Monday, October 12, 2009

Christian von Dohm and Giving Equal Rights to Muslims

Today, in class, I was planning on talking about Christian von Dohm and his work “Concerning the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews.” Dohm worked for the Prussian government and, as a member of the German Enlightenment, believed in granting Jews equal rights though with certain caveats. Dohm is certainly an interesting example of Enlightenment tolerance and its limitations. Considering, as my father pointed out, that my students were coming back from a break and therefore unlikely to be receptive to serious lecturing and that I, anyway, have been trying to stick more discussion into my classes, I decided to spend the day setting up the issue by posing to them the very modern question of giving Muslims equal rights and what such equal rights might mean. The issue is a difficult one that goes beyond the simplistic one-liners about the importance of having a tolerant free society.

Should the State allow Muslim women to wear headscarves? It is in the interest of the State and of society that everyone come together as one nation. For a group of people to decide to make themselves distinctive by wearing different clothing is to move away from that idea. Particularly in this case where the distinctive garment is meant as an active rejection of the mode of dress of the rest of society. By wearing her headscarf, a Muslim girl is saying to everyone else: “you are all dressed improperly and I reject your values.” This is not the sort of thing in keeping with a desire to be an equal member of society. Can an Imam tell his followers that they have the duty to kill Jews and Christians, including their Jewish and Christian neighbors? Can an Imam quote the passage from the Koran that compares Jews and Christians to monkeys? You cannot, in good faith, say that you want to be an equal citizen just like everyone else and then turn around and spit at people and call them monkeys. Perhaps it should be forbidden for Muslims to talk about this material unless they specifically point out that this does not apply to their modern day Jewish and Christian neighbors. Government officials should be assigned to major mosques to ensure that this is being carried out. (If you think this is funny you should know that the Prussian government, in the eighteenth century, sent Christian Hebraists to synagogues to make sure that Jews left out the line “for they bow to vanity and nothingness” which was deemed as a slight to Christianity.) If we assume that the Koran is teaching that Jews and Christians are monkeys who should be killed then does that make the Koran “hate literature?” Should we then ban its publication and distribution like many countries do with Mein Kampf? What about the Imam who tells his followers that they are not allowed to get a secular education? The men should learn in madrashas all day, supported by their wives, working at low paying jobs, and government welfare. Part of being an equal citizen means working for the benefit of society at large. It would seem that the government has some sort of legitimate interest in making sure that children grow up to be productive citizens. Can the government force Muslims to get a secular education up to a certain age and even to study potentially problematic fields such as literature and science? This might even apply to a libertarian government that is willing to allow non-productive members of society to starve to death on the streets. A libertarian government would have still have a legitimate interest in having children grow up so that they would know everything needed in order to serve as a drafted soldier. I was impressed with how many of my students picked up on how easily anything they suggested could be used to come after Jews.

On a similar line of discussion, Orson Scott Card makes the argument that Muslims, in order to maintain full constitutional protections, must accept that people have the right to convert out of Islam without any threats to their physical safety. Card, who is a Mormon, uses the example of what happened to Mormons in the United States to make his case. The American government forced the Mormon Church to give up polygamy by withholding certain Constitutional protections as long as Mormons continued to uphold polygamy.


The Bray of Fundie said...

did the students feel that, in case of irreconcilable differences, it was more important to be Jewish or to be a productive memebr of USA society?

Miss S. said...

The main thing that comes to my mind after reading your post is that your definition of "equal rights" is different that the definition intended by most people when they apply the term. While I have never studied philosophy, in general application "rights" are positive/operative and not negative/receptive. For example, you have "the right" to freedom of speech; not "the right" to not be criticized.

It also seems that this case as you present it is focused on the society and not so much the individual. If a Muslim woman is covering her hair, it could stand as simply and individualistic choice that is right for her; and not stand as any sort of statement that she is making [on behalf of other Muslims] to non-Muslims [or Muslim women who choose not to cover]. In fact, I think this is what goes through the psyche of most people in modern-day societies. They live the way they live without any consideration of what sort of message it sends to outsiders. Unless their actions will result in persecution of some sort. Of course, the means by which "rights" are identified will determine the persecution that may come.

The Bray of Fundie said...

YOU have the right to be supportive of Izgad!

Izgad said...

My students, like most American Jews, have never seriously faced this question and take it as a given that being a Jew and being an American are perfectly compatible. Right now I am still working at setting up the question by showing what price you pay for citizenship. The question becomes is the price too high. I guess we can thank liberalism for not having to worry too much about this issue since, thanks to them, we know have numerous groups who think they can benefit from citizenship without paying the price. We will be returning to this issue when we get to the French Revolution and Napoleon.

Miss S.
The issue of positive versus negative rights is a hotly debated one in political theory. Isaiah Berlin had a very famous essay on the topic. Tolerance becomes particularly complicated once we take the matter away from individuals and into groups. One Muslim girl wearing a scarf is making a personal choice. A society of Muslim girls wearing scarves is the rejection of society. Furthermore there is also the issue of social pressure. Are we about to let Muslim girls to be recruited into an ideology that specifically seeks to go against the values of American society? Are about to let nice little Jewish boys be put into side-curls and be brainwashed into thinking that goyim are a different species?

The Bray of Fundie said...

that is not brainwashing. It is the truth and havdala consciousness 101.