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Liberte, Egalite in France?

Liberte, Egalite in France?

April 11, 2011 11:07 am1 comment

It’s happening in France today as it has happened across Europe.  The steady declination of individual liberty and the overstepping authority of the state.  It is not just an isolated incident anymore, but a pattern of invasion.

The latest outrage is a new ban in France which went into effect today.  Anyone caught wearing a full face veil, an Islamic burka or equivalent face covering, will be subject to a fine and a “citizenship course.”  (I don’t know what “citizenship course” means, but that sounds an awfully lot like Mao’s reeducation camps to me.  But I digress.)

Islamic women, like any other people–if they are to be acknowledged as people–have as much a right to wear what they want to wear as anyone else.  States historically have often intervened in the clothing choices of its citizens, often in the legislation of “public decency,” such as a ban on nudity in non-designated areas.  States have also legislated occupancy-related clothing requirements such as masks for doctors or helmets for motocycle riders.

What’s ironic in this case is that the people who are most effected by this new law in France are not only exempt from any occupancy requirements, but they are practicing an extreme form of modesty that shouldn’t offend anyone.  And if they DO offend people, that isn’t a justification for banning the veils on legal grounds.  That goes against every fundamental notion of free speech:  that the speaker has a right to speak as much as the listener has a right to be offended, but that no speaker or listener’s right is more important than anyone else’s.  This is why even hate speech, in America at least, remains tolerated: because of the hesitancy of any court to open the door of deciding which speech, or which offense, should matter more in the eyes of the law.

But more important than a fundamental right of expression through clothing–a right that has been taken away in history to deprive citizens of their humanity in more than one case (yellow stars of David and the Scarlet Letter come to mind)–is the ever creeping infringement of the French government–and indeed, governments across Europe–on the rights of their citizens.

It starts with restrictions on free expression where they will be missed least:  bans on anti-semitism or denying the Holocaust, bans on hate speech, bans on religious symbols on display in classrooms, and last year, bans on minarets.  Add to the long list of activities citizens can no longer perform: wearing clothing that many believe–like it or not–to be either traditional or required by religious law.

These bans may seem innocuous, mostly because they are the most publicly supported.  It’s easy to ban speech when people can universally or near-universally despise it.  There are many people whose speech shocks the conscience.  But it is just in these situations where the freedom of speech is MOST important.  The rights of the minority of an opinion and the majority are indivisible and logically equivalent.  As John Stuart Mill wrote in his treatise on the subject, On Liberty, “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

What’s next for France and Europe?  The banning of political groups that support the Islamic veil?  The banning of public Islamic prayer?  The banning of private Islamic prayer?  What about the banning of the Koran itself?  And how quickly these new laws can be used to turn against all other French citizens, to deprive them of liberty, to take away their fundamental rights because an arrogant belief in uncontested moral superiority?

There are two arguments I have heard routinely to justify the ban itself, on legal and political grounds:

A)  The ban does not target Muslims, but applies to all people, therefore it is not a targeted ban on any one group.

This is pure crap.  The bill was passed as a burqa ban, understood to be a burqa ban, and continues to be a burqa ban.  And the law makes exceptions for occupancy-related masks and “Masks used in “traditional activities”, such as carnivals or religious processions,” which somehow doesn’t include the right to practice one’s religious laws in public.

B)  The ban is there to protect France from Islamization; as Sarkozy himself said:  “The burqa is not welcome in France because it is contrary to our values and contrary to the ideals we have of a woman’s dignity.”

This argument is logically equivalent to a state banning a value system, a way of life, an act of speech or anything else that goes against the “values” and “ideals” of that state.  First of all, who is Sarkozy, or any French politician, to decide what constitutes the “values” of French society?  And if he has that right to decide, what rights is he giving his successors?  The right to decide that Muslims, and their very existence, are a threat to the values of the French state?  These very arguments were used in Europe–and France–before, albeit for a different religious and cultural minority.  The BBC is even calling this situation “the Muslim question”–if that doesn’t make your hairs stand up on end.

Furthermore, if the logic of the ban is to encourage equality and French unity, it will clearly have the opposite effect.  French Muslims who are forced to wear the veil will be forced, now, to stay indoors to avoid the fine, thus rendering them effective prisoners in their own homes.  Not to mention the alienation of Muslims in general from the French state: a recipe for more dissidents, more protests, and no doubt, more reactionary behavior from the state.

This creep of unilateral state action against citizens may seem justified–it may even seem necessary–but therein lies its danger.  I fear for the French people, as they have just given the state the power to decide key questions on their liberty, and sooner than they think, they will be unable to stop the juggernaut when it has gone too far.

1 Comment

  • I appreciate the insight in this article, particularly in the comparison between free speech and freedom of expression (via this religious gear).

    There’s an ongoing debate over whether or not the values and human rights held so high are simply Western machinations continuously guided by Western culture. What are French “values”? Why are they deemed so universalistic in nature? It’s an interesting discussion that can only be fueled by Sarkozy’s reckless antics.

    On a final note, I see you use the word “Islamic”. I’ve never been a fan of the word, and my personal experiences with my community reveal that not many Muslims like the word either. It isn’t insulting but it pops up whenever the term Islamist is used in mainstream media. It almost normalizes the word. “Islamic women,” as you say, are more typically known as “Muslim women.” Just a small point!

    Good article man