Burqah Ban, Multiculturalism and Secularism

As the globe becomes more cosmopolitan, it becomes even more important to get our balance right. And a correct balance is what underpins liberal secularism.
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In a land mark judgment, the European Court of Human Rights has upheld a ban by France on wearing the Muslim full-face veil -- the niqab.

According to the press release of the court judgment:

The European Court of Human Rights held by a majority, that there had been no violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights, and no violation of Article 9 (right to respect for freedom of thought, conscience and religion);unanimously, that there had been no violation of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention combined with Articles 8 or 9.

Further, the Court also endorsed the stance taken by the government that the ban encouraged "living together" as face played an important role in social interaction. Moreover, the Court also admitted that while the ban affects certain Muslim women but at the same time there are no restrictions to wear items of clothing (even in accordance with religion) which do not conceal the face. Thus, the ban imposed is not based on the supposed religious symbolism but on the fact that veil covers the face.

It has to be noted that while imposing the ban, the government had also made "security of the society" as one of the justifications. However, at the time of imposition also it was argued by many that security was not the only concern and factors like cultural differences between Muslims and the West and the French need to show commitment to secularism were the actual reasons.

It has been argued and with justification that the veil issue is not merely restricted to security (though that is also an integral part) but is part of a wider debate about multiculturalism in Europe, as many feel that ethnic and religious minorities should be assimilated properly.

The ban has actually spurred an interesting debate on the very nature of ideas like secularism, multiculturalism, religious freedom and liberalism. While the ban was expected to be supported by rightwing elements, the interesting thing was that the ban actually resulted in the division of liberal opinion as well. The liberals became polarized and became divided into two camps and continue to be like that.

According to one group, Burqah symbolizes religious oppression of women and is a relic of medieval times and therefore completely out of place in the Western world and particularly France which is a proud secular republic. Moreover, they also supplement their argument that if someone immigrant is not comfortable then he/she should leave France. Their argument is further augmented by the fact that France bans all explicit religious symbols in public schools. In fact, in 2004, the new "secularity law" was passed with overwhelming support and a vote of 276 to 20. It bans the wearing of Muslim hijabs, Sikh's head coverings, large Christian crosses or crucifixes, Jewish yarmulkes, etc.

In short, French model of secularism does not restrict separation of state and religion to statecraft alone but extends it to some areas of public sphere as well.

The opposing group argues that secularism is by its essence separation of state and religion and at the same time it espouses religious freedom. If religious symbols and for that matter practices do not infringe upon the rights of others, then these should be allowed. Secularism according to them is not negation of religious freedom in the public sphere but rather separation of religion from the state. When liberalism is also thrown in, then the issue becomes even more critical because liberalism by its orientation advocates freedom provided it is not harmful to others. According to them, if a woman is wearing a veil out of her own choice and is not compelled by the society then despite the apparent religiosity of Burqah and its historical symbolic association with oppression in some countries , she should be allowed to wear it. Just because Taliban have forced women to wear Burqah in Afghanistan does not mean that a woman in France is also being forced.

Moreover, many critics also point that such bans have less to do with "gender equality" or emancipation but are rather reflective of rising racism. In fact, bringing these issues into needless controversy like Burqah which do not infringe upon freedom of others, merely increases xenophobia.

It is an interesting ethical dilemma where both the camps are busy indulging in name calling.

I think this debate is one of the most interesting one and needs deliberation without needless name calling. Because it is not just Burqah but the nature of secularism, which is under scrutiny.

First, I would like to acknowledge and admit that France is a sovereign country and has its own interpretation of secularism. It is fiercely protective about its version of secularism and there is an overwhelming consensus within the population about it. Moreover, at least on the face of it, the French have not intentionally discriminated against Muslims as they have similar yardsticks for other religious symbols also. French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools which was passed in 2004 banned explicit religious symbols Prohibited items included headscarves for Muslim girls, yarmulkes for Jewish boys, and turbans for Sikh boys.

However, even then the most controversial element was the ban on hijab (or scarf) . It was noted even then that although it was apparently neutral but the burden eventually fell rather disproportionally on Muslim girls.

Another issue is that Muslims are more sensitive when it comes to their religion. Let's not forget that the ban on full face veil actually affects less than 2,000 women and yet it is evoking a strong response.

Personally, I do not think that French have discriminated against Muslims intentionally; it is their interpretation of secularism coupled with the fact that a full face veil has been common in those countries where women are treated as a mere commodity.

The association of full face veil with oppression of women is extremely strong and may have had a strong influence in shaping up the bill which banned such veils. Apparently French have their reasons and within the context of their own interpretation of secularism, they have not done an inconsistent thing. So the allegation that they are merely discriminatory against Muslims is at least debatable.

However, having said so I would also like to add that I personally do not agree with French model of secularism though I acknowledge their right to impose it in their own country. I think that secularism has to blend in with liberalism. French model of secularism is not essentially liberal at least when it comes to religious beliefs. I would rather prefer the US model which is liberal as well as secular when it comes to religion. The U.S. Bills of Rights and particularly the First Amendment are excellent examples of how to achieve a very delicate balance between religious freedom and secularism.

I think use of religious symbols provided these do not infringe upon the freedom of others, should be allowed. If a woman is willingly wearing Burqah, (and in Western countries majority of those who wear Burqah, do so out of choice) then she should be allowed. Yes veil may have been a symbol of oppression in some countries but symbols assume relevance according to the circumstances. A full veil in Afghanistan may be a forced thing but a veil in Europe is less likely to be the same thing. And if a veil is being forced in Europe then being an open society with better human right record, the woman has full recourse to law and state's protection.

The same goes with the need for assimilation. As the world becomes more cosmopolitan and West continues to get more immigrants, the need for assimilation has to be fulfilled smartly and with due precaution. An act, which is restricted to just one's own self, such as wearing a veil, has to be differentiated with an act which infringes on the freedom of thought, expression and security of others. I personally think USA does a much better job than several European countries.

Secularism has to blend in with religious freedom and tolerance and only then it can be a true liberal version of secularism. The French brand of secularism will not make the concept of secularism popular and will not work in a pluralistic society. It will rather defame and further intensify the confusions surrounding the concept of secularism. This is not to suggest that Muslim countries have credible record compared to France when it comes to minorities as they fare much much worse but at the same time it does raise a question whether France's secular model is the optimal approach towards achieving a delicate balance between religious freedom and secularism.

Let's not forget that French laws have been criticized by Human Rights Watch and other organizations also. For example, the Human Rights Watch had the following opinion about the 2004 French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols:

The proposed French law banning Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols in state schools would violate the rights to freedom of religion and expression. Under international law, states can only limit religious practices when there is a compelling public safety reason, when the manifestation of religious beliefs would impinge on the rights of others, or when it serves a legitimate educational function (such as prohibiting practices that preclude student-teacher interaction). Muslim headscarves, Sikh turbans, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses--which are among the visible religious symbols that would be prohibited--do not pose a threat to public health, order or morals; they have no effect on the fundamental rights and freedoms of other students; and they do not undermine a school's educational function.

As the globe becomes more cosmopolitan, it becomes even more important to get our balance right. And a correct balance is what underpins liberal secularism.

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