicitly included in new guidelines from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The Muslim headscarf (hijab) can be worn in several ways: very loosely as former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto did; completely covering the hair; or covering the head except for the eyes.

U.S. citizen Sultana Freeman is now suing the State of Florida because she refused to show her full face for a photo required for a driver's license. Freeman's attorney believes that she will win her right to drive on the basis of legal precedent, because 14 other states have made exceptions for Christians who claim that taking photographs of them is a violation of the Second Commandment.

General American tolerance of the hijab stands in contrast to French intolerance. A 2004 law prohibiting the wearing of hijab in France's public schools was passed by a vote of 494-36 in National Assembly. Recently a Moroccan woman was denied French citizenship because she wore the burqa, which covers the entire body.

Most Americans and Europeans are proud of their commitment to a liberal secular democracy in which church and state are kept separate. But the Latin word "liberalis" means "pertaining to the free person," and a liberal society should protect, first and foremost, its citizens' right to the free exercise of their religious beliefs, as long as those beliefs to do infringe on the rights of others.

Turkey's radical secularists have also been undermining the liberal foundations of their modern nation. Over the years the Republican People's Party abolished capital punishment, legalized abortion, extended women's rights, liberalized the economy, but also banned the hijab in public.

In the past several decades there has been an Islamic revival in Turkey, and a moderate Muslim party has won the last two elections, the second one by a 47% margin. Turkey's chief prosecutor brought charges against this party claiming and it had threatened Turkey's secular society by bringing back the hijab in public.

This month the Turkish supreme court ruled 10-1 against the party. The prosecutor had recommended that 70 party members be banned for five years, but that punishment required at least seven judges to rule in favor. The vote was 6-5. One vote the other way would have thrown Turkish society into chaos, and most of the world is now relieved that a crisis has been avoided.

Religious persecution in Europe was one of the primary reasons for the American and French Revolutions, and failure to respect the rights of believers of all faiths will lead us into times just as dark as the religious wars of pre-Revolutionary Europe.

Nick Gier taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read or listen to his other columns at

Post a Comment