The liberal idea of a “free choice” - if the subject wants it, s/he can opt for the parochial way of the tradition into which s/he was born, but s/he has to be presented with alternatives and then make a free choice of it - always gets caught in a deadlock: while the Amish adolescents are formally given a free choice, the conditions they found themselves in while they are making the choice make the choice unfree. In order for them to have an effectively free choice, they would have to be properly informed on all the options, educated in them - however, the only way to do this would be to extract them from their embeddedness in the Amish community, i.e., to effectively render them “English.” This also clearly demonstrates the limitations of the predominant liberal attitude towards the Muslim women wearing a veil: they can do it if it is their free choice and not an option imposed on them by their husbands or family. However, the moment women wear a choice as the result of their free individual choice (say, in order to realize their own spirituality), the meaning of wearing a veil changes completely: it is no longer a sign of their belonging to the Muslim community, but an expression of their idiosyncratic individuality; the difference is the same as the one between a Chinese farmer eating Chinese food because his village is doing it from times immemorial, and a citizen of a Western megalopolis deciding to go and have a diner at a local Chinese restaurant. The lesson of all this is that a choice is always a meta-choice, a choice of the modality of the choice itself: it is only the woman who does not choose to wear a veil that effectively chooses a choice. This is why, in our secular societies of choice, people who maintain a substantial religious belonging are in a subordinate position: even if they are allowed to maintain their belief, this belief is “tolerated” as their idiosyncratic personal choice/opinion; the moment they present it publicly as what it is for them (a matter of substantial belonging), they are accused of “fundamentalism.” This is why the display of religious symbols and prayer in public schools are such a sensitive topic: their advocates open themselves to the reproach of blurring the line of separation between private and public, of staining the neutral frame of the public space. What this means is that the “subject of free choice” (in the Western “tolerant” multicultural sense) can only emerge as the result of an extremely violent process of being torn out of one’s particular life-world, of being cut off from one’s roots.
Why are today so many problems perceived as problems of intolerance, not as problems of inequality, exploitation, injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, not emancipation, political struggle, even armed struggle? The immediate answer is the liberal multiculturalist’s basic ideological operation: the “culturalization of politics” - political differences, differences conditioned by political inequality, economic exploitation, etc., are naturalized/neutralized into “cultural” differences, different “ways of life,” which are something given, something that cannot be overcome, but merely “tolerated”.