11 October 2006

The values of liberal democracy

British MP Jack Straw has caused a storm by his remarks about the way some Muslims dress, with some even going so far as accusing Muslims who dress differently of rejecting the values of liberal democracy. I am not alone in thinking that those who say such things seem to have a swivel-eyed idea of "liberal democracy" -- Madeleine Bunting puts it rather well when she says:
This latter prompted the memory of being taken as a child by my mother to visit the Poor Clares' convent in York. We gave alms to these impoverished women who had chosen complete segregation from the world as part of their strict spiritual discipline; we talked to the gentle, warm mother superior through the bars of a grille that symbolised their retreat from the world. No one accused these nuns of "rejecting the values of liberal democracy" - yet they were co-religionists of the IRA terrorists of their time.
One of the features of liberal democracy is its tolerance. The word tolerance is much abused nowadays, so perhaps I should expand on that by saying that I agree with Fr Thomas Hopko when he said
Tolerance is always in order when it means that we coexist peacefully with people whose ideas and manners differ from our own, even when to do so is to risk the impression that truth is relative and all customs and mores are equally acceptable (as happens in North America).

Tolerance is never in order when it means that we remain idle before wickedness which harms human beings and destroys God's creation.

To be tolerant is to be neither indifferent nor relativistic. Neither is it to sanction injustice or to be permissive of evil. Injustice is intolerable and evil has no rights. But the only weapons which Christians may use against injustice and evil are personal persuasion and political legislation, both of which are to be enacted in an atmosphere of respect. While Christians are permitted under certain conditions to participate in police and military actions to enforce civil laws and to oppose criminality, we may not obey evil laws nor resort to evil actions in defence of the good. This means that Christians are inevitably called to suffer in this age, and perhaps even to die. This is our gospel, our witness and our defence.

In my youth people conformed to a far stricter dress code, and being countercultural may have been cool, but social pressure was against cool. Males went to church wearing suits and ties, females wore skirts, stockings and hats, sometimes even gloves. The only excuse for not dressing like that was poverty, and in many middle-class suburban churches the poor were not welcome, especially since most of the middle-class suburban parishioners were white and most of the poor were black. On one occasion a friend and I went to such a church wearing Basotho blankets (not really to "make a statement", but it was midwinter, and we'd ridden there on a motorbike). It caused more than a stir; it was a typhoon in a teacup, and the next Sunday the parish priest peached a sermon on it, in which he said, among other things, that "the only garment we need to enter God's house is the garment of charity."

The Poor Clares, mentioned above, did deliberately dress in such a way as to identify with the poor, with those who were not welcome in the respectable middle-class churches. St Xenia of St Petersburg was a crossdresser, wearing male clothes in addition to their being ragged. Several other examples are given in a paper read to students by an Anglican monk, Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection. The paper was called Pilgrims of the Absolute.

One of the things about religious freedom is that protecting the religious freedom of others is also a protection of my religious freedom. The freedom of Muslim women to dress as they choose is also a protection of people of other religions or none to dress as they choose. If Muslim women are prevented from wearing the niqab, how long will it be before Orthodox monks are told to cut their hair, shave their beards, and wear the same clothes as everyone else.

Come to think of it, that has happened before.

It was done by those fine upstanding supporters of liberal democracy, the Bolsheviks.

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Anonymous said...

Some Muslims too have said the veil is a form of segregation. Personally I think it's fair enough that they wear what they want but occasionally there is a price, eg, when it comes to things that require photo ID like driving. I've lived in KSA and chadors, etc, are a perfect disguise - kids don't recognise their own moms and latch on to the wrong one in the souk, women put coloured threads through them to recognise who's who in a family outing, etc. We can't have a situation where someone in a potential disguise is untouchable. Christian/non-Muslim women wearing voluminous headscarves, etc, to avoid abuse in the street is equally wrong but is happening in France and even London. I used to go to a cafe in my expensive area of London frequented by Arabs and I had to stop. I was born and raised in a conservative part of the Orthodox Church, I've never dressed like a tart and I'm now over 40 as well but the attitude was that I must be 'available'. They make assumptions about us as well and it needs to stop. Respect is a two-way street.

Steve Hayes said...

The point is not really what some Muslims have said about the ceil. I'm sure you could find some Christians who would argue against Orthodox monastic dress, and probably many who wouldn't recognise it as Christian at all. And it's quite possible that some Muslims who wear the veil and some Orthodox monks do reject the values of liberal democracy.

The problem is the assumption that they reject the values of liberal democracy by the very fact of dressing differently, which is ironic, because one of the values of liberal democracy is tolerance for those of different views, manners and mode of dress.


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