Today James J. Lee, a self-declared atheist (per his MySpace page), took a number of people hostage at the Discovery Channel headquarters building in Silver Spring, Maryland. After hours of police standoff that had the nation on the edge of its seat, he was declared dead and the hostages were rescued safely.
He had a lengthy list of demands that mostly pertained to population control, immigration and environmentalism. But one in particular jumped out at me; among his demands was that the Discovery Channel expose “civilization’s… disgusting religious-cultural roots.”
Will the Discovery Channel hostage taker, an atheist who despised religion, be dubbed an “Atheist terrorist”? Let us hope not. We must move beyond such labels, just as we must stop calling the hijackers of 9/11 “Muslim extremists.” They were extremists, nothing more. Awful incidents like these just go to show that extremists come in all stripes.
Oversimplifications are not helpful, and they only serve to make people guilty by association. James J. Lee and the men responsible for 9/11 were extremists and terrorists; let us not pretend any different by assigning them additional labels.
Today, we must be bigger than them. Let’s join together in condemning the acts of those who wish violence on others, whatever their creed may be.
Update: Many in the blogosphere have taken to discussing the role his atheism might have played in his actions, pointing to his active role in atheist communities (someone who knew him reflects here). But those wishing to make a case against atheists are citing anti-religious images he posted to his facebook and digging up some videos of him saying things such as, “No, I don’t tolerate other people’s religion.” Again, I will reiterate: we must resist any attempts to make all atheists guilty by association. And we should recognize how such generalizations are often counterproductive when it comes to religion, too.
If it is bigoted to generalize about the evils of Darwinism because someone does something evil while citing Darwinian reasons, then it is bigoted to generalize about the evils of religion because someone does something evil while citing religious reasons.
Also: See the comments for a further discussion on this and some clarifying comments from me.
NB: Hijab refers to both a head covering and modest dress in general. Check out hijabifashionista to get a sense of how fabulous hijabis can be. The French legislation in question would ban the covering of one’s face; in the case of Muslim women, by the niqab, or veil. Definitions of modesty are unique to each community, as are the many types of hijab; it can mean just a headscarf or an entire burqa (made infamous by the Taliban). For the sake of consistency, I’ll refer to the garment in question as a burqa (please do post critiques of my lexicon!).
As a friend and I were catching up on the phone last week, talking about doctor/patient relationships, long-distance boyfriends, and other human interactions requiring extra care and consideration, she exclaimed: “My little sister has decided to wear the headscarf!”
This was not a call to arms but an exclamation of joy. My friend is no stifler of little girls: she is an arch-feminist who spends her summer days getting Iraqi refugees comfortable with the idea of mammograms and pap smears. She is also a woman who is Muslim, a woman who chooses to put a headscarf on every morning. Her parents don’t make her wear it, her imam doesn’t make her wear it, her fiancé doesn’t make her wear it. It would be a lot easier for her to walk down the street in America without it on, without people thinking headscarf-Muslim-terrorist-danger! But she chooses every morning to put it on, to pick one to match her outfit, to pin it carefully in place, to make it look good. She dons a headscarf because it is her right and her free choice.
Little sister chose to wear the headscarf despite her parents’ warnings; it will be very difficult to be the only hijabi in the hallway when she starts high school in the fall, during Ramadan no less. Little sister has also made the more challenging choice – to represent not only her faith, but to act as a trailblazer for other young girls who might not be so brave when classes start. Does she want to wear the headscarf because her big sister does? Probably. Little sister does not live in a cultural or social vacuum, but she also has the opportunities and freedom to make her own choice.
There are women who wear burqas in terror. If they did not shroud themselves every time they walk out of the house, they would suffer savage beatings, gang rape, disfigurement, exile, and murder. These women live war zones, mountain villages, and in the suburbs of Paris. These women have no human rights.
There are women who wear hijab because they choose to. Why would a woman choose to cover herself if she were not so compelled? Ask a woman who wears one (or a little sister). They’ll all give you different answers. The French government will soon take their choice away. They will be denied a human right.
I fully support half of the legislation passed by the French National Assembly yesterday morning. (It must also pass in the Senate and be approved by the constitutional council). Forcing a woman to wear a face covering would now come with a $38,000 fine or a year in prison. Or, at least, I support the spirit of the law, which protects a person’s right to self-determination. If only this law had been passed 1300 years ago, we wouldn’t have to feel the birthing pains now.
The likely consequences of its enforcement are horrifying. The women whose families compel them to wear the burqa will be imprisoned in their homes for the rest of their lives. If they do go out in their burqa and are questioned, what would they say? What would happen to a woman who pointed a finger at her husband, at her mother? These women have neither the choice to disrobe nor the voice to seek justice.
The other half of the law is a slap on the wrist. Choose to cover your face in public? (Masquerade balls get a pass.) That’ll be $185, or you can pick up litter for a day. Women can march down the street in protest without fear of having a year’s wages gleaned. If I were a Muslim woman in France I’d be sewing myself a new burqa to join them.
The ban’s not so bad, right? Wrong. Any law that restricts a person’s human rights (such as freedom to practice whatever religion they choose, even if that religion dictates you can only show your eyes to strangers) cannot be tolerated by a truly free society. When we grant each other the right to self-determination in a plural society, we should expect that some of the choices others make will be antithetical to our own.
Little sister is going to put a headscarf on next month, and maybe every day for the rest of her life. Every day she gets to choose. I know it’s not a burqa, not even close. But what if she did want to put one on, just for a day? Should she be punished for that? I hope to have a daughter someday, and I hope that she is free to put a burqa on — and not just for a masquerade ball.
Nathaniel DeLuca grew up at a Lutheran summer camp and is now a Secular Humanist and the Program Coordinator at the Yale University Chaplain’s Office. He likes to flip pancakes for hungry students, create sustainable community service partnerships, and make “queer” and “religious” fit into logical sentences. Depending on conditions, he’s usually strapped to a snowboard or a bike. Right now he’d rather be camping, driving somewhere off the map with Chris Stedman [Ed. Note: Ditto, Nat].