Jacques Rousseau, a columnist for South Africa’s Daily Maverick, discusses a kerfuffle over religious clothing in schools. Two teens from Muslim families arrived for their first day at a high school on the outskirts of Cape Town wearing a hijab and fez, respectively. A flap among the school administrators ensued and, contrary to everything dictated by South African law, the two children were asked to leave the premises.
The poor behavior of the school administration is disheartening enough, but then we hear about a radio show that had callers in a panic over the supposed infiltration of Islam into schools. According to the tired old slippery slope argument, allowing kids to wear hijabs to school will lead to a Muslim takeover, replete with Sharia law and hangings in the streets.
Oh, and atheists allegedly prefer to wear black, according to one of the radio show callers. (High schools with black uniforms, you’re just begging for a rampage of godlessness!)
For me, the message behind all of this is not the legal question. That has a very clear answer, in my opinion: People should have the freedom to express their religious beliefs through the things they wear.
The message is that there are still plenty of people out there – in South Africa, in the United States, in every country – who are deeply ignorant and prejudiced when it comes to religion and religious freedom. And part of the problem here is religion itself, which tends to draw people into homogeneous communities of like-minded belief, minimizing personal contact with people “on the outside”. If those panicked callers to the radio show actually had some Muslim friends, would they still be making their fallacious claims? I doubt it.
Perhaps this is a good moment to clarify the approach I try to take in this blog, because I don’t want to be accused of hypocrisy. Am I not “prejudiced when it comes to religion”?
No, at least not in the sense that I demonize all believers as bad people poised to impose their favorite brand of theocracy on society. Believers (be they Christians, Muslims, Jews, or whatever) are no more or less likely to be good, peaceful people than atheists are. This blog does, however, take a firm stand against supernatural beliefs on the basis that no evidence exists to support them and that, occasionally, these beliefs are used as justification or motivation for evil acts, including terrorism.
And I think this blog speaks for itself when it comes to the freedom of religious expression, which I think should be respected and encouraged, provided no harm is done, and provided the government does not end up favoring one religious tradition over another in the process.
Let the kids wear their hijabs and fezzes to school. They’re not doing any harm.