Secularism can sometimes go too far and, in contrast to the notion of separation of church and state, become a ‘religion’ unto itself. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has recently crossed this line by deciding to submit a bill to parliament that would completely ban religious dress, particularly the Muslim burqa, in public. The expressed reasoning behind the ban is that such clothing is oppressive to women, and therefore unwelcome in France.
This is not the first time Europe’s intense secularism has come into conflict with the religious immigrants who have yet to fully integrate into Western society. Much of Europe has attempted to browbeat the newcomers into the European mold. France’s newest proposed ban follows a similar restriction, enacted in 2004, on religious symbols in the classroom. While ostensibly targeted at all – Jewish, Muslim, and Christian – symbols, it has predominantly been used to target minority symbols. Likewise, Switzerland recently voted in a popular referendum to outlaw the construction of minarets on mosques.
On the surface, it simply makes Europe look bad. Foreigners correctly perceive these supposed bastions of freedom as intolerant. These policies anger the populations of Muslim-majority countries and create diplomatic stresses with their leaders. Domestically, minorities become alienated, causing them to turn to the very religious institutions that European seculars are trying to eradicate. Rather than drawing isolated Muslim immigrants into the European fold, such policies lead to divisiveness. In response, many find strength in identities that may have meant little to them before their government defined them as ‘the other’.
The fact of the matter is that forced assimilation is rarely, if ever, successful. Individuals do not want to be told what they can or cannot do. This is particularly true when such commands are arbitrary and have little bearing on the well-being of other individuals or society.
However, aside from being poor policy, the ban is a gross encroachment on the principles of freedom. Every individual should have the right to choose his own ways of expression – be it religious or secular. This is true regardless of whether it offends anyone else’s sensibilities. The burqa may be oppressive to women – or it may not. While ANR, as well as nearly anyone else, has its opinions regarding the vestment, it is not anyone’s place to tell another what they can or cannot do. One may attempt to persuade someone through discourse, but never through coercion. [As a point of clarity, the government should not interfere if an individual decides to wear this clothing; however, it should interfere if another (such as a husband) forces one (such as a wife) to wear this clothing against one’s will.]
Instead, Europe should attempt to bridge the gap between cultural differences by opening channels for dialogue. These immigrants should be incorporated into society by being offered the freedoms that presumably brought them to Europe – the freedoms that are not present in home countries. The separation of church and state should be encouraged whether the “church’s” doctrine is the secular, Islamic, Christian, or other. Religious minorities should be brought into mainstream, while allowing their religions to thrive in private. They should be encouraged to have multiple identities, not pushed into choosing between a secular European and an Islamist Muslim. Such a polar choice will inevitably lead some to eschew what Europe has to offer in favor of a dangerous radicalization.