Facing reality at the DMV

Posted: Jun 02, 2003 12:00 AM

The Associated Press reports that experts in Islamic law are being summoned to testify at the trial of Sultanna Freeman, a 35-year-old Muslim woman whose religious rights, she claims, have been violated by the state of Florida. How? Sunshine State officials say Freeman must allow the Department of Motor Vehicles to photograph her whole face -- not just a veil-shrouded slit around her eyes -- if she wants a state driver's license. She maintains that submitting to the DMV mugshot-maker would be "disobeying my Lord" because she would briefly -- just the pop of a flash bulb -- have to drop the hijab (a head- and face-masking veil).

Let's hope the experts have easy access to the copy of the Koran that has been entered into trial evidence, because finding a chapter on "my Lord" and "my driver's license" is going to take some doing. Meanwhile, the state plods on, dusting off arguments grounded so deeply in common sense they haven't before seen the light of day.

"It's the primary method of identification in Florida and the nation," explained state Assistant Attorney General Jason Vail to the Associated Press, rather patiently referring to the snapshots that appear on driver's licenses. "I don't think there can be any doubt there is a public safety interest."

While there may indeed be a case against DMVs everywhere for foisting consistently gruesome I.D. photos of the public on the public (mental cruelty? identity theft?), turning a full-face snapshot into a full-frontal clash between East and West takes multiculturalism to a new extreme. My hunch is Freeman's case won't fly -- and it certainly shouldn't drive.

Which, of course, is an option for Freeman, one already, if non-freely, exercised by her Muslim sisters in Saudi Arabia, where the hijab is mandatory and female drivers are against the law. Sultanna, however, being a good American, prefers to litigate. "This is about religious liberty," said her lawyer Howard Marks, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, opening proceedings in Freeman's nonjury lawsuit against the state. "This is about whether this country is going to have religious diversity.

Allowing the state to chip away at religious liberties is not a path we want to go down."

Please. The nuts and bolts of this case have nothing to do with Freeman's right to worship, freely or diversely, and everything to do with her responsibility to drive lawfully. On the highway, she is a driver first, not a Muslim. As such, she is subject to the same rules and regulations that govern every other driver -- Catholic, Jew or Jesse James. As a licensing body, the state is hardly chipping away at religious liberties; on the contrary, Freeman's religion-based plaint may be seen as an attempt to chip away at the legal tradition of conducting state affairs without regard to religion.

So what to do? Both sides have Islamic experts on the case. Maybe one of them will pull a fatwa out of a hijab and rule that Muslim women may remain in good religious standing, with or without the veil.

Oddly enough, just such a fatwa, sort of, came down this week from Sheik Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, world renowned Islamic "moderate," scholar, and Al Jazeera tele-imam. (The late Daniel Pearl flagged Mr. Qaradawi early on as a centrist; just this past spring the Christian Science Monitor identified him as a "moderate Egyptian cleric," and, more significant, Noah Feldman, the chief U.S. adviser on the Iraqi constitution, has labeled him an "Islamic democrat.") Such positive PR stems from the cleric's condemnation of the Sept. 11 attacks; nothing subsequently -- not his sanctions of suicide "operations"; his pronouncement that shaking hands with Israeli government official Shimon Peres requires washing hands seven times (once with dirt); or his rulings against the war in Iraq -- has altered this reputation.

Qaradawi's latest religious ruling, reported by the Jerusalem Post, not only permits women to venture out alone in public without wearing a hijab, but also to do so without their husband's permission. This sounds downright liberating, not just for Freeman, but for all Muslim women (not to mention the Florida DMV). But there's a catch: The free dress fatwa is restricted to the Muslim woman who is about to blow herself up "for the cause of Allah" in a suicide bombing -- an act of mass murder Sheik Qaradawi calls "one of the most praised acts of worship."

Suffice it to say that if this is the face of moderation unveiled, Sultanna Freeman will just have to do without a driver's license.