Tuesday, September 14, 2010

French Government Unveils Threat to Freedom

As an atheist, I find the Pope's hat silly, the do-nothing Saturdays of Orthodox Judaism to be counter-productive, those magical Mormon underpants to be downright ridiculous, the fabricated Church of Scientology to be science fiction, and the Islamic dress code highly restrictive.  I would openly criticize any of these practices and have no plans to adopt them into my life.  However, I wouldn't so much as raise a finger to make any of these practices illegal and in fact would defend them were the U.S. Government to propose banning any of them.  I understand that in order to be free to live as the Godless person I am, I must allow others to be free - even if people like Rabbi Daniel Lapin believe that all atheists are "parasites" because "they benefit from society but contribute nothing to it" (source).  I defend the Rabbi's right to make such inflammatory generalizations.  And I'm free to say, "fuck him."

In France, freedom of religious worship is under attack - veiled by the guise of "secular foundations" and "national values."  Today, the French Senate has passed a total ban on "the burqa-style Islamic veil on public streets and other places" (source).  As someone who espouses a morality with secular foundations, I find this deeply alarming and would urge other non-believers to consider my position carefully.

Caught wearing a veil in France?
That's a 150 Euro fine, Mademoiselle. 
I find manifestations of Islamic law to be deeply counter-productive to freedom and equality, not the least of which being stoning women to death for adultery.  Is this really demanded by the Quran?  Does the Bible call for the stoning of infidels, homosexuals, and heretics?  It is clear that these books are open to interpretation, which is what makes them especially dangerous in the hands of the powerful.  But all that is immaterial because secular law recognizes that a particular religious dogmatism is not grounds for capital punishment (which I am universally against, but that's another post).

The struggle for fundamentalist Islam to integrate in Europe is well-documented and ongoing; conflicts from building code violations for minarets to refusal of a Muslim woman to unveil at security checkpoints are becoming increasingly common.  Is the Islamic call to prayer over loudspeaker at the crack of dawn a public disturbance when most non-Muslims are trying to sleep?  Should non-Muslims wear ear plugs or should Muslims keep their outdoor prayers to a speaking voice between dusk and dawn?  Often, the best solution between "community standards" and "individual liberty" is not clear.  But in this recent case in France, I believe the circumstances are unequivocal: whatever we think of a woman who - in a country with a secular government - chooses to wear a burqa, it indeed must be her choice and remain free from government intervention.  She is harming no one, in any way, by wearing a burqa.  The assertion of "national values" is a fantasy of collectivism; any civilized modern society should recognize cultural pluralism.

With a French Senate vote of 246 to 1, it would appear as though this issue isn't even controversial in France.  "National values," apparently, exclude a certain style of dress.  What's next?  Language?  Culinary preparation?  It is estimated that less than 2,000 women would be affected.  Yet when it comes to personal freedom, the role of government is to uphold the rights of the minority even in opposition to a widespread majority.  This is not private property where one can simply elect not to visit, these are public streets in which wearing a veil will be a crime.  As with all laws that infringe on civil liberties, this one will have unintended consequences beyond Islam:

  • What if I want to wear a veil because I recently underwent surgery or had a debilitating accident?
  • What if I am wearing a costume or wish to demonstrate and use this veil as a form of protest?
  • Heck, what if I simply don't feel like showing my face while walking down the streets of Avignon?

Under this proposed law (which now has one month to be reviewed by a special group of bureaucrats calling themselves the "Constitutional Council"), all of these reasons would ostensibly be outlawed, as well.  Indeed, no reason should be necessary for one to dress however they please.  While I would go as far as to make a case for public nudity, I would at least hope that - on the opposite end of the spectrum - free individuals can choose how much of themselves they wish to cover in public.

The best case one might be able to make for this very bad law comes from a well-meaning Muslim woman from Algiers:
"How can we allow the burqa here and at the same time fight the Taliban and all the fundamentalist groups across the world?" said the president of Neither Whores nor Submissives, Sihem Habchi. "I'm Muslim and I can't accept that because I'm a woman I have to disappear."
While her point about oppressive Islamic regimes such as the Taliban are well-taken, what Sihem Habchi fails to comprehend is that this law effectively targets Muslim women and subjugates them in exactly the same way but in the opposite direction.  One "primitive" society mandates that women wear a burqa, another "enlightened" society mandates that women cannot wear a burqa.  Until governments respect a woman's right to choose (in this and many other areas), these are merely coercive means to different ends.

I believe in secular values and would be greatly pleased to wake up tomorrow and find that religious dogmatism, from the divine totalitarianism of the pedophile-protecting Catholic Church to the misogynistic practices of Sharia law, has disappeared from the social landscape.  Nonetheless, such an outcome can only be achieved through moral means - those which are free from violence or threats of violence (which all government law essentially represents).  To legislate a mandatory dress code - be it a theocratic or secular one - is antithetical to the path toward liberty.  France's proposed law should upset us all.

Because first they came for the veiled women, but I said nothing because I'm not a veiled woman...


  1. Hey Danny, very well put, very scary times indeed. I think what's also particularly scary about France's situation is the fact that they started deporting the Roma recently as well. Seems like not long before the fiction of Children of Men becomes our reality. The quote you closed with also strikes a nerve as I was thinking about the exact same quote as I got ready for work in the morning...

  2. Danny. This surprises me. Usually I fairly strongly agree with you, but this just smacks of blindness caused by guilt-by-association with the warmongers. Just because you are a US boy doesn't mean you have to support the most abominable practice of the people the US has been victimizing. I'd give you a pass on this if you would reasonably expect every other country to act the same way as the US does toward religion. However, as an educated man, and as you skirted very consciously in your entry, you DO know differently. France =/= the US. They do have very strong secular foundations that are an integral part of their national values (see, I did it without ironic quotes), not that any of we history-less Yanks would understand, but there are REAL reasons for this, written in blood on a violent history. They have disallowed the wearing of crucifixes in government buildings, which in a country that is three-quarters Catholic is a helluva thing. There really are only two sides to this and it is fairly black and white. You either value the humanity of women, (regardless of their birth or what particular patriarchy lays claim to them) over a single material aspect of religious expression or you don't.

    I strongly consider you to take both sides of this dialectic to their logical extremes. One ends in a society where equality of women is sacrosanct above all else (which causes its own problems, which I won't go into) and the other is a society where FGM is hunky dory as a facet of religious expression.

  3. I'm glad Charles is here to mount a strong counter-argument. I point should be made about other religions with their own styles of dress: what about the plain attire of the Amish, the Jewish yarmulke, or those darned Mormon underpants? Are we going to say that none of these are allowed in the spirit of "national values" and "secular foundation?" Isn't the United States defined by religious freedom?

    And yet Charles is right: the USA is not France. Obviously there are practices worldwide that I detest. What is worrisome about France in this case, much like the toxic political climate in Arizona, is that it is likely to spread. Given that Islamophobia is on the rise in the USA (Quran burnings, Muslim cab driver being stabbed, mosques vandalized, etc.), I can easily see an opportunistic member of congress introducing legislation similar to the French anti-burqa law. And that concerns me.

    There are clear and obvious differences between wearing a burqa and beating a woman for marital strife or female genital mutilation, including the choice that individual women make for themselves as to what they wish to wear and how they wish to worship - a choice highly unlikely in the case of FGM. To conflate these issues is a false dichotomy, not because fundamentalist Islamic law is not deeply misogynistic, but because no one is harmed by their choice of dress. If Charles cannot recognize the difference between public attire and physical violence, this debate is over before it has begun.

    So what if I wish to wear a burqa or similar attire? Will I be allowed to do so because my reasons come from comfort or shyness rather than religion? What is frightening to me is that we seem comfortable passing laws against personal freedoms we don't personally exercise - such as particular religious attire. It should be obvious to anyone by now that I am critical of Islam as a religious ideology, but equally obvious that if we ought to stand up for the basic right of individuals to worship as they choose (so long as they do not harm another or their property, Charles).

  4. Frankly, this is a classic case for counter-speech rather than a law. Getting rid of such symbols of sexism is better accomplished through the satire of gifted ironists on TV, the seductions of advertising, the sincerity of educational programs, the heroism of feminist orgs rescuing women from such communities, the wisdom of immigrant orgs helping people to integrate into French society, and the frowns of ordinary people. Culture has a great deal of power, and the only reason it's not worked has been the intimidation tactics of the mentally ill men within that community that want to live in The Handmaid's Tale, government functionaries without the courage of conviction and media personalities wanting to be popular rather than right.