Headscarves and Skullcaps

This is the first of two stories I will tell in the coming weeks about Muslim headscarves. Both illustrate the … Continued

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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  • Mr Mark

    George Carlin did a funny routine on religious head coverings, opining that the only religion he would join was one where their dogma stated that hats were optional.

  • Paganplace

    “This alone should have been enough reason to move those women, “Not in America, it’s not, even if some would like to muddy the issue about ‘terrorists’ and ‘crypto-Muslim’ smears based on bigotry in the first place. America does not need to tear the hijab off anyone’s head. Just needs to make sure people are free to take it off if they so choose.

  • teresa

    The niqab should be banned in America. It is immpossible to identify the wearer. It has been used successfully by suicide bombers. Common sense trumps politically-inspired religious sensitivity.

  • Jihadist

    Headscarves not good for women to wear anymore in this century, even by choice? Too bad. Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn look absolutely fabulous in them. There should be guidelines or laws enacted:- Headscarves worn for religious reason is not allowed.- Headscarves worn for keeping the head and hair clean from dirt, from hair blowing in and getting messed up by the wind is encouraged.- Headscarves worn for fashion statement and to look good is permissible.- Headscarves worn for any reason should be removed when indoors and/or in the presense of those discomforted by headscarves and its ‘symbolism”. “J”

  • Anonymous

    If Jewish men had committed acts of terrorism shouting JHWH is great while doing it and being applauded by millions of Jews who at least condoned the act, then the sight of men wearing Jewish skullcaps would evoke gut level reactions of terror.The reaction to the Muslim hijab is not so much a rational reaction as a gut level emotional one. It takes time for the reaction to subside. Incidents such as the reaction to the Danish cartoon, the teddy bear, fatwa to an author etc, including the periodic threats issued by OBL & Co, the rise and effects of Muslim extremism in Pakistan…doesn’t help. Muslims should be able to understand the fear and anxiety of non-Muslims.

  • halozcel

    Headscarf is the flag of shariahtist.Does malaysian woman have right to choose in Malaysia ?

  • Frank

    Not such an intelligent article. In fact, it’s a weak, rather misleading and inciteful diatribe — with an “I can’t resist!” slap against Obama thrown in.It opens a Pandora’s box of divisive lunacy and there is no measure of it that is either sensible or logically defensible.Wearing a kippa speaks: “I am of the ‘chosen people’ and you are not.” Wearing a headscarf means: “I believe in the One True God Allah and you do not”.Tell us how this does any good in our society? No matter your spin, it does nothing but cause ill-feelings often leading to harm. Rather than make a case for people to wear the flags and icons of their one-sided religious faith wherever they choose, isn’t it better to make the case against such?Let’s not forget that these symbols constantly make the statement: “My God is better than your God.”Christianity, Judaism, Islamism and all such other ‘isms’ loudly proclaim that ‘my religion is the one true religion of the one true God’, etc., etc., ad nauseum.It is childishly naive — perhaps wreckless — to assume that human nature will bow and bend to such arrogant, competitive displays meant to advertise the hegemonic religious orders that have plagued humanity for centuries.The USA is a democracy — not any church-inspired monarchy (as much as this author apparently wishes), and people are getting sick of all these ‘my God is the only God’ people running around killing each other while proudly wearing the uniforms and symbols of their cults.Instead of making a case for allowing this trouble-inducing idiocy, we should ban all such items from our government and government-sponsored institutions and — as far as I and many are concerned — from anywhere in public period. This type of racist/elitist symbolic dress should be kept in the churches and synagogues where it belongs and where it can cause no ill feelings with all the other superstitious fools.Keep it to yourself and keep it off our streets.

  • dnn

    How about a return to the 70’s way where we all can wear or not wear what we wish.Who cares about the headscarf…they waer it to get attention not for modesty. they lie to themselves if they think otherwise. They’ve lost all honesty decency and morality in their whiny Islamophobia cry.The message is “I am here and in your face, like it or not.”Fine…be here, but don’t you and your manipulating OIC mess with my freedom of speech.You are all busted for your sick ulterior motives…so get with the program.This is USA and you are not censoring us…GOT THAT!

  • Anonymous

    Please read the discussion on Susan Jacoby’s thread: Don’t Know Much About Theology, Don’t Know Much Philosophy… and the older ones.Claire Hoffman’s thread on George Carlin.