Is France going too far with its burqa ban?

Is France going too far with its burqa ban?

Commentary | John Graz

Why forbidding what's culturally different threatens religious liberty

In reporting on a new law in France forbidding women wearing full-face veils in public, the media has largely focused on the voices of protest from religious leaders and human rights advocates. And yet it's important to realize that this law enjoys widespread popular support -- not just in France, but across Europe.

Polls show that in many European countries, similar bills would draw significant public backing. Already, some countries -- including the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, Germany and Austria -- are showing signs of following France's example.

What's driving this trend?

According to French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the burqa ban represents an attempt to protect the dignity and equality of French women. Yet it's clear that the move to ban public veiling in France also contains a strong element of political calculation.

But there's more than just political strategy at work. France, and indeed much of Europe, has a checkered history when it comes to dealing with religious minorities.

I recall the notorious "sect list" developed under France's anti-cult laws in the early 2000s -- a list that on occasion was used by government agencies to deny rights to even well-recognized and long-established religions.

And then there was the 2004 amendment to the French Education Code that effectively banned headscarves in public schools.

Is the burqa different?

In November 2009 when the Swiss voted in a referendum to ban the construction of minarets, French foreign minister Bernard Koucher called the ban "intolerant," "prejudiced," and said it amounted to "religious oppression."

Yet now, Mr. Sarkozy's government says banning the burqa has nothing to do with religion.

Is the burqa different? Is it a religious symbol or a symbol of female repression? Do women choose to wear the covering, or are they forced? Does the "burqa law" release women from an "oppressive, medieval practice"? Does it create a freer, more equitable society? Does it defend the rights and dignity of women?

Some would argue that a democratic state has not only the right but the responsibility to limit religious expression when it violates core cultural or social values. They reason: If the burqa ban can be questioned on the grounds of religious freedom, then what next? Could polygamy be protected? Or stoning those who decide to change their religion? Surely at some point the state can draw the limit.

Others argue that the new French law protects women from those who would force them to wear the burqa against their will. Few people would question the need for the law to defend the free choice of women in this way. But what about women who clearly assert that wearing the veil is an essential part of their religious expression, and choose freely to wear it? In forcing women not to wear the burqa, is the French government also engaged in coercing women to act against their individual free choice?

And then there are the perennial issues of "culture" and "integration." When I go to the Middle East, or Asia, or Africa, I try to comply with some basic cultural norms. Could the French be right to say: "Nobody has forced you to come to our country, so if you come, don't impose your culture on us." Or as Damien Green, the immigration minister for the United Kingdom, said: "If you come to Britain, you have to accept British values."

I understand the concern of the French, but I believe that attempting to legislate cultural change is a hazardous enterprise that all too often compromises fundamental human rights. It raises the question: Who in society should arbitrate between competing social or cultural values? Who gets to decide which values should be promoted and protected, or which should be quashed? And if a religious practice happens to clash with another cultural value, should the "winner" be decided by majority opinion? Or are there deeper considerations to take into account?

The burqa law targets a specific population: the six million Muslims in France and, more specifically, the very small minority of women who wear the burqa. But attempts to integrate this group through legislation won't have the desired effect. This minority will simply grow in number and in frustration. True cultural integration can't be implemented through force; only education, encouragement, and the passage of time will prove ultimately effective.

And then there are purely practical problems associated with implementing this new law. How should the police proceed to make sure the law is respected? Will the police simply arrest every woman wearing the burqa? And will the government choose to prosecute these cases, even if the women insist that wearing the burqa is a personal choice and an integral expression of their religious faith?

Too far?

The French believe in integration: "If you want to live with us, then follow our ways." American society believes in integration, also, but it takes a less demanding form: "You want to join us? You can keep your traditions and your religions, but obey our laws."

Religious freedom has a price and carries some risks. But ultimately a nation that attempts to protect its minorities produces a society that is less polarized and, ultimately, more free.

Is France going too far? Is Europe going too far?

My answer is "Yes."

The inclination to fear or dislike that which is different is not just a French failing -- it's a common human tendency. Before casting the first stone, every country should look at the way it treats its religious minorities.

--John Graz is secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association and director of the Seventh-day Adventist Church's department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty