I should be wearing black!

The fez is harmless, but watch out for that mustache.

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.

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3 Responses to I should be wearing black!

  1. Tom Stewart says:

    We all know, however, that the best people, whatever their beliefs, wear royal blue. But I digress.

    I’m not entirely clear what Jacques Rousseau’s argument is. He seems to be saying that preventing, or setting rules against, wearing religious / ideological garb opens up those setting such rules to accusations of intolerance which negate the effects of such rule-setting in the first place. He is also unfair to the caller “Caroline” by assuming Islamophobia on her part where the evidence of such an accusation is completely lacking. However, I do agree that one hijab and one fez don’t amount to infiltration.

    It seems that the children were already students at the school, and presumably had not worn the offending headgear in previous years – either that or the school administration was guilty of an ad hoc policy change. Predictably, the children’s mother described their re-admittance as a “miracle”, which just goes to furnish yet another example of religious irrationality as well as demonstrate yet another instance of point-proving at the expense of her own children’s education.

    All this goes to show that this issue is one giant can of worms – not least because in countless cases children are expected to be inculcated into whatever belief system their educators deem appropriate. My wife is a teacher in an Anglican school here in the UK – the school’s mission statement is totally clear on their commitment to “implicit and explicit Christian values” and their application to “policy and practice in every facet of the school’s daily life”. The majority of the school governors are selected through the church and “Board of Education”, whatever that is, despite the school being state-funded. Although there is a strict uniform policy no-one is forced to wear a crucifix or any other such symbol. However, the badge on every uniform features book and a sword – typical Christian imagery. Therefore the Christian character of the school is constantly reinforced, subtly and not-so-subtly. To my mind this is scandalous, and only survives without much adverse comment because we have become accustomed to such beliefs in an almost axiomatic sense – in great part, of course, because of how we were educated ourselves, and therefore our religious beliefs become somewhat self-perpetuating.

    Other children are even less fortunate than those at my wife’s Anglican primary school. I’m thinking of madrassahs in the Arab world and Pakistan, or children homeschooled in the beliefs of Christian fundamentalism.

    As I said, the whole issue is a massive can of worms, and a comprehensive response in the context of a reply to a blog post would not be appropriate. Perhaps if I can escape the lethargy into which I seem to have fallen I’ll write something on my own blog.

    But we must ask ourselves what is desirable from an education system, and one thing which immediately comes to mind is that such a system must be run for the benefit of the students themselves. A system that reinforces the interests of the educators as opposed to the educatees (is that a word?) by inculcating irrational beliefs or subverting values to a belief system upon the philosophically defenceless cannot be such a system.

    To be fair to schools like my wife’s, the children are encouraged to display tolerance to others of competing beliefs, albeit in the spirit of relativism. It is, of course, a good thing that children learn about these competing systems, but only in the context of objective learning.

    We are all individuals and as such should be encouraged and trained to develop the tools to think for ourselves. Some people would (falsely) hold that to be perverse, but it is true that it is independent and autonomous thought that brings us together as a species, by creating the ideas that we can argue and exchange and develop. By contrast religious thought is by nature opposed to independence and autonomy, whether overtly or subtly expressed, and even the acknowledgement of competing belief systems within a religious school is a nod in the direction of the secular.

    In other words, adherence to any particular religion or ideology – while it promotes common interest within a group – reinforces our differences rather than our shared human interests by emphasising exclusivity. It is, of course, more complex, especially in the cases such as one under discussion where some children belong to minorities. My wife has personally been responsible for Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics to my knowledge, yet in almost every case of which I am aware, all these children left her primary school to join an establishment connected with their own religion.

    Nevertheless, both a commitment to specific “religious values” or an overt identification with such beliefs, through the medium of religious dress, for example, by the action of emphasising difference, is inimical to a spirit of rational educational enquiry. For this reason I respectfully disagree with your reasoning here.

    Of course, the shame is that both parties could have shown an entrenched attitude, and by their determination to stick to their action, the children could only have suffered more themselves. The mother is claiming victory in a dispute that she either brought about or manifestly encouraged, and for which there was no need. The school also seems culpable to some extent, and although in a general sense I have sympathy with the action taken it does seem that the reasons that they took this action were not the right ones.

    The religious would have us believe that the actions here are an expression of religious freedom. If anyone can demonstrate how not wearing a hijab is a restriction upon someone being a Muslim any more than wearing a blue uniform impinges on my rights to non-belief I’d be interested to hear it.

    • Keith says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Tom, your input is always appreciated.

      I admit that due to time constraints I did not properly address the implications of children and religious clothing. I agree that to indoctrinate a child while they are, as you put it, philosophically defenseless, is reprehensible. It demonstrates that the parents’ lack of confidence in their own belief system is so great that they do not trust their children to be persuaded by it through mature intellectual reflection when they come of age. Instead, they feel the need to fly it in under the radar early so that it becomes habit.

      Of course, some parents genuinely believe that their children’s eternal fate depends critically on their being indoctrinated as early as possible, and I suppose one cannot fault them for looking out for their children in this manner, even if one can fault them for believing such nonsense in the first place.

      My view, then, is that the responsibility in this area lies with the parents, not with schools. The job of the school is to maintain a safe and productive learning environment for students of all backgrounds so that education can proceed efficiently. In this context, stifling religious expression seems to be a case of overreach, even if there are arguments to be had against dressing kids up in religious garb. Once again, that is something that parents should be discouraged from doing.

      As to why wearing a hijab is more of a restriction on religious identity than wearing a blue uniform is a restriction on non-belief, the reply is quite simple: non-belief doesn’t come with a dress code (despite what “Caroline” thinks). Islam does. And the problem, unfortunately, is that some Muslims are extremely sensitive to what they perceive as the will of Allah, to the extent that being refused religious dress is a cause of severe anxiety. It is my view that, misguided as these beliefs are, they are mostly harmless, and do not warrant the anxiety that their ban produces. People do some pretty weird things. If they don’t harm anyone else, and they don’t negatively affect the task at hand, let them go ahead.

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