By N.S. Palmer
Unenlightened Americans are being mean to Muslim women.
That’s the central message of “Behind the Veil,” an article in the Styles section of this morning’s New York Times.
And the article is correct: A few Americans are indeed being mean to Muslim women.* Gratuitous meanness is unenlightened.
But let’s reflect for a moment about the article’s contention (with which I agree) that the meanness is gratuitous.
The article recounts the troubles of Hebah Ahmed, a woman who started wearing a Muslim veil after the 9/11 attacks that were blamed on Muslim terrorists from Saudi Arabia.
The veil, called a hijab, covers Muslim women’s faces and bodies, though part of the face is left uncovered so that they can see where they’re going. Ms. Ahmed’s veil provoked strong reactions from some Americans:
Hebah said she has been kicked off planes by nervous flight attendants and shouted down in a Wal-Mart by angry shoppers who called her a terrorist. Her sister was threatened by a stranger in a picnic area who claimed he had killed a woman in Afghanistan “who looked just like” her. When she joined the Curves gym near her home in Edgewood, N.M., some members threatened to quit. “They said Islamists were taking over,” Ms. Ahmed said.
The Heckler’s Veto
What the article describes is called a “heckler’s veto.” Ms. Ahmed is having trouble because other people object to her attire and its Muslim affiliation.
The premise of a heckler’s veto is that if an idea offends anyone in a speaker’s audience, then the offended person can shout at the speaker to stop him or her from stating the idea. The heckler’s veto was on display last year, when Republican Party operatives disrupted legislators’ “town hall meetings” to prevent them from explaining health care reform to their constituents.
To her critics, Ms. Ahmed’s veil symbolizes terrorism, an alien religion, and a threat to Western society. They would like to exercise their heckler’s veto to prevent her from bringing that symbol into their presence, whether it’s on a plane or in a grocery store.
Ms. Ahmed and other peaceful Muslims, of course, argue that the hijab and other Muslim customs do not symbolize terrorism to them. They symbolize merely a religious tradition and its customs.
Both sides have a point. Rightly or wrongly, Ms. Ahmed’s critics are offended by her Muslim attire and what it symbolizes to them. Ms. Ahmed counters that she means to convey no such message and that her critics’ interpretation of her attire is different from hers. They think that her hijab is an in-your-face endorsement of terrorism. She thinks that it’s merely a statement of piety.
Her critics suspect that her avowals of peace and piety are just a smokescreen. They believe that she secretly endorses terrorism and war on the West. She denies it.
Because both sides have legitimate arguments, one can decide the dispute either way. In America, we have decided that freedom of expression should override a heckler’s veto.
Well, sometimes. Let’s consider another case where the same issue is involved.
The Confederate Flag
In the 19th century, Southern states tried to secede from the United States because the Union government’s economic policies favored the industrial north at the expense of the agrarian south. Slavery was an issue, but a minor one. Slavery was legal in both Southern and Northern states. Although U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s “emancipation proclamation” is widely thought to have freed all American slaves, it applied only to Confederate states, where Mr. Lincoln had no legal authority. It said nothing about ending slavery in the Union states over which Mr. Lincoln actually had at least some legal jurisdiction.
Based on the U.S. Constitution, the Southern states argued that they had a right to secede from the Union. But their Constitutional argument was crushed by the superior military power of the Union, which invaded and subjugated the Confederate states.
As a result, many Americans in former Confederate states see the Confederate flag as a symbol of their “lost cause,” and of the principles of the original U.S. Constitution that decentralized most power to the states.
But those flag supporters have their critics. Critics argue that the Confederate flag is merely a racist symbol affirming white superiority over black people and denying the evils of slavery. Seen that way, the Confederate flag is deeply offensive to African-Americans and to anyone else who believes (as I do) that people of all races are equal in rights and human dignity.
So this is another case in which a symbol’s supporters claim that it means only good things to them. Its critics suspect that the supporters are really motivated by hatred and racism, but that they are concealing those motives behind high-sounding rhetoric about the Constitution and states’ rights.
In the case of Muslim attire and practices, received wisdom rejects the heckler’s veto. Polite society accepts Muslim symbols as meaning what nice Muslims like Ms. Ahmed say that they mean. Anyone who doubts it is considered to be a narrow-minded hater.
Yet in the case of the Confederate flag, received wisdom embraces the heckler’s veto. Polite society accepts the flag as meaning what its critics say that it means. Anyone who defends it is considered to be a narrow-minded hater.
Threatened by boycotts and federal sanctions, Southern state legislatures have acted against the wishes of majorities to remove Confederate imagery from flags and to ethnically cleanse building and street names of references to Confederate heroes. Students wearing T-shirts with the flag are sent home from school to change clothes. Any public display of the flag is subject to harassment, violence, and even (rarely) arrest. Why? Because hecklers might be offended by the flag.
What’s the Difference?
The inconsistency most likely arises because Muslims in America, whatever their merits or demerits, are an “official victim” group against which it is socially and legally unacceptable to hold any bias.** Their hecklers, on the other hand, are just plain vanilla Americans, with no special status or rights.
In the dispute over the Confederate flag, however, the roles are reversed. Supporters of the disputed symbol are just plain vanilla Americans with no special status or rights. Their hecklers are members of, or profess to act on behalf of, an aggrieved official victim group (African-Americans).
* Not as mean as some Muslim men are to Muslim women, but it’s still wrong.
** It serves the interests of the U.S. government to handle its domestic Muslim population gently, lest American Muslims be driven by mistreatment to make common cause with their co-religionists in Muslim countries currently under attack or occupation by U.S. military forces.
Copyright 2010 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.