Christian theologian calls hijab ‘Islam’s gift to Western democracy’ in Annual Religious Freedom Review

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Jenna Alton
Shadi Hamid, left, and Matthew Kaemingk, right, discuss how the hijab may be a gift to Western democracy. (Jenna Alton)

Matthew Kaemingk penned an op-ed in 2017 claiming the headscarf worn by Muslim women is a gift to Western democracy, not the threat that many perceive it to be.

“I want to suggest that Islam’s entrance into the public square represents a critical opportunity for the renewal of Western democracy,” Kaemingk wrote in Comment Magazine. “Healthy democracies actually require the public presence and public voice of religion — even religions that challenge their democratic foundations.”

This morning, Kaemingk expounded on this idea during a discussion with Brookings Institution fellow Shadi Hamid, a Muslim, as part of the Religious Freedom Annual Review sponsored by BYU Law.

Kaemingk lamented that the hijab is often seen as either a threat or an indication that a woman needs to be educated, enlightened, assimilated or protected from discrimination.

“The point here is that the discussion is always about Muslim women, but never actually with Muslim women,” Kaemingk said. “Muslims exist to be described, not to be dialogued with. Muslims are cast as a problem to be solved, and specifically, the state in the Netherlands, France and Germany is asked to ‘solve this problem’ of Islam or is asked to ‘answer the question’ of Islam.”

However, Kaemingk suggested a reframing of the headscarf from a problem to be solved to “a profound opportunity for the West to reflect on itself.”

Kaemingk referenced the works of Abraham Kuyper, a Christian theologian and politician who lived in the Netherlands over a century ago.

According to Kaemingk, Kuyper claimed that modern liberal democracy doesn’t understand that religion is public, pluriform and pervasive — misunderstandings that lead societies to believe that religious difference is a problem to solve and that secular people have risen above superstition and religion.

“What the hijab, the headscarf represents is this profound and sort of vivid example of the resistance of faith to be privatized, to be assimilated or to be dismissed as superstitious,” Kaemingk said. “So in that way, I am deeply thankful for my sisters in the Muslim faith who will walk down the street and challenge a modern Western perspective of what it means to be a democracy.”

To start a discussion on how the hijab is a “gift to democracy,” Hamid gave the hypothetical example of a French secularist who may think it’s fair to ask Muslim immigrants to assimilate into French culture, which is now primarily secular.

Kaemingk responded that the hijab invites secularists to reflect on their own religiosity. In this example, Kaemingk said the headscarf would expose that the secularist is arguing that their value system should be the dominant one in the state.

“When a Muslim woman covers her head, she actually exposes the West in important ways, and what she has exposed in this French secularist is that the French secularist carries a lot of values and beliefs about the good life into the public square,” Kaemingk said.

Kaemingk, who is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church, said he reframes the hijab discussion when speaking in Evangelical spaces. Instead of focusing on how the hijab helps Western democracy reflect on itself, he focuses on how the hijab reflects Christians’ own Evangelical faith.

“Do you frame your neighbor as a problem to be solved, as a threat to be neutralized? Or actually, do you, as a Christian, frame your Muslim neighbor as an opportunity to reflect on the hospitality of Jesus?” Kaemingk asks Christian audiences.

Kaemingk added that Christians may disagree on a lot of things, but they all agree that Jesus has made space for them.

“So the next question, the ethical question, is, ‘If Jesus made space for you, how will you make space for others?'” Kaemingk said.

Kaemingk and Hamid also discussed the role of religious pluralism. Much of Hamid’s work has focused on what contemporary Middle Eastern politics might teach about battles in Western democracy over religious freedom and pluralism.

Hamid said many of the debates in the Middle East during Arab Spring, which history.com describes as a series of pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East starting in 2011, were existential debates focused on the role of religion in public life. In the same era, Hamid said, Americans were debating policy, but things have since changed.

“I feel like we, as Americans, we’ve caught up with the Middle East, almost as if the Middle East was ahead of its time,” Hamid said. “I think it’s interesting that we’re debating identity now. Policy matters, but that’s not what we’re really talking about in a lot of these very stark debates. We’re talking about, ‘What does it mean to be American?'”

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