When Liberté Loses Out to Egalité and Fraternité

The Wall Street Journal reports on the French Senate’s passage yesterday of a ban on the wearing of the burqa and the niqab.  The vote passed 246–1, though most of the opposition Socialist Party abstained from the vote.  French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his party have claimed that the purpose of the law is to affirm French secular values and respect for human rights:

“The burqa is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience.  We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity.”

With a healthy dose of Liberalism but not the slightest irony, the author will argue that France’s ban of the burqa and niqab is

1) repressive even of non-Muslims in practice;

2) insincerely- and alternately-cast as a human rights or a security issue;

3) really about imposing French national identity, a thing many French Muslims already believed they shared.

To Maintain Its Pretense of Neutrality, the French National Government Must Ban Broad Categories of Dress or Expression

When Switzerland banned minarets last year, the right-wing proponents of the ban didn’t frame what they were doing in a convenient idealism.  But discussion of the burqa and the niqab lends itself to that, as if women who voluntarily dress modestly actually need to be saved from their modesty in the name of liberal values.  Consider the very effect of the National Assembly and Senate’s efforts to make an obviously-targeted law appear impartial and objective:

“The legislation adopted Tuesday by the Senate, the upper house of the French Parliament, forbids people from concealing their faces in public. It makes no reference to Islam, and includes exceptions for people who need to cover up for work reasons, such as riot police and surgeons.”

This broad repression prevailed for the same reason that large cross pendants and yarmulkes were banned when the French government passed a law banning headscarves in public schools in early 2004.  That the government was really trying to render a minority group it considers incongruous invisible explains the timing of both laws; yet in order to establish a pretext for repressing the expression of a particular group, the French government had to deprive all public school students of a form of religious expression; as far as the Liberal Ironist can tell, French people have lost the right to wear a balaclava and apparently even a hockey mask as well.

It’s a good thing the French don’t celebrate Halloween, because in its crude precautions to appear unbiased in its repression the French government has just outlawed the public wearing of Halloween masks.

All of the Publicly-Given Rationales for Banning the Burqa and the Niqab are Insincere

The security argument (that burqa-wearers could commit a crime without being identified) sounds serious until one considers a few things:

1) This simply wasn’t the reason why this law was passed.  If there were a concern about security the law would have been passed in response to a violent crime; it was actually passed in order to get 1,900 of France’s over 60 million citizens to conform in their behavior.  (God forbid that French citizens should be permitted express beliefs having to do with something other than being French!)

2) Practically speaking, the law is only marginally better-enabled to prevent people from wearing masks in the commission of a violent crime than it is to stop people whom have put on masks in the course of committing a violent crime.

This is An Attack on Values Outside of Nationalism–Which Has Far More Blood on Its Hands

The government has failed to demonstrate any compelling interest in preventing women from concealing their bodies from the view of the public for religious or any other reason.  Sarkozy has made an argument about the importance of face contact for a woman’s freedom, but consider the idiocy cogently described in 2 sentences from a report in the Telegraph last year:

“A group of 58 MPs from the Left and Right has called on Parliament to take action against women adopting what they called oppressive Islamic dress that ‘breaches individual freedoms’.

“Last year a Moroccan woman was refused French citizenship after social services said she wore a burqa and was living in “submission” to her husband.”

This isn’t about women’s rights and it isn’t about secular values so much as it is about removing the visual appearance of a largely-unwanted subculture.

For the real animus at work here I’d turn to an op-ed a friend from last May by Jean-François Copé, Majority Leader in the French National Assembly.  In addition to the usual vague arguments about the danger of masks in society and how Liberalism is about face contact, he concludes on a note of veiled nationalism:

“But we also reaffirm our citizens’ equality and fraternity…We are therefore constantly striving to achieve a delicate balance. Individual liberty is vital, but individuals, like communities, must accept compromises that are indispensable to living together, in the name of certain principles that are essential to the common good…(T)he niqab and burqa represent a refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others. The person who wears one is no longer identifiable; she is a shadow among others, lacking individuality, avoiding responsibility.”

Monsieur Copé here defines a voluntary act which a small number of practitioners consider essential to their dignity to be mere self-abnegation.  There may be an element of self-abnegation in any modest behavior, but forcing Muslim women out of a traditional style of dress, freely-chosen, represents a far more-serious depreciation of the self because it is simply coercive.


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