Just a Piece of Cloth: The European debate on ‘the Islamic headscarf’ as a case-study and paradigm for an emergent intercultural ethics
Jan Jans, STD
Associate Professor of Ethics
Tilburg University School of Humanities
For at least a decade, a sometimes colourful contribution to the European reflection on multiculturalism has been the debate on the religious and ethical significance of the so-called ‘Islamic headscarf’, also known as hijab. Comparing the positions voiced in six different European countries (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Turkey), it becomes clear that the results of this reflection and especially the debate in the public realm can be ordered under four headings. Although the labels are open to criticism, the following classification is suggested: 1° a ‘Western position pro’ (or better: ‘not contra’); 2° a ‘Western position contra’; 3° an ‘Islamic position pro’; 4° an ‘Islamic position contra’. In all cases, these positions comprise both matters of principle and more pragmatic elements, but a golden thread that can be discerned consists in both the recognition of positions different from one’s own and the appeal to the ‘rule of law’ as a way to conduct the debate and/or confrontation in a way consistent with the basic procedures and values of democratic societies. Building on this, the paper aims to show that this factual plurality is at the same time a positive engagement with this plurality and therefore contributes in the shift from an observer’s position mapping multiculturalism towards a more normative participant’s position aiming at furthering intercultural dialogue and understanding, including modes of reciprocal questioning and criticism. Within this paradigm of an emergent intercultural ethics, the public leadership assumed by women testifies to the creativity by which imposed patterns of behaviour are turned into strategies of resistance and liberation, as exemplified by the fate of the French slogan “Ni putes, ni soumises”.