The French government are at risk of scoring a terrible own goal with this week’s ban on the wearing of the niqab and burqa in public. Their notion of laïcité, seems to have developed into an altogether greater beast over the last few decades. The original belief in the separation of church and state ran both ways. Religion could not influence governmental practice and government could not influence religious practice (as long as it operated within the law). In 1989 the focus moved from the influence of religion itself to the influence of individual’s religious beliefs as restrictions on overt religious symbols being worn in public schools were brought in. This week’s ban is a result of that ideological shift and shows a growing tendency for the government to focus on one side of the secularist argument whilst ignoring the religious freedoms the same argument is designed to defend. France is a secular country and so those within its borders should abide by secular laws, and whilst secularism is worthy of defence these sort of reactionary laws have more in common with religious doctrine then true secularism.
The question asked by all of this is can you force someone to be free? The French should have a clearer understanding of the answer than most thanks to the “enlightened” behaviour of Robespierre and his unsuccessful attempts to guillotine everyone to freedom during his reign of terror. So, will forcing people to disregard their religious dress make them freer? Will it make them more accepting of secular notions of religious and irreligious tolerance? Will it make them more French? The short answer is no, if anything it risks breeding resentment amongst the minority who feel that they are having other peoples beliefs imposed on them without just cause.
The other end of argument is that the burqa is used to oppress women and this is by no means an invalid point. The use of clothing and rituals to restrict women under the guise of religion is a hateful act and one that should not be tolerated, but can the French government claim to know the inner thoughts and desires of every woman who puts on a full face veil in their country? The choice to wear this type of religious clothing comes from one of two places, the individual or their immediate community/family and this ban does nothing to confront the underlying reasons women have for wearing it. The paradox is that far from freeing women from their textile bondage the law restricts the personal freedoms of those who chose to wear the veil and risks making house bound prisoners out of those who are forced to do so. Not a desirable outcome for either party.
The only way to influence people’s personal freedoms is by offering choices, the variety of choices only a free, secular society can really offer. To force beliefs on people is counterproductive and often has the affect of making martyrs out of behaviour which would otherwise have faded naturally over the course of time. With an estimated 2000 women wearing the burqa or niqab in a country with a Muslim population of 7 million and an overall population of almost 70 million this is not a mainstream trend or one on the rise. The low numbers also mean a more pragmatic approach may have been to encourage the wider Islamic community to confront the issue of female oppression from within and so influence the minority without the need for ineffectual and inflammatory legislation.
By passing this law the French government have not only gone against the secularist notion of neutrality towards religious practice but have opted for the altogether more dangerous notion that the government knows best. At the same time they have made a public martyr out of an already unpopular and declining cultural phenomenon which risks transforming this symbol of female imprisonment into a totem for the religious and personal freedoms of a far wider community. Beliefs cannot be legislated out of existence; they must die a natural death or we risk injecting them with new life and prolonging the suffering for future generations.