Recently I have been involved in several conversations about the integration of Islam in democratic societies. I am now organizing notes on what I may say about this on my blog. It happens to be Martin Luther King Day. The Civil Rights Movement led to an iconic victory of democratic values in the 20th century. Thinking about Islam soon leads to the pivotal issue of women’s rights, often linked to other rights. Some women’s issues are matters of life or death (such as stoning for adultery), others less dramatic (such as separate seating for men and women at public events). If serious Muslims think about this, they are likely to bring up the notion of Islamic modesty. The principal symbol of this notion has been women’s headgear, both in Muslim and anti-Muslim rhetoric—morality police in Saudi Arabia and Iran ordering women to cover their hair, and police on French beaches demanding that women take off these coverings. How does either rhetoric square with the human rights proclaimed by Martin Luther King?
On January 13, 2017, the New York Times carried a story about sharia law in the Indonesian province of Aceh. This story was not recent news. After a secessionist movement created a threat to national unity in this intensely pious province, the central government allowed the imposition of a relatively mild version of sharia in Aceh. I imagine that the NYT carried the story because of the ongoing and widely media-covered drama of the Islamist campaign to unseat the governor (=mayor) of the capital Jakarta. He carries two suspect identities—he is ethnic Chinese and a Christian. Indonesia, with a Muslim majority of 190 millions but with sizable minorities of Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus, has for long been characterized by a moderate form of Islam and more recently by democracy. Aceh has been hardening its Islamic regime, and worse, is being propagated as a model for the whole country by the sort of radicals who are clamoring for the removal of the Jakarta mayor. So far sharia in Aceh, as far as I know, has no death penalty for offenses that carry it in the Middle East—thus adultery and homosexuality are only punished by caning. But women are pressured to dress in accordance with Islamic modesty, mixed parties where alcohol is consumed are forbidden, and hotels are raided by police to discover evidence of illicit sexual behavior. There is a rise of radical voices and things could get worse in Aceh and throughout the country.
I’m no expert on the history of Islam, but I’m sure that there are interpretations of the Quran as well as Hadith (authoritative traditions of the Prophet), and of sharia law that do not support the most conservative views of female subservience. However, the idea of Islamic modesty has deep historical roots. Sura 24 of the Quran urges both woman and men to “cast down their glance” in public, which means that physical attraction should be restrained in public. I understand that the Arabic term for “modesty” also refers to “shyness” and “humility”—attitudes also appropriate when facing God. There was a sexual revolution in Western countries in the 1960s, and I would not want to repeal its humane achievements—such as the legally defined equality of men and women, or the end of the brutal persecution of homosexuality. But these achievements do not necessarily lead to sexual patterns, now prevalent at ever earlier ages, in which coitus is as casual as having a beer in mixed company. (“By the way, my name is Jill.”) Nor must we advocate a denial of reality, which asserts that men and women are equally able to engage in combat as Marines, or that public policy must respect all “gender identities” as freely defined by individuals. (“Jill, my name is now Jenny, and I have the right to use your bathroom.”) The contradictions of feminist ideology have not been useful—a girl aged seventeen should be considered as an adult if deciding on an abortion, but as a child needing protection from “inappropriate” jokes. In view of this craziness, a moderate injection of Islamic modesty might not be so bad.
Political correctness, so called, is similar in America and Europe. But Europe is more secularized, and has fewer religious subcultures capable of resisting or pushing back against the prolonged Woodstock moment. Of particular significance are two, Evangelical Protestants (both white and African American, especially the former) and conservative Catholics (white ethnic and Latino). Evangelical young women, who belong to virgin clubs, and their Catholic counterparts, are unlikely to be shocked by the moral principles of Islamic modesty. But there is a much older European culture that is quite close to the latter and may be a resource for dialogue with it. That is the tradition of the Troubadours, which I think lurks as a kind of residual element in Western consciousness. It makes some men respond to the message “ladies first,” changed in extreme cases to “women and children first.” (Another motive for Jack to call himself Jenny?) This tradition flourished between 1100 and 1300 CE, first in Languedoc (what is now southern France), then spread into northern Europe. It was the cult of chivalry and courtly love, devoted to the (typically chaste) Peerless Lady, who was related to Our Lady of Catholic Mariology. In the words of Guillaume de Machaut (who wrote in French in the 14th century): “I want to stay faithful, guard your honor, obey, and serve you, Peerless Lady.”
The affinity of this ethic with Islamic modesty is not accidental: The Occitan culture was in long interaction with Muslim Spain (the language has morphed into Catalan, which vigorously survives today). During the Third Crusade (1189-1192 CE) Christian and Muslim chivalry interacted, dramatically expressed in the relationship between King Richard Lionheart of England and Salahaddin/“Saladin,” Sultan of Egypt and Syria—they fought each other, respected and even admired each other, and finally made a treaty that for a while fixed the border between Saladin’s realm and the remaining Crusader states. I may be mistaken, but I think that the embers of these old interactions can still be stirred into flame. Now modern feminists would rightly criticize this chivalrous ethic as putting some women on a pedestal, while others (including men) were brutally oppressed. Given my own ethics, I would agree with this judgement. The question remains whether chivalry is incompatible with this judgment.
To conclude with a less remote example: Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of American liberalism, was a Southern aristocrat and slaveholder. There seems to be conclusive evidence that he had several children with his slave Sally Hemings, first when she was 16 years old and he was 44 and the American ambassador in Paris. The French revolutionary government had abolished slavery; Hemings was by all indications an intelligent young woman—she must have known that she could apply for freedom before any magistrate and stay in France as a free citizen of the republic. She did not, instead choosing to return to Virginia and stay with Jefferson until his death. He promised that in his will he would free her and all her children. He kept his word. To this day there are descendants called Hemings who acknowledge Jefferson as their ancestor. An interesting question: Can we exclude the possibility that, despite the gross inequality of their relationship, there was a bond of affection between Jefferson and Hemings?
I am absolutely convinced that slavery, with one human being the property of another, is intrinsically evil. I know (after all, I’m a sociologist) that my conviction is relative in space and time. I would make a different moral judgment if I were a Southern slaveholder who had not written sincerely that “all men are created equal.” You can tell me about moral relativity until you are blue in the face, and I will not change my condemnation of slavery. What is immoral today, was moral yesterday, and vice versa. But there are moral insights which, once clearly perceived, have the quality of compelling discoveries. One of those is the timeless claim (in America today and in medieval Languedoc) that kindness to all human beings—of one’s own status, and of higher or lower status—is a fundamental virtue. Confucius, by the way, called this human-heartedness, the Buddha called it compassion for all sentient beings, and it is the kernel of truth in the idea of natural law (despite the impossibility of its scientific verification).