In 2004, in one of the most egregious limitations on personal liberties instituted in a western country in recent memory, the French government passed a law banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols inside public schools. The law was widely viewed as being aimed at France’s growing Muslim minority because it prevented female Muslim students from wearing headscarves in school.
Wearing hijab (modest clothing) is considered a religious duty by most Muslims, and not just radicals and militants. The Qur’an clearly states that women should dress modestly and cover their hair:
And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or the male servants not having need (of women), or the children who have not attained knowledge of what is hidden of women; and let them not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known; and turn to Allah all of you, O believers! so that you may be successful. (Sura 24:31)
Of course, in many Islamic countries women are forced to wear headscarves regardless of whether they want to or not. But of course, French Muslim women had a choice as to whether or not to wear the scarf. Until 2004.
The French government defended its move by saying that French public schools are secular, and should be free of religious influences. They also argued that the headscarf was a symbol of the subjugation of women inside Islamic societies.
Of course, this was all patently ridiculous. Most Muslim women in the West choose to wear the scarf as a symbol of their faith and culture, without anyone forcing them to do so. None of this is really surprising for France, whose commitment to freedom of religion throughout its history has been at best shaky and at worst downright tyrannical.
Now, French president Nicolas Sarkozy wants to take this a step further. Yesterday, Sarkozy gave a speech before the French legislature where he called for a ban on women wearing the burqa in France.
The burqa is a garment which covers everything but the eyes. It is only worn by a small minority of Muslims who follow strict interpretations of Islam, and only worn by a very few women in France. Sarkozy argues that the burqa “is not a religious sign, it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement.”
The burqa certainly is just that in many cases. But once again, in France the government is not forcing anyone to wear the burqa. If a woman in France chooses to wear the burqa, that is her choice.
Many people in France feel threatened by Muslim immigration and the presence of Islamic culture in France. Often, all Muslims are conflated with violent militants and fears abound of a Europe overrun by Muslims (which currently make up 9% of the French population, so they have a lot of overrunning to do). In such a climate, laws designed to limit Muslims’ ability to practice their religion and culture are appealing. The way to protect your culture, it is argued, is to ban other cultures.
The problem with this is that it is counter-productive. You cannot preserve a culture by building a fence of laws around it which abrogate personal liberty. Culture is in a constant state of change as new ideas emerge and promulgate themselves throughout a population. There is no stopping this, because government cannot control people’s thoughts. Government cannot force cultural change on immigrants, because it cannot make them stop wanting their old culture. Cultures are not created by governments, and they cannot be preserved by them.
But more importantly, these laws are a straight-up abrogation of the basic human freedoms that Western democracy is built on recognizing. Freedom of religion is simply a corollary of freedom of speech, and freedom of speech is fundamental to a working democratic society. Therefore, France’s ban on headscarves and proposed ban on burqas does not protect French culture. Rather, it is an assault on French democracy itself.