Burqa: a new swear word in a diversifying society

It’s a free country, isn’t it? We can believe what we like and, within certain limits, say what we want.

So what’s the problem with women in burquas? Tough-talking National MP Bob Clarkson wants them out of this country. National MP Chris Finlayson, Blue Liberals organiser, said he agreed with every word Clarkson said. Is this the liberal National party of Ralph Hanan and Sir John Marshall?

Very few brown and yellow, let alone black, faces were at its national conference last month. Diversity of membership is for other parties.

Don Brash said in a speech last month it is important people living here accept “bedrock values that are crucial to New Zealand society”.

He didn’t list all those bedrock values but he did list those he considered “fundamental to New Zealanders: an acceptance of democracy and the rule of law, religious and personal freedom and legal equality of the sexes”. He added: “If you don’t accept these fundamentals, then New Zealand isn’t the place for you.”

Brash didn’t say he would as Prime Minister throw out people who didn’t fit. And he didn’t say he would stop them coming in: “It is very difficult to assess the values that a would-be immigrant possesses. It’s impractical, beyond some basics, to screen people for what they believe as they enter the country.”

He simply counselled caution.

That has a practical point. In an already diversified and increasingly diversifying society, National cannot afford to lock out expanding minorities of voters. Moreover, the moral conservatism and entrepreneurial drive of some Muslims make them more natural allies of National than Labour.

Brash’s caution has also an ideological point. Though he did, in a procedural lapse, vote against civil unions which he supports and say people who vote Labour were not mainstream, Brash is at base classically liberal on economic, civil and moral issues. So Clarkson has been cooled.

Most New Zealanders are liberal, too, on civil and moral issues. The sectarian bigotry that still lingered in the 1950s has gone. There is a bedrock acceptance of freedom of religious belief, including Islamic belief.

But most New Zealanders, you can bet, are discomforted by the sight of a woman trussed in a burqa. (That’s the tent-like covering, with just the eyes visible through a slit.)

This society is not a feminist paradise (despite Murray McCully’s rants about the “sisterhood”). But it has over the past 40 years acquired a sense of fair play between men and women which goes beyond Brash’s simple “legal” equality and, for example, jibs at constraints on women speaking in certain circumstances in Maori society.

To many in this practical liberal majority, the burqa symbolises oppression of women by men. It stirs illiberal feelings among liberals.

The logic goes like this. You are free to believe what you like and to speak and practise those beliefs. That is a treasure of our society and rare in a world of tyrannies. It is a treasure we share with those who can share it in return.

But if speaking or practising your beliefs prompts you or someone else to cause harm to others, that is not part of the freedom. And in this society a woman who cannot or does not, for whatever reason (including voluntarily), go among us openly is instinctively counted among the oppressed.

That conflict of oppressions is a particular bother for feminists who want to support oppressed or poor Muslim states and peoples. In opposing one oppression, for example, of Lebanese and Palestinians, they may be endorsing another, for example, by aligning themselves with Hizbollah, as some have.

It is this conflict of oppressions which brings tough-liberal Finlayson within cooee of roughneck Clarkson. Soft liberals are sometimes liberal about illiberal practices. The tough liberal is not.

There are other complications.

One is fear. “Muslim” is now associated with bombing and “extremist” mayhem, even though the chance of being blown up is microscopic. Very few are fundamentalist and of those a tiny few are terrorists.

The second is ethnicity. Muslims include Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, East Africans, Indonesians and Malaysians, among others. Their religion can conflate them in the public mind though they are culturally diverse.

Some, like British Pakistanis impoverished by the decay of industries they went to Britain to work in, are disaffected and breed bombers. (Employers here who won’t hire immigrants take note.)

Others, like the entrepreneurial East African Indians displaced in the 1970s, have, according to Wilson’s Quarterly, made themselves on average better off than the average Briton. (Complacent whites take note.)

Ethnic and religious diversity is a fact of life. It is also a challenge to social cohesion. Slogans about burqas don’t help. But neither do the burqas. And neither does fear or stereotyping — or soft liberalism.

To be successfully diverse needs a tough liberalism. But that is easier said than done.