Paul Berman Is Against Head Scarves (I’m Not)

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Paul Berman’s piece in TNR on Tariq Ramadan is important, and deserves attention for a few reasons. One is Berman’s point that western liberals have rationalized the stoning of adulterers and other primitive practices in the Muslim world. I’m not sure how widespread that practice is, but I’m in complete agreement. As I’ve said many times, I think the Muslim world is behind the west on freedom of speech and women’s rights. Berman is right to talk proudly about the 150-year struggle to establish women’s rights in the west, including modern landmarks like Madame Bovary, speaking of adultery.

That said, Berman is essentially a neoconservative as I would define that term now–wanting to impose democracy on the Arab world by force, dismissing the Israeli occupation as meaningless–so I want to critique him. Let’s look at one point. Berman’s rationalization of the French law barring Muslim women from wearing headscarves in schools.

As I understand Berman, he says the reason that was a good law is that the Muslim girls wanted to participate in the freedoms accorded women in a democracy, and their families were keeping them from so participating by making them wear headscarves. The girls were "under pressure."

The pressure sometimes came from their families at home, and other times from the larger Muslim community, in opposition to their families. The pressure demanded conformity with Islamic precepts.. The purpose [of the law] was to transform the schools into a zone beyond Islamist control, not out of some ideological whim but in order to preserve and to enforce one of the major achievements of modern sociey still not entirely realized, which is full rights and benefits for women.

I find this nutty. Berman’s chief problem as a thinker is black-and-white-ism, and this is a good example of his failure to make subtle distinctions. If a family wants to stone a girl for adultery, or cut her genitals, I am all for the state interfering on behalf of the girl. Berman has no evidence that these women are being compelled to wear the
headscarf, and even if they were, it’s a very difficult area. The realm of the family as a cultural entity is somewhat sacrosanct in the west, and while we may object to strong familial cultures–I am upset when I see evangelical kids proselytizing on street corners with their parents; they have no ability to resist–society must tolerate those cultures. According to Berman’s principle of interference, we could be going into Orthodox Jewish families too, because they deny their girls certain rights. How could the state ever sort out these psychological/familial questions. It can’t. And so I say, Back off.

No, I wish they wouldn’t wear a headscarf. But I’m not going to get them to stop wearing them by interfering in these personal decisions. I’ll get much further by demonstrating pluralist principles of respect. Besides, anyone who has hung out at an American campus understands that it is not such a big deal that some girls are wearing a headscarf.  (A burqa is a different matter; that crosses the line).

It is precisely these failures to understand, What is our business and what isn’t, what we are capable of achieving and what we aren’t, what we can tolerate and what we must smash, what threatens our freedom and what doesn’t–these intellectual failures that mark the Iraq War that Berman pushed for. Nowhere in this very long article does he come to terms with his massive and horrifying failure of judgment…

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