HRS International

Hidden from view

In this essay, which originally appeared in “Le Figaro” on February 8 and is published here in English for the first time with the author’s permission, Robert Redeker – the professor of philosophy who was driven from his home by death threats after writing an op-ed about Islam for the same newspaper in 2006 – reflects illuminatingly upon the centrality of the human face to human identity and community, and upon the way in which the burka, therefore, embodies an immense destructive power.

By Robert Redeker

It is with good reason that a number of our fellow citizens wonder whether we should ban the burka or any other attire that fully conceals the body, rendering it shapeless and unrecognizable. Yet the debate has so far neglected to address with sufficient seriousness the following two questions. First, exactly what is it that the burka and similar forms of attire are hiding? And second, what is the significance of these forms of camouflage?

Let us begin addressing these two questions by asking another: What does it mean to be human? Answer: a face. If it is possible to define the human being by means of a multitude of characteristics, such as reason (Aristotle), labor (Marx), desire (Spinoza), politics (Aristotle again), technical ingenuity (Bergson), or simply existing (Heidegger), it would appear that nothing comes closer to expressing the essential truth of humanity than the affirmation of Lévinas: namely, that human identity comes down to the human face. More than reason, labor, and desire – more than being a political animal, a working animal, or a creative animal – being human, in the broadest sense of the term, has to do with the human face. One observes that God, in the Bible, is the One who does not show His face, the One whose face no one is able to see: He is Deus absconditus – the hidden God; the God who is unknowable by the human mind.

The human face is about appearance; it is what a human being sees when he or she looks at another human being. What we are speaking of here is not the viewing of something that can be considered just another object, or animal, but, rather, the viewing of an entity which one recognizes at first sight even though it represents, at the same time, a unique subjective reality – in short, a human being. A soul, if one wishes to put it that way. The distinctive human face is the mark of an individual’s uniqueness in the world – it represents a unique body, a unique subjectivity or soul. All of these things – the body, the subjectivity, the soul – are there, their existence testified to by the face. Nothing could be truer than the fact that man, woman, and child are all creatures whose identity is bound up inextricably with appearance.

Quite simply, we do not look at other human beings in the same way that we look at animals, plants, the stars. We view such phenomena as creatures or objects that exist, or as events that occur; when we look at our fellow human beings, by contrast, they are able to look back at us in the same way. The viewing of the face and the body – and, beyond them, the soul – is a phenomenon, then, that involves reciprocity. I look at others; others look at me. It is by means of this very act of reciprocal consideration that each individual becomes a part of the human race. The mutual scrutiny of human beings does more than simply lead to social relationships: it brings into existence the very bond that ties all humans together, instituting in each individual a membership in the human family, in humanity itself. The human face is the pedestal, as it were, upon which every man’s and woman’s identity as a living human individual is put on display.

Generally, articles of clothing are designed with an eye to regulating visibility. Garments that come too close to revealing the completely nude human form, thus invoking biology and desire – animality – represent an obstacle to the process I am speaking of, because they make the face secondary to other parts of the body. Clothing, in other words, moderates the biologically induced violence occasioned by the sight of the unclothed body by supplying a useful means whereby the subjectivity – some would say the soul – is rendered visible. In this sense, clothing produces an effect analogous to what the spiritualist heirs of Allan Kardec call “materialization”: it permits the individual soul, the singular selfhood of the person, to be rendered visible. Paradoxically, by precluding this “materialization,” the burka and the full veil serve as anti-garments.

Indeed, the burka is a collection of negations: it negates the subjectivity or the soul, negates the body, negates the face. It prohibits their display. What is it that one actually observes when one sees a person in a burka? Everything other than the face, the subjectivity, the soul, and the body: what one observes is a form without form, a vague and somber silhouette that seems like an apparition that has emerged from the underworld itself. But the burka does more than shield the one who wears it from the eyes of others; it renders impossible the reciprocal nature of human display that lies at the foundation of human existence and it rejects the notion of fellow membership in humanity.

To recognize this fundamental association of human identity with the human face and the mutual recognition of faces, then, is to recognize the burka as a negation of humanity. This traveling prison, this portable dungeon, indicates above all that the individual who is incarcerated within it is not quite a human being in the same way that other people are. This paralysis of the visual reciprocity that lies at the heart of the human system is, in short, decisively dehumanizing: to wear a burka is to see without being seen. By eliminating mutual visibility, by rendering impossible the communication that passes between human faces, the burka eliminates the women upon whom it is forced from the ranks of humanity itself.

Translated from the French by Bruce Bawer