January 30, 2004

Guy Coq has an op-ed in today’s NYT defending the proposed French law banning Muslim schoolgirls from wearing head scarves in class. He cites the long French history of religious strife to justify the ban, as if the historical problem of religious strife did not underlie American ideas about religious freedom.
By separating church and state — instituting a republic that was neutral toward all religions, and without a national religion — France finally realized the aims of the Revolution. This is laïcité, and it has worked well.

But the laïcité of schools has been eroded by the intrusion of religious symbols, prompted by an excess of individualism, that philosophy so revered by Americans. … More than ever, in this time of political-religious tensions, school secularism is for us the foundation for civil peace, and for the integration of people of all beliefs into the Republic. If the French hold laïcité so dearly, it is because that principle, as much as the republic and democracy, is essential for a cohesive society. ... They no longer have a base of common religious tradition. Instead, they are constructing social guidelines built around ethical, universal values like justice and liberty of conscience.

The question that France is posing to the world is this: Can one progress toward true respect of these universal values without relying on some sort of "laicity"? To disarm fundamentalism, notably Islamic fundamentalism, can we give up laïcité, which builds a neutral space for all of us?
It isn't a lack of understanding of history that makes the French head scarf ban seem wrong to Americans, it is respect for individual freedom. Coq's "neutral space for all" benefits those whose religion imposes no clothing requirements, just as enforced silence benefits those with nothing to say. Bans on articles of clothing might still be justifiable, but this attempt to convince us by insulting our knowledge of history and invoking superficial neutrality is quite feeble.

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