Don’t Ban Burqas—Or Censor “South Park”

Joan Scott is known internationally for writings that theorize gender as an analytic category. She is a leading figure in the emerging field of critical history. Her ground-breaking work has challenged the foundations of conventional historical practice, including the nature of historical evidence and historical experience and the role of narrative in the writing of history, and has contributed to a transformation of the field of intellectual history. Scott's recent books focus on gender and democratic politics. Her works include The Politics of the Veil (2007), Gender and the Politics of History (1988), Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (1996), and Parité: Sexual Equality and the Crisis of French Universalism (2005). Scott graduated from Brandeis University in 1962 and received her PhD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison  in 1969. Before joining the Institute for Advanced Study, Scott taught in the history departments of Brown University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern University, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Rutgers University.
  • Transcript


Question: Is the headscarf ban partly a reaction to perceived Muslim threats to free speech?

Joan Wallach Scott: The groups who protest the Danish cartoons… who protested the Danish cartoons, the threats…  I think those are sort of terrible things, but I don’t think the vast majority of the populations we’re talking about and those who are affected by things like headscarf laws are involved in that.  If they are they’re pulled in by the sense of discrimination and objection they feel in the host countries in which they live, but more than that I don’t see how banning headscarves makes any difference in the reaction of politicized Islamic groups to something like the Danish cartoons.  It seems to me that the cure being offered doesn’t fit the problem that is being defined and the cure is a kind of general Islam phobia that attaches to all Muslims and that affects the practices of all Muslims, so I think girls and headscarves are benign.  I really don’t think that that is the flag of Islamic terrorism or the cover for deeply felt terrorist inclinations.  I do think for…  There are issues of religious belief.  There are issues of identification with a world movement that removes you from the kind of more objected ethnic racial inferiority you feel in the country that you are, so that you can identify with something that is bigger than you and that feels more comfortable or gives you a kind of recognition that you otherwise feel you’re not getting, so you know there are lots of issues involved in the choice to wear a headscarf, but I don’t think wearing a headscarf or having people not wear headscarves or not wear burqas has anything to do with addressing the problem of political action, political censorship of things like the Danish cartoons.

Question: Should our guiding principle in such clashes be “free expression above all”?

Joan Wallach Scott: I mean I guess I’m you know I’m certainly for free expression.  I think that… and I was the head of the Committee on Academic Freedom in tenor at the American Association of University Professors, so that was the hat I wore for a long time and I certainly think free expression is what there should be.  There are always tricky contexts and the one in which the Danish cartoon somehow seemed to be a blow, a horrible blow at religious belief and religious…  You know if the Danish cartoons had been swastikas, what would the response have been on the part of Jewish community?  I mean maybe people wouldn’t have threatened the lives of the cartoonists, but I think there would have been an outpouring of objection on the part of members of the Jewish community about this travesty that was allowed to be expressed even as freedom of speech is something that is recognized and, you know, the Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois in the 1970s or 80s, I mean civil libertarians here said that march had to be allowed to take place, but so I think one can under…  There was a certain kind of insensitivity that was involved in the publication of the cartoons in a context in which this was a really volatile and explosive issue, but I think they should have been allowed to be published.  I do think though that the…  As I say I don’t think if they had been…  I don’t think the editors of the paper would have allowed the publication of similar cartoons in which anti-Semitism could be the accusation rather than attacks on Muslims.

Should the satirical “South Park” episode about Islam have been censored?

Joan Wallach Scott:  No, I think that that…  I think that was fine.  I mean I think that…  And I think people are looking to sort of…  There was certainly threats and all of the rest of it, but I you know no, I don’t…  I think that can be allowed.  Again, I guess my test always is if we’re as tolerant of what could be taken to be…  post-Holocaust, what are taken to be anti-Semitic gestures as anti-Muslim ones then you know I think yeah, why not allow these characters to sort of play around and be satirical.

Recorded April 26th, 2010

Interviewed by Austin Allen