Thou Shalt Tolerate Thy Neighbor

As Guardian reported at the end of last month, it would seem that Belgium is well on track for becoming the first EU country that has a full legal burka/niqab ban in place by this summer. It is nothing short of astounding to witness the kind of unity of political will that is at display as the motion passed the home affairs committee of the Brussels federal parliament unanimously, transcending party lines or the infamous linguistic divide that makes it seemingly impossible to agree upon anything between Belgium’s french and flemish communities.

Not this time. Because apparently, this time it’s a question of something fundamental, something that should raise above the politics — it is about the “dignity of women”, as France’s President Sarkozy has put it. I do remain unconvinced, and unconvinced on two different fronts.

First of all, in this heartfelt fight for muslim women’s dignity in Europe, it is one voice that is usually and very curiously missing — namely that of muslim women. Of course, the common response to this is that this is the problem, that muslim women don’t have a voice — with an implicit assumption that if they did they would no doubt want to cast off this oppressive custom of having to cover their faces, heads and bodies in public. Or if they don’t agree with this view (as an uncomfortably large number of them doesn’t), it must be so because they are somehow mistaken, deluded or forced into this opinion and simply don’t know what’s good for them.

Secondly, the claim that this has nothing to do with politics is suspicious at best. On this topic, I had a lengthy exchange with an old friend the other day — when we argued over the relative merits and problems of the Dutch civic exam which used to feature a showing of topless woman and two gay men kissing to muslim applicants of Dutch citizenship as a ‘test of tolerance’ that is supposedly a ‘core Dutch value’. If you’re interested in that debate then here is a very good article on what precisely is was wrong with Dutch exam.

This led us to a further discussion on tolerance and eventually to a question that seemed to be somewhat surprising (albeit for rather different reasons) for both of us — can tolerance actually be a bad thing?

Obviously, if the choice is between persecution and tolerance then, at least from the minority’s point of view, it would be very difficult to argue that it could in fact be good to have less tolerance rather than more. Luckily, for most of the time, our choices need not be limited in this way. If we look a bit more closely at what exactly does it mean to tolerate something or someone, then we discover that it is not simply accepting someone or something that is different. It means to accept something while disapproving of it. Thus, if we face something/one different that we disapprove of, we certainly have a choice of either accepting or rejecting, but we also have a choice of approving or disapproving — and this seems to be something that many people won’t even consider.

The liberal worldview rests on this fundamental tenet — that everybody has a right to be equal and a freedom to be different at the same time. Tolerance has emerged as a social safety valve that enables this. However, tolerance doesn’t really dissolve those tensions rather than simply suppresses them and — as the article above argues — often does so precisely along the political lines, privileging certain kinds of alterity over the other (as in Dutch case, tolerance towards homosexuality was deployed as a tool for curbing the immigration).


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