In a recent opinion piece on Slate, Christopher Hitchens came out in favor of France’s moves to ban the wearing of veils and the burqa by Muslim women in public places. Hitchens is a well-known and vocal atheist, recently writing God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, so his aversion to the public display of religion is not surprising. What is confusing, though, is the nature of his argument for banning the religious garb.
Hitchens argues that the burqa ban will do society and Muslim women a favor. He argues that members of a society have the “right” to see each others’ faces, so banning the veiling of faces would aid in this. He also argues essentially that no Muslim woman would voluntarily wear a veil or burqa, so banning them would be beneficial to the women.
[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=burqa+french&iid=7718370″ src=”e/2/c/7/Najat_and_Siham_2a38.JPG?adImageId=12996291&imageId=7718370″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /]In doing this, he misuses the term “right” while simultaneously taking the right to religious expression away from women. As an atheist, Hitchens doesn’t believe in unalienable rights from God. Those who don’t believe in unalienable rights are prone to place other more utilitarian values like equality, fraternity and secularism — values often touted in French society — ahead of individual freedom. The good of society is prioritized over the rights of the individual. It is, in his view, better for society that women go unveiled regardless of the actual desire of women.
But Hitchens couches his desire for government-imposed secularism (the religion he espouses) in the rhetoric of liberation. He distorts the meaning of liberty by claiming that the French, by enacting the ban, “are striking a blow not just for liberty and equality and fraternity, but for sorority too.” How liberating someone has, in his mind, come to mean banning them from doing something (wearing a veil) is where Hitchens’ confusion becomes evident.
Hitchens fancy himself an intellectual. Just what exactly is intelligent about liberating Muslim women from being forced by their husbands to wear something by forcing them to not wear something is still to be determined. By “liberating” women from “their male relatives or their male imams” forcing them to wear the coverings, he is at the same time enslaving them to a government mandate banning those women from having the choice to decide whether or not to wear them.
Allowing that choice is the very essence of liberty. But that is something lost in Hitchens’ analysis — perhaps due to his preoccupation with forcing his religion, secularism, on others.