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?
There is an interesting contrast in this week’s prompt. On one hand we see self-imposed censorship of Western artists, and on the other hand we have a Western government imposing regulations on Muslim women. Both questions are important, but I think they call for separate analysis.
As for the South Park self-censorship, I don’t like to see it, but who can blame someone for being silent in the face of a threat? In 2006, I was part of a delegation that met with a group of influential Iranian leaders to discuss the common origins of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Obviously, there were also significant political overtones to these meetings. In my formal presentation, I was asked to address the American notion of free speech in light of the riots that had just taken place following the publication by a Danish newspaper of comics that depicted the Prophet Mohammed.
I actually mentioned South Park as I tried to explain that Christians in the West regularly see our religions denigrated a consequence of our devotion to free speech.
The result of my talk was a lecture from an Ayatollah who explained, in a heated voice while pointing his finger in my face, that Islam would never tolerate insults to the Prophet, and that we need to change our ways and our concept of acceptable free speech. We needed to prohibit anti-Islam speech if not all speech critical of religion.
A different Muslim leader tried to develop my thought for the more hostile members of the group, but it was clear that insults to Islam would not be tolerated. Unless and until the government can assure artists or speakers that they will be safe, I cannot fault them for tempering their words and images (though I wish they did not have to do so.)
As for the burquas, there is some confusion about the very term. It is spelled different ways, and depending on what it looks like, the more correct term might be niqab or chador. What really is being debated is whether women should be permitted to cover their faces in public.
In many states, at least in the South, it is already illegal to wear a mask in public. I first heard of these laws when I was in law school, and they struck me as silly. I learned, however, that they were put in place to thwart the Ku Klux Klan. Unable to disguise their faces, these bigots (who terrorized Blacks, Jews, and Catholics) were unwilling to stand up for what they purportedly believed. There were many factors involved, but most observers point to anti-mask laws as having played a significant role in defeating the Klan.
Even knowing that, I always felt that these laws were flawed. I remember asking about Halloween and Mardi Gras parades, when masks were omnipresent. What about winter, when people wore ski masks? The answer that always came back was that the laws are not enforced in those situations. To my mind, that was not a good answer; it was indicative of a flawed law.
Anti-mask laws are also silly when applied to burqas. We are talking about grown women who are making their own choices about dress. A burqa might be intimidating (I still remember the first eye slit-style one that I ever saw, over 20 years ago), but the women who wear them are not. They wear these garments to shield their bodies, not to frighten others.
Yes, the burqa could provide cover for whose who want to disguise themselves, but not really all that much more than what could be done with other clothing. The only real governmental interest that might justify banning the burqa relates to security, and that concern can be addressed without banning it.
Women who wear burqas must be prepared to unveil for a female security officer at appropriate places, they might have to remove the veil for driver’s license photos, and other accommodations may have to be made. I imagine that some versions are not safe to drive in. If, however, the women who wear the burqa are willing to make those concessions, they should be permitted to wear this very modest clothing of their choice.