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Liberals, the Hijab and the Denial of Full Equality

The funeral of Marwa Sherwini
The funeral of Marwa Sherwini

This article is also published on Multiculturality

The funeral of Marwa Sherbini was held in Alexandria on Monday July 6, 2009. 32 year old Marwa, who was three months pregnant, was stabbed eighteen times in thirty seconds by Axel W, a 28 year old German man in a court in Dresden in front of her husband and 3-year old son among countless others. While stabbing Marwa, Axel W shouted “you have no right to live.” Her husband was also injured when he was shot in the leg by a German security officer while he was trying to protect his wife.

“Ms Sherbini had sued her killer after he called her a “terrorist” because of her headscarf… Axel W and Ms Sherbini and family were in court for his appeal against a fine of 750 euros ($1,050) for insulting her in 2008, apparently because she was wearing the Muslim headscarf or Hijab.” (BBC News)

As reported here, Axel W also called Marwa Sherbini “islamist” and “bitch” when she asked him to make room for her son to play on swings at a local park.As the BBC reports, “the case has attracted much attention in Egypt and the Muslim world.” No doubt, for Egypt and the Muslim world the stand Ms Sherbini took against Axel W for insulting her for wearing the headscarf was seen as a courageous one in the face of western hostility to the Islamic hijab, hostility that has only been exacerbated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent outbursts on the burkha. However, for ever growing numbers of western commentators, many of them far from willing to endorse violent acts such as that committed against Marwa Sherbini, her case against Axel W will not have been viewed as favourably. Indeed, the fact that Sherbini won damages against Axel W for associating her wearing of the hijab with terrorism or islamism (leaving aside the hackneyed old gendered slander: ‘bitch’) would have stuck in the throat of many liberal commentators throughout Europe. This is because it has now become standard for liberals to conflate the religious symbols of Islam, the wearing of the hijab in particular, as at best a visible sign of separation and a rejection of national/European/western ‘values’ and, at worst, as tacit support for the actions of Islamist terrorists. Whereas these upstanding commentators would no doubt abhor the murder of Marwa Sherbini, some of their linguistic associations – hijab=terrorist – do not stray far from those originally made by Axel W.

Among those who call themselves liberal, something odd appears to be happening since September 11 2001. The word ‘liberal’ is increasingly being used as a synonym for ‘western’ or indeed coupled, as in the phrase “liberal, western values…” Thus, on the one hand, ‘liberal values’, which broadly speaking are said to be things like democracy, tolerance, freedom of speech, and respect for the rule of law, are upheld as standards that should be universally respected. On the other hand, however, no sooner have they been delcared universal are they said to be something that is unique to the west which those of other ‘cultures’ are almost innately unable to understand never mind uphold.

This of course depends on who the non-western target of the discourse is. Educated and apparently ‘westernised’ students in Iran, perhaps because of their knowledge of English or their penchant for the niceties of western consumer culture, can be included within a universalistic vision of liberalism. The fact that all Iranian women wear the headscarf is excused on the basis of the belief, whether this is actually the case or not, that they would remove it at the drop of a hat if they could.

In contrast, hijab wearing women in Europe itself, recent migrants or long-standing citizens alike, are less tolerated. Despite the fact that, as citizens or residents of European countries, it would be expected that their choice to wear the hijab could be seen as just one among any number of ‘choices’ open to those living in democractic, egalitarian, liberal societies, they are singled-out as throw-backs to a dangerous pre-modern age, the apparent antithesis of everthing that Europe struggled to rid itself of.

Christopher Caldwell's 'The Revolution in Europe: Can Europe be the Same with Different People in it?'

Christopher Caldwell’s ‘The Revolution in Europe: Can Europe be the Same with Different People in it?’

Among these liberals, there is genuine distaste for the fact that many European Muslims have not seamlessly assimilated European ‘values’ and have appeared, as Christopher Caldwell claims, to have retained “the habits and cultures of southern villages, clans, marketplaces, and mosques.” But where this has been the case, because it is is far from being universally true, there has been little effort made to explain why there has not been a relinquishing of tradition. Western liberals are unable to explain this because they are so utterly convinced of the superiority of their own culture which, because they believe in its ultimate universal applicability, are incredulous is being rejected.

What this view fails to see of course is that firstly, what appears as traditionalism can often be a conscious, political rejection of western ways of life that appear contradictory and hypocritical, particularly in light of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Secondly, it ignores that universalism is in itself culturally specific and cannot, as the French philosopher Etienne Balibar reminds us, be disassociated from the particular trajectory of European racism and nationalism, a trajectory which was ultimately based upon the project of defining the ideal (male) subject.

Thirdly, universalist liberalism is far from having been instilled in the West itself. There appears to be a wholesale confusion between the apparent choice afforded us by capitalism and real freedom. When Islam is contrasted with western values, particularly in the citizenship policies of the various European states that have introduced citizenship testing, integration programmes, and community cohesion agendas, what is actually happening is that two culturally specific ways of doing things are being pitted against each other. The fact that it is impossible to definitively flesh out what either ‘national values’ or ‘Islam’ actually entail matters little. For liberal commentators, policy-makers, and Muslim community leaders alike, they must nevertheless be adhered to.

This is particularly pernicious when the integration of a set of ill-defined, or indeed indefinable, values is being made contingent for acceptance within society, as is the case in most European countries today. Unable either to define the values to be assimilated or to conclusively state what would constitute a completed integration process, outward symbols such as the hijab, the turban or the beard are being taken as proof that an individual has integrated inadequately whether or not the wearing of such symbols actually bears any relationship to the individual wearer’s attitude to their country, or indeed to the more problematic elements of his/her religion.

If anything, the stance Marwa Sherbini took against Axel W in taking him to court for incitement demonstrates that she had indeed assimilated some of the values that, it is to be presumed, liberals hold dear. She exercised her right to be treated equally within German society and not to be insulted for making a personal choice to wear the hijab. However, what has become undoubtedly true in the current climate is that, despite their call for universalism, many liberals see the freedoms of some as being more worthy of protection than others. Thus, because Islam is seen by many as a religion that denies rights to non-Muslims, whether or not this is the case, those who seek freedom to practice their faith without the risk of insult or constraint should de facto be seen as less equal than others.

It has become a commonplace in liberal circles to decry ‘political correctness’ in relation to race and religion, Muslims in particular, and to claim that a hierarchy of victimhood has led to discrimination faced by other minorities being ignored, a favoured line of the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. Beyond the fact that pitting disadvantaged groups against each other in such a way is entirely counterproductive in the aim of achieving a fairer society, this view tacitly endorses the notion that it is time that some groups were denied full access to their rights. Practicing Muslims in particular are held individually responsible for everything from sexism, homophobia, genital mutilation, forced marriages and honor killings, right up to riots and suicide bombings. Hence, it is only fitting that they are denied equality until such time that they integrate (again, into what it is unclear) or are defeated.

Unfortunately, the knots in which such liberal thinking ties itself are not obvious to the vast numbers of those for whom writers such as British journalist Nick Cohen or Dutch-Somali integrationist Ayaan Hirsi Ali are heroic in their stance against what they see as the onslaught of illiberal Islam. It seems that where Muslims are concerned, it is unnecessary to bring such ‘liberal’ arguments to their logical conclusions and to admit that they are not all as egalitarian as they profess to be. Rather, the rush to pit illiberal Islam against the liberal West will indeed lead to the segregated societies that Muslims in Europe have already been blamed for constructing, if not to a much worse future in which, due to the increasing authoritarianism of western states desperate to crush apparent extremism, liberalism in any form will be but a distant dream.

Alana Lentin