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This is Solomon's much-trailled article (see comments to Latte with Noel, passim), as rejected by The Australian, Quadrant and the Governor General's essay competition. [BTW, Margo was invited by NoelHadjimichael to meet the finalists, and they agreed that Webdiary will publish the finalists' essays,with an introduction by Noel.] Read this piece in conjunction with David Curry's piece, published simultaneously.
by Solomon Wakeling
s.116 of the Australian Constitution Act  enshrines the principle of freedom of religion in to Australian society. To effect any regulation of religious symbols or dress in Australian schools would require a referendum. Referendums are costly and time-consuming and should not be attempted unless there is a reasonable prospect of success and if it is for an issue with substantial contemporary relevance. I will proceed to argue that this is such an issue.
It would be undiscerning to pretend that the issue here was anything other than Islam. Whilst the French precedent sought to ban all religious symbols , it was correctly construed as a specific attack on the Muslim people. Schools, especially public schools, ought to be free of religious indoctrination. They are public, secular places and students and teachers should be dressed accordingly. It would be as inappropriate for a student to be dressed poised for religious battle in a classroom, as it would be for ABC journalist Maxine McKew to wear a Che Guevera T-shirt, Justice Susan Crennan to wear a hammer and sickle on the lapel of her judicial robes, or for police officers to wear political insignia that idolises George W. Bush. Schools need to be sterilised of political classes so that all students may be treated equally and to feel equal.
The purpose of mandatory school uniforms in Australia is to create affordable clothing that equalises all students, whatever their background . A laissez faire approach to dress in schools, as the United States has adopted, has a simple libertarian appeal but it would create envy, division and unwanted distinctions drawn between students. This issue does not arise where a student attends a private, religious school and is put in the same position as all the other students in the classroom. Students should come to the table bearing no encumbrances and be treated as individuals without the prejudice caused by other contingencies.
There is a real question as to whether the Muslim dress code known as Hijab is a religious or a cultural phenomenon. It is not worn by the majority of Muslims in the largest Islamic state in the world, Indonesia . In many countries, especially Western countries such as Australia or the United States, or Westernised countries like Turkey , it is often customary not to wear it, or as in the case of Turkey, illegal. There is some controversy as to whether the Qu’ran actually requires such dress or whether it is enough to simply to dress modestly . It is plausible that it evolved out of the necessity to adapt to desert climates, where the majority of Islamic countries reside. For the purposes of this essay, which specifically addresses the regulation of religious symbols, I will assume that the Hijab does have a religious significance. Arguably it is so recognised by the various groups who observe and exhibit it. 
Civil liberties are a double-edged sword. Freedom denotes freedom to engage in acts, as well as freedom from oppression, subordination or exploitation. It is tempting to follow the fashionable but facile example of Voltaire  and simply advocate for universal religious freedom. This is a safe, attractive and bland course which appeals to both civil libertarians and conservatives alike. This is a force that should neither be dismissed, under-estimated or ignored. There is a lot to be said for liberty and for the status quo. Such arguments must by necessity be stated in short-hand, cited almost as dogma or aphorism, then relinquished. They are not, by their nature, amenable to lengthy discourse. The US constitution holds such truths to be ‘self-evident’ . Whilst I do not agree, I do recognise that there is a presumption in favour of liberty and that any dissent must be argued rigorously and passionately in a way that the civil libertarian argument does not. If I devote to much emphasis to the former argument it is perhaps as an attempt to redress this imbalance; It is to scorch earth that is nigh immune to being scorched.
The progressive and reform-oriented dictator, Ataturk , cited with approval by Peter Costello , long ago sought to regulate Islamic dress and implement a secular Islamic state in Turkey which still exists today. Such bold policies were typical of this much-revered statesman and act as a case study in the possibility that such actions will not lead to unrest, unpopularity or division, but to success and approval . Such a policy is remarkable in an Islamic country and contrasts with the cowed, weak-kneed policies of the West.
The Muslim Hijab is an expression of female subjugation, which goes against the principle of gender equality as accepted in Australian society. Dress is not simply benign covering but may contain symbolic meaning. The fact that it is intended primarily to be a form of modest dress does not alter this symbolism. Banning symbols which are repugnant to our beliefs and which may cause offence or disturbance, such as a Nazi swastika or burning cross, is an acceptable and necessary part of regulating our civil society.
Islam is, of course, not in their league but it nevertheless has at its heart a belief system which is incompatible with Australian society and democracy. Other religions such as Judaism, Buddhism or Christianity, may be as Marx said the “opiate of the masses”  but they do not contain such noxious messages as those contained in fundamentalist Islam. Specific doctrines of those religions may be obnoxious to modern Australian values, such as the caste system of Hinduism , but this should not lead to the abolition of all such religious symbols as a whole. Regulation should stop at the point where the general overwhelms the specific obscenity. The Islamic belief in gender inequality , polygamy , the right to beat women for disobedience  or to confine them to their homes  is inimical to Australian values. The Hijab is an outward expression of this repression. We would not allow parents to force children to wear a sign that says: "I am inferior", "You are allowed to beat me", or "Confine me if I disbehave" - yet through the Hijab we allow children to be branded with the same, implicit message.
Such sentiments will inevitably lead to dreary accusations of illiberalism and even fascism. Yet this would, in effect, be a liberalising process. To remove the Hijab from the head of a child is to snip the cord of oppression imposed on that child by her parents. We are not dealing with consenting adults here but with those without the facility, maturity or circumstance necessary to make their own decisions. We do not allow parents to commit acts of physical or psychological abuse and the imposition of offensive symbols in the form of dress fits comfortably in to the latter category. It teaches young girls to be submissive and this should not be tolerated. Each child deserves to be strong and confident and not have regressive ideologies pushed on them from above, sapping their ability to use their own reason and placing them permanently in a position of inferiority.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that: “You must either think, or other have to others think for you and take power from you, pervert your natural tastes, civilise and sterilise you.”  Young Muslim women are taught not to think but to obey. Their tastes are thwarted and their personalities castrated, to fit in to an ancient, brutal and unnecessary mould. It is not possible to legislate against God in the minds of the public. The purpose of regulating religious clothing or symbols is not an attempt to wholly secularise the public or to implement mandatory atheism. It is to eradicate specific, offensive beliefs and practices, not to nullify the religion as a whole.
Islam, like all religions, is a broad church. In the past Islam was a progressive religion, giving rights to women that were not available under Christianity, such as the right to divorce . Most of the rules were implemented not for the purpose of repression but to modify bad behaviour and abuse, toning it down and managing it. Islam can be seen as a form of harm minimisation. This is no longer good enough. Islam faces the dilemma of all textually based religions, that it must try to reconcile ancient beliefs with modern expectations.
Beyond the damaging effects on the individual children involved, there is a broader effect on Australian society. Outward displays of rebellion are a slap in the face to Australian society and increase the levels of discomfort, unease and concern amongst the Australian people. We do not allow the graffiti artist freedom to deface our public or private property and we should equally not allow Islam to deface our cultural landscape. To the eyes of conservative Australia, the Hijab is the ultimate graffiti. In the particular case of school-aged children, who are the innocent victims in this case, the level of unease is markedly increased. Much broo-ha-ha erupted over the decision of the French government to ban religious symbols , including Muslim head-scarves, in French schools. French opposition to the war in Iraq necessitated some kind of action to satiate the conservative section of the French public. Chirac spent his political capital on opposing the Iraq war and thus had to ‘payback’ the electorate in some other way. This is how politics works. In order to appease the conflicting desires of a heterogeneous populace, one must give with the left hand and take with the right.
Prime Minister John Howard took the obverse course to France in supporting the American invasion of Iraq but declining to implement any curtailment of religious freedom. This was the correct decision as it pertains to Australia’s interests. A moral stance against US aggression would have been fruitless in what was to increasingly reveal itself as an inevitable conflict. A close alliance with the United States is Australia’s single greatest economic, defensive and strategic asset. Europe has more to lose by a subversion of the United Nations as a body of actual and moral authority. Having positioned Australia so strongly in favour of America, we are now in a position to act as an ‘honest broker’ between the World’s two great super-powers, the United States and China . Howard has achieved the remarkable diplomatic killing of being highly regarded in both the USA and China. This is what US president Nixon pioneered as triangular diplomacy, between the US, the former Soviet Union and Communist China . Such a course requires significant concessions on the domestic front to be effective. If Nixon had not built a McCarthyist profile as an anti-communist, this would not have been possible. There is an old saying that has become almost an adage of political Machiavellianism: “Only Nixon can go to China.” 
Whilst the actions of Australia and France were variant, the source of the disquiet were the same: Muslim integration in to the respective societies. Howard has at no time moved to wind back Australia’s commitment to religious freedom but has regularly, if not ritually, made forceful critiques of Islam in Australia. He described the adoption of the full dress and head-gear of Islam as “confronting” . It is to his eye, along with many of the Australian public, an aberration in the Australian panorama – and a cause for alarm. What is popular is not always right but it always has to be dealt with. Ignoring the issue would be disastrous. Public policy should be designed to ease tension rather than to exacerbate it but with one eye always fixed on what is right and just for the individual.
After advocating the banning of head-scarves in Australian schools, Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop made the pertinent point that she received many emails thanking her and saying that they felt that now they could at least talk about this issue . Hearing politicians voice the grievances of the electorate, whether or not they intend to act upon the issue, is a form of catharsis. It can drain away some of the built up tension that has previously remained unexpurgated. What a politician says is as much a question of public policy as what he or she does.
This is a universal issue and should subsequently be approached nationally. The issue should be determined by the Federal government, at the behest of the Australian public. The substantive issues are the same for public and private schools and so no distinction should be made. There is an issue of freedom of association but I would argue that this should not apply to mandatory, school-aged education. Private schools receive funding from the government, sometimes in excess of that given to public schools, and they are regulated just as strenuously . These are not private corporations, exclusive clubs or associations and should not be treated as such. They serve a public function and should be administered with the public interest in mind.
The media has a public function and its role needs to be dealt with in the context of public policy. Even more than the government, it is the job of the media to manage these issues so that they are not inflamed or to make indelible marks on the public consciousness. The right-wing, conservative media is often falsely accused of attempting to influence and proselytise its agenda amongst an unsuspecting public. Far from wanting to control the thoughts of the electorate, the media acts as a conduit for mainstream opinion. It seeks to express and in doing so expunge the negative sentiment that develops from compulsory, politically correct silence. A newspaper like The Australian  seeks to civilise the reaction to Islam, giving expression to conservative sentiments in an intelligent and cogent way, so as to arm an inarticulate populace with the tools to defend their intuitive beliefs. It has an empowering and pedagogic function. People seek out media that reinforces their own beliefs. If there is no mainstream outlet for discontent, people will turn to alternative, underground sources, which may contain disturbing, extremist agendas. By keeping it within the bounds of the mainstream, the right-wing media is able to discipline and police these sentiments and not allow them to get out of control.
Such an understanding of the media should be kept in mind before one is lambasted as a fascist; Sometimes we must bow down and wash the feet of our enemies, lest they leave footprints on our souls.