In my post about Pastor Jones and the Quran burning, I wrote that I’m a First Amendment maximalist, and so defend the right of someone to burn a Quran, but noted also that Jones’ actions were clearly intended as a provocation, and that a smart lawyer could probably convince a court that Jones’ actions fall into the “fighting words” exception to the First Amendment. Jones has a right to express his distaste for Islam and for Muslims, but he hasn’t got a right to inspire a riot, and it isn’t inherently unfair to hold him accountable for the predictable results of his actions. Setting aside those dubious legal arguments, I said, and continue to think, it is appropriate, and indeed necessary, for people who disagree with Jones or with his stunt to make their condemnation clear.
I made that last point because I felt like any criticism of Jones, even criticism unconnected to any argument for legal remedy, was taken as an assault on Jones’ right to speak freely. Which is absurd. He has a right to speak, and I have a right to tell him his speech is stupid and wrong and that he should can it. That’s the essence of how free speech is supposed to work: you create a marketplace of ideas and you attack bad ideas until they bugger off.
I bring this up because today, the New York Times repors: France Enforces Ban on Full-Face Veils in Public:
A French ban outlawing full-face veils in public, the first to be enacted in Europe, came into force on Monday and faced immediate, if low-key, challenges….
According to the French authorities, fewer than 2,000 women in France wear the full-face veil, known as a niqab, but the ban has touched nerves, prompting accusations that it stigmatizes one gender among one religious minority in a land that prides itself on the values enshrined in its national motto of liberty, equality and fraternity.
The ban also applies to foreigners visiting France. The law forbids clothing intended to hide the face in public spaces such as streets, markets, private business, government buildings and public transportation. Violators may be punished with a fine of 150 euros, equivalent to $215….
When the law was approved by the lower house of Parliament last year, there was only one opposing vote, cast by Daniel Garrigue, an opponent of President Sarkozy, who said: “To fight an extremist behavior, we risk slipping toward a totalitarian society.”
That concern seems valid to me. These bans on an item of clothing strike me as far more insidious than public criticism of book burning, and I see no shades of gray here. Banning an item of clothing is wrong, it’s a violation of basic free speech rights, and it’s an attack on the basic principles of liberal democracy that I expect all of the French legislators claimed to be protecting. The fact that, in this case, the ban is meant to single out one particular religious group (and one sex over the other), only compounds the problem.
I haven’t done a systematic survey, but I don’t yet see any of the people who stood up for Terry Jones’s right to burn a Quran standing up for French women’s right to dress as they please, and to use their clothing to express their own views on religiosity. I can defend the rights of women to wear niqab without thinking niqab is a good idea, and I know all those folks can, too.
Before you say that these events are unrelated, I’ll note that part of the reason Afghans rioted after the Quran-burning was that they haven’t got a tradition of free speech, and it’s not hard to imagine that some Afghans might think that the Quran burning must express something bigger than just Terry Jones’s douchecanoery. In a society where free speech has been as restricted as it was under the Taliban and under their repressive predecessors, it’d be easy to think that the US government could have stopped Jones from burning a Quran, and that he wasn’t stopped because the US government wants to attack Islam. The issue apparently reached wide audiences in Afghanistan because of a speech by Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who opened with a criticism of NATO bombings of civilians, harassment at checkpoints, and night raids on innocent civilian households, only then mentioning the Quran-burning. Karzai thus wrapped that incident in with official acts of western governments, pushing an image of the west at war with Islam.
In that context, the best we can do is demonstrate our respect for individual liberties, to show how free speech and free societies work, so that other nations can follow our clear and honorable example.
Instead, we (western nations) pass laws like the French law, singling out Muslim women for special legal treatment. And we hold bizarre spectacles like the King hearings, alleging that Muslims are a special threat to American security while ignoring the threat of homegrown terrorists – Christian, right-wing, nativist, lone wolves who have launched far more attacks (successful and unsuccessful) on American soil in recent years.
How can we promote tolerance, free speech, and the values of liberal democracy in places like Afghanistan (where we’ve assumed the responsibility of nation-building) if we can’t consistently practice those values ourselves?