The newly enacted French ban on all face veils is a really poor response to a quite legitimate concern. The concern to which I refer is not what some see as the inevitable takeover of Europe by fundamentalist Muslims. That is an Islamophobic fantasy designed to instill fear and provoke hostility.
Nor is the concern that people who remain attached to the cultural practices which they bring from their nations of origin to their new homes will never acclimate to, or constructively participate in, the larger culture in which they live. That concern, while more legitimate than the first, ignores the fact that effective acculturation is always a two-way street.
While the influences are not equal, the minority culture must affirm having some positive impact on the majority culture in order to adopt that majority culture at their own. When they don’t connect in this way, any appropriate acculturation is quickly branded assimilation and provokes stiff resistance from those who most need to step up their participation in the majority culture.
But there is a legitimate concern here, one which I think is present for many people, including those who support the ban and others, myself included, who do not: the importance of seeing another human being’s face.
The ability to see the faces of those with whom we interact, to look into the eyes of those we pass on the street and certainly of those with whom we speak, is a foundation of human interaction in most of our worlds. Undermining that ability is no small thing.
To be sure, we communicate in all kinds of situations which are not face-to-face, and we do so quite successfully and even with amazing degrees of intimacy. Phone calls, online chats, social media, etc., have all become vehicles for sharing some of the most profound joys and incredible challenges of our lives.
Clearly, we can connect deeply even when we have no access to the face of the ones to whom we are connecting. In each of those settings however, the people are not physically present so the inability to see them is not as disconcerting. We are meeting each other in an equally faceless setting. Not so with the veils.
It is the inequality between the parties which discomforts many people, and that is a real challenge which those who veil must address. Ironically, banning people’s sacred practices and forcing them to encounter the rest of us on our terms so that we can be more comfortable, does to them precisely what we hate experiencing from them!
Banning veils does to veil-wearers what their veils do to those of us who do not wear veils. In the sense that the response is a version of the problem which it seeks to address, it is understandable. But let’s not confuse an understanding with a legitimate justification.
If the veil ban really is about something other than Islamophobia and/or coercive acculturation then we need figure out creative solutions which neither undermine religious identity, nor create barriers to the human connection which most of us need in order to create healthy and respectful social interaction.
The veil ban is a foolish and ultimately self-defeating law – one which seeks to accomplish through legislation what can only be truly achieved through the integration of the multiple needs of the many members of an increasingly diverse society. That integration demands more from both parties than is currently being offered by either the ban’s supporters or by those who oppose it.
This is not about what we can make each other do or accept. This must be about each side asking what the law they support, be it banning veils or insisting on wearing them, is meant to accomplish and finding ways to honor both that intent and the needs of their neighbors.