This blog post is an immediate reflection on the banning of the burqa and niqab in public by the French Assemblée nationale in the wake of similar legislation in Belgium. I neither intend (in a blog post!) to justify or condemn the ban, premised as such dichotomies often are on unexamined presuppositions of what constitutes “freedom” and “oppression”, nor canvass the different material conditions, modes of being and subjectivity that may render the wearing of a veil acceptable or unacceptable in public. Drawing on the recent events in Europe as a starting point, what I do want to do is to take one step further 'back' in order to bring to the fore the presuppositions that are latent in a certain construal of that domain we have come to know as religion and/or ‘the religious’.
At UTS’ ‘Transforming Cultures Annual Lecture in 2009, the Indian cultural theorist Ashis Nandy made a simple opening observation:
"No one thought that religion would re-emerge from the shadows to occupy centre-stage at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”
Whatever one’s own dispositions toward the issue, most people would pay Nandy the credit for his accuracy in reading the pulse of the short twenty-first century. The topic of ‘religion’ is reasserting itself as a hot topic in academia, social commentaries, the popular press and, of course, in politics. Despite the fanfare, however, I would argue that most commentaries on the politics of religion have not been able to move beyond a dominant liberal ontology of the human person, i.e. that construes ‘religion’ as otherworldly, or more preferably, inner-worldly. If this liberal a priori is sustained, then the conceptual space we know as “society” exists as a neutral terrain of correlative, complemetary and/or conflicting individual preferences and religion, while “good for some”, is in essence one more difference. From here, it is not hard to discern the logic of the recent legislation to ban the burqa and niqab in France, which was passed by an overwhelming 335 votes for the bill and only one against in the 557-seat Assemblée. For if the question of religion is thus understood as a private preference for metaphysical entities or lack thereof, then its public manifestations are judged to be justifiable or unjustifiable on the basis of two elements: (a) the apparent autonomy of the individual chooser; and (b) its effects on other individuals, who reserve the right to be untroubled by the extra-empirical cogitations of others. Justifications for the ban have been coded on the basis of such liberal-progressive ideals such as "freedom", "equality" and "liberation", as is evident in French Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie's passionately held belief that the bill represents:
"Values of freedom against all the oppressions which try to humiliate individuals; values of equality between men and women, against those who push for inequality and injustice."
What Alloit-Marie’s comment implies is this: that ‘religion’ is a matter of individual choice in the private sphere, but France does not want it as a public matter in the political sphere. The wearing of the burqa, as a public sign of “humiliation” and “inequality” according to the députés, obviously falls into the latter category. In this view, ‘religion’ is, or rather should be as Stravakakis describes, “a matter of personal attachment that has no place in the public domain and should be confined to the private space, the individual life of citizens, or to an isolated/insulated corner of civil society.” After all, why should beliefs about extra-empirical realities intrude upon the public domain, and in such a way that obviously contravenes the French republican values of liberty, equality, fraternity and secularism?
However, what happens if we recalibrate the liberal presupposition slightly by shifting the question of ‘religion’ from speculative metaphysics to ontology? In other words, what if religion is not understood primarily as a set of cognitive commitments to an invisible entity that may secondarily engender public expressions that are oppressive or non-oppressive, but rather as a mode of ‘being-in-the-world’ as Heidegger (and indeed many theologians) would have it?
This apparently esoteric adjustment in thinking would in fact significantly complicate the category of religion as it is popularly understood, for it would plunge the observer into the diverse and complex articulations of symbols, texts, practices and rituals across time and space. For example, what does a veil signify in diaspora communities in Sydney in comparison to, say, a veil worn in an Amish community in the US? Or, to take another commonplace symbol, how does wearing a crucifix with a figure of Jesus attached to it differ from one without the figure of Jesus attached to it? And for whom? This is a difficult and dense terrain, yet as students of culture (broadly defined), is this not type of complexity that is generative of interesting research?
I therefore argue that if religion as cultural/political phenomena is to be apprehended, studied and understood, critical adjustments need be made to the prevalent definition of religion that locates its essential features as some strictly private relation to metaphysical object(s) that leads to strictly defined practices. The weakness of such reification is that it fails to take into consideration the specificity of material conditions, theological systems and the centrality of inter-subjective features such as interpretive differences within a ‘religion’ grouping, not to mention the affective dimensions of religion. Consequently, the domain of what we call religion is ‘flattened’. Positively put, especially pertaining to the furor over the burqa or niqab in Europe (and in Australia following Senator Cory Bernardi’s vocal opposition to it), a shift toward religion-as-ontology enables us to be more attentive the role of different symbols, ways of piety and rituals in constituting different modes of subjectivity within diverse communities.
In contrast, therefore, to the French communist MP Andre Gerin's opinion that "the full veil, the covered face, it's a woman in a portable coffin", Judith Butler points out insightfully:
“I am not sure that the burka states identity any more definitively than an excellent dress by Christian Dior. Both are clearly means through which cultural belonging are signified or, rather, means through which that signification is attempted. […] But in actuality, the burka [has] different meanings. It can be a sign of private faith; it can be a way of signifying a certain belonging to community; the burka can be a way of negotiating shame and sexuality in a public sphere, or preserving a woman’s honor, and even a way of resisting certain western modes of dress that signify a full encroachment of fashion and commodity dress that signifies the cultural efforts to efface Islamic practice. I cannot imagine that it only signifies one thing…”
I think that Butler's position would be a good 'working assumption' for cultural studies as it contributes to this growingly heated discussion over religion in public.