“Otherness is the challenge that Europe never mastered”

Leon Wieseltier on France’s burqa ban:

Where the face is covered, ethics cannot exist. I have been pondering all this again on the occasion of “the bill to forbid covering one’s face in public,” or the anti-burqa measure recently passed by the National Assembly in France. It has been defended on grounds of human rights. France, declared its minister of justice, “does not accept attacks on human dignity. It does not tolerate the abuse of vulnerable people.” Uh-huh. I confess that I am watching the French struggle with the distinction between Islam and Islamism—I mean the French who are struggling with it at all—with a certain malicious delight. Is the distinction really so slippery? When did France become the homeland of l’Autre, naturally tolerant and welcoming to cultures unlike its own? (The philosophy of Levinas was, among other things, a prophetic castigation of France.) And the same question may be asked of other European societies whose suspicion of, or hostility to, the Muslims in their midst has a foul familiar air. Otherness is the challenge that Europe never mastered. (I apologize for the gross historical generalization, but I have been immersed in Jordi Savall’s monumental reconstruction in music of the Cathars and their destruction.) And now, to fight Islamism in France, the power of the state, the frightened state, is being used to forbid the free practice of religion. It is of course shocking to encounter a person in a burqa, as it is to encounter a person tattooed from head to toe: it is a mutilation of personhood. But by what right does the state intervene? If some Muslim women are forced into their hideous sartorial prison, the state will not relieve them, and the Muslim men who are solicitous of their humanity, of the need to dissent and to rebel—of the rupture of modernization, which can only occur within, as it did in Christianity and Judaism; and if many Muslim women cover themselves consensually, the state should leave them be. Intolerance is a poor security policy. Moreover, the face is not all it’s cracked up to be. The face may be manifest but deceptive, and no disclosure at all; or it may disclose anger and hatred and violence. A visible face may be more dangerous than an invisible one. I am thinking of nineteen faces in particular.

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