Today, the French Senate voted to ban the wearing of the burqa by an overwhelming 246 votes to one. The bill now proceeds to the desk of president Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made his opinion of the burqa known.
The proposed law has, understandably, raised concerns of Islamophobia, a prejudice with firm footing in Europe. The French Front national, the British National Party, and the Dutch Party for Freedom, among other European nationalist political parties, have recently enjoyed significant gains as a result of their anti-immigration policies, directed at the Turks, Africans, Middle Easterners and Southeast Asians – and consequently, many Muslims – who constitute the majority of immigrants to Europe. Like the growing nativist movement in the United States, many Europeans feel as though this immigration threatens the essence of their nations and cultures.
This law will not only be highly subjective and difficult to enforce, but is also simply bad policy. It limits French citizens’ freedom of expression without any clear expansion of rights or freedoms in any other sense. But it is a mistake to interpret the law as simply an attack on French Muslims. Though doubtless in part motivated by prejudice, the law also has its roots in an interpretation of secularism which is substantially different from the anglophone secularism promulgated by great British and American liberals such as John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Jefferson – a secularism which is fundamental to French culture.
The French Revolution is the great creation myth of modern French society. Despite its famed excesses, and the country’s several backslides into monarchy and empire, the French see the Revolution as the moment in which modern France came into being, and the country’s national motto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité traces its pedigree (in the somewhat suspect manner typical of popular legend) to the collective imagination of the revolutionaries (the phrase’s original coda, “ou la mort,” proved too grisly for national canonization).
Just as crucial to the revolutionary spirit was laïcite – the establishment of a secular society. The Ancien Regime and the Catholic Church were nearly inseparable. The monarchy provided the Church with land, privileged legal and political status and, not trivially, exempted it from taxation. The Church, in return, affirmed the monarchs’ divine right to rule – and turned a blind eye to the horrible abuse and exploitation that the nobility inflicted upon the poor.
The carnage of the Revolution was as much directed at clergy as nobility. The revolutionaries, flush with the empiricist fervor of the Enlightenment, seized and redistributed Church property and eventually even endeavored to construct a humanist, rationalist, and atheist system in its place.
While American revolutionaries (many of whom traced their lineage from Protestants expelled from Catholic Europe) understood freedom of religion as the fundamental right to practice whichever religion they chose, in France, especially among Enlightenment thinkers in the tradition of Voltaire and Diderot, the critical aspect of laïcite was freedom from religion.
In modern France, where a substantial portion of the population is atheist, displaying one’s religion openly is seen as somewhat embarrassing, an admission of a personal irrationality in conflict with French liberalism. The practice of religion is something best done in private – ideally with the lights off. As such, French laws target the outward expression of all religions in the public sphere, though it is obviously inevitable that some religions are more seriously affected.
Back in the English-speaking world, some public intellectuals, such as Christopher Hitchens, argue that if certain sects of certain religions are more restricted by laws which establish liberal and democratic societies, this is in direct proportion to their obsolescence. Hitchens, a direct philosophical descendant of Enlightenment atheists, sees religion as folly and therefore feels little compunction about restricting it when it comes into conflict with more rational values. It is this sense of secularism which has enjoyed widespread popularity in modern France.
It is important, then to understand the proposed law as not just a xenophobic response to increasing Muslim immigration (although, in part, it almost certainly is) but also another entry in the debate about religion’s proper place in political society, especially when religious expression comes into conflict with liberal values.
But French Muslims aren’t convinced that the latter outweighs the former:
“It is a law that is unlawful,” said Ms. Drider, a mother of four from Avignon, in southern France. “It is … against individual liberty, freedom of religion, liberty of conscience, she said.
And nor am I. Although it is sometimes necessary to limit religious expression (e.g., human sacrifice) the benefit of outlawing veils is not particularly clear, and it is reasonable to require that an exacting threshold be met in order to justify religious limitation. History furnishes us with endless examples of the tyranny of untrammeled religion. But the French need refer only to their own Reign of Terror to see that those who persecute the religious can be just as dangerous.