Today marks the official introduction of France’s new law banning the burqua and niqab in public places. Under it, gendarmes encountering a person wearing this garment are forbidden to forcibly remove it, but if she refuses their request to lift her veil and submit to an identity check, she can be arrested and taken to a police station. If she continues to refuse to remove her veil, she (or he?) faces a fine of up to €150, and can additionally be forced to attend what are ominously referred to as re-education classes.
Let’s be clear here: organised religion has been, both traditionally and of its nature, the greatest threat to human liberty the world has ever known; compared to it, socialism is a mere last-minute newcomer. This despite all the civilizing restraints on human behaviour religion has provided down through the ages, the innumerable tales of heroic virtue of its legions of practitioners. All of them put together cannot erase the ocean of blood, torture, cruelty and enslavement that have been carried out in His name, or at any rate with His supposed nod and a wink of approval. The clear, legal and constitutional separation of Church and State is a fundamental prerequisite of any society aspiring to any kind of genuine Liberty.
But so too is freedom of worship. If someone chooses to wear a crucifix around their neck, or a skullcap or turban on their head, or the burqua over their body, and in doing so is not impeding the liberty of anyone else, then who is the State to stop them?
There seem to be two lines of argument rationalizing this new law. The first is that covering the face and preventing identification provides a boon to criminality in general, terrorism in particular. I find this argument pretty thin. Exactly how many acts of terrorism have been committed in France by people wearing the burqua, acts which could otherwise have been prevented? I daresay I could offer a pretty round figure. Are the French going to ban reflector sunglasses next? At any rate, it is estimated that of France’s Muslim community, numbering around six million, only about two thousand would wear the burqua on a regular basis.
On the other hand, the fact that it is part of religious observance should not carry any special privileges, either. Many public places, shops, airports and banks in particular insist visitors remove any motorcycle helmets, masks and the like that prevent identification. They should be perfectly free to extend this prohibition to the burqua. And anyone offended by this should be perfectly free to take their business elsewhere. As a practical matter, women required to wear such a garment are generally excluded by their menfolk from anything to do with banking or other dealings with the outside world. The issue thus becomes increasingly moot.
The second line of argument is that the wearing of the burqua is, both in practice and in symbol, a demeaning of the status of women, and thus violates any number of gender-discrimination statutes. I don’t buy this argument, either. For many Muslim women, recent converts in particular, the burqua is a public proclamation of their faith, and worn with pride. No doubt it is also worn by some women in oppressive sub-cultures where cruelty and separation are reinforced by the cultural interpretation of their faith. But wait a moment: the State that openly invited immigrants from these cultures, welcomed them with reassurances that their way of life would be validated and enabled in a multicultural society, is now the same State that has banned the wearing of the burqua in public! Talk about mixed messages. Sounds to me as if Multiculturalism has finally been forced to face the implications of its own philosophy.
In any case, I’m old enough to remember going to mass in the pre-Vatican II Catholic church, at which women were expected to keep their heads covered. It didn’t take a law of the land to relegate that practice to the past; but according to the French government, Muslims are somewhat more backward than Christians and need a bit of a push-along by the State in order to modernize. Hmmm.
One could almost be forgiven for concluding that the Fifth Republic has adopted atheism as its new official state religion. And will brook no rival. Pardon me if I chuckle when this gets challenged in the EU, and Brussels and the Froggies beat each other up over this singularly ill-considered law. Vive la difference!