Veil: Mirror of Identity

Julia Droeber finds thinly veiled orientalism in an analysis of Muslim values and Western liberalism

May 7, 2009

These days, when somebody asks me to explain what the veil "means", I plead battle fatigue (as Kecia Ali recently put it). This book, however, had me up in arms in no time. I was under the illusion that after more than 30 years of debate on the workings of neo-imperialist and orientalist discourses, we had moved on. Christian Joppke's exposition of what he calls the "Islamic headscarf" proved very quickly that this was an illusion indeed.

The book is an eye-opener. It is essentially about European liberalism, "othering" and Muslim integration, and offers some very valuable insights into how French, British and German policymakers and courts have dealt with their respective "headscarf affairs". The "veil" in the title is slightly misleading, but it sells. And what the Muslim veil does beautifully is to reveal the deep flaws of liberal beliefs and politics. Joppke himself describes his book as an investigation into "the work that liberalism does in the reception of the headscarf". Note the turn of phrase here: it is about "us" receiving "them"; about Muslim objects ("headscarf" serves, throughout the book, as a shorthand for Muslims), stripped of any kind of agency.

Joppke's analysis of how European liberalism played out in different national contexts when faced with what was perceived as a major challenge to its core values is highly interesting. We learn where French, German and British ideologues and policymakers wanted to draw the boundaries around their respective "nations" and their liberal values. In France, he argues, what was at stake was the ideal of laicite, which he describes as one version of liberalism. Eventually, French decision-makers decided to privilege the unity of the nation over individual (religious) rights. German "open neutrality", both within and outside the mould of liberalism, seems to embrace religion in public, but it is of exclusively "Christian-Occidental" character.

British multiculturalism, a further variant of liberalism, privileges the private over the public, dealing with "headscarf affairs" on a local rather than a national level. The downside of Britain's accommodating policies, Joppke claims, is that Brits do not know who they are. But regardless of the nation-specific variants of liberalism, it turns out that the liberal value of individual religious freedom is frequently at odds with an equally cherished liberal value, social cohesion.

These three country studies are enlightening. They are a useful reminder of how Western arrogance and paranoia regarding the Other are thoroughly embedded in the ideology and systems of liberalism. I still have my quibbles with these three chapters. Joppke, for instance, consistently conflates British with English, ignoring the fact that Scotland's dealing with Muslims is quite distinct. He also ignores the very distinct national and doctrinal descent of Muslims in France, Britain and Germany, which undoubtedly has an impact on the respective minority-majority relations. Furthermore, while acknowledging that most headscarf controversies emerged in school contexts, Joppke never really takes issue with this peculiar coincidence.

But all of these shortcomings fade into insignificance compared with the views expounded in the first and last chapters. They are the second eye-opener, as they provide a classic example of orientalist scholarship: Joppke's Islam is an outdated, unchanging monolith, and his Muslims are fundamentalists, hopelessly conservative and in fateful opposition to the liberal values that "we" hold so dear. And veiled women are inevitably oppressed. He enlists Christian theologians (Hans Kung), orientalist scholars (Bernard Lewis) and Western political scientists (Olivier Roy), among others, to describe and critique Islam in general, and the veil in particular, completely sidelining experts in Islamic studies (let alone Muslim scholars) and anthropologists.

Where Joppke makes token reference to feminist anthropologists (Lila Abu-Lughod and Saba Mahmood), he misquotes them, or takes quotes out of context to fit his purposes. He applies the same strategy to the standard "veiling verses" in the Koran, again completely ignoring the context and Muslim exegesis of these passages. The result is the very mistaken view that Islamic law, for instance, "cannot be changed in any way", that Muslim women are at the bottom of the pile, and that Muslims and liberalism will not go together (here Joppke even pulls the late Samuel Huntington's notorious "clash of civilisations" thesis out of the closet again).

I am not saying that there are no problems in Muslim societies, but Islam is not, as Joppke would have it, the main reason for them. His grossly distorted view, however, explains his negligence of differences between and within Muslim communities, as well as Muslims' ability to integrate into European societies (the statistics he quotes to this effect do not seem to alter his preconceived notion of Islam as a monolithic, unchanging entity).

Thus, while the discussion of the ways in which France, Germany and Britain have dealt with Muslims reasserting themselves is enlightening, my students will get access to this book only after a thorough introduction to the workings of neo-imperialism and orientalism.

Veil: Mirror of Identity

By Christian Joppke

Polity Press 176pp, £45.00 and £12.99

ISBN 9780745643519 and 43526

Published 23 January 2009

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