Q: What is the obligation of a Western, democratic government to protect individual freedoms in light of a realistic terrorist threat? Are the producers of South Park right to forfeit their freedom of expression in the interests of protecting their employees? Are the governments of Europe right to ban burqas in the interest of fostering a more open society?
Governments’ banning the burqa in public, ostensibly to foster a more open society, hits pretty close to home. In the early years of the Quaker movement in England, nonconformists such as Quakers were “illegal.” Quakers were not allowed to build meetinghouses or even hold their silent meetings for worship in other spaces. The authorities were also opposed to other expressions of Quaker nonconformity such as the wearing of the broad brim hat. While the hat was common among the “middling classes,” male Friends wore it as a “testimony” to their belief in equality. The hat remained nailed to the head when they encountered those “superior” to them socially or by position. Countless Quakers were sent to prison on account of not taking their hats off before magistrates, judges, and government officials. Many died there.
On one noted occasion, Friends in east London had built a meetinghouse in defiance of the law. When they were discovered, the king’s forces expelled the worshipers and stripped the room bare, but the Quakers continued to worship on the empty floor. When the building itself was torn down, Friends came to worship on the rubble. Finally, the forces dispersed the worshipers with cudgels and violently ripped the hats off the Quakers’ heads. An eyewitness account reported that a crowd had gathered at the scene, and one bystander, hit on the head by one of the hats flung over the wall around the site, became a Quaker on the spot! I have thought that this might be an effective way for Friends to reverse our declining membership! We could train the “Ultimate Frisbee” teams at our Quaker colleges to fling broad brim hats instead of disks – targeting folks who might be “hit” with the idea of joining Friends!
The point is, the clothing one wears is often an outward and visible expression of an inward and invisible commitment. If that sounds like the classical definition of a sacrament – it should! I’m not saying that Muslims who wear the burqa (or Amish women who wear the prayer covering; or Mormon men who wear “sacred underwear;” or even some of us Friends who still wear the broad brim or bonnet) see it as a “sacrament,” but it is an expression of a religious belief.
Governments begin meddling in such expression at extreme risk to the very “open society” they hope to promulgate.
Muslim women I know who choose to wear the traditional covering have typically done so to express their commitment to the faith – or as a form of political expression (as in the Palestinian territories where it has also become a form of steadfastness in opposition to their military occupation). It also functions as a statement against the commodification of the female body in so much of Western culture.
Where would such a ban stop? Might wearing crosses as jewelry be next? After all, do we want people to differentiate themselves publicly by symbolic expression of their religious faith? My goodness; let’s go for uniformity! Sameness! Such a ban would leave us Quakers unfazed; traditionalists don’t wear such religious jewelry or even put symbols in their meetinghouses. But leave my hat alone!
Now, as for South Park and the recent flap over portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad, I have less to say. I have rarely seen the program, but when I have, I have appreciated its biting satire (as I appreciated the late, lamented comic strips “Pogo” and “Calvin and Hobbes” – or the current “Doonesbury”). I would hope that such programs – and other outlets for cultural critique – would continue to be free to express their insights and analysis of important issues.
However, there is an important concept in my Christian faith that urges caution in taking advantage of what is “legal.” Christianity teaches that ultimate power and Reality resides in Gd alone. When asked by new converts about whether the practice of buying meat in the markets which had originally been offered to other gods was “legal” for Christians, the Apostle Paul responded that there was no power in those gods and thus in the meat itself. It was fine to purchase and consume the meat. “But,” he added, “if eating meat causes your brother or sister to stumble, don’t eat it.”
The advice was that the person knew the meat was okay; it held no power other than a protein boost. But if someone else, seeing the person purchase the meat in the market, took the act to indicate that sacrifices to other gods was fine – and that there was some spiritual efficacy in consuming that flesh – then the person should think twice and perhaps not do it.
That is one reason I don’t consume alcohol. I don’t think it is “illegal” for me as a Christian; there is nothing “sinful” about alcohol in and of itself. I recognize its health and social benefits, in fact, when used appropriately. But in my position around young people prone to alcohol abuse, I choose freely to abstain, lest my “eating meat” (in the form of that liquid protein!) causes my brother and sister “to stumble.”
And this is my advice to the creators of South Park. It may well be fine to satirize a revered figure (and I’m not talking about Barbra Streisand here!), but if doing so puts others in jeopardy, give careful thought and don’t feel you have compromised your standards. You’ve simply been “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”