The accidental subversive genius of American liberalism has been in presenting the hijab not as a symbol of faith but as a symbol of choice. Right-wing critics resent this because, of course, the hijab is often imposed on people rather than being chosen. By encouraging Muslims to defend traditional dress on the grounds of choice, though, liberals and leftists have encouraged them to internalize individualistic standards. The hijab becomes less of a religious symbol, virtuously accepted according to God’s will, than an aspect of one’s personal identity, which one is free to shape and exhibit according to one’s wishes.
. . . . .This is in accordance with what I have long maintained: if you let people be truly free, they will come to value that freedom and defend it. This is the long-term promise of a liberal world.
The news presenter Noor Tagoudi’s 2016 Playboy interview was another interesting case. Playboy, of course, is a lot more famous for featuring women with naked breasts than veiled hair, but Tagoudi’s message was far less out of place than one might have imagined. She praised the variety of individual fulfillment rather than any kind of religious norm: live your life as your truest self and encourage others to do the same!
One need not homogenize diverse forms of Islamic belief to suggest that this kind of relativism is very new and very American. A Muslim hijabi and an atheist drag queen—what is the difference so long as they are living life as their truest selves?
This concern for individual choice and the individual identity is extended to others. More American Muslims support gay marriage than American Christians. Ilhan Omar, who some conservatives comically believe is some kind of radical Salafi, took a stand this year on behalf of transgendered competitors in sports. Granted, American Muslims are bound to be more liberal than European Muslims because they tend to have originated from the educated middle classes, but America’s power as an engine of secularization remains incredible to behold.