Hogan's Alley

Friday, June 22, 2007

Muslim Dress, Is It A Threat To Western Society?

Photo credit: Hazel Thompson for the NY Times

The NY Times would have us believe that the issue of Muslim women wearing the niqab, the head to toe covering favored in certain Islamic countries, is a major disruptive debate in Britain at present. Like all stories that assert the existence of a social trend or problem, there is probably much less to the story than meets the eye.

But, whether a widespread issue or not, the story does raise the question of assimilation in Western societies. Is there some danger that in our age of over-deification of the concept of "diversity" we have now begun down the road towards multi-cultural societies in which each group or tribe maintains its own customs and language to such an extent that the term "nation" no longer has any meaning? In the face of a globalized world, will Islamic, or Asian, or European, or African culture become disconnected from geography and persist wherever found? In the end, I think that this is unlikely.

To the extent that the Times' story is factual, it suggests that two factors of social psychology are at play. First, human cultures value conformity. We like, trust and feel more comfortable with other people if they are like us. Conversely, we are distrustful of those who are different. It doesn't matter if the difference is marked or more subtle. Any sign of "otherness" in language, dress or behavior is suspect to some degree. This is not a reasoned reaction. It comes from something very deep and ancient in our nature. It is an echo of our need to group into families and tribes and the long-ago dangers from other tribes to our scarce resources and lives. All cultures have thus traditionally enforced social norms of behavior in order to provide for a feeling of comfort and security.

Cultures enforce conformity in different ways. In some societies, people who behave differently, say women who appear in public without covering their hair and/or faces, risk beatings, incarceration and even death. In other places, such differences elicit the kind of looks and comments that the British Muslim women report. It is beyond ironic that the relatively gentle social sanctions that are reported in Brittan are decried by people from cultures where nonconformity can result in stoning or other forms of physical coercion.

In fact, as the story indicates, the second major psychological phenomenon apparent in this kind of behavior is the defensive assertion of culture by some who regard the larger society as being dismissive or hostile to the cultural part of who they are. As one of the women in the story says,
“For me it is not just a piece of clothing, it’s an act of faith, it’s solidarity,” said a 24-year-old program scheduler at a broadcasting company in London, who would allow only her last name, al-Shaikh, to be printed, saying she wanted to protect her privacy. “9/11 was a wake-up call for young Muslims,” she said.
So, in the end, I viscerally understand the distrust of the niqab. But I also have faith in the power of societies to enforce and, in the end, secure conformity. There will come a time when there is a break from the geopolitical conflict between Islamic culture and the West. It may be years or even decades away, but it will come. At that point, when there is no longer any need for defensiveness, Muslim women in England will no longer feel the urge to assert their culture, and non-Muslims will not seek comfort in pressing them to conform. Visitors to England will have the same difficulty understanding the accent and references of those from east London, of whatever ethnic background. It will all be Cockney garble to foreigners. Their similarities will be more striking than their differences.

In America, with its current fear of the rise of Latino culture and language, one need only look at second and third generation Latinos. Does Presidential candidate Bill Richardson seem unassimilated to anyone? Where it not for his need to attract Latino voters, would we even know of his Hispanic heritage?

In fact, in the larger scheme of things, the globalization of the world and the ubiquity of mass communications has and, in future, will lead to the spread of Western culture. It is, after all, rock and roll, Coca Cola and Levi's that are conquering the world. For whatever reason, Western values and lifestyle seem to come to dominate wherever they are allowed and experienced. That is surely not always a good thing, but it does seem to be an ineluctable force.

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