The following essay is a response to an article by the University of Chicago philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, that appeared in the New York Times.  Her article is accessible in the first footnote.


The Burqa, Islam, and Liberal Ideals;

A Response to Martha Nussbaum[1]

by Charles Berezin

I agree with Nussbaum that burqa bans are misguided and, perhaps, too closely associated with anti-immigrant bias.  I find her argument ingenious but flat.  She misses the point just as burqa bans miss the point.  Her argument is a full-throated defense of the liberal value of cultural relativism, calling John Locke and Roger Williams for the defense, but she fails to consider the unique ways that Islam challenges that ideal.  Anti-burqa laws are misguided, not only because they violate a liberal ideal, the freedom of conscience, which Nussbaum holds sacrosanct, but also because they fail at another, perhaps more important, liberal ideal, the emancipation of women, about which Nussbaum is strangely dismissive.

The issues that Nussbaum skirts and which her 17th century interlocutors fail to address are the abuse of women and to what degree does the protection of women’s rights impinge on liberty of conscience as regards religious minorities.  In her argument, she knocks over some straw men that are more substantive than she supposes.

She applauds the Turkish ban of the veil promulgated by Atatürk[2] as a way of protecting women at that time who chose to go unveiled and claims that this is not needed in modern Europe where ” women can dress more or less as they please”(NYT).  There is more in that “more or less” than an offhand remark.  Can all women in the Muslim banlieues of Paris really dress as they please?  If some cannot, what kind of protection do they have?  As a legal philosopher, Nussbaum would like to believe that the law is sufficient.  But the protection of the law may not be enough.  If liberal states are obliged by their liberal ideals to protect the freedom of conscience in a minority religious community, is that community obliged to observe the liberal ideals of the host country as regards the freedom of women?  It is naïve to assert, as Nussbaum does, that wearing the burqa is merely a matter of individual choice.

Nussbaum approves of the Turkish ban of the veil because it did, in fact, protect women in that historical context.  Then, she accepts the premise that protecting women trumped freedom of conscience as an obligation of the state.  Now, however, she focuses instead on defending the veil to protect freedom of conscience when protecting Muslim women is still the urgent issue.  Current burqa bans are misguided precisely because they do not afford that protection.

Nussbaum counters the coercion case, I think, rather weakly:

A fourth argument holds that women wear the burqa only because they are coerced.  This is a rather implausible argument to make across the board, and it is typically made by people who have no idea what the circumstances of this or that individual woman are (NYT).

It is not necessary to stipulate that all who wear the burqa do so out of coercion to find the burqa objectionable.  Allowing only subjective criteria makes for a weak argument.  Nussbaum has perhaps too stringent a test for what is abusive.  Is the woman who wears the burqa out of a sincere belief that women’s bodies are shameful and must be covered, as the Koran tells her, less abused than the woman who is forced to cover up by her father or husband?  Is genital mutilation less abusive because the girl in question consents to have her clitoris cut off?  Where do you draw the line?  Why is genital mutilation on one side and the burqa on the other?  Is physical violence the only criterion? 

Nussbaum is at her weakest on the question of abuse: “Indeed, given the strong association between domestic violence and the abuse of alcohol, it seems at least plausible that observant Muslim families will turn out to have less of it” (NYT).  This is utter nonsense.  Given what we have learned about the prevalence of sexual abuse among traditional religious societies, it takes a kind of willful ignorance to make this statement.  Nussbaum ignores the fear and loathing of female sexuality among these groups, to which Muslims are no exception.

Nussbaum wants to rely on a woman’s subjective interpretation of the burqa as the deciding factor, since, in her view, the individual conscience is sacrosanct.  But, as in the example I just outlined, how does this liberal ideal apply to the woman who has internalized the coercive social relations which are the context of the burqa?  What are the obligations of a liberal society towards, what I would call, the subjugated imagination: the tendency to internalize the contradictions that lead to one’s own victimization?  Post-Modernists like to see any imposition of any idea as inherently imperialist, and so would see burqa bans as a form of cultural imperialism.  In this case, we cannot avoid that imposition, we cannot disapprove of burqa bans for this reason without supporting a set of coercive social relations that either resulted from or contributed to the success of imperialist domination.  Imperialists have always used native autocracies to reinforce their own.  Nussbaum wants to deny that the burqa is a “symbol of male domination” (NYT).  She cannot do so without likewise denying that the burqa is a reification of coercive social relations and that the woman wearing one suffers extreme alienation.  The fact of choice does not lessen the alienation.

Here, Nussbaum misses the unique challenge of Islam to liberal ideals.  Her defense of the burqa is an example of mirror-imaging, assuming that the Muslim community is the mirror image of her own and shares her values.  It is not and does not.  The Muslim woman who wears the burqa or the veil out of a religious duty to cover up her shameful body is not making a choice in any sense that the women in Nussbaum’s gym’s locker room are making choices.  Her insistence that it is such a choice is itself, perhaps, an example of cultural imperialism.  Nussbaum’s comparing a Muslim woman’s wearing the burqa to another woman’s decision to have breast implants is like comparing apples to suicide vests. 

Tariq Ramadan, often touted as the moderate face of Islam, defends the hijab as an instance of modesty that is required of men and women alike.  Ramadan is either being disingenuous or he fails to understand modesty.  Modesty is about how one presents oneself in public; it is not invested in any particular article of clothing.  Certainly, a woman can show modesty without covering her hair.  But Ramadan is silent on whether this is possible.  The ritual covering up of women, whether it be the burqa, the niqab, the chador, or the hijab, is the religious encoding of the patriarchal control of women’s bodies.  The hijab may be the least restrictive version of that religious code, but it is an instance of it nonetheless. 

There are three classes of women who submit to this religious code.  One group has firmly internalized the patriarchal control of women’s bodies and does not question the religious edict.  Liberal values oblige us to offer such women pathways to rejecting the coercive social relations which they do not yet understand as coercive.  While we can entice them onto such pathways, we cannot coerce them, as burqa bans, with some irony, purport to do.  Why should they reject one type of coercion for another?  These women will find the unavoidable contact with modernity attractive or repellent.  Burqa bans present modernity with a repellent face.

Another group has emerged onto that pathway, and its members are at varying distances along it.  They are either considering removing the veil or are being coerced to wear some version of it.  They are confronting the coercive social relations that are the context of the veil and need help.  Their struggle defines them as among the most important people in the world.  If there is a moderate face of Islam, it needs to be turned towards these women, not only in the liberal West, but in majority Muslim communities. Burqa bans do not address the profound forces that these women are struggling with, nor does Nussbaum.  She offers them only the consolation of the law and, instead, expends her liberal fire in defending the very thing they are struggling to reject. 

The Westernized, educated Muslim woman who chooses to wear the hijab willingly participates in the ritual denigration of women and validates female alienation.  As a member of liberal society, I feel obliged to tolerate that choice out of good manners, but I do not respect it.  Nor am I obligated by liberal values to respect it.  On the contrary, it is exactly my liberal values that oblige me not to respect that choice.  I oppose burqa bans because I would prefer not to see intolerance of that particular choice as part of the legal code.

One could argue that fundamentalist Christianity and Orthodox Judaism enforce similarly coercive relations upon women.  But there is a difference.  Both Christianity and Judaism have gone through reformations.  Indeed, the liberal values that Nussbaum so prizes are the direct result of those reformations.  The boys in the ball park wearing the tzitzim tolerate Nussbaum’s decision as a Jewish woman to go uncovered.  They may consider her anathema, but they do not interfere.  They go double-hatted, so they can keep their heads covered according to religious edict and still doff their caps during the national anthem, to avoid violating either secular patriotic or orthodox religious norms.  They have made peace with the secular world.

Islam has gone through no such reformation.  Christian and Jewish women have the option of rejecting coercive social relations and remaining within the larger Christian or Jewish communities.  Those larger communities regularly extend help to such women.  Muslim women have no such opportunities.  They cannot reject coercive social relations without rejecting the Muslim community itself.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a case in point.  In this context, it could be difficult for Muslim women even to understand their social relations as coercive because there exist no Muslim models for rejecting them, as Christian and Jewish models abound.

Islam is unique among the world’s great religions in having persisted into the modern world without having gone through a reformation and so remains unable to accommodate liberal values.  Islamic theology, as many have pointed out, lacks a concept of the secular.  It is not anti-Muslim to look forward to a reformation in the Muslim world.  In fact, contributing to and even fomenting such a reformation is the best self-defense liberal societies can make since such a reformation would remove the supports for the jihadist fascism that threatens them.  The greatest leverage point we have for fomenting such a reformation is a vigorous worldwide support of the liberal value of women’s emancipation.  Nothing else so sharpens the contradictions of unreformed religion.  That support should be the primary objective of liberal foreign policy as well as the best way of integrating immigrant communities.

Muslim immigrants to the United States tend to be those who leave their home countries because they feel a lack of the civil society protections this country affords.  Communal coercion is less of an issue for this group.  The situation is different, however, in Europe, where Muslim immigrants tend to be economic migrants who bring with them no experience of or yearning for civil society.  They live in enclaves where civil society protections do not sufficiently obtrude.  There are bound to be clashes at the meeting ground between that community and the host community that takes civil society for granted.  Burqa bans are misguided efforts to control that meeting ground.  A more productive way to control that meeting ground would be to encourage that community to grow civil society institutions.  Women attempting to throw off restrictive communal pressures are the vanguard in that effort and deserve enthusiastic support.  Instead, Western liberals, like Nussbaum, have abandoned them.

What I find missing from Nussbaum’s piece is some realization that the burqa is objectionable on many grounds, not the least of which is that it is a violation of liberal ideals, but that banning it or banning the veil is counterproductive.  Women and girls in immigrant Muslim communities need to know that they have options, how to exercise those options, and that they will be protected by the liberal state if they do so.  Rather than burqa bans, there need to be shelters and counseling for women and girls who fear coercion of any sort.  Where there is no community support for rejecting coercive social relations, the liberal state has an obligation to provide it.  The legal system is not sufficient.

There are educated Muslim women in the West who do choose to wear the hijab, ostensibly as an expression of Muslim piety.  In this case, these women clearly are making a choice, but the context of that choice is their demand that the liberal society surrounding them respect their choice.  In some instances, the hijab is worn specifically to provoke liberal values, allowing the wearer to castigate Western liberals for their hypocrisy and assert her own moral superiority as a victim.  In a recent example, there is the case of the Muslim woman who had been working at Disneyland for a few years in a job that required her to wear a costume and who had never previously worn a hijab.  She came to work one day wearing a hijab and refused to remove it for the costume.  Disney offered her another job at no loss of pay or grade that would not require a costume so that there would be no conflict with her wearing a hijab.  But the woman refused and sued the Disney Corporation for discrimination. 

The test case for such Westernized Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab and expect their freedom of choice to be respected is whether they support a similar freedom of choice for their sisters in Saudi Arabia, Iran, or in any number of Muslim countries where women have no such choice.  But on this, Westernized Muslim women are strangely silent.  All their energies seemed focused on castigating the West.  In this, they are supported by American liberals such as Martha Nussbaum, who lecture us on exactly which liberal ideals we are supposed to invoke in support of Muslim women but who ignore others perhaps more pertinent. 

In a similar vein, here is George Packer, writing in the New Yorker about his consternation with his fellow panelists at a Cooper Union event during Tariq Ramadan’s first visit to the US:

So by the time my turn came, the general picture was surprisingly, reassuringly bright: reconciling Islamic faith with liberal values is easy; the views of Muslims are basically the same as everyone else’s; the oppression of Muslim women is a third-order issue. It struck me that, in an event sponsored by groups whose whole purpose is a commitment to freedom of thought and expression (PEN, the A.C.L.U., and others), no one had said a word about the many threats to it in countries where Muslims constitute the majority, or where some Muslims who are in the minority refuse to accept it. And yet every day the news brings us such stories, so that they’ve become numbingly familiar.[3]

Packer identifies the context for Nussbaum’s arguments as well as the downside to accepting that context: the abandonment of liberal values.  American liberals have constructed a narrative to justify that abandonment.  There is a tendency on the American Left to see Muslims as victims and afford them the moral superiority of victim status.  Certainly the hub-bub surrounding Tariq Ramadan’s first visit, overcoming the objections of the State Department, fits that narrative.  Nussbaum’s defense of the burqa helps enable this tendency, claiming Muslim women as the principal aggrieved party in an unjust action by the state.  In this narrative, they oversimplify the legacy of Imperialism which corrupted both sides of the equation, the powerful and the powerless alike.  So they discount, for instance, the denial of freedom of expression inherent in the assassination of Theo Van Gogh and the death threats against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, obliquely referred to by Packer, because that denial of free expression did not come from a state actor.  It doesn’t fit the preferred narrative of Muslim as victim of state power, nor does the Muslim oppression of women. 

When Ayaan Hirsi Ali came to the United States looking for an intellectual home, she first went to the liberal Brookings Institution.  They sent her packing, afraid that her radical support of Muslim women might offend Arabs, and into the waiting arms of the right-wing, neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute.  The Left’s ceding the moral high ground on the oppression of Muslim women to the Right is a self-inflicted wound if ever there was one. 

For their part, Muslim and Arab intellectuals have been quick to seize the mantle of victimhood, moral superiority becoming a rhetorical disease among this group.  They deny any moral equivalence with the West and recoil from introspection and self-criticism.  Any pointing out of problems in the Muslim world is attacked as baseless and hypocritical because of similar problems in the West.  Some on the American Left have abetted this childishness.  The cost to rational discourse has been great.  This addiction to moral superiority has been tremendously destructive, since moral superiority and the rage it engenders is the wellspring of jihadist terrorism.  It is la trahison des clercs, Arab style.

There is also a tendency to see Islamists, in particular, as allies in a grand, international, anti-Capitalist coalition.  Here is Slavoj Zizek, writing about Islamism, and the Taliban in particular, in The Guardian:

Even in the case of clearly fundamentalist movements, one should be careful not to miss the social component. The Taliban is regularly presented as a fundamentalist Islamist group enforcing its rule with terror. However, when, in the spring of 2009, they took over the Swat valley in Pakistan, The New York Times reported that they engineered "a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants".[4]


Really?  Is the Taliban merely “presented” as “[ruling] with terror?”  Is that presentation, which Zizek questions, really in opposition to their social activism, which Zizek applauds?  What has been glossed over here to see the Taliban as anti-Capitalist allies?  Certainly the Taliban’s terrorism against women is invisible in Zizek’s account.

Here, the Left needs to be more careful about whom it chooses as friends.  Fascism always starts out, at least, as an anti-Capitalist social movement, and sees liberals as useful idiots who defend them in the name of freedom of conscience, a value for which neither they nor the Islamists have any use.  Some Left intellectuals have been too quick to forget the fascist leanings of Islamism’s progenitors.  But the greatest cost of that connection has been a wholesale abandonment of important liberal values.  It seems to require, in George Packer’s words, seeing “the oppression of Muslim women [as] a third-order issue,” the issue that could stimulate a Reformation in the Muslim world that could make them true allies.

          Nussbaum’s piece may be an admirable amicus brief in a court test of a burqa ban, but it fails to appreciate the contradiction in liberal values that the confrontation with Islam presents. I find Nussbaum’s defense of the burqa to be a legalistic, self-defeating application of liberal values since it is ultimately a defense of coercive social relations, just as the attack on the burqa is a self-defeating, illiberal, xenophobic reaction.  The context of her defense is a narrative in which American liberals abandon some cherished principles.  It abets the childish, self-defeating moral superiority which is the distinguishing characteristic of even moderate Arab and Muslim rhetoric, dangerous since the illusion of moral superiority promotes the rage that stokes Islamist fascism.




[1] Martha Nussbaum, “Veiled Threats?” New York Times, 11 July, 2010.  Available at Accessed 11, July, 2010.


[2] I am accepting Nussbaum’s assertion for the sake of argument.  Atatürk never actually banned the veil, although he did ban the fez.  Instead, he encouraged women to adopt Western dress.

[3] George Packer, “Tariq Ramadan Comes to America!” New Yorker, 6 April 2010. Available on-line at Accessed 20 July,2010.

[4]  Accessed 2/16/2011.