In an expected move, the French National Assembly’s commission on the burqa–“Mission d’information sur la pratique du port du voile intégral sur le territoire national“–yesterday recommended banning the burqa in public places. The commission’s appalling conclusion undermines religious freedom and the principles of liberal democracy in France. After the referendum banning the construction of minarets in Switzerland, this is the second such blow dealt to religious freedom in Europe. It is part of a disturbing trend to suppress from public view Islamic symbols, and to justify such limits on religious displays by explaining that Islamic extremism threatens European democracy. The proponents of the ban argue, quite paradoxically, that to protect vital liberties it is necessary to curb some other liberties.

In this instance, the burqa—a black garment that covers the entirety of the body and the face, with a slit left open for the eyes, and worn by some but few Muslim women—threatens freedom for two reasons. Those for the ban believe the burqa undermines the equality between women and men because it restricts a woman’s ability to move freely and to participate fully in society. The burqa also represents a certain intolerant, extremist Islamist ideology that runs counter to liberal democracy. Caroline Fourest, a French journalist and a loud critic of Islamism, describes accepting the burqa as tantamount to tolerating the intolerant. Islamic extremists reject our society, so we should reject them, she argues.

These are legitimate concerns. For many Muslim women, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, the burqa represents oppression. It is forced upon them. Even in Muslim families and communities in the West some women are compelled by threat of force to wear the burqa. But banning the burqa will not alone protect these women. Instead, it distracts public attention away from the real struggles of immigrant and Muslim women in the West, who confront domestic violence, forced marriages, and fewer economic opportunities. It confuses the symptom for the disease.

The other criticism of the burqa arises from its association with fundamentalist and extremist Islam. Firstly, the proponents of the ban assume that a woman wearing the burqa subscribes to a violent, extreme Islam. That’s a foolish assumption that is mostly never true. Even if it were true, what gives the government the right to restrict an individual’s free speech and religious freedom? The point of living in a liberal democracy is that such liberties are protected. However egregious our views and speech, they are considered our legitimate rights. The burqa and Islamist ideas may offend us, but that isn’t reason enough to ban them. Anarchists reject what our corporate, bourgeois pseudo-democracy stands for, but they enjoy its fullest protections. The irony and beauty of liberal democracy is that it tolerates opposition to itself—and I hope none of the irony is lost on anarchists and Islamists.

A ban on the burqa also restricts the rights of free, practicing Muslim women to live their lives as they choose. Would we stop a woman who feels that she must wear a purple hat out of personal conviction—no matter how grotesque it looks—from wearing that hat? The burqa is just that: an article of clothing. It may symbolize religious obligation to a private citizen, but it should only be black cloth to the state. The National Assembly’s commission actually argued that the burqa was not a theological requirement, and thus was not legitimately protected as religious expression. Not only has the French parliament proposed obstructing a Muslim woman’s right to wear the burqa, but it has bizarrely become a theological authority. It’s not the Assemblée Nationale anymore; it’s the Majlis-e-shura. The state can’t decide what constitutes a legitimate religious belief because it doesn’t have the credentials or the authority. More importantly, we consider religious freedom at its core an individual right—the right of an individual to believe whatever he chooses. The ultimate victim of this misguided assault on Islamic symbols in Europe is liberal democracy. A ban on the burqa would erode the right of individuals to live freely and would certainly further alienate Muslims in the West. The supporters of a ban fail to understand the nature of liberty. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. In that same vein, the loss of religious liberty for one spells the loss of liberty for all.

Update:

Caroline Fourest writes: “Peut-on, pour autant, tout régler par l’interdit ? C’est là que le débat devient plus complexe. Il est possible d’interdire un signe religieux inégalitaire à l’école publique, au nom de sa vocation émancipatrice. Ainsi que dans les services publics et les lieux représentant la République, à cause de cette symbolique. Mais dans la rue ? Ici, le choix d’un individu – fût-il aliénant – prime.” While she believes the burqa is a slight to gender equality, she also disagrees with an outright ban on it in public spaces, except when a person represents or works for the state, because such a ban would limit a woman’s individual choice.

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