Muslim Dress and Jewish déjà vu – University professor speaks for pluralism

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SHAFAQNA – In 1213, Pope Innocent III summoned the Fourth Lateran Council to codify Catholicism. Among the many decrees affirmed by the enormous conclave of bishops, patriarchs, abbots, and other ecumenical figures from acrossEurope was infamous Canon 68, which imposed a distinctive dress code on Jews and Muslims. The children of Abraham could no longer dress themselves without approval from the Holy Father. Jewish and Muslim clothing suddenly became an international problem. Sound familiar?

There is more worth pondering amid the recent furor over burkas on beaches. Why did a 13th-century Pope impose distinctive attire on Europe’s two largest religious minorities? One reason was to prevent them from passing, thereby deceptively leading Christians “through error” to “relations” with the now-besmirched races. It was a matter of civic virtue. The other reason was theological: Innocent III expected the Second Coming, which in his apocalyptic scenario required a mass conversion of the Islamic Infidel, thus a Fifth Crusade to seizeJerusalem. A dress code would help the victors recognize the vanquished. Additionally, the Pope and many Europeans viewed Jews as an Islamic fifth column; they, too, needed marking. Distinctive attire would help Europeans keep their eyes on Jews, anyone of whom might be a terrorist for Islam. Sound familiar?


The current brouhaha over burkas is déjà vu all over again. The current brouhaha over burkas is déjà vu all over again.Of course it does. The current brouhaha over burkas is déjà vu all over again. Indeed, mandatory dress codes for European Jews did not fully end throughout the continent until well into the 19th century. And here we are, not much more than a century later, debating the very same issue in regard to our neighbors. In the past, we were ordered to dress differently from the rest of society to thwart our Jewish treachery. Today, the very same fear drives concern over Muslims who dress differently. Now, society demands that Muslims doff their distinctive attire and look like everybody else. Yesterday, it was us. But the upshot is the same: Muslims, like Jews, are unfit to garb themselves.

For centuries, state and church in Europe legislated all manner of garments for Jews: shoes, colors, badges, patches, buttons, hats, and so on. Jews were mostly required to dress in fashion faux pas to exclude them from civic society. But in the late 18th century in Russiaand Poland, Jews were suddenly ordered to dress indistinctively in order to usher them – whether they liked it or not – into mainstream society as decent, well attired, modern citizens. Those Jews who refused were stripped in public, fined, and arrested. All this, of course, happened decades before the Holocaust – itself a singularly horrific, cautionary tale about the dangers of equating certain styles of clothing with moral degeneracy.

Ironically, many of the same bathing suits that now arouse such scorn on Muslim women are sold by the same swimwear companies that also outfit Jews. In fact, the so-called burkini is not so much a throwback to medieval sensibilities as it is an effort to fuse tradition with modernity – the very same sense of hybrid identity that defines many Jews today. What could be more modern, after all, than shopping online for a bathing suit that matches your individual sense of style? Twenty-first century citizenship in a pluralistic democracy should be no less welcoming to Muslim garb as it is to yarmulkes.

Yes, Jews also suffered onerous dress codes for centuries in Muslim lands. But if it was wrong then for Islamic leaders to force Jews to wear certain styles, surely it is wrong for Jewish leaders in France or anywhere to do likewise to Muslims today. Jews, having once suffered ignoble dress degrees, should oppose calls to strip Muslims – or any religious minority – of the clothing they wear to signal their religious and ethnic affiliations. Otherwise, we abandon our commitment to the very pluralism that permits us to remain Jewish even as we affirm our identity as citizens.

By Eric Silverman

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