We Have Always Been Talking About Headscarves

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Melissa Schwartzberg reviews Jacob T. Levy's Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom, in The New Rambler:

Have we been debating headscarves forever? Technically, of course, we haven’t. The French headscarf ban under laïcité is only ten years old. The Supreme Court this term considered the obligations of a potential employer to offer religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, itself only 50 years old. And certainly debates over headscarves take many forms: the value of secularism and the importance of religious accommodations are different (if related) issues. Yet one might feel – not unreasonably – that the wider debate over whether religious associations constitute a threat to their members’ freedom or provide an important bulwark against state overreach has been both interminable and unanswerable.

In his new book, Jacob Levy tells us that we are right to feel that way. Since “time immemorial” – at least since the Norman Conquest – intermediate bodies have seemed to constitute both sources of liberty and barriers to freedom. And since the inception of liberalism, some political theorists have argued that these associations protect their members’ freedom against state incursions, whereas others have insisted that they constitute a locus of oppression. Levy points to two traditions: one “rationalist,” which urges congruence among associations and the liberal state, one “pluralist,” which emphasizes the freedom of members to associate and to live according to the traditional norms of their groups unencumbered by the state. The book, Levy emphasizes, “studies rather than answers questions” (p. 27) of the circumstances and mechanisms by which intermediate bodies impair or enable their members’ freedom. There can be no partisan victory, and no synthesis: rather, the “liberal understanding of freedom is constitutively torn” between the rationalist distrust of local parochialism and the pluralistic defense of associative freedom.

More here.

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