Last week, France took one more step in its descent into full-blown religious intolerance, as police began enforcing the new law banning the wearing of the Muslim burqa.
Several women have already been arrested for displaying the full face covering in public. When it comes to dealing with religious minorities, the revolutionary republic born out of a commitment to “liberty, equality, and fraternity” has dropped those values for one principle alone: rigid secularism.
For the past decade, French politicians have engaged in an ugly struggle to contend with the country’s new demographic reality: One in 10 residents of France are Muslim, and many Muslims are relatively recent immigrants from North Africa. Thus, the concern about the growing Muslim presence is both racial and religious in origin.
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In 2004, France passed a ban on hijabs, or head scarves, in public schools, as well as other “prominent” religious symbols such as large crosses. This new law says, in effect, that if your faith requires devout women to cover their faces in public, you are no longer welcome in France. Indeed, you are a criminal.
Real liberty in the USA
For all of western Europeans’ contempt for American arrogance and hypocrisy, religious freedom is one area in which the United States has clearly remained a beacon of real liberty. In America we make a clear distinction between the majority’s opinion of religious minorities, and those minorities’ freedom to exercise their religion. Witness the recent Supreme Court decision honoring the tiny, loathsome Westboro Baptist Church’s right to protest military funerals. We know that if the government may pick and choose favorites between religious groups, it may ultimately threaten the freedom of any faith. A government that may ban the burqa is much more likely to target other religious expressions deemed dangerous or obnoxious, such as the prominent crosses now forbidden in French public schools.
French officials have moved well beyond maintaining state neutrality in religion to the outrageous stance that French public space itself must become utterly secular. Of course, the ugliest manifestations of this trend are directed toward Muslims, and more attacks are sure to follow against the free expression of the Muslim faith.
President Nicolas Sarkozy recently told legislators that in his ideal French society, there would be no minarets, no public calls for prayer, and no street prayers. He has also endorsed the Swiss ban on minarets, and it seems likely that France will consider a similar prohibition. Sarkozy thinks that all French believers should be required to practice a “discreet” form of their faith. One anti-immigrant leader has compared scenes of Muslims praying in French streets to the Nazi occupation of the 1940s.
Every faith could be a target
Lest we think that this is all about Muslims, note that the burden of the ban on “prominent” religious symbols has fallen on other faiths, such as Sikhs and evangelical Christians. Some in the government have contemplated extending the ban on large crosses to daycare workers. If things continue in this direction, the French government might ban overt Christian expression in public, too.
Some justify the burqa ban by insisting that fundamentalist Muslims who demand that women wear the full veil are misogynists. I certainly sympathize with concerns about what the burqa says about women’s dignity and rights. But we should not allow the government to act as a religious judge: keeping the government out of religion’s business is the historic heart of what church-state (or mosque-state) separation has meant. It never traditionally meant aggressive state-imposed secularism, at least not in the United States. Of course, we cannot tolerate religious violence — “honor killings,” terrorism, and other vicious practices of certain fundamentalist sects can never be accepted, as they cross the line from religious expression into criminal acts.
The ban on the burqa, at root, is about France’s discomfort with the increasingly visible presence of a disliked religious minority. France is catering to the tastes and comfort of the traditional French majority, composed largely of Catholics (many of them nominal) and secularists. But remember, when you do not honor religious liberty for one group, the freedom of all believers is in jeopardy.
Thomas S. Kidd is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University, and the author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution.
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