Submission to God and Secular Society

Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat elected to Congress this year, wears the hijab. For a woman indoctrinated in and obedient to certain forms of Islamic ideology, the hijab is a veil worn in the presence of males who stand outside of the woman’s immediate family. The hijab is in a class of head coverings that include the burqa, chador, and the niqāb. It is a form of religiously-imposed modesty that functions to sexually objectify women, secluding and segregating them on the basis of sex. Efforts to normalize this patriarchal practice represent a prong in the project to Islamize western society. Omar is advancing the Islamist agenda by seeking to overturn the ban in the House of Representatives on head coverings worn on the floor of that chamber.

The ban on head coverings was enacted in 1837 by members of Congress who desired to break from the traditions of the British Parliament. The hat ban represents a 181-year old tradition in sovereign government. Either Omar is hypnotized by her own ideology and has no ulterior motive or she recognizes the usefulness of advertising her ideology on a stage as big as the House of Representatives, its speeches and debates covered daily on C-Span. I suspect it is the latter. Whatever the case, the effect is the same; Muslims gain a victory in their efforts to weaken the secular character of the United States by striking a blow to the wall of church-state separation.

In founding the nation, our ancestors endeavor to marginalize theocratic desire, rejecting the notion that religion should play a role in the way the nation’s business was conducted. In 1776, when our ancestors declared their independence from the religious traditions of Europe, fewer that 20 percent of the population were adherents to the Abrahamic traditions. The colonists won the war and established a secular republic with a godless constitution. Seizing the opportunity to begin the world over again (to borrow the words of Thomas Paine, author of the anti-theist tract The Age of Reason), the founders erected a wall between religion and the government to keep out the corrupting force of ideologies rooted in superstition and supernaturalism.

The ban on hats in Congress, by implication, prevented zealots from bearing the badges of irrationalism in the People’s House. But the ban was not for this purpose. The ban is not a form of religious discrimination. It disallows hats and head coverings for any reason. Now Muslims, who have joined the Christianists pushing their cruel and patriarchal god inside the city gates, have found a wedge. Obtaining a religious exception to the ban on head coverings is a moment where Muslim activists can strike a blow for the cause of theocracy. And they have found allies in the Democratic Party, the party some might expect would uphold the liberal ideals of the republic’s founding, if not for the values of libertarianism, to oppose a master gesture of patriarchal power.

Yet, at Omar’s insistence, cheered on by the multiculturalists and leftwing identitarians who thrive on cultural division and social segmentation, Democrats are seeking to “clarify” the ban to allow religious headwear, as well as coverings for medical reasons. One can see the exception for medical reasons, as this represents a rational suspension of the rule (of course, in this case one suspects a Trojan Horse). However, if Congress lifts the ban on head coverings for religious reasons, it run afoul of the principle of church-state separation; Congress is bound by the Constitution to make no law respecting an establishment of religion. If all hats were permitted without respect to religious significance, Democrats would be on firmer grounds. But Democrats let the cat out of the bag (like Trump did with his Muslim ban) by admitting the purpose of the rule change. It is a religious purpose. Allowing an exception for religious hats is respecting an establishment of religion. 

Some object that wearing the hijab is an example of the free expression of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. But no speech is unrestricted. There are time and place restrictions, and religious speech is no exception. Would a creationist be able to talk endlessly to her pupils about her belief in creationism in a public school? That’s an opinion the type of speech the First Amendment seeks to protect, no? No, of course not; her professions of faith are inappropriate in that context. It does not oppress her in any way to demand that, in her role as public school teacher, she takes care not to impose her religious views on those assembled. Like a public school class room, Congress is a public space. It does not oppress a woman in any way to demand that, in her role as congresswoman, she takes care not to impose her religious views on those assembled. Would it be appropriate for a public school teacher to pray loudly in class? To wear a burqa in Congress?

There are all sorts of rules in the House that curtail the First Amendment. It is not proper at any time for a Member to refer to the television audience. A Member must always address the Chair and only the Chair. Members may not introduce or otherwise make reference to people in the Visitors or Press Gallery. Remarks must be limited to the question under debate and may not include personalities. It is inappropriate to address the President of the United States directly. It is also improper to refer to the President in a personally offensive manner. All of these rules abridge the freedom of speech.

Keep in mind that, for all these many decades, Congress hasn’t seen fit to change the law for kippah-wearing Jews. Nor have Jews been demanding to wear religious garb on the floor of the House. I suspect this is because Jews grasp the significance of preserving secular spaces (most Jews are secular in orientation). But Muslims don’t distinguish between the secular and sacred—except to see the former as decadence to be stamped out of existence. For a devout Muslim, everything falls within the sphere of religious devotion. Islam is a total system, and Muslims see it as standing over government. So as soon as a hijab-wearing Muslim is elected to Congress, Democrats scurry to change the rule to allow open expression of a deeply patriarchal faith—to assert the dress of Islam over the decorum of Congress. 

Why are feminists and progressives pushing the Islamist agenda? Four reasons, at least: (1) a fetish for the exotic, treating conservative manifestations of a non-western ideology as representative, caring more about identity than about individuals; (2) cultural self-loathing stemming from a pathological sense of colonial guilt (a biblical sense intergenerational tribal responsibility); (3) the influence of the relativism of cultural anthropology and the epistemological confusion of postmodernist philosophy drilled into the heads of privileged college students; and (4) the deterioration of the post-1960s civil rights movement into deep multiculturalist practice and the diversity politics, shifting the focus from emancipation from repressive structures to celebration of group identity. 

I recognize that Christians, Jews, and Muslims may serve in Congress. There’s no religious test and I don’t seek one. As Thomas Jefferson said, government only reaches actions not opinions. People of faith have been serving in government from its very beginning. But I have a hard time seeing the elected representatives of the people in the religious role all the time. It’s zealotry.  Religious fanatics and their allies want to change the House rules so extremists can wear religious garb when they’re about the people’s business. They want walking sandwich-boards for superstitious thinking and supernatural beliefs. I fear Congress will over time come to look less like a rational secular institution and more like an expansive ecumenical gathering, a rainbow of colorful hats (what lies at the end of that rainbow?).

Religious uniforms aren’t a good look for a secular republic. The habit, kippah, hijab, etc.—these don’t feel like legitimate features of a political terrain landscaped by rationalists. The more progressive Christians understand this. Many members of the clergy have served in the House of Representatives and none have asked to the House to remove the rule against head gear. Indeed, Catholic priests have served and have not sought to don the zucchetto. They seem to recognize that there are enough spaces in our society for religious expression without having the signs of religion belief adorning the institutions of a free and secular republic. There would be no problem with nuns serving in Congress. Nuns aren’t always in their habits. (To give you a sense of just how extreme Islam is, the hijab is not a context-appropriate requirement for a specialized group of religious actors within a greater religion, but a requirement placed on all women.)

To be sure, I am an antitheist. But I don’t care what religion it is that you profess. You have your churches, mosques, and synagogs, and I believe you should have them. I wish you didn’t, but I can’t stop you. People believe all sorts of crazy things. But the People have their government. And it’s a secular government. If you have to wear religious garb all the time, maybe you’re not well-suited to the task of representing diverse constituencies—including those who did not vote for you. You want us to tolerate your religion. How about your respect our secularism?

In the final analysis, all this stems from the mistaken notion that religion deserves special treatment, that belief in God entitles people to some special dispensation. There are people who dress like animals. They’re called “furries.” (Look it up.) I don’t care if people want to be cheetahs or raccoons. That’s their business. But it would be a bad look to have the House of Representatives looking like a cosplay convention. Religion is no more special than whatever it is that’s moving people to want to dress as animals. The only difference is that furries aren’t oppressing anybody.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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