This is the first of two stories I will tell in the coming weeks about Muslim headscarves. Both illustrate the sometimes paranoid reactions that religious dress often elicits; they also highlight how the political meaning of headscarves shifts in different political and cultural contexts.
I have a personal interest in this matter as my 4-year-old son will soon attend a Jewish day school where all boys must wear a kippa. Since my usual reaction to those who wear skullcaps in public is a deep wariness and even distrust, I now wonder whether others will react similarly to my son. How unfair! How narrow-minded!
And there is another matter: does the required — as opposed to voluntary— wearing of kippot portend a one-dimensional religious education that contradicts the imaginative, individualist and liberal education that I know is the hallmark of the very Jewish school that my son will attend? Or perhaps the discrepancy I perceive reveals my own ignorance of the very traditions I wish to pass on?
I pondered these questions after reading that two Muslim women wearing headscarves were prevented from sitting behind Barack Obama at a Detroit campaign rally. While Obama personally apologized to the two women, you can’t blame American Muslims for feeling misunderstood or snubbed.
It is inconceivable that a kippa-wearing Obama or McCain fan would be treated similarly. Are then displays of Muslim piousness more unfamiliar or threatening to Americans—particularly given the lingering fears that 9/11sparked more than six years ago? The good news is that recent polls suggest that we are increasingly tolerant of other religions. Indeed, three days after the Obama Muslim headscarf story, a survey by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life highlighted this encouraging trend.
Still, these results do not mean that Americans are equally open to all faiths. My guess is that the Pew survey also shows enduring misconceptions about the supposed link between Islam and fanaticism. Such prejudices figured centrally in the headscarf story, if only because not a few Americans believe that Obama is an actual or crypto Muslim. This is not true (and if it were true, there is nothing wrong with that!). But it will be a long time indeed before a more broadminded view of Islam translates into the election of a Muslim president.
This particular tale echoes wider themes about the role of religious symbols in American public life. Let us recall that while many welcomed Joseph Lieberman’s 2000 run for the Vice-Presidency, those same people would probably have reacted differently had he worn a kippa.
Lieberman anticipated such concerns: in his speeches, he often reaffirmed his religious convictions and then quickly moved on. Yet his cautious treatment of his Jewish identity cannot be attributed to mere expediency. In a country where many faiths enhance public office precisely because they maintain a safe distance from politics, our leaders must tread carefully when it comes to the complex and somewhat porous division between synagogue and state.
American secularism is profoundly religious. A vital current in the mainstream of public life, it flows over a deepening riverbed of multiple faiths. Islam has entered that mainstream. But as two young Obama supporters recently learned —and as the candidate knows— the temptation to manipulate the unfamiliar symbols of piety is especially strong during an election year. How to anticipate or answer such fear-mongering without unwittingly encouraging it is a challenge for us all.
By Daniel Brumberg |
July 3, 2008; 10:12 AM ET
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