A call by French President Nicholas Sarkozy to prohibit women from wearing the notorious Muslim body garb, the burqa, has led to heated debate and the creation of a government commission to investigate the proposed policy.
On June 22, Sarkozy -- who in the past has opposed restricting the public proselytizing and display of religious symbols in the public square -- described the burqa as "a problem of liberty and women's dignity" that was "not welcome in France." He added that the full-body covering was less a religious symbol than "a sign of subservience and debasement of females" that resulted in "women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity."
While many secularists may agree, Sarkozy's proposal puts the government in the position of essentially creating a "dress code" for French citizens. It also raises serious questions about the strategies and limits in upholding the French cultural and political tradition of LAICITE, a term that refers to a robust separation of government and religion. As a political policy ensconced in French law, Laicite grew out of the effort in the 19th century to reverse the power exercised by the Roman Catholic Church over the country's educational and cultural institutions.
The Jules Ferry laws established free, secular education in 1881.
Separation was re-enforced in 1905 with new legislation, including the French Law on the Separation of the Church and the State.
This measure stressed the separation of government and religion, freedom of and from religious exercise, and restrictions on the public power of religious groups.
Today, LAICITE is supported by a wide range of civic and even religious groups, including anti-clerical movements, civil libertarians, freethought and Atheist/Humanist societies, and the Grand Orient of France, the nation's largest Masonic body. There are disagreements, though, on how far LAICITE should go; indeed, the dispute over the burqa highlights the conflict of individual freedom and "inappropriate" proselytizing in the public sphere.
Intelligence sources report that an "affiliate" of al Qaeda has
already threatened violence if the burqa ban becomes law. On the
other side of the political spectrum, Human Rights Watch warns that
such a law would be counterproductive. Islamic religious groups
say that the proposal stereotypes Muslims and is "insulting."
Ronald Sokol, international attorney and author of "Justice After Darwin," examined the proposed burqa prohibition in a recent op/ed piece in the New York Times ("MY Burqa Is None of Your Business, July 3, 2009). Sokol points out that the public display of burqas is not a widespread phenomenon in France, and may be, in fact, a guarantee of privacy and anonymity in public. "A state that proclaims democratic values cannot justify telling its residents what to wear or not to wear any more than it can justify telling them what to think or what to say or to which god to pray when no harm comes from the behavior, save the shock felt by those whose views and customs differ," warns Sokol.
There are other problems as well. Banning the burqa may fuel the ambitions and stature of a small coterie of Islamic fundamentalists who already criticize their brethren for being lax in religious practices. Muslims would see secularism, laicite, as a policy that must be enforced by government force rather than reason. And the policy could fuel the arguments of strident fundamentalists that "Islam is at war" with modern society.
A commission has been appointed by lawmakers to examine public policy is respect to the body garb. A report is expected in the next two weeks.