The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors' alone. Sarah Sayeed is Program Associate and Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York.
By Sarah Sayeed and Matthew Weiner
A Canadian judge recently ruled that a Toronto Muslim woman must take off her face veil while giving testimony in a sexual assault trial. This tension between public space and private religion comes up repeatedly in western urban centers where Muslim women increasingly occupy the pubic square. This time it happened in Toronto, but the issue arises regularly in western countries in the schools, workplaces and courtrooms that Muslims increasingly share with the majority population. At stake is whether a Muslim woman's choice to dress in accordance with her religious beliefs infringes upon "our way of life." (Photo: Sultaana Freeman testifies in court for right to wear a niqab on her Florida driver's license, 27 May 2003/pool)
While all can agree that identity, tolerance and religious freedom are important, advocates for the face veil emphasize the upholding of freedom while opponents focus on the face veil, or niqab, as a challenge to collective identity. Such tension between public expression of religion and collective identity is not new. It has even gone on for centuries in Muslim countries, where religious minorities feel the tension between acceptance and their need to adapt, in varying degrees, to a Muslim majority worldview. There is also a debate within Muslim communities about whether wearing the niqab is a religious requirement.
What seems problematic in the current debate, whether in Toronto or Milan, is the implication that Europeans and North Americans are willing to tolerate differences, but only up to a limit. Some differences seem too threatening for them to consider seriously. They seem to think some differences should be made invisible. Thus, and perhaps inadvertently, the opponents of the niqab - who see themselves as the defenders of collective identity - call into question another value and practice that is central to Western democracy: open dialogue in the public sphere.
Ever since the Enlightenment, Westerners have agreed that tolerance and open discussion in a public space helps prevent violence and fosters community. It is a proud tradition. The great moral effect of creating a public space was that people from different traditions, with different views and different styles of conversing, could join in a shared process. Tolerance - putting up with something you do not agree with - is understood here as an uncomfortable but necessary virtue.