Tuesday 19. October 2021

The burqa debate and the human face

The Europe-wide debate on the banning of the burqa has divided public opinion. Christian Rutishauser, Provincial of the Swiss Jesuits, poses some fundamental questions about what religious symbols stand for.

The political debate around banning the burqa for reasons of public safety is really laughable. The risk to security posed by a woman wearing a full veil is minimal compared with that posed by bellicose, brainwashed men. The discussion that has been going on for years now about Muslim women wearing headscarves or the presence in public spaces of religious symbols such as the crucifix all points to something rather more fundamental. Symbols in public can be controversial, because their function is to be a visual reminder to us about collective values and the interpretation of religious meaning.


Symbols in the late modern age

Modern times have brought their own symbols such as flags, uniforms etc to supplant the public symbols of Christianity. Monuments have also been erected to remind us of relevant social events or to celebrate technical progress. However, in very recent times, we are now witnessing a takeover by modern symbols of the economy and business. Banks and corporations splash out on awe-inspiring architecture. Companies brand themselves with trademark logos which have morphed into marks of salvation. Advertisements promise utopian personal happiness.


However, since time immemorial, symbols worn on the human body have given rise to debates highly charged with emotion: there was a time when our society viewed the wearing of trousers by women as an act of transgression and even today it remains a no-no taboo in ultra-orthodox Jewish circles. The long hair worn by male followers of the hippie movement was an in-your-face protest against the bourgeois small-mindedness of their parents’ generation. Not to mention the circumcision practised in Judaism and Islam, which has remained decidedly controversial for centuries.


There are heated debates over clothing, hairstyles and body-reshaping that people choose for their personal look, although the styles of tattoos and provocatively ripped trousers have been quietly and steadily spreading. When it comes to self-expression in our individualistic and egocentric society, there seem to be scarcely any barriers left. Only naked rambling – which can be seen as the extreme opposite of wearing the full body-shrouding veil– had to be restricted by law.


Religious symbols in public

The row about wearing religious symbols in public that has been raging between an enlightened secular culture and the Church has altered the symbolic value of Christianity since the 19th century, making it more fundamental. Western Islam will probably have to go through a similar process. Here, neither sweeping liberal positions (which welcome every form of religious expression within Islam) nor the attitudes of the conservative right (which condemn anything connected to Islam as being incompatible with Europe) are particularly helpful. As long as we allow people to parade their pierced navels in public, there is no reason why we should not also allow people to wear the Muslim headscarf.


Having said that, there is still a case for banning women from wearing the full veil in public, since democracy is founded on citizens – men and women alike – taking responsibility for their community. They join in discussions and plunge into the debate that is needed when it comes to negotiating collective values and standards. If you want to be a part of this process, you have to surrender your anonymity. Anonymous telephone calls, emails and letters are also essentially harmful to democracy. It is a core value in secular culture that a person should show his or her face, thereby assuming responsibility and making it possible for others to address them; but their dignity is still maintained, so also their vulnerability. If people cannot be identified, then you cannot have a civil society.


Face to face

This inalienable humanistic value is deeply rooted in biblical traditions, in which one person looking into another’s face is the expression of the fullness of life. The divine also appears on our countenances. Moreover, for Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the face was the “most naked part” of a person, from which the ethical imperative is uttered: “please don’t kill me!”


A faceless person becomes a screen. Unseen and overlooked, a person withers away. Saying no to the full veil and yes to the headscarf amounts to a differentiated position with which both society and religion can live. When all is said and done, safeguarding religious freedom for Muslims must boil down to weighing up how crucial the full veil is to the Islamic identity. Millions of Muslims serve as living proof that people can get along just fine without this veil when it comes to fully exercising their faith.


A critical examination of which symbols are acceptable for public display is the mark of a healthy, secular and liberal society. However, the current debate will only prove beneficial if religions – including Islam – are seen not merely as a problem but also as partners in a constructive critical discussion. After all, we are not talking only of visual concealment. There is also the auditory isolation through the wearing of headphones, leading us all to retreat into our isolated, atomised worlds, and that represents an obstacle to social cohesion. Here too we need to start engaging with one another again. In a world where people no longer talk to each another, where they avoid eye contact as they shuffle outdoors to take out the rubbish, we could all learn something from Islam and other religious traditions.


Christian Rutishauser SJ

Judaist and Delegation member of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Jews


Translated from the original text in German


The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Office.

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.