France to Muslims: uncover-up

By Yaroslav Mikhaylov

Courtesy of Reuters

Freedom of religion is a fundamental American right. However, it may be hard to notice these days. That is why I am glad I live in the United States, rather than France. Several weeks ago the French legislature banned burqas – traditional head scarves – and a number of other facial coverings worn by Muslim women. The proponents of the bill argued the practice of forcing women to wear veils was oppressive and infringed upon their civil rights. It also argued that such a visible display of religion did not correspond with the secular values of French society. France had already banned burqas and hijabs – scarves that cover the head but not the face – from public schools. The many problems with this law are particularly concerning to classical liberals.

Religion is a choice. Likewise, performing the rituals and wearing the identifying marks of a religion are also choices people should be free to make, as long as they don’t affect others around them negatively. Wearing a scarf around your head is much the same as wearing a yarmulke or a cross around your neck. Forcing someone to stop their religious practices because some perceive them to be unfair or oppressive is simply wrong. Our culture considers Muslim fashion choices to be peculiar, but that is no reason for us to make them illegal. I consider wearing pants around your ankles peculiar and silly, but I will not be lobbying for a law against it. Furthermore, this is not a general application law. It is targeted at a specific religious group. If that is not religious discrimination, I don’t know what is.

A key provision of the bill is a very heavy fine and prison sentence for forcing someone to wear the head scarf. Abusive relationships happen to people of every religious denomination. There also exist plenty of legal and social means of addressing abusive relationships in French law and society. When a man forces his wife to dress a certain way under threats, it needs to be addressed regardless of the religious context. This provision of the burqa ban is therefore redundant, unless it was designed specifically to prosecute Muslims more harshly for the same offense as non-Muslims committing the same crime. This can be somewhat equated to harsher punishments for crack cocaine offenses over powder cocaine offenses that were a vessel for economic and racial discrimination in fines and prison sentences in the United States.

The French decision to become a more secular state is laudable. In a world that is increasingly globalized and cosmopolitan, nations can’t pretend they are religiously uniform anymore. Even the smallest nations now have hundreds of religious groups, sects, and denominations among their population. In that context, the ideal of a secularized state that doesn’t discriminate against any particular religion is a good one. However, this bill sends France into a completely different direction. It explicitly targets a completely innocent behavior by Muslims. The only real issue that the bill addresses is already taken care of by a multitude of other laws.

What the law truly does want to enforce is conformity. This law was created to force French Muslims to look more like white, Gallic Frenchmen. It is not simply religious discrimination, but also an attempt at slowly dismantling the culture of the Muslim immigrants into France. As a cosmopolitan nation, France should embrace the differences among its population, not attempt to repress them. How would many of us feel if the government in Washington decided to ban Irish pubs because they don’t represent “real America,” or try to demolish the nation’s Chinatowns because they don’t fit in with the architecture around them? Liberalism celebrates diversity. This law seeks to stamp it out.

France’s ban on a harmless aspect of Muslim religious observance is completely misguided and unnecessary. A scarf can’t harm anyone. Some argue that it harms women, but those women choose what they wear. This law does not liberate them, but rather takes away their freedom of religious observance. A Muslim husband who controls his wife’s wardrobe should be considered just as liable under the law as a Christian, Jew or Hindu husband who does the same. Muslims are not special – they deserve to be subject to the same laws as members of any other religion. That is why I am glad I live in the United States of America, where I am free to choose what religious practices I subscribe to and the state can’t judge them as right or wrong.

Yaroslav Mikhaylov is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]